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Attila SZABÓ: Past and future of European cities in the constitutional field



Constitutional lawyers usually think that national states are unavoidable. They also think that these entities are sovereign and form the international order and international law. However, it was not always the case and it might change in the near future. Cities were more powerful in the European and Mediterranean history and they may be able to increase their relevance again.


The European Commission published a report about the future of cities last year. Its executive summary states that “Europe can further enhance its role as a key player in worldwide city development discussions both through its extensive policy experience and with regard to science and knowledge production. The fruitful interaction between EU institutions and European cities has great potential to make Europe a world reference point in identifying, experimenting and applying solutions to the future challenges that cities will face.”


The report emphasizes the role of cities both globally and in the European Union. Although the text focuses on technological and economic issues, it hints that cities might become more and more relevant in the political field. More and more important cities will claim more and more power. Politically and constitutionally more important cities would not be without historical experience and not without a legal background. Nevertheless, the appreciation of cities shall cause tension both within the European and the national constitutional systems.


Only a few years before, the Ministers of EU Member States accepted the so-called Pact of Amsterdam which establishes the Urban Agenda of the EU. One of the objectives of the Pact is “to involve Urban Authorities in the design of policies, to mobilise Urban Authorities for the implementation of EU policies, and to strengthen the urban dimension in these policies. By identifying and striving to overcome unnecessary obstacles in EU policy, the Urban Agenda for the EU aims to enable Urban Authorities to work in a more systematic and coherent way towards achieving overarching goals. Moreover, it will help make EU policy more urban-friendly, effective and efficient.” The Pact of Amsterdam Pact is legally non-binding, but it connects the Urban Agenda to the subsidiarity concept of the Treaties, thus it has a strong legally anchored background. In this interpretation, subsidiarity means that cities and other local communities should have a significant role in decision-making procedures. It should be acknowledged by Member States and EU institutions too.


Outside the European Union but inside Europe, the European Charter of Local Self-Government provides an international legal framework for European self-governments, typically for cities, towns and villages. As the summary of the Charter phrases: “[l]ocal authorities, acting within the limits of the law, are to be able to regulate and manage public affairs under their own responsibility in the interests of the local population. Consequently, the Charter considers that public responsibilities should be exercised preferably by the authorities closest to the citizens, the higher level being considered only when the co-ordination or discharge of duties is impossible or less efficient at the level immediately below.” Local authorities, cities should have adequate rights to govern themselves. It means that they have, as fundamental laws and constitutions of party states also acknowledged, a relevant power within national constitutional systems. This is also their right under international law. Their claims to have decisions, to control national and even EU resources, to organize social systems might cause tensions within both national constitutional systems and EU Treaties since they have to take space away from national states.


One can see that cities have been becoming hubs in societies, in parallel, they have been obtaining powers based on EU and international law. Is it a surprise? Not at all. Jerusalem, Athene, Rome were ancient foundations of the European culture and Europe itself. In the medieval times, Venice, Paris, London, Bruges were also self-governing entities. Before nation-states, cities were the most important free constitutional entities in Europe.


Looking behind the genealogy of state sovereignty, one can find that in the fourteenth century, “[t]here is a political vacuum that is perceived all over Europe, and it is part and parcel of a looming political crisis that will be transformed into an epochal change of the world order during the seventeenth century. In this vacuum, city-states exercise growing power. They are the paradigm of political authority even if the internal struggle between factions is often more a matter of private interests than a question of public good.” Our European roots stretch deeply. We have examples from the middle ages, but our sovereign entities stem in fact from city-states.


In our time, the sovereignty of cities is awakening. V4 capital cities communicated a few months ago that “ahead of the European Council meeting of 18-19 June, the mayors of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Warsaw, the capitals of the V4 countries sent an open letter to the President and all members of the European Council. The mayors – representing more than 5 million people and around 20 percent of the Visegrad Group’s economic output - fully endorsed the European Green Deal, urged the EU to increase its current emissions reduction targets by 2030, and proposed additional measures to the Council to support cities in robust climate action.” These cities, represented by their mayors, went even further. They claim a more prominent political role and also direct access to EU funds. Their endeavor is to bypass the national, state level and connect directly to the supra-national level. As medieval cities connected directly to the European social network before the time of nation-states.


In Hungary, certain smaller cities and a self-governing districts acted against the central government before the Constitutional Court in specific cases. Budaörs, Göd and Erzsébetváros are only examples, but the Constitutional Court has already stated in general that self-governments, cities can constitutionally act against the legislator in order to defend their fundamental rights.


The Fundamental Law decreased the autonomy of local governments. As a Hungarian scholar summarizes it “the self-governance had become functional, assigned and limited.” In parallel, the Fundamental Law also limited the channels of constitutional complaint. Only a person or an organisation affected by the concrete case can submit a constitutional complaint according to 26 (1) of the Act of Constitutional Court. It means that rule of law or other abstract questions can not be complained. Thus, local-governments can turn to the Constitutional Court if their fundamental rights have been violated and they are not in a sub-ordinate relation with the central state but in a co-ordinate one.


This is only a tiny example to appoint that cities can find their positions against the central state in the Hungarian constitutional system. We can not be sure that how far Hungarian cities can get but we can register that they fight for their constitutional rights.


Cites will become more and more important in Europe economically and socially. They also have a deep historical background to claim more and more power to themselves. EU law and international law are ready to support their fight for more constitutional power therefore, they are ready to claim it. We cannot be sure that their constitutional relevance will be similar to the medieval one in the foreseeable future. However, we can be sure that cities can be controlled more easily by their citizens than nation-states. Howsoever, it seems that the EU law and national constitutional law have to handle these tendencies and claims.

Attila SZABÓ: The author is a PhD student of University of Szeged. He graduated in the University of Debrecen as a lawyer in 2015. He finished his LLM on EU law in Deák Ferenc Institute of Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Attila Szabó’s PhD topic is connection between migration and rule of law. However, he is interested in other constitutional law questions and the rule of law in general. The author’s last research was about the role of local-governments in integration of third-country nationals based on the EU law.

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