Struggling unsuccessfully with the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has been a hallmark of the past 7 years in Europe, whether at the international or national level. Could supporting cities be the key? Political scientist Gesine Schwan talks to Edouard Gaudot about her proposal for EU funding to cities who welcome refugees – especially those on the frontlines – thereby stimulating the economy and supporting them to accommodate increased need.

Edouard Gaudot: Professor Gesine Schwan, you have recently written and published a proposal to “relaunch Europe bottom-up” which is original for two reasons. It at once takes advantage of the enormous challenge of the receiving refugees and turns it into leverage for sustainable public financing throughout Europe, and simultaneously it transfers the scale of public action supporting refugees to that of the urban areas and municipalities. This proposal has already received support from many cities, from Gdansk to Naples via Berlin, and this morning we spoke to Mauricio Valiente from the city of Madrid who is also interested.

Why have you chosen the urban, municipal level to deal with an issue as huge and widespread as that of refugees?

Gesine Schwan: This may indeed seem odd but the idea came from the observation that at the scale of national government, there are too many obstacles to overcome in order to resolve the challenges posed by this influx of refugees. In fact, the original idea comes from Maria Joao Rodrigues (Portuguese MEP, Socialist-Democrat group) who was the first to state that it was possible to make the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ into a source of sustainable growth. The idea is essentially to offer additional financial support to national governments who are receiving refugees, seeing as it is expensive and has a significant impact on the local job market. The concept was therefore a win-win deal in which the welcoming country receives funds for doing so and uses these to invest and create activity and jobs, i.e. the conditions for the refugees’ integration. 

But unfortunately, national governments are not in a good position to respond to the problem, mainly for structural reasons as electoral competition on a national level reduces their perspective to simply staying in power. On top of that, the reception programmes for refugees can be costly in electoral terms due to the lack of consensus on political one-upmanship issues. However, in cities there is more distance to politics and a slightly different approach, notably with less daily scrutiny from the press and the media.

Aside from this more pragmatic level of power play, it also seemed to me that the increasing importance of the cities would gradually give them an essential role. In fact, a growing percentage of the global population is urban – in 2050 it should reach 90%. I’ve also noticed in my day-to-day work as a professor of political sciences and government, that cities are also laboratories for innovation, resolving problems that are global but crucial for cities: mobility, energy, air pollution…. You can see this with Beijing, Paris, London, or San Francisco, for example.

Because they are directly linked to people’s daily lives, and because political life doesn’t work exactly the same as on a national level, cities are the most appropriate level. In Germany for example, there is a tradition of decentralisation with a sort of municipal independence since the beginning of the 19th century:  municipalities have always been considered as the birthplace of democracy. We could also cite Belgium or Italy.

It’s also a way of working towards resolving the legitimacy crisis that’s shaking up democratic states today, as participating in elections is obviously essential, but not enough – and the usual procedures such as referenda don’t seem especially suited for democracy to “take root”, as they are poor forms of expression of public opinion.

So cities are becoming the appropriate level to redesign the shape of our European migration policies. In Spain, especially in Madrid, there are the notorious ‘cities of change’ where citizen platforms that are at once grassroots and very political have overtaken the strength of established parties since the municipal elections of spring 2015. These cities indeed have migration policies that are both generous and creative, but they are not limited in this aspect. What does all of this tell us about the exhaustion of democratic methods in Europe?

We notice that national governments are prisoners of power games and struggles that paralyse joint action and the search for inclusive and satisfying solutions. On the other hand, cities are more creative, more independent, less subject to party politics and closer to their citizens, more innovative… All of this works together, including at the European level. So when it’s based on knowing whether more or less urban integration is needed, I find that the opposition between “more power in Brussels” and “more power at the State level” is a poor alternative.

Intensifying integration of European citizens in the European Union is a need and a risk. But it is not centralised integration in Brussels that Europe needs, it is decentralised integration. In my proposal, therefore, as the funds would be distributed by the EU, Europe could be perceived and valued by the citizens as a source of funds in their cities.

I’ve therefore integrated all of these elements to make cities and Europe the major players in response to the refugee crisis, in cooperation with another essential player: in my work I’ve noticed that citizen participation in cities happens not only through governments and city councils but also through NGOs and businesses. Businesses are important everywhere, they have a lot of power, and they understand more and more often that they are also responsible for the context of their activity.

Which businesses are we talking about? The industrial fabric of Western Europe which was based for a long time on cities, on the model of the mill town, from Billancourt to Bochum, today no longer resembles this. It’s a real problem that we have today as before these cities could integrate through industrial work. But today the city does not at all resemble a place of manufacture: it’s a place to live, which is not at all the same thing.

It depends, because in Germany at least, and I think that it’s also the case in the rest of Europe, a majority (around 80%) of jobs are found in small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). Big businesses are obviously very important for the economy, but cities are no longer always industrial. There are other businesses, especially private and public services that also create value.

For example, let’s take a region such as North Rhine-Westphalia. It’s a very rich area (like Baden-Württemberg), where there are still large factories such as Daimler, but the SMEs and microbusinesses are essential and omnipresent. And these businesses are also very often linked to the global market, beyond their region. Therefore, they have the perspective to integrate refugees, they know that they must find workplaces, carry out professional training. It is necessary to connect the various interests that exist in the heart of cities and communities, at all levels.

