Progressive social movements are turning off from engagement with the European Union, even after recent years have shown the extent of its power. Factors such as support for austerity and the lack of concern for the safety of migrants have caused resignation and growing Euroscepticism to divide the progressive camp over how it thinks about Europe. With EU elections around the corner and politics alive with debate over the future of integration, Donatella della Porta, scholar of social movements at Florence’s Scuola Normale Superiore, asks where the struggle for ‘another Europe’ finds itself. Analysing the legacies of early 2000s’ movements and the fight against austerity since 2008, della Porta traces how hopes for reform faded and critical engagement shifted to the local and national levels. Still, she argues, the European field cannot be deserted. Though immediate prospects may be slim, another Europe is possible.
With trust in the European Union falling dramatically, thinking about alternative, progressive visions of Europe ‘from below’ is increasingly difficult. The election of the European Parliament is unlikely to mark a turning point. The financial crisis and its political fallout have increasingly sown mistrust towards European institutions in progressive social movements. The lack of solidarity shown by EU institutions is increasingly criticised, in terms of lack of solidarity among member states, as demonstrated during the Greek crisis, but also lack of solidarity towards people, as shown in the attempts to seal Europe’s borders. The EU’s reaction to the financial crisis challenges visions for growing European-level democracy, accentuating instead the regulatory – and authoritarian – aspect of EU institutions, decreasing the power (and visibility) of the Parliament and increasing the power (and visibility) of Eurogroup and the European Central Bank.
Some of these criticisms of Europe have been present for a long time in progressive movements. Social movement organisations linked to the so-called ‘left-libertarian’ family have in the past voiced progressively more critical positions about the EU, at the same time promoting ‘another Europe’ and becoming better organised and coordinated across Europe. At the beginning of the millennium, cosmopolitan activists of the Global Justice Movement developed critical visions of Europe, elaborating complex proposals for the reform of EU policies and politics. The European Social Forums (ESF) critiqued representative institutions within a broader frame where the EU in particular was stigmatised because of its neoliberalism and lack of democratic accountability. Trust in the EU among activists surveyed at various forums was low, and dropped steadily from one to the next. Within this critical political vision, however, images of another Europe signalled the hope for reformist efforts to make European institutions more democratic and accountable. The image of ‘another Europe’ (rather than ‘no Europe’) was often stressed in the debates. Like the labour movement during the development of nation-states, progressive social movements seemed destined to play a valuable role in pushing for a social and democratic Europe, so contributing also to the development of European identity.
To what extent critical Europeanism has ceded terrain to Euroscepticism is a central question when thinking about the possible effects of the European elections.
Given the sharp decline of trust in political institutions, including in the EU, is there still time for the development of ideas for another Europe? To what extent critical Europeanism has ceded terrain to Euroscepticism, including within this alter-European vision, is a central question when thinking about the possible effects of the European elections. The response is not clear cut.
Recent developments have certainly challenged hopes for the creation of truly European social movements. In particular during the Great Regression, progressive social movements have moved the focus of their activities back to the national and local levels, engaging very little or not at all with the EU and questions of Europe more generally. Research on more recent ‘left-libertarian’ movements seems to indicate a shift in visions of and practices oriented towards ‘another Europe’. In particular,anti-austerity protestors targeted what they perceived as an overlapping of economic and political elite resulting from a ‘lobbying overload’ from business and industry groups at all levels of government. Research also indicated that demonstrators in those countries that have been hit hardest by the economic crisis, cuts in public expenditure, and related increases in inequality have particularly low levels of trust in EU institutions. As for their protest repertoires, counter-summits at European Councils have been replaced, at the local level, with occupations of public squares where protesters feel some headway may be made in terms of rebuilding democracy. The acampadas of what became known as the Indignados and Occupy movements have been read as spaces of prefigurative politics, spaces for living out and building real democracies as opposed to engaging with a system no longer capable of implementing democracy. There is indeed increasing criticism of existing EU institutions at the level of politics (the democratic deficit perceived as increasing during the financial crisis and contrasted to national sovereignty); policy (perceived as less and less driven by social justice and solidarity); and polity (with proposals to go ‘beyond Europe’).
existing proposals for progressive transformations of EU institutions remain rather top-down, not finding public spheres in which to be discussed and mobilisations to make them visible.
The financial crisis, which saw the increasing power of the least democratic accountable institutions (such as the European Central Bank or ECOFIN, the meeting of EU economic and finance ministers), is seen as a critical juncture that makes EU institutions all the more near to business and far from the citizens. In addition, the EU institutional failure in dealing with the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is perceived as further reducing the opportunities to create inclusive European institutions. While federalist visions are therefore less and less widespread, a soft cosmopolitanism aims at combining different territorial levels, regaining territorial controls at the national but also local level within mutualist conceptions.
While strongly critical of a Europe which emerges as steadily increasing inequalities, denying solidarity, and avoiding democratic accountability, progressive social movements (such as the ones that have recently developed in struggles for social rights, gender rights, and environmental protection), are nevertheless aware of the risks of expressing Eurosceptic positions that are promoted on the Right. They are, however, also fearful of debating Europe, as this is often considered too divisive an issue. This trend of ‘detachment’ from Europe is further enhanced by the declining resources to mobilise transnationally. Some existing proposals for progressive transformations of EU institutions remain therefore rather top-down, not finding public spheres in which to be discussed and mobilisations to make them visible.
There is no expectation that the new European Parliament – with the probable governmental alliance between centre-right (in the two versions of the People’s party and the Liberals of ALDE) and the Socialists, justified by the so-called ‘risk of populism’ – is going to open institutional opportunity for another Europe. To which extent a European Parliament moving further to the Right can work as a common target bringing about a convergence of European struggles is a main question for the Left after the elections. This would require, however, an effort to address the issue of what another Europe could be like, how to build European identities, and how to coordinate collective action at transnational level.