Transforming Work, Reimagining Education

The need to reorganise work can be justified both in social and ecological terms. Yet, such reorganisation wouldn’t be complete without questioning work’s dominance over other areas of life. Education is a key part of this transformation, but it must be viewed as something that helps people develop and thrive throughout their lives, rather than merely adapting them to the constraints of a neoliberal job market. Transforming our conceptions of education and work in this way can reduce health inequalities, improve individual wellbeing, and mitigate the environmental impacts of a workaholic system.

Work remains one of capitalism’s most unhealthy obsessions. Rather than considering it a means to an end, working – and especially working hard – has become an end in itself. Working weeks of 40 hours or more remain a norm despite improvements in productivity and precarious wages keep workers absorbed by their jobs and unable to nourish other areas of their lives. Work’s dominance over other spheres of life has relegated education to the role of a fragile assistant. Educational programmes are mostly chosen based on the career paths they might open, and opportunities to go back to formal education after entering the workforce are limited, despite the social and health benefits that lifelong education provides.

A reorganisation of work should therefore not be limited to a revision of working hours and wages, as urgent as both these measures are. Work must be reshaped in a manner that overturns its long-standing dominance over education. Instead, policies for lifelong learning can create a positive interaction between work, leisure, and education. The basis for this proposal was sketched almost 40 years ago by sociologist Chris Phillipson in Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age. At a time when neoliberal policies have exacerbated precariousness, alienation, burnout, and chronic unemployment, rethinking work and education in tandem is more relevant than ever. The opportunity to transform work and reinvent the role that it plays in our lives is, at last, at hand. While work – care work, essential work– will never cease to exist, whether its presence will be suffocating or purposeful depends upon us.

Policies for lifelong learning can create a positive interaction between work, leisure, and education.

Harmful for humans and the planet

Work holds a privileged position in our society and our lives: our worth is often calculated based on the amount of work we can perform, and our identities have become intertwined with the job we hold or aspire to. Having a job with social value has turned into a privilege, while useless corporate positions offer better conditions than essential jobs. In a 2015 YouGov survey, 37 per cent of British workers indicated that their job made no meaningful contribution to the world. However, less than half of those respondents were looking for another one. The survey was based on a famous article by the anthropologist David Graeber, where he coined the term “bullshit jobs”: jobs so pointless, or even damaging, that even the people doing them believe that they should not exist.

And indeed, why do they exist? Not because they need to. Technological improvements and increases in productivity would allow for a significant reduction in the working week. Yet the 40-hour week has remained a reality in most European countries since the early 20th century. Why do we work virtually the same hours that an average British worker did almost 100 years ago? In Graeber’s words, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” The insidiousness of the work ethic and a system that relies on a precarious and overworked working class has led to the current situation. A situation where work, our way of satisfying our and others’ unmet needs and of contributing to the community, has turned into a socially pernicious reality.

If anything, the pandemic has exposed the unnecessary nature of much work and ways of working, revealing a system overflowing with redundant and unnecessary jobs. While this statement might be unpleasant to some, a natural reaction given how pervasive work has been in determining our identity and self-worth, realising that much of the work we perform is not essential is a finding that should be celebrated, recognising the new possibilities that reorganising work would open. The argument is not against non-essential activities that might still be valuable for society, such as artists, but against the obsession with keeping individuals occupied eight hours a day throughout their adult life regardless of the usefulness of what they are doing. The present situation, while disastrous in many ways, has allowed us to envision new ways of living and working, and these should not be forgotten once the pandemic subsides.

Reorganising work is thus an urgent matter if we want a more socially sustainable and just system, but also if we want a system that is not as ecologically damaging. According to a report published in 2019, reducing working hours would decrease carbon emissions and air pollution, and would thus be a crucial step in the path towards a carbon-neutral economy. Several proposals have already emerged to make such reduction a reality: the degrowth movement has included work-sharing and a 32-hour week as part of their policy proposals, and current debates focus on whether a shorter working day or a shorter working week would be more beneficial, taking ecofeminist arguments into account.

The present situation, while disastrous in many ways, has allowed us to envision new ways of living and working.

The present proposal suggests including lifelong education into this reorganisation, promoting a system where education and work would have complementary functions throughout a person’s life. Importantly, the idea would not be to redirect all of the time freed from work into formal education. This liberated time could be spent in many ways, from social reproduction to leisure, encouraging bouts of idleness and enjoyment that our rigid work paradigm has for so long repressed. This new system would then promote a positive interaction between three crucial elements: education, work, and leisure.

Why lifelong education?

The first, maybe naïve but essential reason for promoting lifelong learning involves the fostering of human capacities and aspirations of human flourishing. The central aim of continuing education should not be staying up to date with the most recent developments or gaining profitable skills to be more competitive on the job market. The most fundamental ambition should be to allow people to cultivate their interests, acquiring understanding, experience, and skills in disciplines and areas that excite and intrigue them. A world where education was valued for its own sake would expand human capacities and possibilities, allowing people to lean into their curiosity without having to ponder the market value of their interests.

Concern over the limited possibilities that a commodified education system offers should be a sufficient reason to promote a reorganisation of education, but there are many others. A central argument in favour of the promotion of lifelong learning concerns the social determinants of health: that is, the consequences that the economic and social contexts of an individual’s life have on their health. While the predominant biomedical model of health asserts that a person’s level of health depends mostly on their genetics and lifestyle, many social variables have a significant impact. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that such non-medical factors can explain most health inequalities. These social variables include, amongst others, gender, housing, salary, neighbourhood of residence, parents’ social class, and most importantly for the present argument, level or years of education. Different studies have revealed the lasting impact of education over an individual’s lifespan, influencing variables such as morbidity, healthy life expectancy, and mortality. In more specific terms, this means that a person in the lowest education category, either in terms of years or level, is twice as likely to develop a long-term disability, between 10 and 15 per cent more likely to develop a limiting illness, and has a risk of developing dementia almost threefold that of someone in the highest category. Advocating for a system where education would play a more prominent role is thus not just an issue concerning ideals or aspirations, but a matter of commitment towards a more equal society.

To tackle both these issues, it is essential to promote lifelong education, not merely to strengthen the educational model as it is now. This current model dictates that formal learning is mostly reserved for young people, which is problematic in at least two ways. First, not everyone can afford to pursue an educational degree when they are young: educational attainment is highly influenced by the socioeconomic status of the family, with children born in less privileged families encountering many barriers to attend post-secondary education. Even when they do, their study choice might have more to do with job prospects than with personal interests. Second, even for those who have the opportunity to study at a young age, restricting formal education to such a limited time span fails to acknowledge the way humans evolve throughout their life, developing a wide array of interests that might not have been present when the person was considered young enough to study. A model that supports lifelong education is thus better suited to the way individuals evolve throughout their lives, and its promotion is essential, not only as a way of expanding human capacities but also as an attempt to curtail health inequalities.

Lifelong education: narrow view, limited impact

The concept of lifelong education is hardly a new idea. Both the political sphere and the corporate world recognise its importance and promote it through incentives and policy packages. The EU itself is involved in supporting lifelong learning: the European Council adopted the Renewed European Agenda for Adult Learning in 2011 and the EU is committed to goals such increasing the quality of  and enhancing creativity and innovation at all levels of training.

This education agenda highlights the need to increase adult participation in both formal and non-formal education and sets out a number of strategies to achieve its objectives. The document acknowledges lifelong learning’s relevance for social cohesion and participation and some of the strategies outlined pursue laudable goals, like encouraging higher education institutions to embrace adult learners and developing learning provision for seniors. However, the overarching conception of lifelong learning remains within a neoliberal framing linked to competitiveness and employability, mostly focusing on the development of job-specific skills and the up-skilling of those affected by unemployment. The aim of restructuring education in a market-oriented manner is apparent in the intention to “develop mechanisms for ensuring that educational provision better reflects labour market needs”. This approach thus works against aspirations of human flourishing and the fostering of human capacities, considering education merely as a gear to oil in order to perfect the machinery of the market.

Framing aside, one can also cast doubt on the effectiveness of adult education policy in the EU. The EU committed to increasing adult participation in education from 10 per cent to 15 per cent between 2014 and 2020; however, by 2019 the rate had only reached 10.8 per cent. A potential reason for these poor results could be a limited diagnosis of the difficulties that individuals face when trying to pursue education during their adult life. Even though the document acknowledges some obstacles, such as an alleged lack of motivation, it remains mostly silent on other pressing constraints such as long working hours, prohibitive fees, and precarious wages, dynamics that keep workers hooked on their jobs, with no real opportunity to cultivate learning without sacrificing leisure in the process.

Blurring the boundaries between education and work

How to then reorganise work in a way that would overcome the flaws in the current system while at the same time strengthening access to education? This is where Phillipson’s idea becomes relevant: he envisions a situation where people would be able to enter and re-enter the workforce at different times in their career, alternating between periods of employment and periods of education and training. This situation would be facilitated by a variety of measures such as offering paid educational leave, facilities for sabbaticals, keeping educational fees at a minimum, encouraging the enrolment of adults in educational programmes, including childcare in educational facilities, and promoting more flexible work schedules. Education in this sense would not refer only to formal university education, but to all programmes of learning, including vocational training and non-formal education.

Maintaining a miserable workforce for the sake of economic growth is a goal we should drop in the transition towards a sustainable society.

Financing such an expansion of education would clearly need to sit alongside a broad rethinking of taxation and work, in line with other degrowth proposals. The setting of a maximum income would leave companies with a certain surplus benefit that they would not be able to distribute among the top management positions or shareholders: such wealth could be invested in lifelong education schemes for their employees instead. A universal basic income would allow adults to pursue educational programmes while still being able to pay the bills. A genuinely public education system would facilitate the reduction of fees, paving the way to a fairer and more inclusive access to education. Finally, policies of work-sharing could be complemented with the option to take educational leave or dedicate some of the liberated work hours to the pursuit of study programmes. In this way, employment levels could increase while average working hours would decrease to more socially sustainable levels.

Importantly, individuals would be encouraged to choose which skills and knowledge they would like to develop based on their personal interests, not necessarily on their current jobs. An accountant’s passion might be jewellery design; a baker could be a philosophy enthusiast; a homemaker might want to delve into audiovisual production; and an IT worker could have a vibrant interest in marine biology. Limiting the array of educational possibilities available to an individual based on the kind of job they perform would be a hindrance to ideals of human flourishing, maintaining a system where work functions as an all-encompassing force that prevails over other aspects of life. Moreover, maintaining such rigid boundaries would not be coherent with the reality of career fluctuation: in a 2019 survey around career change, half of the respondents reported having made a dramatic career shift. Among those who had not, 65 per cent declared having considered it either in the past or the present. When asked for the reasons behind their decision, most career changers (81 per cent) put it down to being unhappy in their previous job or sector. Maintaining a miserable workforce for the sake of economic growth is a goal we should drop in the transition towards a sustainable society. Encouraging individuals to cultivate their interests independently of whether it would make them more productive could be a first step towards it.

Phillipson’s proposal might be hard to picture, and may even be branded as a delusional aspiration by some; however, some of his ideas have already been implemented. Belgium provides one example: in 1985, it introduced regulations on paid educational leave. This law allows employees in the private sector to take paid leave in order to pursue a study programme of their choice. The legislation was celebrated for promoting the cultural right of workers, who can choose from a set of eligible courses, including philosophy, midwifery, and social work, without their decision having to be based on the programme’s suitability to their current job. Despite this law still presenting some limitations, such as the virtual exclusion of part-time workers, its existence serves as an inspiration and a reminder that work’s domination over other areas of life is not, and should not be, the norm. A proper reorganisation should be based on this understanding of work as just one of several realms of life; a life brimming with moments of connection, rest, labour, contemplation, education, and idleness.

Can Human Rights Law Overcome Political Inaction?

The litigation cases, such as on climate change action and social and environmental justice, brought by civil society against governments have demonstrated how the law can be a tool for holding politicians to account and spurring them to act, in line with their commitments and obligations. Yet human rights law is rarely cited as a means of working towards solutions in these areas and is sometimes dismissed wholesale as unfit to meet contemporary challenges. Serde Atalay and Michael George Marcondes Smith argue that the potential of a human rights-based approach to answer today’s crises is being overlooked.

Humanity today faces growing pressures and mounting challenges across a wide range of areas: climate change demands international cooperation, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented government intervention in the lives of citizens, and poverty and inequality remain persistent problems. These demonstrate how nation-states struggle to collaborate even as the world becomes increasingly entangled and globalised. This context calls for a re-evaluation of human rights as an instrument not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. Human rights law needs to recognise the changing nature of the multiple crises confronting humanity and expand its scope to actively address the most pressing issues we are facing.

Rather than engage in a critique of human rights that “deconstructs” the field, unmasking its various biases and failures, it is more productive to recognise its potential for addressing the shared challenges we face. An appraisal of international human rights law can uncover flaws, limitations, and room for reform. Its contradictions can explain how the language of rights has at times been weaponised against crisis response measures during the pandemic. However, as climate litigation has shown in different contexts, a human rights-centred approach nevertheless harbours great potential to push governments to act, and to hold them to account.

The nature(s) of human rights

From its inception, human rights law has been founded on a conception of the “individual” as an autonomous entity possessing rights – an idea that can be traced back to at least the Enlightenment, John Locke, and the rise of liberal ideals. However, this conception of human rights focused on the individual is partial. It ignores how individuals are part of social constructions that determine their wellbeing.[1] An individual does not exist on their own; they are part of systems in which absence, abundance, struggle, and conflict exist. Imagining individual as isolated entities does not accurately reflect the realities of a world where each new crisis highlights our interconnectedness and reasserts the need for collective action.

The centring of the individual has given way to a framing in which the whole legal system is perceived and explained as one of protection against interferences by the state. In other words, human rights assume a protective function against the evils of those who are in power. In this framing, international human rights law is merely a conveyor of standards of restraint.

However, as many have convincingly argued, full protection under the law requires not only stipulating what cannot be done but also clarification on what should be done.[2] These two aspects of human rights correspond to the “negative/positive obligations” dichotomy in law. This distinction has been sharpened further by the separation of civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other.[3] Both forms of obligations are important and must be vigorously defended.

Human rights are as much about the active protection of rights as they are about not interfering with individual freedoms. Losing sight of this point leads to a disregard for protective action to the benefit of not just one, but many. In the face of climate change, poverty, and the health crisis, this collective interpretation of human rights obligations has been absent, causing some to declare human rights as insufficient. However, human rights remain an instrument that can overcome political inaction to fight suffering and injustice.

Human rights are as much about the active protection of rights as they are about not interfering with individual freedoms.

Politics vs. law

A more proactive use of human rights law does face significant barriers. In the context of climate change litigation, governments have argued that certain matters can only be addressed by the political executive, rather than the courts. This idea, though justified in certain cases, has become a cliché that can turn any issue with far-reaching consequences into a “no-law” zone. It is true that the separation of powers is one of the oldest principles of constitutional democracies and that some matters are better left to politics. However, the sweeping use of this argument creates a bubble of unaccountability.

Recent successes in climate change litigation have offered a way out of this bind. In the famous “Urgenda” case, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands rejected the arguments by the Dutch government that emission reduction targets were not a matter for the courts. Instead, the court found that the state was violating the law by not meeting its obligations to act. The court did not enter into the discussion of how the Dutch government should meet its targets but merely determined that it had to honour its commitments. By setting a reasonable boundary as to how much it interferes with an issue that requires immediate state action, the court ultimately prevented the government from escaping the consequences of derogating from its obligation to act against climate change.

The Urgenda case has been instructive elsewhere. Climate Case Ireland (Friends of the Irish Environment v. Government of Ireland) determined that the government’s climate action needs to be specific enough in its articulation under the law. “Excessively vague” and “aspirational policies” were not enough to meet clear legal demands. Similarly, the case of Notre Affaire à Tous and Others v. France filed against the French government for failing to fulfil its obligations under the Paris Agreement has led the Paris Administrative Court to hold the French government accountable. These cases demonstrate how the law can help overcome stagnation imposed by political agendas. Although these cases are not based on human rights law, they engage the law to push states to fulfil their obligations to safeguard the wellbeing of humanity, both now and in the future.

The case of People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India & Ors. before the Supreme Court of India in the early 2000s is an example of rights protection through the proper enactment of human rights law. The case challenged the state for its failure to allocate excess grain, which was withheld for official times of famine. In its judgement, the Supreme Court recognised that the right to life was endangered due to lack of access to food and ordered the government to distribute the grain. To this day, this case is considered a great example of active rights protection.

