Can Europe Make It?

Searching for politics in Europe

Nikolay Nikolov
31 March 2014

What is politics? It essentially means the act and art of ‘living together’ in a polis, a city-state, which defines the boundaries and draws the lines of the political. Politics is the creation and perpetuation of a ‘we’; it comes about when a kind of ‘together’, a form of collectivity, is made possible.

How this collectivity is defined and legitimized is perhaps the most important question of political philosophy: from Plato’s Republic, through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, to a more recent example - Jürgen Habermas’ Europe. The Faltering Project, the central theme has always been the prescription of a normatively ‘perfect polis’.

For Plato and Rousseau, the place of politics was a physical space of direct democracy and public debate. The polis had a materiality. For Habermas, following the Kantian tradition of ‘social contract’ theory, the question is far more complicated, as he attempts to find the normative justification for proposing the emergence of a world society, as a democratic constitutional order. The ‘place’ of politics, as such, is non-existent, as it extends beyond any traditional identification with The State. It is dissociated from a politics, which no longer has a clear boundary.

Where, then, ought we to ‘put’ this politics, if its place is no longer immediately identifiable? In Europe, says Habermas, politics can remain decentred, flow beyond the polis, through a reconstitution of public space and political community, where new binding forces, such as the media, must be recruited to help foster this change. In a word, politics, as we have known it for a very long time, must be deconstructed and repositioned in order to incorporate the creation of a new kind of collectivity (a new ‘we’).

Yet, in this transition, something is lost – all the old meanings. As the foundation of politics is shaken to its very foundations, everything begins to crumble: notions of ‘left/right’, ‘liberty/equality’, ‘individual/community’, ‘past/present’, ‘us/them’, are in a state of semantic and practical suspense, i.e. they are fuzzier than ever.

Is it really any wonder then that one of the most serious problems in Europe today is political apathy? That democracy is faltering and there is a significant surge across the continent of far-right and pseudo-far right movements and parties? We are in a state of flux, in which we no longer know where the ‘right’ place for politics is – is it about voting at home and at EU elections, is it about fostering debate, joining political parties, or just being a diligent citizen? Where are the possible ‘places’?

When I was small, I remember the TV announcing that Bulgaria would join the European Union on January 1, 2007. Everyone around me rejoiced. That instilled a deep sense of hope and security, even though I was far too young to understand what the EU meant. 2007 became like a personal benchmark for me – it was ‘the future’ and I was counting down the days. January 1, seven years ago, was the happiest day for Bulgarians in a very long time.

Yet today, there is a deep sense of disillusionment – pseudo far-right parties attack EU ‘homosexuality’ and praise ‘Mother Russia’. Polls predict a poor voter turnout in May and a significant percentage of the votes are expected to go to the far-right.

The protests from last summer calling for an end to political unaccountability and corruption, have forced no significant change and their numbers have dwindled. It seems it's business as usual in Bulgaria.

I think this scenario is true to a large extent across Europe. There is a sense of alienation and confusion. It’s a retreat of the political in the sense that despite the fact that we are all living in Europe, we are still not ‘living together’. There is no ‘we’ here, no ‘imagined community’, in the Benedict Anderson sense of the word.

Back in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to America, interested in understanding the cause of dysfunction in the French Republic, which eventually resulted in his monumental work – Democracy in America. In it, Tocqueville stresses the importance of ‘freedom of association’ in perfecting American democracy. According to him, their propensity for forming associations, fuelling public debate, and working together to improve their common life is the greatest expression and protection of politics.

So how can this be made to work on a European level? How do we surpass the notion of a ‘politics for politicians’, which over the years has moved from the national to the regional level? Where is the right place for politics, a place where apathy and desperation cannot tear down the democratic process to its bare minimum? How do we retrieve 'the political'?

Firstly, a new horizontal communicative foundation must be established among the younger generations. Debates in social medias are already bubbling up among my friends from university from different countries on the future of Europe, the role of Russia and the Ukraine crisis, austerity, immigration, etc. Public lectures, talks and conferences all consciously pursuing ‘common European values’ are flowing through the continent. Interdisciplinarity and cooperation among higher education institutions, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and media outlets are beginning to consolidate a clear public arena. The next step is developing the capacity for civic engagement.

One such experiment is our blogging project – we are a dozen young people living in Europe, learning how to communicate and discuss the most pressing issues of our contemporaneity. It is an important opportunity to apply our various experiences and knowledge to a political place that we all inhabit and that concerns us all as human beings.

Not to mention that this is a fruitful space through which to extend networks and share ideas, not only amongst ourselves, but also amongst our readers. It’s a process of active political and civic engagement, of ‘living together’ without the necessity of ‘being together’. In this way, we are bridging the gap left open by the displacement of traditional politics by the European project and actively participating in the restarting of the democratic process and, as such, avoiding the pitfalls of voter apathy and the far-right temptation.

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