European Union

Stokfiszewski: The demand for democratization is a reaction to the EU’s original sin [interview]

The division emerging between societies and their governments, in which key economic and social issues are resolved without any participation of the people, is the most important development of the last few years - Agata Mazepus in conversation with Igor Stokfiszewski.
igor-stokfiszewski

The left side of the European political stage shuddered when Yanis Varoufakis introduced the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, DiEM25. What does it mean to democratize the continent and what kind of hope does it offer to Central and Eastern Europe? Agata Mazepus interviews Igor Stokfiszewski, a Polish writer and keen observer of European left-wing movements.

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Agata Mazepus: DiEM’s main proposal is to democratize the European Union. What does this actually mean?

Igor Stokfiszewski: That is the burning question, on the one hand, it seems simple, but on the other – it is very difficult to answer.

In countries that have experienced the economic crisis, especially in the southern part of Europe, it has become evident that the voice of the citizens does not matter. All of the crucial decisions related to the introduction of reforms that directly influenced the Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, and Italian people were made by the European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the respective governments of that time. Citizens had no say in the decision-making process.

Igor STOKFISZEWSKI
is a literary and theatre critic specialising in politically engaged art. Since 2006 he has been a member of the Polish leftwing movement Political Critique, where he works as activist, editor and journalist. He was a member of the team overseeing the 7th. Berlin Biennale (2012). He is author of the book Zwrot polityczny (The Political Turn, 2009).

The situation worsened as, along with the protests, civil freedoms, such as the right to demonstrate, were restricted. For example in Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy introduced the infamous “gag law” that made it impossible, de facto, to carry out any kind of political action. It included draconian penalties for organizing demonstrations and documenting the work of the police.

This division emerging between societies and their governments, in which key economic and social issues are resolved without any participation of the people, is the most important development of the last few years. Of all the demands related to the resolution of these economic problems, the demand for democratization became predominant. Democratization means giving citizens a real voice and an opportunity to co-decide.

In an upcoming publication, The European Spring, you mention that every event takes its inspiration from a previous event. Does DiEM25 have one particular cause, or is this movement rather a result of a chain of events that made its emergence inevitable?

There is definitely more than one cause. The social movements which arose in 2011 gave rise to discussions about the need to appoint either an international organization or a cross-national movement that would fight for the values of democratization and the belief in the possibility of an economic alternative in Europe.

Democratization means giving citizens a real voice and an opportunity to co-decide. Click to Tweet

This was a natural development; these campaigns organized by national movements had an international character. Wherever these kinds of events took place in Europe, they were organized by the same social movements. For example, although the blockade of Frankfurt took place in Germany, it concerned the European Central Bank, and was organized by social movements from Southern and Western Europe.

While, on the one hand, the emergence of a movement such as DiEM25 seemed like something obvious or necessary, on the other, I am not surprised that the movement was directly inspired by the Greek experience, the inability to enforce a change of the socioeconomic track in the European Union. Yanis Varoufakis became, in a way, a victim of this very situation. He was one of the Greek politicians who firmly opposed the compromise proposed by the EU, a compromise which was, nevertheless, accepted by the Syriza government. This decision cost Varoufakis his ministerial position; however, it also made him conscious of the need to establish an international social movement. This could be seen as the direct inspiration for the creation of DiEM25.

There are many well-known names on the list of people supporting DiEM25. I have the impression that DiEM25 is a small group of intellectuals who have little in common with those for whom they fight; ordinary citizens.

The people who signed the manifesto are part of a group which has been central to the development of leftist thought in the past few decades. The letter was also signed by organizations and social movements, including Krytyka Polityczna, and European Alternatives, a grassroots organization with which we enjoy close ties. I think that both Varoufakis and the other signatories are seeking the support and the dissemination of these ideas through social movements, organizations, and small groups operating in their social environments and, in doing so, they are building a bridge towards “ordinary citizens”.

DiEM seeks to build a relationship between a transnational European political agenda, one that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the intellectual left of recent years, and the local social movements that are embedded in these intellectual experiences.

It is also important to note that our way of thinking about the relations between intellectuals and social movements may be slightly different from the experiences of Southern European societies. In Southern Europe, the relation of theory to practice is much stronger than in Eastern Europe. Antonio Negri is thought to be emblematic of the connection between intellectualism and social activism. Intellectuals occupy a position which is not next to but within these movements. DiEM25 seems to be operating in a similar manner. It seeks to build a relationship between a transnational European political agenda, one that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the intellectual left of recent years, and the local social movements that are embedded in these intellectual experiences.

DiEM seeks to build a relationship between a transnational European political agenda, one that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the intellectual left of recent years, and the local social movements that are embedded in these intellectual experiences.

Observation of Central and Eastern European countries might lead to the conclusion that these societies are not really interested in decision-making processes in the European Union. Eastern European citizens have, for years, turned out in fewer numbers in the elections to the European Parliament. If they refuse to engage with the democratic rights they already have, why should they be interested in further democratization?

For Poland, Hungary, or Croatia the dream of democratization should be natural. In a country where the elementary protections of liberal democracy are dismantled, and where the democratic voice will soon be silenced, the slogan of democratization should appeal to the imagination.

