Introduction: Municipalities’ role in the institutional context; relevance of the local space / cities in the national context

The concept of municipalism has not yet reached the German-speaking countries in a significant way. Activists are not creating electoral platforms to participate and compete in elections, as has happened across Spain and Italy and in Zagreb. However, the concept is not unknown in the region. There are networks that explicitly identify with the municipalist hypothesis and the discourse is mostly driven by academia, think-tanks and single actors that identify with the vision and aim at pushing the concept forward.

The role of municipalities is highly different from country to country. In Germany, the federal structure comprises 16 states (Länder), 295 counties (Kreise) and 11,313 municipalities (Gemeinden), of which 2,060 are cities. Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen are both states and municipalities. In Germany, the municipality with the highest population is Berlin with 3,400,000 inhabitants, whereas the smallest municipality has seven inhabitants. The highest degree of autonomy may be found in Gemeinden that are not part of a county.

In Austria, there are 2,095 municipalities ranging from a population of only fifty to Vienna’s two million. The municipalities have a right to self-administration, they are not politically answerable to national or provincial administrators and do not take orders from them. Switzerland is a special case for its deeply direct democratic mechanisms: regular referenda and citizen initiatives that push forward – and channel – citizen demands. The country consists of a tripartite governance structure: national level, cantons and municipalities. Altogether, Switzerland consists of 2,212 municipalities, whereas each canton determines the powers and responsibilities of its municipalities (Gemeindeautonomie). These may include providing local government services such as education, healthcare and social services, public transport and tax collection. The degree of centralisation varies from one canton to another. The federal constitution protects the autonomy of municipalities within the framework set out by cantonal law.

In this framework, actors participating at the Fearless Cities event in 2017 partly transferred the concept to their respective countries. In Austria, municipalism was discussed in the journal Dérive by Elke Rauth and Christoph Laimer, and in events such as the Urbanize! festival. Held in October the same year in Vienna, it paved the way for a general municipalist discourse in the German-speaking countries. As a result, several publications occurred that discussed the idea of municipalism: in Germany, the journal sub/urban, where Lisa Vollmer is a leading author, addresses municipalism, as do the Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung (BBSR) and the Urbane Liga (Alliance of Young City Makers) in their work and publications. Another researcher on this topic is Andrej Holm, who has been concerned with municipalism since its early inception at the Fearless Cities summit. In Germany, one of the first appearances of the concept was at Urbanize! festival in 2018 where two workshops were held on this topic, with perspectives from Spain and the Netherlands.

In Berlin, the discourse since 2020 has been mostly driven by a loose network/working group called “Berlin Municipalists” and the project Critical Mapping in Municipalist Movements that aims to support housing movements by identifying relevant actors in this realm. At the same time, Berlin’s Left-Green coalition is pushing municipalist policies without framing them as such. Examples are a failed rent cap (which was ruled unconstitutional because the municipality lacks the jurisdiction to enact such a law), efforts to host refugees and the slowly starting widening of participation in city development.

In Switzerland, academic contributions are mostly drawing comparisons between the Gemeindeautonomie (autonomy of municipalities) and the municipalist vision. Proto-municipalist ideas are manifested in the organisation Urban Equipe based in Zurich as well as digital participatory endeavours building on social organisations. This shows that the most relevant existing municipalist actors in the German-speaking region only exist in a proto-state. However, one exception is the political party LINKS Wien that partly draws on the concept in Austria. This national party pushes forward the municipalist hypothesis on the city level. Also the Green and Left parties in Germany discuss municipalism.

The municipalist hypothesis in the German-speaking countries is mostly driven by the question on how to turn the existing institutional frameworks into more participatory, transparent and democratic institutions. LINKS in Austria aside, the creation of a new political party/confluence is in all three countries perceived with caution. This might be due to two reasons: the level of dissatisfaction with established parties, including corruption and lack of transparency within them, is not as strong as in regions where municipalism gained popularity and was manifested in real electoral alternatives. Secondly, the German-speaking countries did not suffer from the financial crisis in 2011 and have their standards of living affected to the extent as Southern European countries. These factors contribute to a deeper trust in and satisfaction with existing political systems.

The concept of municipalism is a strong leading vision in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg, where individual politicians from the Green party identify with it in the context of a commons approach to urban development, housing politics and strengthening citizen initiatives such as AKS Gemeinwohl and LokalBau. Part of this approach is the foundation and consolidation of so-called intermediary structures operating at the city level that aim at turning administration towards a more participatory democratic paradigm. Mostly publicly funded, these intermediary structures create spaces of deliberation between civil society, administration and politics. Some examples of this strategy are Runder Tisch Liegenschaftspolitik, Iniforum, and Baustelle Gemeinwohl.

Among the most prominent social actors, the Right to the City movement has taken up some of the lessons learnt by the Spanish PAH but has not managed to institutionalise itself in a way that happened in Barcelona. One interesting hybrid case of using activist strategies for organising in neighbourhood-based teams is Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen, who have found a way to influence institutional politics by extra-institutional activity. The campaign has successfully paved the way for a referendum in September 2021 to expropriate commercial housing firms, such as Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, and socialise their housing portfolio.

These experiences show that, interestingly, the concept of municipalism is mostly discussed in the context of housing and gentrification in the capitals of the German-speaking countries. Especially in Berlin, this trend is highly visible. While political actors and established parties do not seem to provide resilient solutions, activist campaigns such as the expropriation of large housing firms (DW & Co Enteignen) seem to point towards proto-municipalism in the German-speaking countries.