Eastern EU’s Capitals Join Forces Against Populist Leaders

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(Bloomberg) -- The mayors of four eastern European capitals formed a “pact of free cities” as enclaves of resistance against nationalist central governments that have reshaped the European Union’s eastern wing.

The liberal-leaning mayors from Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava met in Hungary’s capital on Monday to sign a pact to protect common values, including “freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.”

They said they’d jointly lobby the EU for direct funding amid moves by some governments to squeeze the budgets of opposition-led capitals.

Nationalist and anti-immigrant leaders including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski are consolidating power in eastern Europe and challenging democratic norms three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Hungary and Poland are facing Article 7 probes from the EU for allegedly undermining the rule of law, which could lead to the suspension of their votes in the trading bloc.

Big City Beachheads

“The kind of populism that’s aiming for hegemony has no chance of overcoming big cities,” said Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, who unseated the capital’s two-term, Orban-backed mayor in October. “Big cities can be beachheads from which we can start reversing signs pointing to a crisis of democracy.”

In a symbolic move, the mayors signed the agreement on the campus of the George Soros-founded Central European University. Orban, who has publicly campaigned against the Hungarian-born billionaire investor and philanthropist, forced CEU to relocate most of its programs to Vienna after tightening accreditation rules.

The mayors highlighted efforts to protect cities from the effects of climate change while pushing to narrow inequality, among other areas of cooperation. The pact is be open for other cities sharing their values, they said.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski of the pro-European Civic Platform party compared the alliance of the region’s capitals to a new type of cooperation within the Visegrad Four. The increasingly euro-skeptic bloc of countries has banded together to oppose EU-wide efforts to deal with immigration and limit EU oversight over their political systems.

“Unfortunately today we’re used to being on the defensive, to block things instead of proposing new initiatives,” Trzaskowski said. “We undertook this initiative to actually work together and propose things that can move us forward.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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