“The Electoral Cycle is Too Short for Real Political Change”

Following ECOLO’s electoral success in 2019, the Belgian party found itself in governing coalitions at various levels including the federal level where it took 652 days for a government to form. As part of a broad coalition in a complex political scene, keeping the movement and vision behind the party alive and mobilised is a priority. Confronted with the pandemic, how has the party built credibility around social issues and kept climate change on the agenda? We spoke with Mohssin El Ghabri about how the party is navigating the current context, its political ambitions, and the stakes for Belgian Greens in the 2024 elections.

This interview is part of a series that we are publishing in partnership with Le Grand Continent on green parties in Europe.

Green European Journal: You’re currently between electoral cycles, which means that you don’t have any elections on the immediate horizon. You’re in government and confronted with the enormous challenge of the Covid-19 crisis. How does a party like ECOLO approach national issues? What are the issues that shape the public debate?

Mohssin El Ghabri: First let’s bear in mind a key piece of context: Belgium is a federal state with various governments of which we’re a part, something that’s unprecedented. Never before has ECOLO been part of every government but the small government of the German-speaking community. We are indeed between electoral cycles: the next polls will be the combined European, federal, and regional elections, shortly followed by local elections, in June and September 2024 respectively.

As for the national context, politics is completely absorbed with the issue of Covid, managing the pandemic, and all the social, economic and psychological effects of the crisis, with a particular focus on decision-making in the Covid-19 era. It is, I believe, very difficult for constructive, non-populist opposition parties to assert themselves in this scenario, which is heavily focused on decision-making and, in Belgium, on the federal government. It is even more focused on two figures in the federal government, the health minister and the prime minister. The national context has also been impacted by the effects of climate change in the form of heatwaves and flooding. This context is also shifting fundamentally in terms of politics because in the north right-wing and far-right parties represent a majority of voting intentions, and in the south, the PTB [The Workers’ Party of Belgium] is developing a new style through aggressive left-wing populism.

For us, it’s challenging and difficult. Difficult because we’re in the front line, not just at the federal level but at the regional level too: Alain Maron is the health minister for the Brussels region, and Bénédicte Linard is health minister for the French-speaking community (there are lots of health ministers in Belgium, which in itself caused political controversy, especially during the first wave). We’re under pressure from certain sectors who want to re-open because they’re really suffering, yet we’re not in the driving seat at the federal level. This helps and hinders us: it hinders us fundamentally but helps from a political point of view, because the Belgian political landscape is quite hard to read, including when it comes to apportioning blame. That’s why the finger is pointed at the whole political class.

Are you still able to make room in public debate for other issues, whether directly or indirectly linked to the origins of the pandemic?

To answer the first part of the question, the habit that we very quickly got into when the crisis started is, when we’re in power, to strive for managerial excellence to ensure that we do the best in the circumstances. In terms of the party, we try to develop subjects connected to the Covid crisis which aren’t too far from our fundamentals like climate and the environment. For example, we really tried to explain the crisis through issues of biodiversity and zoonotic diseases. Not just immediately offering solutions, but making sense of the crisis and drawing the link between what’s happening today and the risk of it happening again if we continue to destroy the natural shield that separates us from wild animals.

In intellectual and media debate about the crisis, we initially saw several competing framings. The green framing explains the crisis in systemic terms through issues such as biodiversity, whereas the more social-democratic framing emphasises the lack of robustness of our healthcare system, the lack of intensive care beds, and so on. It’s the same thing that we do: bring things back to their fundamentals. Judging by the way that intellectuals and journalists have answered this question, our framing has proved more credible. Parties on the right tend to read the Covid situation as a “parenthesis” that will close only for “business as usual” to return better than before.

Parties on the right tend to read the Covid situation as a “parenthesis” that will close only for “business as usual” to return […]

We also stressed a conception of health that is much richer and fuller than just associating health with the healthcare system. We wanted to talk about environmental health more generally, as well as the social and environmental determinants of health. Aspects of the lockdown experience illustrated its importance like the fact that it’s very difficult to enjoy green space if you live in a big city without a balcony. The lockdown experience is completely different to those of people living in the countryside. We focused more on preventive aspects than remedial ones and environmental determinants of health in particular.

Lastly, we drew parallels between the Covid crisis and the climate crisis. The increasing importance of scientific opinion, which has always been important for us, was clearest during the first wave. We emphasised how scientists should be listened to in the same way when it comes to the climate and biodiversity crises. It worked quite well, but it only works when we’re able to forge alliances with, for example, epidemiologists and virologists who have strong climate and environmental awareness and who systematically draw the link between the two crises. This shouldn’t obscure the other side of this reality, which is the questioning of the broader scientific world by populist movements.

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How do you build credibility in the public debate and make connections between environmental and socio-economic issues?

What strikes me most when I put my finger to the wind is the strength of environmental issues in public opinion. Environmental and climate concern is much stronger than it was 10 years ago. Quite humbly, ECOLO has played its part in that too. What is reassuring is that this concern has not been diminished by the Covid-19 crisis. Although environmental and climate issues come up less – at least in the French-speaking community – than they did during electoral campaigns a year or two ago, these issues appear to have a life of their own, regardless of the media narrative and the traditional press.

Concern and awareness about these issues are spreading beyond the parts of society that have traditionally been aware of them. For us, it’s a case of knowing how to politicise other growing concerns and draw the links between very different issues.

Our goal is to update our proposals on “green issues”. These are environmental and climate subjects and everything related, like sustainable food for example. We are considered the most credible party on those issues. When we negotiate with other parties, we see that they are, in fact, quite weak on substance when it comes to climate and environmental issues. Others, including the Socialist Party, have still not changed their spots on environmental issues, apart from political spin. Government negotiations are the moment of truth because they reveal what other parties’ true colours are.

Does this weakness lie in the expertise they bring to the table or rather in their proposals?

Both. In terms of vision, they find it hard to make the connection between environmental issues and economic issues, or between environmental issues and social issues. They have a siloed approach to “green issues”, as well as a lack of expertise. It’s part of a general trend. Perhaps it’s inherent to the proportional system, which encourages parties to specialise. We weren’t at the same level as the Socialist Party on questions of social security or pensions. Building on those issues is one of our goals for the coming years: to not just remain strong and relevant on green issues – in other words, not take them for granted – but to also invest in socio-economic subjects so that we can emphasise our own vision.

After the environment, Europe is a key element in the current debate. The health crisis is of course global in scale, but the European dimension is enormously important. Does Europe also have an impact on political divides in Belgium? Supporting the European Union is part of the Greens’ political DNA. How do you promote this dimension in the national public sphere?

There’s not really any political divide on European issues. In Belgium, we have a tradition that is broadly favourable towards European integration, with one recent exception, the PTB, as well as the far right. At some point, the PTB decided it wanted to differentiate itself on Europe by pushing ideas like “we need to leave the treaties”. It’s a bit like what Jean-Luc Mélenchon is doing in France, but with much less success.

However, European issues have been crucial for furthering our agenda. At the negotiating table, ECOLO had the European Commission on its side, which is no small thing in a country with a strong pro-European tradition. Leveraging the Green Deal during federal negotiations was a fairly decisive argument in convincing Liberals and Socialists of the soundness of our proposals on climate, the environment, and biodiversity. Europe has been a considerable help for us over the past year and a half. It’s something that I was not seeing at all 10 years ago.

We had elections in the Netherlands in March, it’s an election year in Germany, and next year in France. These electoral dynamics have an impact both on environmentalism and Europe. How closely does ECOLO follow this?

Germany and France, for obvious reasons to do with changes in European dynamics, are the places where our gaze always falls. Germany has a clear impact on the shifting balance of power as the German Greens  could potentially  enter government. It marks a turning point for the Greens in Europe, so it’s crucial that we follow it closely, as well as trying to analyse their tactical and strategic choices because their situation is closer to ours than the French Greens’. The German regions that have developed a strong link between industrial vision and the environment are of particular interest. This gain in credibility is something we should really draw inspiration from in Belgium. We still have plenty of room for improvement and there are some quite useful lessons to take away from what’s going on in some German Länder, as well as the federal level. 

On the French side, it’s different because we share a French-speaking public sphere. This means that what happens in France has an impact on us. What we’ve seen in France is the Greens growing in strength to the point where they’re the main target for the party in power. If, as a party, Europe Ecology – The Greens [EELV] is caught up in endless controversy, especially in terms of “punitive environmentalism”, that can affect us. On the other hand, if EELV manages to build momentum in the run-up to the presidential election, that’s super positive.

We’ve entered a phase of increasing geopolitical awareness. There’s growing uncertainty at the borders of the European Union. Although it isn’t an electoral issue, does ECOLO have a geopolitical vision, both for Belgium and Europe?

First of all, Belgium doesn’t have a strong tradition of projecting geopolitical power, apart from in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. It’s here that Belgium continues to have major economic interests and political influence. And it’s diminishing with the growing strength of China, the United States and France in the region. On the other hand, Belgium has a strong tradition of multilateralism and investment, both when it comes to European Union foreign policy – with the only wrinkle being the issue of NATO, which remains a thorn in our side – and multilateral organisations, up to and including the United Nations.

The party can’t let participation in government kill it off.

Like European issues, the tradition of multilateralism isn’t a subject that divides Belgian political parties, with the exception of the PTB. From this point of view, the Greens are fairly comfortable, in the sense that we stand for multilateralism, policies that promote human rights, and really campaign on these issues. Take, for example, China and the Uighurs. It’s an important issue in Belgium, in Dutch and French-speaking communities alike, and we’ve taken strong stances on it, with parliamentarians leading the way.

Respect for human rights in foreign policy is a strong part of Greens’ identity, especially the Belgian Greens. This applies as much to our relations with foreign countries in general as it does to our neighbourhood policy towards countries on the European Union’s borders. This concern for human rights can of course be seen in our asylum and immigration policies, where we have been and remain the clear progressive choice because neither the Socialist Party nor the PTB campaign on these issues.

The issue of trade deals is also very important for Belgian Greens. What we want to develop is, on the one hand, our opposition to certain treaties, like Mercosur, but we’re also trying to get away from a posture of automatic opposition. It’s about developing a framing that allows us to identify what we want in trade deals and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Finally, for us, the climate is a fundamental geopolitical question and we know that the most relevant level for fighting this battle is European. The European Green Deal and the trends developing in Europe might outwardly project a model image of a greener society. But behind this image lies a very concrete and visible use of climate and environmental (including biodiversity) dividing lines as a pillar of EU foreign policy. Today, talking about climate in cooperation agreements and international fora means talking about homeland security and protecting the physical safety of EU citizens, rather than reducing this to blue flowers, bees and adaptation programmes here and there, like in the past. Climate geopolitics isn’t a gimmick and ECOLO fully incorporates this component into its European policy positions in the governments that we belong to.

There’s another question: European defence. For you, NATO is a “thorn in the side”. But how do you solve this equation of being pro-European and in favour of European strategic autonomy while at the same time existing within the American umbrella and the dynamics associated with it?

Historically, we have opposed NATO, favouring European defence much more, and we believe that the two conflict. The problem lies not so much in terms of building our vision of how things should be. Rather, it’s a political question. You can’t simultaneously want NATO, want the growth of NATO if necessary, and want the development of European defence strategies. From this point of view, the Trump era brought home the need to press ahead on European defence issues.

What are the main strategic priorities that you want to focus on for elections at every level between now and 2024?

The first is to ensure that the party thrives outside of its participation in government. Governments have their roadmaps that are negotiated with other parties; we have our own roadmap and we must continue to promote it in public debate. The party can’t let participation in government kill it off. It’s more an operational objective, but it’s so important and requires so much effort that it has actually become a strategic objective. The second strategic objective is to make a success of our participation in government, to succeed in achieving our priorities in federal and regional governments as well as in municipalities where we are in power.

The third objective is to fully engage in the cultural battle. The reality is that the electoral cycle is too short for real political change. We must also engage in fights that aren’t limited by election dates. The “cultural battle” means any investment in and building of alliances that would allow us to change how we are perceived and lead to lasting political success.

For example, we hold almost all the transport portfolios in Belgium (except Flanders). Obviously, the desire to reduce the modal share of the car in transport is central to our policy. But the car isn’t just a means of transport. if we want to be stronger than we are today, in Brussels we’re at 20 per cent, if we want to get above 20 per cent or so, we will have to move beyond our traditional electorate. We have to go after working-class voters, or those who live in working-class areas (which isn’t always the same thing in Brussels). In these areas, the car is also a status symbol that you buy when you start working. We need to be able to change these perceptions so that we are stronger, more audible and more credible with these voters. It won’t happen in the next two or three years, but we must invest in this now to create the conditions for broader social coalitions in the next five to ten years. So our preferred alliances are with the world of culture and artists. You can really create interesting things by blending political perspectives with artistic and cultural ones. We’re launching many joint initiatives with the cultural world to build the Green vision through artistic expression, rather than just through scholarly press releases and well-written texts. We want to change the political grammar in this regard.

Last goal: we want to be stronger from an operational point of view and build on the professionalisation of our organisations. It’s about emphasising the fact that operational excellence is at least as important as strategic vision, which is a prerequisite for pursuing and achieving our goals.

Tracing Our Legacy on a Changing Planet

How will our civilisation be remembered? David Farrier asked himself this question to reflect on how history will view us and ended up finding a new way of seeing the world. The professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh explores how humans are changing ecosystems and how this transformation will be perceived in the literature of tomorrow. In his book, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils (4th Estate, 2020), he is hopeful about our ability to change the future.

Raquel Nogueira: Footprints opens with a reflection on the traces of our ancestors that can be found in literature – but what will our own time on earth look like to future generations?

David Farrier: How will we be remembered? And what story will be told by the plastic, carbon in the atmosphere, the combination of concrete, glass and steel that make up our cities, and nuclear waste we leave behind? In many ways, it will be a tale of destruction that shows how we have prioritised ourselves over all other ecosystems. It will describe what we value and what we do not. But it is a story we are telling right now: we are the authors and there is still time to decide how we want it to turn out. While writing the book, I began to realise that the story of our time on earth could be one about caring, about learning how to be better ancestors. In the future, they will see the damage we have caused, but also the turning point, how we have made up for lost time and changed the course of things to put a stop to the destruction.

No flying cars, no cities governed by machines. The twenty-first century is not quite what science fiction had us imagine. But who came closest?

While researching how cities become fossils – a chapter of my book is dedicated to this – I visited Shanghai, one of the largest metropolises in the world threatened by rising sea levels. It is practically guaranteed that this Chinese city will become our legacy in fossil form for future inhabitants of the planet. To help me imagine what this future fossil might look like, I read two authors from the past with completely different outlooks on what a city would look like today. One was J. G. Ballard, a British science fiction writer who was born and raised in Shanghai in the 1930s. The other was Italo Calvino, the great Italian writer, and in particular his Invisible Cities. Ballard gets across a sense of ruin, of a society that is out of control, obsessed, and he reflects on where this lack of control might lead us. With Calvino, on the other hand, you have this incredible imagining of what cities are like and what they could be. His vision offsets the emphasis on destruction we find in Ballard. Calvino offers hope for the future because he creates cities full of imagination and possibility.

Your book takes us through the various footprints we leave behind on the planet. Do we need literature to open our eyes to the consequences of climate change?

