Culture, Citizens and the European Parliament

In a years’ time citizens in the European Union will be at fever pitch as they prepare to vote in the elections for the European Parliament. Well perhaps not at fever pitch! Turnout at these elections has been declining in most member states. In only 9 countries in 2009, the last election, did half the voters cast a ballot.  Apathy and indifference were stronger contenders.

2014 may well turn out to be markedly different.  The European Parliament now has real powers. Under the Lisbon treaty, it is no longer a wasted vote or a missed democratic opportunity. Members of the European Parliament have already shown they can alter proposals from the European Commission and from the inter-governmental Council. The 2014-2019 European Parliament will feature far more in our news than its predecessors.

But who will be in the Parliament?  At the moment it is dominated by four main political groupings: the Christian Democrat EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, ALDE. (liberals) and the Greens. All pro-EU and used to working in “the spirit of the EU”.  Of course they all have a few mavericks but generally they work comfortably together.  With well over 70% of the members they control the Parliament.

The rest form odd groupings: from the left to the right.  Noisy, splintered, fragmented and mostly ineffectual,

But will this be the same after next years’ elections?  The current political climate across the EU suggests otherwise.  A feature of recent elections and polls in member states has been the rise of parties not affiliated with the big 4 at European level.  Golden Dawn and Syrizia in Greece; UKIP in the UK, Grillo’s M25 in Italy.  A new party will contest the German elections in September (pro-EU, anti Euro). Opinion polls in Spain show a breakdown in support for the two main parties with the left and centre gaining. Concurrently there is increasing support for the 15-M movement.  Logic dictates that voters in Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus may not look too kindly on pro-EU candidates next year as the EU takes the blame for the austerity measures (and you can’t vote for the IMF). The far right-wing parties also seem to be gaining in popularity with their anti-EU, xenophobic, reactionary rhetoric. The True Finns, Swedish Democrats, Le Pen’s Front National.. the list, goes on. In the UK, sadly, it seems to be a given that UKIP will be the largest party in the May 2014 elections. If nothing else the noise from the far-right drags the centre of debate even further to the right.

Already alarm bells are ringing in Brussels.  A European Parliament with a substantial minority being anti-EU or at least anti current policies?  Indeed it is not too difficult to forecast a blocking minority (although the chances of all the “minority” parties agreeing on anything is remote).

The political parties are preparing.  Gossip abounds about who from the in-crowd will get the top jobs.  But outside of party politics there are several attempts to influence and mobilize opinion before the elections.

In June we see the “first-ever Citizens Summit” organised by the “EU Civil Society Contact Group“. The Group brings together eight large rights and value
based NGO sectors – culture, environment, education, development, human rights,
public health, social and women. The Summit aims:

to bring together for the first time professionals, practitioners and activists
from across the different sectors, culture, development, education,
environment, health, human rights, social affairs and women’s rights to
discuss the future of Europe. Our intention is to foster an open dialogue
amongst a diverse group from across Europe in order to start a genuine
participatory process on the future of the European Union, and what this means
for people living within its borders. We believe that by creating a shared
understanding and dialogue, we can help move forward common objectives for a
common future. 

The Cultural Coalition for a Citizen’s Europe holds its latest conference in Lyon in May.  After its meetings in Brussels and Amsterdam this coalition turns its attention to

At its borders, in a Mediterranean political and social transformation, Europe is experiencing a strong migratory pressure from its neighbours and more distant countries. Inside, the moral, social and economic crisis leads us to retreat, promoting the growth of xenophobia, nationalism or simply mistrust vis-à-vis foreigners (whether EU or non-EU ). How are we to consider the prospect of the European population’s decline in this major contemporary tension if we do not accept more than 55 million foreign workers in four decades? How should the cultural and civic dimension be taken into account in international relations, especially with countries of the Mediterranean basin?

Even the European Commission gets in on the act with the “New Narrative for Europe“. Launched by Commission president Barroso the project runs to three “états généraux” of participants, mainly representatives from the world of culture and intellectuals, in Warsaw, Paris and an as yet undetermined city in Germany. It will result in

the publication of a manifesto by the participants in the “états généraux” meetings and other interested parties, incorporating elements relating to the values, culture and history that represent the connecting link between Europeans, in order to develop a vision for Europe which can be adapted to the current challenges such as solidarity, strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU and the role of Europe in the age of globalisation and interdependence.

These initiatives are to be welcomed.  But are they enough and will they tackle the hard issues of today?  It is noticeable that none of the meetings in the three projects will take place in a country under a EU/ECB/IMF bail-out regime. Not perhaps a good message to send!

