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Europe from below

Donatella della Porta describes the changing pulse of European peoples and movements and argues it’s time to bust the myth of a non-political EU

June 1, 2014
4 min read

Polls point to a dramatic drop in trust in the EU since the Great Recession began to bite. The European Commission’s own Eurobarometer survey records a decline from a peak of 57 per cent expressing trust in spring 2007 to 31 per cent in autumn 2013.

In the same time frame, the proportion of citizens for whom the EU conjures a negative image nearly doubled, from 15 to 28 per cent; only 31 per cent have a positive image, down from 52 per cent. In southern Europe especially, pessimism about the EU’s future development shot up, reaching two thirds of interviewees in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. Two thirds believe their voice is not heard at the EU level.

The EU’s neoliberal focus (a ‘Europe of the Market’) and undemocratic behaviour (‘Europeanisation from above’) have been central concerns for social movements since the first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. Despite their critiques, forum participants still expressed hopes for reform, with activists developing hundreds of proposals for ‘another Europe’. They began a process of Europeanisation from below that contributed to the growth of EU-wide networks and identities.

Within a critical political vision, many social movement organisations were open to interactions with representative institutions, indicating a persisting belief that they could be usefully reformed. My research at the European University Institute involved analysis of the documents produced by about 250 organisations that participated in the forum. They showed general willingness to collaborate with institutions on specific problems. Many of the groups identified the transnational as an important level for working with existing institutions.

Their hopes of contributing to an inclusive and fair Europe were broken as the recession entrenched neoliberal power, shattering the illusion of the EU as a federation that recognises the rights of weaker states. In fact, the financial downturn accentuated the effect of the common currency in strengthening territorial inequalities. The EU peripheries were not only hit hardest by the recession; they also became more dependent. The countries that were suffering most had to forfeit their residual national sovereignty in exchange for material support.

While critical Europeanism is still alive, trust in the potential for EU reform has been badly shaken, as has confidence in the possibility of influencing EU policies through lobbying and consultations. Behind the anti-austerity protests, there is a belief in the corruption of representative democracy through the overlapping of economic and political power. There has been a new emphasis on demands for increased national sovereignty, at least in weak economies, to meet the movement’s aims.

Modes of popular mobilisation reflect these changes. Protests at European Council meetings have been dropped from the repertoire, replaced with occupations of public squares at the local level, where protesters feel some headway may be made in rebuilding democracy. The acampadas of the indignados and Occupy movements have been read as spaces of prefigurative politics, oriented to live out real democratic practices rather than engaging with a fundamentally undemocratic system.

The EU seeks legitimacy by presenting itself in a depoliticised, technocratic light. In contrast, citizens’ and activists’ growing distrust should push in exactly the opposite direction: politicising policies and debunking the myth of a non-political EU.

With institutions proving less permeable to pressure, a multi-level protest strategy is necessary. The networking of social struggles can be expected to start from below, with the contestation of specific EU policies, such as those on migration. This can lead to the development of common visions that revisit, but also innovate upon, the visions that emerged from the social forums.

With the precariousness of the job market, and life in general, affecting ever wider swathes of society, new ways must be found to give people a voice. How to transfer the local acampada experiences to the European (and global) levels is an urgent question.

Donatella della Porta is the author of Can Democracy be Saved? (Polity, 2014) and Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, forthcoming)