One of the Bosnia plenums, 2014. https://vimeo.com/89711771.
For democracy in Europe today, the absence of debate about the notion of European citizenship remains a key impediment. Building a genuine European demos requires reaching beyond the traditional domains and delineations of politics.
Movements such as DiEM25 are vital in this regard, helping to rearticulate citizenship and redefine the public sphere, thereby fostering new ways of doing politics and engaging those who’ve previously been marginalized from debates.
Yet there are a number of inherent challenges that need to be overcome if such movements are to engage those on Europe’s periphery, both within member states and beyond.
Building such a movement beyond the boundaries of the nation state involves engaging those directly affected by today’s crisis in Europe, and cultivating commonalities in the absence of pre-existing bonds. Fostering a connection with the movement requires that it appeal to the day-to-day realities faced by people from different backgrounds and contexts.
In a Europe of pronounced linguistic and cultural differences, such an undertaking is both profoundly ambitious and necessary. Whilst there is a temptation, however, to mobilize individuals around a shared manifesto of demands, the compromises and concessions involved in formulating such a stance can come at the expense of an emancipatory agenda of rights and values which any trans-European movement must strive to advance.
The plenums that sprang up in various towns and cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the February 2014 protests provide a timely illustration of the tensions between movements and manifestoes. Initially hailed as an example of the country’s underlying civic virtues, their momentum quickly evaporated, even before the country suffered its worst flooding for over a century.
The experience of the plenums exposed the difficulties of fostering a movement capable of articulating and pursuing the social, civic, political and economic rights of all the country’s citizens, especially in a context where politics has remained fundamentally divided on inter-ethnic lines.
The plenums were – for Bosnia and Herzegovina at least – a unique experience in citizen-led activism. After the occasionally violent protests, which reminded some of the fear and uncertainty that accompanied war (the burning of buildings and the ineffectiveness of law enforcement agencies), the plenums offered a platform for broad and constructive engagement; unimpeded by the structures of patronage, clientalism and worse which have defined politics in the post-war period.
They were unique precisely because they offered an alternative to the elite-led politics which had predominated, offering for the first time in the post-war period the possibility of a different type of politics.
Plenums in Bosnia constituted a reactionary response to the political gridlock that had stalled reforms for several years, much as movements across Europe have sprung up in response to various manifestations of crisis in their own systems (the Nuit debout movement being one of the latest manifestations).
The plenums were quick to formulate their own manifestoes containing a host of demands - some general, others more specific – that were selectively implemented by the respective governments.
The narrow, particularistic agenda articulated – of ‘White Bread’ (where politicians were entitled to a year’s salary after the end of their mandate) and resignations – diluted the prospect of a more progressive agenda (particularly as general elections were then only some six months away). In doing so, the plenums failed to secure sufficient autonomy from the political context in which the mobilizations initially occurred; autonomy which is vital for any sustained, progressive movement.
The fulfilment of certain of these demands (especially government resignations) created a sense of purpose and conviction that facilitated a transition of the protests from the streets to the regulated surroundings of classrooms or cultural centres. Yet they also allowed the country’s political elites to subdue some of the energy created by acceding to a handful of these demands, protecting their core interests through a few essentially symbolic offerings.
The particularistic nature of the agenda had the effect of narrowing the appeal of the plenums to a potentially larger audience, epitomized by their failure to sufficiently transcend inter-ethnic divisions which continue to scar the country (the protests failed to spread to the country’s second entity, Republika Srpska).
Whilst the diversity of composition enhanced the legitimacy of the plenums in the eyes of many, the divergence of interests and lack of a unifying identity ultimately mitigated against the movement’s evolution. With student protests in neighbouring Croatia or the subsequent protests of factory workers in Tuzla, the shared identity and realities of the participants is pre-existing.
Plenums, on the other hand, were disparate groups comprised of, amongst others, academics, polemicists, the unemployed, poorly-paid, pensioners and civil society; individuals who struggled to associate with the plight of others facing very different problems.
Unifying these disparate elements required a rights-based discourse which ultimately failed to materialise. Though fundamentally their interests were shared – lack of jobs, low incomes, ineffective governing structures – their claims were not enveloped in a unifying and emancipatory language.
Whilst individuals had the opportunity to express their personal frustrations to an attentive audience, that very audience failed to expand beyond those actively participating. The plenums failed to consolidate and transform their initial momentum into a broader movement capable of breaking down barriers and fostering new ties between disparate actors across the country.
Whilst the plenums have offered a fundamental critique of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they’ve thus far failed to elaborate a more emancipatory agenda. The particularistic nature of their demands has left them vulnerable to being de facto co-opted by the prevailing political elites. Such specific demands also deterred other potential recruits of different political persuasions or ethnicities.
Whilst such manifestoes can create an initial sense of purpose and achievement, they are by definition divisive. Whilst one may agree with the values of the movement, one’s participation may be deterred by the specific ends which that very same movement endeavours to achieve.
Overcoming this tension between movement and manifesto - between values and specific claims - is essential if DiEM25 wants to unite Europe behind its goal of democratizing the continent, and fostering a genuine European demos.