Can Europe Make It?

Free European cities in democratic alliance

Meet Zdeněk Hřib, the mayor who challenged Russia, China, and the V4. Interview.

Slawek Blich
3 September 2020
Mayors of Prague and Warsaw: Zdenek Hrib and Rafal Trzaskowski.
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@rafal.trzaskowski/facebook.com, Wikimedia Commons, (edited)

In 2019, the mayors of the central and eastern European cities of Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava signed the so-called "Free Cities Alliance". Mirroring the existing Visegrad coalition between Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, the four capitals forged an alternative regional alliance promoting ‘democratic and pro-European’ values.

“The Free Cities Alliance” aims at tackling climate crisis, the rise of right-wing populisms, and the crisis of liberal democracies. Negotiations are underway with Brussels for these cities to receive EU funding directly, that is to eliminate their national governments as middlemen, and to bypass national envelopes.

This way, Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw have challenged the foreign policies of their own countries. “The capital cities of Visegrád do not want to be penalized and persecuted for the fact that the government of this country or another is breaking laws, embezzling EU grants or denies the climate crisis,” says Mr Hřib.

Slawek Blich was in conversation with the Pirate Party mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, for Krytyka Polityczna ( see Polish version here).

Slawek Blich (SB): What was your reaction to the Polish presidential election results announced in July?

Zdeněk Hřib (ZH): I was understandably disappointed.

SB:You expressed your support for the democratic opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski. You made a video where you said in Polish and Czech that you were keeping your fingers crossed.

ZH: Our political position is not the only thing that Trzaskowski and I have in common. We also share common values and worldviews. I stated that Poland needs a political change. But unfortunately, illiberal forces which both Rafał and I oppose won by a very small margin.

SB: What have you heard about this electoral campaign in Poland? What sort of information reached Czechia’s political circles?

ZH: Much was said about how Trzaskowski was treated by state-owned media. I could not believe it until I saw it with my own eyes that your public television indeed ran a story entitled “Will Trzaskowski meet Jewish demands?”. This is completely insane.
We also heard the news about “LGBT-free zones”. Altogether, this paints the big picture of the deranged, illiberal forces that are governing Poland today.

SB: After signing The Free Cities Alliance, Trzaskowski said: “When some governments undermine the foundations of liberal democracy or pretend that the climate crisis does not exist, we need to take matters into our own hands.”

ZH: The initiator of the Pact, and at the same time a great political inspiration, was Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest. In Hungary, the political situation is even worse than in Poland. However, for Karácsony’s victory, it was necessary to unify the forces of the democratic opposition. This process was terribly difficult and painful for many. But the result was worth it. A similar conversation awaits all Visegrád countries today.

SB: Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš commented that your initiative is “just for fun”.

ZH: For a long while now, a peculiar Central and Eastern European coalition has been trying to get into the spotlight: from post-Communist Czech businessmen-oligarchs, to Polish clergy-fascists, to Slovak political mafiosos involved in Ján Kuciak’s murder, to Hungarian conservative nationalists.
For us, metropolitan mayors, this was about showing that the capital cities and their citizens follow opposing values and hold different opinions on key political matters.

SB: Like what for example?

ZH: We have a different outlook on democracy, human rights, cultural diversity, or the rule of law.

SB: What concrete results have you achieved within the six months since you signed the Pact?

ZH: We work closely with the mayors of the V4 and have participated in several joint initiatives based on green, liberal and progressive values. In June, for example, we sent an open letter to the European Council emphasizing the need for Green Recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and declaring our full support for the European Green Deal. In July, we addressed a similar letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

SB: You have urged the EU to make funds more directly available to the cities by bypassing central governments.

ZH: As for the forthcoming negotiations on the EU's next financial framework for 2021-2027, our aim is to secure the mechanisms to fund cities directly from the EU budget, which is essential for the implementation of an ambitious climate policy. We look for ways to allow our partner cities to receive European grants directly. Therefore, outside the national envelopes.

SB: Can you sidestep the envelopes?

ZH: Mechanisms and programs aimed directly at regions are already in existence. Our proposal is in line with the efforts made so far by the largest European urban network EUROCITIES, as well as with the European Committee of the Regions. National envelopes will of course remain and we are not looking to eliminate them. What we are trying to do is to improve the legislation behind the funding mechanisms of the EU to decentralize funding schemes within the forthcoming EU multiannual financial framework. We are working to broaden cities’ access to funds and resources with no unnecessary middlemen.

We are working to broaden cities’ access to funds and resources with no unnecessary middlemen.

SB: All good on the formal side of things. But let’s talk politics. You don’t want to wait around for Kaczyński or Babiš to finally develop an interest in the climate crisis, do you?

ZH: No. We demand that the implementation of strategic development projects in our countries not be influenced by the fact that the government of this country or another is breaking the Constitution, embezzling EU grants or denying the climate crisis.

