A European ‘demos’ is being built by accident


Portugal e Espanha e toda a Europa juntos

 

A couple of years ago in Brussels, I was at a debate on Europe and the crisis between Dan Hannan, the frothingly anti-EU but witty UK Tory MEP, and Giles Merritt, the avuncular secretary-general of the integrationist think-tank Friends of Europe. As it is wont to do at these sort of events, the perennial EU-dork topic of a ‘European demos‘ came up.

I’m probably butchering his argument and he’s welcome to correct me, but as I remember it, Hannan’s point was that the nation-state provides the best and only possible geography for popular, democratic endorsement of any particular set of policy options (austerity or otherwise), as the nation-state offers a natural demos (a self-aware political community), while there is no real European demos to speak of beyond European elites.

Outside of the Ryder Cup, Europeans do not think of themselves as European, so his argument goes, but rather as Greeks or Italians or Danes or Slovaks and so on, and they do not look to the European institutions as their representatives or government and never will. It is an unnatural formation compared to the demos that flows without effort from the unity and historicity of the nation.

Merritt conceded that the lack of a European demos went to the heart of how to manage the crisis, as the policy responses were far-reaching and European citizens did not really have a way to feel that they were participating in their construction. The economic crisis was of course simultaneously a political crisis and the one would not be solved without solving the other. The eurozone catastrophe thus had moved the long-standing question regarding a lack of a European demos out of the realm of political scientists (see for example this decade-old analysis) and thrust this vital question to the centre of debate.

But unlike for Hannan, for Merritt, the lack of a European demos was not something that was fixed, but something that could be changed, possibly through the construction of some sort of a political union atop what already exists, with the European Parliament taking a more decisive role. But most importantly, contrary to Hannon’s assertion, there was no such thing as a ‘natural demos’ historically. Via Mazzini and Bismarck, to take just two examples, what is now viewed as a natural demos in Italy and Germany once upon a time had to be constructed, and this, just as today, had happened in a mix of top-down and bottom-up ways.

Both characters, and other debaters who were there, had a lot more to say, and the conversation quickly turned to the economics of the subject at hand, but this tiny bit of the debate around a demos - a stale old argument become fresh again – was what stuck with me, and, in particular, a brief little concluding nugget of banter from Merritt.

As a throwaway line hardly remarked upon, Merritt at one point quipped that the growing number of anti-austerity demonstrations and movements that were emerging, whatever one thought of them (and I can’t imagine Merritt thinking very much) could ironically actually help create this ‘European demos’ so long lacking and desired by the EU’s visionaries, as across Europe, for the first time in history, the EU rather than any domestic actor was the focus of popular anger.

“Maybe these European ‘demos’ will give rise to a European demos,” he said in a joke that unfortunately fell a bit flat, as it required a subtle play on the plural of the English abbreviation for a political demonstration: a ‘demo’ (Just as in French, ‘manifestation’ becomes ‘manif'; in English, ‘demonstration’ becomes ‘demo’. But the former ‘demos’ is pronounced ‘dem-oze’ and the latter ‘demos’ is pronounced ‘dem-oss’). Still not getting the joke? Fine. As I said, it passed by largely unnoticed, despite its foresight. But roll with me here.

However groan-worthy and offhand the witticism, it has stayed with me as particularly lucid. In the last few months, as political instability and popular anger has exploded across a great swathe of Europe, it has kept appearing in my mind.

There are the votes for Syriza, Golden Dawn, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the True Finns and Sinn Fein (all of which have radically different perspectives and, I stress, SHOULD NOT BE LUMPED TOGETHER, as some lazy analysts do, as a homogenous ‘southern populism’ [not least because Finland is not particularly southern]); and the phenomenon of the Indignados of Spain; the terrorist groupuscules of Athens; the general strikes that are now common across the bloc’s southern flank.

So far, the strikes are not properly co-ordinated across borders, although Europe’s first ever one-day cross-border general strike did indeed take place last 14 November touching Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy (admittedly with varying levels of adherence). It is also true that much of Germany remains in thrall to the false Bild-Merkel narrative of a thrifty north and feckless south, but it is at the same time remarkable that despite this ideological uniformity, young Germans of ‘Blockupy Frankfurt’ demonstrated last May outside the ECB against European austerity in violation of the city’s banning the protest, with European banking superintendents (as opposed to local German objects of frustration) being the clear focus of their fury.

The loud voices of the anti-austerity thousands across Portugal last month singing once again, a generation later, 1974’s revolutionary anthem, ‘Grandola – Vila Morena‘ against the dictator Salazar, have gone viral, but it is just as noteworthy to hear the young and middle-aged and old equally packed in their thousands into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol singing the very same song in the language of their ancient Iberian rivals. Bulgaria has torn down a neo-liberal prime minister while Slovenia has been racked by its biggest uprising since the fall of Communism, with 42 protests across the country’s major cities since last november, against both local and European austerian and corrupt elites.

For the indignant of Europe, there are local comprador enemies of course, but the real object of the rage lives in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. And the anger is reaching a boiling point, as the destabilisation of Greece shows. European elites should be (and are by all reports) terrified that such unravelling could spread to Italy.

On Thursday, as EU leaders met in that unelected senate that goes by the name of the European Council, which governs Europe from behind closed doors while never facing a general European election, some 15,000 people from across the continent braved a snowy, beautiful Belgian winter in the European capital to protest what these elites are imposing without permission from their subjects.

Protesters from Occupy the Troika, taking their inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement across the Atlantic, and calling for a “European Spring” akin to the Arab Spring, occupied the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, directing their anger at that stubborn lieutenant of austerity, Olli Rehn. Some 30 were arrested.

I don’t want to romanticise some aspects of the rainbow of different reactions to crisis and austerity. The right-most, of Golden Dawn, are murdering foreigners and intimidating theatre-goers to plays with gay characters. The pan-ideological Grillo mixes a confused and economically illiterate opposition to austerity with dark words for immigrants and kind words for fascists.

But the most progressive of these formations are beginning to come together at their own conferences and summits, earnest in trying to come up with constructive proposals about what a credible alternative to Rehnism should be. Discussions about what a good European Union would look like jostle up against arguments calling for the EU’s dismantling, and everything in between. Some of them I personally feel are bonkers. Others bear further investigation. Still others are brilliantly transformative while still thoroughly viable. The debate is tumultuous online.

I find it amusing to see how much aggravation the European institutions go through trying to navigate everyone’s different languages, but largely in an effort to keep everyone’s linguistic chauvinism in check, while down at the bottom of Europe, the forgotten and spurned – but hypereducated in many cases – just get on with it. This has so long been the argument of conservative critics of Europe – that without a common language, political unity is impossible. But here down below, a sort of euro-English is the rough lingua franca, while at the same time all languages are given their due. Even the smallest of language groups is taken into account. The interpreters and translators who work by day for the EU institutions, by night volunteer in other spaces in Brussels so that the young European opponents of European austerity can congregate and conspire and construct a better Europe. And so many of the young activists – the Erasmus generation – are multilingual or will teach themselves what needs to be learnt in the process of organising and campaigning.

I don’t want to suggest all of this is coherent or has all the answers, or even in agreement on what is to be done.

But here, underneath, from the streets and the workplaces and the schools, whatever you think of it, a genuine European demos is emerging. The shoots of a European spring are pushing themselves up through the hard earth of a long, long winter.

And these protesters are not Greeks or Italians or Slovaks or Danes. These protesters are Europeans.

 

 

 

 

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Occupy protesters block entrance to Rehn Towers