Power Struggle: Are European Mayors Teaming Up to Challenge Their own Governments?  

Text by Hans Wetzels

Mayors are often lost within the complex institutional universe that is the EU. The European Commission (the EU’s executive branch), the 27 member states and a 705-member strong parliament openly vie for power, while the regional and city governments that have to implement many EU policies have little to say, deputy mayor Kata Tüttő of Budapest says: ‘Connecting with other mayors at the European level is important for us. As municipal governments we need to be able to see the bigger picture, as well as solve very concrete problems in our cities. We come together in Brussels to talk about the Green Deal. Then I go back home and fix our district heating system.’  

European Commission HQ on the left, Council of the EU in the background, and Charlemagne to the right
European Commission headquarters to the left

For four days mayors from all over the European continent descended onto Brussels, the very heart of European power for debates, workshops, networking and exchanging experiences, under the banner this year’s theme was “Thriving Regions, Stronger Europe,” and without any potential interference from national governments. The European Week of Regions and Cities is an annual event organized by the Committee of the Regions (CoR), a lesser known EU institution based in Brussels that aims to amplify the voices and concerns of regions and cities.  

A Constant Fight 

Tüttő is only 43 years old and has been in office since 2019, she stands out in a crowd, not only because of her bright red hair and yellow skirt, but because she rose to power as part of a municipal government in Budapest elected on an explicitly green mandate. A stance that puts the mayor’s office directly at odds with the national government. ‘I start my day each morning reading the governmental journal to see what new legislation they have come up with this time,’ Tüttő sighs. ‘As local government, we find ourselves in a constant fight for freedom and money with the national authorities. We encourage participation and different ways of thinking about democracy. They try to take away our money and our right to govern our own city the way we see fit.’ 

Budapest is split in half by the blue waters of the mighty Danube River that slowly weave towards the Black Sea coast. The seven islands and eleven bridges connecting the Hungarian capital of 1.8 million inhabitants are apt metaphors for its status as a cosmopolitan hub of progressive thinking, Tüttő explains. The city also serves as a textbook example of how existing power structures within nation states can stifle the autonomy of political actors lower in the hierarchy of EU-decision making.   

‘Budapest accounts for at least 38 percent of Hungarian GDP,’ says the deputy mayor. ‘Yet the government collects most taxes and makes sure the money remains in the central government coffers instead. Currently, we only have one local tax left and the government has started taxing that tax. It’s unbelievable.’ 

Lawsuits against the Government  

Image from inside one of the meetings
Inside one of the meetings

For Tüttő the yearly CoR-gathering in Brussels is crucial to be able to touch base with her colleagues from other European countries. Budapest is not the only big city in Europe fighting to retain a level of self-governance concerning pressing and multifaceted issues that affect urban areas more acutely, such as, climate change or migration.  

While the issue especially has come to surface in several Central and Eastern European (CEE-) countries, fault lines between rural Europe and urban communities are visible in almost every EU-member state. In a 2022 CoR-opinion the mayor of the Polish city of Lódz explicitly argued for ‘direct EU funds to cities and regions’. The wider Lódz region is host to Europe’s biggest single emitter of CO2: the Belchátow Power Plant. Closing the plant and associated mine would benefit the region in many ways, including economically, to the tune of 369 million euros in EU-money for its transition away from coal. But a pro-mining government in Warsaw have managed to steer clear of any definite closure plans for years on end. Mayor Hanna Zdanowska: ‘Most mayors have a more direct connection with their citizens than many national politicians do. The fact that authorities in Warsaw didn’t make a decision about the future of coal in Poland for such a long time was always a political choice: they were afraid that their electorate wouldn’t accept a phase-out.’ 

Tüttő experiences similar dynamics in Hungary, she says. Mayors and regional authorities around the EU all share concerns about what national governments are doing, she says: ‘I keep a close eye on what Vienna is doing. The Austrians still own most of their public services companies and have sufficient budget to implement plans, while we in Budapest are forced by law to sell municipal water to certain industries at an incredibly low price the government fixed about a decade ago. I am suing the Hungarian government over this. We have so many lawsuits against our own government.’ 

Direct Funding 

View from Convention Centre Square
View from Convention Centre

On the fifth floor of the Square Convention Centre at the edge of the EU-quarters in Brussels, two regional politicians from Finland and Ireland team up with researchers working for the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the EU-parliament to discuss funding and policy. A microphone is passed around the venue while catering is setting up a massive luncheon of sandwiches, wraps, coffee, and fresh orange juice.  

Hungarian born Balazs Szechy of the European Parliament Research Service recognizes the difficult position the national government is putting municipal authorities in in his home country. ‘Because of the standoff of the ruling government with the European Commission, nobody in Hungary is receiving EU-money right now,’ Szechy explains. ‘Many towns and municipalities where mayors of the opposition rule, feel like they are punished for something they did not do. They are asking us for direct funding from Brussels. National governments obviously do not want this: they consider the distribution of money their domain.’  

Green Hub 

Bureaucratic intricacies and power struggles do not hold Kata Tüttő back from trying to turn Budapest into a green hub. The city government set up a special agency tasked with finding every financing source available, is investing in biogas production on its own, is piloting a geothermal energy project and digitally mapping all the trees in the city. ‘One of the main issues in Budapest is collecting rainwater,’ she explains. ‘The weather is changing; it gets much hotter in the summer, and we also have these extreme rainfalls that were not there before. The city drainage system is not prepared for that. Instead of just making bigger pipelines we are now also setting up rain capture points, so we have water stored during dry periods. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for forward thinking city leaders.’  

The assembled European mayors are in the midst of a long plenary session in the Charlemagne Building in the heart of the EU quarters in Brussels. Security is tight behind the blue-glass façade, outside diplomats, lobbyists, and all kinds of activists rush from meeting to meeting. The headquarters of the European Commission are glistening in a soft autumn sun just across the street. ‘In Hungary and other EU countries the rule of law is under demolition,’ Tüttő concludes. ‘Cities can play a particularly important role as reserves of democracy. A powerful mayor with innovative ideas can create entirely new ways to solve problems. In times like these that is actually crucial to be able to build democratic resilience against what is coming our way in many countries.’