It is worth noting that these litigations took place at the national level. Such developments have been rather scarce at the international and regional levels. One significant, still unfolding case at the European Court of Human Rights is Youth for Climate Justice v. Austria et. al., brought by a group of young people against the biggest polluters of Europe. It remains to be seen how the court will adjudicate. All of these examples illustrate how human rights – bearing in mind that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers many social rights such as workers’ rights and medical care – could be used more assertively in a manner that remains mindful of where the line between politics and the law needs to be drawn. Our claim is not that this line must be disregarded altogether, but rather that it needs to be redrawn in the context of human rights.

The real potential of human rights

How can a human rights-based approach inform our understanding of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the legal dilemmas it has brought to the fore? For states, the health crisis pits the positive obligations that human rights bring against the negative duties, in ways that are at times conflictual. The right to health is recognised in international and regional human rights systems. The fulfilment of this duty and hence, effective protection of the right to health, does not conflict with any individual freedoms but only with the resources of a given state, so a judgment as to when this duty will have been fulfilled cannot be given in abstraction. However, the point is that failure to protect the right to health is not just a matter of policy but also a matter of human rights.

For states, the health crisis pits the positive obligations that human rights bring against the negative duties, in ways that are at times conflictual.

Throughout the pandemic, individual rights have necessarily been curtailed. For example, measures such as quarantining and travel restrictions limit freedom of movement. One reading sees human rights making two opposing demands on states, simultaneously obliging them to act to protect health and to refrain from acting to protect other rights. This seems to highlight a contradiction in human rights: which should be given priority? If we are to take human rights as a means of protecting the atomic individual and heavily lean on its negative, rather than positive potential, we risk falling into a dangerous exercise of protecting freedom for the individual over what is best for collective health. However, a more complete understanding of human rights, with due regard to its positive and protective function, balances the needs of the collective and the rights of the individual and recognises how states can and should weigh one against the other.

Human rights are not radical liberties that atomise and separate the individual from their social context. The endless critiques of human rights’ failures are not constructive and only lead to undermining their potential legal value. Instead, human rights should, to the greatest extent possible, be deployed as powerful tools against current and future crises. As to whose shoulders this effort falls upon, the answer does not point to a single actor. States – as the main duty-bearers; civil society – as the ones enabling the realisation of human rights on the ground and connecting policymakers, communities, human rights defenders and practitioners; and individuals – as the main rights-holders within the communities they belong to; all have a part to play. Only a concerted, effectively communicated, and widely shared understanding, informed by shared experiences and needs, can help in carrying out the project of human rights for the betterment of all.

Footnotes

[1] Sandra Fredman, Human Rights Transformed: Positive Rights and Positive Duties, OUP 2008, pp. 16-18.

[2] See Fredman; Henry Shue, Subsistence, Affluence and US Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press 1996; Susan Marks, ‘Human Rights in Disastrous Times’ in James Crawford and Martti Koskenniemi (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to International Law, CUP 2012, 309-326.

[3] Without prejudice to the fact that there are positive obligations inherent to civil and political rights, as well as negative obligations inherent to economic, social, and political rights.

Democracy is the Key to Renewing the EU’s Legitimacy

Our understanding of what constitutes democratic process is heavily informed by our social, cultural, and political context. Hitherto this context has been that of the nation-state, which has asserted a monopoly over definitions of democracy within its borders. A fundamental obstacle along the long and winding road to European democracy is that of overcoming these rigid structures and the deep-rooted perceptions they have instilled in the minds of citizens. In this second article in a series on the Future of Europe, Edouard Gaudot deconstructs these perceptions and assesses the prospects for the construction of a shared understanding of democracy among Europeans, as a foundation of a genuinely European civil society.  

Amid the rumblings that accompany each European election cycle, the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe, or the debates around revising the European Monetary Union framework, the demand for “more democracy” rings out above the noise as a recurring rallying call. Staunch defenders of European integration as well as its most outspoken opponents, mild federalists and mainstream intergovernmentalists, the European Commission itself, NGOs, media and ordinary European citizens, all seem to agree: “the EU needs to be more democratic”.

This is not new – the tune is an old and enduringly popular hit, that has been covered in each of the official languages of the EU. Coined 40 years ago among the Left of British politics, between the 1977 Young Federalist Manifesto drafted by future MEP Richard Corbett and its 1979 use by David Marquand, a Labour member and Oxford professor of political sciences, the expression of “democratic deficit” has since become a persistent blind spot in the European debate. Regardless of the evolutions of the institutional architecture, the many changes to democratic practices, and the assertion and reinforcement of the EU’s only democratically elected assembly, Europe’s “democratic deficit” is so tenacious it seems almost reform-proof.

The perception of a “problem with democracy” remains one of the most stubborn thorns in the side of European politics – and a vicious circle when, for successive decades, it came to declining election turnout. Of course, a closer examination of the claim reveals that the EU institutions are indeed, with some qualifications, democratic and respect the separation of powers: the Commission is legally and politically accountable to a democratically elected Parliament who co-legislates with a Council composed of democratically elected governments; and the Court of Justice is independent.

Europe’s “democratic deficit” is so tenacious it seems almost reform-proof.

But whether or not there is an actual democratic deficit in political science terms does not matter. What matters is why the perception remains and why it proves so enduring in the average person’s views on the EU. Of course, an organisation of continental scale can only ever seem a distant power for any individual; and in addition, the lack of a historically shaped sentiment of belonging, or “Schicksalsgemeinschaft”, at European level doesn’t help. But it goes deeper: the idea and representation of democracy is inseparable from one’s own national political culture. Building on many different political traditions, the EU’s institutions and processes belong to all European systems and to none. Ultimately, Europe appears too foreign to be understood and too complex to be liked.

A tale of many cities

Democracy encompasses much more than just institutions and processes. Elections or constitutions alone are not enough to define a democratic regime. If the “rule of law” can in some malevolent regimes become rather a “rule by law”, it is precisely because there is more to democracy than just a formal side – as aptly demonstrated by Viktor Orbán since he rose to secure a constitutional majority in the Hungarian Parliament in 2010. Is illiberal democracy undemocratic, as we would label it, because it no longer abides by our universally accepted liberal values? Or is it the domestic strain of democracy corresponding to the time and place of the regime? Fundamentally, practices and “l’esprit des lois” (the spirit of the laws) make the difference – all matured in a national and cultural political context. Democracy is first and foremost a social process, the product of history for a political entity that perceives itself as one community. Therefore, anything different and foreign might appear “less democratic” than the homemade brand. But even the pioneering democracies of Britain, the US, and France took over a century to grant their female citizens the same voting rights as men.

Ultimately, everyone has a national (and time-based) definition of what is democratic. In the eyes of German and Scandinavian parliamentary democracies, the French republican presidency looks rather odd. Similarly, which is “more democratic”, of the Italian electoral system and its seemingly inherent party squabbles or the first-past-the-post British absolutist variant of parliamentary representation? And for any French citizen born and raised to revere monarchy-style centralised power, the endless coalition negotiations keeping the Kingdom of Belgium without a government for up to two years are incomprehensible. Moreover, some political families, from the German Social Democrats to various European Green parties, consider that their members should have a say on their possible participation in a ruling coalition; while others relieve themselves of such democratic exercises. And yet, they remain democratic parties.

So, is a federation more democratic than a centralised state? Is it more or less democratic to have one rather than two chambers in the Parliament? Or an electoral threshold? Or a two-round system? What is the acceptable level of technocratic involvement in law-making? What specific role should there be, if any, for the representation of private corporate interests through the practice of lobbying? Should we consider referendums as a democratic tool or a potentially dangerous populist outburst? And are calls for more subsidiarity in the EU blunt demands for the repatriation of national power or genuine pleas for greater local and individual empowerment?

Democratic Europe vs. European democracy

In fact, there is no concrete change that can claim to make the EU truly “democratic” if these changes remain limited by our national definitions and practices of “what is democratic”. So what does “more democracy” then mean at a European level? What would make the EU more democratic? Different institutions, new electoral systems, enhanced ethics, frequent consultations, independent media? First of all, acknowledging the relative crisis of national democratic models in many of the EU member states would be a first step, as it would put an end to the formal and sterile opposition between national and European forms of democracy, and the assumption that only the former is legitimate.

Ivan Krastev’s After Europe diagnosed the predicament in 2017 as he pointed out the changing nature of our European democracies, whose fading liberal colours were turning increasingly Schmittian: divisive, authoritarian, polarised, and brutal. Unfortunately, the EU’s legitimacy and political process is founded on the liberal strain of democracy: far more than just a project for shared peace and prosperity, it is one of converging preoccupations, structures, procedures, and perspectives between countries who have liberal democracy in common.

However, democracy as a tool for the inclusion and protection of the minority is increasingly weakened as “threatened majorities” are making their voices heard and putting the angry men (and women) of this world centre-stage and sometimes into power. In a democracy in which everything becomes politicised and polarised, no idea is legitimate if not held by the elected majority. For instance, the rights of Polish women over their own bodies are no longer fundamental rights but a political opposition between traditional values and liberal ideology. As Krastev underlined with depressing lucidity, the crisis in the EU is the crisis of liberal democracy and vice versa. Consequently, the current undoing of our national democracies and their increasingly loosening cultural and social fabric is an invitation to rethink one of the founding myths of modern politics: the demos. This very abstract notion of “the people” is indeed the prime mover of the populist surge. However, its current stiffening amounts to a sort of swan song for this very 19th century definition of “democracy as a national idea”.

The EU cannot be democratic in the sense of our national subconscious conception.

This is why we should bear in mind the philosophical, practical and political opposition between a democratic Europe and a European democracy. The EU cannot be democratic in the sense of our national subconscious conception. First and foremost, because it doesn’t have a continental demos – at least for now, as these social and cultural convergence processes require several generations and a strong centralised state. Secondly, because the 27 demoï (and even more if one considers the various regionalist narratives) it is composed of are currently struggling with their own legitimacy, in a time of exhausted common narratives and waning social cohesion. However, the current impossibility of a democratic Europe paves the way towards a European democracy: namely an accountable and legitimate, subsidiarity-driven governing system, geared to comprehensively include individuals and groups whose interests and representations differ, dissent, complete or oppose each other, and whose process of interaction gives birth to a genuine European community and common interest.

Europe’s raison d’être: “more” democracy

Ultimately, democracy should be understood for what it is fundamentally: one of the possible ways to legitimise the obedience of the many and the power of the few; there are several others, such as tradition, religion, fear, might, money, or manipulation, and all can surreptitiously make their way into the practices of formally democratic institutions, altering the spirit without touching the letter of the democratic social contract. Julia Cagé’s investigations into how democratic processes can be captured and subverted by money and private interests, or the oligopolistic structure of private media ownership, are excellent illustrations of how such corruption of democratic processes can take place while the face of the institutions remains intact and impassive.

Democracy is a political project collectively defined and shared

Democracy is political power accepted against the promise of self-empowerment; it is general interest balanced with the respect of individual freedom. Hence, institutional checks and balances, transparent processes, and the accountability of those who accede to public offices make up the core elements that ensure the sustainability of a democratic system. But the root of any truly democratic system lies in its purpose. Democracy is a political project collectively defined and shared: it may be the pursuit of happiness or the realisation of a classless society, what matters to this social contract is its “raison d’être”, the rationale behind its adoption.

Evidently, institutional changes, treaty reform, and streamlined political processes in the direction of increased transparency, efficiency, inclusiveness, participation, and ethics would all constitute important steps. But following the pattern of reform that has been dominant in the EU over the past decades will not be enough to overcome the deficit. Up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first phase of EEC/EU history was about shared peace and prosperity in order to ward off the ghosts of a past riddled with atrocities and the spectre of the Soviet threat. 1989-92 marked the spectacular success of the European endeavour. However, since then, the goals and purpose of the European integration process have never been fully and explicitly defined, shared, or democratically acknowledged – instead they have been merely hinted at in the Treaties, as in the reference to an “ever closer Union”. (No wonder one of David Cameron’s demands in 2013 focused on erasing this line of text which was not regarded as implicit enough to be hidden from British public debate.)

In a way, the current defiance towards the European idea could be the wake-up call for those who deem the European project a desirable and valuable political adventure. There are a few raisons-d’être for political integration at European level: size among the global competition, single market for growth, protectionism, etc. But the achievement of a truly continental democracy might be the most compelling reason of all. With fundamental, then civic, and finally, social rights, the building of national democracy has been a – sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent – historical journey of collective conquests and counterbalances to dominant, established powers. The most salient task of the modern state has been to equalise life chances and socialise the risk faced by individual citizens. The next chapter in the history of democracy is to extend these rights beyond their national framework. As Etienne Balibar once succinctly put it, “the EU must be more democratic than the nations it is made of”.

In his essay on “Democracy in Europe”, published at the height of Europe’s federalist fever, also known as the Convention, Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop recalled a political truth too often dismissed: that only what is intelligible can be accepted as legitimate. Evidently, the authors of the ill-fated European Constitution didn’t ponder for long enough the seriousness of the warning.

Every referendum campaign, since the 1992 Maastricht votes in France and Denmark, has showed only too well the limits and gradual exhaustion afflicting the traditional historical legitimacy of the European endeavor. Today, with the Conference on the Future of Europe and the conversation around the legal framework of the euro, the EU’s constitutional process is slowly regaining momentum. It is high time to address the EU’s ailing legitimacy. Striving toward a truly European democracy should serve this renewed purpose.

But European democracy will not emerge from some institutional changes, major or otherwise, designed by the few for the many. The moment of Europe’s Madisons and Jeffersons is gone. Similarly, our interconnected and unruly times call for an approach that deviates from the usual official “narratives”, institutionally concocted and branded, and then marketed to the public like a new car or a cereal box. Our times demand enhanced political intelligibility. They demand shared projects whose meaning can federate not only states but also individuals into something larger than themselves.

The social and cultural conditions for a deeper democratic process are building. European citizens are no longer willing to passively watch the movie shot in their name – they want to play their part in it. The versatile nature of democracy, which is both a means and an end, can satisfy this demand. Todays’ powers are in essence transnational and borderless. So must be their counterbalances. The making of a transnational European civil society is both the outcome of European democracy, and a condition for its emergence. The same is true at a global scale, to which the European project is potentially a prelude.

Transatlantische Solidarität mit der Zivilgesellschaft neu denken

Die Administration von Joe Biden und Kamala Harris in den Vereinigten Staaten birgt die Chance für einen Neustart der transatlantischen Beziehungen insbesondere mit Blick auf die Zivilgesellschaft. Frauenbewegungen, die Black Lives Matter-Bewegungen und die Klimageneration finden starke Resonanz in Europa und in den USA – und sie sind zentral für eine Neuaufstellung des europäisch-transatlantischen Projekts. Wer ist die Zivilgesellschaft, auf die eine zukünftige transatlantische Erzählung und eine lebendige und partizipative Demokratie bauen kann?

Als am 20. Januar 2021 Joe Biden und Kamala Harris im Weißen Haus als neue Regierungsadministration der Vereinigten Staaten vereidigt wurden, atmeten in Europa viele auf. Aber mit dem Wechsel im Amt sind die Verwerfungen im transatlantischen Verhältnis nicht verschwunden. Die US-amerikanische Gesellschaft ist gespaltener denn je; auch wenn Joe Biden dem Pariser Abkommen wieder beigetreten ist, muss eine neue Klimadiplomatie aufgebaut werden. Die Pandemie kontrolliert den politischen Alltag. Auch wenn Joe Biden der WHO wieder beigetreten ist, muss eine Reform angestoßen werden. Der begonnene Handelskrieg gegen Europa muss beendet werden. Die USA steht vor einem Schuldenberg und vor den Scherben einer Politik, die Europa den Rücken zugewandt hat. Der Verweis auf die Geschichte seit dem 2. Weltkrieg, auf die stabilisierende und unterstützende Funktion der USA für die Einheit Westeuropas in den 1950er Jahren genügt nicht mehr, genauso wenig lässt sich nahtlos an die Obama-Ära anknüpfen.

