Rethinking Europe from the bottom up: beyond the institutional approach

by Séverine Lenglet and Chiara Zannoni, Citizens For Europe, Berlin

At the Allianz Summer Academy 2015, the participants exchanged ideas around the topic “Europe at a turning point: economic crisis, social disintegration, political change”.

In their papers, the students explore the most pressing issues and challenges that have been shaking up the European Union in the past few years, analysing the possible causes and trying to propose and develop potential solutions.

More specifically, this publication focuses on the current financial and economic crisis, increasing youth unemployment, social exclusion and poverty. The authors also mention fragmentation, the escalating threat of euroscepticism, the alienation between the European Union and its citizens and the democratic deficit of the European institutions. Last but not least, an issue that could not be avoided when talking about the current
critical juncture, is the arrival of more than a million of refugees and the difficulty of finding a common response to deal with the large number of asylum seekers.

Several interesting points are raised, notably in regards to possible ways to tackle the most pressing challenges.

What emerges from the articles is a strong desire for more integration. Several authors claim that the European Union should be more than just a sum of national interests: “it is only through an intensification of the integration process that Europe can exit the deadlock it has reached in recent years and face the future challenges” (United we stand, divided we fall: an economic explanation of why a divided Europe cannot overcome the crisis).

Economic, financial, political and social integration is thus seen as the only way forward. In this sense, the students suggest concrete measures aiming at developing a socially-oriented Europe and at fostering mobility and socio-economic equality within the European youth (for example, the creation of EU-wide high school courses on
European integration and of an EU-wide baccalaureate).

Some ask for an empowerment of European citizens through the creation of transnational direct democracy tools, which in their opinion could reconcile the people with the European project. Others rightly draw attention to the urgent need for a more humane approach to the EU asylum policy, shifting the focus onto human rights rather than on security, border control and the number of undocumented migrants.

Questioning the balance of power

Nevertheless, these papers fail to consider a crucial question: who really holds the power in Europe?

As a matter of fact, the students underestimate the existing balance of power within the European Union and its actual impact, as well as its lack of democratic legitimation, that casts aside the voices of millions of citizens all over Europe and feeds euroscepticism.

The economic and financial crisis and the subsequent need to save the common currency and the financial sector provoked a shift in the balance of power from the European institutions to the Eurogroup. This informal supranational decision-making body led by the Northern European creditor countries (notably Germany) imposed austerity measures on the already depressed debtor countries in Southern Europe, defending the interests of a small ruling minority.

This brings us to our second comment: what seems to emerge from the article is that the students never really question the legitimacy of the austerity programmes.

Although they recognise the negative effects of those measures on the population and on the European Union as a whole, they do not seem to imagine any possible alternative solutions to austerity, and thus accept the neoliberal system as it is.

The rise of civil society movements

The only time the authors take into consideration the existence of anti-austerity movements, they seem to dismiss them as merely eurosceptic.

And yet, one of the effects of the economic crisis was the rise of civil society movements which, far from rejecting the European project, are simply reclaiming a more democratic society.

These citizens and activists, for the most part members of the younger generations, do not turn their backs on Europe but rather strive to re-shift the balance of power and propose alternative solutions to the cuts.

One example is the call to all organisations and movements sharing the motto “Oxi! Basta! Enough!—Build another Europe!” to join the European marches in October 2015. This anti-austerity campaign brought together grassroots organisations and social movements such as Blockupy and ATTAC as well as refugee and feminist groups, saying
“NO to austerity policies, poverty, TTIP, racism and corruption and YES to solidarity beyond borders”.

The economic crisis, and later on the refugee crisis, led to an urgent need for active solidarity, which stimulated volunteering in NGOs and solidarity actions. As the publication Austerity and the Third Sector in Greece: Civil Society at the European Level claims, “volunteering may play a role in the psychological as well as economical survival strategies for individuals who have been affected by the crisis” (ed. Professor Asteris Huliaras, Dr Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos, Dr Jennifer Clarke 2015).

In a way, civil society is taking over to fill in the gaps in the institutional response, also through the political statements of intellectuals and experts who drew attention to the irrationality of the EU and national governments’ responses to the crisis.

Therefore, this bottom-up dynamic is a crucial factor: it energises the debate, and represents an attempt to rethink a system that has been showing its failures.

On the contrary, the young authors follow an institutional and top-down approach, which does not deliver an ambitious and inspirational vision for the future of Europe, a future that these young academics will help to design.

The dialogue with civil society actors and activists that they started in this publication will hopefully enrich their perspectives and initiate a bottom-up process to re-build Europe.

Citizens For Europe (CFE) is an internationally active non-profit and nongovernmental organisation that seeks a more participatory and inclusive European Union. CFE uses participatory approaches, non-formal education techniques, and media in order to bring together diverse stakeholders and foster collective intelligence to develop creative and innovative solutions in the area of citizenship, migration, political participation and representation.