Urban citizenship through democratic variety – reflections on the local political participation of migrants in European cities

Academic Article

Abstract: The paper looks at opportunity structures for the political integration of migrants in European cities and locates these in a wider framework of urban citizenship. It argues that the form of participation matters much less than political ambition and describes ambiguities of consultation bodies as well as some positive examples of policy learning.


The participation of migrants in political decision-making is hindered by adverse policy frameworks, both European and national. Many local authorities across Europe have nevertheless experimented in recent years with initiatives that offer opportunities for participation, giving new reality to the idea that urban citizenship may be based on residence rather than nationality. Results so far are mixed. Drawing mainly on developments in the “Integrating Cities” process led by EUROCITIES, this paper explores such approaches, the opportunities they open and their limits. Looking particularly at consultative bodies – which can become catalysts for enhanced participation or “institutional ghettos” with little impact – we refer also to the wide variety of other ways in which cities engage migrant residents in public decision-making. Together these varied forms of participation make up “political opportunity structures”. Whether they can bring real change depends on commitment by mainstream political leaders and institutions, on sound design and ground rules for participative bodies, ensuring that they are not insular, and a reflexive attitude, enabling participants to learn from past experience and from one another. Where these conditions are met, cities’ ability to involve migrants in public decision-making as residents may herald the emergence of a wider, stronger demos for the 21st century. 

Urban citizenship and European cities

Citizenship describes and defines the relation between an individual and a community. What such a community constitutes changes over time. Whilst we usually associate citizenship with nation-states, it is helpful to recall the urban core of the concept, the ancient Greek “Polis” and, later, the European medieval cities or “communes” when citizens (“burghers”) as a social group sought to ground social order in formal rights which would replace the free will of patrimonialism and aristocratic rule (Le Galès 2002: 38; Rieger 2003: 226; Weber 1980[1921]: 743[530]). “In these urban communes”, as Le Galès reminds us, “democracy was shaped and reinvented, as was, in particular, the concept of citizen as member of a municipal corporation, taxpayer, and inheritor of property” (Le Galès 2002: 41). However, the political autonomy of cities was limited and much of it was lost when the modern state took shape in the 18th and 19th century (Le Galès 2002: 44, Tilly 1990).

It is this long tradition that is recalled by the current debate on urban citizenship (Bauböck 2003, Garcia 2006). The new attention comes with a plea to city leaders to use the political space they still have to expand rights that are allocated with citizenship – social, political and civic rights (Marshall 1950) – to those inhabitants who are not formal members, i.e., citizens, of the state in which the respective municipality is located. Given the increasing population diversity in European cities, national frameworks of citizenship count for fewer and fewer inhabitants, and the construction of EU citizenship did, as a side effect, introduce a new boundary around so-called third-country nationals, leading in practice to a new stratification of urban societies according related to civic status and the rights attached to it (Lebuhn 2012).

A key term in this debate is participation and municipalities have developed a range of instruments that aim at social and political participation of migrants. The INTEGRATING CITIES Charter, developed by the network of large European cities EUROCITIES in 2006, updated in 2009 and signed by political leaders of 27 large European cities, underlines this ambition:

“As policy-makers we will…ensure equal access and non-discrimination across all our policies” and “facilitate engagement from migrant communities in our policy-making processes and remove barriers to participation” (EUROCITIES 2010a).

The practice of implementing such a commitment will look different in each city, and the degree to which the efforts indeed reach all inhabitants or only a select few will vary between more and less progressive leaders (in particular when it comes to irregular migrants), their political affiliation and local political culture resources. In a self-assessment, 11 of 21 signatories see this commitment as being met, a further nine as partly met (EUROCITIES 2013: 15). The impact is, however, difficult to detect. Forms of participation that are purely symbolic may be promoted with much effort (and money), whilst projects that develop quietly with a lower profile may be felt by participants to give them real influence over decisions that matter to them. Substantial changes, however, can hardly be expected where national and European policy frameworks do not allow for municipal self-determination and the scope of local decision-making powers is limited to areas of relatively little significance for people’s everyday lives.