Es braucht eine neue transatlantische Erzählung, die aus den vergangenen vier Jahren lernt und das europäisch-transatlantische Projekt zukunftsfähig macht. Diese Erzählung beruht auf dem Weiterschreiben einer gemeinsamen Idee von demokratischer und offener Gesellschaft. Das ist nichts vollkommen Neues, aber im transatlantischen Verhältnis dominierte in den vergangenen Jahrzehnten die gemeinsame Sicherheitspolitik. Dieses Paradigma verfängt nicht mehr. Auf beiden Seiten des Atlantiks verändern sich die Gesellschaften, werden diverser und orientieren sich globaler. Gleichzeitig entwickeln sich spannende, neue Bewegungen mit starker Resonanz in Europa und den USA. Die wirklich interessante Frage für die Zukunft ist daher: Wer sind die „Transformer“? Wer sind Träger*innen der transatlantischen Erzählung, auf die eine weitergeschriebene, lebendige Demokratie bauen kann?  Wer sind die Bürgerinnen und Bürger, die mit hoher Glaubwürdigkeit für eine neue Inklusivität unserer Demokratien streiten?

Wer sind die Transformer? Es geht um die Zivilgesellschaft

Zunächst einmal: Engagement für die Demokratie beginnt, abgesehen von den vornehmsten Bürger*innenrechten der Demokratie wie dem Wahlrecht, mit der Erfahrung von Selbstwirksamkeit.
Oft sind es Defizite und mangelnde Teilhabechancen bis hin zu massiver Diskriminierung wie im Fall der Polizeigewalt gegen Schwarze, Indigene und Menschen of Colour (BIPoC) in den USA, die Menschen dazu bringen, sich einzumischen. Verletzte Menschenrechte, andauernde Ungerechtigkeit und das Versagen von Institutionen sind Treiber von zivilgesellschaftlichen Bewegungen. 2016 formierte sich der unglaublich große Women’s March, bis heute erleben wir die Reaktivierung und den Sprung über Milieugrenzen bei der Black Lives Matter-Bewegung und wir sind seit Greta Thunberg‘s erstem Auftritt Zeug*innen einer sich rasant vergrößernden, globalen Jugendbewegung für Klimaschutz. Das ist die Zivilgesellschaft, die sich politisch einmischt und die beiderseits des Atlantiks die gleichen demokratischen Versprechen umgesetzt sehen möchte – eine gerechte Gesellschaft, in der sie sich repräsentiert fühlen, politische Institutionen, die die Zukunftsprobleme wie Ungleichheit und Klimakrise angehen, statt zu vertagen. Sie steht ein für eine plurale, vielfältige Öffentlichkeit, in der Meinungsfreiheit und Respekt herrschen.

Das transkontinentale Auftreten der Bewegungen ist deutliches Zeichen dafür, dass die jüngeren Generationen, die Millennials, die Generation Z und die Klimageneration, dass die Perspektive der Frauen und der LSBTIQ*-Community, dass die Einschätzungen marginalisierter Gruppen viel stärker und ernsthafter integriert werden müssen in einen bisweilen elitären, politischen Diskurs über transatlantische Gemeinsamkeiten. 

Bürgerinnen und Bürger, die in der Demokratie engagiert sind und sich für die Demokratie engagieren, das meint der Begriff Zivilgesellschaft. Und diese Zivilgesellschaft ist ein starker Treiber hin zu einer neuen Phase der Demokratie im 21. Jahrhundert.  Neu, weil wir nach dem Wiederaufbau der europäischen Demokratien nach 1945,  nach den Umbrüchen 1968 wie auch nach dem Fall der Mauer nun eine neue, breite Entwicklung sehen, die einerseits Gerechtigkeit und Teilhabe jenseits kolonialistischer Deutungsmuster und andererseits eine entschiedene Lösung der Klimakrise in den Fokus nimmt.

Die Struktur der Zivilgesellschaft ist heute vielfältiger denn je, mehr noch, Vielfalt ist ein Anspruch an die Gestaltung von Demokratie. Bereits zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhundert zeigte sich Alexis de Tocqueville, der französische Adlige und Publizist fasziniert von der Zivilgesellschaft in der jungen Demokratie der Vereinigten Staaten. Demokratische Selbstorganisation, die sich weder den Gesetzen des Marktes, noch den hoheitlichen Ansprüchen des Staates unterwarf, sondern durch die Bildung von Vereinigungen auf regionaler und lokaler Ebene etwas Drittes bildete, stärkte und prägte den Charakter der Demokratie. Europa steckte hingegen noch tief in monarchischen Strukturen. Die aufkeimende bürgerliche Gesellschaft sollte noch lange Zeit Mühe haben, sich eine Stimme zu verschaffen. Das europäische Bild änderte sich gegen Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts. Emanzipationsbewegungen, die um Anerkennung und Wahrnehmung stritten, wie die erste Frauenbewegung oder die Arbeiterbewegung veränderten auch auf dem alten Kontinent die Gesellschaften in Richtung Vielfalt und schufen neue Formen von Öffentlichkeit. Das 20. Jahrhundert war ein „age of extremes“, und es brachte zugleich in seiner zweiten Hälfte starke soziale, demokratische Bewegungen hervor, die sich europäisch und transatlantisch vernetzten.

Zu den aus heutiger Sicht lange bewährten, im transatlantischen Verhältnis dominierenden Vereinigungen, Think Tanks, etablierten Beziehungen von Institutionen bis hin zu Städtepartnerschaften, die strukturell verankert und gesellschaftlich integriert sind, treten neue Formen der Zivilgesellschaft. Spontane Bewegungen, die sich in den sozialen Medien und auf der Straße zusammenfinden, informelle Communities, die sich ihre eigenen politischen Safe Spaces errichten, interdisziplinäre Bündnisse, die sich hinter offenen Briefen versammeln ebenso wie Aktivist*innen, die etwa in den sozialen Medien öffentliche Meinungsführerschaft übernehmen, verwandeln nationale gesellschaftliche Diskurse in transatlantische und globale. Jetzt ist der Moment, diese neuen Bewegungen, die ihre Zugänge zur offenen Gesellschaft und zur liberalen Demokratie gerade definieren, in die klassischen Diskurse des transatlantischen Austausches nicht nur einzubeziehen, sondern diese klassischen Diskurse vielmehr herauszufordern und zu verändern. 

Vielfalt braucht Repräsentation in den Demokratien 

Die Vielfalt der Perspektiven, die das neue Kabinett von Biden-Harris repräsentiert, ist mehr als ein symbolischer Akt. Erstmals gehören u.a. Deb Haaland, eine indigene Innenministerin, Lloyd Austin, ein schwarzer Verteidigungsminister und Rachel Levine, eine Trans Staatssekretärin im US-Gesundheitsministerium zum Regierungsteam. Hier wird in Teilen ein gesellschaftlicher Wandel politisch und personell nachvollzogen, der längst sichtbar und wirkmächtig ist. Das kann und muss vorbildhafte Wirkung für eine inklusive Ausgestaltung des europäisch-transatlantischen Projekts haben. Gleichberechtigte Repräsentation muss in europäischen Administrationen, etwa der Europäischen Kommission, dem Europäischen Parlament oder dem Bundestag, vielfältiger aussehen. Entscheidend ist, die Diversität der eigenen Gesellschaften auch in den Institutionen abzubilden und sie auf diese Weise auch in den transatlantischen Dialog zu integrieren. 

Politischer Repräsentation von Personen kommt dabei ebenso viel Bedeutung zu wie der Repräsentation ihrer Themen. Ein wichtiger Schritt ist die Anerkennung, dass Rassismus, Diskriminierung und Sexismus demokratische Gesellschaften schwächen, Teilhabe verhindern und daher mit in das Zentrum der Debatten über Demokratie gehören. Eine der wichtigsten Lektionen der vergangenen Jahre ist, dass die Gefährdung demokratischer Öffentlichkeit von innen durch extreme Polarisierung mindestens ebenso gefährlich ist wie die Gefährdung durch die Interventionen autokratischer Regime von außen.

Auf beiden Seiten des Atlantiks liegen vielfältige Erfahrungen vor, wie demokratische Resilienz gestärkt werden kann. Es sind nicht zuletzt die Protestbewegungen, wie Black Lives Matter oder „March for our Lives“, die in Europa auch deswegen massive Resonanzen erzeugt haben, weil sie symbolisch für eine leidenschaftliche Verteidigung von Freiheit, Gleichberechtigung und Demokratie standen und stehen. Für die Zukunft wird es darauf ankommen, diese Resonanzen aufzugreifen, demokratiestärkende Vielfalt in Institutionen und Diskursen wirkungsvoll zu repräsentieren – auch in Deutschland und Europa. Mit diesem Anspruch öffnen sich Lernfelder der Demokratie, des transatlantischen Austausches, die noch nicht im Ansatz ausgelotet sind. Repräsentation beginnt bei der Einladung diverser Repräsentant*innen zu Veranstaltungen, führt über die Repräsentation in der Exekutive – aber endet dort noch lange nicht. Sie ist kein Selbstzweck, sondern ein Element demokratischer Kultur.

Den Stimmen der Zivilgesellschaft einen zentralen Platz ermöglichen

Eine weitere Lektion, von der das transatlantische Verhältnis im Blick auf die Zivilgesellschaft enorm profitieren kann, ist die regionale Verankerung vieler zivilgesellschaftlicher Akteur*innen. Eine ganze Reihe lokaler Organisationen kann bei der Umsetzung eines ökologischen Wandels in die transatlantische Zusammenarbeit inkludiert werden: Die Just-Transition-Bewegung in ehemaligen US-Kohleregionen etwa hat, bestehend aus Umweltorganisationen, Bürgerrechts- und Klimaaktivist*innen, Künstler*innen und Gewerkschaften, Ideen für einen innovativen, sozialen und ökologischen Strukturwandel entwickelt. Etliche zivilgesellschaftliche Organisationen weisen auf die Zusammenhänge zwischen Umweltzerstörung, dem kolonialen Erbe, rassistischen Konnotierungen und sozialer Benachteiligung hin. Die Initiative „Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish“ warnt die überwiegend afroamerikanischen Anwohner*innen vor den gesundheitlichen Gefahren der im Umkreis liegenden toxischen Fossilindustrie – 776 Mal höher ist hier die Gefahr, an Krebs zu erkranken. 

Manche dieser Gruppen sind bereits transatlantisch vernetzt. Die fridays for future-Bewegung begann in Schweden und fand ihren ersten Höhepunkt im September 2019 beim

globalen Klimastreik und Greta Thunberg’s Rede in New York City. Die jährliche Congressional Black Caucus Konferenz in den USA bringt Schwarze Menschen aus der ganzen Welt zusammen, um politische Forderungen der Communities, gemeinsame und unterschiedliche Herausforderungen zu diskutieren.

Die Freiheit der offenen Gesellschaften ermöglicht den Zusammenschluss, die Selbstorganisation und die politische Einmischung ihrer Bürger*innen. Im transatlantischen Austausch liegen riesige Chancen, die Themen, für die zivilgesellschaftliche Gruppen einstehen, ganz oben auf die Agenda zu setzen. Schließlich sind es genau diejenigen transnationalen Netzwerke, die über Grenzen hinweg Brücken bauen, gegenseitige Verständigung erweitern und Gemeinsamkeiten stärken.

Das Band der transatlantischen Solidarität stärken

Für viele Menschen war während der letzten vier Jahre die transatlantische Solidarität eine Form des Widerstands gegen den Isolationismus und Populismus, gegen Desinformation und Abkoppelung von Europa. Während Donald Trump aus dem Pariser Klimaabkommen und der Weltgesundheitsorganisation ausstieg, eine Mauer an der Grenze zu Mexiko bauen ließ und die Spaltung innerhalb der Gesellschaft noch weiter befeuerte, wuchs die Solidarität innerhalb der US-amerikanischen Städte, Bundesstaaten und über den Kontinent hinaus. Die gemeinsame Initiative „We Are Still In“ von 10 Staaten, 293 Städten und Kommunen und vielen mehr, die sich trotz der Blockade, die vom 45. US-Präsidenten ausging, zusammenfand, um sich zu den Zielen des Pariser Klimaabkommens zu bekennen, ist ein wertvolles Bündnis, das seinen transatlantischen und globalen Einfluss jetzt wirksam zur Geltung bringen kann. Ebenso große Chancen bieten sich jetzt, die vom Bundesstaat Kalifornien und dem Bundesland Baden-Württemberg begründete „Under2Coalition“ zu intensivieren. Zivilgesellschaft und die Institutionen der repräsentativen Demokratie haben hier ein breites, gemeinsames Wirkungsfeld. Zugleich wird die Zivilgesellschaft ihrer kritischen Funktion gerecht, insbesondere dort, wo Lobbyinteressen progressive Politiken behindern und verzögern.

Gemeinsam in die Zukunft !

Transatlantische Solidarität bedeutet, gemeinsam demokratische Resilienz zu stärken, in Zeiten der Pandemie solidarische Strukturen der Überwindung der Gesundheitskrise zu etablieren und auf längere Sicht die Lektionen aus den vergangenen vier Jahren zu beherzigen. Eine der wichtigsten ist: „Transformer“ finden sich auf allen Ebenen des politischen Prozesses, besonders aber unter den zivilgesellschaftlichen Akteuren. Ihre Repräsentation zu stärken, ihre Themen aufzugreifen und ihren Stimmen Gehör zu verschaffen, ist ein Auftrag für die kommenden Jahre. Dazu gehört, die unterschiedlichen Themen auf politischer Ebene umzusetzen: Angefangen von konkreten Maßnahmen zu Klimaschutz und gleichzeitiger sozialer Gerechtigkeit, zur Wiederbelebung gemeinsamer Institutionen der Zusammenarbeit über eine gemeinsame, europäisch-transatlantische Regulierung von Hassrede und Desinformation im Netz, hin zu viel stärkerer Unterstützung der Zivilgesellschaft, sowohl finanziell als auch strukturell.  Angesprochen sind dabei politische Akteure, die auf den unterschiedlichen Themenfeldern das transatlantische Verhältnis wiederbeleben. Sie sind gut beraten, neue Perspektiven zu integrieren und neue Dialogformen zu etablieren.

Angesprochen sind aber auch die zivilgesellschaftlichen Akteure selbst: Transatlantische Solidarität braucht Gemeinsamkeit, Vernetzung, Ideen und Akteur*innen, braucht offene, kontroverse Debattenräume und Einmischung in etablierte Strukturen. Kein Zufall: Die Aufforderung „to build back better“ trifft sowohl auf die Zeit nach der Pandemie, als auch auf das transatlantische Verhältnis zu. 

Civil Society Must Be at the Heart of a Renewed Transatlantic Solidarity

The new US administration offers the opportunity for a reboot of transatlantic relations, especially in relation to civil society. The calls and grievances expressed by Women’s movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the climate generation resonate strongly in both Europe and the US. These movements are central actors in a potential reconfiguration of the EU-US relationship. Their diverse and participatory nature, as well as the commitment to justice they embody, could form the foundation for building a new transatlantic narrative.

When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the new leaders of the United States on 20 January 2021, many Europeans breathed a sigh of relief. But the fault lines in transatlantic relations remain. Biden cannot simply pick up where Obama left off. In addition to inheriting a society more divided than ever, a mountain of debt, and a political life mired in the pandemic, the new administration must deal with the consequences of a policy that turned its back on Europe. References to the stabilising and supporting role played by the US in forging the unity of Western Europe in the 1950s will not be sufficient to repair the damage. The trade war against Europe must be ended. And while Biden has earned plaudits for rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, climate diplomacy must now be rebuilt and WHO reforms initiated.

A new narrative is needed that draws lessons from the past four years and ensures that the transatlantic project is fit for the future. This narrative rests on a common, constantly evolving understanding of democratic and open societies. While this is not an entirely new concept, in recent decades the transatlantic relationship has been dominated by the idea of a common security policy. This paradigm no longer holds. Societies on both sides of the Atlantic are changing, becoming more diverse and globally orientated. At the same time, we are witnessing the development of exciting new movements which have found strong resonance in both Europe and the US. These raise questions of great interest and importance for the future. Who are the people who can make this transformation happen? Who are the bearers of the transatlantic narrative upon which a living, evolving democracy can be built? And who are the citizens who, with great credibility, are fighting for a new inclusiveness in our democracies?

In recent decades the transatlantic relationship has been dominated by the idea of a common security policy. This paradigm no longer holds.

It’s all about civil society

Human rights violations, persistent injustice, and institutional failure – from a lack of opportunities for participation to mass discrimination as in the case of police violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPoC) in the US – are all drivers of civil society movements. Recent years have seen the emergence of numerous movements impressive in their scale and influence. The Women’s March, estimated to have involved more than 5 million protesters worldwide, was formed in 2016; the regenerative effect of the Black Lives Matter movement and its unifying power can still be felt today; and, following the actions of Greta Thunberg, the global youth movement for climate protection shifted the debate fundamentally. This is a civil society that gets politically involved and wants to see the same democratic promises implemented on both sides of the Atlantic – a just society in which they feel represented, and political institutions that address the problems of the future rather than simply deferring them. A civil society that stands for a plural, diverse public sphere defined by freedom of expression and respect.