We all make sense of things in terms that we know, and it’s natural for me to think of major challenges in terms of stories, narratives. There is so much information out there about climate change: we know what it is, people understand the correlation between what we as humans are doing and the effect it has on the planet. We can never have too much information, but what we need now are stories, we need literature, poetry, in order to truly understand what climate change means. We have traditionally looked to the arts to help us understand the world, because they are able to tell us who we are and what it means to be human. We need this more than ever because we are in a unique situation: the species that is transforming the planet is also the only one that can make it more human. To understand the situation, we first need to understand ourselves.

We need literature to truly understand what climate change means

In the book you talk about the Pliocene as “paleo-laboratory to better understand the difficult and dangerous world we will live in if the planet continues to heat up”.

This was a geological period several million years ago and the most recent on the planet to have the same levels of carbon concentration in the atmosphere as today. It was a very different place, but even so, if you take a look at the world map of the time, the coastlines, for example, were similar to those of today, but the global temperature and sea levels were much higher. Scientists say that we can look to the Pliocene as a warning of the kind of planet we will end up having if we continue to do nothing. A couple of centuries from now, if we don’t mitigate the effects of climate change, things could be this way again, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s just around the corner.

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T. S. Eliot wrote that “the sea has many gods and many voices”, but climate change seems to be changing the symphony of the seas.

In the chapter of Footprints in which I refer to T. S. Eliot, I look at which creatures are better adapted to life on a human planet, where we have oceans filled with islands of plastic, but also a higher concentration of carbon, which makes the water warmer and more acidified. Jellyfish have adapted very well to survive in this type of ecosystem in which most species would perish. But, if we continue down this road, we could create a situation whereby oceans are only suitable habitats for jellyfish and certain kinds of bacteria, and are emptied of the majority of current lifeforms. They would be drained of all colour. And what is most alarming is the fact that jellyfish are already interacting with the plastic floating in the sea, as are other animals. Turtles, for example, are eating plastic bags because, when they float, they look just like jellyfish.

We are becoming increasingly aware of our impact on Earth.

Not just climate change itself, but also the science – the reasoning and explanations – behind the climate emergency. We no longer simply believe in it or blindly accept it: more and more people understand it, have an awareness of its causes and consequences in a scientific sense. We have started to grasp what we need to do to change to course of history, and the global reach of the student climate strikes is a case in point. The pandemic has also shown us that it is possible to effect radical change both as individuals and together, as a society, but also as economies, in order to address a collective challenge. This is what gives me hope. We have learned a very valuable lesson, despite the pandemic being a horrifying tragedy on so many levels: we are capable of fast radical change.

Can we change our ways in time?

We must – and we will – but the question is when. The most important thing to remember is that it is never too late: we can’t reach the point of giving up and deciding there is nothing left worth fighting for. It is always worth taking action, though it is important that we do so as soon as possible.

Earth’s long lifespan shapes our lives, but why is it so hard for us to imagine that the present, past and future are connected?

We live in the present, in carpe diem, in the next product we’re going to purchase, the next iPhone model. We live by electoral cycles, or from weekend to weekend. We are programmed to think in the short term. And this stops us from seeing the planet we inhabit as a gift: scientists have told us how improbable it is for a planet like earth to have appeared, let alone to have the perfect conditions to harbour life. And, despite everything, here we are: we are part of a practically impossible possibility. The problem is that from a very young age we are taught to see the world as a resource from which to take whatever we wish to consume. A planet that allows life to continue thriving will be our gift to future generations.

The future fossils you speak of in your book are already beginning to take shape. How can we recognise them?

One day I was walking along a beach in Scotland with my students and we found a rock with a plastic fishing rope in it that had begun to sediment. They merged into a single object. This is what they call plastiglomerate, a new type of rock that is produced when plastic melts within it, and it’s an example of how pollution is creating new objects. But we don’t need to wait for this kind of chance encounter to realise that future fossils are already here: they are the materials all around us. Materials such as plastic, concrete, steel, glass are abundant and durable and they surround us every day. It’s all these mundane, almost banal, materials that will shape our legacy. We see them wherever we go. I would encourage people to observe and consider the potential of these objects to become future fossils and remain on the planet for tens of thousands of years.

This interview was originally published by Ethic.

Civil Society Weathering the Hate Storm in Bulgaria

Growing polarisation has led to an atmosphere in which activists and civil society organisations in Bulgaria are the targets of hate speech. As conspiracy theories and misinformation gain legitimacy in public discourse and spread online, environmental, children’s, and women’s rights activists often come under fire. Velina Barova explains what is driving the online attacks and explores what it would take to support activists and organisations defending democracy and human rights in Bulgaria.

In recent years, the online climate for human and civil rights activists in Bulgaria has worsened. The most recent peak came in 2018 and 2019 when attempts to ratify the Istanbul Convention and adopt a strategy for the rights of the child led to a storm of abuse and threats against organisations supporting the rights of women, children, and LGBTQI+ people. Today, though less widespread, online attacks continue to target civil society organisations.

A study by the Bulgarian NGO network Bluelink looking at online hate sheds light on the phenomenon, as well as the experiences of people subjected to it. The study finds that through discourse in media and politics, hate speech against civil society is carried over and normalised online with real consequences for the lives of activists.

Since 2018, the narratives include open racial hatred, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, as well as anti-European and anti-Western language. They are based on aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the denial of basic human rights to Roma, migrants, women, and LGBTQI+ people. The study also found an increase in the number of environmental organisations under pressure in the past decade.

The abusive language common to online hate speech speaks to its paranoid, far-right strain. Civil society activists are often labelled “sorosoids” (activists supposedly in the pay of George Soros), “granters” (organisations who rely on grants), “foreign agents”, and “green racketeers”. Slurs conflating liberal values and the European Union with homosexuality are also frequent.

Women’s rights under attack

Civil society representatives share stories about hate speech and threats of physical violence sent to them privately or to pages they administer. They recount offensive comments under their posts and insults based on their appearance or sexual orientation. Some have seen their profiles specifically targeted or abusive fake profiles created. Photos and personal information have been posted in blogs and groups and civil society websites hacked.

2018 was the toughest year for women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations. A storm of organised attacks was carried out in opposition to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe treaty combating gender-based violence. The Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), which actively supports the convention, received hate speech comments under every post on their Facebook page, as well as insulting direct messages to team members. Initially started by the ultra-conservative Christian organisation Society and Values, the campaign was taken up by the far-right electoral alliance the United Patriots, which was then a minority partner in the governing coalition, as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

liberal democratic values […] are increasingly displaced by illiberal ideas

BFW director Nadezhda Dermendzhieva admits that the situation improved in 2020; she cannot recall receiving a threatening personal message since. Petya Sheremetova, public relations specialist of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, has observed the same decrease in online abuse since the pandemic. But the less toxic situation for women’s organisations is largely explained by the Covid-19 pandemic shifting the focus of online activity to the virus and vaccines.

Although the worst of 2018 to 2019 has passed, “the environment is not as favourable as it should be,” Dermendzhieva admits. She still sees troll attacks against sponsored posts on the Bulgarian Fund for Women’s Facebook page. Gloriya Filipova from Bilitis, an organisation supporting the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Bulgaria, notes a different trend: due to lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions, increasing numbers of people believe in conspiracy theories and vent their frustration online.

Behind the hate

According to the BlueLink study, hate speech follows an established pattern: attacks are generated by social media posts, spread through multiple followers, legitimised and normalised in the media, and then fed back into social media. Perpetrators prefer the online space, often Facebook, and mainly use false information, distortions of the truth, misinformation, and propaganda clichés.

Various factors explain the widespread animosity towards civil society organisations in Bulgaria. Nationalist politicians often portray NGOs as foreign imports and target them to consolidate support among their constituents. Local oligarchs and countries such as Russia also fund and provide logistical support to anti-liberal and anti-civil society narratives. Representatives of civil society organisations identify their work in support of environmental protection or the rights of various groups in society as the main reason they become targets.

In this context, liberal democratic values such as tolerance, pluralism, and respect for civil society actors are increasingly displaced by illiberal ideas of isolation, national superiority, and the exclusion of minorities. This trend is not only observed in Bulgaria but also in other EU member states such as Hungary and Poland.

Activists identify two distinct groups of users who send hate messages: individuals who are encouraged by online anonymity and those participating in coordinated attacks against specific causes. According to Dermendzhieva, apart from radicalised individuals, the attacks on women’s rights organisations come from “paid trolls of pro-Russian far-right groups,” and the influence of US-funded religious fundamentalists, referring to a 2018 publication by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Civil society is facing a “well-organised and financially backed organisation of people […].”

Georgе Bogdanov, executive director of the National Network for Children Bulgaria, an umbrella organisation for Bulgarian children’s rights groups, believes the storm around the Istanbul Convention and the Strategy for the Child shows that civil society is facing a “well-organised and financially backed organisation of people who aim to destroy not only human rights but also democratic foundations in Bulgaria, which are very fragile.” In his opinion, civil society underestimated the first indications of sentiments against the strategy on children: “The signals in this direction were quite obvious and we did not take action as civil activists at the time, but left things in the air – as civil society, we underestimated these voices.”

A strong wave of attacks flooded the organisations working in support of children’s rights during the public debate on the 2019 to 2030 National Strategy for the Child. The policy was first approved by the National Council for Child Protection in December 2018. After a wave of misinformation on the text, rumours and fake news circulated among parent groups, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy withdrew the strategy in April 2019 after an order Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

A serious problem highlighted by the BlueLink study is that the media, as well as high-ranking politicians, legitimise hateful language by giving a platform to extreme views and inciting heated, often unbridled clashes. At the same time, the decline in professional journalistic standards caused by technological change, market pressures, and the consolidation of media ownership contributes to the spread of hate speech.

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Environmental organisations are in the firing line alongside other civil society actors. Facebook has helped the spread of stereotypical criticism and labels against environmental organisations and groups whose sole purpose is to target environmental organisations have appeared on the platform. “It has become a battlefield out there,” Filipova explains, “There are profiles on Facebook just for going around and spreading hate on the pages of organisations.”

For Sheremetova, rhetoric from the media and politicians equating environmental organisations with political actors helps drive the animosity. “Although ‘For The Nature’ in Bulgaria is not related to a party but is a coalition of civic groups and non-governmental organisations, and has always emphasised this, our opponents often explain our actions as motivated by parties that also advocate for environmental protection in their programmes. […] It could be said that some people in power are fighting both their party opponents and us in this way. This is incorrect because nature protection is a nationwide cause and has always gathered supporters of various parties, as well as activists who do not sympathise with anyone politically.” She also points out that the language of hatred towards environmental organisations has reached the highest institutional levels: “Leaders of ruling political parties, MEPs, MPs, even а deputy prime minister, have allowed themselves to spread baseless accusations against us publicly, including from parliamentary rostrums.”

Taking a stand

Respondents in the BlueLink study reported a number of ways they have tried to deal with online hate: ignoring it: reporting abuse to Facebook; blocking users; sharing experiences with other activists; seeking legal aid; and reporting offences to the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the cybercrime department of the General Directorate Combating Organised Crime.

However, many of these measures are ineffective. Removing posts and comments is cumbersome and the example of a successful lawsuit against a website that slandered a journalist is more of an individual success story than a trend. “What an activist can do on the Internet is like shooting with a slingshot against a tank. Hatred has to be neutralised at its source; in Bulgaria, this is politics and the media,” commented one respondent.

“Organisations do not have much chance when the source is as powerful as a media or state institution. What we can do is show what we do,” Sheremetova said. “Supporters who not only do not fall for the suggestions and accusations against us, but are always ready to protect us too, are a big help.” While hate speech will probably continue, Sheremetova believes organisations will not cease their activities. Dermendzhieva agrees: “I don’t think we should respond to these attacks but focus all our efforts on building our positive image through everything we do.”

According to Bogdanov, politicians need to understand that online pressure and hate speech against civil society constitute a deliberate communication war aiming to push Bulgaria towards leaving the EU and NATO and to discredit civil society organisations. He believes that if civil society organisations are left alone without the support of state institutions, they will be taking part in “a lone battle for democracy”.

Some activists point to the lack of enforcement of legislation on hate speech as the main obstacle to tackling the issue. To Filipova, LGBTQI+ rights organisations that did not receive assistance from the Commission for Protection against Discrimination are telling examples. The commission declared the reported cases beyond its competence. In January 2021, however, the administrative court of Sofia overturned a decision that refused to consider appeals by Sofia Pride organisers against a political campaign to ban the event in 2019.

There is a long road ahead to improve the climate for civil society in Bulgaria. An important factor driving hate is the lack of opportunity and support for young people in Bulgaria which can lead to their radicalisation. “Youth activities that develop communication skills, empathy and acceptance should be much more present,” explains Filipova. Bogdanov believes that support to civil society organisations at the European and international level is what is most needed. “These types of campaigns and the forces behind them must be exposed to the public.” Other activists believe the state can help by providing services to people who are subject to online harassment, such as psychological support.

The answer will be more complex than anyone solution but it is clear that action is needed. “There is a very thin line between hate speech and freedom of speech. There must be freedom of speech, but when there is hatred, institutions cannot fail to recognise these signs of attack,” added Bogdanov.

Even if hate speech does not directly lead to physical violence, it can still leave mental and physical damage as well as limit people’s freedom of speech. As the Bluelink study concludes, “Free speech is not an absolute right and should only be preserved as long as it does not infringe on the rights of other people.”

Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy.

Your book Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020) looks at the dispute on the Left in Ecuador around resource politics. Could you describe the dynamics of this conflict?

The concept of resource radicalism looks at how left-wing movements shift their critique and strategy around resource extraction over time depending on the context. When neoliberalism was taking off in Latin America in the 1990s and early 2000s, social movements were very concerned about both the rapid expansion and environmental, social and labour deregulation of resource sectors. They were also concerned about the ownership of sectors that were seen as strategic sources of national wealth. Their critique was that since colonial times, the resource wealth of Latin American countries had been appropriated by foreign companies. They felt that the profits had never benefited local communities or the majority of people in the country, and that resource extraction had left behind poverty and underdevelopment.

With the arrival of the commodity boom and the Pink Tide at the start of the 21st century, new left-wing governments – from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia to Rafael Correa in Ecuador – were navigating a tricky tension: on the one hand, presiding over the expansion of extractive activities, and on the other hand, trying to channel the economic benefits into social services and public infrastructure. Faced with intensified extraction under leftist governments, movements became more sceptical of extraction as a means of development, even with better regulation and under a better governance model.

They embraced the tactics of anti-extractive militants, often opposing new projects that posed risks to indigenous territory, ecosystem integrity, and alternative livelihoods. Movements began blockading projects and protesting in capitals as well at sites of extraction. Extraction became politicised to a new level. Today, Latin America has some of the most militant anti-extractive movements but they often face repression and violence. It’s the world region with the highest risk of murder for those who oppose extractive or development projects and large-scale agriculture.

Is this dynamic particular to Latin America or would you draw parallels elsewhere?

Latin American anti-extractive and anti-mining movements are increasingly part of transnational networks that span world regions, including North America and Europe where there’s potentially a new mining boom related to energy transitions. Sometimes, similar forms of mobilisation are evidence of the diffusion of demands, tactics and policy proposals. Some of the tactics and language used in protests against lithium extraction globally have come from Latin American movements targeting other extractive sectors such as coal and oil.

