Cities for Europe: two suggestions and one (big) paradox

Alexander Damiano Ricci

A Soul for Europe
A Soul for Europe

--

Alexander Damiano Ricci

Over the past decades, citizens and cities have been the core engines of the European integration project.

More specifically, if citizens have been primary actors of development, cities have undoubtedly — and only at the very least — represented the loci of both, institutional and citizen based political and societal initiatives.

There is however a leading question that needs to be answered for the sake of sustainability of the EU: how can we develop the role of citizens and cities, and make sure that they continue to foster actively the process of European integration?

If I was asked to find one word to answer this question, it would be “interaction”. At the end of the day, any process of development seems to depend on some sort of exchange.

If this holds true, fostering interaction among citizens and among cities becomes key to foster the European integration project as well.

Now, at a very abstract level, there are two ways through which interaction can incur: directly, or indirectly. Both would foster the European and international linkages of cities, across the Continent.

A matter of direct interaction: beyond Erasmus

Direct interaction goes through the real-life experience of citizens who come from very different cities all over Europe.

Consequently, our first generic call would go like this: students, workers, artists and city administrations of different parts and cities of Europe, interact! Indeed, it might have been this very simple reasoning that made it possible for the Erasmus project to take off, 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, Erasmus is not enough when it comes to frame the contribution cities can make to the development of European integration. And this is mainly so, because Erasmus is related to some sort of individual job- or education-related activity (be it a university exchange program, or a professional one).

In other terms, Erasmus may trigger the individual development of the person but does leave us at ground zero, when it comes to define a concrete way cities can pro-actively foster the EU integration process.

Consequently, what we need is some sort of program that makes it possible for city administration across Europe to interact. This could become a smart way to solve concrete administrative and urban issues by means of cooperation in areas of interest.

A matter of indirect interaction: the case for a EU Public Sphere

However, interaction can also be indirect, or “mediated”. That’s where media actors have to be brought into the picture. Said otherwise, the process of interaction among citizens and cities could be brought about by a functioning European public sphere. But, do we have such a European public sphere, yet?

The answers are twilight. According to scholars, social media have brought new chances of integration of national debates. But, when it comes to Europe, traditional mainstream media seem to be interested only in the so called “Eurobubble”. Most of all, in their narratives, they equate “Europe” with “Brussels”.

Just think about it. Although being part of the same political Union, we — as national publics — rarely talk about the same topics at the same time. All the more important, we rarely take each other into consideration when it comes to discuss national, city, or community specific issues. As a matter of example, just think about the last time you have seen an Italian city-major talking about urban policies in a German talk-show. Simply put: you just never did.

All in all, it seems that within traditional and mainstream media cannot trigger reciprocal learning and interactions.

Nevertheless, over the past fifteen years, small and medium scale media experiments have tried to cope with the gigantic challenges of forging a European public opinion. One of those is Cafébabel.com, an online participatory magazine published by the Paris-based ngo, Babel International. One of the slogans of Cafébabel is “Europe in real life”, which says already a lot about its editorial angle.

But how could a media ever help cities to foster and be engine of ongoing European integration? Well, a perfect example in case, would be Cafébabel’s recent editorial project, “MeetMyHood”.

MeetMyHood is an editorial project that attempts to talk about Europe, by giving shots of “Europe in real life” and bringing the readership into the neighbourhoods of different cities of Europe.

In doing so, Cafébabel is challenging the mainstream narrative. By putting side by side neighbourhoods of different cities from different countries, it opens up an imaginary of European cosmopolitanism. It triggers constructive comparisons between our cities. From here, it is a relatively short step to engage in a process of mutual learning for those who have open minds.

What we need nowadays, is more of the same stereotype-breaking-media outlets, tools, platforms — just as Cafébabel. What we need, is more media actors that can foster indirect exchanges of knowledge among cities and among citizens, that can raise the level of the European public sphere and debates, beyond outdated mainstream practices and editorial angles.

Cities, rural areas and the EU: a paradox

All that said, and notwithstanding that the very first sentence of this article resonates with common sense (recall, it says that “citizens and cities have been the core engines of the European integration project”), there is a specific trend in contemporary European politics that should let us take up a more critical view on the relation between urban areas, their development, and the process of European integration.

As highlighted by many electoral analysis — for instance, on the occasion of the 2016 Brexit referendum -, the ancient political cleavage between urban areas and countryside is emerging once again. Far from being of no concern to the European cause, it casts dark shadows over the cohesion and survival of the Union.

More specifically, national populations across Europe seem to be split among themselves over the EU, according to their place of residence within each Member State. On the one hand, there are those citizens living in rural areas who perceive to get almost no benefits from the EU. On the other side, cosmopolitan folks show massive support for the Union.

Coming back to our leading question, the implications are as straightforward, as paradoxical. Namely: to preserve the EU integration project the administrations of urban areas across Europe might prefer to put aside their international interactions and, instead, give priority to “actions” that foster economic and social cohesion with their rural surroundings.

If the benefits of the Single Market and of intra-EU tourism are spread more equally across urban and rural areas, we might end up with a more cohesive, and, hopefully, long-lasting Union.

Alexander Damiano Ricci (Alexander D. Ricci)

Alexander Damiano Ricci is the President of Babel International, a Paris based NGO that publishes the European Magazine, Cafébabel.com. He works as freelance journalist for Italian and European newspapers and magazines and is co-founder of EuVisions.eu, an Observatory on Social Europe.

--

--

A Soul for Europe
A Soul for Europe

We connect citizens and democratic institutions across Europe, fostering a sense of responsibility for the future of Europe and democracy through culture.