The transatlantic appeal of these movements is a clear sign that the views and experiences of millennials, Generation Zers, and the climate generation, of women and the LGBTIQ community, and of marginalised groups need to be much more strongly and seriously integrated into an often elitist political discourse on transatlantic shared values.

Citizens engaged within and for democracy – that is civil society. And this civil society is a powerful driver of a new phase of democracy in the 21st century. Following the reconstruction of European democracies after 1945, the upheavals of 1968, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we now see the development of a new, broader form of democracy. It demands both justice and participation beyond colonialist patterns of interpretation and a decisive solution to the climate crisis.

Today, the structure of civil society is more diverse than ever. Diversity is a requirement for the shaping of democracy. At the beginning of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French nobleman and publicist, was fascinated by civil society in the young democracy of the United States. Democratic self-organisation that submitted neither to the laws of the market nor to the sovereign claims of the state but formed something “third” – the formation of associations at regional and local level strengthened and shaped the character of democracy. Europe, in contrast, was still deeply entrenched in monarchical structures. Its burgeoning civil society had a long struggle ahead of it. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the picture changed. Emancipation movements fighting for recognition and awareness, such as the first women’s movement and the labour movement, brought about social change in favour of diversity and created new forms of public sphere. The 20th century was an “age of extremes”, the second half of which brought forth strong social, democratic movements which established networks both within Europe and across the Atlantic.

The long-established associations, think tanks, institutional relationships, and even twinning arrangements that have hitherto dominated transatlantic relations are being joined by new forms of civil society: spontaneous movements that come together on social media and on the streets, informal communities that build their own political safe spaces, interdisciplinary alliances that coalesce behind open letters, and activist opinion leaders on social media. National social discourses are being transformed into transatlantic and global ones. As these new movements determine their approach to politics and liberal democracy, now is the time to not only integrate them into the classical discourses of transatlantic exchange but also to challenge and change these classical discourses.

Democracies need diversity

The formation of the new Biden-Harris cabinet, with its diversity of views and experiences, was more than just a symbolic act. For the first time, the government team includes, among others, a Native American interior minister, Deb Haaland, a black defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and a transgender assistant secretary for health, Rachel Levine. A change which has long been visible and at work in society is being reproduced politically and specifically in terms of personnel. This can and must have an influential impact across the Atlantic. Representation within European administrations such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Bundestag needs to have a stronger focus on diversity. It is crucial that our institutions – and thus the transatlantic dialogue – reflect the diversity of our societies.

People’s political representation is just as important as the representation of their issues. A key step is the recognition that racism, discrimination, and sexism weaken democratic societies by hindering participation and are therefore central to debates on democracy. The threat to democratic public opinion from within due to extreme polarisation is at least as dangerous as the threat from outside from autocratic regimes. This is one of the most important lessons of recent years.  

The threat to democratic public opinion from within due to extreme polarisation is at least as dangerous as the threat from outside from autocratic regimes.

A broad range of experiences demonstrating how democratic resilience can be strengthened can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the March For Our Lives demonstration in support of gun-control legislation resonated deeply in Europe partially because they stood as symbols for the passionate defence of freedom, equality, and democracy. For the future, it will be a matter of converting this response into change, of effectively representing democracy-strengthening diversity in institutions and discourses – also in Germany and in Europe. This ambition opens up fields of learning on democracy and transatlantic exchange that have yet to be explored. Representation begins with greater diversity among event participants, leading on to representation within the executive – but it does not end there. It is not an end in itself, rather it is an integral element of democratic culture.

Putting civil society voices front and centre

Another important lesson for the transatlantic relationship is the regional anchoring of many civil society actors. Efforts to bring about ecological transformation within the relationship could, for instance, include a whole range of local organisations. An example is the Just Transition movement in former US coal regions. Under its aegis, environmental organisations, civil rights and climate activists, artists, and trade unions have come together to develop ideas for innovative social and ecological structural change.

A number of civil society organisations point to the links between environmental degradation, the colonial legacy, racism, and social disadvantage. The Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish initiative, for example, warns the Louisiana parish’s predominantly African-American residents about the health risks linked to chloroprene emissions from a chemical plant in the vicinity; the risk of developing cancer here is 50 times the national average.

Some of these groups already have transatlantic networks. The FridaysForFuture movement, for example, started in Sweden and reached its first high point during the September 2019 climate strikes when Greta Thunberg spoke in New York City. The annual Congressional Black Caucus conference in the US brings together black leaders, legislators, and citizens from around the world to discuss the political demands of their communities and the challenges they face.

The association, self-organisation, and political involvement of citizens is made possible by the freedom of open societies. Transatlantic exchange offers huge opportunities to put civil society organisations’ key themes at the top of the agenda. After all, it is these transnational networks in particular that build bridges across borders, expand mutual understanding, and strengthen a sense of shared values.

Strengthening transatlantic solidarity

Over the past four years, transatlantic solidarity has been a form of resistance against the prevailing isolationism and populism, disinformation, and disconnection from Europe for many US citizens. While Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, built a wall on the border with Mexico, and further fuelled divisions within society, solidarity grew within US cities, states, and across the continent. The joint “We Are Still In” initiative came together to commit to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement in spite of the actions of the 45th US President. Made up of 10 states, 293 cities and municipalities, and many others, “We Are Still In” is a valuable alliance that can now effectively leverage its transatlantic and global influence. Similarly, the work of the “Under2Coalition” founded by the State of California and the German State of Baden-Württemberg can now be intensified. Civil society and the institutions of representative democracy have a broad, common field of action here. At the same time, civil society is fulfilling its critical function, especially where lobby interests obstruct and delay progressive policies.

Transatlantic solidarity needs community, networking, ideas, and actors. It requires open spaces for controversial debate, and “interference” in established structures.

Moving forward together

Transatlantic solidarity means working together to strengthen democratic resilience, establishing solidarity structures to overcome the current health crisis and, in the longer term, taking to heart the lessons of the past four years. One of the most important is the fact that sources of change can be found at all levels of the political process, but most often among civil society actors. Strengthening their representation, addressing their issues, and making their voices heard should be a priority for the coming years. This includes action at the political level, including the implementation of concrete measures addressing both climate protection and social justice, the revival of joint institutions of cooperation, the creation of a joint EU-US regulation on hate speech and disinformation on the internet, and much stronger support for civil society, both financially and structurally. This primarily concerns those political actors working to revive the transatlantic relationship, who would be well advised to integrate new perspectives and establish new forms of dialogue. But it also concerns civil society actors themselves: transatlantic solidarity needs community, networking, ideas, and actors. It requires open spaces for controversial debate, and “interference” in established structures. It is no coincidence that the call to “build back better” applies to both the post-pandemic period and the transatlantic relationship.

Tutti uniti contro il Patto: perché la riforma del sistema di asilo europeo rischia di naufragare, ancora una volta

Sei mesi dopo la presentazione del Patto sulla migrazione e l’asilo da parte della Commissione europea, i negoziati al Consiglio procedono a rilento, per gli stessi motivi che nel 2018 hanno portato al fallimento del precedente tentativo di riforma del sistema d’asilo. Dietro la retorica del “nuovo inizio”, il Patto non riesce a conciliare gli interessi divergenti degli stati membri. Intanto al Parlamento europeo c’è chi spera di creare un fronte comune contro una proposta che, se approvata, segnerebbe un grave arretramento del diritto individuale d’asilo.

“L’ultima volta che sono andato al valico di frontiera di Montgenèvre, sulle Alpi, facevano diciotto gradi sotto zero. Ho  visto arrivare delle famiglie che volevano chiedere l’asilo. La polizia francese le ha respinte dicendo che non avevano un test pcr”. Damien Carême, eurodeputato del gruppo Verdi/ALE, è fuori di sé. Per quasi vent’anni sindaco di Grande-Synthe, una cittadina portuale vicino a Dunkerque, nel nord della Francia, conosce bene la dura realtà di chi cerca rifugio nell’Unione europea. I respingimenti sulle Alpi da parte delle autorità francesi, come anche quelli eseguiti in mare dalle autorità greche o maltesi o i respingimenti a catena lungo la rotta balcanica, sono il frutto di un sistema di asilo e migrazione europeo vecchio di decenni, rigido, iniquo e incapace di riformarsi realmente.

Eletto al Parlamento europeo nel 2019, Carême si batte oggi senza riserve contro il Patto sulla migrazione e l’asilo presentato dalla Commissione il 23 settembre scorso. Presentato come “un nuovo inizio”, questo corposo pacchetto di proposte dovrebbe permettere di superare lo stallo della riforma del sistema di asilo europeo, creando un meccanismo “equo ed efficace” che protegga chi dev’essere protetto, allontani rapidamente chi non ha il diritto di restare nell’UE e rispetti le differenti esigenze degli stati membri proponendo vari modi di contribuire al sistema. “È una pessima proposta che non risolverà nulla. Secondo me, andrebbe tutta cestinata”, è il laconico giudizio di Carême, che per il suo gruppo politico seguirà da vicino le discussioni su una delle principali e più criticate proposte contenute nel Patto, il Regolamento sulla gestione dell’asilo e della migrazione, per il quale è stato nominato relatore ombra (i relatori ombra sono eurodeputati che affiancano il relatore principale, rappresentando le posizioni degli altri gruppi politici.).

In questi ultimi sei mesi numerosi esperti – accademici ma anche membri di ONG attive sul campo – hanno analizzato a fondo le proposte della Commissione, giungendo all’unanime conclusione che il Patto rappresenta tutto fuorché un nuovo inizio. Si tratta piuttosto di un colpo di acceleratore dato a tendenze e procedure già presenti e molto problematiche. Se approvato, il Patto generalizzerebbe l’approccio hotspot collaudato in Grecia e in Italia, creando zone in cui verrebbero trattenute le persone arrivate irregolarmente sul territorio dell’Unione europea (principalmente chi si presenta alle frontiere, ma anche chi è fermato all’interno dell’Ue). Il trattenimento durerebbe il tempo necessario a procedere a una serie di accertamenti, già previsti dalle norme attuali ma che verrebbero disciplinati da un nuovo testo di legge. Questi controlli determinerebbero di fatto la tappa successiva: rimpatrio, procedura accelerata di asilo alla frontiera o accesso a una procedura di asilo regolare. Durante gli accertamenti, la procedura di asilo alla frontiera e i preparativi del rimpatrio, le persone non sarebbero “autorizzate a entrare nel territorio di uno Stato membro”, in base a un controverso concetto noto come “finzione di non ingresso”.

Una proposta pericolosa e ambigua

L’eurodeputata olandese Tineke Strik, relatrice ombra dei Verdi/ALE per la proposta che riguarda gli accertamenti, la definisce “pericolosa e ambigua”: “Lascia agli stati membri molta libertà, per esempio nel definire le condizioni di accoglienza durante gli accertamenti e nel decidere il ricorso o meno alla detenzione. La stessa Commissione precisa che gli standard legati al diritto comunitario in materia di asilo non si applicheranno in queste zone, nessuna direttiva o regolamento tranne la Carta dei diritti fondamentali”.

Altro punto preoccupante, secondo Strik, è l’assenza di indicazioni sulle qualifiche richieste alle persone che effettueranno gli accertamenti, raccogliendo dati personali, i motivi “dell’arrivo non autorizzato” e informazioni “sugli itinerari percorsi”. Il modulo redatto alla fine degli accertamenti avrà un impatto sul seguito della procedura, ma non potrà essere contestato, denuncia Strik, aggiungendo che “in quelle zone non è prevista assistenza legale né la presenza di ONG che possano informare le persone sulle conseguenze delle loro dichiarazioni”.

La Commissione chiede agli stati membri di “istituire un meccanismo di monitoraggio indipendente, che dovrebbe vigilare specialmente sul rispetto dei diritti fondamentali in ogni fase degli accertamenti e sul rispetto delle norme nazionali che disciplinano il trattenimento”. “A quanto ne so”, commenta Strik, “gli stati membri sono fortemente contrari a questa disposizione”. Non sorprende, considerata la scarsa diligenza con cui effettuano monitoraggi di questo tipo, già previsti in altri contesti (per esempio durante i rimpatri forzati).

La Croazia è in questo senso un “banco di prova” per il Patto, osserva Milena Zajovic del Border Violence Reporting Network, intervistata di recente dal giornalista Apostolis Fotiadis. Il governo croato, invitato nel novembre del 2020 a creare un meccanismo indipendente di monitoraggio alle sue frontiere, si è mostrato finora molto riluttante. Zajovic solleva due punti importanti alla luce del Patto. Il primo è che le ONG croate sono scettiche riguardo all’indipendenza di un futuro sistema di monitoraggio (“temono di essere usate”), il secondo è che “i respingimenti non avvengono ai posti di frontiera” (dove si svolgerebbero i controlli previsti dal governo croato). “Sappiamo che i respingimenti e altre violazioni non avvengono ai valichi ufficiali, ma in altre zone di frontiera come i boschi o il mare, dove c’è ancora meno controllo  sull’operato delle guardie di frontiera”, concorda Tineke Strik. “Per questo cercherò di far ampliare la portata del meccanismo di monitoraggio, insistendo non solo sulla sua indipendenza ma anche sulle risorse e sul mandato”.

Se escludiamo l’ostilità verso i monitoraggi indipendenti, l’ossessione per i rimpatri, la volontà di raccogliere quante più informazioni su chiunque provi a entrare nell’UE, non c’è molto altro che metta d’accordo gli stati membri, impegnati, come gli eurodeputati, a discutere i vari documenti che compongono il Patto. Lo scoglio principale, quello che ha fatto naufragare il precedente tentativo di riforma del sistema di asilo e che potrebbe riservare la stessa sorte al Patto, è la questione della spartizione delle responsabilità nell’accoglienza dei richiedenti asilo e nella gestione delle loro domande di protezione. Nel Patto, il tanto criticato regolamento di Dublino è abolito sulla carta ma non viene in realtà intaccato, poiché il principale criterio per determinare lo stato membro responsabile dell’esame di una richiesta di asilo rimane in sostanza quello del paese di primo ingresso. La Commissione propone di correggere questo squilibrio imponendo una scelta tra diverse opzioni di “solidarietà”: gli stati dove arrivano meno richiedenti asilo potranno accettarne il ricollocamento sul loro territorio, “sponsorizzare” il rimpatrio di persone presenti in un altro stato membro o scegliere altre “forme di sostegno operativo”. Il problema è che gli stati di frontiera vorrebbero un sistema molto più vincolante, che garantisca realmente una minore pressione sui loro sistemi di accoglienza, mentre diversi stati dell’Europa centro-orientale lo considerano già un’inaccettabile imposizione.

Un grande déjà-vu

Quando le chiedo se non le sembra di vivere un grande déjà-vu, l’eurodeputata tedesca Cornelia Ernst annuisce. Al suo terzo mandato con il gruppo Sinistra Unitaria Europea/Sinistra Verde Nordica (GUE/NGL), sa che i tentativi di riformare il sistema di asilo europeo, quando non si inceppano, possono solo peggiorare la situazione. Ernst ricorda che durante l’ultima legislatura il Parlamento era riuscito a trovare una posizione comune sulla riforma del Regolamento di Dublino. Dopo mesi di consultazioni, nel 2017 l’eurodeputata svedese Cecilia Wikström aveva presentato una proposta ambiziosa, che prevedeva un reale meccanismo di solidarietà tra gli stati. Approvata a larga maggioranza dal Parlamento, la proposta è stata poi scartata dal Consiglio. “Rispetto ad allora il Parlamento è meno progressista”, osserva Ernst. “Ci sono partiti di destra che rifiutano di accogliere anche un solo richiedente asilo. Ma dobbiamo unire tutte le voci critiche contro il Patto, compresi gli eurodeputati di paesi come Italia, Grecia, Malta e Spagna, che capiranno che questa proposta non è nel loro interesse. Dobbiamo mobilitare tutte le forze, mostrando la realtà e basandoci sui fatti, perché il Patto rappresenta un nuovo livello di pericolo per il diritto individuale all’asilo”.

