European Union, Opinion

Can You Eat Democracy?

If one thing is clear, it is that Central Europeans will not come out onto the streets solely for an abstract idea of “more democracy in Europe”. The question therefore remains: how to inspire the Central Europeans, traditionally passive and without social structures, to favor more meaningful mobilization?

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It has been a promising month for any EU-positivist. In the times of a fragmented Left, disappointing social democrats and the far right on the rise, there were few projects that could incite mobilization among progressives. A new potential game-changer has emerged in the meantime: The Democracy in Europe movement, or DiEM25.

It surely deserves some excitement. It is an idea long overdue, when considering how poorly, despite many common interests, the public spaces of European nation states are interconnected. DiEM25 is coming almost as a last resort, given the rapidly deteriorating sense of “Europeaness”. It seems symbolic that in the same month DiEM25 announced its formation, the UK won the battle to take away social protection and other rights from EU workers making them effectively second class citizens. The slippery slope of European disintegration and “Unions of different speeds” were set free.

The central idea of DiEM25 is the democratization and re-politization of the core economic policies, those that are usually decided behind closed doors.

This shameful deal is an important case for just how much we need a European-wide movement and voices that would defy the logic of single member states’ self-interests against each other, an utterly obsolete and counterproductive idea in globalized capitalism. Who else could be the driver of such a “Europeanisation” of common interests if not the civil society?

The central idea of DiEM25 is the democratization and re-politization of the core economic policies, those that are usually decided behind closed doors. This is radical in its content for whoever reads between the lines or follows the DiEM25 arguments to the consequences. The proposed ideas, from stronger transparency and full disclosure of decision-making in the most important European economic bodies – ECOFIN, Eurogroup, ECB and the like – altogether with alternative proposals for resolving diverse European crisis – be it the banking, poor investment or migration – these all open space for a radical shift of discourse. That alone would not be a small achievement at all. The policies are implemented where the narrative supports it, or else where a strong narrative is created to support subsequent policies. It would be harder to apply the austerity policies be it not that the majority society somewhat still believed it was a good idea.

The civil society of Central European countries, or even new member states at large, should have a particular interest in supporting and strengthening DiEM25. After all, any ‘Union of different speeds’, or any form of disintegration, is inevitably against the interests of citizens of these countries. Their representative governments engage programmatically in a ‘race to the bottom’ basically since 1989, offering lower taxes and loosening labor protection standards in order to attract foreign investments and gain an “advantage” against the neighbors which results in lower public revenues and ever poorer public services. If this trend continues further, not even the most radical leftist government that would theoretically come to power in a Central/Eastern European country would be able to negotiate significantly better conditions against the prevailing business interests, if facing them alone.

The question therefore remains: how to inspire the Central Europeans, traditionally passive and without social structures, to favor more meaningful mobilization?

Another reason to give DiEM25 a fair chance is that it could help the progressives of this region win the public opinion for a genuine alternative to the current marasmus. There is no Podemos here, no Syriza, with a possible exception of a new Polish grassroots leftist party, the success of which is yet to be seen. Those who really score the points are the xenophobes, islamophobes, religious “conservatives” and other far right groupings keen to leave the EU.

A strong presence of or cooperation with DiEM25 may pave the way for an alternative progressive narrative, but the efforts in the region have to focus on swaying the opinion of the majority society. Communication with the “masses“ is exactly what the leftist elites –where they are present- were not successful at or that not being their priority for the last decade. Staying on the margins, in the circles of existing progressive alliances, will only result in diverging from the society, losing the people for other causes, which are potentially rather sinister. The question therefore remains: how to inspire the Central Europeans, traditionally passive and without social structures, to favor more meaningful mobilization?

