My name is Rica. I am a student of political science and German language and literature at the University of Bremen.
Between October 20-24 eighty political and cultural activists from all over the European continent gathered in a castle in the German Uckermark close to Berlin and discussed the rather complex question of how to #FixEurope. The Autumn Camp was organised by the European Alternatives, a transnational civil society organisation which tries to foster democracy and civil action across European borders.
The event raised an important question: How to bring political and cultural activism from a local and national dimension to a transnational level, which pressing political and social issues can be addressed by collective action? Is there even the need or possibility for a „pan-European activism“ regarding the vast diversity of political issues all across Europe? The campus participants and their social and political backgrounds might be even considered a sort of (selective) blueprint of the political situation across Europe: The participants’ spectrum included Turkish people active in the Gezi Park protests, people who fight for civil rights in Hungary and Ukrainian demonstrating for democratic rights at Maidan in Kiev to name just those political struggles which are most visible in the media. But there were also participants active in feminist movements, defenders of Roma rights in Romania or young people fighting austerity measures in Spain, Portugal or Greece.
By means of this camp European Alternatives tried to facilitate the interconnection among those movements and offered workshops and trainings on the overall question of how to address those issues. This formal approach which focussed on strategies and methods rather than political contents might create the impression that content-related political debates were somehow missing. Like: what does being part of an „alternative“ movement actually mean? What is the common ground to start from when thinking about collective action? As a Spanish participant put it in a workshop on European social movements, there are fifteen people gathered in a room and you cannot expect even two of them to have the same political views on, for instance, gender issues, migration or economic measures.
But these strategical discussions about action plans turned out not to be less important than any political debate. As one could say: “If you do not get involved in politics, politics will get to you.” But how do you get involved? There seem to be two main options: Firstly, the legally inoffensive institutionalised way of using the few democratic participation tools there are, for example to lobby at EU level and try to influence decision-makers and, secondly using more subversive strategies to bring about political change. In their workshop Jean Peters from Peng collective and Diana Arce from Artists Without a Cause, presented different methods of subversive political activism,in doing so connecting arts and politics.. The conclusion was that there is neither right nor wrong when it comes to political strategies or, in the words of a Croatian participant, different issues addressed by different political groups need different approaches! Subversive strategies should not be regarded as an end in itself. A balanced approach is usually preferable, an approach that links subversive strategies of political protest with institutionalised forms of political participation.
An important aspect of the camp was “networking“, a word and practice which I find slightly disturbing for aesthetic reasons as well as for its neoliberal associations, since it can be considered as a mere strategy to exploit social contacts. But in the context of a trans-European conference, which allows people to interconnect across European borders, exchange ideas, experiences and opinions and with the aim of launching transnational projects, it actually makes sense to exchange business cards or at least email addresses. Spotlight sessions made it possible to come to know political activists and their projects in Europe giving them the chance to get feedback and even support from other activists.
The wide spectrum of political projects as well as personal backgrounds of the campus participants shed light on how political struggles across Europe differ, yet are interconnected or similar at times. It seems somehow paradoxical how in some European countries there is a struggle for democratic rights and the right to participate equally, whereas in democratically stable countries activists try to motivate people to get involved in European or local politics. A superficial impression seems to suggest, that political activism in favour of Europe in western European countries such as Germany most of the time involves a kind of “advertising campaign“ for the EU, since people feel detached from this supranational system. Whereas at the political periphery of the European Union, in countries like Turkey or Ukraine, we observe an ongoing struggle for democratic and civil rights.
It is also interesting to identify the issues at stake in politically more stable countries like Finland or Germany, where not less pressing issues like environmental politics, critical consumption or communitarian projects are more present compared to democratically and economically rather unstable countries. There is for example the Finnish NGO Yhteismaa (Finnish for common ground), which tries to foster a new participatory urban culture and aims at “a more fun, free, sustainable, responsible and social urban life”, by organising communitarian projects such as “Dinner under the Helsinki sky“.
The question of how to be more active in politics as a European citizen were then taken from the three days of workshops, trainings and networking in the freezing cold yet beautiful surroundings of the „Schloss Wartin“ to a public conference at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin. The sociologist Saskia Sassen pointed out the growing instability of citizenship and distinguished between an active form of “engaged citizenship“ in comparison to a rather passive “consuming citizenship“.
The German political scientist Ulrike Guérot blamed the low political participation of citizens on the “delivery gap“ of EU politics and the fact that the EU has lost its credibility. The German sociologist Hauke Brunkhorst added that EU institutions are built to “bypass public opinion“ and are not actually designed for political dispute. Saskia Sassen was the only speaker who addressed the issue of the campus participants’ social background, which hardly reflected the European population but rather was a small extract of young educated people motivated to sit through a Saturday listening to a political debate on Europe’s future. This led to the question how to reframe “Europe“ for those not interested in European or even national politics and to mobilise around this concept. Guérot sees the answer in a reframing of the state as a good thing and as a capable organiser of public good. Therefore the European discourse should eventually depict what Europe is in order to start making it work.
So, is there the need for a “pan-European activism“? As has been mainly argued by European federalists, EU policies such as the TTIP to name a current issue show how all European countries are interconnected by supranational bonds. The EU has impact on all Member States and even beyond its borders. A trans-European approach to political activism, by bundling ideas, methods and action plans is therefore more than just a nice idea, it is a pressing concern.