World Refugee Day: 11 mayors call on Europe to tackle “xenophobic” debate

Volunteers pose before a truck which will deliver aid to refugees and migrants living in Calais. Image: Getty.

A coalition of European mayors has called on the continent’s governments to change the tone with which they discuss refugees.

In an open letter published for World Refugee Day this morning, the 11 mayors warn that “there remains a nationalistic, isolationist and at times xenophobic undertone” to many of Europe’s debates about migration.

“We are a continent born out of the ruins of nationalism and war, and we thrive on peace and cooperation,” they added. “Only by working together can we overcome the challenges brought on by war, poverty and persecution in other parts of the world.”

The letter is addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission; Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament; and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council; as well as national leaders.


It is signed by the 11 mayors who make up the executive committee of EUROCITIES. They include the organisation’s president, Johanna Rolland, the mayor of Nantes; John Clancy, the leader of Birmingham city council; and the mayors of Barcelona, Florence, Ghent, Leipzig, Ljubljana, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Vienna and Warsaw.

The letter also calls on the continent to recognise the role cities play in dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis. “It falls to us, the leaders of major European cities, to get integration right,” it argues. “Many refugees and asylum seekers will settle in our cities, and we must ensure that they are given a decent start in our communities.”

You can read the full letter below.

 

Dear President Juncker, President Schulz, President Tusk and national leaders,

World Refugee Day is a moment for us to reflect on our common European values of solidarity, humanity and dignity.

The refugee situation remains a top priority for Europe and for cities. As European city leaders, every day we manage the immediate and long term challenges this poses.

Our experience tells us we need to refocus the debate at European level. There is too much talk of quotas, numbers and borders, and not enough of people. These are people who are fleeing war, persecution and destitution. How we treat them when they arrive in our local communities will determine the success of long term integration and social cohesion in Europe as whole.

The decisions we take at this critical point in time will shape the future of our European Union.

Europe can set an example. We are a continent born out of the ruins of nationalism and war, and we thrive on peace and cooperation. Only by working together can we overcome the challenges brought on by war, poverty and persecution in other parts of the world.

The guiding principles of solidarity, humanity and dignity upon which the European Union is founded should define our approach to the reception and integration of refugees. Particular focus needs to be put on the most vulnerable groups: women, children and unaccompanied minors.

It falls to us, the leaders of major European cities, to get integration right. Many refugees and asylum seekers will settle in our cities, and we must ensure that they are given a decent start in our communities. Many of us have signed up to the EUROCITIES Integrating Cities Charter through which we commit to the principles of non-discrimination and equality in our cities.

We have been overwhelmed by the positive response from civil society, volunteer organisations and businesses in our local communities. Nevertheless, there remains a nationalistic, isolationist and at times xenophobic undertone to some debates at national and European level. This does nothing to support the long term integration of refugees and asylum seekers and only serves to hinder Europe’s social cohesion.

We are determined to counter these narratives with clear, honest and transparent communication with our citizens. We want to set an example at local level that fully embraces our shared European values.

The debates at European level should better reflect the principles we outline here. These are principles that are put into practice every day in our cities, in most cases without direct access to the necessary resources from the EU and national governments.

Now is the time to put our shared European values of solidarity, humanity and dignity to the test. Cities are where the integration of newcomers will succeed or fail. We, the mayors of major European cities, want you, European leaders, to work with us, not only by acknowledging our challenges but also with concrete actions such as direct financial support to cities. Only together can we confront the biggest humanitarian challenge Europe has faced since the Second World War.

Signed: Members of the EUROCITIES executive committee

Johanna Rolland, Mayor of Nantes, President of EUROCITIES

Daniël Termont, Mayor of Ghent, Vice president of EUROCITIES

John Clancy, Leader of Birmingham City Council

Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona

Zoran Janković, Mayor of Ljubljana

Karin Wanngård, Mayor of Stockholm

Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw

Burkhard Jung, Mayor of Leipzig

Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence

Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam

Michael Häupl, Mayor of Vienna

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”