Attacks on Freedom of Movement: Too much to Lose!

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on August 7th, 2015

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Closing the borders, building new walls, attacking migrants … Europe’s key milestone, freedom of movement, is today in danger. Can the URBACT experience of multinational exchanges help to overcome this danger?

Replacing the Doubtful Present with a Brighter Future

Get into the skin of an Eastern European from a medium-sized city. Imagine you are in an alumni reunion meeting. Graduated 40 years ago, people only had a relatively successful carreer and would like to go into retirement as soon as possible. Telling their short ‘life-stories’ they only cheer up when talking about their kids: ‘my son is with Erasmus in the Netherlands’, ‘my daughter visited most western countries and has a German boyfriend’… for the younger generation the European Union became a reality and is almost one (unified) country.


Why are those Eastern/Western European exchanges so important?

URBACT is one of the rare examples of EU financed programmes where the mix of better-off and poorer cities is compulsorily required: in each of the networks half of the partners have to come from the better-off (competitiveness) regions while the other half from the lagging-behind (convergence) regions.
Why is this so important? Why is it not allowed to form a network of similarly well advanced cities? In fact Amsterdam, Bologna and Barcelona could more easily understand each other than working with Sofia, Vilnius or Catania, where GDP/capita is much lower and where the experiences and knowledge background of the politicians and officials at the municipalities are more limited.
I will give two answers to this question.


Different types of knowledge

To make it very simple, let us only differentiate expert (technical) and everyday (common sense) knowledge. The ‘more developed’, richer cities are usually more advanced regarding expert knowledge. However, this often leads to less attention taken to everyday knowledge. One example to illustrate this is the German story of rehabilitating large housing estates in the 1990s in the Eastern part of the country. On project level, regarding the renovation of buildings and public spaces, excellence was achieved with the high level of expert knowledge. However, the demographic and economic context was basically ignored. As a result many of the nicely refurbished flats and buildings stay now empty as the families moved away, to other parts of the country.
URBACT projects deliver plenty of similar examples. The common feature of these is that the technically more advanced but also more regulated, rigid systems in North Western European cities differ substantially of the less regulated systems of Eastern European cities. In the latter everyday knowledge plays a larger role as a substitute of the missing public frameworks. In one of the URBACT network meetings during the site visit (which is usually a highlight of the meeting) to the peripheral housing estate the Western European host was asked about the lack of shops on the ground floor of the high-rise residential buildings. The answer was that the strict regulation, based on expert considerations, excluded the possibility to open shops on the ground floor of residential buildings. Such regulation does not exist at all in Eastern European cities, resulting in much more lively areas around the privatized buildings in the otherwise very similar housing estates.
Thus knowledge exchange is not at all a one-directional process from richer towards poorer cities. URBACT projects led in many cases to useful knowledge transfer from the Eastern (and Southern) to the North Western cities, in many unexpected forms.


Getting to know each other better

With the removal of internal borders within the European Union, the free movement of people from one country to another increasingly becomes an everyday routine. Still, people are sensible to the increase of migration from other countries into their neighbourhood. This is partly understandable as the long-time neighbours face families from other EU countries they never visited (here we only talk about within-the-EU migration).
URBACT networks help very much to handle such problems. Usually there are network meetings in each partner city, thus the people involved are soon acquainted with the real life situations in all partner cities from each corner of the EU. In one of the networks the lead expert never visited earlier the Eastern part of Europe. During his first visit to a Romanian city he was surprised to discover a city where many people grow tomatoes and other vegetables. This is one of the aspects of resilience that Western cities would like to achieve! Getting acquainted with real life situations in the cities of other EU countries URBACT network participants become more informed and might contribute to the easier acceptance of inter-EU migrants in their own countries and cities.
These two answers highlight the importance of the ‘mixture’ principle. For URBACT project partners the other EU countries and cities are not unknown, mysterious places anymore but well-discovered realities whose differences (advantages and disadvantages) are normal aspects of life. This knowledge is of immense importance to further develop the feeling of solidarity towards each other.


URBACT helps fighting growing populism and nationalism in Europe

In the post-crisis years the European Union is facing growing challenges. The increase of inter-EU migration and some of its unavoidable externalities are used by the extreme right wing parties to increase their popularity. Populism and nationalism is on the rise and not only by the extremists! Several national policy makers threaten with the re-introduction of border controls. This is even more emphasized now, when the number of third country migrants and refugees is increasing.
However, we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathing water. Renouncing to free movement of people would mean the end of our common European project. URBACT partners know this and the URBACT experience helps us to fight these unfortunate tendencies – there is too much to lose!


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