September 21, 2020

“Solidarity Cities”: The Role of Cities in Fostering Democracy

By Sawsan Chebli, State of Berlin Delegate to the -German- Federation Permanent Secretary for Active Citizenship and International Relations.

I wish I could start on a positive note. But I can’t. What we experienced in the past few years in Germany, in Europe and in the world is far too alarming. What we are currently fighting for is nothing less than the very existence of our democracies.

Because wherever we look, we see how fundamental democratic values are being questioned. We see how politicians and civil society actors who fight for human rights, refugees and minorities are being threatened with their lives. We see how scientists, journalists and artists who just want to do their jobs are under repression. And we see how racism is spreading throughout our country. The horrific attack in Hanau that took place on February 19, 2020, where ten people were murdered, is unfortunately no exception.

But many large cities are fighting back. Not alone but collectively.  We are organized in multilateral city networks, maintain bilateral partnerships with each other and have the power to confront nationalism and right-wing populism not only at the individual, but also at the national level.

As Berlin’s Permanent Secretary for International Relations, I am proud to say that Berlin stands for freedom, openness and diversity. So much so that big NGOs such as the Open Society Foundations are moving their European headquarters here from places where they were under pressure from antidemocrats. Berlin actively fosters democracy, not only here, but also internationally.

When national governments curb democratic rights, racists and rightwing extremists walk the streets and dominate the conversation online, they are taking over both physical and societal space. And when this happens, words turn into deeds very soon. To stop this, democratic cities must support each other.

And that’s what we do. Berlin supports Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava, the capitals of the Visegrád states. They recently formed the Pact of Free Cities. Where? In Berlin. The pro-European mayors of these cities will now work together even more closely to promote democracy, freedom and the rule of law in their countries. Last month, they asked Berlin to sign a letter to the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen, which we did. The four mayors requested that EU funding be paid directly to cities – rather than via national governments – to support the European Green Deal, a project they embrace, in contrast to the national governments of the Visegrád states.

And this is only one example of many. Two years ago, we created the fellowship program “Weltoffenes Berlin” (cosmopolitan Berlin) to offer a safe haven to artists and academics who are being persecuted in their countries because of their political beliefs.

Cities have to stand up for each other. More than ever. Only when we form alliances can we make our voices heard. Cities must understand their crucial role as strongholds of democracy and against right-wing nationalism. Metropolises can send important signals and be antipodes to right-wing movements.

If we do not start full-on fostering of democracy as solidarity cities, I am afraid our democracies and basic democratic rights are at risk. Losing them is a real possibility. Antidemocratic ideologies and extremists are strong, but we are stronger. It is in our hands now.

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Picture by Sharon Back.

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