Come denuncia l’eurodeputato tedesco Erik Marquardt (Verdi/ALE), la Commissione sembra aver deliberatamente ignorato i fatti nell’elaborare la sua proposta, in particolare per quanto riguarda le procedure alla frontiera. Nonostante avesse l’obbligo di presentare entro il 2017 uno studio d’impatto su queste procedure, la Commissione non l’ha fatto. È stato il Parlamento europeo a svolgere lo studio, che ha permesso a Marquardt di presentare una risoluzione (ovvero una dichiarazione politica) approvata a febbraio con 505 voti a favore, 124 contrari e 55 astensioni.

“Abbiamo potuto mostrare che il ricorso alle procedure di asilo alla frontiera ha importanti conseguenze sul piano giuridico. La Commissione può anche sostenere che con il Patto le procedure alla frontiera funzioneranno bene, le decisioni saranno prese rapidamente, ci saranno alternative alla detenzione, i minori non saranno mai detenuti. Ma se guardiamo come si svolgono concretamente queste procedure ora, non c’è nessuna ragione di credere che le cose andranno meglio solo perché lo dice la Commissione”, osserva Marquardt. “Non c’è sufficiente sostegno per le persone vulnerabili, nessun vero accesso all’assistenza legale, in molti paesi la procedura alla frontiera è associata alla detenzione e i motivi della detenzione non sono giustificati. Attualmente gli stati membri se ne infischiano delle garanzie giuridiche. Aumentare le procedure alla frontiera non farà che portare a situazioni problematiche come quelle che già conosciamo, per esempio sulle isole greche”.

Marquardt si augura che il voto sulla risoluzione sia rivelatore di una sintonia del Parlamento europeo sui dossiers da esaminare nei prossimi mesi. Riconosce che i gruppi hanno opinioni diverse sulle procedure alla frontiera: se parte di Renew e del PPE sono piuttosto a favore, i Verdi non le considerano necessarie per avere un sistema di asilo equo ed efficace: “Bisognerebbe invece concentrarsi su come migliorare le procedure normali e sui ricollocamenti”. Ci sono poi divisioni di natura geografica: gli eurodeputati dei paesi di frontiera vogliono che il ricorso alle procedure accelerate sia lasciato alla discrezione dello stato membro per evitare “ingorghi” in centri sovraffollati, mentre altri vedono di buon occhio una procedura che permette di fermare i richiedenti asilo prima ancora che mettano ufficialmente piede sul territorio dell’Unione. Tuttavia, conclude Marquardt, “il Parlamento ha dimostrato che in una democrazia i politici, pur avendo opinioni diverse, hanno il compito di trovare risposte comuni alle sfide, in questo caso accelerare le procedure di asilo assicurando però il rispetto dei diritti fondamentali e le garanzie giuridiche”.

Un altro voto incoraggiante è stato quello, a dicembre del 2020, su una risoluzione che portava sull’attuazione del Regolamento di Dublino. Anche in questo caso la Commissione non aveva mai effettuato uno studio d’impatto. Con 448 voti a favore, 98 contrari e 149 astensioni, il Parlamento ha affermato che il sistema di Dublino non può funzionare.

Fatti contro ideologia

Per rimediare all’assenza di dati forniti dalla Commissione, il Parlamento europeo ha ora commissionato “una valutazione d’impatto su una serie di questioni presenti trasversalmente in ogni dossier del Patto”, spiega Tineke Strik, citando per esempio l’accesso all’assistenza legale o il diritto a un ricorso effettivo. “Nella precedente legislatura il Parlamento si era mostrato unito sulla questione dei ricollocamenti obbligatori dei richiedenti asilo”, aggiunge. “Non sono certa che avremo ancora una maggioranza, ma ho la sensazione che in gran parte dei gruppi ci sia una forte resistenza contro il carattere permissivo delle proposte contenute nel Patto”.

Permissive verso gli stati membri, non fondate su dati concreti, queste proposte, secondo Cornelia Ernst, rivelano l’approccio ideologico della Commissione e del Consiglio alle questioni della migrazione e dell’asilo. Un approccio che non ha nulla di nuovo. “Fino al 2009, anno in cui sono entrata al Parlamento europeo, i cosiddetti Balcani occidentali non erano considerati sicuri per le comunità rom, presenti in Germania e in altri paesi dell’UE. Poi quell’anno, di punto in bianco, il Kosovo, la Bosnia e via dicendo sono improvvisamente diventati sicuri per la Commissione e gli stati membri. Fu una decisione ideologica”. In modo altrettanto arbitrario, denuncia Ernst, il Patto propone che una persona proveniente da un paese per il quale “la percentuale di decisioni di riconoscimento della protezione internazionale è inferiore al 20 %” sia indirizzata verso una procedura accelerata, in cui i diritti di ricorso sono limitati (è previsto infatti un solo ricorso senza effetto sospensivo automatico). “Una violazione del diritto d’asilo”, commenta Ernst.

Questo approccio ideologico, oltre a ridurre i diritti dei richiedenti asilo e delle persone migranti in generale, ha portato alla creazione e all’incessante rafforzamento di un’agenzia come Frontex, il cui bilancio annuale è in crescita costante (544 milioni nel 2021). Il Patto insiste sulla centralità di Frontex nel controllo delle frontiere europee e nei rimpatri, centralità ribadita con forza dal vicepresidente della Commissione Margaritis Schinas in un’intervista rilasciata al quotidiano spagnolo El País all’inizio del 2021. “Dobbiamo riuscire a stabilire un controllo ferreo delle frontiere europee, come fanno gli Stati Uniti”, ha dichiarato Schinas, arrivando a citare la “presenza massiccia di Frontex nel mar Egeo” come modello di gestione degli arrivi irregolari di persone migranti.

Creata per “combattere un nemico che non esiste” (per riprendere lo slogan delle campagna Frontexit, lanciata nel 2013), l’agenzia è da tempo criticata per la sua opacità e per la sua mancanza di responsabilità nel campo del rispetto dei diritti fondamentali. Dopo le recenti inchieste sul suo ruolo nei respingimenti illegali e sui suoi rapporti con l’industria delle armi, Frontex sarà ora esaminata da vicino dal Parlamento europeo, che a gennaio ha istituito un gruppo di lavoro incaricato di indagare sul suo operato.

Damien Carême è soddisfatto della creazione di questo gruppo, ma lo considera solo un primo passo: “Da più di un anno chiedo una commissione parlamentare con una missione più ampia, che indaghi sul rispetto dello stato di diritto alle frontiere e all’interno dell’Unione europea. Il problema non è solo Frontex, ci sono vari stati membri che operano dei respingimenti, ed è tutto documentato da associazioni di giornalisti e ONG. Lo dico sempre: la Francia, oggi, non rispetta lo stato di diritto”. Per questo Carême, insieme ad altri parlamentari Verdi – europei e nazionali – ha lanciato un‘iniziativa di solidarietà, affiancando ogni fine settimana i volontari attivi a Montgenèvre.

In un editoriale pubblicato il 19 febbraio, la direttrice del European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) Catherine Woollard invita a non abbassare la guardia sul Patto: anche se ora se ne parla meno, i negoziati procedono, e non è da escludere che Consiglio e Parlamento raggiungano un accordo su alcuni dossiers, abbandonando l’idea di approvare l’intero pacchetto di proposte. In effetti, nelle dichiarazioni rilasciate dopo la videoconferenza informale dei ministri dell’interno europei del 12 marzo, la Commissione e la Presidenza portoghese del Consiglio dell’UE hanno sottolineato che su due proposte più tecniche (e meno controverse), gli stati membri hanno quasi raggiunto un accordo, e che esiste una volontà comune di concentrarsi ora sulla dimensione esterna delle politiche migratorie (in altre parole, su come convincere gli stati terzi, in particolare del Nord Africa, a collaborare alle riammissioni).

Erik Marquardt è convinto che la società civile abbia un ruolo importante da svolgere durante le discussioni sul Patto: “Le ong non passano il tempo a Bruxelles a fare lobbying, sono presenti sul campo, sanno cosa succede e possono aiutarci a fondare le nostre politiche su dati concreti”. Per questo, aggiunge, è essenziale garantire il loro accesso alle zone di frontiera: “Se vogliamo un sistema di asilo che funzioni davvero, dobbiamo permettere alla società civile di contribuirvi e di sostenere i richiedenti asilo”.

Comunque vada a finire questo nuovo tentativo di riforma, il Patto è chiaramente lo specchio di un’Unione europea che, pur di non rimettere in discussione le basi del suo sistema di accoglienza, preferisce aggrapparsi a una visione della migrazione dettata dall’estrema destra. Come scriveva di recente Leila Hadj Abdou, ricercatrice presso il European University Institute, le origini dell’attuale status quo risalgono agli ottanta, quando si è messa in moto una pericolosa spirale: “Le prime riforme in senso restrittivo delle politiche di  migrazione e asilo, tanto negli stati membri quanto a livello europeo, dovevano servire a contenere i sentimenti antisistema e la crescita dei partiti ostili all’immigrazione. Ma, così facendo, si è contribuito ad aumentare la rilevanza e la visibilità del tema della migrazione, e quindi anche della sua contestazione. In altre parole, quest’evoluzione politica ha rafforzato l’idea che serva un maggiore controllo dell’immigrazione, prescindendo in parte dai numeri o dagli effetti di questa immigrazione”.

Nel 2018 l’Unione europea, abbandonando il progetto di riforma del Regolamento di Dublino approvato dagli eurodeputati, ha sprecato un’occasione per cominciare a invertire la rotta. I prossimi mesi ci diranno quanto sarà ripida la corsa al ribasso rilanciata dal Patto.

United against the Pact: The Fatal Flaws in the EU’s Plans to Reform its Asylum System

Hailed as a “fresh start”, the European Commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum promised to break the deadlock caused by previous legislation and provide a functional framework for migration in the Union that was both fair on member states and respectful of fundamental rights. Yet for all the rhetoric, six months after it was announced, negotiations in the European Council drag on. The pact is struggling to overcome the stumbling block that thwarted the previous attempt at asylum system reform in 2018: the challenge of reconciling the divergent interests of member states. Meanwhile, in the European Parliament, some hope to build a common front against a proposal that, if approved, would mark a serious step backwards for the right to asylum.

“The last time I was at the Montgenèvre border checkpoint, in the Alps, it was minus 18 degrees. I saw families arriving to claim asylum and police turning them away, saying: ‘You don’t have a PCR test’”. Damien Carême, a member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, is furious. For almost 20 years he served as mayor of Grande-Synthe, a small port town near Dunkirk in northern France, so he is well aware of the harsh reality for those seeking asylum in the European Union. The pushbacks in the Alps by French authorities, just like those carried out at sea by Greek and Maltese authorities, or the chain pushbacks along the Balkan route, are the result of a decades-old European migration and asylum system that is rigid, unjust, and incapable of real reform.

Elected to the European Parliament in 2019, Carême is fighting all out against the Pact on Migration and Asylum announced by the Commission on 23 September, 2020. Presented as “a fresh start”, this major package of proposals promised to break the stalemate in European asylum system reform by creating a “fair and effective” mechanism that protects those who need protection, rapidly removes those who are not entitled to remain in the EU, and respects the different needs of member states by offering various ways to contribute to the system. Carême’s assessment is terse: “This pact is terrible and won’t solve anything. I think it should be ditched completely.” He will be closely following discussions on one of the most significant – and criticised – proposals in the pact, the regulation on asylum and migration management, for which he has been appointed the Greens/EFA group’s shadow rapporteur (shadow rapporteurs are MEPs who work alongside the main rapporteur, representing the positions of other political groups).

Damien Carême’s assessment is terse: “This pact is terrible and won’t solve anything. I think it should be ditched completely.”

Over the past six months, numerous experts – not just academics but members of NGOs on the ground, too – have looked in depth at the Commission’s proposals and reached the unanimous conclusion that the pact represents anything but a fresh start. Rather, it will accelerate existing trends and procedures that are highly problematic. If approved, the pact would generalise the hotspot approach trialled in Greece and Italy, creating areas in which people entering the EU irregularly would be detained (mainly people arriving at borders, but also those stopped within the EU). Detention would last as long as necessary to conduct screening processes that are already part of current regulations but which would be governed by new legislation. These checks would determine the next step: return, fast-track asylum procedure at the border, or access to the normal asylum procedure. During screening, the border asylum procedure and preparations for return, migrants would not be “authorised to enter the territory of a Member State”, based on a controversial concept known as “fiction of non-entry”.

An ambiguous and dangerous proposal

Dutch MEP Tineke Strik, the Greens/EFA’s shadow rapporteur for the proposal on screening, calls it “ambiguous and dangerous”: “It gives a lot of leeway to member states, for instance on how to organise reception conditions or whether they should detain people. The European Commission says that the normal standards of the EU asylum law will not apply in these spaces, no directives or regulations, only the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

Another worrying element, according to Strik, is the absence of guidance on the qualifications required for those doing the screening by gathering personal data, including the reasons “for unauthorised arrival” and information “on routes travelled”. The form completed at the end of screening will impact the rest of the procedure, but will not be challengeable, Strik says, adding that “there is no legal aid there nor any NGO that can inform the asylum seekers about the consequences of what they say.”

The Commission requires member states to “establish an independent monitoring mechanism. This monitoring mechanism should ensure respect for fundamental rights at all times during the screening, as well as respect for the applicable national rules in the case of detention”. “What I heard,” notes Strik, “is that there is a lot of opposition from member states against this provision.” This is hardly surprising given many states’ reluctance to carry out this type of monitoring, which is already required in other contexts (for example, during forced returns).

In this sense, Croatia is a “testing ground” for the pact, observed Milena Zajovic, advocacy manager at the Border Violence Reporting Network, in a February 2021 interview with journalist Apostolis Fotiadis. Asked in November 2020 to create an independent border-monitoring mechanism, the Croatian government has so far proved extremely reluctant to do so. Zajovic raises two important points that have implications for the pact. The first is that Croatian NGOs are sceptical about the independence of a prospective monitoring system (“they are worried about being used”); the second is that “push-backs don’t happen at border crossings” (which is where the monitoring proposed by the Croatian government would take place). “We know that pushbacks and other violations don’t take place at formal border crossing points, but in other border zones like forests or the sea, where there is even less control on how border guards perform,” agrees Strik. “This is why I am really going to try to expand the scope of this provision and make sure that there are clear criteria, not only on the independence but also on the resources and the mandate of such a body.”

On paper, the pact abolishes the much-criticised Dublin Regulation, but in practice leaves it intact…

Other than hostility towards independent monitoring, an obsession with deporting migrants, and a desire to collect even more information on those trying to enter the EU, there is not much else that member states agree on as they, along with MEPs, discuss the various documents that make up the pact. The main stumbling block, which sank the previous attempt at asylum system reform and could well do the same to the pact, is the question of sharing responsibility for reception of asylum seekers and managing their asylum claims. On paper, the pact abolishes the much-criticised Dublin Regulation, but in practice leaves it intact, since the main criterion for determining the member state responsible for examining an asylum claim remains essentially the country of first entry. The Commission proposes to correct this imbalance by imposing a choice of different “solidarity” options: member states receiving fewer asylum seekers can accept relocation of recently arrived persons, “sponsor” the return of those present in another member state with no right to stay, or opt for other forms of “operational support”. The problem is that border states say a far more binding system is necessary – one that ensures less pressure on their reception capacities – while other states in Central and Eastern Europe consider this an unacceptable imposition.

A feeling of déjà-vu

When asked if she has a major sense of déjà-vu, German MEP Cornelia Ernst nods. Now in her third term as part of the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group, she knows full well that attempts to reform the European asylum system, when they do not fail, tend to only make matters worse. Ernst recalls that during its last term, the Parliament managed to reach a common position on reforming the Dublin Regulation. In 2017, after months of consultation, Swedish MEP Cecilia Wikström presented an ambitious proposal that included a real mechanism for solidarity between member states. The proposal was approved by a large majority in the Parliament, only to be rejected by the Council. “Now the European Parliament is not so progressive,” notes Ernst. “There are right-wing parties who refuse to welcome even one asylum seeker. But we have to connect a lot of voices against this pact – also members from countries like Italy, Greece, Malta, and Spain, who will see that this deal is not in their interest. We have to mobilise all forces, because with the pact we see a new level of danger for the individual right to asylum.”

According to German MEP Erik Marquardt (Greens/EFA), the Commission seems to have deliberately ignored the facts in drawing up its proposal, especially when it comes to border procedures. Despite being required to present an impact assessment on these procedures by 2017, the Commission did not do so. It was the European Parliament that conducted the assessment, leading Marquardt to present a new resolution, which was approved in February 2021 with 505 votes in favour, 124 against, and 55 abstentions.

