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01.6.06 Barcelona Regions and Cities: Europe, go Urban - Now or Never!  [EN]

barca capcalera_english.jpg 


Type: Big European Conference on Regional and Urban policy and funding.

Initiators: European Committee of the Regions, Eurocities, Urbact, and the DG of Regional Policy of the European Commission itself.

Organisation: Generalitat de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Date: 1 and 2 June 2006. Location: CCIB Congress and Exposition Centre, Barcelona

First observations

1. A civilised debate between a central government and regional autonomists. A Madrid/Catalonia demonstration. Under the benignant but firm presidency of Michael Parkinson, Director of the European Institute for Urban Affairs, John Moore University Liverpool, after a neutral introduction by Danuta Hubner, the Polish EU Commissioner for Regional Affairs and main responsible for the budget of the Structural Funds, intervenes Ana Isabel Leiva, Secretary of State of the central Madrid government for Public Affairs. She stresses the extent of autonomy of Spanish regions, in particular Catalonia. Of the total budget, 30 % is spended by regions, 35% by local authorities (cities). The city of Barcelona has exceptionally well profited from European spending, with the support of the central government.

A rather defensive attitude, that became understandable, when Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos and the president of Catalonia Region, Pasqual Maragall addressed the meeting afterwards.

The former developed an interesting and inspiring analysis of the differences between the role and perspectives of conurbations, respectively in the US and in Europe. Sustainability in Europe means investment in the cohesion (social AND spatial) of cities, so as to prevent their spreading out over rural areas, and capital destruction by abandonment of existing urban structures. Urban compactness is the shape European urban sustainability has to adopt. European investment in urban (public) transport and in spatial mixity is most productive in the light of the Lisbon objectives. And this is exactly what Barcelona does. (With good examples).

Mr. Maragall, speaking immediately after Mr. Clos, stressed those points somewhat heavier. The regional and urban levels combined, are the only ones who are really capable of implementing a policy of sustainable growth. His analysis, based on the concept of space also compares American development with European. In 1772, the cultural, economic and ethnic contradictions and tensions between the American States could be overcome because of the huge amount of empty geographical space that was at their disposal. In Europe, to realise a similar superstatal take off, we have to preserve and to create space. We cannot permit ourselves to follow blindly the market forces, who demand enormous a;amounts of space in their continuous destruction and moving of facilities (investments) in their quest for profit maximization. Regions and cities, together with their local private partners, and together with their neighbours as partners (the French Toulouse as a partner in Barcelona port policies) are much better positioned, if they have cohesion as a nation, like Catalonia has, to deliver optimal growth and sustainable development.

(To be continued) | (Continuation: 02.06.06:)

Mr. Pasquall Maragall's defiant attitude must be linked to the "Estatut"  referendum that will take place on June 18th in Catalonia. A new statute for Catalonia, agreed to by Madrid, will even reinforce the Catalonian autonomy, without giving in to the most extreme independentist demands. A majority of Catalonian parties is campaigning for a "sí", but the hsipanist PP (the former conservative Christian Democrat majority party in Spain) is against from the right, and the more independentist parties on the left are also against, but for opposite reasons.

Given this political situation, one cannot but admire the civilised ways in which the Spanish and Catalan parties put this issue before the international meeting. A similar responsible and balanced behaviour on this emotional kind of problems would be welcome in others parts of Europe.


 Barcelona, 1.6.06, behind the table: Helga Dünger-Löper, Albert Bore, Danuta Hübner, Joan Clos, Pasqual Maragall, Jan Olbrycht, Gábor Demszky and Malcolm Green.

2.  Framework for EU-supported urban policy for (re)development has been decided upon for 2007-2013, now:

"The Devil is in the Details"

Ms. Hübner, at the invitation of Parkinson, explained, that, although the framework of the budget is fixed by Council- and Parliament decisions, there are still openings left for a better position of cities in the new programmes. Under subsidiarity, the impulse has to come up from "below", from the regions and the cities themselves, within the ongoing elaboration process of the details of the programmes. In July, she expects, final decisions on those "details" will have to be taken. Up to that moment, many initiatives are still welcome.

She stressed that this applies particularly to:

  • partnership building between national, regional and local authorities, a necessary condition for funding, which is not "fully" accomplished in a number of countries,
  • in some countries, there is still a lack of participation,
  • and, finally, programming (the quality of it) is not up to standards.

She argued convincingly, that, under subsidiarity, it is impossible and counterproductive, to expect solutions from Brussels. The initiatives, and they are more than welcome, have to come from the regions and the cities. And they have to come NOW, for this is a crucial moment. Major changes to the EU policy are not possible any more after this summer.

Mr. Albert Bore, of the European parliament, Commission president, repeated, that cities are the orphans of this new budget. National governments have sabotaged what had been accomplished under URBAN I and II. There is a "lack of willingness" there. Hed encouraged the Commission to deal directly and exclusively with the cities themselves.