Local opportunity structures for the political participation of migrants 

. As the power to grant rights is a monopoly of the state, these opportunities need to be provided by – or in the name of – the public. They cannot be replaced by charities, private companies or foundations, as such actors are unable to grant rights.

Social, political and civic rights per se do not provide for integration. Rights that are formally granted may not necessarily be realised in daily life. This is felt, for example, by citizens who suffer discrimination related to their sexual or religious orientation. On the other hand, people with no formal membership in a society may have in practice access to rights and resources similar to those available to members. Hence, there is a gap between formal and substantive aspects of citizenship (Holston & Appadurai 1996: 190). This gap can be filled by opportunities to exercise rights in practice. As the power to grant rights is a monopoly of the state, these opportunities need to be provided by – or in the name of – the public. They cannot be replaced by charities, private companies or foundations, as such actors are unable to grant rights.[1]

In the wake of increasing population diversity, municipalities across Europe have rather pragmatically begun to develop a variety of avenues through which residents can move towards social, political and civic integration, irrespective of national affiliation. These can be described as opportunity structures, i.e., a set of formal or informal signals that encourage or discourage political activity (Morales & Giugni 2011b). The instruments that municipalities have at hand to promote participation are limited, as they act within national and EU frameworks (for a detailed account, see CSES 2013).

The extent to which opportunity structures lead to integration or inclusion depends on how they are used, the wider context and discourses about immigration and integration. Political participation can take different forms: voting, contacting city officials or other politically influential people, party activity, protest or consumer participation and advocacy through NGOs and associations (either specific to migrant interests or not). The local public administration can open up existing processes for resident participation, for example, in urban planning and neighbourhood development, or by introducing new committees and consultative bodies, or by bringing in elements of direct democracy such as polls and referenda (Bauböck et al 2006, Mikuszies et al. 2010).[2]

A recent study by Morales, Giugni and others (Morales & Giugni 2011a) identified contextual factors influencing political participation at macro-, meso- and micro-levels, emphasising both structural and individual elements, but also less tangible issues such as prevailing discourses about immigration and integration.

Some challenges to fostering participation were identified and acknowledged by various local authorities represented by EUROCITIES, which also issued some recommendations as how to meet these:

Table 1: EUROCITIES recommendations on “Consulting citizens with a migrant background”

Challenges Recommendations
Not all departments have a systematic approach to consulting citizens and involving them in


Consulting citizens and involving them in decision-making should be supported by an explicit political

and administrative commitment

Lack of coordination between departments and again of a strong user-focus culture means that consultation outcomes are rarely shared within the local authority

for improving service-delivery and service-design across the local administration

A small and dynamic unit with a dedicated staff could be coordinated at central administration level with responsibility for recording what has been learned from consultations and disseminate learning elements

across departments

‘One-way’ consultation culture and a lack of protocols and frameworks mean that consultation outcomes

are rarely monitored by or shared with those who have been consulted


A corporate ‘standard’ should be developed so as to ensure consistency and coherence in implementing consultations with users and citizens, while recognising that different methods can be used.

This standard should include an obligation to provide feedback to those who have been consulted and to allow them evaluate the effectiveness of the consultation process.

Source: EUROCITIES 2010b: 12

Common instruments through which municipalities aim to foster political participation are consultative bodies. The mere existence of such bodies, however, does not provide for enhanced participation, but rather their specific design and the micropolitics at play: who has access, how and why, how binding are decisions and how are they fed into the formal decision-making process of political institutions, etc.

Consultative bodies to promote urban citizenship – an ambivalent experience

Consultative bodies are created by public institutions and administrations to inform their work. Well-known bodies at EU level are the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, where key stakeholders (local and regional authorities and civil society representatives, respectively) gather to provide their opinion on policy developments into the decision-making process. They are advisers but do not have veto powers. Their limited impact is a natural starting point for criticism by those who ask for more substantial institutional change.