The US and Canada have seen very militant protests around more conventional and extremely environmentally damaging forms of extraction like tar sands and fracking. Indigenous groups have led coalitions against the Keystone pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline and the Line 3 pipeline. In the US, activists are pitted against the Biden administration for its failure to significantly change pipeline policy. A coalition including indigenous activists, environmentalists and farmers is raising big concerns about the new Thacker Pass project which plans to expand lithium extraction in a sensitive ecosystem. Anti-extractive protests have spread globally and largely due to the networking of different campaigns and activist groups.

Why is lithium so important today?

Lithium is an essential input to decarbonise transportation and the energy system itself. Rechargeable lithium batteries – which also contain cobalt, nickel and a host of other minerals – are used in electric vehicles, whether that’s cars, buses or bikes. On a much bigger scale, these batteries are also used in storage on renewable energy grids that rely on intermittent forms of power, such as solar or wind, to help make the energy system more resilient.

What’s concerning about lithium is the social and environmental impact of its extraction. Who is benefitting and who is paying the cost? The problem is not only that certain communities face harm as result of extraction. It’s also that they suffer those harms so that someone else, probably an affluent person elsewhere in the world, can drive an electric vehicle. Lithium batteries surface various tensions, trade-offs and inequalities of global capitalism.

Lithium exemplifies some of the challenges to achieving truly just energy transitions. My fieldwork so far has been in Chile, the world’s second-biggest lithium producer after Australia. One of the biggest impacts of extraction in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is on the water system. Lithium exists in brine underneath the desert salt flats. Mining for lithium here is like mining salty water and evaporating it. Already water-scarce, the region is becoming drier due to climate change and water use by extractive sectors – not just lithium but also copper. All this is tremendous stress on an already vulnerable region. Indigenous communities have observed a lower water table and scientific research has identified knock-on effects on local ecosystems.

There has been very little holistic analysis of the social and environmental impacts of extraction. Lithium extraction is a major ecosystem intervention that hasn’t been properly regulated. Activists in Chile have demanded a moratorium on new lithium projects, or even any lithium extraction, until there is more research and better regulation.

Even if the EU opted for a transition that lowered its lithium demand, it would still need far more than its current stocks. Thinking both in terms of security and ethics, where should the EU source its lithium?

We don’t think enough about where resource extraction is sited and why. Despite how it might seem, extraction doesn’t simply happen where there are deposits. Some landscapes get slated for extraction more than others, particularly indigenous territories and places considered disposable, like deserts. But deserts are vulnerable ecosystems and in some cases, like in Chile or Nevada in the US, they are home to indigenous or local populations. Often, deposits exist elsewhere but in places where extraction would be politically costly for policymakers or corporations.

Most European lithium comes from Chile, so there’s a direct connection between the harms of the Atacama Desert and lithium batteries in Europe. Trade is a venue for setting environmental, social and labour standards though it’s not always thought of in those terms. Trade agreements that prioritise investor profits over indigenous and labour rights and ecosystems are partly why resource extraction has such negative consequences globally.

The problem is not only that certain communities face harm as result of extraction. It’s also that they suffer those harms so that someone elsewhere in the world can drive an electric vehicle.

How EU policymakers are now looking to secure lithium from within the EU should also be assessed. On the one hand, this could be a kind of global justice, easing the pressure on Global South countries which have borne the cost of extraction since colonialism. On the other hand, there also are geographic inequalities within Europe. Portugal is currently Europe’s top lithium producer. It’s currently quite a small producer in global terms but EU policymakers and the Portuguese government want to change that. Portugal is nearer the periphery than the power centre of the EU and has suffered tremendously from the debt crisis. Communities where lithium is extracted in northern Portugal feel like they have very little influence over decisions made in Lisbon. In Germany, however, there are pilot projects to extract lithium from geothermal deposits, potentially a less environmentally harmful process that would also generate renewable energy. Germany is home to a lot of electric vehicle battery development, so extraction here would shorten the supply chain. It would also mean siting extraction in an economic powerhouse and a place of greater political power, so that may be more socially just.

Another aspect is recycling. The EU’s new battery regulation seeks to raise the minimum recycled content in batteries. This is a good move though some argue the proposed percentage requirements should be higher. Recycling recovered materials as much as possible is one way to reduce the demand for new mining. More can be done here to build the necessary infrastructure early on in the energy transition. Once the transition is underway, it will be hard to catch up.

On a deeper level, we need to re-evaluate the energy and transportation sectors to reduce energy demand (whatever the source) and make energy use more efficient. We should think about the modes of consumption and production that prevail under capitalism in the Global North – for example, individual passenger vehicle approaches to transportation – and how to transform those to reduce material footprints.

Is there any such thing as clean, ethical or sustainable mining?

I don’t think there’s any such thing as sustainable mining. All mining has a social and environmental impact and, though we’re not in a resource scarcity context, ultimately these are finite resources. So the idea of sustainable mining is paradoxical, but there are better- and worse-regulated forms of mining. Environmental, social and labour regulation could be much more stringent.

Relationships with local communities also vary. Under certain circumstances, some communities will consent to extraction but mostly their consent is not sought. Community consultation often amounts to an information session with no effect on project implementation. The substantive enforcement of prior consent, as per the UN declaration on indigenous rights, would make for better projects. And when it comes to where projects are sited, multiple factors should weigh in, such as existing forms of ethnic or racial discrimination that impact marginalised communities and the protection of indigenous lands and vulnerable ecosystems.

Another aspect that can make extraction more or less just is the distribution of economic benefits. This can be in the form of worker or community stake in the ownership and governance of projects, and it’s relevant for renewable energy generation as well as dirty extractive sectors. We have seen conflicts in several countries where communities haven’t wanted wind farms or solar parks because they don’t like how they change the landscape or feel they don’t benefit enough economically. But we’ve also seen the opposite – communities embracing these projects because they own a real economic stake in them, they participated in the design process and they gave their consent.

Many extractive projects are sold to communities with the promise that they will bring jobs and prosperity. In the mining boom driven by the green transition, we’re already seeing this. What is the evidence from affected communities? Do these benefits materialise and how do they weigh up against the social and environmental costs?

Extractive projects are rarely as economically beneficial for local communities and workers as companies claim they will be. Mining today is much more capital and technology intensive than it used to be. It involves a lot of machinery which reduces the number of workers required. Mines also have different phases so they generate unstable employment. The exploration stage might involve more labour than a subsequent stage, for instance. And like any extractive sector, mining follows the demand dynamics of the global economy: when there’s more demand, the project expands, and more people may be hired; when there’s less demand, people are let go. During the pandemic-related recession, thousands of workers were laid off in the US oil and gas fields.

On the flip side, communities where these jobs exist often have no alternative. Everywhere there’s coal mining – from Germany to the UK, the US and Colombia – there’s a failure to properly address workers and make sure the energy transition is just. There’s a real need for a just transition framework that addresses communities dependent on extractive sectors that must be phased out to fight global warming. The decline in coal isn’t the result of a managed phase-out; it is because coal became more expensive than gas and, in some cases, renewables.

In the 20th century, coal miners were key to labour movements in many countries and the oil-producing states reshaped the global political economy through OPEC. In the 21st century, could producers of commodities like lithium gain similar power?

It’s absolutely possible. It’s already the case with copper. In past years we’ve seen strikes and other forms of militancy in copper mines. That could impact the supply chains for green technologies. In Chilean lithium mines, there have been attempts at labour organising but these have been met with corporate repression that has been very effective at fragmenting workers or simply firing them.

Labour militancy has been one form of resource politics over the ages. Across the world, different sectors from coal to oil to gold have fascinating histories of militant left-wing (often socialist or communist) labour movements. What is interesting today is that alongside labour movements there are indigenous and environmental movements with a different set of claims. They’re not demanding better wages and working conditions or worker ownership, as the more radical labour unions have. Sometimes they’re demanding an end to extractive projects altogether. You can imagine situations where there’s tension between the labour movement and the environmental and indigenous movements if their goals are different.

It would be very powerful if workers, communities and social movements at different parts of supply chains coordinated. Imagine a strike at a lithium mine over labour conditions coordinating with simultaneous community protests over indigenous rights. Coordinated action could put real pressure on green technology supply chains, forcing corporations and policymakers elsewhere in the world to change practices and regulations. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that yet, but the possibility exists.

A coalition of NGOs has rejected the EU’s metal-hungry Green Deal and called on Europe to promote a transition orientated around environmental justice rather than green growth. Do we need a more nuanced discourse on ecological transition that confronts the issue of consumption?

Consumption is a tricky question for the Left. Any critique of capitalism is aware that the affluent people in our societies overconsume – in terms of energy use and travel for instance – and this drives emissions globally. But many people, especially those who are undernourished and who don’t have stable access to energy or water, don’t consume enough. That level of poverty is primarily but not exclusively concentrated in the Global South. In the US, a supposedly advanced and industrialised country, millions of people face dire levels of food, energy and housing insecurity.

The Left’s politics of consumption needs to be sensitive to these dramatic inequalities. We shouldn’t be saying that everyone needs to consume less, but that the affluent need to consume dramatically less. And that we need public goods, social services and better infrastructure to improve the material circumstances of poor and working-class people. We need a message with a class-targeted critique of the affluent’s overconsumption while transforming how we consume socially to make it more ecologically rational, community orientated, public, and meaningfully collective.

Another important challenge is building broad coalitions that include poor and working-class people. Someone who has experienced austerity or housing insecurity might be sceptical of an idea like degrowth. We have to do the work of explaining that degrowth doesn’t mean less for you, it means less for the ultra-wealthy; it means more redistribution [read more on degrowth]. Other slogans might communicate this more directly. Ideas are effective when people see themselves in them and want to fight for them, rather than something that is purely intellectual. We need to think in terms of the questions and ideas that can galvanise the militant and collective action that this moment requires.

Fighting the New Climate Change Denialism

Today, climate change and its real effects on our world are undeniable. Confronted with this reality, even the US fossil fuel industry has changed tack: from supporting outright climate change deniers to influencing the inevitable policies to mitigate climate change. In her new book, Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet – And How We Fight Back, Kate Aronoff describes how a new type of denialism is taking hold in the fossil fuel industry, a bid to ward off systemic change and protect the business model. As a staunch defender of the Green New Deal, she also aims to show how to fight back.

Olaf Bruns: Your book discusses how capitalism, and specifically its neoliberal variant, has first led us to push the planet’s life support systems to the brink, and now keeps undercutting our very efforts to save them. This leads to a double question: How has capitalism broken the planet? And how does it scupper our current efforts to save it?

Kate Aronoff: Capitalism demands endless extraction: of land, of labour, and of people. It has this constant hunger to explore new frontiers for profit, which precedes any school of neoliberalism. In the case of the United States, we had an expansion into the continent of North America that was based on slaughter and genocide and a development of capitalism that was based on slavery. There are indeed particular faults of neo-liberalism, but there is also a broader dynamic of capitalism: fossil fuel capitalism develops as a logical consequence of capitalism’s dynamic of boundless extraction.

But it is neoliberalism, in particular, that has destroyed our efforts to deal with the climate crisis. I describe in the book how James E. Hansen, a NASA scientist, gave his testimony before the US Congress back in 1988, exposing realities about climate change that are common knowledge today. But in the US, those facts were taken off the table by a 50, 60-year project on behalf of the neoliberal right. It started before the Reagan and Thatcher era in the 1980s, with the creation of institutions like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which undertook a very ambitious and elaborate project to take certain ideas out of the public discussion and present a radically new economic doctrine. It’s crucial to understand the political project of neoliberalism, which is both to shrink the state but also to redistribute it among the institutions that protect capital and markets and insulate them from democracy.

We’re not going to dismantle a 300-year-old system of production and distribution in time to solve the climate crisis […]

In parallel, fossil fuel companies have done a similar job to undermine climate science, before changing tack and concentrating on influencing climate policies.

Exactly. For so long, the climate conversation in the US – and we exported these ideas to Europe and Australia – has revolved around questions like whether the climate is actually changing or not, whether we believe in it or not, which is like asking if you believe in gravity! Fossil fuel companies have funded think tanks to cast doubt on the science of global warming.

But over the last 15 years, these companies have rather attempted to present themselves as good-faith partners in the debate about climate policy. We see this in a very particular way in the US, where companies such as Exxon were very aggressive in the past about, if not denying climate change or funding climate deniers, then ignoring the problem. But that has shifted. Now, companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have started to behave a bit more like the European producers who were already present at the UN climate talks in the 1990s, looking to fight off carbon taxes in favour of a carbon pricing mechanism, to avoid any radical shifts in their business model.

And even the myth of “personal responsibility” as a way to combat climate change, which has been shown to be ineffective, was entirely cooked up by the industry.

Indeed! BP really taps into this, when, in the mid-2000s, they put this carbon calculator on their website that asks you whether you drive or bike to work, and tells you to turn off the lights when you leave the house. As if the responsibility of any individual person could be comparable to that of a multinational fossil fuel company, which is drilling for oil and warping politics around the globe to keep doing so.

But it also taps into something deeper – the very spine of neo-liberalism – which is this notion of individual responsibility, and individuals as the prime units by which society operates. Because, as Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society” – there are only individuals! So, BP didn’t invent that framework out of nowhere, but it’s been a very convenient one for the fossil fuel industry to tap into, to shift their responsibility on to everyone else.

The book contains the line: “denialism is dead [the full-on denialism], long live denialism”. It’s a new denialism that denies what needs to be done now.

There are several facets to the new denialism. One is this idea of individual responsibility that fossil fuel companies are trying to propagate, but another is simply that fossil fuel companies can never be good-faith actors in the climate fight. As if they did not have a business model whose prime directive is to continue to dig up and burn as many fossil fuels as possible, which are killing the planet! That is denialism as it denies the basic fact that the business model of the fossil fuel industry is directly at odds with the future of humans on a habitable planet.

A further aspect is the scale of what needs to happen, to meet the very ambitious target of the Paris Agreement to keep warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The scale of what we need to do to achieve that is massive, including bringing vast amounts of activity onto the electric grid: the combustion engines of cars and the heating systems that in many places run on natural gas for example. It’s a thorough transformation of society that needs to happen to displace what has been built by industrial capitalism. There is simply no way to meet the 2-degrees target without radical changes in our use of fossil fuels.

A myth has developed over the last couple of years that individual companies can put out targets to get to net zero and that these very soft commitments will somehow be enough. Even if every major company, and every government, says in 2021 that they are going to get to net zero in 2050, it’s denialism to think that that is going to happen. There is no evidence that it will!

At the level of policy, there is also a radical difference between cautiously incentivising and radically reining in.

Especially in the US, things are changing a bit: there is a move away from some of the market mechanisms that have been core to the conversation here for so long: that we could just tweak markets, send the right price signal, and that will encourage fossil fuel companies to give up fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Or that at least that it will create a more competitive playing field for solar and wind. But that, as we now know, hasn’t worked. The implementation of emissions trading systems, or carbon pricing, where it has happened, has not defeated the fossil fuel industry.

I’ve talked to climate scientists who say that perhaps 20 years ago there was a point at which we could have done these sorts of subtle market tweaks – a little carbon pricing here, a couple of more stringent regulations there – and that might have dealt with the problem. But now we have wasted far too much time in failing to deal with the problem, and we really need a very radical transformation.

