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Motives and Frames of the Transnational / Translocal Activities of Local Governments

Five factors explain why municipalities that host large migrant groups undertake transnational activities. First, stimulating integration and strengthening social cohesion in response to increased heterogeneity were important reasons for European municipalities to start cooperating with migrant origin countries (Schep et al. 1995; Shuman 1994; Van Ewijk 2013; Østergaard-Nielsen 2011). Bilgili and Agimi (2015) argue that integration has consistently been a goal for German municipalities to start cooperation with origin countries, although it is not always explicitly addressed. Strengthening community coherence has also been cited as a reason for local authorities to be involved in international exchange programmes (Green et al. 2005; Bilgili and Agimi 2015). Cities started transnational activities in the 1990s, a few decades after the first large-scale migration to Western Europe. Many initiatives were established between 2000 and 2008, against a background of economic growth coupled with increased societal tensions due to 9/11 (2001) and the terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Most partnerships were set up in destination countries, although some local governments in origin countries took the initiative to establish partnerships. A group of Moroccan municipalities, for instance, took the lead in seeking cooperation with Dutch local governments through the Association of Dutch Municipalities (Van Ewijk 2013). Most West European municipalities already had experience with international cooperation that they could build on, and linking with migrant source countries was a logical next step (Østergaard-Nielsen 2011; Van Ewijk 2013). Budget cuts and fragile political and public support for international cooperation meant that some municipalities were seeking ways to benefit from international cooperation. Strengthening social cohesion was considered a way to do so. For these municipalities, the question was “why don't we link our international cooperation policies to integration policies so that we can gain something from the international exchanges” rather than “can international cooperation provide a new, creative way to stimulate integration”. Local authorities in sending countries are often restricted by limited capacity and insufficient legal competence to be involved in international cooperation (Bilgili and Agimi 2015; Van Ewijk 2013).

Second, migrant groups often catalyse transnational activities[1]. In municipalities that host large migrant populations, the translocal linkages already established at the civil society level may stimulate local governments to also get involved in international cooperation. In some cases, representatives of local governments with roots in origin countries (like Dutch or German city councillors and policy advisors of Moroccan and Turkish descent) have taken the lead in establishing local government initiatives (Bilgili and Agimi 2015; Van Ewijk 2013).

Third, national government policies or organizations operating at a regional or national level have played a stimulating role. According to Van Ewijk (2013), nationally funded support programmes have had a strong impact on the partnerships between Dutch municipalities and municipalities in Morocco and Turkey. Most of these programmes have focused on transferring knowledge from destination to origin countries, to strengthen local governance processes in the latter. ØstergaardNielsen (2011) observes that a development cooperation agency of the municipalities in Catalonia fulfilled an important role in stimulating transnational engagement.

Fourth, the mobility of people between origin and destination countries creates particular challenges, which have motivated local governments to start cooperating. To combat cross-border criminal activities and transnational terrorism, for example, international cooperation between actors operating at the local level may be required (Piperno and Stocchiero 2005)[2].

Finally, Grillo and Riccio (2004) point out that ambiguity might accompany codevelopment initiatives, as local-level actors, including local governments, may use linkages to stimulate remigration. Diatta and Mbow (1999, 254) observe that an AIDS project with Senegal was linked to an examination of the possibilities for the voluntary return of Senegalese migrants, while Schmidt di Friedberg (2000) notes that the anti-immigrant regional party in Italy (the Northern League) encouraged NGOs to engage in development with the objective of halting immigration (Grillo and Riccio 2004). In 2011, the right-wing Belgian political party Vlaams Blok established contacts with Emirdağ (Turkey) and launched a campaign to stimulate the remigration of citizens of Turkish descent from Gent to Emirdağ called “Emirdağ Needs You”. The campaign provoked strong negative reactions from people of Turkish descent living in Gent (Van Ewijk 2013).

It should be noted that economic motives have also played a role in initiating cooperation between migrant origin and destination countries. Local governments hope to stimulate transnational investments from companies. The literature, however, contains few examples where these motives were central.

  • [1] In the Dutch-Moroccan and Dutch-Turkish partnerships studied by Van Ewijk (2013), migrants also acted as translators and facilitators in the process of knowledge exchange and learning, and as resource persons for knowledge and networks.
  • [2] Terrorism and security are also directly linked to integration policies. Piperno and Stocchiero (2005) introduce the term “transnational integration”, referring to the requirement for more effective integration policies at the local level, based on intercultural dialogue and the sharing of human and democratic rights and obligations. They argue that local governments can fulfil a specific role in promoting new forms of governance and partnerships with migrants, civil society organizations, and the private sector.
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