“We found in our implementation report that there are huge legal consequences to using the proposed border procedures. The European Commission says the border procedure will perform well, with fast decisions and alternatives to detention, and that children will never be detained. But if you look at how border procedures take place at the moment, there are no reasons to believe that it will work better just because the European Commission says so,” argues Marquardt. “There is not enough help for vulnerable persons, no real access to legal aid, in many states border procedure is connected to detention, and the reasons for detention are not justified. Member states currently do not care about legal safeguards. A huge increase in border procedures would lead to a situation where you just repeat problems that already exist, like on the Greek Islands.”

Marquardt hopes that the resolution vote is a sign of consensus in the European Parliament on the issues it will examine in the coming months. He acknowledges that different groups have different opinions on border procedures: while the liberal Renew and centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) are generally in favour, the Greens do not believe they are necessary for a fair and effective asylum system: “We should focus instead on fair and efficient asylum procedures in general, and on relocating people faster,” says Marquardt. There are also geographical divides: MEPs from border countries want the use of accelerated procedures to be left to the discretion of member states to avoid “congestion” in overcrowded reception centres, while others are keen for a procedure that stops asylum seekers before they officially set foot on EU soil. Nevertheless, Marquardt concludes that: “the European Parliament showed that it’s OK to have different opinions, but in the end in a democracy the task of politicians is to find common solutions to the challenges we have. For example, how to have faster procedures while respecting fundamental rights and legal safeguards.”

Another encouraging vote was that held in December 2020 on a resolution about the implementation of the Dublin Regulation. In this case, too, the Commission failed to conduct an impact assessment. With 448 votes in favour, 98 against and 149 abstentions, the Parliament declared the Dublin system unworkable.

Facts versus ideology

To make up for the lack of data provided by the Commission, the European Parliament has now commissioned “a substitute impact assessment with a lot of questions to be dealt with horizontally in every file of the new pact, like for instance access to legal aid and the right to effective remedy,” explains Strik. “In the previous term, the European Parliament was united when it came to mandatory relocation of asylum seekers,” she adds. “I am not sure if we will still have a majority, but I sense that in most of the groups there is a lot of resistance against the permissive character of these proposals.”

These proposals reveal the ideological approach taken by the Commission and the Council towards migration and asylum issues – one that is permissive and not backed up by evidence. This approach is nothing new, contends Cornelia Ernst: “Until 2009 – the year I entered the European Parliament – the so-called Western Balkans were not considered safe for Roma communities living in Germany and in other countries. Then, in 2009, the European Commission and the member states said, from one day to another: ‘Kosovo, Bosnia and so on are all safe countries’. It was an ideological decision.”

As well as eroding the rights of asylum seekers and migrants in general, this ideological approach has led to the creation and constant strengthening of an agency like Frontex, whose annual budget keeps growing (544 million euros in 2021). The pact gives Frontex a central role in European border management and migrant returns, a role that was forcefully reiterated by Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas in an interview with Spanish newspaper El País in early 2021. “We must succeed in establishing tight control of European borders, like the United States does,” Schinas said, going on to cite the “massive presence of Frontex in the Aegean Sea” as a model for managing irregular arrivals of migrants.

Created to fight “a war against an imaginary enemy” (to use the slogan of the Frontexit campaign, launched in 2013), the agency has long been criticised for its opacity and lack of accountability when it comes to respecting fundamental rights. In the wake of investigations into its role in illegal pushbacks and its relationship with the arms industry, Frontex will now be closely scrutinised by the European Parliament, which in January 2021 set up a working group to investigate how it operates.

Damien Carême is glad that this group has been created but sees it as just the first step: “For over a year, I’ve been calling for a parliamentary committee with a broader remit to investigate respect for the rule of law within the EU and at its borders. The problem isn’t just Frontex. There are a certain number of member states who push back migrants, and this has been documented by journalist groups and NGOs. As I keep saying, France does not respect the rule of law.” That is why, together with other Green parliamentarians – both national and European – Carême has launched a solidarity initiative to support volunteers working with asylum seekers in Montgenèvre.

In an editorial published in February 2021, the director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Catherine Woollard, warned against complacency on the pact: although it is less talked about, negotiations are ongoing and it is not out of the question that the Council and Parliament reach an agreement on some issues, abandoning the idea of approving the whole package of proposals. Indeed, following the informal video conference of EU home affairs ministers which took place on March 12, the Commission and the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU have stated that on two more technical (and less controversial) proposals, member states have almost reached an agreement, and that there is a common will to now focus on the external dimension of migration policies (in other words, on how to push third countries, in particular North African countries, to cooperate on readmissions).

The pact clearly reflects a European Union that, to avoid calling into question the very foundations of its reception system, prefers to cling onto a vision of migration dictated by the far right.

Erik Marquardt is convinced that civil society has an important role to play during discussions on the pact: “These organisations are not just sitting in Brussels to do lobbying, they have an important role on the ground, they know what’s happening and they can really help us base our policies on evidence.” This is why it is vital to ensure they have access to border areas, as he stresses: “If you want to have an asylum system that works, you should create an environment where civil society can contribute and support the applicants.”

Whatever comes of this new attempt at reform, the pact clearly reflects a European Union that, to avoid calling into question the very foundations of its reception system, prefers to cling onto a vision of migration dictated by the far right. As Leila Hadj Abdou, a research fellow at the European University Institute, has written, the origins of the current status quo lie in the 1980s, when a dangerous spiral was set in motion: “Restrictive migration and asylum policy reforms across EU member states, and consequently at the EU level, initially aimed at containing the anti-establishment mood, and the rise of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant parties. But by doing so they have further increased the prominence and visibility of the migration issue and, consequently, contributed further to its contestation. Put differently, these political developments have firmly consolidated ideas of migration as in need of more control, partly irrespective of the numbers or effects of migration.”

By abandoning the proposed reform of the Dublin Agreement approved by MEPs in 2018, the European Union has wasted an opportunity to change course. Over the next few months, we will learn just how steep this race to the bottom will be.

La conférence sur l’avenir de l’Europe : un espoir pour la démocratie européenne ?

Au cours des 15 dernières années, le moteur du développement constitutionnel de l’Union européenne s’est arrêté. Mais aujourd’hui, la discussion autour de la réforme du pacte de stabilité et de croissance, les conséquences du Brexit et l’ouverture de la conférence sur l’avenir de l’Europe pourraient le faire redémarrer. Jusqu’à présent, la conférence a connu des débuts en demi-teinte. Malgré les espoirs et l’effervescence qui l’entourent, elle risque d’être une nouvelle occasion manquée, à moins qu’elle ne tienne sa promesse, et prenne en compte les voix des citoyens. Mais s’il est utilisé à bon escient, cet exercice a le potentiel de renforcer la responsabilité et la représentation au cœur de l’ordre constitutionnel de l’UE. Car le chemin vers la démocratie européenne est long et sinueux.


Avec les premiers rayons du soleil printanier, le Conseil européen a enfin rendu ses conclusions sur la tant attendue conférence sur l’avenir de l’Europe, retardée en raison de la pandémie. Annoncée fin 2019, cette proposition conjointe de la Commission européenne, du Conseil et du Parlement vise à réfléchir à l’avenir de l’UE à moyen et long terme, à travers un processus ambitieux et inclusif impliquant également les citoyens européens. Malheureusement, à la lecture des cinq pages présentant les principes, les objectifs et la gouvernance qui structureront le prochain temps fort démocratique de l’UE, il est difficile de ne pas éprouver un sentiment d’incrédulité et de déprime.

La première chose qui en ressort, c’est le récit appauvri et fatigué de l’UE comme un projet de “paix et de prospérité”. Même les éléments habituels et répétitifs qui fondent des valeurs européennes, allant de la liberté à la solidarité, sont édulcorés. Les défis fondamentaux pour la démocratie, que ce soit au niveau national ou européen, sont à peine évoqués. Le nouveau terme à la mode, déjà irritant, de “résilience”, ne parvient pas à masquer l’impression de déjà-vu qui se dégage de ces pages. “Économie équitable, durable, innovante et compétitive” – on croirait entendre un vieux discours de José Manuel Barroso.

Il serait euphémistique de dire que le document a été accueilli par les politiciens européens avec scepticisme et déception. Assimiler la “démocratie” et la “démocratisation” tant attendues à la nature et à la profondeur de nos liens économiques n’augure rien de bon pour l’avenir de la conférence. Il est difficile de ne pas comparer cela à l’esprit et à la gravité de la déclaration de Laeken de 2001, qui a débouché en son temps sur la Convention sur l’avenir de l’Europe.

Jouer la sécurité

Peut-être que l’infortunée Constitution européenne, signée à Rome avec un enthousiasme débordant en 2004 pour être ensuite rejetée par les électeurs français et néerlandais un an plus tard, après deux campagnes de référendum passionnées et éprouvantes, a appris aux dirigeants européens à faire profil bas. Ou peut-être était-ce le poids de l’emprunte incontournable du président français Emmanuel Macron, dont le style flamboyant rappelle constamment à ses partenaires européens à quel point les “rois républicains” français s’identifient encore à Napoléon.

À un niveau plus élémentaire, l’effectivité des mesures de confinement aurait pu détourner tout le monde de projets trop ambitieux. Ou peut-être n’était-ce tout simplement pas une si bonne idée que de confier aux institutions européennes, et en particulier à la Commission, un exercice pour lequel elles n’ont que peu d’appétence ou de compétences.

Quelles qu’en soient les raisons, dans sa forme actuelle, la conférence telle qu’elle est prévue manque à la fois d’élan et d’esprit. Le décalage entre le résultat et la noble intention de faire repartir le projet européen exposée dans les discours audacieux de Macron à Athènes, Aix-laChapelle et La Sorbonne est flagrant. Bien que la liste des défis contemporains, allant des
transitions verte et numérique, de la lutte contre les inégalités et à la stimulation de la compétitivité industrielle, coche toutes les cases, elle ne parvient pas à donner un sens à l’exercice.


Le taux de participation en hausse aux élections européennes de 2019 a laissé penser à un regain d’intérêt de la part des citoyens pour l’UE et ses enjeux. Bien sûr, les raisons de cette poussée sont multiples. Les méchants intérieurs et extérieurs à l’Europe, de Varsovie et Washington à Budapest et Moscou, ont certainement joué leur rôle. Pourtant, les appels incessants à plus de participation et de démocratie se sont rarement traduits par un afflux de citoyens dans les rues de Bruxelles, ou dans les capitales des Etats membres, pour exiger la prise en compte des voix des citoyens dans la construction européenne. Comme l’a démontré le semi-échec du “Grand Débat National” français à la suite de la crise des Gilets Jaunes, il reste à voir si les citoyens européens réagiront et s’engageront dans un processus dirigé par les institutions.

Les appels incessants à plus de participation et de démocratie se sont rarement traduits par un afflux de citoyens dans les rues de Bruxelles.

Relancer le développement constitutionnel de l’Europe

Malgré tous ses défauts, la conférence est néanmoins une excellente nouvelle pour l’Europe et la démocratie, pour deux raisons étroitement liées. Premièrement, bien que la conférence ne s’engage pas à modifier les traités, elle va relancer le développement constitutionnel de l’Europe, lui-même bloqué depuis 15 ans après les épisodes désastreux consécutifs de la Constitution et du traité de Lisbonne. Historiquement, depuis l’Acte unique européen de 1986, la Communauté européenne puis l’Union Européenne ont connu un cycle de révision des traités d’environ cinq ans.
Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Rome, Lisbonne ; cette carte européenne des sommets raconte l’histoire d’un processus constitutionnel progressif. Actif et moteur de sa propre construction, l’ordre institutionnel européen grandit et se développe pour se compléter, se corriger et se consolider.

Évidemment, les événements ont tendance à s’immiscer dans les conclusions établies dans les traités et à les remettre en cause. L’année 2008 a inauguré une décennie de crises cumulées, allant du terrorisme aux catastrophes naturelles, qui ont bouleversé le modus operandi de la Commission et contraint le Conseil européen à occuper le devant de la scène politique européenne. Pour reprendre la célèbre formule de Luuk van Middelaar, la “politique des règlements” – l’approche technocratique classique consistant à prendre des décisions en tissant patiemment des liens entre les intérêts socio-économiques dans le cadre de négociations entre les parties prenantes et les États membres – n’est pas bonne en cas d’urgence. La rédaction et l’établissement de règles communes prennent du temps ; les crises frontalières internationales et les urgences humanitaires n’attendent pas. D’où l’avènement de la “politique événementielle”, où l’improvisation et les solutions ad hoc deviennent la nouvelle norme.

Au cours de cette période, les nombreuses limites et faiblesses des traités, et des politiques qui en découlent, sont devenues évidentes – du fiasco du système de l’asile de Dublin aux insuffisances du pacte de stabilité et de croissance et aux rigidités de la politique étrangère commune. Plus récemment, l’histoire s’est à nouveau ajoutée, avec la crise sanitaire du Covid-19 et avec elle la pire récession de l’après-guerre, remettant en question jusqu’à l’avenir du budget de l’UE et l’architecture de l’ordre monétaire européen.

L’occasion d’une percée démocratique

Après une décennie d’improvisation, l’UE a grand besoin d’un remaniement constitutionnel. Cependant, dans une atmosphère d’aversion pour toute modification du traité, le seul changement entrepris jusqu’à présent a été une révision limitée du mécanisme européen de stabilité. Au lieu de cela, les nouveaux développements ont surtout eu lieu en dehors de la méthode communautaire et de l’ordre constitutionnel de l’UE : du Mécanisme européen de stabilité en 2012 au pacte faustien de refuge et de retour conclu avec le président turc Erdoğan en 2016. De cette manière, le Conseil Européen a conçu une sorte d’univers juridique parallèle, en contournant le Parlement Européen et en subordonnant la Commission, ce qui équivaut à un coup d’État.

C’est pourquoi la conférence est importante. Elle est une précieuse étincelle qui pourrait relancer le moteur du processus constitutionnel européen. Même avec son élan limité et sa gouvernance byzantine, la conférence pourrait offrir les conditions nécessaires pour aborder collectivement les questions soulevées au cours de la dernière décennie. Ici, l’accent ne devrait pas être mis sur la conception d’une organisation institutionnelle entièrement renouvelée. Ces discussions sophistiquées ne présentent un intérêt que pour les spécialistes et les militants. En outre, il serait insensé de s’attendre à une réédition réussie de la convention qui nous a donné le défunt traité constitutionnel.

Nous devrions choisir soigneusement nos combats institutionnels et nous concentrer sur deux précieuses pierres angulaires de tout ordre démocratique : la responsabilité et la représentation.

Au lieu d’imiter ce moment fédéraliste et d’essayer de redessiner l’UE selon le vieux plan Spinelli, nous devrions choisir soigneusement nos combats institutionnels et nous concentrer sur deux précieuses pierres angulaires de tout ordre démocratique : la responsabilité et la représentation.
En pratique, cela signifie : premièrement, s’efforcer de trouver un moyen de rendre le Conseil Européen responsable au niveau européen – et pas seulement devant les parlements nationaux respectifs, qui s’acquittent de cette responsabilité de manière très inégale, et bien trop ancrée dans la perspective nationale.

Deuxièmement, établir une voie viable pour qu’une partie du prochain Parlement Européen soit élue par l’ensemble des citoyens européens en tant que circonscription électorale unique – à savoir, par le biais de listes transnationales.

Il y a une deuxième raison pour laquelle la conférence doit être prise au sérieux. Avec son ambition d’impliquer directement les citoyens à tous les niveaux de gouvernance, elle pourrait potentiellement ouvrir la voie à une sphère publique commune de dimension continentale. La langue, la plateforme, le réseau social, la modération et le filtrage : en fait, les détails techniques de la manière et de l’endroit où les citoyens européens seront invités à prendre la parole et à exprimer leurs souhaits, leurs aspirations et leurs suggestions pour l’Union, auront de l’importance. Mais comme les effets spéciaux dans un film, leur rôle est de servir l’histoire et les cascades spectaculaires ne peuvent pas compenser une mauvaise intrigue.