If one thing is clear, it is that Central Europeans will not come out onto the streets solely for an abstract idea of “more democracy in Europe”. Many have already given up on democracy. The Hungarians clearly do not prefer Orbán because the democratic principles of governance is the chief concern of the voters. Kaczinsky was democratically elected even though it was clear what his immediate steps after taking office would be. When considering the turnout of the last European Parliament elections in 2014, a litmus paper for people’s trust and involvement in democratic process, 19.5% of Czechs showed up, only to be outdone by 13% of Slovaks. In this context the idea of European democracy can hardly be perceived as something relevant and worth fighting for. On the contrary, for many people it is an abstract and disappointing notion, miles away from the reality of their lives. In the post-communist countries there are even parts of society to which democracy equals unemployment, raising poverty and evaporation of social security.

It does not mean that democratization shouldn’t remain a leitmotiv. It also does not mean that we have to wait for 20-30 years until an investment into education and culture creates a layer of “democrats”. What we can do instead is try and speak the same language and discuss the issues that matter to people. The talk of the day, although incessantly obfuscated by “hordes of Islamists waiting behind the fences to rob us off our treasures”, is that life is not easy here and it is gradually getting harder. An average salary in Slovakia is a third of one in neighboring Austria, but the living expenses are inevitably converging. Inhabitants of Bratislava even shop for food in Austrian border villages, where they also buy cheaper properties, and commute back to work. Working for more than the official 8 hours, 5 days a week with unpaid overtime has become a norm. There is an abundance of cases of mistreatment of workers such as staff members constrained to stay at their workplace without breaks; delays in paying salaries to workers or settling invoices to self-employed have become increasingly common practices. The forced self-employment, putting all the risk on the worker and all the gains on the corporations, is a problem in itself and is connected to global trends such as off-shoring and outsourcing. Numbers of working poor and people at risk of poverty are soaring, while middle classes are disappearing.

If we promote the idea that an alternative economic Plan B for Europe will actually mean something tangible for the citizens, we might be able to win their support.

Anger and disenfranchisement with public affairs continue to grow; however, there is no common understanding of what the root causes of the worsening situation are, who to blame or what to do. Rarely the problem is perceived as a structural one. If one cannot sustain his or her own living, cannot find an appropriate job, the internalized perception – created by the force-fed neo-liberal and laissez-faire propaganda which in the last two decades replaced the so called “real socialism” lies- is that it is one’s own fault. Such a way of thinking obviously does not feed the ranks of trade unions or movements, nor does it invite a reflection on economic policies in general. Quite the contrary, it invites for solitary dissatisfaction and shame. In the context, the simplistic and wrong explanations of the situation are always at hand, blaming the poor and, increasingly, the migrants, the hatred towards whom is so brilliantly exploited by many different actors across the political spectrum. Unless a strong point is made about how the life of average people can be improved, with sound policies implemented by strong democratic institutions, and about what level of public services and social security every European citizen should be entitled to – the majority of society will not be interested in any righteous ideas of democratization, and increasingly less so in the universality of human rights.

One could argue that all these issues need a different spokesperson, a political force, even a strong leftist party. We could wait until a formation of one or we can focus on what we have now. There is a good possibility that the Central European opinion can be won for the DiEM25 cause and for a better Europe. We argue that it needs a plain language and direct communication strategy with emphasis on the outcomes rather than the process only. If we promote the idea that an alternative economic Plan B for Europe will actually mean something tangible for the citizens, we might be able to win their support.

Alena Krempaská and Peter Weisenbacher

Members of the Human Rights Institute, a Slovak non-governmental organization aimed at raising awareness and campaigning for equal access to human rights for all, with a particular focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged groups within society.

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Members of the Human Rights Institute, a Slovak non-governmental organization aimed at raising awareness and campaigning for equal access to human rights for all, with a particular focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged groups within society.

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1 Comment

  1. Democracy, in effect, is governance by force. Republicanism promotes the sovereign status of the people and the sovereign state.

    People are the ones at the top, then the local State, then the central government. To do otherwise is to place yourself in bondage.

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