The Council of Europe identified three ways in which foreign residents can be consulted by local authorities in an institutional sense. Broadly speaking, they may take on an advisory role for existing committees or can become members of committees. Furthermore, specific consultative bodies for migrants’ interests can be created (CoE 1992, quoted in Huddleston 2011)[3].

Since the 1960s, local authorities of a number of European cities have experimented with the third of these options: specific consultative bodies for migrants. Examples include the Conseils Consultatifs Communaux des immigrés in Belgium and the Ausländerbeiräte in the former West Germany. But these institutions have always had an ambiguous character. Whilst they signalled the recognition of new inhabitants and their needs, these bodies rarely enabled migrants to get involved in important decisions or led to their further integration into mainstream political processes. In an account of that experience, Martiniello calls for consultative bodies not to replace the right to vote or stand for election, but to be seen as an “adjunct to fundamental political rights” (Martiniello 1999: 81). Attention should be paid to detail and, in particular, outcome:

“past experience of consultation shows that we must take care to ensure that the philosophy, rhetoric and practice of consultation do not have the undesirable effect of reproducing the exclusion and political powerlessness of ethnic minorities, regardless of the good intentions of the social and political players involved” (Martiniello 1999: 79). 

How can well-meant consultation end up reinforcing exclusion? The risk arises at many levels:

  • Questions of institutional design such as target groups: being consulted can label one group as more problematic than others that are not consulted.
  • Style: formal settings may attract some groups while informal settings appeal more to others.
  • Selection of issues on which migrants are consulted.
  • Time and frequency: spontaneous one-off meetings may be less demanding for residents but do not signal that consultation is a fundamental element of governance whereas regular meetings may be time-consuming but more effective (Martiniello 1999).

The crucial challenge arises from a weak relationship between these consultative bodies and mainstream political institutions and parties. It is telling that, in a recent account of Germany’s local Integration Committees (Integrationsbeiräte, which have emerged from the earlier Ausländerbeiräte) local authority representatives underline the high importance of such bodies, but find three basic weaknesses that so far remain unresolved: a lack of decision-making powers, of impact and of recognition (DESI 2012: 65).

To help avoid such risks and promote the establishment of consultative bodies, the Council of Europe published a handbook in 2004 that recommended several key guiding principles related to:

  • Objectives: “clearly defined, prioritized, funded, and regularly assessed”,
  • Composition: “open-ended and differentiated membership”,
  • Selection: election rather than nomination,
  • Activities: “consultation and promotion of civic and political participation” and
  • Functioning: “right to be informed and consulted, initiate consultation, receive a response, and receive necessary financial and human resources” (Gsir & Martiniello 2004, quoted in Huddleston 2011: 5).

These principles, however, are still limited to consultation rather than deeper levels of involvement. More recent work by the EUROCITIES to put its Integrating Cities Charter into practice, is guided by a broader understanding of political participation (see above). As noted above, its Charter includes a pledge to help migrants to engage in public policy-making (see also EUROCITIES 2013: 15). Under this broad frame, cities are still actively exploring the scope for migrant political and civic participation, despite the impact of recession on public resources and the rise of xenophobic political currents in many European countries.

In the EU-funded project “ImpleMentoring”, designed to support the implementation of the EUROCITIES Charter, representatives of 14 local authorities work together to improve their integration policies. Two areas for which the group develops benchmarks, using them to devise new local strategies and action plans, are migrant participation at neighbourhood level and in city-wide political decision-making. Cities’ experience, reviewed in this project, so far confirms the need to take a broad view of political participation and to assess carefully aspects of such arrangements as access, and impact.

