31 January 2019

Looking ahead to a crucial year for Europe

2019 will be a crucial year for Europe with both Brexit and European elections in front of us. Both occurrences may change governance in Europe in a multitude of ways and not necessarily for the better. Only a few months ago the latest IPCC report once more emphasised the need for urgent transformative action in order to keep global warming and its consequences within a 1.5° C limit.

By taking a systemic approach the report suggests a shift away from a focus on technological solutions, particularly in the field of energy generation, energy efficiency and transport, to an ecosystems-based approach that takes into account nature-based solutions, as well as a broader sustainability perspective on societal transformation. This would also bring the Paris Climate Agenda closer to the UN 2030 sustainability agenda, particularly regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The implementation of the SDGs is an area in which we see the dynamics moving towards the side of cities and regions, with an emphasis placed on localisation.

Whilst we hold hope and optimism, are European societies and citizens really prepared to support such a large transformation? Many polls show that a majority of people see climate change as a big, if not the biggest challenge for the future, but there are still major differences between countries. However, acknowledging the problem and seeing the need for action does not mean that people are ready to act or to accept the consequences of necessary changes.

Climate change is only one of many issues that cause fear and anxiety and peoples’ gloomy outlook towards the future. We also have to deal with perceived and real insecurity following the global financial and economic crisis, terror attacks and migration. Digitalisation and artificial intelligence are adding opportunities but also new challenges and threats.

Interestingly, many polls show that people are individually happy or at least satisfied. However, people are obviously drawing different conclusions from the current situation: while parts see it as a result of frameworks implemented in the past, and are therefore reacting protectively and showing a disdain for further change, others are rather open for change and even pushing for it. Some see opportunities for their future; others are already feeling excluded, or fear they will be in the future.

The internet and social media have amplified the trend towards individualisation and are exacerbating differences rather than highlighting common ground. Bubbles or feedback-loops are confirming individual points of view and thereby enhancing the segregation of society. The infiltration of fake news and the lack of distinction between facts and opinion are aggravating the situation, and are providing big challenges for democratic governance on all levels.

Populists and nationalists in government are leading to a weakening of multilateral governance and international institutions, both at a UN and EU level. The challenges are complex and huge, and the chances for agreement, a joint vision and approach between countries, seem to have lessened. Nationalism and competition, partly mirroring the individual egoism and competition within societies, are impeding compromises and agreements and are thereby sacrificing long-term solutions for short-term interest and advantages. We seem to believe that democracy is still strong enough to overcome this crisis and that it will be continuing strongly in Europe. However, there is a growing tendency to perceive democratic processes and compromises that are achieved as signs of weakness.

People have high expectations and democratic elections are more and more seen from a “winner takes all” perspective rather than accepting the existing balances of power and institutions that ensure a continuous representation and involvement of all views. Judging from the developments around Brexit, but also the recent protests of the “yellow vests” in France, it looks like people are easily united against something. However, their motives are so diverse that it is almost impossible to unite them “for” something. There is a wide spectrum of expectations, but they do not fully take into account the consequences or impacts on other people, or society as a whole, if decisions were made based on their requests. In more general terms, while many are asking for more power and influence in decision making, they are shying away from responsibility both for their own situation and society generally.

Everything that does not go well or in a direction they do not like is the fault of somebody else, particularly governments and politicians on all levels. Increasingly protest and points of view get blended with suspicion, allegations and conspiracy.

At the same time, more and more people are putting their hopes in strong populist leaders that make promises to change everything in their favour. Once in power they follow the same behaviour clusters as the people who have elected them. They claim to be only responsible for the things that go well and for all the rest somebody else gets blamed.

All these developments are challenging our liberal democratic systems as we have known them, particularly the European Union in its current set-up and governance.

It is no wonder that in a situation where the forces at international and even national level are dwindling, people are looking to regions and cities as problem solvers for many challenges.

ICLEI has repeatedly said that cities will have to play a strong role for the achievement of global climate and sustainability goals and should thereby get more power and recognition in a multilevel governance system. However, can cities take on this challenge without higher levels of functioning governance that can provide them with supportive legislative, regulatory and fiscal frameworks? Will they have to act strongly without further support from above or even against adverse tendencies?

Is the local situation that much different from the situation at the national level and are local politicians and decision-makers less exposed and challenged than those on higher levels? Perhaps this is the case to an extent, but overall the situation is not that much different in terms of the media, social media and protests.

Still, the ray of hope to change the situation is, most likely, coming from the local level. Although our countries and the EU are governed top down, societies are and will have to be developed from the bottom-up. Therefore, to develop a perspective for the successful management of a sustainable and climate proof transformation, we will have to put considerable effort into re-building our civic societies from the local level.

This means a culture of dialogue, exchange and participation where we come back to an understanding that citizens do not only have rights but they have also duties, and that having a say in decisions also means to have a responsibility for their consequences and implementation. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, “do not ask what your city can do for you but ask yourself what you can do for your city”.

Another key factor for success will be to address the real and perceived social divide in our societies, which should be integrated into the transformation process. In cities there are unique opportunities for social engagement, social integration and development. Urban development, housing and energy projects, improvement and management of public spaces, as well as the integration of migrants and others are chances for civic society engagement, be it financially through cooperatives, crowdfunding, or co-creation and co-implementation by personal involvement.

Of course, asking for a change in the culture of governance is easier said than done. It requires considerable efforts and also resources from the side of local governments as well as engagement from the citizens. This is a process that will take time and patience on all sides, as well as tolerance for failures and setbacks that will surely occur along the way. This might not be the only way, but it is certainly a path to take in order to keep or partly re-constitute societal cohesion, thereby strengthening civic society to preserve our liberal democracies.

This huge transformation can only be managed in a democratic way with the consent and engagement of the citizens based on our European values and historic experiences.

Therefore we should do what we can to also support a strong and democratic Europe in the upcoming elections that can provide local governments with a positive legal, regulatory and fiscal framework, as well as financial support.

We are looking forward to our further collaboration and joint efforts to positively address the challenges in front of us, to develop and share solutions and to create a good and safe environment for the next generations. Certainly these issues will still be at the core of our discussions at the upcoming European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns in Mannheim (Germany), 30 September - 2 October 2020.

Wolfgang Teubner,

Regional Director Europe
ICLEI European Secretariat