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Central European capitals sign “Pact of Free Cities” against populism

Budapest, Hungary – On Monday 16 December, the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest,  Prague and Warsaw all met in the Hungarian capital to sign a “Pact of Free Cities.” The signatories vow to address issues ranging from housing and climate change to promotion of democracy and the rule of law. The mayors also advocated for more direct funding from Brussels to their cities. 

In a joint statement, Budapest’s Gergely Karacsony, Prague’s Zdenek Hrib, Bratislava’s Matúš Vallo and Warsaw’s Rafał Trzaskowski also weighed into their national governments. They wrote that “unfortunately, in recent years, populists have dominated the political landscape in many countries in Central Europe (and beyond)”.

On Twitter, the Pirate mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, wrote that “the pact is also symbolic. It sends a message that we are sharing the same values and there are voices in our countries that do not identify with populist and nationalist politics.” The newly elected mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, added on Instagram that “we have a lot in common: in our cities and in the way we think. If anything, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But it was not just the text of the declaration that was heavily symbolic. The venue chosen for the meeting and signature was the Budapest campus of Central European University (CEU).

In a joint statement, Gergely Karacsony, Zdenek Hrib, Matúš Vallo and Rafał Trzaskowski weighed into their national governments. Credit: Facebook

V4 capitals sign “Pact of Free Cities”: a symbolic venue for a symbolic declaration

Founded in 1991 by billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, the university was supposed to help educate a new generation of elites in the fragile democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, emerging from a long period of communist rule. Since then, CEU has become one of the best universities in the region, ranking among the top 100 universities in humanities and social sciences in the world. In fact, CEU originally operated in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw before moving all of its operations to Budapest in 1995. Now, the university has to move again.

Despite CEU’s contribution to Hungarian economy and research, the Hungarian government passed the so-called “Lex CEU” in March 2017, revoking the right of the university to issue US accredited degrees in Hungary. This caused a massive wave of protests in Budapest and a flood of support from Hungarian and international academic institutions. The university tried to find consensus with the Hungarian government, attempting to negotiate a new agreement between Hungary and the State of New York. However, the government refused to sign the agreement its negotiators prepared with the state of New York. 

Meanwhile, the government and Fidesz-friendly media went on a lengthy campaign to paint the founder of the university, George Soros, as the public enemy, seeking to destroy Christian Europe with migration and liberal values. The governing party also continued to cement its control over other independent institutions like the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The venue chosen for the meeting and signature was the Budapest campus of Central European University (CEU). Credit: Alicia Prager

A pact of free and progressive cities

With the opposition unable to reach the countryside and convince Hungarian voters, it seemed as if Viktor Orban and his party were untouchable, having obtained supermajority in the parliament. However, coming into the October municipal elections, the opposition changed strategy and created a wide cooperation of parties, backing only one candidate with the strongest chance of winning. In a major upset, the opposition won in Budapest, defeating the incumbent mayor Istvan Tarlos supported by Orban’s Fidesz party.

After assuming office, one of the first moves by Karacsony, the newly elected mayor of Budapest was to write a letter to the Rector of CEU, asking him to continue as many teaching activities in Budapest as possible. The opposition also gained ground in other Hungarian cities, re-shaping the Hungarian political landscape and damaging Orban’s track record of invincibility.

Among the first to congratulate Karacsony on his election victory was Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of the opposition-held Warsaw. Later, they met again during the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and were also joined by the mayors of Prague and Bratislava Zdenek Hrib and Matus Vallo. In Berlin, they agreed to create a pact of progressive cities that could provide a more nuanced image of the Visegrad region.

Gergely Karacsony, wrote on Instagram that “if anything, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Credit: Facebook

Re-directing EU funds directly to cities

Their proposal to re-direct EU funds from the national governments directly to cities might find favourable response in Brussels. The idea comes against the backdrop of an expected decrease of EU funding for the Visegrad countries in the next 2021-2027 EU budget. It is also anticipated that in the next seven-year budget plan the EU funds could be more closely tied with the respect for rule of law, threatening the subsidies for Poland and Hungary, as they are now facing Article 7 procedures for alleged breaches of rule of law standards. 

The European Commission also sent a finalised audit to the Czech authorities finding that Andrej Babis, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, had a conflict of interest concerning EU subsidies paid to his Agrofert conglomerate. Just days after the audit was received, the supreme state prosecutor restarted a fraud investigation against Babis regarding the subsidy given to build his ‘Capi Hnizdo’ (Stork’s Nest) complex. Hungary has its issues with EU subsidies as well, having to return 1.5bn euros, corresponding to about 2 percent of its annual economic output because it misused EU funds. 

This December, Fidesz sought revenge for the October municipal elections by accepting a new law that significantly limits the powers of the opposition. It places new restrictions on formation of groups in parliament, bans party blocs from splitting, and blocks unaffiliated MPs from joining other parties. In November, the central government also proposed that Budapest must invest about 500 million euros a year that it collects in business tax receipts, the most important source of its income, to public transport system before anything else, which would significantly squeeze the budget of the city.

The mayors still had time to visit Budapest’s Christmas Market. Credit: Facebook

Populism is striving for hegemony, but it cannot win over cities

The Hungarian opposition hopes that winning in cities could be its springboard to increasing its vote-share in the next general election. Karacsony said that “Populism is striving for hegemony, but it cannot win over cities. Cities can be the bridgeheads starting from which all the current crises of democracy can be repaired.” However, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party actually increased its vote in the countryside, following similar trends elsewhere in Europe, where the gap between big cities and the countryside has been widening. 

It remains to be seen whether the opposition can translate the support from the municipal to the national level. The Pact of Free Cities certainly shows that it tries to look for like-minded allies in the region. 

Meanwhile, as CEU prepares to move the majority of its teaching to Vienna, the meeting of mayors was a sort of farewell to the capital the university once called home.

The “Pact of Free Cities”, signed by the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. Credit: Twitter

By Matej Voda 

Born in Prague, Matej Voda studied at Charles University and University College London. He currently pursues his graduate studies at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. Previously, he worked and interned at EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prague-Based Association for International Affairs, and the Prague office of Euractiv. He enjoys cheese, theatre and Russian literature. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!