Polish mayor: ‘The future belongs to cities’

Mayor of Wrocław Rafał Dutkiewicz [European Parliament]

This article is part of our special report Europe’s mayors: Speeding up the energy transition.

The city of Wrocław is one of Poland’s success stories, where job creation has hit record highs and environmental objectives are taken seriously. Wrocław’s long-serving mayor revealed his city’s future-leaning path and the advantages of being part of a Europe-wide network of mayors.

Rafał Dutkiewicz has been the mayor of Wrocław since 2002. He was voted Poland’s best mayor four years running.

He spoke with EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan on the sidelines of the Covenant of Mayors 10th-anniversary celebrations, held in Brussels on 22 February.

Your city signed up to the Covenant of Mayors in 2016. What impact has that had since?

As civilisation is now more and more concentrated in big cities, there is a global tendency to connect culture with mayors. What we are trying to do is go more in this direction. But cities in Eastern and Central Europe, like those in Poland, are only on the first level. We have to deal more with air quality than energy issues.

Energy should be the next step but, at the beginning, we have to tackle smog as it is our biggest problem. Air quality in Wrocław has improved twofold over the last decade. We still have work to do but we have spent EU money trying to reduce energy demand.

What is really interesting though is a shift towards increasing public participation and really utilising direct democracy.

Does EU money arrive where it is actually needed or does the procedure need improving?

There is a certain problem, which is always connected to public money, because it creates a lot of bureaucracy. On the one hand, yes it is needed because we’re talking about taxpayer money but, on the other, it is so difficult to describe how money has actually been spent. Add to that the fact that Polish bureaucracy is perhaps even more unwieldy than its European counterpart, and you see how complex the process is.

But EU funds are an additional resource only. Money is crucial, yes, but its main impact has been to broaden our horizons and imagination. Just having money on the table to work towards certain goals made us think more about the goals themselves, which has raised standards. Joining the EU was obviously crucial in that regard.

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The European Commission’s proposal to link EU budget funds to the rule of law was seen as putting Brussels on a collision course with Poland. Jean-Claude Juncker recognised that there is a chance for rapprochement in the dispute with Warsaw. EURACTIV Poland reports.

So an instrument like the Covenant of Mayors is a way for you to explore that broadened imagination further?

Yes. But still, there are challenges. For our country, the economy and energy mix is still based on coal. It’s mainly an issue connected with the government but local authorities can try to push them in the right direction. Coal was nice but it belongs in the past.

Job generation in Lower Silesia, whose capital is your city, is very strong. But we often hear that coal has to remain a factor in Poland’s energy mix because of the employment it generates. How do those two things stack up?

It’s number one Europe-wide in generating jobs. A few years after joining the EU, Wrocław had about 700,000 people and a wider population of about 1 million. We have managed to generate a massive 400,000 new jobs since then due to a huge boom in the economy.

Leaving coal behind is going to take time. But we have no doubts that this change has to be made. Frankly speaking, there are two narratives here. Firstly, there is really strong and positive support for electro-mobility. But there is also the still powerful coal lobby, which has always had a place at the table.

In my opinion, what we need is time.

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You’ve been mayor for nearly 16 years. What have been your main challenges in that time?

We used to have too many heating systems that are fuelled by coal and it’s something we have to eliminate. We’ve had a lot of success in this challenge though, reducing the number from 90,000 individual heating points to the current level of 20,000. We’ve got to get rid of those too of course by introducing alternatives like electricity or gas.

You mentioned the strong support for electro-mobility in Poland. Is that true in Wrocław too?

The very first car-sharing system based solely on electric cars was introduced in Wrocław. We sweetened the deal by introducing certain privileges like access to the city centre. There is a strong tram service but we still need a better bus connection.

But the car-sharing scheme has been a huge success. Poland has far too many cars: in Wrocław, it is about 600 per 1,000 people, which is far too many. Car-sharing and using electric cars is a really positive way of getting that number down.

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Do you have much in common with other cities on issues like this or is it cross-border, with your Covenant of Mayors colleagues, where you have better communication?

Polish cities are very competitive with one another and public opinion is very much in favour of modernisation. This plays a positive role because we are pushing each other and that leads to progress.

Does what happens in Brussels matter at the city level? EU lawmaking is sometimes accused of not taking into account local level issues, even though it is at that very level where the benefits, and sometimes disadvantages, are most felt.

Generally speaking, there is a problem in Europe now with national states becoming more assertive. This is dangerous for the EU. The way of thinking in the EU used to be a regional one but now it is understood that cities are sexy.

A network of cities, like this one, is only going to become more important, so I really welcome the cooperation between the European Commission and the Covenant. Worldwide, the future is going to belong to cities. There will be advantages and disadvantages to that, so overcoming the gap put in place by national governments will be crucial.

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The Commission’s Energy Union chief on Tuesday (27 June) urged all cities to join the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, an initiative which has gained more weight since Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Innovation Commissioner Carlos Moedas has put up €1 million for the winner of the Innovation Capital 2018 award. Will Wrocław be entering?

Well, we’re bidding for the European Green Capital. When José Manuel Barroso said many years ago that Europe needs to be innovative and that the EU would be setting up a technology institute, I immediately said that it should be in Wrocław. We only fell at the final hurdle, losing out to Budapest.

Universities, academia and open society are needed for innovation. That latter point needs an international society, which has only just started happening in Poland. Now, we have more and more people from more and more countries. I’m trying to support this, because by investing in culture and academia is only going to pay off in conjunction with that. Innovation soon follows after when you do.

COP24 will be held in Poland at the end of the year. It’s fair to say that your country does not have the best image at the moment…

Because of stupid people!

Could such a high-level event boost Poland’s image by showing that it should not be judged solely on what your national government does?

I must say that I am embarrassed by what is happening in Poland. The door to the country must be kept open and Katowice is a door through which world leaders will walk. Generally, I hope and am confident that our country will end up on the right track though.

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Poland says it will focus on “common sense” at December’s UN Climate Summit. But following last month’s dismissal of environment minister Jan Szyszko, it currently has no chairman responsible for preparing the summit. EURACTIV Poland’s media partner WysokieNapiecie.pl reports.

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