Subterranean politics and the European debate

Subterranean European politics draws on a new meaning of Europe already visible in cross-border citizens’ mobilisations, civil society networks, trade union struggles; it has now to shape Europe’s politics and policy-making.

Rosemary Bechler
23 February 2012

Europe is in crisis. In discussion with openDemocracy columnist  Mary Kaldor and Trevor Evans in the LSE this week, concerned citizens, students and activists were brought together by Red Pepper magazine to discuss what those present agreed is primarily a crisis in politics.

The international financial crisis which began in the US is now working its way through major imbalances within the euro area. The banks are not the only problem. Multinationals have huge stacks of cash with which they are terrorising the global markets. What can state power do under these conditions? More particularly for Europe, what is Germany doing? German middle class worries about their savings lead to a totally disabling inflation-phobia that has its roots in the early twentieth century. But the problem in the 2010’s is deflation. Germany's leaders say that the euro must survive at all costs. But they are pursuing a very dangerous game that could see the collapse of the euro with its knock-on effects to the world financial system.

Meanwhile, there are the immediate knock-on effects in European and global politics. The misleading preoccupation with fiscal deficits has already resulted in the proliferation of populist enemy images of ‘lazy southerners and Hitlerian Euro-technocrats’ which can only hasten the emergence of a European far right – though maybe not to the degree touted around in the media. As seriously – we are seeing the rapidly accelerated hollowing out of European democracies on all sides, as if the moment when European citizens began to realise how democratically dispossessed they had always been, the remaining dregs of that democracy swiftly plunged themselves down the plughole of history.

What does it mean to say that this economic crisis is first and foremost a political crisis? More and more of us are beginning to understand that the fundamental flaw in the design of Europe was the attempt to share a common currency without any attempt to build a common political community.  Our formal democracy works at the national level and stops there: yet the most important decisions are not taken at the national level. And what we are seeing more starkly than ever before in the history of the EU is a hollowing out of our national democracies. Mary Kaldor pointed out that oddly enough, in these circumstances, it is the technocrats – Barroso, Monti, Draghi – who are saying some of the more sensible things that have to be said. But the fact remains that the neo-liberal politicians in the leading European nation-states dominate the decision-making.

They do not think in European terms or in the interest of their societies: their behaviour is shaped by domestic political considerations, but these have been hijacked by patronage and corruption and what finance says when it supports their election campaigns. Together, they have clothed the proposed solution to the crisis in technocratic terms – we must cut the deficit. But beneath this insistence, of course there is a choice being made, a political choice. In Germany, the historic memory of inflation has been fostered in order at all costs to preserve Germany’s privileged position. In the UK, the weakening of the public sector has long been on the agenda of the Conservative Party. They will favour the private sector and they can live with the resulting social inequality. Such a move also conveniently happens to undermine the political basis of the Labour Party, ensuring that they will not win an election again in the foreseeable future. Social democracy across the continent finds itself in the terrible quandary of having no practical option but to offer a real alternative to the status quo.

So – if politics is behind all of this, that means political choices and it should mean a ferment of debate. But the huge problem is that the whole debate is quite simply blocked at the national level. In the European institutions, particularly in the European Parliament, a real debate is going on about the future of Europe in the world and its people. But none of this filters down to us, the European citizens and electorates. So how do we begin to respond to this crisis?

The first thing to say, Mary Kaldor argues, is that we believe in an alternative Europe, but not in the EU as a new superstate:

"The way I like to think about this is that this alternative Europe should be a transnational experiment in defending people against the global marketplace. It should protect people from globalisation, and it should protect democracy from globalisation. Instead of the all-too-distant formal procedures of Brussels, Europe should become an open-ended experiment in generating and defending democratic cultures, including local mechanisms that encourage citizens to innovate at a local level, and all the levels and ways of decision-making that empower citizens. This Europe should be a model of global governance which innovates first and foremost in the arena of dealing with global ‘bads’.

We can come up with a few suggestions that are currently on the horizon, but there are many many more that we would like to hear about from you. So, let us start with taxes – the Tobin tax – a carbon tax – taxing global bads to raise the revenue for global goods, such as renewable energy; such as a Marshall programme for youth; and I would also like to mention security here. We don’t need the classic military model of an army defending Europe - a European army. But what we do need, is to be able to contribute to a United Nations peace service, to contribute to security as a global good.  This is what I mean by a model for global governance."

And how do we get there from here? The organisers at the LSE are engaged in a collaborative research project on Europe: Subterranean Politics. Their research has already thrown up one very interesting conclusion. The outpouring of political energy which we have seen in the Occupy and Indignados movements is not so different in many regards from the earlier social forums and movements on climate change. It is part of a tradition. But what is different this time is two-fold – an emphasis on transparency and accountability which comes straight from the net literacy of the new generations of protesters – and the fact that this time around, they have struck a chord within the mainstream which has been reflected in the media.

This research is part of a much wider movement that proposes to bring this agenda for another Europe to the European Parliament and to Europe’s institutions. The new meaning of Europe is already visible in cross-border citizens’ mobilisations, civil society networks, trade union struggles; but it has to shape Europe’s politics and policy-making.

Thirty years ago, at the start of the 'New Cold War' between East and West, the Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament launched the idea of a Europe free from military blocs and argued that “we must commence to act as if a united, neutral, pacific Europe already existed”. Now, in the midst of the crisis of finance, markets and bureaucracies, social cohesion and international solidarity - we must commence to practice an egalitarian, peaceful, green and democratic Europe, open to a changing world.

A preliminary version of this appeal was launched by the organisers and speakers of the Florence Forum, “The way out. Europe and Italy, economic crisis and democracy”, held on 9 December 2011. The text is the result of extensive discussions with European networks and individuals and groups in many European countries. The text is available in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. Websites in these five languages for the automatic collection of signatures will soon be operating. Joint actions at the European level will be organised on the basis of this Appeal.

Meanwhile, have a look at the wave of European initiatives on this Subterranean Politics crowdsourcing website and help us to build it….


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