Small and medium-sized towns have set up shop to increase their influence over EU policymaking and make their voices heard among the EU institutions.
"The voice of large cities is easily heard, but the voice of small towns is more difficult to hear," said Martin Malvy, president of the newly founded European Confederation of Towns and Municipalities of the European Union (CTME), who continues to serve as president of the French association of small towns (APVF) and also of the Midi-Pyrénées region in south-west France.
The European Confederation of Towns and Municipalities of the European Union will represent the interests of small towns and will also facilitate the sharing of knowledge and exchange of experience among its members.
According to Malvy, the goal behind setting up the new umbrella organisation is to ensure that the concerns and needs of small towns can be heard at European level, especially on issues that affect them directly, such as reform of the EU's structural funds.
Malvy insists that small towns represent "a certain way of life" and face many common challenges, despite the differences between member states in terms of their administrative and financial structures.
A former journalist, Malvy began his political career in the 1970s and served for 14 years as mayor of Figeac, a small town of around 10,000 inhabitants. He was elected several times to the National Assembly – France's lower chamber of parliament – and spent half a year as his country's budget minister.
How big is a 'small town'?
The CTME brings together eight national associations representing small and medium-sized towns in seven member states: France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain.
These associations have been working together on an informal basis for several years, and have already organised four European conferences of towns and municipalities.
The national associations differ from each other not just in terms of their structure, but also their membership and how they define the concept of a 'small town'.
For example, the Italian member is the 'small communes' branch of the national association of Italian communes (ANCI). In the Italian context, 'small communes' ('piccolo comuni') are defined as those with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.
The Polish Union of Small Towns (UMP) represents settlements with between 20,000 and 50,000 inhabitants, while the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DSG) includes small villages with less than 1,000 people as well as large towns with more than 100,000 inhabitants.
The CTME president insists that despite these differences, there are many shared characteristics and common interests which mean that the members of this new structure will be able to work together.
"What we say is that in Europe, 50% of the population is living in towns of less than 50,000 inhabitants," explained Malvy. "This is our principal interest, and its natural."
The members of the CTME have agreed on a series of political positions that they will use as a basis for dialogue with the EU institutions, national governments, and other associations and stakeholders.
Focus on future of EU funds
One of the first priorities of the new confederation is to represent the interests of small towns in the ongoing debate on what should be the objectives and financial mechanisms of the European Union's cohesion policy.
"At a time when the future cohesion policy is being discussed, making the voice of small towns heard is important," said Malvy.
The CTME agrees with the European Commission that this policy should cover all EU regions, while continuing to give the most support to those regions that are lagging behind in terms of their economic development.
Small towns support the idea of giving extra support to intermediate regions (those with a GDP per person of between 75 and 90% of the EU average), although they believe that other factors should also be taken into account alongside GDP.
The newly-formed association calls on the Commission to pay closer attention to the territorial diversity that exists within regions, and to simplify administrative procedures so that it will be easier for small towns to obtain financial support from EU funds.
No conflict with other structures
The founders of the CTME insist that they wish to cooperate rather than compete with other organisations that represent the local and regional levels of public administration.
In particular, they claim to have already established "excellent" relations with the CEMR (Council of European Municipalities and Regions), which this year is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its foundation in 1951.
According to André Robert of the French member of CTME, the organisation will work with the CEMR on questions of common concern. "On the main questions, such as the future of cohesion policy, we share more or less the same point of view," he said.
The CTME's founders point to the fact that large cities have already been organised at European level since 1986, and so there is an obvious gap to be filled by an association that can speak on behalf of small towns.
The confederation is hoping to expand its membership in the coming months to include more national associations from other countries. It is also planning to set up a website.
At the end of June, the members of CTME will meet at the 5th European conference of towns and municipalities, which is being held in the Italian tourist town of Riva del Garda.