Les citoyens de l’Europe doivent avoir leur mot à dire

En résumé, la conférence offre une nouvelle occasion d’entrer en contact avec le maillon manquant du projet européen : les Européens. Pendant des décennies, l’UE s’est construite sur le consentement de ses États-membres. Pendant des décennies, chaque étape de la construction européenne a été franchie au nom des citoyens. Mais pour diverses raisons, les rares moments durant lesquels ces citoyens ont pris la parole se sont révélés conflictuels et décevants. Car la démocratie, qu’elle soit locale, nationale ou continentale, ne se résume pas à des institutions et à des élections. C’est un processus culturel et sociologique… Elle exige un sens commun de la communauté et de l’interdépendance. Elle nécessite que les gens reconnaissent ce qui les relie : des menaces communes, des aspirations communes, des croyances communes, parfois une langue commune. Une sphère publique partagée dans laquelle ces liens prennent vie est nécessaire. Malgré les échecs de l’UE et de ses États membres, et parfois grâce à eux, les crises cumulées de ce début de XXIe siècle ont renforcé le sentiment d’un destin commun, dont le point culminant a peut-être été la pandémie. Ce sentiment doit être entretenu et alimenté.

Que la conférence débouche ou non sur de nouveaux arrangements institutionnels est important, mais le processus qu’elle est susceptible d’encourager l’est bien plus encore.

Les organisateurs ont promis que la conférence serait un “exercice ascendant axé sur les citoyens”. Cette promesse doit être prise au pied de la lettre et l’exercice doit être mené en conséquence. Une attention particulière doit alors être accordée aux Européens qui sont l’essence-même du tissu social : enseignants, travailleurs sociaux, journalistes, ou dirigeants communautaires, syndicalistes, acteurs de l’économie sociale et environnementale et propriétaires de petites entreprises. C’est leur participation et leur engagement qui feront toute la différence pour donner vie à une perspective politique commune. Ce sont eux dont il faut gagner le cœur et l’esprit, car leur expérience est ancrée dans la réalité – et non dans la bulle bruxelloise, ou dans le monde politique. Les forces politiques progressistes, indépendamment de ce qu’elles pensent des défauts évidents de la conférence, indépendamment de leurs critiques légitimes de l’ordre institutionnel européen, doivent tirer le meilleur parti de ce moment.

L’enjeu est la chair et le sang de la démocratie : la volonté des Européens de relever ensemble les défis de notre temps. Que la conférence débouche ou non sur de nouveaux arrangements institutionnels est important, mais le processus qu’elle est susceptible d’encourager l’est bien plus encore. Une génération de néo-fédéralistes pourrait émerger de cette expérience partagée : une génération moins préoccupée par l’état des institutions européennes et plus concentrée sur la réalité de la démocratie européenne. La “vraie Europe”

Garantir le droit au travail décent

La garantie d’emploi est une proposition ambitieuse qui vise à garantir à chacun l’accès à un travail décent et équitable. Au milieu des bouleversements provoqués par une récession économique portant le risque de chômage massif, des solutions doivent être trouvées rapidement. De nombreuses propositions ont été mises en avant, du revenu de base universel aux mesures de relance plus traditionnelles. Pavlina Tcherneva, auteure de The Case for a Job Guarantee, soutient que ces mesures ne seront pas à la hauteur, et explique pourquoi l’alternative d’une garantie d’emploi profiterait non seulement aux chômeurs, mais aussi à la société dans son ensemble, en accordant aux individus une plus grande autonomie, en redonnant du pouvoir aux communautés et en contribuant des solutions aux crises environnementales et des soins.

Thomas Belaich and Ulysse Lojkine: Pouvez-vous nous expliquer en quoi une garantie d’emploi consiste, et à quelle urgence elle permettrait de répondre ? 

Pavlina Tcherneva: L’objectif central de la politique de garantie d’emploi telle que je la défends est de « démocratiser le travail » et de redonner du pouvoir aux individus, à la fois en leur donnant l’opportunité de choisir leur travail, mais aussi de créer des emplois dont l’objectif ne serait pas le profit d’une entreprise. 

De fait, la plupart des emplois créés dans nos économies le sont par le secteur privé, et sont de plus en plus précaires. Le marché du travail n’a pas permis à une majorité de personne un niveau et un cadre de vie stables, et les emplois deviennent d’ailleurs de plus en plus difficiles à supporter. Nous avons donc besoin d’un nouveau contrat social, d’une nouvelle promesse à adresser aux individus : si vous cherchez du travail, vous pourrez trouver une occupation décente avec un revenu suffisant ! 

Le secteur privé n’est pas le seul à pouvoir créer des emplois, le secteur public est là depuis longtemps maintenant, mais reste tout à fait négligé à cet égard. Beaucoup des dimensions publiques de notre vie sociale sont en fait assez mal prises en compte. 

Dans nos sociétés modernes, il est devenu assez clair et commun que nous devons garantir des droits de retraites, même basiques, des prestations de santé — sauf aux États-Unis, bien malheureusement —,  et nous savons qu’une éducation minimale gratuite augmente le bien public — de même que l’accès garanti à des bibliothèques, à de l’information de qualité, etc. Parmi toutes considérations, l’emploi est on ne peut plus important pour le bien-être, et on ne garantit jamais que des assurances chômages, parfois des revenus d’assistance contre la pauvreté, mais au fond garantir un emploi décent est bien plus valorisant pour la vie en soi et avec un effet beaucoup plus efficace et lisible que le patchwork de politiques que nous avons. C’est une politique structurelle bien plutôt qu’une “mesure pour l’emploi” supplémentaire ! 

Le dispositif que nous proposons repose sur trois piliers. D’abord, la garantie d’emploi serait fondée sur des prises de décisions participatives, partant du principe que les personnes au chômage comme les communautés savent ce qui est bon pour elles — « par le bas », donc. Ensuite, il s’agit de compléter le système de protection sociale en l’étendant au droit fondamental au travail. Enfin, c’est une meilleure politique de stabilisation que les différentes allocations autour du travail et du chômage, ce qui est précisément la fonction du service public.

On a vu se développer des initiatives dans l’esprit de votre modèle, même s’ils n’en suivent pas exactement la lettre. Le programme argentin Jefes y Jefas en place entre 2002 et 2007 et le système indien instauré par le Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act de 2005 sont-ils de bons exemples de ce que vous proposez ? 

Oui, ces deux programmes sont tout à fait fidèles à nos propositions. De fait, le plan Jefes avait été développé à partir du modèle de garantie d’emploi que nous avions imaginé avec des collègues de l’Université du Missouri — un économiste du ministère du travail argentin qui avait assisté à une de nos conférences a présenté le projet au ministre, ce qui a permis son adoption. Nous avons par la suite été invités en Argentine pour évaluer la mise en oeuvre et les résultats du programme

Certes, aucun des deux programmes n’est universel — les bénéficiaires du plan Jefes sont les individus sans emploi qui ont des enfants mineurs ou handicapés à charge, et ceux du MGNREGA sont les adultes d’un foyer rural pauvre qui se portent volontaires pour des tâches peu qualifiées. Pour autant, ils respectent généralement le modèle que je défends, et illustrent parfaitement comment une garantie d’emploi pourrait être mise en place dans les pays en voie de développement en se concentrant sur les problèmes propres au pays. Par exemple, les deux programmes ont eu d’importants effets bénéfiques pour les femmes les plus pauvres dans les deux cas, et le programme indien a permis de créer des emplois environnementaux essentiels. 

Il existe en Europe des politiques plus ou moins localisées de garantie d’emploi, notamment en France, avec les Territoires zéro chômeurs, et de manière très différente en Hongrie, avec le « public work scheme » qui a vraisemblablement contribué à la réduction drastique du taux de chômage sous Orban. Que pensez-vous de ces expériences européennes ? 

En effet, et j’ai suivi de très près la mise en place de cette solution en France, qui à mon sens représente un très bon modèle pour réfléchir à l’extension de ce programme à l’échelle nationale. 

La question est au fond celle de l’effort collectif auquel nous sommes prêts à consentir pour faire en sorte que ceux qui ont besoin d’un emploi, d’un emploi décent, puissent bénéficier d’un mécanisme qui le garantit. Et il y a deux façons de faire cela, démocratiquement ou non — sur le modèle de la concertation, comme en France, ou du workfare, comme en Hongrie. 

De fait, la politique d’Orban revient à une politique de workfare, c’est-à-dire qui exige des individus qu’ils retournent au travail pour leurs prestations, conditionnalité qui vaut peu importe leur situation ou les caractéristiques dudit emploi. 

La confusion entre ces deux politiques vient de ce que la politique de garantie d’emploi est souvent prise pour un programme pour l’emploi comme un autre, ouvrant des postes aux individus, de manière punitive ou non — on peut toujours forcer les gens à travailler ! Mais la politique de garantie d’emploi n’est pas un workfare, c’est un ajout au filet de sécurité déjà en place, ou plutôt une révision de ce que la protection sociale doit prendre en compte. 

Il s’agit par là de repenser la protection sociale, et de la repenser de sorte à ce qu’elle garantisse plus de droits fondamentaux, dont le travail fait partie. Le travail a été reconnu comme un droit de l’homme fondamental depuis longtemps, mais il nous manque un petit effort de plus pour l’assurer à tous, de manière volontaire, avec une approche par le bas, soit tout l’inverse de l’incitation coercitive et par le haut des politiques de workfare. 

Pour résumer, la politique hongroise est du workfare, là où l’expérience française semble organisée démocratiquement, avec beaucoup de remontées bien prises en compte. 

Revenons sur les différences entre les expériences hongroise et française. En Hongrie, ce programme pour l’emploi en effet été mis en place aux dépens de la protection sociale, notamment des prestations chômages, mais aussi les tâches, les emplois, ne sont pas définis de la même manière : c’est au maire d’encadrer les chômeurs, là où en France ce sont eux qui définissent leurs occupations. Que pensez-vous de cette démocratisation du choix des « tâches » elles-mêmes, qui devraient les définir ? 

Les individus savent ce dont ils ont besoin. Dans mes travaux en Argentine, les individus qui ont pensé leurs propres projets étaient les plus intéressants : ils savaient précisément de quoi les familles avaient besoin, ce qui bénéficierait aux jeunes le plus rapidement, connaissaient précisément les situations locales, etc. À cet égard, pour reprendre le concept de Graeber, ce ne sont vraiment pas des « bullshit jobs », il ne s’agit pas de construire une infrastructure au milieu de nulle part juste pour occuper les individus et montrer qu’il y effectivement de l’activité, quelle qu’elle soit. Il s’agit de répondre précisément et efficacement aux besoins de la communauté. 

Je crois qu’il est essentiel que ceux qui exercent ces emplois aient leur mot à dire dans leur définition. C’est tout à fait au cœur de l’idée de démocratisation du travail : il n’est pas question qu’un administrateur central répartisse le travail en consultant sa petite feuille de route, il faut une impulsion de la communauté qui accueille cet emploi.

Le message principal, c’est que les nouvelles occupations ne doivent pas juste être un emploi, mais une manière de remplir un vide dans la vie publique. Si une communauté est rongée par le chômage, il ne s’agit pas simplement de garnir un certain nombre de « places », il faut profiter des emplois à créer pour considérer les besoins spécifiques de chacune des communautés — ses personnes âgées, ses enfants, etc. — tout en donnant du pouvoir aux myriades de groupe d’initiative locale qui essayent de répondre aux difficultés. La garantie d’emploi donnerait donc la priorité à des métiers d’assistance ou de soin (care works). 

Les besoins et les problèmes sont nombreux, à commencer par la transition énergétique. De fait, la garantie de l’emploi serait très propice à la transition, comme je l’ai toujours dit, notamment dans le manifeste pour la démocratisation du travail. Le projet le plus efficace du New Deal était précisément la réhabilitation et la conservation des parcs nationaux, qui nous reste en héritage. Les individus qui vivent dans des régions inondées, incendiées ou polluées connaissent bien ce problème.

Si le but premier de la garantie d’emploi est d’aider les demandeurs d’emploi, un programme aussi ambitieux aurait forcément un effet sur les actifs. Quels seraient les effets d’une garantie d’emploi sur le marché du travail pour les actifs ? Ne peut-on pas s’attendre à une réduction du pouvoir de négociation des employés par exemple, notamment parmi les moins qualifiés ? 

Bien au contraire à mon avis. Comme nous sommes dans un vrai paradigme du chômage, nous l’acceptons à des niveaux massifs, ce qui nous fait sous-estimer ses effets pour les salariés. Ils perdent leurs avantages, leur protection, petit à petit, le précariat gagne du terrain, tout ça parce que l’existence du chômage crée une compétition féroce pour un petit nombre d’emplois. Donc les employés sont en fait dans une situation où ils en viennent à supporter leur travail, aussi précaire en soient les conditions, par peur de ne pas en retrouver. Le chômage fait que les actifs doivent s’accrocher à leur travail ! Pour reprendre un célèbre adage, personne n’est à l’abri tant que nous ne le sommes pas tous !

Le fait du chômage crée et fait accepter un nivellement par le bas sur le marché du travail. 

Si nous organisons un changement de paradigme, en affirmant que tous ceux qui en ont besoin devraient se voir proposer un travail, l’économie fonctionnerait très différemment. Certes, les plus qualifiés ne verront pas leur vie modifiée de fond en comble, et une garantie d’emploi ne changerait pas beaucoup leur vie. Mais si je travaille chez McDonald, évidemment que je vais être mieux armé ! J’ai une option, une alternative. S’il y a une histoire d’harcèlement au travail, je peux dire non et aller chercher une autre opportunité d’emploi, ce qui n’est pas du tout le cas aujourd’hui.

Beaucoup me répondraient que l’on peut faire cela avec un revenu universel, puisque quitter un emploi ne représente pas une perte de revenu trop importante, mais justement, le but est de proposer un emploi, puisque le marché n’en crée pas suffisamment. A l’inverse du revenu universel, la garantie d’emploi ne prolonge pas la compétition qui règne pour quelques emplois, et relève donc le plancher de l’emploi, en instituant un emploi digne et permettant un revenu suffisant. De fait, les employeurs qui profitent de la menace du chômage pour entretenir le nombre de travailleurs pauvres vont devoir au moins s’aligner sur le standard de la garantie d’emploi pour continuer à trouver de la main d’œuvre. Voilà au fond le vrai effet pour les actifs. 

On a déjà pu vérifier ce phénomène aux Etats-Unis, où l’augmentation du salaire minimum dans un État au-dessus du minimum fédéral a un effet d’entraînement sur les salaires jusque dans les Etats voisins. 

Au fond, je pense qu’assurer le plein emploi contribue à augmenter systématiquement le pouvoir de négociation des salariés les moins qualifiés, des plus vulnérables, qui sont d’habitude mis à l’écart du marché du travail en premier et intégrés en dernier.

Si l’on regarde vers l’Europe, qui dispose d’un marché du travail à la fois national et continental, quelle est l’échelle pertinente pour penser la garantie d’emploi sur le continent ? 

Dans l’idéal, il faut être courageux et ambitieux dès le départ, et penser au niveau européen directement. Certes, il y a des limites majeures dans la zone monétaire, au premier rang desquelles l’absence de budget européen. Mais il y a aussi des prémisses sur lesquelles nous pourrions nous appuyer : je pense à l’obligation légale pour la Commission européenne de publier des informations sur le chômage et la justice sociale, et à la garantie pour les jeunes que l’Europe a mise à son programme, qui passe par les gouvernements nationaux. 

En attendant, je pense que les gouvernements nationaux peuvent déjà agir. Par exemple, la France dépense des milliards de subventions pour des entreprises privées mais les retombées sur l’emploi sont en fait assez faibles. La tribune que nous avons publiée dans le Monde avec Aurore Lalucq et Dany Lang détaille quelques-unes de ces dépenses que le gouvernement pourrait utiliser en employant directement les chômeurs, afin de démultiplier leur efficacité sur l’emploi. 

Bien sûr, les gouvernements nationaux font face à une contrainte budgétaire, à cause des critères de Maastricht. Cette contrainte empêche de relancer l’emploi aussi massivement que le font les Etats-Unis en temps de crise de manière assez régulière, et c’est une vraie camisole pour les États européens. 

Cependant, il faut souligner qu’ils engagent déjà une certaine masse de dépenses dans l’assurance chômage et la lutte contre la pauvreté, notamment à destination des personnes privées d’emploi. En déduisant ces coûts, des programmes d’emploi garanti ne seraient donc sans doute pas aussi chers qu’on le dit. Ainsi, je pense que les gouvernements nationaux peuvent y parvenir, quoique les règles de Maastricht soient assez contraignantes.

Voici donc ma position : les gouvernements nationaux peuvent se lancer, mais un financement européen serait optimal et faciliterait le développement de la garantie d’emploi. 

Pourquoi en passer par une garantie d’emploi plutôt que par une politique de relance keynésienne tout ce qu’il y a de plus classique ? Après tout, l’Europe a connu le plein emploi après-guerre sans garantie d’emploi. 

