The only plan B for Europe is rebuilding power for change
There is no need to believe, with George Soros, that the EU is on the verge of collapse to believe that it is on the verge of irrelevance. Becoming little more than a dysfunctional common market shun by its citizens and promoting tensions and antagonisms between states and between people.
There is no Plan A for Europe. Mild adjustments to the status quo – the Junckerinvestment plan, the youth guarantee, additional fiscal leeway of a few decimals points or a banking union already surpassed by history – are unable to seriously address the historical challenges banging at our doors each day.
Plans for increased integration of parts of the European Union get regularly touted. There is ground to be diffident of such plans. Any deepening of integration risks in fact reinforcing the undemocratic nature of a Union of financial rules deprived of democratic accountability.
At the same time there is no viable national Plan B either. There is no space for political emancipation through a more or less harmonious abandonment of the European Union. The sirens of nationalism – be them on the right or on the left – sing a song of destitution and disempowerment.
Sovereignty belongs to the people, not to states or to institutions. Too often is this forgotten. Popular sovereignty is not going to be recuperated by the construction of micro-nations barricading and barking against flows of people and of capital but ultimately at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere. There is no return to the golden age of the Bretton Woods agreements, when financial capital could be trapped within national boundaries for an emancipatory vision of “capitalism in one country”. Today, national boundaries can only trap refugees escaping war. Their invocation plays squarely in the hands of the far-right.
The last years have marked a watershed with a post-1989 world-view marked by talk of the end of history and of a third way of non-conflictual management. This is evident in the return of a political rhetoric that dares put into question the fundamentals of our economic and democratic system – from Sanders to Corbyn via Spain and Portugal. While, less promisingly, it is equally evident in the rise of a new far-right in Hungary, Croatia, Poland, and France.
One thing is sure. This is no longer the time for the status quo. And that means relinquishing despondency and melancholy and rebuilding the ambition for root-and-branch change – at all levels.
We need to stop portraying the EU as an all-powerful behemoth impeding any real change at national level. This rhetoric is false and only benefits supporters of the status quo. What we lack is the capacity of articulating and promoting a new vision for all those policies over which national sovereignty makes sense. Ambitious plans for income redistribution, fighting of privations and protection of the commons, fair integration of migrants, tax justice, fair and free access to education for all, and more. In this sense, the campaign of Bernie Sanders is inspiring.
Failure to achieve progressive national policies is not due to the EU. It is due to the incapacity of the progressive field to win popular consent. I have much sympathy for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Oskar Lafontaine, and other old left leaders who met recently in Paris to expound a Plan B for Europe. But I often feel their attacks on the EU have more to do with justifying their political failure nationally than opening up a new field of action for their countries.
At the European level, ambition means returning Europe as the place where we can regain power to define all that is no longer possible at the national level. Not because the EU impedes it, but because on certain issues medium-sized nations no longer have a say.
Europe is the only space large enough to be able to rein in the rule of financial capital, forcefully addressing the scandal of 62 people in control of half of global wealth. It is the only space where to free Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and provide a new technological infrastructure free of surveillance. Where a new ecological understanding of development can be fostered and forced on the rest of the world through commercial treaties based on climate justice and not competition to the bottom. Or, again, where to nurture a multipolar alternative to U.S. militarism and the rising nationalism – often with an ethnic basis – of many emerging powers.
It is the capacity of deciding through political struggle how to tackle systemic and historical issues such as these that popular sovereignty should really be about.
Until today European parties have failed to articulate and organise a convincing way out of our multiple crises. National parties have hidden behind unpronounceable acronyms at the European level – who knows the meaning ofGUE/NGL? – creating umbrella-groups where they individually maintain their feeble autonomy and collectively maintain their tragic impotency.
A genuine multi-level political force – and not necessarily a political party as traditionally understood – is long overdue. A transnational coordination summing up the plurality of national forces into a single and recognisable European political actor capable of campaigning and organising over all those issues that require European-level action. We have an example of this multi-level dynamic – albeit limited at the national level – in Spain. Where a clearly Catalan force such as the list headed by Ada Colau participates, at state level, in a political project that is able to act as a national political subject in its own right.
Rebuilding power for change ultimately means rebuilding ambition and innovating political practices. Beyond sterile arguments over the benefits of an independent nation-state or of a united Europe, what we should really be talking about is how to organise to transform both.
What is municipalism and why is it gaining presence in Spain?
In the last May 2015 municipal elections, the two major parties that have been ruling Spain since the Transition, lost nearly 3 million votes and over 4,000 councilors. The country understood the results as an evidence that the traditional bipartidism was begining to disappear. It was in these municipal elections when the citizen platform Levantemos El Puerto received more than 5,000 votes in a city of 90,000 inhabitants. The results also ended eight years of the Popular Party government through a coalition between PSOE, Levantemos el Puerto and IU (United Left).