SB: But isn’t it also true that the more prosperous, cosmopolitan residents of Warsaw or Prague have more in common class-wise with Berliners or Parisians, rather than with the residents of Ústí nad Labem or Suwałki? And that’s why they can agree on certain values more easily? Your critics will say that you are isolating yourself from the social landscape outside the metropolis. That you like talk about values, but in reality, you cannot win an election like Babiš or Orbán can.

ZH: I am not a native of Prague myself. I come from the Moravian town of Slavičín with 6500 inhabitants. I grew up in Zlín. I am aware there are differences between the capital and the rest of the Republic, and unfortunately that there are politicians who are tenaciously deepening them with their populist rhetoric. However, the capital and the whole country must not stand against each other.
As for the EU, I believe that one fundamental problem is that many people still do not understand what it is that the EU actually does for us, what it is for.

SB: Insufficient knowledge.

ZH: Yes. We aim to shorten the path between Brussels and regular residents of European regions.

SB: But how will Ústí nad Labem or Suwałki benefit from the fact that Warsaw and Prague get cash and projects from the Green New Deal?

ZH: The answer is simple. A solidarity mechanism is embedded in the success of the metropolis. Large cities are technological, commercial and intellectual hubs. And yes, there is also greater support for liberal and progressive values, so therefore greater willingness to implement such policies effectively. Funding these cities directly can support modern policies related to sustainable development, green recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, the digitization of public administration and the like.
The capital cities are therefore connected not only by values, but also by money. Capitals are major economic engines of their countries. Prague creates over 25 per cent of Czech GDP, but it receives about 7 per cent of the central budget. The rest of the value created returns to the regions to fund their development. It does not stay trapped in the capital cities. Investments, modern policies and liberal values eventually spread to regions and smaller cities, too. Central governments should not think that it pays off to kill their golden goose.

Capitals are major economic engines of their countries. Prague creates over 25 per cent of Czech GDP, but it receives about 7 per cent of the central budget. The rest of the value created returns to the regions to fund their development.

SB: Apropos of killing, let’s go down the list of countries and people who hate you. I have it right here.

ZH: Is it long?

SB: It’s a bit scary. Let’s start with an easy one: the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. He believes that you have no idea about foreign policy and you should focus on city issues.

ZH: After one meeting, Babiš said to me that Prague will not get one more koruna from this country. Then, he said time and again that he was traumatized by meetings with me.

SB: His supporters admonish you for paying too much attention to foreign policy, which is not within your job description.

ZH: Apart from digitalisation, IT, internal and external affairs, foreign policy and relations with and outside of the EU are amongst the officially assigned areas of responsibility for my role, therefore I have the mandate to deal with foreign affairs which concern the interests of the city of Prague.

SB: In February 2020, you voted to change the name of the square where the Russian embassy in Prague is located. Now it is called… the Boris Nemtsov square, after the liberal opposition politician murdered in central Moscow by unknown perpetrators. Don’t you know where trolling Russia can end up?

ZH: We were only keeping our election promise. We had said that the city will be closer to its inhabitants. In that case, we received a citizens’ petition in which they demanded that the square be renamed. We found no formal obstacles.

SB: And you had no clue that Russia will be furious with its embassy’s surprising new address.

ZH: The problem is not who Boris Nemtsov was.

SB: What is it, then?

ZH: The problems begin only when self-government is obstructed by states or people who do not understand what local democracy is. Some modern regimes function like outdated dictatorships. There is one guy at the wheel and he wants to make all the decisions. States like China or Russia are organically incapable of respecting the idea of self-governance in the city. They do not understand that people can come to an agreement whether they want to have this or that monument around the corner.

Some modern regimes function like outdated dictatorships… They do not understand that people can come to an agreement whether they want to have this or that monument around the corner.

SB: Earlier this year, the magazine Respekt published an article whose sources claimed that a man with a Russian diplomatic passport had smuggled ricin into the Czech Republic. The Russian diplomat had supposedly intended to poison three city politicians, including you.

ZH: Ultimately, the rumours about the assassination turned out to be a diplomatic tragifarce. The fabricated news about the poison was written in the embassy of the Russian Federation in Prague. It was contrived by two employees with diplomatic passports as part of an internal struggle for influence between themselves. They were later expelled from the country by the Czech government.
But you know, there is another thing that bothered me. I learned about the supposed death threat in the media rather than learning about it from Czech special or diplomatic forces. This is a dubious performance review for some employees, to say the least.

SB: You received round-the-clock police detail. Were you afraid for your life?

ZH: Although the ricin story proved to be a farce, about the same time we learnt that another Russian diplomat had attempted to illegally purchase sniper rifle ammunition in Czechia. His arrest was prevented only by his diplomatic immunity.
You are asking me whether the threat from these regimes is real. Absolutely it is. However, I happen to be a man who does not change his opinions when he is threatened.

SB: You flew the Tibetan flag on the town hall building, which infuriated China. Next, you terminated a partnership agreement with Beijing in favour of Taipei – the capital city of Taiwan, which is fighting for its autonomy within the Chinese empire. You have condemned China publicly, calling it an “unreliable partner.”