Some see at least a mild transformation: against the backdrop of the failed austerity response to the 2008 crisis, and the more state-interventionist attempts to stem the Covid-19 crisis, many now argue that neoliberalism is dead. Do you agree?

Certainly not! The neoliberals of today are probably in the European Union. It’s true that the US Republican Party is not anymore as doctrinaire neoliberal as it was under Ronald Reagan. And the Democrats, who were the originators of a lot of neoliberal policies in the US, are not as fond of neoliberalism as they were under Bill Clinton. So, there’s some more acceptance that we can spend a lot of money, at least in a crisis, and some of the big neoliberal doctrines are fading away. But there is still this latent attachment to have markets doing the planning. Any talk of state planning is still very, very far off. This wasn’t the case in the New Deal, nor during World War II. Talk of neo-liberalism being dead is unfortunately a bit premature.

But you also say we need to be realistic: we won’t overthrow capitalism with the speed required to save the planet, so we’ll have to do the job with it. But what would be your recipe to tame it?

I think in the long run, the logic of capitalism is really ill equipped for a sustainable society. But I also think that we will have capitalist markets that produce, for example, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars, and which perform types of electrification. But what we can’t do is to leave those sorts of planning decisions up to private markets. We have 30, 40 years of evidence that they will not plan a way out of the climate crisis.

We’re not going to dismantle a 300-year-old system of production and distribution in time to solve the climate crisis, but there needs to be a very different relationship between states and the private sector in order to handle this crisis.

We have 30, 40 years of evidence that private markets will not plan a way out of the climate crisis.

You also have a strong warning about a future without this kind of radical transformation, where the people that are the hardest hit by climate change, whilst having contributed very little to it, increasingly lose out. You use the term eco-apartheid, what do you mean by this?

The simplest definition of eco-apartheid would be continuing the social relations we have today into a climate change future. All the racism and xenophobia that have been present in US history, but which have really surged in a very ugly way the last couple of years, are setting us up for a very scary next couple of decades! Eco-apartheid can sound like a scary dystopian future, but here in the US, Republicans have been carrying out eco-apartheid policies for a long time, for example by hardening our borders and passing regressive anti-immigration legislation.

There is no legal definition of “climate migrant” yet, and it’s hard to draw those lines, but we are already seeing a militarised immigration system being enforced against people who are being forced by floods, fires, hurricanes, and drought to come to the US, people who, by most definitions, would qualify as climate migrants.

The US has such a massive footprint all over the world – not only a carbon footprint! As an empire, we have driven all kinds of regressive trade policies, certainly throughout South America. It is precisely our extraction of land and labour elsewhere that has made the US such a wealthy place. E. Tendayi Achiume (Faculty Director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of California and special UN rapporteur on Racism), suggests that the US should offer citizenship to people who have been on the losing end of US politics. The US – among others – has played a big role in rendering parts of the planet uninhabitable and that uninhabitable stretch of the planet will grow immensely in the next several decades. At the very least, we should be offering a safe and habitable place to these people.

The second part of your book’s subheading is: “how we fight back”, and you advocate the Green New Deal (GND). How does the EUs “Green Deal” measure up in comparison to the demands for a GND?

I haven’t followed it as closely as some of your readers might have. But in Europe, you still see the idea of incentivising private capital as an approach to green finance, of which the EU Green Deal is an example. There is still a reluctance to use state planning and a real deference to the private market to provide for decarbonisation and conduct the energy transition.

But I also understand why, from the US perspective, people are excited about something like the European Commission’s “Fit for 55” plan. Its certainly more ambitious than anything we have here. The US has never had a comprehensive climate policy. So, its obviously good to have governments aligned around the basic idea that climate policy can happen.

Turning to “how we fight back”: the Green New Deal has been around since at least 2008, and gained prominence when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced it to the US Congress. But what would be the essential building blocks of the GND?

On the one hand, the Green New Deal is a large-scale programme of public investment, like the New Deal in the US, that responds to a crisis with the scale and speed it requires. Its about massive investments in renewable energy, electrification, and the deep decarbonisation necessary to tackle the climate crisis.

Its a pretty big intervention, but its desperately needed at a time when so much of the conversation about climate change has been about shrinking our individual carbon footprint. The GND says its not about sacrifice but about redistributing the abundance! The US is the wealthiest country that has ever existed in the history of the world, and there is no shortage of cash around. The question is: how do we put this cash in the right places?

At the same time, the GND is also a political strategy. What happened after the Obama administrations answer to the 2008 crisis, which was similar to austerity? By 2016, Democrats had lost the House, the Senate, and the White House. So, what is needed is a political strategy to carry out the decarbonisation – which will outlast any presidential term – but which ensures majorities at the same time.

What the GND says is that climate policy needs to make a credible promise to improve peoples lives: giving people jobs, making real investments in communities, as well as ensuring Democratic majorities for years and years to come.

Its the basic logic of the New Deal in the 1930s: if you give people stuff, theyll probably vote for you. But that idea got lost due to the triumph of neoliberalism over the course of the second half of the 20th century in the US. The GND is attempting to bring that very basic political logic back: making climate policy something which people have a reason to support

How does your conception of a “low-carbon populism” come in here, and how do you save the concept of populism, which has a bad reputation in the public debate – certainly in Europe?

Its about the basic realisation that politics happens from below. There are movements of people that are the engines of history. When I talk about low-carbon populism, Im referring to a much more expansive definition of what a lower-carbon world could look like, including proposals like a four-day workweek, so that people have more time to undertake forms of consumption that are usually less carbon-intensive than activities like online shopping.

Activities that people really enjoy tend to be low-carbon intensive. Ill speak for myself, but I can spend a long day in the park with friends drinking wine. Low-carbon populism is a vision for how this transition can actually make life better in ways that are not very utopian, but rather pretty common sense. Its a route to making our lives better, more pleasurable, and more leisurely!

Navigating the Culture Wars on Europe’s Borders

Following a disappointing election in late 2020, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union are adjusting to their role as the largest opposition party in a political climate shaped by growing culture wars and an emboldened Russia. We spoke with MP Tomas Tomilinas who explained the issues driving politics in Lithuania today and Lithuania’s outlook on the future of Europe.

This interview is part of a series that we are publishing in partnership with Le Grand Continent on Green parties in Europe.

Green European Journal: What are the major issues in Lithuanian politics in 2021?

Tomas Tomilinas: In the spring of this year, Lithuania faced a second lockdown, which was a major stress for the country. Lithuania had several peaks in 2020, however it managed the smallest drop in GDP in Europe. After the elections in autumn 2020, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union are no longer in government. They constitute the largest opposition party. The new government has tried to pin the second wave in 2021 on us, claiming that we were too mild and not strict enough with restrictions ahead of the elections. Their response has been to introduce harsher measures, including a several month-long ban on travelling between municipalities, though most have now been lifted.

Our approach has never been to argue against sanitary restrictions. In government, we introduced several rules from rather efficient mandatory quarantine rules to the not so successful attempt to limit number of supermarket shoppers via restricted parking. We looked for ways to protect the economy and people’s wellbeing, like ensuring that small businesses could function, especially those that cannot move online, and creating the pan-Baltic “travel bubble” initiative – a policy that the new right and ultra-right coalition has failed to maintain.

Leaving aside the pandemic, what other issues are shaping Lithuanian politics?

From our perspective, social issues and overcoming inequalities are central. During our five years in government from 2016 to 2020, inequality started to shrink from very high levels because of measures such as universal child support, tax reforms, and targeted sectorial initiatives. In the years after 2015, salaries grew by 43 per cent while the average tax burden decreased by 5 per cent; the economy grew by almost a quarter and inequality began to shrink by 0.5 per cent per annum on average. Suicide and depression rates decreased and even negative migration trends reversed. From 2018 onwards, Lithuania registered moderate population growth. Of course, I am ready to be accused of being biased and our political opponents would point out that many of these problems persist. However, we have retained support from a significant share of Lithuanian citizens because of our ambitious social programmes that reduced major social problems and maintained one of the most favourable climates for business in the European Union (EU) and worldwide. The move up to 11th place in the 2020 Doing Business Index from 20th place in 2016 speaks to the progress made.

Of course, we did not win in 2020, though we came close; the right-wing parties now have a very small majority in Parliament. The reason why we underperformed was, in my opinion, a lack of preparation in coordinating certain political ambitions, political communication, and the responsibility of running a country. We lacked the experience in international politics and basically gave away that field to more experienced coalition partners. In the domestic field, we started fights that we should have avoided, such as on alcohol advertisement and drug circulation, that caused major friction with industry lobbies and the media. Some clashes even reached the Constitutional Court.

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However, just after the 2020 election, which made us the largest opposition party, an emerging “cultural clash” over human rights issues has created a concerning situation. Two small liberal parties, who are the junior partners in the new right-wing coalition, have taken controversial stances on same-sex partnerships and gender identity. Although gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination is illegal in the country, society remains very divided on these topics. Identity politics easily polarise society and spark social tensions, which can also be seen in the debate on the Istanbul Convention. However, the most concerning is the lack of public awareness about the full scope of human rights, its universality, and the clash between modernity and tradition. I worry that such “culture wars” will shape our domestic debate for many years to come.

Similar culture wars are common across Europe and divisions around LGBTQI+ and gender issues are prominent across the border in Poland. Does the Polish political climate spill over into Lithuania?

I fear that Lithuania might be developing a sort of “Polish climate” where divisions around LGBTQI+ and gender issues are not an object for argument-based discussion, but for street protests and forcefully implemented political will. However, the situation is not there yet. Clashes over human rights only really started this year. During our term, debate on this topic were moderate and political space was rarely infested by hate speech – at least from those with the decision-making power. At the same time, the Greens and Farmers have thoroughly studied another aspect of the “Polish climate” – social policy. We have successfully implemented some of the ideas that Poland has pioneered such as increased public spending on families, people with disabilities, and pension increases. We certainly did not copy their policies on the courts or minorities.

Since the change in government, the Greens and Farmers are becoming more conservative. […] It reflects an increasingly polarised society.

Since the change in government, the Greens and Farmers are becoming more conservative. I do not like it, but it reflects an increasingly polarised society and shrinking possibility to define and defend general interest. As of now I do not think that Lithuania will have similar issues to our southern neighbour, though the possibility, no matter how small, remains.

Are green and environmental topics prominent in Lithuania?

The green agenda is growing but it is not a major part of the political debate. One reason is the positive environmental indicators in most small towns on water and air quality as well as forests. First on our environmental priorities list is forest protection. In recent years, local activists and NGOs have successfully mobilised society against unfair management of forests and for urban green spaces. Such groups wield major influence especially in more remote regions. Two of our ministers were pushed out of office because of forestry mismanagement accusations.

Other issues, such as pollution and animal rights, receive less attention. However major sources of industrial pollution have been revealed and punished in recent years, leading to some improvement. My recommendation to new environment ministers is that they focus on forests and rare wild animals, such as wolves. Doing that will keep them in office – that is not to say that there are no other issues such as green urban spaces, excessive dependence on cars, and public transport. But these are not burning political issues in the way that forests are.

Of course, the Baltic Sea remains a major concern. Excessive fishing, World War II chemical munition dumps rusting underwater, and the construction of Russian gas pipelines are all worrying news. Recent economic recessions in Russia and Belarus, combined with their lack of transparent environmental policies are another set of concerns. The construction of a Belarussian nuclear power plant just 40 kilometres outside of Vilnius, in blatant disregard for international conventions, perfectly illustrates that EU environmental legislation often ends at its borders, yet ecological problems do not. The case is a missed opportunity for the EU to show itself as a major actor standing for its core values.

What about climate change?

On the national political agenda, climate change as a concept is still not very prominent. A common joke is that Lithuania has seven cold months and winter the rest of the year – so a warming climate may not seem a bad idea. But we feel the effects of climate change. Droughts are a threat in certain areas – a phenomena almost unheard of in a country with dense network of rivers, lakes, and underground water layers like ours. Serious challenges lie ahead for farmers and local governments. Currently, we are in search of sustainable answers.

During our term, the government introduced its first car tax, making Lithuania the last country in the EU to do so. It was not well received by the public and the opposition used it as a stick to beat us with. After gaining power, they quickly forgot their promises to abolish it. Looking back, I can proudly say that making the internal combustion engine car a less desired means of travel and securing one more source of revenue for environmental policies were great steps.

What role does Europe play in Lithuania’s politics?

Lithuania has always been enthusiastic about European integration. In Eurobarometer polls, the figures are always high. We are satisfied with Europe, how democracy works in Europe, and the impact European integration has made on Lithuania.

On specific debates however, this record is starting to fade. The intensifying “culture wars” also have a European dimension because some rather radical groups in society, that promote what they refer to as “traditional family values”, see Europe as a threat. It is a new situation that might break with the established consensus on Europe in Lithuania. If you go to the street and ask for opinions on values, 7 out of 10 people would say that the compromise on definition of family, currently accepted in most of the European countries, is not shared here. Lithuanian society is working on that but at a slower pace than some of the western European countries.

There are debates within the party but, in the end, we won’t cross the line. We will protect European values, not just family or national values. The principles of our party are decentralisation, sustainable development, transparency in government, social equality, and the protection of family with respect to human rights. That is the line that we agreed on.

What is Lithuania’s place in the wider European political scene?

One of Lithuania’s most important roles in Europe is the promotion of a value-based approach towards the Eastern neighbours. Lithuania’s strategy is to be very active on Russia, Ukraine, Southern Caucasus, Moldova, and Belarus. Lithuania’s shared history with the “post-Soviet space” means that we promote a clear and realistic approach to the Soviet past and current attempts to reanimate it. Being part of the EU is an important element of this strategy and NATO membership plays a crucial role too. Most Lithuanian politicians, if not all, support NATO as the key element for European and Northern Atlantic security as well as the need to further strengthen transatlantic ties.

Ever since Putin’s regime invaded Crimea, strengthening national security has been a top priority.

Although a strong EU security policy is yet to emerge, Lithuania is committed to this direction and to military spending above 2 per cent of GDP. Ever since Putin’s regime invaded Crimea, strengthening national security has been a top priority. Prioritising guns over health spending is not a matter of debate. Some say, “First you buy the guns, then think about everything else.” Aggressive Russian behaviour in Georgia and Ukraine woken us up from the early 2000s idealism which saw military spending below 1 per cent of GDP and formal NATO membership as sufficient guarantee of security. We also did our best to wake the rest of Europe up from this dream. I am glad to see our message about what is happening on the EU’s eastern borders was heard in the EU and NATO.

What about your party’s view on the role that Europe should play in the world and Europe’s future more broadly?

We maintain the idea that Europe is an ongoing project and that its role continues to evolve. This is one of the reasons why our party does not have a very articulated stance on Europe’s future or its position in the world. We are a pro-European party and are looking forward to participating in the making of Europe.

I can see at least two areas where the EU can benefit from recent Lithuanian past. The first is reducing its external dependencies. In early 1990s, almost all our external trade and energy supplies depended on Russia. It took time, effort, and political will to diversify trade. Now Lithuania is one of the most open economies in the world and no single partner dominates its trade structure. Furthermore, the economy has developed sufficient flexibility and resilience to withstand global shocks. I believe this should be the approach that the EU takes in its relations, at least with Russia and China.

