Why the new social movements need to Europeanise

The EU needs a way to avoid and tone down damaging conflicts between states, says Mark Dawson.

The new social movements couch their demands within the language of national democracy and the capacities of the nation state. However, in order to be effective Podemos and its counterparts need to develop into transnational movements. Overcoming the separated national arenas may be the only hope of ensuring that the EU’s move from conflict to consensus is a move towards a more democratic Europe.

If we could describe in one word the founding and guiding principle of the EU, what would it be? While there may be many candidates – from peace to democracy to the rule of law – I would pick another. ‘Consensus’, and the search for it, may be the EU’s central guiding principle. This begins from the EU’s emergence from the violent conflict of the Second World War. Clearly, the EU’s structures needed a way of avoiding and toning down damaging conflicts between states.

The EU has also, however, had to deal with and minimise other types of conflicts. Ideology is an example of this: by focusing on market-building policies, coupled with limitations on the EU’s ability to interfere in the social state, the EU also tried to avoid conflicts between those with liberal, Christian-democratic and socialist visions of Europe’s future.

The Euro crisis – and the rise of social movements crystalised into populist political parties from Movimento 5 Stelle to Podemos – challenges most of all this very founding principle. How can we talk of a consensus between states over an issue like financial assistance, where states are seemingly engaged in a zero-sum game of fiscal bargaining? Equally, how can we talk of ideological consensus when EU policy is increasingly intruding into the very core of the national social state?

From Consensus to Conflict

Given its new functions, the EU is increasingly directly proscribing how national governments can tax and spend. In the new eurozone, certain political ideologies, at least in debt-laden states, are simply ‘ruled-out’. We have moved from a politics of consensus – where national choices were accommodated; to one of conflict – where the EU is increasingly forced to choose between particular social, economic and environmental models.

The move from consensus to conflict is important to understanding the rise of populist political movements. These movements speak to a feeling of insecurity and impotence when faced with new institutional realities. As traditional democratic options are foreclosed, and economic hardship bites, new movements promise a return to democracy. They promise a return to societies in which the population can change their political future through the ballot box.

The question is: which ballot box should social movements seek to control? While there is a clear dynamic by which parties like Syriza and Podemos have responded to one another; they have inevitably arisen within distinct national contexts. They thus tend to couch their demands within the language of national democracy and the capacities of the nation state.

In truth, these capacities are long diminished. As the Greek example shows, true reform and change cannot come from the national level alone. National re-empowerment, particularly among smaller states, may re-empower states only to pit them against one another, as the demand to fulfil the mandate of one electorate (e.g. Greece) comes up against the electoral desires of another (e.g. Germany). In an integrated Euro-zone, populism based at the national level carries the danger of precisely the ‘re-nationalization’ of politics Europe’s founders tried so hard to avoid.

Transnational Action

A more realistic alternative would seem to be political action at the level where authority is coming from. If policy is being driven at the EU level, why not start there? If changing the EU’s macro-economic  or environmental or digital framework requires not confrontation, but agreement between EU states on what has to change, why not mobilise change in a political space that concerns all Europeans, not just some of them?

In short, if 5 Stelle and Podemos are to fulfil their democratic potential, they may need to re-constitute themselves as European movements. They may need to seek alliances with groups with similar interests from across the EU, including in creditor states (where many may yet be weakened by their own government’s pro-austerity position). Finally, they may have to fight for a more representative and democratic EU decision-making structure; one in which the ballot box – not the say of financial institutions such as the ECB or IMF – counts highest.

Trans-national political action may be the only hope of ensuring that the EU’s move from conflict to consensus is a move towards a more democratic Europe. Let us hope that Podemos and 5 Stelle can be European movements, and not just national ones.

This text was first published in the “Kulturaustausch” magazine (in German).

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  • Mark Dawson, Professor of European Law and Governance

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