Society, Media and Culture

Manifesto for Rebuilding Europe from the Bottom Up

In this proposal, initiated by Ulrick Bech and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a group of pro-Europeans argue for a form of active citizenship to promote European democracy and resolve the political crisis that continues to grip the European project.

A European Year of Volunteering for Everyone – for taxi drivers and theologians, for workers and the work-less, for managers and musicians, for teachers and trainees, for sculptors and sous-chefs, for supreme court judges and senior citizens, for men and women – as a response to the euro crisis!

The young people of Europe may be better educated than ever before but they still feel powerless in the face of the looming bankruptcy of nation-states and the terminal decline of labor markets. Every fourth European under the age of 25 is unemployed. In the many places where disenfranchised young people have set up camp and made public protests they are clamoring for social justice. Wherever such camps are – in Spain, Portugal, the countries of North Africa, American cities or Moscow – this demand is being made with great force and fervor. Anger is mounting over a political system that rescues banks with eye-watering mountains of debt but squanders the future of young people in the process. But how much hope can be held out for a Europe with a steadily ageing population?

US President John F. Kennedy astounded the world with his idea of founding a Peace Corps. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

We, the undersigned, wish to provide a mouthpiece for European civil society. For this reason, we are asking the European Commission and national governments, the European Parliament and national parliaments to create a Europe of actively employed citizens and to secure the financial and legal requirements for the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone – as a counter-model to the top-down Europe, the Europe of elites and technocrats that has prevailed up to now that considers itself responsible for forging the destiny of the citizenry of Europe – if need be, against its will. For it is this unspoken maxim of European politics that is threatening to destroy the entire European project.

The aim is to democratize the national democracies in order to rebuild Europe in the spirit of the rallying cry: Don’t ask what Europe can do for you but ask what you can do for Europe – by Doing Europe!

No progressive thinker – from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jürgen Habermas – ever wanted a democracy that consists merely in being able to periodically vote. The debt crisis that is currently driving Europe apart is not simply an economic problem but also a political one. We need a European civil society and the vision of younger generations if we are going to solve the burning issues of today. We cannot afford to allow Europe to be transformed into the target of an “angry movement” of citizens protesting against a Europe without Europeans. Europe cannot function without Europeans committed to its cause, and Europeans cannot do Europe unless they can breathe the air of freedom.

The practical action transcending the narrow bounds of nation-state, ethnicity and religion that the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone is meant to promote is not intended as an institutionalized fig leaf for European failures. The vision is instead to open up space for creativity. Far from being a means of providing hand-outs to unemployed youth, the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone is an act of self-assertion by European civil society: an act that can be used to construct a new proactive constitution from the bottom up in order to reestablish Europe’s political creativity and legitimacy. Political freedom cannot survive in an atmosphere of fear. It only thrives and becomes established where people have a roof over their heads and know how they are going to live tomorrow and in their old age. That is why the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone needs a robust foundation of finance. We ask businesses in Europe to make their appropriate contribution.

If Europe is to develop a bottom-up culture, it cannot afford to fall back on predefined courses of action. The citizens of such a Europe will want to go to other countries and get involved in transnational problem areas in which national states are no longer able to offer appropriate solutions – environmental degradation, climate change, mass movements of refugees and migrants, and far-right radicalism. They will also want to make use of European networks of art, literature and theater as stages to promote the European cause. A new contract needs to be agreed between the state, the EU, the political structures of civil society, the market, social security and environmental sustainability.

What is good about Europe? What is the value of Europe to us? Which model could and should be the basis for Europe in the 21st century? These are open questions which urgently need to be addressed. For us in “We are Europe” the answer is this: Europe is a laboratory of political and social ideas without parallel anywhere else in the world. But what constitutes European identity? You might say that Europeanness arises out of dialog and dissent between the many different political cultures – of the “Citoyen”, the “Citizen”, the “Staatsbuerger”, the “Burgermaatschappij”, the “Ciudadano”, the “Obywatel”. But Europe is also about irony; it is about being able to laugh about ourselves. There is no better way to fill Europe with life and laughter than for ordinary Europeans to come together to act on their own initiative.

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