There are two main emerging parties that have entered the political spectrum in Spain: Podemos and Ciudadanos. Contrary to what was expected, the results after the general elections in Spain last 2oth December, Ciudadanos obtained just 40 deputies and remains as the fourth political force far behind Podemos. Meanwhile, the party of Pablo Iglesias won 69 deputies and more than 5 million votes in all the country. The international press gave significant space to the 20D elections, especially highlighting the loss of the absolute majority of the Popular Party, the difficulty of forming a government without that majority, and the emergence of new parties.
But apart from the achievements that both parties could achieve, it is noteworthy the movement that is occurring between the different political actors at national level, but especially at the local level. Why? Not only because the so-called “new parties” have been ruling during several months some of the most important cities in Spain, but because from the citizens’ platform there is hope to change the way of doing politics. They want to intensify the way the work from the bottom-up, from the people into the institutions. Municipalism is a system of political and social organization derived from the libertarian currents that tends to vindicate the autonomy to manage and administrative the political, economic and social dimension in municipalities.
What is ‘municipalismo’?
Municipalism is an idea of political organization based on assemblies of neighborhoods, practicing direct democracy. It would be organized in a system of free communes or municipalities as an alternative to the centralized state.
In Spain, the municipalismo has its political origins in the 19th Century, with the republican and anarchist tradition. There were politicians like Pi i Maragall, president of the First Republic, and other politicians like Fernando Garrido, who contributed to the Spanish reform of government policy linked to citizen participation. Pi i Maragall theorized about federal decentralization in order to include members coming from different social status and coordinated the territorial decentralization in Spain. For him, Federalism was not only territorial administration and democratic decentralization, for Pi the real autonomy of the citizens came from the idea of “making coalitions while embracing diversity”.
“[…] Whoever thought existing institutions should define this pact based on an stablished authority, territory, borders, race or language, was wrong. According to Pi (who followed Proudhon), the federal pact was a bilateral and mutual agreement; in other words, a pact based on equal treatment, mutual sharing and equity. But if the basic actor inside the federalist cells were no countries, nations or states, then what were they? Pi had the audacity to raise the possible bases of federal pact communal by using systems where social organization exceeded both the local authority and the system of private property. The communal pact worked by a collective agreement management of common interests. The basis of these agreements were not nationalist inspiration (rooted in tradition, race, language or cultural elements), but settled on a short-term political pact. Pi did not explore the consequences of these ideas, but opened the way for the libertarian movement […]”
Metropolis Observatory (29: 2014).
Municipalism in the 21st century
The historian and activist Murrat Bookchin redefined the concept adapting it to the current capitalist context. He based this redefinition in the recovery of people’s direct democracy at the district and neighborhood levels. He proposed a “civic confederalism” to prevent provincialism in the cities and also a municipalized economy in opposition to the capitalist system. The “civic confederalism” structure is based on a network of boards where the citizens elect directly those members. The members of these councils have a revocable mandates and are directly and immediately responsible for their decisions in the assemblies. Therefore, they have a purely practical and administrative function.
The current Kurdish movement, linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is trying to build a civil society based on principles of libertarian municipalism. Abdullah Ocalan, founder and leader of the PKK, the Workers Party of Kurdistan (listed as a terrorist organization by waging a violent war of national liberation against Turkey) adopted a form of libertarian socialism that few anarchists knew: Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism.
What is happening in Spain?
After the general elections in Spain last December, is still unknown if the proposals coming from citizens platform will be fully efective in the Spanish political context. In the municipal elections, the Candidature of Popular Unity (CUP) in Catalonia, mainly defined by its principles of nacionalism, anticapitalism and Euroscepticism, presented 163 candidates, more than twice the candidates presented in 2011.
Besides from Catalonian, there are other important regions in Spain where citizens are coming together to do politics from people to people. In the last episode of TalkReal, the participants debated about how it has evolved during the months of government the municipal candidacy Ahora Madrid in the capital city of Spain. The electoral program was developed including some demands and suggestions coming directly from citizens, who also stated what measures should have priority.
Celia Mayer, Councilor of Culture in Madrid, explains in the video that Madrid is now building an alternative way of doing politics through a process that begun with the 15M.
“On one hand we have taken the municipalists movements, those that have occurred in the streets of all Spain like Madrid, Barcelona, Santiago, Cadiz and many others; and secondly, after the European elections, Podemos was a prove to tell Europe that there are other ways of doing politics away from idealism. We find a particular DNA in the municipal experience that comes directly from the social experience we’ve been gaining during the last recent years.”
In Spain, citizens demand new ways of doing politics, since corruption is a major concern of the Spaniards. This demand may mean the proposal of different models that redistribute power and restructure the institutions. Participatory democracy allows a greater involvement of citizens in policy-making processes by increasing public scrutiny of leaders. Thus, the process of holding accountable the leaders would come organically integrated within the own democratic structure.