Another suggestion would be to use the EU’s not-so-soft power, like trade, to make the world economy greener and more socially responsible. Gradual restriction of imports of environmentally unsustainable goods, produced in violation of human health and safety, environmental and human rights standards, alongside targeted assistance for all wishing to become more sustainable could become a major policy.

Personally, I think that Europe is also missing the opportunity to become more socially just. Even if Lithuania has conservative positions on cultural issues, it would probably support a common corporate tax, for example. However, Lithuania is not going to lead this agenda as a country of 3 million people. In the European Council, Lithuania has always signalled that it would not be hostile to more integration on social issues, and I’ve often been disappointed that progressive countries such as Sweden are not more vocal.

What are your party’s organisational priorities for the coming years?

The current tendencies are worrying. The cabinet is considering moves that will likely restrict peoples’ choice such as abolishing direct presidential elections and reforming the system of parliamentary elections by getting rid of regional constituencies (the Greens and Farmers naturally are strong on the regional level). Such efforts are an attempt to diminish the importance of regional dimension in national politics and to centralise power. We will need to perform strongly in the 2023 municipal elections and in the three elections of 2024: the general, presidential and European elections.

Municipal elections will take place in two years and there are two main strategies. One strategy is to remain the most influential left-wing party. This seems promising, considering that Lithuania’s Social Democrats are in a deep crisis of both leadership and ideas. In Lithuania, left-wing means socially orientated, liberal economic policies, and human rights but culturally conservative. The other strategy is to attract more members to counter the current right-wing government moves to change the rules of the game. This would mean becoming a bit more of a “catch-all” type party, going beyond our current agenda.

You’ve recently published a book that tries to shift the dominant cultural and political narratives in Lithuania. Can you tell us about it?

A book not for children is about the political myths that work their way into people’s heads. I examine nine myths of contemporary Lithuanian politics and show that certain ideas are frequently taken with childish enthusiasm, often without a decent pinch of constructive scepticism.

I argue that Lithuania, like many transition countries, has had too much faith in the liberal market. It has suffered from continuously large numbers of emigration, from 1992 up until 2018, and huge disparities in wealth distribution as a result. I show what has been done and what could be done to counteract the power and influence of big business interests and really empower people.

I also examine the place of values and human rights in daily life and argue for a clear distinction on what is up for political debate – like the concept of a nation, the priorities of economic and social development, democracy, certain aspects of ownership – and what isn’t debatable – like rights of minorities, political rights, health, protection of life. It is an attempt to explain why minority rights shouldn’t dominate political discussions and why rights are important to Europe’s long democratic legacy.

I address the fact that most of Lithuania’s heroes are dictators or at least unelected leaders – starting from medieval dukes and kings up to Antanas Smetona (the interwar dictator who became “leader of the nation” after a military coup). Such a picture undermines the construction of a democratic political consciousness. The book addresses this gap by telling the story of important Lithuanian democrats.

Opportunism Not Ideology: Fidesz’s Campaign Against Sexual Minorities

A new law targeting LGBTQI+ people in Hungary is just the latest move in the ruling party’s history of stigmatising sexual minorities and rolling back their rights. While the European Union finally seems willing to send a signal that the Hungarian government’s agenda is in defiance of European values and fundamental rights, its leader Viktor Orbán seems determined to pursue this illiberal course. Kata Benedek looks back at the path which has brought Hungary to this point, and the prospects for a change of direction.

“I am defending the rights of the homosexual guys.” This is how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán answered a journalist’s question as he arrived at the European Council as part of a visit to Brussels in late June 2021. The remark came after an hours-long debate had taken place in the European Council about the new Hungarian law discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community.

The controversial law – that was passed on 15 June on the grounds of child protection – conflates LGBTQI+ people with the sexual abuse of children. The new bill simultaneously introduces a US-style registry of paedophile sex offenders combined with a Russian-style ban on exposing minors to so-called LGBTQI+ propaganda in the context of sexual education and general representation in education and media. The law was widely criticised both domestically and abroad for undermining equality, fundamental rights, freedom of expression, rights to information, and for treating sexual minorities in a manner similar to criminals, by suggesting that both categories deserve the same social judgement and treatment. In addition to pointing out the ambiguities and inconsistencies of the law in the field of education and child protection, civic organisations voiced their concerns regarding the foreseeable impact of the bill on sexual minorities: an escalation of social discrimination and the incitement of the members of an aggressive minority to commit hate crimes. The government nevertheless maintains its position.

Fidesz’s anti-gender track record

Over the past 30 years, Orbán’s ruling party Fidesz has developed ultra-conservative values regarding gender and sexuality, despite previously adopting a more liberal stance advocating for LGBTQI+ rights. The first Fidesz government (1998 to 2002) already stressed the importance of traditional family values, but their explicit anti-LGBTQI+ stance only began to establish itself around the mid-2000s, when it began to determine Fidesz’s legislative actions. Under the socialist government in 2009, Fidesz voted against the legal introduction of registered partnerships for same-sex couples. In its successful 2010 parliamentary election campaign, its position of advocating for an exclusionary understanding of family continued. Following Fidesz’s return to power in 2010, it introduced a new Fundamental Law (or constitution) for Hungary in 2011, written exclusively by governmental politicians. This document gave a statutory definition and role to marriage and family, asserting that, “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation. Family ties shall be based on marriage or the relationship between parents and children.” 

Although the Fundamental Law set the stage for the attacks that were expected to follow, it was only in the late 2010s when “gender ideology” and sexual minorities became a prime target for Fidesz, as it began a sustained campaign to stifle debate in this area and to curtail rights and freedoms. In 2018, Fidesz terminated the Gender Studies Department of the largest Hungarian University. Around the same time, the party also heavily attacked gender and queer studies in the process of “lex CEU” (modifications to Hungary’s law on higher education). With an amendment to the constitution in 2020, Fidesz expanded the original paragraph on marriage and family with one unambiguous sentence: “The mother is a female/woman, the father is a male/man.” They also added a new paragraph to fundamental children’s rights: “Hungary shall protect the right of children to a self-identity corresponding to their sex at birth and shall ensure an upbringing for them that is in accordance with the values based on the constitutional identity and Christian culture of our country.” In May 2020, Fidesz rolled back transgender rights by banning changes to gender on official documents. In December, the government permanently excluded same-sex couples from adopting children. Also in 2020, Fidesz rejected the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which the Fidesz government signed up to in 2014. Fidesz argued that Hungarian Fundamental Law does not accept gender as a social construction and that the Convention was the “Trojan Horse of genderists”.

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Inventing tradition – a convenient narrative

All these legislative measures were embedded in and supported by heavily populist governmental propaganda. Fidesz forcefully narrowed down “gender ideology” to sexual minorities. LGBTQI+ identity is depicted in governmental communication as a choice of “lifestyle”, which is inherently foreign to the so-called Hungarian “national character”, the philosophy of a traditional style of life. Fidesz frames LGBTQI+ issues as a crisis of morals and values, in which the party poses as the last defender of traditional and national “normality.” Government politicians have frequently made discriminatory remarks about sexual minorities. This extreme polarisation of values is key in Fidesz’s overall cultural war, through which they define their own identity by symbolically excluding certain groups from the fabric of the nation, in this case – the LGBTQI+ community.

Accordingly, Fidesz attributes the growing visibility of the LGBTQI+ community to an aggressive Western lobby aiming to demolish traditional social values, threatening the national interest and sovereignty. As this narrative is central element of Fidesz’s brand of populism, they can easily link LGBTQI+ issues to other, already established programme points. A representative of the pro-government 21st Century Institute interpreted the new law and the ensuing criticism in the following way: 

Fidesz is using critical voices to legitimise its symbolic fight against Western attempts to subjugate Hungarian (cultural) sovereignty. 

“It has become clear that, as with the migration crisis, this is a sovereignty issue, and despite the minefield of international forces, Hungary will not give in to the pressure of the progressive agenda. […] the former colonialists are launching a new attack on Hungary in the name of ‘common values.’ […] [the anti-paedophile law] enshrines the right of parents to decide on the upbringing of their children and prevents the indoctrination of children by unauthorised pseudo-civilian NGOs acting in the interests of the global LGBTQ lobby.”

A new discriminatory law against LGBTQI+ people certainly fits well into the long-running political strategy of Fidesz, both in holding together its voter base and in maintaining the permanent fight against Western liberal cultural hegemony. However, current political events at home also play a role.

Unlikely allies

Beyond the aforementioned benefits, Fidesz has also seized upon this topic now in the hope of direct political gain. There are two possible instances in which Fidesz could expect to profit from the new law. First, they might exploit the issue to divert attention from the recent Fudan controversy, in which the government is planning to cover the 1.5 billion euro construction of the Budapest campus of the university affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party with public funds.

Second, the legal actions can also be seen as a prelude to the upcoming parliamentary elections in May 2022. On the one hand, in preparation for the forthcoming elections, Fidesz might be testing out policy areas to identify winning mobilisation campaign themes. On the other hand, the more relevant aspect might be the opportunity to drive a wedge into the seven-party coalition opposing Fidesz. The coalition’s constituent parties include the socialist MSZP, centre-leftist DK, two green parties PM and LMP, neoliberal extra-parliamentary Momentum, newly founded ÚVN, and notorious former extreme right-wing Jobbik. Despite the strong ideologically disparities among the parties, voters might be inclined to rise above these divisions when the only goal that remains is the overthrow of Orbán’s regime. According to recent opinion polls, the Oppositional Coalition is a strong opponent and was even measured to be ahead of Fidesz by few percentage points. Disrupting the unity of the coalition by exposing the contradictory ideological fragmentation is an irresistible opportunity for Fidesz. While most members have slightly different standpoints on LGBTQI+ rights, Jobbik clearly stands apart from its allies. This was demonstrated during the voting process for the new law: while the MPs of the MSZP, DK, PM and LMP were not present in the Parliament during the decision process – to signal the illegitimacy of the legislative initiative by their absence – Jobbik voted alongside Fidesz. Jobbik justified its decision, in line with its pre-coalition programme, arguing that tightening the law against child abusers is crucial, and that following the predicted fall of Fidesz in 2022, the LGBTQI+ related parts would be reviewed and retracted from the bill. While all the other coalition members condemned Jobbik’s decision, the alliance does not seem to have lost credibility with voters, as the moral challenges of aligning with the extreme right-wing party were clearly inherent in such coalitions from the start. Yet, surprisingly, social media was filled with comments from disappointed Jobbik voters, shaming the party leader for assisting Fidesz’s incitement to hatred against sexual minorities. In the end, Jobbik’s position in the coalition might have been weakened, but their contradictory decision does not yet seem to have affected the opposition voters’ united discontent with Fidesz. Despite this, Fidesz might still benefit from the polarisation of the political field.

The EU response and its impact

It seems that Fidesz miscalculated the EU’s resistance to the law: most member states declared their concerns, and the European Commission threatened international legal action as the Hungarian bill goes against the fundamental law and values of the EU. In addition to the various potential EU level financial and political sanctions, some political leaders, such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have even mentioned Article 50, suggesting that Hungary no longer has a place in the EU. Thus, the Hungarian government was forced to shift its lobbying efforts from the domestic to the international political arena. 

Internationally, Fidesz stands by its position, arguing that the law is only strengthening parental rights to decide on their children’s sexual education, and that the Hungarian state fully protects LGBTQI+ rights. At the same time, pro-government media is loaded with a broad range and variety of queerphobic incitement. Headlines such as “Even children are no longer spared by homosexuals”; “LGBTQ propaganda lectures for young children in London with an artificial penis”; “A nation has fewer rights on the football field than the LGBTQ community” are published daily.

Moreover, on 23 June the government announced a new National Consultation, and due to the growing pressure by the EU on 21 July, they announced a referendum, both asking people’s opinion on the bill. Following the patterns of previous government-initiated polls, the survey is designed not to reflect on the criticism sparked by the law but rather to strengthen Fidesz’s agenda. The heavily leading questions exclusively focus on LGBTQI+ propaganda in public schools, and the forced promotion and execution of gender reassignment therapy on children.

At the beginning of July 2021, the Venice Commission (a constitutional advisory group to the Council of Europe) called on the Hungarian government to reconsider the above-mentioned paragraphs contained in the constitution. Following that, the European Commission on 15 July announced it would launch an infringement procedure against Hungary and Poland based on their discriminatory treatment of sexual minorities. In the short run, the heavy criticism from EU institutions and fellow member states has little domestic political impact. In fact, as usual, Fidesz is using critical voices to legitimise its symbolic fight against Western attempts to subjugate Hungarian (cultural) sovereignty. 

In the long term, however, the legal consequences of Fidesz’s actions could be more significant. Despite the mounting tension and difficult relations between Fidesz and the EU since 2010, the vast majority of the Hungarian population is still pro-EU. Compared to previous legal conflicts between Hungary and the EU, the rapid and unusually harsher action by the European Commission has put the government under pressure, as the possibility of losing financial benefits or even expulsion from the EU could seriously threaten their hold on power. Previous political and financial restrictions already have taken effect in Poland on the matter: certain towns abolished their former “LGBT-free zone” label in the hope of regaining their previous political positions. Furthermore, while in their anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party benefits from the support of the influential Polish Catholic Church among the largely religious Polish population, it is estimated that the actively religious population in Hungary is only 10 to 20 per cent. Therefore, the social impact of the otherwise historically weaker Hungarian Catholic Church is not particularly strong. The Christian values invoked in Fidesz’s policies are best understood in cultural terms, in which the introduction of LGBTQ+ discrimination – that has only been the central subject of the government propaganda for some months – is questionable, and thus its political mobilising power is also in doubt. There is no realistic chance that the majority of the Hungarian population will choose Fidesz over the EU on this issue. Accordingly, the Hungarian government is expected to withdraw or modify the bill, as they did with the Stop Soros or Lex CEU. Nevertheless, the new law, supported by aggressive populist propaganda, has negatively affected social acceptance towards minority issues and worsened the situation of the LGBTQI+ community, and this is likely to have a lasting impact.

Beyond the Berlin Republic: Germany’s Road to the Polls

German federal elections are set to take place in September 2021, at a time when the country’s political landscape is undergoing significant transformations sparked by both internal and external forces. In the first of a two-part series ahead of the elections, Reinhard Olschanski looks at the path German democracy has travelled thus far, how it has selected the contenders for the crucial role of chancellor, and the key challenges that lie ahead for Greens in particular as campaigning intensifies.

For all their wildness, the 1960s and 70s appear today as a phase of relative clarity. The world was dominated by the bloc opposition of two superpowers and their camps, and German politics were similarly binary. In West Germany, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were the domestic superpowers of parliamentary democracy with a small liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) in between. This arrangement remained in place up until the early 1980s, when the Greens arrived on the scene. But initially, for many, the party was cut from the flesh of social democracy and did not fundamentally alter the binary logic of the blocs. The year 1989, which marked the end of a short 20th century, German reunification in 1990 are even more visible as landmarks.

