Liza Saris considers whether local politics across Europe can have an international effect. With more co-ordination between municipal governments, might citizens be able to help bring about continent-wide change?

Right after the national elections of 2017, the Netherlands went to vote again in March 2018, this time in local elections. The turn-out in these was only 55% percent, after 81.9% voted in thenational elections.

This difference in turnout is common throughout Europe. Take for example Denmark with a local voter turnout of 65 % and a national voter turnout of 78%, or Hungary with 46.6 % for the local elections and 61% for national elections, and as high as 79.23% for the presidential elections 79.23%.

Research concluded that local elections attract less attention, not only in terms of turnout but also in media attention. As a result, or maybe as a cause, local elections are seen as less important in the states where the turnout is low. This is a misunderstanding that goes beyond national politics: it is also about EU politics. As in the end local parties and councils can have an enormous influence on the international and national relevance of the local community by using their networks and authorities at multiple levels.

These side effects, and the powers of the municipalities and local governments, are underestimated by citizens across Europe. While as a EU citizen you have influence not only on your local and national politics through local elections, but also on EU politics.

Local politicians have therefore more instruments to create and implement their policy than before this internationalisation.

Local politicians have therefore more instruments to create and implement their policy than before this internationalisation. This is caused by changes within the electorate, yes, but also because of integration of the local political institutions within the EU. So, can this grow into a new power balance within the EU?  

EU citizens abroad: a new target for local politics

The first level of this international dimension of local politics is the right of EU citizens residents in another EU countries to vote for the municipal elections. This right exists since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, but you had to subscribe as willing to vote in order to be able to. For a couple of years, the list of countries where EU citizens can vote as long as they are registered in that specific municipality, has been expanding. In Amsterdam, 2018 was the first year that EU citizens could do so without subscribing first, but in Denmark this has been already the case since 2013 and the UK had their first time two years ago.

Now a new target group rises in the campaigns of established parties and as result new subjects were discussed on TV and in the party campaigns. In Amsterdam the local political parties joined effort to organize an election party specially focused on expats, while in London Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, urged EU citizens to punish Theresa May for the Brexit. Two ways to get the EU citizens involved in the local elections, though in Denmark an EU citizen grabbed the power himself. A Romanian expat, Narcis George Matache, convinced a candidate, Lasse Frimand Jensen, to campaign in English and put international topics in his plans, now Matache is candidate himself for the region of North-Denmark.

Not only in topic the EU citizens got involved, but also actions to make them understand the party plans by translating the flyers is an important step. In Germany, political parties campaigned with flyers in other languages in order to get the votes from expats but also to involve the Turkish and Russian Germany, by approaching them in their mothertongue. In considering expats and immigrants, they did not only reach a new target group, but also pushed for international topics to be more exposed within the local council and elections. Topics such as housing prices, and whether “true” Amsterdammers would get prefered for housing above immigrants and expats. How to represent a group that is mostly underrepresented and what are the topics that concern them is a very relevant question for the political parties who want to oppose the rise of extreme right. As the extreme right campaign against the legality of these groups in their regions.

Photo: Steven Lek (Wikimedia) Campaign posters in Den Haag for the local elections

Creating political networks in Europe

Beside the new factor of EU citizens in local elections, there are more reasons why local elections have more international influence than often believed. Local departments of national parties can also benefit from the international network of their national department. Within the European Parliament, parties form coalitions, like The European Liberals (ALDE) or the European Greens (Greens/ EFA). With the construction of these coalitions, national parties have created liaisons with similar parties in other EU countries. This in turn has created political networks throughout Europe, resulting in international conferences, exchange of politicians, policies and campaign strategies. Party delegates from different countries visit each other to learn from the others success and watch each others campaign strategies closely.

Last year there was a meeting between the extreme right Geert Wilders (PVV, Netherlands) and Marine Le Pen (Front National, France), who are allied in the coalition Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), about their stance on immigration during a controversial conference set up in order to get the far-right to work together across borders. This was interesting as both of these parties oppose further integration within the EU.

At he other end of the political spectrum, we also see growing cooperation, for example with the European Greens: between the German Die Grünen and the Dutch GroenLinks, who advised each other on their campaign strategy for the national elections in 2017 and local elections in 2018. These meetings have an influence on international topics as well in national as local elections, as they discuss their stance on topics both local and national and how they can support each other in these topics. Berlin and Amsterdam can thus co-operate, and by using their international networks, start a lobby in order to get, for example, stricter EU policy on AirBnB.

A network of EU capitals and urban areas

It is the network of EU capitals and urban areas. As national parties are networking within their EU coalitions, so are our mayors and entrepreneurs, activists and social citizens. They exchange information about urban topics, like housing, expats, health care, safety, refugees etc. topics that are typical of urban areas and capitals.

Since 2016, the EU has adopted the urban agenda, also known as the Pact of Amsterdam. This pact was constructed during the Dutch Presidency of the EU. The first meeting between the mayors of the EU capitals was held in Amsterdam during this time. It enables urban areas and capitals to work on policy within the EU systems without having to go through their national governments first. This means that when the city council has a different political make-up to the national government, they can work on enacting policy within an EU network.

This is already happening in various areas within the EU, for example how mayors respond to the refugee crisis, accessibility of education or supporting civic organisations.

Another fact about local elections is that rural areas tend to vote more right wing while cities tend to vote more left wing. Therefore left wing cities are able to connect on EU level and influence local, national and international politics with their leftist agenda. An example of this is the Municipalist Movement rising in Naples and Barcelona. This movement acts on the left wing cities to build a block against conservative and more liberal national governments. This network consist of local politicians from the participating cities.

This is not the only form of cooperation, Eurocities is also a network project for the major cities of Europe, where politicians join conferences in order to learn from each other on policies. This evolved in the program of the Fearless Cities. The conference was a combination between politicians and civilians, exchanging ideas on stimulating democracy and oppose suppressing policy from the government.  

It can have consequences within both national and EU politics.

These three layers within the local elections can form a block that may be underestimated, as these changes happen over time and not as set out policy plan. It can have consequences within both national and EU politics, as the divide between rural and urban areas will widen. Following the ideas of Benjamin Barber, expressed in his book If Mayors Rule the World, mayors can play a stronger role in international, national and local politics.

Photo: European Parliament | Electronic voting in Belgium at a polling station in Brussels for the European elections

Even if this international trend in the local politics can also bring progression for green and left politics in the EU, this trend can also cause even more polarization within the national states and the EU. As long as the voter turn-up for the local and European elections remain lower than for the national elections, the democratic foundation of this trend isn’t solid. Therefore these movements should also be questioned as long as there not a broad platform for these ideas supported by the EU citizens and its immigrants.

Next year the campaigns will start all over again for the EU elections where the average turnout will probably be lower than at most national elections. Clearly, the influence an electorate wields during local and EU elections is underestimated in our public space and sphere.

This is even more highlighted if you look at the influence that these elections can have on each other. The EU is increasingly focusing on local governance as this creates the opportunity to influence the EU’s policy-making without going through national governments first.

It is up to the national parties, their EU coalitions and the EU to communicate the relevance of these elections to their electorate, and to thus build a stronger democratic platform for the international policies of our representatives.

Cover Photo: European People’s Party Follow

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    Liza Saris is born and raised in Amsterdam, currently still going strong in Amsterdam. She studied European Studies and did her masters on European Identity and the constructing of the EU public sphere. With a huge interest in Eastern Europe, she is now planning to leave Amsterdam and explore the other end of Europe.

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