As cities grow in size and in political influence, city diplomacy is quickly becoming an important element of international diplomacy. The Pact of Free Cities signed by the mayors of Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, and Warsaw in December 2019 is the latest example of this trend.

While diplomacy is conventionally understood as managing international relations among nation-states, subnational actors like city governments, are increasingly conducting diplomacy of their own. Discussion of the role of cities in international diplomacy abounded in 2017 as hundreds of American mayors pledged to implement the Paris Climate Agreement following U.S. withdrawal. This is a prime example of how cities can band together to pursue policy objectives and have an international impact separate from that of their national governments.

The rise of city diplomacy is not limited to North America and has in fact spread across the globe. While current research often focuses on the transregional nature of city diplomacy and its potential to tackle global issues such as climate change, violent extremism, and disaster risk reduction, there are also salient examples of city diplomacy at the regional level. The latest example is the “Pact of Free Cities” signed by the mayors of Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, and Budapest on 16 December 2019.

Notably, these cities are the capitals of the Visegrad Group – often referred to as V4 – which comprises Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. In recent years, the national governments of Poland and Hungary – two key members of the group –  have shifted towards an “illiberal” approach to governance by dismantling domestic checks and balances, weakening domestic institutions, particularly the judicial branch, hamstringing their countries’ media, and denouncing liberal values as the embodiment of “corruption, sex, and violence.”

In response to these actions, the European Commission invoked Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union which can be triggered when there is a “clear risk” of an EU member state breaching the bloc's fundamental values, which include: “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” These procedures are still ongoing.

It is within this context of the Visegrad Group’s illiberal policies that the V4 capital’s mayors drafted and signed the Pact of Free Cities. Mayors described the pact as a “progressive network of dynamic cities.” The pact specifically reaffirms the signatories’ commitment to freedom, human dignity, democracy, sustainability, equality, the rule of law, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity, while decrying the rise of populism in Europe, especially in their region. These commitments mirror the EU’s stated values and are in direct contradiction to the policies of the national governments of Hungary and Poland. Alongside the Pact’s emphasis on shared values, it also addresses concrete problems which the mayors hope to jointly solve, including climate change, income inequality, rising housing costs, and sustainable city planning.

The pact is important for many reasons. First, the pact demonstrates that Central Europe – and the Visegrad Group in particular – is not politically monolithic. Dismissing the region as holistically illiberal ignores the role played by the region’s urban centers in promoting liberal values and policies. Relatedly, all four mayors belong to their country’s opposition, demonstrating a stark urban-rural divide in the domestic political scenes where incumbent national governments rely increasingly on rural support to maintain power while losing their holds on urban centers. With this divide in mind, the pact reflects a genuine attempt to pursue policy solutions through multilateral city diplomacy. The pact is also an effective tool to galvanize urban support for the mayors whose constituencies largely support EU values. The mayors are doing well by doing good.

Second, the pact shows that broadly labeling these countries as “illiberal” overlooks large portions of their populations that support and trust the European Union. For instance, while Hungary and Poland are known as being Euroskeptic and illiberal, 54% of Poles and 55% of Hungarians polled in June 2019 responded that they “tend to trust” the EU, according to the European Commission’s Standard Eurobarometer 91. This data, alongside the Pact of Free Cities, contradicts the stereotype of V4 nations being uniformly illiberal and hostile to the EU.

Third, the Pact of Free Cities should be understood as an attempt by the Visegrad mayors to prominently display their pro-EU and liberal democratic positions in the hopes of securing more direct EU funding to their cities. The Visegrad Group faces the prospect of major funding cuts in the 2021-2027 European Union budget as funds are reallocated to the EU’s southern countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece. Simultaneously the overall budget is decreasing as a result of Brexit.

While the national governments of the Visegrad Group correctly worry that a proposed decrease in the EU Cohesion Fund – money which is directed towards member states whose Gross National Income (GNI) per inhabitant is less than 90 % of the EU average – would adversely affect them, the mayors of V4 capitals openly called for an increase in direct funding to their cities in the pact. This is in light of reports that Germany – with the support of France and Italy – wishes to make EU funding conditional on upholding the bloc’s values. Through the Pact of Free Cities, the V4 mayors can demonstrate their support for liberal democratic principles in the hopes of persuading Brussels to consider funding their cities directly even if significant funding is cut off to their national governments.

Lastly, the Pact of Free Cities signals the beginning of a wave of city-based diplomacy in support of liberal values in Central Europe. Indeed, V4 mayors explained that the pact is a collaborative platform that other cities are welcome to join. It will be interesting to see if the initiative attracts more signatories in the coming months. Although in its infancy, the Pact of Free Cities has great potential to become a liberal counterweight to rising populism in the region while simultaneously serving as an effective means of achieving policy objectives.

More broadly, these efforts represent a good example of the growing importance of cities in regional and international diplomacy in the 21st century and the increasing – and often unintentional – devolution of power and influence from nation-states to subnational groups. As the world’s population increasingly urbanizes in coming decades, similar multilateral, city-based initiatives will play a major role in reinforcing shared interests and tackling the regional and international challenges of the future.


Chris Riehl is a master’s student studying international affairs at George Washington University with concentrations in Europe and Eurasia and international security studies.