From the Rhenish Republic to the Berlin Republic

Reunification took place formally as the accession of the German Democratic Republic not as a sovereign act of refoundation. In the new Länder (regions), this was to have major socio-psychological consequences. For millions of people, the old, if little-loved, world collapsed, raising questions about the meaning of many lives. At the same time, the Second Federal Republic remained equipped with all the trappings of the first. Bonn in the Rhineland remained the capital for the time being. The old chancellor, Helmut Kohl, became the new one. The experience of reunification in the West diminished the awareness that much had changed at all. After all, the US was still a superpower. The global code was now bloc confrontation minus one.

Only gradually did people in what was then West Germany start to feel how much had changed. The formation of the red-green government in 1998 marked a turning point towards a new, post-Kohl Zeitgeist. True to the old German motto of doing everything important late and, above all, first in spirit, the republic was culturally reborn. The move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin helped shape the cultural superstructure of a “Berlin Republic”. The increasingly pluralised and liberalised worldviews and ways of life – on the rise since the wild 1960s – were now also at the centre of politics. The victory of Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2005 did not change this. She governed with the former chancellor’s party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was suffering the consequences of Schröder’s Hartz IV welfare reforms and was now threatened by the combination of East German socialists and its own left-wing splits that went on to form Die Linke.

Chancellor Merkel never dreamt of a spiritual and moral return to the past, as Helmut Kohl had when he took office in 1982. She recognised that there was no turning back time. So Germany celebrated the 2006 World Cup as a colourful, multicultural summer fairy tale – a special experience for the soccer-savvy country. Merkel went on to govern for a further 15 years in a pragmatic fashion – in two more, smaller grand coalitions with the SPD, and once, from 2009 to 2013, with the FDP.

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An ever more plural parliament

In 2021, the old tankers of the CDU/CSU and the SPD are now suffering from the ravages of time. While 90 per cent of the electorate once rallied rally behind them, today that number is only slightly above 40 per cent. A colourful party system has emerged. Today, there are no fewer than seven parties in the German Bundestag: the two black sisters, the CDU and the Bavarian CSU, and add the SPD, the FDP, the Greens and Die Linke, as well as the right-wing populist and in parts extreme Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It is the most politically plural Bundestag since the 1950s.

With the pluralisation of the political landscape, the old Left/Right divide has lost much of its salience. Except for the AfD and the Die Linke, all parties swear to belong to the centre. The CDU even claims to be “Die Mitte” [the centre] as such. The days when people could state with precision how far to the right or left they stood are over.

Internal pluralisation has been joined by the disorientating effects of globalisation. The experience of “Westlessness” during the Trump era was particularly disturbing for Germany. Until 1945, the struggle against the West and its liberal democratic constitution was a culturally defining motif of German imperialism and Nazism. Overcoming the corresponding ideology with the Westbindung [alignment with the West] of the Federal Republic was a great democratic learning step. Westlessness under Trump dealt a severe blow – together with the rise of China – to the “superpower binarism minus one” order into which Germany had settled. The certainties of geopolitics tied to the United States had temporarily disappeared. For a Federal Republic that saw itself as an economic end in itself, as “Deutschland AG”, whose foreign policy was understood only in the sense of foreign economic policy, the result was the confusing experience of a world that seemed to be fragmenting not only domestically but also globally.

The Merkel era

That old binary codes were increasingly losing their currency was somewhat disconcerting in many parts of Germany, but not shocking. No one was threatening Germany directly. China remains distant, and is also Germany’s most important trading partner. Above all, there was still “Mutti”, the chancellor who governed calmly and pragmatically through all storms and crises. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who wiped away questions about the relationship between womanhood and office with a hypermasculine style, Merkel took on the role of an almost genderless mother of the nation. With her unobtrusive presence, she was part of the interior design of the Berlin Republic. The most popular politician for years, many Germans felt at home with her. Even if the familiar coordinates of political orientation had faded, the chancellor was still there at the centre.

Germany may have the unpleasant experience of realising that the old patriarchal thinking is much more deeply rooted than often assumed

However, material and cultural anxieties eventually became more palpable. The populist AfD emerged, founded by economics professors who, in the sovereign debt crisis that followed 2008, challenged Germany’s close EU integration with D-Mark-national ideas and rejected any prospect of paying for supposedly lazy and disorganised Southern European countries. With the 2015 refugee crisis, the focus of populist resentment politics shifted. It railed against refugees and migrants, free media, and a supposed Merkel dictatorship. The goal was the polarisation of political culture. Instead of a common debate among political opponents, it was to be about a mutual closure of social groups. In the process, the influence of far-right forces in the AfD also increased, especially in former East Germany, where many neo-Nazi cadres had flocked from the West. In elections, the AfD often wins over 20 per cent of the votes in Eastern regions.

The refugee crisis made Merkel more defensive. Especially once her Bavarian sister party CSU copied the populist language of the AfD and mobilised against her. Only a bitter election defeat in Bavaria pushed the CDU to recivilise its political language. Nevertheless, Merkel announced that she would not run for chancellor again. It was thus clear that Merkel, the anchor of stability and identity, would be history from the fall of 2021. That she regained her old approval ratings during the pandemic did not change her mind. Germany would have to ask itself where it stands and where it wants to go.

Choosing the candidates

The first answer to the candidate question was provided by the Social Democrats, who chose their Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz early on. The beleaguered party has had little luck with its last three candidates. In 2017, the nomination of former European politician Martin Schulz did have a short-term “Schulz effect”, but the boost only lasted a few weeks. Party offices and meetings were filled with comrades who had not been seen for some time and who hoped that the SPD was back and could pick up where it had left off. However, what followed ultimately was a depressing 20.5 per cent vote share.

Nevertheless, the SPD found itself in government at the beginning of 2018, after long negotiations by German standards. A Jamaica coalition – named after the party colours black, green, and yellow of the CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the FDP – did not materialise. The Social Democrats did manage a few achievements in their unpopular coalition, for example, with a pension supplement for low earners and support programmes during the Covid-19 crisis. The stigma stemming from Olaf Scholz’s role as architect of the Hartz IV reforms also receded into the background. Nevertheless, the party today polls at around 15 per cent. Unless it makes up ground against the Greens, Scholz’s party could be confronted with the question of how realistic an SPD candidacy for chancellor is in the first place.

The search for a Christian Democrat candidate was more exciting. First came a preliminary decision in 2020 with the election of a new CDU party leader who traditionally has first access to the chancellor candidacy in the CDU/CSU. Armin Laschet won the election – ahead of Friedrich Merz, an old, conservative-market liberal adversary of Merkel.

For the first time, the electorate will have a Green alternative in the race […]

Laschet is the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state with 18 million inhabitants – located on the Rhine and Ruhr rivers and home to the industrial heart of the old Federal Republic. A Rhinelander, Laschet belongs to his party’s cosmopolitan and liberal wing. In the 1990s, he even was close to the so-called Pizza Connection, a discussion group of young Christian Democratic and Green politicians who began to consider the then-remote prospect of collaboration.

To nominate a candidate for chancellor, the CDU had to agree with the smaller CSU. The process turned into a fierce finger-wagging match when CSU chairman and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder announced his ambitions late, but emphatically, and pointed to his better poll ratings. Söder – like Sebastian Kurz in Austria or Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom – belongs to that species of highly media-savvy neo-politicians less concerned about the ends of politics than the exercise of it. Political content is to them roughly what Brexit was to Johnson – a tactical move to prevail in a competitive situation.

Söder – better known as a representative of the broad-legged rumbling regional conservatism of his CSU – discovered the worldly heart of a chancellor who addresses the questions of the day. As a sign of his devotion to ecological issues, he even literally hugged a tree. By constantly pushing ahead and outbidding Laschet, he used the pandemic to show up his more sedate and mediating rival, accepting undermining the entire CDU/CSU as collateral damage. But Söder’s claim failed because it would have amounted to a coup against the leadership of the larger CDU. It would have resembled a Kurz or Johnson-esque turn for German Christian democracy. However, the grey eminence of the CDU, Wolfgang Schäuble, who still pulls the strings behind Merkel, ensured the decision went Laschet’s way.

New harmony and old resentments

By contrast, the election of the Green candidate proceeded almost harmoniously for a party infamous for its internal squabbles. The two co-leaders, 51-year-old Robert Habeck, a philosopher and author, and 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock, dynamic and appealing to young people, have led the Greens to poll ratings of over 20 per cent. For the first time, the party thus not only chose the duo as its campaign leaders, but selected Baerbock as its candidate for chancellor, an international law expert and former competitive athlete, mother of two young children, who is committed to decarbonising the economy, defending women’s and refugee rights, and forging an active and constructive role for Germany in the world. For the first time, the electorate will have a Green alternative in the race, as well as the traditional Christian Democrat and Social Democrat choices.

Of course, the opportunity brings new risks. The young Green candidate’s start was somewhat bumpy with self-inflicted mishaps and the stoking of old anti-Green resentments.

A radical free-market lobby group placed ads in German newspapers for nearly 500,000 euros, showing Baerbock in an orientalising get-up and holding Mosaic tablets proclaiming the “Green prohibition policy”. This attack not only drew on the anti-Semitic trope, which sees Judaism as a religion of prohibition, clichés about Green politics, but also deployed deep-seated misogyny that the Mutti code of the Merkel era had temporarily disguised. With a young progressive woman at the forefront of politics, Germany may have the unpleasant experience of realising that the old patriarchal thinking is much more deeply rooted than often assumed. Currently, the candidate is also defending herself against allegations of plagiarism regarding quotes contained in her new book that were taken from the Internet (despite the quotes not being subject to copyright, nor the book itself a scientific one subject to strict citation requirements).

But the other two candidates are also under fire. As finance minister, Scholz is said to have neglected supervisory duties toward Wirecard– a company that went bankrupt. In addition, officials in his ministry are said to have calculated his party’s tax concept, which would be an unauthorised form of party financing. And Laschet is struggling with the shortcoming of being perceived as his party’s second choice. He is also struggling to distance himself from right-wing populists such as Maaßen, the former head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, whom Laschet’s Thuringian party colleagues have nominated as a candidate for the Bundestag.

Meanwhile, the nature of the attacks has begun to obscure the substance of the election campaign. This should be a warning above all for the Greens, who value substance more than most. An element in their favour is that after Covid-19, climate protection is currently the most pressing issue for voters. However, they have left races in the past disappointed, even as polls in the run-up put them in the lead. The old, often-represented image of the Greens could be especially risky now that they are the main opponent of the two “people’s parties”. Sharp demarcations can be vital for the survival of a 10 per cent party. But the Greens are now looking to win over the broad mainstream of society. Few understand this better than Winfried Kretschmann, the first Green minister-president in the eco- and high-tech-savvy state of Baden-Württemberg, who is the most popular politician after Merkel. He and others have established a style of discourse characterised by listening and dialogue, not the proselytising of earlier days.

The Greens should defend the dialogic style of policymaking – even when they themselves are under fire from the opposition. And they should not allow a false and superficial personalisation to obscure the substance that distinguishes them. Only then can they claim to play a strong role in this important European country.

Pas de temps pour les châteaux : De la démocratie fermée à la démocratie ouverte

Pour les partisans de la démocratie délibérative, les régimes représentatifs d’aujourd’hui ne sont qu’une illusion. La vraie démocratie, c’est le pouvoir du peuple, et pour y parvenir, il faut sortir des sentiers battus. Nous nous sommes entretenus avec la théoricienne politique Hélène Landemore au sujet de sa proposition de démocratie ouverte et de ce à quoi elle ressemblerait aux niveaux local, européen et mondial. Alors que les assemblées de citoyens en France et en Irlande offrent de précieuses leçons et que les événements, du Brexit à la pandémie, élargissent les horizons du possible, il n’y a pas de meilleur moment pour penser de manière utopique. 

Green European Journal : Le vote, les élections et les parlements sont universellement considérés comme des symboles de la démocratie. Mais dans le débat plus large sur la crise de la démocratie, vous affirmez que le problème est le système de la démocratie représentative lui-même. Pouvez-vous expliquer ?

Hélène Landemore : Il est utile de revenir sur l’histoire des régimes représentatifs en Europe. Ils trouvent leur origine dans ce que les historiens appellent le “gouvernement représentatif” : des gouvernements où la loi est faite par des législateurs élus. Ces formes de gouvernement n’ont commencé à être appelées démocraties qu’à partir de 1830 environ aux États-Unis et en France, et à partir de 1870 en Grande-Bretagne. Mais la réalité est qu’elles ont été conçues comme une alternative à la démocratie autant qu’à la monarchie. Pour leurs fondateurs, la démocratie signifiait le règne de la foule. Elle était chaotique et trop directe. La peur du peuple caractérise les démocraties représentatives dès le départ. Certes, elles étaient fondées sur les principes de la souveraineté et du consentement populaires, mais cela ne suffit pas pour qu’elles soient qualifiées de démocraties. Le processus législatif quotidien était mené par des aristocraties élues, avec les meilleurs et les plus vertueux à la barre, et le peuple, en tant que souverain silencieux, hochant occasionnellement la tête de loin. 

Tout au long des 19e et 20e siècles, le droit de vote a été progressivement élargi pour inclure les hommes non-propriétaires, les Noirs et les femmes. Le principe “une personne, un vote” nous a aidés à nous convaincre que nous vivions dans des démocraties, mais il ne s’agit toujours que de la démocratisation du droit de choisir nos gouvernants. Le peuple n’arrive jamais à gouverner réellement. La démocratie, le pouvoir du peuple, consiste à exercer le pouvoir, et pas seulement à y consentir. Il s’agit de délibérer, de façonner le programme et de décider nous-mêmes des résultats.  

Le problème de la démocratie représentative est donc qu’elle exclut les gens ordinaires du pouvoir ? 

Le modèle est fondamentalement défectueux. Il donne trop de pouvoir à trop peu de personnes, à dessein – et non par erreur ou par accident. Même si le problème de l’argent en politique était résolu, le système continuerait de sélectionner les représentants de manière insuffisamment démocratique et ne parviendrait pas à exploiter la diversité et la sagesse du grand public. Ce système dissuade la plupart des gens de s’informer correctement et de voter de manière éduquée – finalement, ce sont les autres qui feront tout le travail. 

La solution consiste à décentrer les institutions électorales. Même dans des circonstances idéales – une société parfaitement égalitaire – les élections reposent sur le choix humain, qui est intrinsèquement biaisé en faveur de certains traits : charisme, statut social, taille, etc. Les élections coupent systématiquement l’accès au pouvoir aux personnes qui sont trop ordinaires ou trop timides pour se présenter devant les autres. Aucun renouvellement périodique des élus ne pourra changer cette donnée fondamentale. 

De ce que vous décrivez comme un système fermé, vous appelez à un changement de paradigme pour le XXIe siècle : la démocratie ouverte. Qu’est-ce que la démocratie ouverte ? 

La démocratie ouverte est un système dans lequel le pouvoir est distribué de manière égale, ou au moins accessible de manière égale, aux citoyens ordinaires. Chacun a la possibilité d’exercer directement le pouvoir législatif – de définir les lois qui nous gouvernent et qui gouvernent les autres. Pas tous en même temps, mais en représentant et en étant représenté à tour de rôle. L’organe clé d’une démocratie ouverte serait le mini-public ouvert : un grand groupe de citoyens réunis pour fixer l’ordre du jour et élaborer les lois. La sélection aléatoire répartirait équitablement les chances de participation et reproduirait la diversité du groupe plus large. Le mini-public doit être connecté au grand public, réceptif à ses contributions et capable de s’engager dans un échange délibératif. S’il est secret et fermé, il reproduit les problèmes de l’ancien système. 

