Central Europe mayors against populism sign free cities pact

The mayors of four Central European capitals have signed a “free cities” pact pledging to cooperate on issues ranging from environmental protection to urban planning and public transportation

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The mayors of four Central European capitals signed a “free cities” pact Monday, pledging to cooperate on issues ranging from environmental protection to urban planning and public transportation.

The mayors of Budapest, Hungary; Prague, the Czech Republic; Warsaw, Poland; and Bratislava, Slovakia, who are either independents or from parties in opposition to their respective national governments, also advocated for more direct funding from the European Union and noted the rise of populism and extremism in their countries.

“We're also witnessing that our region is, in some way, closing from the influence of the free Western world," said Bratislava Mayor Matus Vallo. "Still, in our four capitals we see the highest concentration of diversity. Social, religious, political, ethnic and national.”

The signing ceremony was held at a symbolic location, the Budapest home of Central European University. CEU recently was forced to move much of its main activities to Vienna because of legal changes promoted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and centered on his ideological conflict with CEU founder and billionaire George Soros.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony offered his city's office in Brussels to the other members of the pact to help them lobby for more direct funding to municipalities and other autonomous bodies.

“In the past decade, a significant part of EU funds have landed at the companies of oligarchs close to power,” Karacsony said. “In Europe, more and more people are disgusted that European innovation funds finance corruption and autocracy in the region.”

The pact also recognized that the four cities face similar challenges: “the climate crisis, inequality, the housing crisis, ageing population, social stratification and political tribalism.”

Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib said that failing to solve citizens' problems would lead to a "new wave of populism ... that will provide simple and wrong answers to the problems.”

The cities in the pact are the capitals of the countries that form the so-called Visegrad Group, or V4, which have found common ground, for example, in their opposition to immigration.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said the V4 were united in blocking EU plans, “instead of proposing new initiatives.”

“We want to actually base our initiatives on evidence, not on ideology," Trzaskowski said. "That makes us a bit different than some of our governments.”