In cities there is lots of daily life concerns, and more opportunities to participate, to have the impression that you’re living in a democracy, that you have influence, which is always a criterion for the anchoring of democracy; that people have the impression that they have the power to influence. If they don’t have the impression of having an influence, democracy is worth nothing to them.

But there is also the dark side of this association between cities and refugees: the Calais Jungle, Victoria Square in Athens, or Keleti Station in Budapest are places where refugees gather, often in inhumane conditions. Obviously this creates hotbeds of despair but also hotbeds of delinquency, drugs, and huge amounts of tension with local residents. What is missing in these cases?

This is a very important issue, and I don’t think we pay enough attention to the decision-making process. As the decisions are made on a national level, we make decisions from the top-down, so to speak. Of course there are nuances for Greece and Italy because their location as the first European shoreline determines the number of refugees they receive, but elsewhere, it’s the national government that decides on the reception (or lack of). The lower levels of government must then execute the decisions that they did not necessarily contribute to making, which can pose problems with local consent. However, in my model, it will be the cities and their inhabitants who will have to decide, depending on the advantages that they expect from the financial plan, but maybe also on the demographic situation (because in the countryside people are getting older and older, and people are needed there to support schools, nurseries, and infrastructures). If people can decide for themselves, I think that it’s completely different. That’s also the strength of participative democracy. This financial encouragement is necessary, because if it is based solely on charity and moral duty, the saturation comes quickly, as well as competition among the poor, locals, and foreigners. 

The cities that are welcoming refugees are of course  not randomly chosen: they are cities like Palermo, Lesbos, or Lampedusa which are in fact the borders of Europe. Calais is a border between the continent and Great Britain. Is there, beneath this growing and persisting phenomenon of streams of refugees and migrants, a challenge to rethink borders in the world we live in?

Borders, be they cultural, personal, geographic, or political, will not disappear, but we can and must organise them in a way that satisfies some basic needs for safety and freedom. It is essential to not turn them into fortress walls. The weakest people want borders for protection. The others want to cross them without too many obstacles. We cannot eschew this conflict, so it is necessary to organise migration to mitigate pressure on the borders – and the distress of the men, women, and children who make up this influx.

The issue is then to balance the two sides of the EU’s external borders, which is where the external dimension of my proposal also comes from. With the establishment of a municipal development policy at the exterior of Europe, we introduce elements to manage the influx and a combination of integration of refugees and development of cities. It must not be limited to EU cities: we must and we can do the same thing with the communities and cities in North Africa, to help them to integrate refugees who are on the way towards Europe, by giving them different perspectives, the financial means to integrate them, as well as additional money for infrastructure etc. When you have unbearable living conditions on both sides of the border, the border can be organised in a humane way.

The demand for protection from the European Union is based on the state border model, because we expect the safety from the state. As it has become increasingly evident that the state is no longer able to provide it alone, we turn towards Europe. But does the EU have the means – the physical, political, and institutional resources?

The problem is thus posed in terms of political majorities – and of reflection on the national level of public action. The issue of financial resources becomes fundamental to reduce the pressure on public services, worsened by over thirty years of neoliberal public divestment.

Therefore we’re returning to the big questions of political thought. In your proposal, the issue is to reinvest not only in support of refugees, but also for the local communities, which open up to refugees. It’s a different approach to those proposed today by a great majority of governments in power in the EU.

Which leads me to 2019, although it seems completely petty and trivial to speak of something as big as the refugee crisis and the way in which it forces us to rethink a certain number of things, and to link it to the European elections. But: Is it that the whole endeavour, pioneered by the Greens for a long time but with great difficulty, the idea of a transnational policy, such as that presented by our peers at Diem25 as well as certain liberal politicians such as the French president, is this a vehicle to change precisely that? Are the refugees and the crisis of the Eurozone in its entirety, the ‘polycrisis’ which the European Union has been struggling with for a decade now, is it not the time to rethink the European construction, or to think about it in a different way?

Indeed, this strategy should lead to a very deep reform of the European Union. If the city level is strengthened, this means that in the sense of individual men and women, the identification of communities with Europe becomes stronger in comparison to identification with the nation-state. It’s a different equilibrium.

I don’t think that this will make people identify with their nation-states less. But historically, identification with the nation-state, unlike identification with the province, the smaller state, or region in which you lived, began above all when the nation-state created the welfare state and provided social security. This is how the state protector of security became the institution with which we identified in a personal, cultural manner etc. Before, it was not so much the case.

We cannot abolish nation-states and their function of social protection in a general way, but little by little we can change the different elements and how they are balanced. I think that we could introduce, and it’s very well-discussed, an unemployment benefit, with various levels founded on a base, etc. We could introduce elements, common levels when we do the European Semester, we could introduce social security criteria and this could little by little lead to identifying not only with the nation-state, but also with Europe. Thus the other levels and also the understanding of self. The tendency to identify with a group, which we all have, could spread out, so to speak. Actually the tendency to identify with a group is only dangerous when the sense of self-worth is linked to this identification. That’s the biggest danger. If I identify with my region or with Germany, and my self-worth is not exclusively based on this, there is no problem. But as soon as my self-worth depends on the greatness of Germany or of France, that’s dangerous. 

This is promising. However, when we see the state of Europe and European societies today we may think that it’s too late…

Indeed, but the thing with politics, is that it is always ‘too late’. On the other hand, in democracy, we can only change something when it is nearly too late. So we’re right on time.

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