Diversity Europe

Diversity in European Political Groups Looks Good On Top But Falters At The City Level

Even as EU leaders celebrate new achievements in diversity at the national and EU-wide level, city level elections continue to showcase more of the same old, same old. -By Anna Gonsalves

Compared to the rest of the world, the EU enjoys a high level of diversity in its political representation. At least, that’s relatively true on the national and Union-wide stages. However, when looking one step down and peering into what’s going on in the major cities, European governance falls back into more stereotypical representation patterns.

Here, some of the progress on representation of diverse groups in European politics will be celebrated. Then, it will be time for a look at the next level down. What’s really going on in European capitals and regional centers, and what more could be done to ensure all Europeans have a voice in their governance?

Where Europe leads the world…

At the parliamentary level and above, Europe leads the world in diversity in representation. This is the result of decades of hard work across the member states.

With regards to women in governance, Europe leads the world. The percentage of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who identify as woman stands at 39.4%, well above the world average. Some of the Northern Member States are near parity, as well, with all Member States showing a multi-decade upward trend.

Minority representation is another global bright spot. While many European leaders say there is much more to be done, the reality is that much has already been achieved. The current European Parliament contains more members of color than at any other time, and minority members include members from left, center, and right parties on the political spectrum. This adds great diversity of perspective in addition to diversity of background and lived experience, and many have high expectations of greater representation in the 2024 – 2029 Parliamentary group.

At the city level, Europe has room for change…

Dropping down to the city government level, however, things are different. While regional councils report levels of female representation and minority representation resting at an average of 32.1%, progress beyond that point has been slow, and does not extend to locally elected officials. There, one finds stereotypical political leaders are the vast majority of those in charge.

In a study of 166 cities across Europe – basically, all those with more than 200,000 residents – the mayors exhibited a very similar profile regardless of geography. Bloomberg Philanthropies and LSE Cities, seeking to gain a clear picture of who was leading at the local level, examined mayors in some forty countries. In each, the mayors were by and large white men over the age of 50, with nearly two-thirds of all mayors falling into this demographic bucket.

It is not that European cities will not elect mayors with a differing gender, demographic, or age profile. There are notable standouts, with female mayors at the helm in major cities like Barcelona, Paris, and Oslo. A number of cities, particularly in the U.K. and northeastern Europe, have mayors from minority ethnic groups. The youngest mayor in the survey group was in her 30s. The exceptions to the norm do exist.

However, despite their existence, they are rare. Overall, across the European Continent, just 15% of mayors of cities are women. A mere four percent come from a minority ethnic background. Just 3.6% of the mayors, approximately six people, were under the age of 40 when elected.

Taken as a whole, these realities paint a picture of a remarkable uniformity in city government leadership, despite the markedly different geographies and circumstances of cities across Europe. It also does not reflect the changing demographics in many European cities. Thanks to immigration and other factors, on the ground populations are growing ever more divergent from the “same old, same old” types that seem to perpetually reside in city hall.

This matters for a number of key issues, as mayors are often the leaders responsible for implementing sustainability initiatives, maintaining a safe and welcoming urban environment, and leading the charge on integrating immigrants into the European community. To have leaders in place who do not reflect the populations they serve creates a space for ideological conflicts and misunderstandings that stunt the true potential of Europe’s cities.

Creating opportunities for change…

Pointing out a lack of diversity and bringing about noticeable change are two very different propositions. In the study of mayors, researchers noted that being elected to a local office often requires a certain number of community connections, a secure personal financial situation, and considerable flexibility in how one spends one’s time. Professional men over the age of 50 often have all three of these prerequisites in abundance, while younger working people may not. The same limitations apply to those from non-traditional or under-represented groups, and to recent immigrants who may have a strong desire to be involved in their new communities.

However, the existence of certain limitations at present doesn’t mean that these conditions can’t be changed or adapted to allow for broader participation. Local political groups, for example, can do more to help non-traditional candidates – such as those who are female, younger, or minorities – build the kinds of connections that lead to nominations and elections. Experiments with crowd-sourced campaign financing could relieve the personal cost of seeking an office. Or, existing city government groups could shift schedules and meeting times, allowing more caregivers, active workers, and those with young children at home to participate in electioneering and day-to-day mayoral responsibilities.

Will it be enough? Only time will tell. However, for European governance to truly reflect the broad diversity of the European continent, it isn’t enough to simply have MEPs lead the world in diversity. Local governments, and particularly front-line leaders like the mayors of Europe’s major cities, need to become more diverse over time as well.