To fight populists, go local


WARSAW — In Poland, local government is under siege. Since the Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015, it has repeatedly tried to take away local funding and authority. It has drafted legislation, for example, that would allow the government to control our finances and prevent independent candidates from challenging major parties in local elections.

These legislative plans were ultimately thwarted by Poland’s civic society and independent media, but PiS continues to tie local governments’ hands: In May, the national government cut local authorities’ wages in an attempt to cover up a scandal caused by its own ministers, who cashed out on tens of thousands of euros in arbitrary bonuses and handouts.

But there’s another threat to local governments’ ability to defend democratic values against the ruling party’s overreach — and it comes from Brussels.

The recent budget proposal put forward by the European Commission would seriously undermine Poland’s local politicians — the most powerful, and perhaps the last, stronghold of democratic values and rule of law in the country.

Support for the EU in Poland is currently among the highest rates across the bloc. And it has remained so despite PiS’s anti-EU policies. It’s in the EU’s interest to keep it that way.

Withdrawing financial support for countries that do not follow the rule of law is a dangerous proposition. It risks eroding popular support for the European project among voters and would make it extremely difficult for Poland’s democratic forces to defend a pro-EU agenda.

It would also have a significant impact on local authorities, as a reduction in EU funds made them more reliant on money from the central government. This would put them exactly where PiS wants them.

PiS’s policies clearly violate fundamental European values, and the EU’s responseshould be clear and politically efficient. But it should also be socially responsible. It should target the offenders — not local communities, especially in the less developed regions.

Cuts are not the answer

Even if Brussels backs away from this particular idea, a cut in overall EU regional spending on the scale the Commission has proposed could provoke a similarly threatening situation.

To be sure, the EU must reform its budget, especially as it will lose contributions from the U.K. after Brexit. But the current proposal, to cut cohesion funds by 10 to 15 percent, is a move in the wrong direction.

The proposed budget is simply not enough to create a prosperous, stable and safe future for European citizens.

It’s no secret that the decision to transfer funding from Central and Eastern Europe to the southern member countries is politically motivated. Poland and Hungary are among those hardest hit and will lose at least 23 percent of cohesion policy funds compared to the previous framework.

This strategy has its political price. It would very likely deepen existing economic, regional and geopolitical divisions at a time when Europe can’t afford a split between eurozone members and the rest of the bloc — or one between east and west.

It would also weaken the pro-European agenda of progressive and liberal politicians on a national level. Centrist and left-wing politicians will have a hard time hitting back against anti-European sentiments, which are particularly strong in economically deprived areas. Brexit is a perfect example of this: Support for the EU is highest in metropolitan London, but low in more economically deprived areas where voters feel “left behind.”

Despite the current political tensions, the EU faces a historic opportunity to create a new European paradigm, one that would make the debate between “more or less Europe” obsolete.

Euroskeptics at the gates

One way to do so is to focus on empowering local governments.

EU funds suspended due to violations of fundamental values such as the rule of law should be made available to local authorities, companies and NGOs via EU-run programs instead. This can be done without the involvement of national governments and would thus send a strong signal to ruling politicians that the scope of their power — including their financial resources — will suffer if they do not abide by European law.

Another positive effect of such a plan would be to boost grassroots, community-led local development efforts and give regular Europeans a closer sense of connection to Brussels.

In order to do this, we need more EU funding that is actively targeted at underdeveloped regions and can be implemented by local governments. These funds should be distributed by European institutions as independently and directly as possible.

Acquiring European funds should also become less competitive. Allowing only a limited number of front-runner applicants to benefit from the allocated funds — for instance via the InvestEU program — will negatively affect regions already in tough economic situations.

We also need a less centralized method of distributing these funds. More money, for example, could be dedicated to smaller-scale programs that are available only to specific regions. A number of barriers currently keep lesser developed regions from fully benefiting from EU-funded projects: national regulations on EU fund distribution, lack of staff, language barriers. These obstacles exacerbate regional inequalities.

The situation in many European countries is dire. But even as populist anti-European forces gain ground in countries across the bloc, the road to a stronger, more integrated Europe is not completely blocked. If we want people to follow it, we must clear it of obstacles.

As the Commission sets out its budget for the coming years, it must remember one important thing: The struggle for the soul of Europe is happening in local communities, regions, towns, villages. Without adequate funding, those who want to see a brighter, more open Europe will lose faith in their dream.

Robert Biedroń is the mayor of Słupsk, Poland, the founder of Campaign Against Homophobia and a member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the Council of Europe.

Featured image: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images