Lewis Baston: London needs friendships with fellow European cities as it faces a rough ride with Boris Johnson

Lewis Baston: London needs friendships with fellow European cities as it faces a rough ride with Boris Johnson

Brexit itself is bad enough for London. Putting up trade and travel barriers is never going to be good for a cosmopolitan world city that lives on its wits and thrives on interaction with different cultures. But the particular way it is being done is likely to make it even worse. The government’s forecast of the impact of Hard Brexit on the economy showed that London would be hit less badly than other regions, but the political climate means it would be rash to imagine that would be the end of it.

A more resilient London would exacerbate the anti-metropolitan politics of resentment within England and probably result in increasing demands to make the capital poorer in order to cushion the landing for regions that voted for the Brexit project. The Johnson/Cummings government’s impatience with scrutiny and with following rules and conventions, and the impotence of anyone post-election to do anything about it, promise a rough ride for London.

Even though the UK as a whole has left the EU, there are different ways of going about what happens next. Sadiq Khan has struck a consciously different note from the UK government, stressing London’s openness and the links that will (or should) survive the process. London still has its European friends among the big cities. There is friendly rivalry with places such as Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam as they try to attract financial and creative businesses that are feeling the cold in London. But there are also allies further east who might have fellow feelings that go even deeper.

In December 2019 the capital cities of the “Visegrad Four” – Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava – formed a pact. While several national governments in central and eastern Europe espouse authoritarian nationalism, their cities have seen a rebirth of liberal politics. Even though the mayors of the four are a Green, a notionally centre-right liberal, a Pirate and a liberal independent, they have formed a grouping based on common values that London’s government shares. According to the Mayor of Warsaw, quoted in the Financial Times: “We have difficult governments but we are very much committed to European values, to democracy, openness and freedom. We’ve all fought for inclusiveness of our cities… In [these] difficult days when some of our governments are turning lukewarm towards European integration, we need a strong signal that when it comes to local government and strong cities, we want to do something together.”

The Visegrad capitals are concerned by the way national governments handle the financial flows between EU, centre and locality. The national government in Hungary in particular has funnelled EU funds to areas that are politically supportive and has threatened to cut off assistance to opposition-controlled municipalities. Friends, relatives and supporters of the ruling party have also received more than their share of the funds. EU monitoring has been slow and often ineffective, although the Hungarian government was forced to repay EUR1.5 billion of its 2014-20 support because of mismanagement. The new Commission and the Green Deal offer opportunities for direct funding of cities which are the delivery agencies for transport and housing, bypassing the national governments.

The UK was always a law-abiding recipient of EU funds, which were spent as required in deprived areas or along the border in Ireland. But post-Brexit there are no guarantees that objective criteria for the provision of assistance to regions will still be respected or that the process will be rule-governed rather than corrupt or politicised. Ventures such as the “Towns Fund” – engineered to channel sums towards marginal parliamentary seats – do not give grounds for confidence. The Visegrad capitals, like London, face centralised states that use them as cash cows to redistribute funds to politically-favoured areas while at the same time denouncing them as cosmopolitan anti-national elements in the body politic.

In the context of the London Mayor election campaign, it is worth keeping an eye on how much central government will try to coerce London into conforming. On 11 January Shaun Bailey’s press office tweeted:

“So, do you want a candidate who will make it their number one priority to tackle crime? Or do you want Jeremy Corbyn’s man in London? Someone who isn’t delivering and will never get a good deal from the government.”

One tweet doesn’t make a strategy, but the undertone of this statement from the Conservative mayoral campaign is a little perturbing. It hints that the government will punish London for electing the wrong kind of Mayor. This would not be out of character for Tory ministers: in 2013, the now former transport secretary Chris Grayling opposed incorporating south London railway lines into the Overground for the overtly partisan reason that he wanted to “keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor”. Withholding money from local authorities worked extremely well in redistributing blame for austerity cuts to urban areas in the north and midlands, and explicitly bashing London will work with the grain of the anti-metropolitan politics that has become commonplace in England. In some ways, the process is further advanced in Britain than it is in the Visegrad countries.

Later this month, Mayor Khan will greet his visiting Budapest counterpart Gergely Karacsony to reaffirm the ties that bind London to Europe. London has been a friend of Hungarian liberty for many years. One of my favourite London stories is the humiliation of the visiting Austrian general von Haynau by angry working-class Londoners in Southwark in 1850 in revenge for his repression of the Hungarians the previous year. Khan and Karacsony have much to talk as leaders of liberal cities finding their way in the cold climate of nationalism.

Photograph from TfL. Lewis Baston is writing a book about the borders and borderlands of Europe.

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