05. June 2013

FutureLab Europe discussed some of the major issues European cities have to cope with in times of crisis with Jordi Vaqueur, Director of Open Society Initiative for Europe. The debate took place at the closing plenary of the Annual General Assembly of the European Foundation Centre in Copenhagen on June 1, 2013. During the conference, concrete examples in this field were presented by both the civil and the public sector, integrating the experiences of young European citizens from different urban communities.

After four years of budget cuts and austerity, the European economic decline has turned into a social and a moral crisis that has meanwhile reached the middle of most European societies – with urban communities and their citizens at the forefront of it.

How do cities and societies cope with social challenges arising from the crisis such as xenophobia and political extremism, unemployment, hidden homelessness, budget shortage in community services, the influx of labour migrants and growing poverty? Which opportunities do citizens have at all to find their way out of the social crisis? And which role can civil society and young people play in assisting the urban communities and individuals in managing these challenges?

“They represent the generation that we expect to pay the current debts and to shape the future of Europe” Klaus Wehmeier from the Koerber foundation introduced FutureLab to the audience of around four hundred representatives of foundations at the annual European Foundation Centre conference. The FutureLab Europe panelists brought in their personal perspectives and experience from three very diverse cities muddling through the crisis in distinct ways – London in the UK, Thesaloniki in Greece and Ronda in Southern Spain.

How do urban, often middle class communities deal with the multiple crises of unprecedented scope: unemployment, welfare cuts, poverty, migration, erosion of social cohesion and rising xenophobia? Which opportunities do citizens have to find their way out of this crisis and which roles can civil society play in managing these challenges?

Jordi Vaquer, director of Open Society Initiative for Europe opened the debate. “This crisis is a real threat for the everyday lives of people, and to Europe as a society of values. And the battlefield of this crisis are largely the cities.” He painted a picture of cumulative social problems and loss of trust in institutions, leading some to resort to extreme choices.

Solidarity now?

A deteriorating social situation often leads to civil society becoming a key player. European cities and neighbourhoods experience solidarity in different ways. Theodora Matziropoulou from Greece remarked: “There is solidarity of inclusion and solidarity of exclusion. Golden Dawn is organizing common meals for Greeks only and blood donations of Greek blood. Solidarity can be also something negative, and we do not pay much attention to that.” At the same time inclusive solidarity is growing. One example from many – “There is a generation of young successful people who have spent their first years of career sharing flats with people of very diverse backgrounds. This is creating a new line of solidarity.” – believes Marian Cramers, reflecting on the experience from the big metropolis of London.

What role for the civil society?

Populists do not like civil society because it competes with them for the right to speak on behalf of the people. “The role civil society can play in this is standing for the long-term in a world that is all about the immediate” stated Andrea Chabant-Sanchez, a new FutureLab participant from Spain and France. Contrary to the short-termism of the political cycle, civil society by its nature pursues long-term goals and pay-offs. And maybe this is the role civil society, at any geographical level, can play in the shaping of a political continent increasingly absorbed by the immediate. At the same time he warned this role is not about substituting for the public institutions: “You cannot just put on a bandage when you are ill, you have to go to the doctor at some stage. Civil society cannot be a bandage and step in for the state. It cannot replace the state.”

The Europe@debate was a part of the closing plenary of the Annual General Assembly of the European Foundation Centre in Copenhagen. Visit our blog section for a reflection by Theodora Matziropoulou.