It also confirms the ambiguous potential of consultative bodies as such. The city of Milan for example, was still dealing in 2013 with the legacy of a failed attempt two decades earlier to run a city Consultation Committee (or ‘Consulta’) which matched all too closely the account by Martiniello (1999: 79). Launched in 1986, it had sought “with the best of intentions” to open dialogue between municipal institutions and the new population (Murer 2006: 1). But it reflected an early stage of mass immigration to the city when migrants were highly excluded and not seen by public institutions as “active subjects” in city life. Above all, this body remained isolated from real city decision-making, with no practical support and not even a regular cycle of meetings. Within four years the Milan Consulta collapsed amid protests and recrimination. Murer’s comment stands as an epitaph for the idea that participation can be reduced to declarations and formal structures: 

“[the Consulta] was not designed at all to address the the issues of immigration, but to show the welcome of the host society: the Consulta paradoxically answers more the needs of Italians than the interests of … immigrants”. (ibid: 8).

In Athens, where recent large-scale immigration has coincided with severe economic and fiscal crisis, the city authority responded in 2010 by creating its first-ever Council for Migrant Integration.

In 2013 however, led by an administration that gave priority to equality and citizen engagement, Milan began to explore alternative ways to involve migrant residents. Backed by a campaign to promote a more inclusive “common Milan identity”, these proposals include a new integration strategy with guidelines for promoting their political participation, efforts to promote democratic values and participation amongst young people (e.g., through the “consigli di zona dei ragazzi et delle ragazza”), an advisory board made up of migrant associations and, above all, steps to lobby for legislation to extend voting rights for migrant residents.

Milan’s initiatives were encouraged by dialogue with ImpleMentoring partner cities Genoa, Athens and Oslo. In Athens, where recent large-scale immigration has coincided with severe economic and fiscal crisis, the city authority responded in 2010 by creating its first-ever Council for Migrant Integration. Here the consultative body has been given a representative structure and a clear agenda, advising the city council on the response of public services to the needs of new migrant groups, with a strong link to the authority through the elected politician who serves as chair.

In Oslo, Norway, the Board of Immigrant Organisations dates back to the 1980s like the failed body in Milan, but, after ups and downs, remains active and effective in 2013. The city’s support for its role has been consistent through this period, reflecting both a sustained political commitment to principles of equality and inclusion and steady economic growth with high demand for immigrant labour. Building on this successful initiative, Oslo has also achieved a dramatic rise in direct political participation, with many ethnic minority members elected to its city council. Against this background and achievement, the consultative board is currently undergoing a reform to play a larger role in advising on public service design, steering services like schools and welfare. In Aarhus on the other hand, a decision has recently been taken to wind up the local integration council (Integrationsråd) that had been in place since 2000. Alternatives are still being discussed but the city’s declared aim is to find more effective measures of political participation, avoiding what it sees as a one-sided emphasis on migrant and national identity in such bodies.

The ambiguities of migrant councils hold equally for other bodies intended to give a voice to specific groups or policy areas. Clearly, they promote active citizenship and open new routes to political participation. But not only is their impact often unclear, they also risk unintentionally reinforcing inequalities: many residents do not have time to sit through long meetings, do not see their relevance or refrain due to negative experience. And such bodies are prone to what Bachrach and Baratz (1962) referred to as “non-decisions”: Established political elites will quite likely set the frameworks and parameters for such bodies and programmes and in effect have predetermined what is up for discussion and what not. Key is therefore not to see these bodies in isolation but to consider carefully their context and the links between the spaces of representative, deliberative and direct democracy in a city. Are various arenas of representation and participation fragmented and unrelated? Or do they effectively build up to a cosmopolitan version of democracy (Bauböck 2003)?

The Integrating Cities process shows the rich variety of approaches through which Europe’s municipal authorities are now engaging migrants in discussion of the future of their polis. A striking feature of these actions is that in general they are inclusive by design – between migrant and native, but also across migrant categories without reference to passport or immigration status. De facto residence in the city is typically the only “qualification” required.