There is also another aspect to consider: Eastern European member states have a different kind of relationship with the EU than Southern European member states. I too think that in Poland and the wider region, the EU is seen as something quite distant and abstract. However, I think that we need to bring this phenomenon of the cooperation of social organizations on an international scale to our region. We should clearly articulate the expectations we have of our colleagues from the West and South. Also, we have to find a common position between what Central and Eastern Europeans think about the EU and how our region should be situated in this discussion.

Furthermore, if we talk about the question of “ordinary citizens”, as you mentioned previously, I think that for a while now we have witnessed interesting, spontaneous events in Poland in the name of defending certain standards that have come to be associated with the European Union. During demonstrations in Poland we see EU flags just as we saw these flags in the hands of Ukrainians. In such moments we can see signs that the EU question is not as distant and abstract as we may assume.

Could the democratization of Europe proposed by DiEM25 involve risk too? Is it possible that this democratization will pave the way for populism and, as a result, will facilitate the authoritarian trends visible today in our part of Europe?

To start with, the demands related to such a widening of democracy are relatively new. The democratic agenda appeared relatively recently. At first we witnessed the civic-libertarian agenda. Later, with anti-globalization movements, the anti-capitalist agenda came to the fore. In fact, it was only together with the wave of uprisings that took place at the turn of the century that we saw the strong emergence of a democratic agenda. To a certain extent, democratization is a new project. This idea, of course, existed previously, and there were many attempts to introduce such an agenda on a small scale, such as in social centres and autonomous regions, but as a universal claim it is a relatively new phenomenon. Therefore, before this new demand matures, we should not think of this proposal as if it could be introduced today or tomorrow – because it will not.

Now, we need to ask ourselves a question: aren’t we trying to look for ways to obscure some of the real social issues? It seems that we are upholding, uncritically, some of the procedures of liberal democracy that are malfunctioning in different ways in each country. In Poland, for example, we know that the parliamentary majority of PiS has nothing to do with the proportion of people voting for and supporting the party. It is purely the arithmetic of the democratic electoral process. I feel that, at the moment, we are the prisoners of a game of calculation, as if we were afraid to find out what the real preferences and expectations of our society are.

All these movements cooperate and interact, so I hope that with each initiative growing stronger and more vibrant, the European left will also strengthen throughout the wider region.

I am deeply convinced that our societies have a choice to make: either we want the actual concerns of our society to steer politics – and at the moment we do not know what these concerns may be – or we will hold on to an electoral procedural scheme that will be loosely associated with democracy, and will be, in effect, a mechanism for maintaining the status quo on a national and European level.

I do not fear the demand for democratization because we are not talking about mechanistic solutions. For example, when it comes to a referendum, the democratic left-wing social movements oppose the idea of a binary choice, which is typical for liberal democracy. The democratic left postulates more procedural decisionmaking, with multiple steps that lead to different types of consensus.

On an elementary level, in democratization the most important issue is to answer this question: who decides how I live my life? It seems natural to me to prefer to decide for myself more often than not. Generally, this is what the call for democratization is all about.

Has something gone wrong in the process of integration that today we need to demand democratization?

The mistake was made right at the beginning, when the union was created as a project of economic cooperation in order to maintain peace after World War II. The issue of political integration was secondary and it has never caught up with the impetuous progress of the economic partnership. From a very early stage in the formation of the European Community, these two areas were treated separately and today we are dealing with the consequences of this division. Even now, the democratic instruments of the EU, such as the European Parliament, have few decision-making powers. It seems to me that this original mistake has never been corrected and that is why it is causing problems for us now.

Returning to the idea of the influence of one event upon another, does DiEM25 have the potential to strengthen the position of left-wing movements in Central and Eastern Europe?

I think that the chain of events that led to the creation of social and political left-wing organizations such as Podemos, Syriza, or the United Left in Slovenia, generally has a large impact on the emergence of left-wing alternatives across the whole continent, including those in our region.

I would not overestimate the impact of those tendencies on the rise and relatively successful electoral debut of the Razem (Together) party in Poland. However, neither will I deny that other European movements have influenced the creation of the party. I think DiEM25 may well be influential in this respect. The situation is not limited to the formation of left-wing movements inside one country; it has become a continental matter. All these movements cooperate and interact, so I hope that with each initiative growing stronger and more vibrant, the European left will also strengthen throughout the wider region.

Hopefully you are right, because from your writing and what you have said, it seems that we have three options: resigning ourselves to the current situation, which will ultimately lead to the dissolution of the EU; giving way to right-wing nationalist movements, which will end the era of integration; or making the democratic proposals of the European left, supported by DiEM25, come to life. So, to sum up: either left or death?

Exactly.

Agata Mazepus

Agata Mazepus

Agata Mazepus is a second-year student of the joint master degree programme Europe in the Visegrad Perspective and a graduate of journalism studies. So far, she studied in five European countries: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Participant in international projects related to the V4 and EU, former intern of the foundation Koncept Europa. Her main research interests concern political communication studies, especially the role of propaganda in foreign policy.

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Agata Mazepus
Agata Mazepus is a second-year student of the joint master degree programme Europe in the Visegrad Perspective and a graduate of journalism studies. So far, she studied in five European countries: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Participant in international projects related to the V4 and EU, former intern of the foundation Koncept Europa. Her main research interests concern political communication studies, especially the role of propaganda in foreign policy.

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