In most countries major cities struggle to obtain the political weight that matches their economic importance. In Europe this mayoral claim to power is not only directed at the national level but also at the European Union (EU), where policies have traditionally regarded member states and regions rather than cities. Political theorist Benjamin Barber supports the urban agenda and argues that cities can help bridge the gap between the public and the institutions.
Benjamin Barber at the Cities of Tomorrow conference - © Gino De Laurenzo
In his latest book If mayors ruled the world Barber describes why cities should have a bigger say in national and world affairs. Talking at the Cities of Tomorrow conference in Brussels last week, the author made clear that this also applies to the EU.
“Just like the nation state, the super state that is the EU is not able to deal with the challenges of today’s interdependent world”, he told mayors and policy makers of the EU. “Problems like climate change or terrorism don’t respect borders.”
According to Barber cities are much more successful than states when dealing with, say, environmental issues. While countries have failed to agree on the reduction of CO2-emissions, cities book results improving transportation and housing.
In Barber’s vision mayors are pragmatists dealing with people’s actual problems, while states are regularly paralyzed by ideologies and party politics. “The state can shutdown, but a city cannot. Potholes and sewers need to be fixed immediately.”
The EU should therefore take cities more seriously instead of simply funding redevelopment projects. “The EU has a paternalistic approach that goes against the potential and the strength of cities”, Barber said. “Cities are not victims that need help, they should be empowered by giving them more jurisdiction. Urban areas contribute more to the economy than urban zones. Cities should keep more of the wealth they generate.”
Because mayors are pragmatists and therefore generally enjoy wider support than state politicians, giving cities more political influence on higher levels will have another big advantage according to Barber. Mayors can re-conciliate the general public with the institutions.
“Let’s not ask what Europe can do for cities, but what cities can do for Europe. This bottom-up approach that can help to deal with Europe’s democratic deficit.” At least if mayors don’t lose their pragmatism when they gain influence.