Cinq principes institutionnels guident l’idée d’une démocratie ouverte. Premièrement, les droits de participation : mettre le pouvoir entre les mains des citoyens. Le droit de vote, mais aussi la possibilité (avec suffisamment de signatures) d’inscrire des points à l’ordre du jour d’un mini-public ouvert (une initiative citoyenne) ou de rappeler une loi impopulaire (le droit de saisine). 

La démocratie consiste à exercer le pouvoir, pas seulement à y consentir. 

Deuxièmement, la délibération. Selon la théorie de la “démocratie délibérative”, les lois ne sont légitimes que dans la mesure où elles passent par un échange délibératif d’arguments entre des citoyens libres et égaux. La délibération donne aux gens une voix et une chance d’être d’accord ou non avec une loi, contribuant ainsi à la prise de meilleures décisions en exploitant l’intelligence collective. 

Troisièmement, la règle de la majorité. Lorsqu’il n’y a pas de consensus, la seule façon démocratique de prendre une décision est de suivre le plus grand nombre. Quatrièmement, la représentation démocratique. Les structures représentatives sont nécessaires car nous ne savons pas comment délibérer par millions, et nous ne pouvons pas toujours prendre des décisions en masse. La démocratie ouverte est structurée autour de la représentation démocratique par le biais d’une sélection aléatoire ou d’une représentation auto-sélectionnée, les deux permettant une égalité des chances de participation. Enfin, la transparence. Tout système politique peut tendre vers la fermeture et la formation de groupes internes. En tant que mécanisme essentiel de responsabilisation, la transparence empêche cela en permettant aux gens de voir ce que les représentants font en leur nom. 

À quoi ressemblerait la démocratie ouverte dans la pratique ? Il ne s’agit pas d’abolir toutes les institutions élues, mais certaines d’entre elles, telles que les chambres hautes comme les Sénats, pourraient éventuellement être remplacées par des assemblées choisies au hasard. D’autres réformes devraient viser à rendre nos systèmes plus participatifs, délibératifs, majoritaires et transparents. La démocratie ouverte est un programme de réforme constitutionnelle.  

Il s’agirait donc d’un changement de paradigme progressif où la démocratie représentative et la démocratie ouverte coexistent à mesure que nous progressons vers l’ouverture ? 

Je n’imagine pas une quelconque révolution. Les révolutions sont mauvaises en général ; elles sont risquées. La voie la plus probable est une cohabitation temporaire entre démocratie électorale et démocratie ouverte jusqu’à ce que cette dernière devienne de plus en plus centrale. Il s’agirait d’un système hybride pendant un certain temps, qui pourrait être instable ou échouer. Mais il pourrait aussi conduire à de nouveaux équilibres institutionnels imprévisibles et plus favorables aux intérêts des citoyens ordinaires. Dans plusieurs pays, ce changement de pouvoir est déjà en cours. Prenez la Convention des citoyens pour le climat en France. Au départ, il s’agissait d’un organe totalement inconnu, composé de 150 citoyens choisis au hasard et chargés de faire des propositions pour réduire les émissions de gaz à effet de serre dans un esprit de justice sociale. Petit à petit, les personnes impliquées se sont responsabilisées, ont organisé des réunions locales et la nouvelle s’est répandue. Le Président français a rencontré la Convention à mi-parcours et, vers la fin, des ministres et des parlementaires se sont publiquement engagés dans ses propositions. En un an, la Convention est devenue un nouvel acteur politique dans le système français. 

Quelle est la place de la Convention par rapport aux autres institutions politiques françaises ? 

L’équilibre est encore fragile. Au départ, la légitimité de la Convention provenait principalement, mais pas exclusivement, de la “volonté du prince” – c’est-à-dire du Président Macron. Après les manifestations des gilets jaunes de novembre 2018, un “Grand débat national” a été organisé dans toute la France en 2019. Lors de ce débat, 12 des 18 assemblées régionales tirées au sort ont convergé vers l’idée qu’une nouvelle forme de gouvernance démocratique était nécessaire sur les questions climatiques et environnementales. 

Le Président Macron a promis que les recommandations de la Convention seraient adoptées “sans filtre” : directement dans une réglementation, un débat parlementaire ou un référendum. Le Parlement, déjà mis à l’écart dans le régime hyper-présidentiel français, a estimé que sa prérogative de légiférer était encore plus mise à mal et a remis en question la légitimité de la Convention. Certains parlementaires l’ont même qualifiée de “anti-démocratique”. Une question se pose alors : qui a le droit de légiférer sur les questions climatiques ? La légitimité de la chambre élue est entrée en conflit avec la légitimité fragile de ce groupe de 150 personnes que personne n’a choisi. Je dirais que la Convention, étant choisie au hasard, peut prétendre à une plus grande représentativité démocratique. Elle peut également revendiquer une légitimité procédurale parce qu’elle a été autorisée par le Président. Mais dans un système où la légitimité est associée aux élections, les propositions de la Convention ne recevraient probablement une pleine légitimité que si elles étaient approuvées par les citoyens français lors d’un référendum. Et cela pourrait encore arriver – dans le cas d’une proposition d’amendement constitutionnel, par exemple. Mais le mieux serait un moment constitutionnel où l’institutionnalisation du recours à la sélection aléatoire serait débattue et soumise à référendum.  

Pour beaucoup, la Convention a été une déception car certaines propositions – comme la rénovation profonde obligatoire des bâtiments d’ici 2040 – n’ont pas été retenues. N’est-il pas risqué de dire aux gens “vous décidez de ce qui doit être fait” et d’ignorer ensuite les parties de la réponse qui ne vous plaisent pas ? 

Le cas français est un exemple récent et prometteur de ce à quoi pourrait ressembler une démocratie ouverte, mais ce n’est pas l’idéal. Dans la pratique, l’ancien système tentera bien sûr de coopter les innovations démocratiques pour que les choses restent exactement les mêmes. Cela rappelle la célèbre phrase de [l’écrivain italien] Lampedusa : “Tout doit changer, pour que tout reste pareil”. 

Au lieu de voir cette assemblée comme une menace, comme certains membres du Parlement français ont vu la Convention sur le climat, les politiciens irlandais l’ont considérée comme une opportunité. 

Il est tentant pour les personnes en position de pouvoir d’utiliser des expériences participatives pour légitimer le système tout en laissant intacte la structure de pouvoir décisionnelle existante. Il s’agit d’une forme de « participation-washing », d’un intérêt de façade pour la participation citoyenne, par lequel le pouvoir tente de regagner sa légitimité en période de crise en donnant l’impression d’écouter le peuple. Il s’agit d’une démarche très dangereuse, car la promesse tacite ou parfois explicite d’impact qui accompagne la participation démocratique ne peut rester sans suite très longtemps. Elle risque de jeter les personnes frustrées dans les bras de l’extrême droite. Bien que l’exercice n’ait pas été très bien conçu et que le gouvernement ne l’ait que très peu utilisé, le Grand Débat National a apporté un moment de paix sociale après les manifestations des Gilets Jaunes et a temporairement amélioré la popularité de Macron. Les gens sont prêts à donner une chance aux expériences participatives, mais vous ne pouvez pas les décevoir à plusieurs reprises. 

Certains pays ont-ils réussi ? 

L’Irlande a évolué progressivement vers plus de participation, en essayant d’abord une assemblée citoyenne pilote, puis un format hybride. En 2012, une assemblée a été organisée autour de l’égalité du mariage. Elle était composée de 66 citoyens sélectionnés et de 33 politiciens, plus un président. Pendant plusieurs mois, les politiciens et les citoyens ordinaires ont travaillé ensemble. Cela a réconcilié les politiciens avec le processus et, après l’adoption de l’égalité du mariage en 2015, ils ont décidé d’organiser une autre assemblée de citoyens sur la dépénalisation de l’avortement. Dans celle-ci, 99 citoyens ont été choisis au hasard. Au lieu de voir cette assemblée comme une menace, comme certains membres du Parlement français ont vu la Convention sur le climat, les parlementaires et les politiciens irlandais l’ont considérée comme une opportunité. Le référendum dépénalisant l’avortement a finalement été adopté en 2018 avec 66,4 % d’approbation. 

On reproche souvent à la démocratie délibérative de se concentrer sur le réarrangement du mobilier institutionnel. L’essence de la démocratie ne se trouve-t-elle pas dans la société ? Elle se trouve dans les syndicats, la presse, les mouvements sociaux, les partis politiques – pas dans les procédures et les systèmes de vote. 

Les associations qui forment la société civile sont essentielles. Elles sont le logiciel de la démocratie. Mais le matériel de la démocratie, qui pour moi consiste en des institutions structurant le pouvoir politique, est crucial car il façonne les incitations. La démocratie ouverte concerne un ensemble de principes institutionnels qui, une fois mis en œuvre, forment des structures capables d’accueillir cette riche écologie de groupes et de mouvements sociaux. Nos démocraties devraient être structurées de manière à être aussi ouvertes et poreuses que possible afin que les mouvements sociaux puissent affluer, occuper l’espace et s’exprimer. 

Des mouvements comme Black Lives Matter ont certainement réussi à façonner le programme malgré une politique électorale non représentative, mais regardez le coût de cette façon de faire. De même, combien de gilets jaunes ont-ils dû être gravement blessés lors de manifestations pour que le gouvernement les écoute ? Plutôt que d’avoir des mouvements sociaux qui brisent la démocratie en cassant des choses, nous devrions rendre la démocratie ouverte dès le départ et inviter les gens à y entrer. C’est une conception préventive : si vous construisez une forteresse, les gens doivent escalader les murs et briser les fenêtres pour entrer et exercer une influence, et de mauvaises choses se produiront en marge. Si vous construisez un espace accueillant, où les gens savent qu’ils seront écoutés, respectés et pris au sérieux, c’est une tout autre histoire. 

Nos démocraties doivent être aussi ouvertes et poreuses que possible pour que les mouvements sociaux puissent affluer, occuper l’espace et s’exprimer.  

Il y a un parallèle avec le syndicalisme. Il n’est pas rare de voir des syndicalistes français faire des émeutes dans la rue, mais cela n’arrive pas en Allemagne, car structurellement ils ont leur mot à dire. 

Je suis convaincu que la démocratie ouverte ne doit pas s’appliquer uniquement au gouvernement, mais aussi à la gouvernance des entreprises. Au lieu d’un conflit entre les patrons et les travailleurs, avec des syndicats qui se battent de l’extérieur pour ainsi dire, il est préférable d’avoir quelque chose de plus proche du modèle allemand qui accorde aux travailleurs un pouvoir structurel. Ils peuvent influencer les décisions commerciales et stratégiques, non pas de manière ponctuelle ou parce qu’ils ont assez de force pour faire pression à un moment donné, mais parce qu’ils ont un siège officiel et permanent à la table avec des représentants au conseil d’administration. 

Pour en revenir au climat, l’ampleur de la crise écologique exige-t-elle ce genre de processus ouvert pour qu’une société démocratique relève réellement le défi ? 

Je ne suis pas sûr qu’il s’agisse de l’ampleur de la crise, mais plutôt du fait que le climat est actuellement une question très importante. J’étais en fait sceptique lorsque j’ai entendu parler pour la première fois de la convention française sur le climat. Le changement climatique est une question très technique, scientifique et mondiale, qui nécessite sûrement des sommets internationaux entre les grands pollueurs comme la Chine, les États-Unis, l’Inde et le Brésil, plutôt qu’au niveau de la France, qui est responsable de 1 % des émissions. 

Mais non, les questions climatiques sont profondément liées à la justice sociale au niveau local et il est vraiment important que les gens puissent les aborder à tous les niveaux. Bon nombre des discussions de la Convention sur le climat sont allées au-delà du changement climatique : elles ont porté sur la perte de biodiversité, la disparition des terres arables et l’état des forêts et des campagnes. Essentiellement, la justice environnementale. À partir du concept global de changement climatique, la conversation s’est déplacée vers ce que cela signifie personnellement, en termes d’air que vous respirez, d’eau que vous buvez et d’accès à la nature. Le climat répond aux besoins des citoyens d’une manière très fondamentale. On pourrait faire de même pour d’autres sujets. L’immigration est un sujet tabou dans de nombreux pays, mais avec le temps, et par le biais de délibérations en petits comités, la discussion deviendrait probablement beaucoup plus pratique, nuancée et basée sur des solutions de bon sens qu’actuellement.  

Dans le monde entier, la mondialisation a réduit le pouvoir des gouvernements nationaux. La raison d’être de l’UE est en partie de reconquérir ce pouvoir. La démocratie ouverte peut-elle apporter une contribution au-delà du niveau national ? 

Tout à fait. J’ai récemment écrit un essai dans lequel je m’amuse avec l’idée d’une Chambre des peuples comme institution permanente de l’Union européenne. J’imagine un organe composé de 499 citoyens sélectionnés au hasard dans toute l’Europe. Angeliki, une Grecque qui arrive à peine à joindre les deux bouts en tenant une chambre d’hôtes à Athènes, reçoit soudain une lettre l’invitant à passer les trois prochaines années à Bruxelles. Elle est enthousiaste car cela représente une chance de façonner l’avenir de toute l’Union européenne avec des personnes de tout le continent, de créer des liens, de développer de nouvelles compétences et de découvrir quelque chose de nouveau. 

L’Union européenne doit reconnaître qu’elle doit introduire davantage de droits de participation afin de devenir plus démocratique. Car bonne chance pour essayer d’inscrire quelque chose à l’ordre du jour des institutions européennes telles qu’elles sont actuellement ! Il existe bien sûr des initiatives citoyennes, mais elles sont soumises à de nombreuses restrictions techniques et nécessitent un nombre considérable de signatures. 

L’UE a également besoin de plus de délibération – une délibération réelle et visible. Cela signifie probablement donner beaucoup plus de pouvoir au Parlement européen, mais aussi allouer des ressources à de nouvelles formes d’espaces délibératifs. 

En outre, l’UE a besoin d’un processus décisionnel majoritaire. Elle est trop souvent paralysée par les exigences de l’unanimité. Si nous sommes un peuple européen, pour résoudre les désaccords, nous devons à un moment donné suivre la majorité. Enfin, l’UE a besoin d’une plus grande transparence. Les institutions européennes sont bureaucratiques, opaques et incompréhensibles. Pour moi, le vote du Brexit était une dénonciation explicite de la nature non démocratique de l’Union européenne. Je ne suis pas sûr que ce soit la bonne décision, mais je pense que le diagnostic était correct. 

Comment la démocratie ouverte pourrait-elle fonctionner au niveau mondial ? 

Imaginez un groupe aléatoire de 1 000 citoyens sélectionnés dans le monde entier, réunis pour débattre de questions telles que le changement climatique ou la justice économique mondiale. Est-ce possible ? N’y aurait-t-il pas des malentendus culturels ? Les difficultés doivent-elles nous dissuader d’essayer ? Je ne le pense pas – nous commençons seulement à effleurer la surface de ce qui est faisable. Des ONG et des universitaires sont en train de mettre sur pied la première assemblée mondiale sur le climat, qui se tiendra en marge de la conférence sur le climat COP26 à Glasgow. C’est déjà le cas. 

