The city without the country? City diplomacy as a platform for a new, cohesive municipalism

By Michele F. Fontefrancesco, PhD

Is city diplomacy just about large cities? How can small municipalities have a voice? Exploring the case study of Italy, the article reads city diplomacy as a viable platform to nurture a stronger relationship between the city and the countryside and better cohesion.

The mass urbanization accelerated during the second half of the Twentieth century, culminating with almost 60% of the world’s population living in large, non-agricultural settings. Cities have a specific legal entity and regulatory power that are used to design, implement, and manage local infrastructures and services, as well as to protect the rights and improve the welfare of their citizens. The deep institutional changes that occurred in the past twenty years led to a situation of decentralized cooperation in which the rigid pyramidal structure of institutional hierarchy leaves space for a plurality of forms of interactions among institutions, making diplomacy and international relationships matters of municipal management. In this, new plural world cities grew in importance also in the international arenas. They became key players in discussing policies and implementing concrete initiatives about key issues, from socio-technological innovation to environmental and cultural protection, from human rights to economic development. Thus, city diplomacy brings to the fore the reality for individual municipalities to create solid international relationships and become players in global change. However, the increased relevance of the cities opens a fundamental question concerning their representativity in the diplomatic area. Whom do they stand for? Does their voice belong only to their citizens or to a wider community and territory?

On a global level, rural areas are the ones that are mostly suffering from phenomena of political and economic marginalization and would strongly benefit from being inserted within broader international networks and initiatives. However, commonly this is not the case. City diplomacy appears a reality precluded from these territories, of which voice seems too often unheard at a national and international level.

To move its point, this article looks at Italy as an example. This is a country among the largest world economy but also one that faces crucial challenges concerning its territorial cohesion. Italy has a territorial organization based on four different levels: the national, the regional, the provincial, and the municipal. The municipal is intended to be the articulation closer and more representative of the single communities living in the country. Each municipality has fundamental functions, among which are the local enforcement of national and regional legislation and regulation, tax collection, territorial planning as well as the organization of services, among which are primary education, social services, waste disposal, etc. There is no substantial difference in the duties of a municipality, be it Rome, the municipality with the largest population in the country (2.8 million people in 2022), or Moncenisio, the one with the smallest population (30 people in 2022). In this respect, all the municipalities can undertake actions on an international level, for example, promoting twinning, participating in international projects, or supporting international cooperation. This apparent equality should be read, however, considering the discrepancies in terms of means available for each municipality and the territorial socio-economic disequilibria. In 2022, there were only 44 municipalities with a population larger than 100.000 inhabitants covering 25% of the entire Italian population, while there were, however, 5535 municipalities with less than 5.000 inhabitants covering over 70% of the entire national territory. In this context, in the past decades, major centers, such as Rome, Milan, and Turin, have stood out for their international diplomatic activity, and, in so doing, they have made the voice of their citizens heard on the global level. At the same time, however, the voice of the smaller municipalities does not even have the opportunity of being raised.

City diplomacy attains the individual municipality and is primarily the result of the political and administrative dynamics that occur within the municipal jurisdiction. This structural dynamic, however, makes the voice of a large city per se the voice of a city without a country. This is how people in the peripheries see cities’ diplomacy in their everyday life.

When a project of policy innovation or international collaboration is introduced to civil servants in a small municipality, a comment is often heard: “Look, we are not a city!” These words outline the tangible and intangible distance that runs between a rural settlement and a large city: a distance that is created by the sense of being untitled in thinking, discussing, and acting in regard to big issues, such as the one of the UNSDGs. In this case, it is pointless to argue that some of the goals have more to do with marginal communities than urban areas. Local civil servants look at these issues with disfranchisement, aware of having to deal with limited resources and skills and lacking contacts and national and international prestige. Thus, the cities and their diplomatic efforts remain far away from the reality of the rural areas, unreachable and inimitable. However, this ideal position is not one of leadership; it is one of institutional otherness and remoteness.

In the past decade, the Italian political debate indicated on the municipal scale the key issue to tackle in order to overcome this structural impasse. Thus, it was requested that small municipalities (the over 5.000 mentioned before) carry out their fundamental functions together through consortia, associations, conventions, etc. Despite the legal imposition, the results were limited in scale and impact. The failure speaks aloud of a context neither administratively nor culturally ready to accept a change so little in line with the long history of radical municipalism that characterizes the country.

Thus, the possibility of a future in which small municipalities develop grassroots tools, practices, and vision to become new actors in city diplomacy appears remote. This substantial constraint sounds louder than a question concerning how cities can play a role of leadership and territorial representativity also outside the borders of their municipalities. This is a question that a city may discard, being tempted to indicate the higher institutional levels as the ones responsible for synthesis among different territorial needs. However, this would lead to the reproduction of an uncanny situation. In fact, is it enough for a city to be the vanguard in sustainability when the surrounding rural municipalities are coping with the severe impact of demographic loss and rewilding? Or is it enough for a city to be the front runner in the development of new inclusion or education policies when their neighboring smaller municipalities are closing primary schools and social services because they are too expensive for their budgets? Or, again, is it enough for a city to be committed to global change when outside its borders, people live in a socioeconomic decline and are forced to move to the city looking for economic opportunities?

These, for sure, are provocatory questions but aim at spurring a reflection about the political limits of traditional municipalism that also taint city diplomacy. A municipality draws its legitimacy from the existence of its borders, and the borders represent the frontier within which municipal action should be limited. City diplomacy, however, entails a level of advocacy that overcomes the jurisdictional borders. In this respect, the vision that underpins diplomacy should not be limited to the bounded place of the urban space. It represents an opportunity for creating new, political, and administrative inclusive platforms of discussion that should also involve smaller municipalities and the rural communities, nowadays voiceless, in envisioning solutions for a world that is changing. In this way, this renewed form of political praxis can foster new territorial cohesion and, at the same time, generate a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges we are living and the scenarios the future discloses.