An example of mutual learning in this process is provided by Malmö and Ghent, despite these cities’ rather different socioeconomic and institutional contexts. In Malmö, where earlier exercises in formal administrative devolution had done little to raise levels of citizen participation, a new initiative in five areas of the city since 2010 has focused on defined small neighbourhoods and committed the city council to respond to their specific challenges and opportunities. It promotes a bottom-up approach, working with residents (rather than for them) and enabling them to set the agenda. A key role has been given to civil society organisations as channels for participation. In an area where residents are mostly first- or second-generation migrants, this has helped to generate vigorous, grassroots community action. The City of Ghent, whilst it has a consultative structure for migrants at city level, has also focused in recent years on engagement of residents at the neighbourhood level and has a powerful tradition of citizens’ self-organisation. In discussion with Malmö colleagues, the Ghent authority identified ways to apply these practices more effectively to promote participation in highly diverse neighbourhoods, drawing on informal feedback via local NGOs from more excluded groups – such as migrant mothers – as well as face-to-face dialogue between residents and the city’s own team of development workers.

A particularly ambitious plan to strengthen political participation by migrant residents emerged in Genoa in 2013. With senior political leaders closely involved, the City of Genoa has begun preparing actions at several levels. It has implemented a local campaign promoting the sense of shared civic identity for all residents, helping to support lobbying at national level to extend voting rights to migrant residents. In addition, the city has a strategy for migrant integration, informed by city-wide dialogue with residents, with a migrant consultative group advising on this strategy. Finally, the city has taken steps to support self-organisation by migrants with a city hub for their mobilisation and help in building the capacity of their associations. It is a bold and mutually reinforcing set of actions, challenging an apparent national trend in Italy toward voter alienation from the political process.

Immigration, democratic variety and the scope for urban citizenship 

As experience accumulates across Europe, we see that the form that participation takes matters much less than political ambition to establish an inclusive sense of democracy. Taking this path in fact means establishing a new idea of the local demos at the city level. This is the underlying significance of the numerous campaigns to create a sense of city identity (such as “I Amsterdam” or ‘One London’). On one level just formulaic branding exercises, these campaigns can also implicitly – if seriously pursued – shape a 21st century version of the old pre-industrial “communal” sensibility now rooted in a cosmopolitan worldview.

This also applies to the multiple other options within a city’s “opportunity structure”: each helps to draw more residents into a politically active demos. Certainly, the political aim needs to be translated into sound processes and institutional design, but looking at the picture of migrant participation in recent years we see that a number of cities have indeed found political space to open up many such channels for engagement. Learning from their own and others’ experience, these local authorities have demonstrated that the varied democratic processes at the city level are complementary. And since the most effective strategies for migrant participation are those that activate as many such options as possible, they are also likely to invigorate democratic life for non-migrant residents, too.

The quiet progress of these initiatives to promote migrant participation is, in our view, shifting the focus on urban citizenship from an individualistic view towards what David Harvey calls a “collective right to the city”. This is “a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation” (Harvey 2012: 4).[4] He reaches a compelling conclusion: “The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights” (Harvey 2012: 4).

Consultation exercises, it is true, may be just another tactic of elitist governance – if they are isolated from mainstream decision-making, ad hoc or opportunistic and not grounded in a regime of rights. But the examples outlined above signal at least the potential for much more profound change. They suggest that a city’s response to immigration and resulting ethnic diversity could become a decisive moment in the evolution of its democratic system. Often it may feel to those involved as if the city is driven by fear of community tensions and risks of social exclusion. But a city council’s decision to bring “newcomers” into mainstream processes of public deliberation and decision-making – irrespective of formal citizenship conferred by national authorities – may also be the catalyst for something even more profound and far-reaching: the formation of a wider, stronger demos. 


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[1] Food banks, for example, although certainly based on good intentions, are no functional equivalent to minimum income, as no person could claim a formal right to receive food.

[2] The more specific debate about voting rights for non-nationals in European cities will not be explored here. For this, see Gropas & Triandafyllidou 2007, Groenendijk 2008 and Mutwarasibo 2012.

[3] This list is taken from the Council of Europe’s explanatory report on the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level (ETS No. 144), part C, paragraph 33.

[4] In an earlier version of that text, Harvey speaks of a “common” rather than a “collective” right, which has an even broader connotation as it goes without defining a (potentially limited) collective (see: Harvey 2008).