En fait, même durant l’ère keynésienne des années 1950 et 1960, nous n’avons pas exactement atteint le plein emploi parfait, il y avait toujours beaucoup de pauvreté et de chômage, ce que nous avons eu tendance à sous-estimer. Surtout, la part du chômage de longue durée est en fait en augmentation depuis les années 1960, ce qui a contribué à faire reculer petit à petit les protections du marché du travail. On retrouve ici la classique armée de réserve des travailleurs, qui fait planer la menace du chômage et contribue à baisser les standards des emplois. Autant la faire disparaître. 

Les politiques keynésiennes quant à elles ont tendance à réduire le chômage des personnes les plus employables uniquement. Au fond, elles ne concernent que les individus les plus qualifiés et qui touchent les meilleurs salaires, qui ne font jamais vraiment l’expérience du chômage. Même pendant l’ère keynésienne, ce phénomène de « dernier entré premier sorti » persiste, les individus au bas de l’échelle des revenus sont aussi ceux qui ont l’expérience la plus précaire du travail. Même le keynésianisme ne l’a pas empêché. 

Par ailleurs, si on remonte à Keynes lui-même, il était en fait favorable, bien plus que les keynésiens d’après-guerre, aux travaux publics là où se trouvent les chômeurs, un message largement oublié et résumé par l’idée qu’il faut simplement arroser l’économie de liquidités, pour enclencher la croissance, croissance elle-même très inégalitaire, et qui contribue à l’instabilité financière et à la destruction de l’environnement. 

Nous devons adopter des politiques plus chirurgicales ciblant directement l’emploi, comprendre les limites de la croissance, et créer de la croissance par le bas, plus durable. 

Un autre candidat en termes de politiques progressistes  serait le revenu universel de base, très séduisant pour beaucoup de raisons — sa simplicité, le fait que personne n’alloue les tâches des emplois, personne n’est responsable des programmes d’emploi, etc. 

Je pense que c’est une attractivité très surfaite. D’abord dire de cette mesure qu’elle serait « universelle » est une fausse promesse. Il s’agit en fait du moyen le plus rapide de se débarrasser des filets de sécurité acquis de longue lutte, et de les remplacer. Beaucoup y voient de fait un substitut pour ce qu’il reste de protection sociale. 

Ensuite, ça ne créerait tout simplement pas d’emploi ! Le revenu n’est qu’une infime partie des raisons multiples qui poussent un individu à vouloir travailler. Certes, on peut vouloir aider les individus avec un revenu universel, mais ça ne leur donnera pas un travail.  Il y aura toujours peu d’emplois, pour lesquels les individus devront continuer à se battre. 

Enfin, je pense que ça servirait de subventions aux entreprises privées. De fait, pourquoi Uber se donnerait la peine de vous proposer un salaire correct si le gouvernement vous en a déjà promis un ?

Pour ce qui est de l’idée d’un « revenu de base » par contre, je trouve cela très pertinent, et très cohérent avec l’idée de garantie d’emploi, puisque certaines personnes ne peuvent ni ne doivent avoir à travailler, et il faut bien les aider. Donc à nouveau, il faut un alliage minutieux entre aide à l’emploi et allocations sociales, qu’elles soient pour les enfants, les retraités, les étudiants, etc. 

Une fois que la garantie d’emploi est en place, que devons-nous en attendre à moyen terme ? Devons nous nous attendre à ce que le secteur garanti se remplisse dans un premier temps puis se déverse dans le secteur privé ? 

La réponse la plus simple est qu’il s’agit d’un programme contra-cyclique, simplement parce que le secteur privé est cyclique. C’est déjà ce que l’on constate dans des programmes massifs comme en Argentine ou en Inde, qui intègrent énormément de nouveaux travailleurs à chaque crise. Lors de la reprise, les individus se tourneront à nouveau vers le secteur privé, et ce bien plus vite qu’ils ne sortent du chômage. 

Nous avons modélisé notre programme au Levy Institute, et comme toutes les mesures budgétaires il aura un effet contra-cyclique, et sans effet sur l’inflation — pour les États-Unis, nous trouvons que la mesure pourrait augmenter l’inflation d’au maximum 0,74 %, effet qui retombe rapidement à 0,09 %. Il limitera ainsi les fluctuations macroéconomiques, car dans une situation de chômage massif où l’avenir est incertain, le chômage dure bien plus de temps que si les plus vulnérables se voient proposer un emploi, qui permet à l’activité de continuer un peu mieux. 

Si l’on prend le cas de pays qui ont connu le plein emploi pendant de longues périodes, comme la Suède ou le Japon, on remarque que leur activité est beaucoup plus stable que dans des pays comme la France ou les États-Unis, où le chômage fluctue depuis des décennies. L’emploi est donc une vraie force de stabilisation pour l’activité en général.

Cet entretien est une version abrégée de l’entretien publié par Le Grand Continent.

Guaranteeing the Right to Decent Work

The job guarantee is an ambitious proposal that aims to ensure everyone in society has access to fairly waged, decent work. Amid the upheaval caused by an economic recession that threatens widespread unemployment, solutions need to be found rapidly, and many proposals have been brought to the table, from universal basic income to more traditional stimulus measures. Pavlina Tcherneva, author of The Case for a Job Guarantee, explains why these alternatives are destined to fall short, and sets out why a job guarantee would benefit not just the unemployed but society as a whole, providing individuals with greater autonomy, empowering communities, and contributing to solutions to urgent problems such as the environmental and care crises.

Thomas Belaich and Ulysse Lojkine: Can you explain what a job guarantee is, and why there is a need for it?

Pavlina Tcherneva: The main aim of the job guarantee policy is to “democratise work” and empower individuals, both by giving them the opportunity to choose their work, but also by creating jobs whose goal isn’t to make a profit for a business.

Most jobs in our economies are created by the private sector and are increasingly precarious. The labour market has not given most people a stable standard of living and quality of life, and jobs are becoming harder to bear. So we need a new social contract, a new promise for individuals: if you are seeking work, you will be able to find a decent occupation with an adequate wage.

It isn’t just the private sector that can create jobs; the public sector remains completely overlooked in this regard. Many of the public dimensions of our social life are, in fact, poorly taken into account.

In our modern societies, it has become widely accepted that we should guarantee pension rights, however basic, healthcare provision — except in the United States, unfortunately —, and we know that a free minimum level of education increases the public good — as does guaranteed access to libraries, quality information, and so on. Work is the most important determinant of wellbeing, yet we only ever guarantee unemployment insurance, or sometimes just anti-poverty assistance, but really guaranteeing a decent job is much more empowering for life itself and has a much stronger and clearer effect than the patchwork of policies that we have. It’s a structural policy rather than an additional “measure for employment”.

The system that we’re proposing rests on three pillars. First, the job guarantee would be based on participative decision-making, starting from the principle that unemployed people and communities know what is right for them — so “bottom up”. Next, it would complete the social protection system by including the basic right to work. Lastly, it would be a better stabilisation policy than the different benefits surrounding work and unemployment, which is precisely the purpose of public service.

Work is the most important determinant of wellbeing, yet we only ever guarantee unemployment insurance, or sometimes just anti-poverty assistance….

There have been initiatives in the spirit of your model. Do you consider the Argentine scheme Jefes y Jefas, which ran between 2002 and 2007, and the Indian system started by the 2005 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act good examples of what you’re proposing?

Yes, these two programmes are completely in keeping with our proposals. In fact, the Jefes plan was developed from the job guarantee model that we had devised with colleagues from the University of Missouri.

Of course, neither of the programmes is universal — the beneficiaries of the Jefes plan are unemployed individuals with dependent children who are minors or disabled, while those of the Indian scheme are adults from poor rural households who volunteer for relatively unskilled tasks. Even so, they generally follow the model that I advocate, and they perfectly illustrate how a job guarantee could be implemented in developing countries by focusing on a country’s particular problems. For example, both programmes had significant beneficial effects for the poorest women, and the Indian programme created essential environmental jobs.

There are some policies that go in this direction in Europe, like in France with its Territoires zéro chômeurs (zero unemployed areas), and in a very different manner, Hungary’s public works scheme, which seems to have contributed to the sharp fall in unemployment under Viktor Orbán. What do you think about these European cases?

I’ve followed the this solution in France closely and, to my mind, it is a very good model for thinking about extending the programme nationally. On the other hand, Orbán’s policy is a workfare policy. It forces individuals to return to work to receive their benefits, a condition that applies regardless of their situation or the characteristics of the job.

The fundamental question is about the collective effort that we’re willing to make to ensure that those who need a job, a decent job, can benefit from a mechanism that guarantees one. There are two ways to do it, democratically or undemocratically; based on the consultation model, like in France, or on the workfare model, like in Hungary.

The confusion between these two policies stems from the fact that the job guarantee is often mistaken for an employment programme like any other, opening jobs to individuals, punitively or otherwise – you can always force people to work! But the job guarantee is not a workfare policy, it’s an addition to the safety net that’s already in place, or rather an overhaul of what social protection should take into account.

The aim is to rethink social protection, and to rethink it so that it guarantees more fundamental rights, of which work is one. Work has long been recognised as a fundamental human right, but we need to make more of an effort to guarantee it for all, voluntarily, with a bottom-up approach, which is the opposite of the coercive incentives and top-down approach of workfare policies.

The aim is to rethink social protection, and to rethink it so that it guarantees more fundamental rights, of which work is one.

Let’s look at the differences between the French and Hungarian experiments. In Hungary, this employment programme was put in place at the expense of social protection, particularly unemployment benefits. Furthermore, the tasks are not defined in the same way: mayors are in charge of the unemployed, whereas in France it’s the unemployed themselves who define their occupations. What do you think about this democratisation of “tasks” themselves?

People know what they need. In my work in Argentina, those who came up with their own projects were the most interesting: they knew precisely what families needed, they knew what would benefit young people quickest, and they knew precisely what the local situations were. In this respect, to use Graeber’s concept, they weren’t “bullshit jobs”. It wasn’t a case of building infrastructure in the middle of nowhere just to keep people busy. It was about responding effectively to the needs of the community.

That the people doing jobs have a say in defining them is at the very heart of the idea of democratising work. It’s not a question of a central administrator allocating work by consulting their roadmap but it needs to be led by the community in which that job is based.

The main message is that new occupations shouldn’t just be jobs, but a way to fill a void in public life. If a community is ravaged by unemployment, it’s not simply a matter of providing a certain number of “posts”; the creation of jobs should be used as an opportunity to consider the specific needs of each community — its elderly, its children, and so on — while giving power to the myriad local groups that try to address its challenges. The job guarantee would therefore prioritise care work.

There are numerous needs and problems, starting with the energy transition. In fact, the job guarantee would be very conducive to the transition. The most effective project in the United States’ New Deal was the rehabilitation and conservation of national parks, which we have inherited. The people who live in regions that have been flooded, burnt, or polluted are well aware of this need.

While the main goal of the job guarantee is to help job seekers, such an ambitious programme would also affect the employed. What effects would a job guarantee have on the labour market for the employed? Couldn’t we expect a reduction in the bargaining power of employees particularly among the least skilled?

Quite the opposite. Because we’re in a real unemployment paradigm, we accept massive levels of it, which makes us underestimate its effects on workers. The existence of unemployment creates and makes people accept a race to the bottom in the labour market. They lose their benefits, their protection and, little by little, the precariat gains ground, all because the existence of unemployment creates fierce competition for a small number of jobs. Employees are in a situation where they have to put up with their job, as precarious as it may be, for fear of not finding another. As the famous saying goes, nobody is safe until everyone is safe.

If we were to orchestrate a paradigm shift by asserting that all those who need a job should be offered one, the economy would work very differently. Of course, the most skilled won’t see their lives transformed, and a job guarantee wouldn’t change their lives much. But if I work in McDonald’s, I would gain more leverage. I have an option, an alternative. Then, if there’s harassment at work, I can say no and look for another job opportunity, which isn’t the case today.

Many would respond that you can do this with a universal basic income, because quitting a job doesn’t mean losing too much income, but the goal is to offer a job, because the market doesn’t create enough of them. Unlike UBI, the job guarantee doesn’t perpetuate the competition over jobs, and therefore raises the employment floor by providing a decent job and adequate income. Employers who take advantage of the threat of unemployment to keep workers’ wages low will have to at least match the standard of the job guarantee to continue to find labour. There’s the real effect for the employed. We’ve already seen this phenomenon in the United States, where raising a state’s minimum wage above the federal minimum has a ripple effect on wages in neighbouring states.

Fundamentally, ensuring full employment helps to systematically increase the bargaining power of the least skilled workers, of the most vulnerable, who are usually discarded by the labour market first, and included last.

Unlike UBI, the job guarantee doesn’t perpetuate the competition over jobs, and therefore raises the employment floor by providing a decent job and adequate income.

When looking at Europe, which has both national and EU-wide labour markets, what is the most relevant level for a job guarantee?

Ideally, we should be brave and ambitious from the outset, and think directly at the European level. Of course, there are major limitations in the Eurozone, the biggest being the lack of a European budget. But there are also things that we can build on: I’m thinking about the legal requirement for the European Commission to publish information on unemployment and social justice, and the European Union’s Youth Guarantee, which is implemented by national governments.

In the meantime, national governments can already act. For example, France spends billions on subsidies for companies but the impact on unemployment is quite modest. The government could use some of this spending to directly hire the unemployed, enhancing the effect on employment.

Obviously, national governments face budgetary constraints due to the Maastricht criteria. This prevents them from boosting employment as widely as the United States does on a regular basis in times of crisis, and it’s a real straitjacket for European states. However, they already spend a fair amount on unemployment insurance and fighting poverty, aimed particularly at people without work. With these costs deducted, job guarantee programmes wouldn’t be as expensive as people say they are.

Why opt for a job guarantee rather than more conventional Keynesian stimulus policies? After all, Europe saw full employment after the war without a job guarantee.

Even during the Keynesian era of the 1950s and 1960s, we didn’t exactly reach perfect full employment; there was still lots of poverty and unemployment, which we have had a tendency to underestimate. Above all, the share of long-term unemployment has been rising since the 1960s, which has contributed to the gradual rolling back of labour market protections. It’s the classic reserve army of labour, which holds the threat of unemployment over people’s heads and lowers job standards. We should aim to make it disappear.

As for Keynesian policies, they tend to only reduce joblessness among the most employable. They only affect the most skilled individuals who receive the best wages and who never experience unemployment. Even during the Keynesian era, this phenomenon of “last in, first out” persisted; those at the bottom of the income scale were also those who had the most precarious experience of work.

Keynes himself favoured – far more so than post-war Keynesians – public works in places where people were unemployed. It’s a message largely forgotten and boiled down to the idea that you simply have to flood the economy with cash to kickstart growth, despite growth itself being very unequal and contributing to financial instability and environmental destruction.

We have to adopt more surgical policies that directly target employment, understand the limits of growth, and create more sustainable bottom-up growth.

Another candidate in terms of progressive policies is universal basic income, which is attractive for many reasons — its simplicity, the fact that nobody allocates job tasks, nobody is responsible for job programmes, etc.

I think this attractiveness is very overrated. To say that this measure would be “universal” is a false promise. It’s actually the quickest way to get rid of hard-won safety nets and replace them. Many see this as a substitute for what’s left of social protection. What’s more, it does not create any jobs. Income is just one of the many reasons that push an individual to want to work. Helping people with a universal income will not give them a job.  There will still be too few jobs for which people will have to keep fighting.

Once the job guarantee is in place, what should we expect in the medium term? Should we expect the guaranteed sector to first fill up and then spill over into the private sector?

The simplest answer is that it’s a counter-cyclical programme, simply because the private sector is cyclical. What we’re seeing in large-scale programmes like those in Argentina or India is that they take on huge numbers of new workers during crises. During upturns, people turn again to the private sector, and much more quickly than they would leave unemployment.

We’ve modelled our programme at the Levy Institute, and like all budgetary measures, there would be a counter-cyclical effect, and without any effect on inflation. For the United States, we found that the measure could increase inflation by a maximum of 0.74 per cent, an effect that rapidly falls to 0.09 per cent. It will therefore limit macroeconomic fluctuations, because in a situation of mass unemployment where the future is uncertain, unemployment lasts much longer than if the most vulnerable are offered a job, which allows economic activity to continue a bit better.

If you take the case of countries who experience full employment for long periods, like Sweden or Japan, you see that their economic activity is much more stable than in countries like France or the United States, where unemployment has fluctuated for decades. Employment is a stabilising force for economic activity in general.

An extended version of this interview first appeared in Le Grand Continent in French. 

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