ZH: In Czechia, flying the Tibetan flag is a long and beautiful tradition. For many years, we too have lived under foreign cultural and political hegemony. Thus, solidarity with Tibet is part of our political tradition. We have tried to talk about it with the Chinese side, but they were not interested in an agreement based on equality and respect.
I’ll show you something more interesting. Here is a letter that the Dalai Lama wrote to me...

Dalai Lama's letter.
Dalai Lama's letter. | photo @ Krytyka Polityczna.

ZH :… flying the Tibetan flag should not bother China at all. … Nevertheless, I’d like you to know that in 1954-55 I met Chairman Mao on several occasions in China. During one of our meetings, he asked me if we had a national flag. I hesitated about how to answer but replied that we did. He told me that it was important to keep it and fly it alongside the red flag. So, you can tell any Chinese who complains that when it comes to flying the Tibetan flag, I received permission from Chairman Mao himself to do so.”

SB: It’s a shame that the current Chinese government did not listen. More recently, Miloš Vystrčil, the President of the Senate of the Czech Republic, led a contingent of 90 representatives to visit Taiwan. As a supporter of Taiwan, you also joined the tour and faced criticism from both the prime minister Babiš and Czech president Miloš Zeman.

ZH: I very much appreciate that the President of the Senate invited me on his foreign trip to Taiwan. Taipei is a sister city of Prague and I would like to further strengthen this alliance. Both cities share similar values and I believe that we can constructively work together in many fields, such as smart technologies.

SB: Let’s talk about the future now. We are standing before a great challenge: how to plan our future in order to meet the needs of both the people and the planet. This requires some fresh thinking. Amsterdam has based its model on Doughnut Economics by the Oxford University economist Kate Raworth and on collaboration with experts. Do you have a task force for the future in your town hall?

ZH: By 2026, we will have planted over a million trees in Prague. This is an official programme, but also my personal fixation. We would like to plant as many trees as we can in streets and squares in order to clean the air and neutralize so-called heat islands. In our town hall, we have an energy manager. This person’s job includes the development of solar energy use. Solar panels are placed on roofs of schools, hospitals or other city-owned buildings, and they produce clean energy. We are also piloting a smart city programme. Thanks to digital technology, we are able to monitor the level of waste in garbage containers remotely and plan the schedule of their removal accordingly.

If you turn around, you will see a map of Prague, covering the entire wall. This is a plan which we intend to follow throughout my second term. There is a new metro line there, a completed ring-road and the so-called brownfield lands – vast postindustrial areas to develop…

Map of Prague:
Map of Prague: | photo @ Krytyka Polityczna. All rights reserved.

SB: Would you build affordable apartments there, like Vienna?

ZH: The development of affordable housing in Prague's brownfields is a key point in resolving the housing crisis in Czech’s capital and it is a high priority for my coalition. From the town hall’s perspective, this process should be carried out in three parallel tracks. Firstly, through constructive communication with the private sector. Secondly, the city itself should start building social housing as soon as possible. Lastly, we need to properly care for the existing city housing stock. To answer more personally, I would not like to see my children having to move from Prague to Vienna in search of an affordable place to stay.

To answer more personally, I would not like to see my children having to move from Prague to Vienna in search of an affordable place to stay.

SB: Earlier this year, a group of activists rented an apartment in a tenement house in Jindřišska Street in Prague via a short-term Airbnb deal. For two days, it was transformed into a venue for discussion on problems with the availability of apartments. As the mayor, you visited this flat. Why?

ZH: Because they were discussing a matter which I personally consider to be one of the most serious. Aggressive short-term renting and the unavailability of apartments on the market may eat the city alive. Speaking practically, it has several consequences. First, it kills planning. There is no way you can control the flow and number of tourists in the city. This raises the cost of overtourism, that is the imbalance between the number of visitors and the city’s resources. Keeping order and safety costs rise more and more, while the quality of transport and city infrastructure drops. But Airbnb is of course not contributing to the city budget.

SB: Nobody in our part of Europe has dared thus far to defy the holy right to ownership.

ZH: Unregulated short-term rentals ruin neighbourliness. It destroys trust. Overnight, Airbnb changes the apartment next door into a hotel room. The strangers who drop in and out are mostly interested in partying. Airbnb doesn’t care that your child should get enough sleep or that you have to get up for work in the morning. Airbnb Eldorado and real estate market speculation are driving rents up, ravaging popular central districts and pushing out residents.

We are looking at possibilities and legal frameworks, also on a European level, to control that shady practice of unregulated short-term which is eating our cities alive.

SB: According to political scientist Jiří Pehe, your political attitude embodies Václav Havel’s values. Is that even a compliment for a Pirate?

ZH: I am far from posing as a symbolic heir to Havel. Both I and the Pirate Party see it differently. The post-1989 transformation had some successes, but all too often it turned out that the reformer enthusiasm was abandoned halfway, and replaced by a self-congratulatory attitude. That’s a mistake. The transformation of our region must continue. We must keep changing the internal meaning of the system. There are a variety of critical areas: from climate change, to health care, to democratic values, to the rule of law, and finally to civil liberties.

This interview is co-published with KrytykaPolityczna.pl.

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