Tony Venables, founder of ECIT Foundation, reviewed the book “Shifting Baselines of Europe. New perspectives beyond Neoliberalism and Nationalism”, written by European Alternatives.
This book has been published to document the 2016 Campus of European Alternatives (EA) and to present the results to a wider public. Moreover, the date of appearance coincided with the tenth Anniversary of the organisation. As a board member of this organisation I hesitated about reviewing the book because it might appear biased. I do believe however that this is essential reading for anyone not just involved with European affairs, but concerned about the state of the EU and looking for the evidence that change is possible for the better. Hopefully the book will reach a wide audience in social movements, organised civil society, political parties, academics and the media, since it is very much about those particular actors.
EA aims to be a sounding board and way of linking the experimentation going on all around Europe, both local and transnational, from which practical lessons and inspiration should be derived for building a very different European model. An attractive feature of the organisation is that rather than promoting its own role it promotes others, advertises what they do and brings them together at its campuses and festivals. This book pursues a similar aim and it is an important one. Eurosceptical and nationalistic right wing parties have grabbed attention, virtually paralysing the EU. Far less attention has been devoted to the more scattered grass roots movements pushing in the opposite direction for a more inclusive, progressive and citizen-led Europe. Yet as this book shows these movements are very much on the march and in some cases taking power.
The book begins with an essay on “European incapacity” by Etienne Balibar written in 2011, but which remains entirely relevant today. It reminded me of “The crisis in the European Union” by Jurgen Habermas. One of the lessons of this crisis is that never again should governments be allowed to coalesce in the European Council, whilst leaving their citizens behind, to take decisions which affect them. These decisions then have to be ratified by national parliaments without choice even though they may restrict budgets for health, education or social welfare. Traditionally -and sensibly- the EU has left such areas close to national sovereignty to the nation-sate, but to preserve the Euro-Zone that was not possible. A vacuum at the centre of European decision making has certainly created a political opportunity for populist parties to appeal to the citizenship people trust most, the national one. Much of the book reflects the state of polarisation we are in now between growing nationalism and the vision of a progressive Europe beyond the nation-state. This tension is being played out in the spheres of politics, the traditional media and social media. The reader is exposed to the roller-coaster characterising debates about Europe now, veering between hope and despair.
The editors have approached the task of bringing the other Europe of hope to life by asking those directly involved to write an article or be interviewed. This is first-hand information and particularly useful since the contributors are refreshingly frank about their achievements but also their limits. The book should be useful source material for example for academics studying social movements and political parties. One lesson to emerge is that there is no such thing as quick change and as Syriza learned to its cost in Greece, it is not enough to win an election and expect the traditional state apparatus to follow. Elsewhere, change has been built up first in social movements before their techniques have been transferred to the exercise of political power in municipalities and city authorities from Naples to Barcelona and Madrid but also to less well known cities where not much is supposed to happen! Political leadership is also important. The mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, may not have the support of any political party, but did win a court case against the government to preserve teaching jobs in his city. He was chairman of the European Parliament’s Budget Committee, which is a great vantage point from which to see the implementation of public policy across the range. There is a new style of politics and a different way of doing things, but this does not mean that those taking the lead are novices or amateurs.
In order to challenge the reader further after the examples of democratic reforms at city level in the EU we suddenly find ourselves in Syria. The book end with a chapter and pictures about “the Rojava Revolution and the model of democracy without a state” brought about by the Kurds. An amazing story! If that is possible, anything is!
A possible criticism of the book is that whereas there are introductory sections to help the reader put specific examples in context, the editors might have attempted a final chapter drawing the different threads together. Personally, I take away from this book 3 c’s, which are certainly threads running through all the specific examples:
- Citizenship beyond the nation state. Free movement across Europe for all and welcoming policies for refugees is being practised in this alternative Europe. More conceptual work needs however to be done on how European citizenship should develop, since this has the advantage of existing as a legal concept. It needs to become a more political one.
- Commons as a unifying political vision (page 167). “I think it is a hard concept to understand” says a contributor from Madrid. In reply it is pointed out in a later chapter on the commons that “it does provide a clear ethical perspective and helps us appreciate and understand the value of people collectively stewarding resources” This can be done in so many different ways that the commons is itself something of a shifting baseline.
- Citizen participation. To say the EU Institutions need this is an understatement. I always thought that much could be learned from the Occupy and other protest movements about new approaches to citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting and on-line participation. The cities described are doing that and are way ahead in this area and signalling strongly that they are willing to share practice and tools.
I hope EA will do more conceptual work on the cross-cutting themes like the 3 c’s. The book will be a basis for discussions at the ECIT Summer University on European citizenship from 30 August to 1 September 2017 at the Maison des Associations Internationales in Brussels.
By Tony Venables