Quo vadis, Europe?

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
5 February, 2019
Editorial: 278
Fecha de publicación original: 31 julio, 2001

Put your head together with another thousand and what belongs to the others belongs to you

In the eighties the debate over how to build a united Europe, one of the grandest attempts at political design that the last few decades have seen, was dominated by expressions such as “economic harmony” and “structural adjustments”. Phrases like these covered up what was really going on behind closed doors in Brussels and government offices in the capital cities of member countries. The problem was how to create a supranational space superimposed on a complex network of transnational European corporations of varying sizes and geopolitical strength. Combining economic engineering with political and social engineering, all wrapped up in a new cultural concept that included all things “European”, would require a delicate balancing act which raised the voice of alarm in numerous quarters: we were getting closer and closer to a Europe of the marketeers, Europe of the people was nowhere in sight. Politicians made soothing noises to try and dispel fears, “We’re getting there, don’t worry”, they said. And now, all of a sudden, although the arguments have changed slightly, we “discover” that basically we are back at square one again. Only, this time, the symptoms are more serious. After events in Genoa where the G7+1 met, it’s the politicians that are feeling nervous. The abysmal gap between citizens and their European institutions has been exposed in all its profound nakedness.

Demonstrations by citizens in Göteborg, Barcelona and Genoa have been enough to expose the uglier side of the European face, in sharp relief and technicolor, and in so doing, highlight the very world that the demonstrators are rejecting. The European Union’s institutional response to these events, particularly the role of the police, and also of a wide range of sectors within our not very varied political spectrum, has been deplorable. On the one hand, it demonstrates, in all its crude reality, that certain institutionalised attitudes and behaviour we thought we had transcended by the building of a new Europe, are still alive and kicking. And, on the other, that they are being confronted by other visions of what a common political space should be.

This duality has brought certain things to the fore which, in turn, accurately define them:
The concern for all things “national”. Right here on European Union soil, amidst all the drama of pro/anti-globalisation demonstrations against a world which favours a handful of powerful countries and financial institutions, it was touching to see the concern of European states —and their political parties— for the fate of their “nationals”. Only when it was discovered that these national “entities” had been arrested or hospitalised were the necessary efforts made to “rescue” them, as discreetly as possible of course. It was as though the violent reactions of the Italian police against foreigners who had come to disturb the peace in their country had generated a catharsis of the same kind among member countries. They each withdrew into their shells and started sweeping their own houses clean, all the while looking at what their neighbours were up to, out of the corner of their eyes. It was what we could call the emergence of the “glonal”: the global and the national rolled into one.

The suspension of the freedom of movement of citizens. The Schengen agreement is dangled over the heads of European (and non-European) citizens like a kind of sword of Damocles. As long as you are all meek and mild, they seem to say, it can be applied and you can travel around freely. But when you get rebellious and critical we’ll suspend it and then it’s everyone with their passports in their hands again please, until they’re proved innocent. This closing and opening of borders at their discretion and based on exclusively political (and economic) criteria was already used as an argument against the European common market in the eighties. And here it is still in practice and beyond the control of its citizens.

The continuing existence of police violence. When are we going to give up being surprised by it? The construction of Europe has made another of those fancy phrases fashionable again, the modernisation of security forces to meet the standards of a democratic European space. In fact, we have all been modernised: the police, political parties, the education and health systems, state institutions, supranational institutions …. But none of this has prevented the flagrant (known) cases of corruption, the police brutality that has been quickly swept under the carpet or the outbreaks of racism and intolerance where the police have become part of the problem and not of the solution. All the elegant side of the European space we have constructed —the Europe of the marketeers— cannot hide the fact that barbarism nests within social systems which are still vertically structured and, thus, essentially authoritarian. The vote categorises a political system but does not make it exempt from dealing with the growing complexity of societies which politicians prefer not to face directly up to but entrust their evolution instead to the “empire of law and order”.

The bureaucratisation of Europe. Europe belongs not to the merchants or the people who make it up, but to the bureaucrats. Discussions over events in Göteborg and Genoa, where the police used arms and shot to kill, measures to be adopted to deal with the murky spiral of events we can see developing over the next few years, the need to arbitrate some kind of plan of action given the lack of response from the Italian government and the complicity of other European member states, has given rise to a growing need for a series of meetings, with no dates set as yet. This bureaucratisation of institutional responses paves the way to trying to resolve things with statements like the classical, “Swedish and Italian police overreacted and behaved inappropriately”. But this risks ………

…confusing politics with the price of butter. Demonstrations in favour of/against globalisation is just one more example of the new ways of conducting politics that are starting to blossom in the Net Society. In some cases this new breed of politics, based on informal networks but with very clear ideas and objectives such as “I don’t like the world you are presenting me with”, tries to press against the traditional establishment in an attempt to force a change of direction. Others imply a change of direction in themselves by trying to satisfy needs without waiting around for big daddy-state to give them his blessing. In fact, big daddy-state is finding it more and more difficult to detect what those needs are and what he should do to fulfil them. This contradiction will be with us for a long time to come because it is based on information and knowledge networks which are getting more and more robust, flexible and spread out all the time, networks which, because of their own particular design, go beyond the borders of the frontiers that bind that “other politics”, the glonal.

The final contradiction is that this debate, on top of everything else, does not point now solely to a Europe of the people. What people are calling for is a world of the people and not a world of the marketeers. Neither the eurocrats, nor their political parties seem to have grasped the magnitude of this message. Their disconcertion is an accurate reflection of the inability of political systems, as we have known them so far, to meet the new social demands on the political agenda. In other words, the design of new political spaces based on the growing capacity of our societies for individual and collective expression/action, is still in nappies or diapers. That’s why when episodes like those in Seattle, Göteborg, Barcelona and Genoa take place we find that there is still a lot of poo in them.

Translation: Bridget King