3. There is not always harmony between region and city. 

Mr. Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest, then signalled an unbearable situation, concerning his city. [To make it clear, we draw somewhat on what we learned ourselves at our workshop in that city last month.] The central Hungarian Government deals exclusively with the region, of which Budapest is a part. In that region, Budapest with its 1,7 million inhabitants, is dramatically underrepresented. It is dominated by a number of small, often rural local authorities, who, understandably, give priority to their problems, which are the problems that Objective 1 covers. No way to get objective 2 status for Budapest.

But that is not  all: Already under the former Communist rule, Budapest has been divided into a number of very independent sub-communes, who, also understandably, are less interested in integrated programmes for the whole city than in a short-term solution for their particular and urgent problems.

This leaves the Budapest elected City authority without real power. Even its planning authority is emptied of most of its content, as the city has no legal authority to impose plans and regulations.

Mr. Demszky asked the Commission and the EP to "force" region and sub-cities into partnership, using the new EU Funds budget regulations to that effect.

Some representatives of the Commission and of national governments, present at the meeting, couldn't help at this point, to show some malignant pleasure. Apparently, the united front of regions and cities, wasn't so united after all. Opportunities for "divide et impera" came up in their minds. It was a particular moment. But it has also to be said immediately, that the congress leadership and the representatives of cities AND regions dealt with the situation in a positive way.

A first answer to Mr. Demsky's problem was provided by the next speaker, Mr. Jan Olbrycht, MEP and former mayor of Warsaw. He invited the meeting to return to the core element of their position, i.e., that if the Lisbon objectives are serious, one has to admit that it is "in the cities, and nowhere else", that they will be realised. We have to live with the "optionality" (the "option" that national governments have, to include an urban programme in their programming for the funds) an we have, locally, to live up to the hard and difficult negotiations this will entail on the regional and local levels. "It is a struggle ahead!", he said. We do not have to discuss, if, yes or no, partnership between the different governance levels, were an obligation. It is!

4. Social inclusion as an urgent objective.

 Malcolm Green (Glasgow Local Authority, representing Eurocities) stated that intervention for jobs in deprived neighbourhoods is not, as some say, "backing losers", but it is: "backing winners". Social inclusion should be imposed by the Commission on member states who neglect it and who are just following the market, which is eternally looking for the cheapest short-term solurions, at the detriment of more productive and sustainable solutions on the longer run.

Helga Dunger-Löper, Secretary of State of the Berlin Senate, limited herself to a description of Berlin social and sustainable "selbst-empowerment" policies, while Luis Espadas, Madrid secretary of state for the budget described the procedures Spain has for sharing the money between the different actors in the country.

5. Conclusions of the opening session.

 Mr. Joaquim Nadal, former mayor of Gerona (Catalunya) and now regional Minister of economy and "haciendas", and with the EC and the City of Barcelona, one of the sponsors of the meeting, stressed the use that has to be made of European funds, not as a supplementary subsidy for central objectives, but as an autonomous stimulus for regional and local development initiatives. "Subsidiarity is NOT supplementarity!", he said.

 Mr. Demszky asked again attention for his problems, while Mr. Olbrycht launched his image of the cities as an "engine for growth", but which has no use if there is no regional ,partner who is the car to be moved. Mr. Green asked attention for the huge differences in Europe between "devolved" regional authorities (like the Scottish and the Catalan), who feel an overall reponsability, as if they were a nation-state, and administrative regional entities, who are struggling for their own power and for definition of its limits. The former are well disposed to inclusion of urban necessities in their programming, whil the latter tend to see the cities as concurrents, antagonists, in a struggle for more budgetary room.

Finally, Ms. Hübner made an appeal to the regions and the cities present to use the delay until July to get a better regulation for their partnerships, to enrich the existing framework for accessing to funding with their suggestions and no to be afraid of overcoming the problems in the cases where there are apparently no matching authorities in their region or country for the Commission framework.

"Use existing partnerships, adapt them, if necessary: an ideal position on the legal and administrative level should not be your aim at this moment". "It is impossible for the Commission, given the actual situation, to solve, for instance, the problems of Budapest."

In my opinion, Ms. Hübner and her staff, within the constraints of the new budget and the neglect of the Urban Acquis that characterises it, are doing the utmost for redressing the situation in favour of a continuation of the urban acquis. They cannot be blamed for appealing at this point to regions and cities to do what, if you imagine a real, functioning EU, the Commission should do: Re-balancing the budget powers between national member states and local entities. Cities and regions will have to continue to do that themselves, at this point.

