Municipal Finance In The News

City Diplomacy, an Italian solution to reinforce multilateralism

This article first appeared on Il Sole 24 Ores website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

Ukraine, Sahel, Yemen, and Afghanistan: last months’ main diplomatic crises clearly reflect the daunting unilateral pushes that have long characterized international relations. State vs. State, coalition vs. coalition: win or lose. Does it still make sense to call on multilateralism, after appreciating its meagre results even in major global crises, such as climate change or the pandemic?

The Draghi administration believes so. The Prime Minister’s speech at the last G20 Summit in Rome revealed a clear will to leverage Italy’s renewed prestige on the European and  global stage to serve this purpose. A laudable effort, based on the well-grounded appreciation that the great challenges of our time require strong and urgent global coordination. However, decades of similar appeals from the United Nations have been met with skepticism from the international community. As a matter of fact, PM Draghi’s call would require a critical mass of support from international actors to be translated into practice.

Yet, amid this historic challenge, Italy could have its ace in the hole. Our country is internationally recognized as the cradle of a new best practice that well expresses the values and the advantages of international cooperation: city diplomacy.

Over the last decades, mayors from across the world have been honing their capacity to collaborate on a global scale to pursue shared goals. The millennial-year acquaintance with which Italian cities have led political, socioeconomic, and cultural processes finds its most recent demonstration in the central role played by municipalities in this dynamic. Back in 1955, Florence’s Mayor Giorgio La Pira, welcomed colleagues from around the world – including China and Soviet Union – at Palazzo Vecchio, to express their opposition to Cold War logics. A legacy that the City of Florence keeps on honoring through periodical international convenings to foster peace and dialogue, the last of which kicks off today at Palazzo Vecchio and will close on Sunday with attendance of Pope Francis.

Milan, a city that since the 1908s’ has been involving migrant communities in the innovation of its development cooperation activities, has been leading a global urban movement on food sustainability, launched at Expo in 2015. More recently, Mayor Sala contributed to launch the main urban coalition for migrants’ rights (Mayors Migration Council), and coordinated an international mayoral task force for a green and just recovery from Covid-19.

If city diplomacy is not an exclusive domain of major urban areas, it is also thanks to towns like Greve in Chianti, Bra, Orvieto and Positano. Cittaslow, a network created by four Italian mayors in 1999, now allows 281 smaller cities in 32 countries to collaborate on the protection and promotion of local traditions.

However, this strong Italian push should not overshadow the global nature of city diplomacy. There are plenty of international city projects and city networks dedicated to coordinating and accelerating this action. Numbers speak well to the width of this movement: 11.000 cities adhered to the Global Mayoral Compact for Climate and Energy, committing to reducing emissions by 24 billion tons by 2030; the 8.000 cities forming part of the Mayors for Peace network denounce the impact of conflicts on urban areas, while the 240.000 members of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) represent the municipalist movement’s voice for rights and equity.

City diplomacy’s capacity to offer concrete answers to major humankind challenges emerged with renewed clarity over the past months. Besides donation of masks and PPE among twinned cities, which several Italian cities have benefitted from, cities’ collaborative spirit permitted the growth of over 60 virtual platforms mapping the most effective urban responses in fighting social, economic, and public health challenges during the Covid-19 crisis. The use of public spaces for expanding the outdoor capacity of restaurants was in fact a solution firstly experimented by the Mayor of Vilnius; the scaling up of cycling lanes builds on Bogota’s experience, while the re-organization of public services on a neighborhood scale, and the related 15-minute city, was firstly adopted by Paris. There are also several innovative solutions boosted by Italian cities, such as the well-known public-private coordination for the delivery of social services, developed by Milan and Bergamo during the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After centuries spent at the margins of international relations, today, cities represent a clear example of the advantages presented by multilateralism.  

International organizations are aware of this, as they become increasingly involved in facilitating dialogue among localities and national governments. The Mayoral Forum created by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Europe and the Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative, spearheaded by the OECD, well illustrate such recognition.

However, in order for cities’ multilateralist vocation to truly influence international relations, a paradigm shift has to happen, from simple consultation with localities, to their inclusion in decision-making processes, according to the logics of co-creation and co-responsibility. An invite that only States have the authority to convey.

City diplomacy eagerly waits for a national government willing to unlock this change in international order. An unprecedented opportunity for countries that, as ours, care about the future of international cooperation. Which candidate would be better placed than Italy?

The renewed vitality of the Italian thousand-year long municipalist tradition would be uniquely equipped for this process. A diplomatically complex operation which could count on the support of several international organizations and mayors from across the country. This ambitious Italian pathway towards multilateralism represents a unique opportunity to put international relations at the service of people’s wellbeing.


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