Lorsque j’ai commencé à écrire mon livre OpenDemocracy il y a quelques années, certains collègues l’ont considéré comme extrêmement radical, utopique, philosophique et sans rapport avec la réalité. Mais quelques années plus tard, la réalité nous rattrape. La crise financière, l’élection de Donald Trump, le Brexit et maintenant la pandémie ont tous fait exploser le statu quo et élargi le champ de ce qui est conceptuellement imaginable. Nous avons vécu à une époque d’étroitesse d’esprit avec très peu de réflexion en dehors de la boîte. C’était la social-démocratie capitaliste avec des représentants élus et la mondialisation comme contrainte inconditionnelle et indiscutable. Mais aujourd’hui, les contraintes fiscales, les budgets équilibrés, l’intervention minimale de l’État – tout cela a disparu. Si nous pouvons faire quelque chose à ce stade, pourquoi pas une démocratie ouverte ?  

Le Parlement Populaire : Un Foyer pour la Démocratie Européenne

Plus que toute autre institution européenne, le Parlement européen a la responsabilité de favoriser le développement d’une véritable citoyenneté transeuropéenne. Le chemin vers la construction de cette sphère politique et publique européenne est semé d’embûches, créées à la fois par l’écosystème politique de l’UE et par les acteurs politiques nationaux. Les initiatives passées, présentes et futures sont prometteuses, mais elles doivent être accompagnées d’une volonté et d’une ambition politiques suffisantes.

Après la perturbation engendrée par le rejet de la constitution européenne en 2005 par les électeurs français et néerlandais, le processus constitutionnel de l’UE se remet enfin en marche. Rejoignant la mêlée, le Parlement européen prépare un énième rapport sur la “démocratisation de l’UE”. Ce rapport repose sur un diagnostic valable, bien que quelque peu évident, selon lequel le déficit démocratique de l’UE est alimenté par quatre lacunes. Premièrement, un manque d’intelligibilité dans la prise de décision, car les responsabilités politiques sont diffuses, nombreuses et rarement assumées. Deuxièmement, l’absence d’une sphère publique européenne commune. Troisièmement, un manque d’esprit communautaire et d’approche européenne commune, exacerbé par un Conseil européen affirmatif et des approches de plus en plus intergouvernementales. Et enfin, un manque de pouvoir législatif pour le Parlement, ce qui entrave sa capacité à orienter la direction politique de l’Union.

Les efforts habituels du Parlement européen pour approfondir la démocratie européenne consistent à renforcer ses pouvoirs d’initiative, de contrôle budgétaire et de surveillance. Tels ont été les thèmes sous-jacents de ses rapports au fil des ans, et il est probable qu’ils demeurent ainsi. Comme toute institution, le Parlement européen se bat pour une centralité accrue au sein de son écosystème politique.

Si leurs solutions pour plus de démocratie au niveau européen semblent répétitives, c’est parce que le Parlement européen a toujours été un “agent du fédéralisme”, militant pour une Europe plus politique et intégrée. Jusqu’à la fin des années 1980, la plupart de ses membres étaient des fédéralistes convaincus, incarnés par Altiero Spinelli et le “projet de traité” pour une Europe politiquement intégrée adopté en 1984. Même après que les élections proportionnelles et directes ont eu privé les fédéralistes de leur majorité culturelle, ce projet détaillé et son auteur sont restés une source d’inspiration fédéraliste, comme en témoigne l’initiative du groupe Spinelli en 2010.

Les politiques prennent le dessus

Depuis sa création, et surtout après avoir obtenu un mandat démocratique direct, le Parlement européen n’a cessé de se battre pour obtenir une plus grande part du processus décisionnel européen. Tout au long des années 1970, comme tout nouveau parlement, il s’est concentré sur les questions budgétaires, se sculptant progressivement un droit de regard, d’amendement et de rejet d’une partie, puis de la totalité, des dépenses de la Communauté européenne de l’époque. Préparé à affronter des États membres imperméables, le Parlement européen a rejeté le budget dans son ensemble en 1979 ainsi qu’en 1984. Depuis lors, la procédure est devenue plus sophistiquée et moins sujette aux blocages, mais la volonté du Parlement de s’opposer aux États membres a également perdu de son acuité.

De l’Acte unique européen de 1986 au traité de Lisbonne de 2007, le Parlement est devenu un colégislateur à part entière pour toutes les politiques communes, sur un pied d’égalité avec le Conseil européen. En outre, l’élaboration de la législation européenne a évolué pour mettre l’accent sur son rôle procédural, à tel point qu’il attire désormais des foules de plus en plus nombreuses de lobbyistes bruxellois. Mais si ses pouvoirs ont été accrus, sa légitimité politique est restée incertaine, entamée par trois grandes tendances historiques. Premièrement, avant une remontée en 2019, le taux de participation aux élections européennes n’avait cessé de baisser. La participation dans de nombreux nouveaux membres orientaux de l’UE était particulièrement faible. Deuxièmement, les parlements nationaux ont continué à jouir d’un statut plus élevé en termes de politique et de carrière. Troisièmement, les crises culminantes des années 2010 (financière, migratoire, ukrainienne, Brexit) ont vu le Conseil s’élever inexorablement à la dominance dans l’ordre institutionnel de l’UE.

Le statut de bizarrerie politique du Parlement européen au sein d’un ordre institutionnel méconnu et à peine compris, et encore moins couvert, par les médias nationaux rend sa tâche d’établir une légitimité politique encore plus difficile. De plus, le mauvais comportement de certains membres a nui à sa réputation à plusieurs reprises, qu’il s’agisse de la corruption pure et simple du scandale de l’ “argent contre influence” de 2011 ou de sa perméabilité générale aux représentants des intérêts des entreprises (lobbyistes). Certains animaux politiques ont prospéré dans cet environnement, réussissant à rehausser le profil politique du Parlement grâce à leur présence charismatique, leur attrait paneuropéen et leurs discours pléniers passionnés. Cependant lors de moments politiquement décisifs, en particulier en période de crise, même ses figures de proue n’ont pas réussi à placer le Parlement sur le devant de la scène.

L’Europe demeure une affaire de stratégies, mais elle devient graduellement une affaire de politiques.

Les choses évoluent tout de même dans le bon sens. Les crises des années 2010 (et du début des années 2020) ont peut-être jeté une ombre sur le Parlement, mais elles ont aussi rendu les débats politiques nationaux plus européens. Les élections de 2019 – disputées davantage sur des questions européennes, et avec un taux de participation jamais vu depuis 1999 – l’ont clairement démontré.

Bien sûr, l’Europe demeure une affaire de stratégies, mais elle devient graduellement une affaire de politiques. Les élections de 2019 étaient également un marqueur clair de la lente érosion du centre politique du Parlement. Le bloc dirigeant traditionnel du centre-gauche et du centre-droit fonctionnant de concert est désormais contesté en interne par les libéraux, à gauche par les Verts, et à droite par un nouveau courant de la droite radicale nationaliste. Cela a ouvert la voie à une réintroduction potentielle d’un clivage gauche-droite que les grandes coalitions avaient complètement dilué.

Cela étant dit, un Parlement européen plus politique ne serait pas nécessairement plus fort. Au sommet de son influence institutionnelle, lorsqu’il a imposé le système du “Spitzenkandidat” – l’obligation pour le président de la Commission d’avoir une sorte de mandat électoral – à un Conseil défiant, le Parlement était gouverné par une coalition majoritaire stable et disciplinée liée au soutien de la Commission. Les clivages de type gauche/droite ou gouvernement/opposition pourraient contribuer à rendre le Parlement européen plus intelligible pour le public et les médias – et donc à renforcer sa légitimité démocratique – mais, paradoxalement, ils pourraient affaiblir sa main dans l’équilibre institutionnel européen.

Donner vie à la démocratie européenne

Cet apparent compromis entre légitimité démocratique et poids institutionnel doit nous inciter à sortir des sentiers battus en matière de démocratie européenne. Si l’UE est une construction politique sui generis, comme on le soutient souvent, voulons-nous vraiment le même type de politique au niveau européen qu’au niveau national ? Devrions-nous chercher à transformer l’UE en un système parlementaire plus reconnaissable ? Cela ne risquerait-il pas d’affaiblir, voire de perdre l’originalité du Parlement européen ?

Il est fort probable qu’à un moment ou à un autre, des modifications du traité accordent au Parlement des droits d’initiatives législatives et des pouvoirs budgétaires accrus, dont il a grandement besoin ; il est donc logique de continuer à les réclamer. Un autre débat bien établi consiste à donner aux élections européennes des perspectives plus européennes. Les mérites et démérites des listes transnationales, des circonscriptions continentales, du système de double proportionnalité et des partis européens ont été longuement discutés par les aficionados de la politique européenne. Il est probable que des éléments de ces réformes trouvent également leur place dans la loi électorale européenne. Mais quel que soit l’avenir de ces solutions institutionnelles, pour rendre notre système politique plus européen il faut avant tout rendre nos vies politiques plus européennes. Dans ce domaine, la pratique prévaut aux dispositions légales.

Un trait unique du Parlement européen est qu’il crée des Européens. Par un intéressant phénomène d’acculturation, ses membres, même les eurosceptiques les plus enragés, deviennent véritablement plus européens. Bien sûr, européen ne signifie pas nécessairement pro-UE mais, de manière significative, même les nationalistes ont adopté une dimension transnationale à leurs vues et stratégies. La réorganisation en cours de la droite radicale européenne à la suite du départ de Viktor Orbán du Parti populaire européen de centre-droit est la preuve de cette tendance. C’est là une force essentielle du Parlement européen : il est une usine à européaniser.

Dans cet esprit, il y a trois pistes à explorer pour renforcer à la fois la légitimité démocratique de l’UE dans son ensemble et la pertinence politique du Parlement européen en particulier.

La première proposition – politique – consisterait à renforcer le lien entre le Parlement et la Commission. À l’heure actuelle, afin d’exercer les pouvoirs que lui confère le traité de Lisbonne, le Parlement européen sacrifie rituellement un commissaire désigné tous les cinq ans au cours de procédures d’auditions intenses et dramatiques. Mais cela pourrait aller beaucoup plus loin. La prochaine fois, le Parlement européen pourrait rejeter les candidats s’ils ne sont pas issus de ses rangs. Plutôt que d’avoir des commissaires qui doivent leur poste à leurs liens personnels et politiques avec les capitales, cela obligerait les gouvernements à envoyer leurs candidats potentiels face aux électeurs. Pour les hommes politiques, les partis et les électeurs, l’enjeu des élections européennes serait alors plus important.

Pour rendre notre système politique plus européen, il faut avant tout rendre notre vie politique plus européenne également.

La deuxième idée – institutionnelle – serait de trouver un moyen créatif de réinsérer le Conseil européen dans l’ordre démocratique de la séparation des pouvoirs. Le rôle ambivalent d’un organe assumant à la fois le leadership politique et les prérogatives législatives a brouillé la séparation des pouvoirs au niveau de l’UE.

Seuls les gouvernements nationaux ont un certain niveau de contrôle sur le Conseil, et cela ne vaut que dans les pays où les parlements jouent un rôle central. Si les dirigeants allemands, néerlandais, danois ou finlandais sont étroitement liés à leurs mandats parlementaires lorsqu’ils négocient au niveau européen, ailleurs ce contrôle est beaucoup plus ample. Dans certains cas, il est absent : en France présidentielle ou en Hongrie non-libérale, la politique européenne est menée plus ou moins sans contrôle.

Ce qui est nécessaire, c’est un contrôle du Conseil qui défende les intérêts de l’Europe comme un tout. À cet égard, le Parlement européen pourrait investir davantage de temps et d’énergie dans la coopération avec les parlements nationaux. Cela s’est avéré décevant jusqu’à présent, mais une option à explorer consisterait à donner à l’organe spécifique commun au Parlement européen et aux chambres parlementaires des États membres de l’UE (actuellement connu sous le nom de COSAC) un mandat conjoint pour superviser l’intérêt européen au sein du Conseil. Le Parlement européen deviendrait ainsi le lieu où les légitimités démocratiques nationales et européennes, au lieu de se concurrencer, convergent et s’informent mutuellement – apportant une perspective européenne aux parlements nationaux tout en rappelant aux députés européens qu’ils ne peuvent prétendre à un monopole sur les affaires européennes.

La troisième et dernière réflexion – citoyenne – serait de faire du Parlement européen un véritable foyer pour les Européens. Dans l’une de ses dernières interviews avant sa tragique mort accidentelle en 2008, l’éminent historien européen et polonais Bronisław Geremek, qui a siégé comme député européen à partir de 2004, a avoué qu’il lui avait fallu quelques années pour saisir les spécificités du parlement dans lequel il siégeait. Alors qu’à première vue il était apparu comme une bizarrerie quelque peu limitée par rapport à ses homologues nationaux, M. Geremek a finalement constaté que le Parlement européen était le lieu où les citoyens forment réellement et physiquement le corps civique européen.

D’une manière unique parmi les institutions européennes, le Parlement européen est le lieu où l’Europe se fait.

Pour renouer avec cette fonction de canalisation de l’esprit européen, le Parlement européen devrait faire tout son possible pour organiser des débats européens et incarner la sphère publique européenne si nécessaire et qui fait pourtant tant défaut. L’initiative Agora, aujourd’hui disparue, que le Parlement a menée de 2008 à 2013, était une expérience pionnière de démocratie directe européenne qui a permis d’élaborer des recommandations sur des questions urgentes telles que la pauvreté, le chômage des jeunes et la crise climatique. Et le nombre croissant d’assemblées de citoyens à travers l’Europe permet de tirer de nombreux autres enseignements.

Le Parlement européen pourrait s’atteler à rendre ces expériences plus systémiques en organisant des forums sur tout le continent, en rassemblant les citoyens européens et en leur donnant la possibilité de concevoir les politiques qu’ils souhaitent voir prendre forme, sans la médiation habituelle des partis politiques. Dans cet esprit, la conférence sur l’avenir de l’Europe, une initiative de l’UE qui se déroulera de 2021 à 2022 et qui promet d’impliquer directement les citoyens, pourrait devenir le premier d’une longue série d’exercices de démocratie participative.

La démocratie n’est rien d’autre qu’une conversation entre les citoyens. Plus que des institutions et des rituels électoraux, c’est le sentiment de partager le même espace ; un processus sociologique qui rassemble les nombreux citoyens en une communauté partagée. En l’absence d’un demos continental et d’une “infrastructure démocratique” pour reprendre les termes de Jan-Werner Müller, à savoir une sphère publique européenne et des partis politiques européens, quel endroit plus approprié que le Parlement pour avoir cette conversation ?

À l’aube de sa cinquième décennie en tant qu’organe démocratiquement élu, le Parlement européen pourrait bien ressentir la morsure d’une crise de la cinquantaine. Plutôt que de se plaindre simplement des pouvoirs qui lui manquent, il devrait s’inspirer de ce qu’il a accompli jusqu’à présent. D’une manière unique parmi les institutions européennes, le Parlement européen est le lieu où l’Europe se construit. Il s’agit peut-être de sa contribution la plus importante à l’histoire du projet européen : fournir les conditions permettant d’encourager, de nourrir et de faire vivre la démocratie européenne naissante. En invitant les citoyens à y participer.

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