At the same time, the Conference showed the limits of the scope of action of regional and local authorities to assume that role. Those limits are:

  • the actual coalition between regions and cities limits both components: their interests collide, if and when a choice has to be made within limited budgets for rural sustainability or urban sustainable development - this is a fragility that may in the longer run be more of a disadvantage to the cities than the alliance provides in the form of a greater weight in the Brussels discussions;
  • regions and local authorities have much more to do than struggle for a free disposal of European funding: they are part of an ongoing national system, where issues follow each other at a fast rhythm. Local authorities are not an ideal vehicle for political action. They have their daily local responsibilities which ask for a workable relationship with the national and other authorities from which they depend.
  • the actual European quest for privatisation and marketing of public services is an overriding concern that is fully supported by the national governments before and behind the closed doors of the Brussels policymaking. The ensuing factual exclusion of large parts of the population, is a trend that has its firm roots in economic and technological trends. This undermines the "European Social Model", created at the height of the industrial revolution, as a rational solution to hygienic, social and employment problems of that epoch. In spite of lip-service to the human values this Model features, the reality in our cities is, that they are confronted, without the former level of national support, alone with the task of creating sustainable solutions to this phenomenon. This situation is at the root of the programmatic struggle and of the lack in partnerships that has arisen around the neglecting of the cities in the structural funding.
  • Recent history has provided for some weighty allies for the cities within the EC apparatus. Michael Parkinson, in his concluding statement of 2 June, summarised the opportunities this provides.
  • Another feature, cities will have to adapt to in the current situation, is entrepreneurship. The new budget, replacing grants with investment-arrangements for local authorities in integrated projects, proposes a number of easily obtained refundable loans, that may cover the productive investment parts of the urban projects. The conference dealt with the new EIB supported "Jessica" and other programmes.
      • Our interim comment: As we stated in other contributions here, if we cannot beat them (on privatizing), let us join them! Our projects are mostly extremely productive investments in the middle- and longer runs. No problem, really, to program them in the shape of investments and calculate their returns. It is not more difficult than adapting them to the bureaucratic criteria that granting authorities mostly impose upon us. But, here is a feature, we will deal with at another point, for a project-partnership-based initiative is mostly necessary needed here. It is not the city, nor the regional authority as such, who will usually take initiatives on that matter. And, closing statement, here we can learn much from the UK, where, for years on now, the Government has initiated already this kind of arrangements and partnerships.
    • The Catalan and Barcelona concepts of sustainability, as set forward in their regulations
      • for a mixed use of urban space,
      • of priority for (public) transport systems that provide for a sustainable "compact" city and
      • for social cohesion (combating exclusion) by drawing on the unused strong capacities of marginalized populations -
    • are a core programme for political parties and other forces that may influence more durably European policies for cities.
      • Our comment: Urban professionals are to engage themselves in elaborating those principles and give them a still wider scope than the mere city authorities and regions.

During the conference, we asked for comments from some participants we met for different other purposes.

  • Stéphane Bienvenue, from St-Etienne, France, the coordinator of the monitoring group of the Regenera network within URBACT, told me, that normally he eschews those official gatherings, but that this one was an exception in his view. In stead of issuing the habitual flat statements, there has been a fascinating exchange of views between people who, in spite of their responsibilities and political considerations, have put some essential principles at stake. (Like Michael Parkinson later said in his Conference conclusions: "It was a robust family conversation".)
  • Max Jeleniewski, from Rotterdam, Holland, who contributed a presentation of his city's priorities under URBAN 2 in Workshop 1, was principally concerned by the fact that, to his pleasure, Rotterdam was twice mentioned in Parkinson's conclusions. He sees his role mainly as a mediator for Rotterdam and other big Dutch cities and regrets, that the latter, with some exception for Rotterdam, are so poorly engaged in European policies. (About the remarkable Dutch and Belgian absence in the conference, there will be a separate post in this Journal, in Dutch.)
  • Jos Goossens, from Antwerp, Belgium, is director of an autonomous urban development company of the Antwerp local authority (the AG VESPA), and, as such, since recently, charged with European relations for investment in urban development. He regretted, that the very autonomous Flanders regional government (Belgium is probably the most devolved country in the EU) has but few attention for the specific urban needs of the two regional big cities Antwerp and Ghent. The Flanders region (not represented as such at the conference) has, like the Budapest region, an overrepresentation of rural and small communes. After having cleared the mess of past projects in his city (their reporting and evaluation, having been neglected during the period of local crisis, has to be undertaken and brought up to date), he has a firm intention of retaking the place that belongs to his great city within the EU urban policies field. The conference has shown him the opportunities that present themselves on that point.
  • Ivan Tosics, from Budapest, Hungary, independent consultant of the Budapest mayor, whom we knew from the Regenera workshop in his city, two months ago, was more or less discouraged by the outcome of the meeting. No change in sight, neither on the personal configuration front, nor on the administrative mess they are living with. Mr. Demszky will be elected mayor of the city for the 5th consecutive time. He saw at this point no breakthrough coming for a better cooperation within Europe, as long as the actual administrative situation continues to exist. (But there are perhaps some solutions in sight, about which we will possibly have to talk later on, HR.)
  • Annabella Català I Pastò, beneficiary of a temporary learning job at the Conjuntament of Barcelona, acting as a receptionist for guarding coats and luggage in the CCIB: "I have no idea what they are all doing here. You are the first one to talk to me in two days. Do they need personnel in Brussels coffee shops? If so, I'd love to come over!" - That's the constraints and the opportunities of new Europe in a nutshell (HR).


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