Trust in the six largest European Union member states as a basic concept is declining.  When economic times are tough solidarity with fellow Europeans declines.  Yet virtually all the solutions on offer, including those based on culture, seek greater Europeanness, More Europe.

Aart de Geus, head of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German think-tank, warns that the drive to surrender more key national powers to Brussels would backfire. “Public support for the EU has been falling since 2007. So it is risky to go for federalism as it can cause a backlash and unleash greater populism.”

Jurgen Habermas and  Zygmunt Bauman have weighed into the debate about the limits of solidarity, the rise of populism and the risks to the European project. The Trade Unions are calling for a Social Europe as a way of going beyond the economic focus.

Barroso himself warns  ” We cannot let populism, scepticism or pessimism undermine the foundations of Europe, not to speak about new forms of nationalism that I believe are a very serious risk for the European values that we cherish.”

The key test for the Cultural Coalition, the Citizen’s Summit and the New Narrative is to move beyond the cultural cosmopolitan, the “educated urbanists” in marketing jargon. I’m assuming that the participants will not use the projects to press for their own sectors’ financial case.  Lobbying has its place: this is not that place.

There have been many fine sounding declarations of the importance of culture in Europe, how culture is at the heart of being European and how culture can support the European Union. (This last assertion is the hardest to sustain).  I hope the initiatives do not come up with more of the same, however well-intentioned.  The economic austerity in many countries in the EU, the threats to free movement of people (but not it seems capital), the failure of many austerity programmes, rising un-employment (and under-employment) change the context.  Those previous declarations have appealed to the committed Europeans in times of plenty. Now is the time to send a positive message to those less than committed to a European Union.

It is probably too late for the projects to change their programmes but they surely must hold meetings away from the Brussels/France/Germany nexus.  It will soon be EU-28 but you wouldn’t notice it.

Robin Wilson puts one of the key challenges this way:

For a young generation for whom the war is sepia-tinted history and neoliberalism offers only insecurity—including in some countries a more than even chance of being unemployed—’Europe’ therefore now holds no meaning except Erasmus programmes for the educated elite.

This chimes with a major report on Youth Participation in Democratic Life,  which should be required reading in all three projects.  The research looked at youth (13-30 year olds to match the EU’s Youth in Action programme) in six countries (Austria, Finland, France, Poland, Spain and UK).  The report calls for major changes to remove poltiical and cultural barriers to increased youth participation.

Given the overwhelming levels of perceived betrayal, distrust, scepticism and/or anger expressed with regard to politicians by 95% of our focus group respondents from “reference”, “active” and “excluded” in all six countries and the survey results that point to a political offer that is often perceived as inadequate, this seems to us to be an immediate and significant challenge and action point.

A challenge indeed.  Let’s see how they respond.

 

Unity through Conferences

It’s November and the conference season in full swing across Europe. Austerity and cuts may be the dominant reality but Europe’s cultural cosmopolitans have their boarding passes at the ready.

The ever-welcome newsletter of the Platform for Intercultural Europe (PIE) sets the scene.  Conferences in Belfast, Brussels, Turin, Vilnius, Helsinki, Brussels (again), Cosenza, and Kobuleti; and that’s just November.  Amidst this cornucopia of lanyards, name tags and lost luggage two themes emerge, the ever-changing make-up of European societies and how “culture” can, or should, solve Europe’s problems.

I’m sure that participants in all these events will come away energised with new ideas, some which may be put into practice.  My own more limited hope is that conference organisers put as much as possible onto their websites after the event. It is so frustrating to read the programme, perhaps read some advance papers, and, then, nothing more. (advance #Hashtags also useful!).

The Platform’s newsletter goes some way to open up one series of meetings.  The European Commission’s use of expert groups has come under criticism recently from the European Parliament. The PIE reports on a meeting in Brussels of the “Open Method of Co-ordination” .. an expert group on  “Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue”. It’s a comprehensive report: just as well as I can’t find any formal minutes or names of members. “Open” clearly does not mean “public” which is a shame in today’s more transparent requirements of governance.

I was taken by Chris Torch’s expert paper prepared for the meeting in which he gives an overview of migration and poses some ways forward for the arts sector to address social cohesion and diversity issues.  A sound paper but one I felt stopped short of proposing the radical changes needed.  It seems the OMC meeting itself also took the easy way out with its interim view that arts organisations should perhaps carry on as usual and merely add some additional “community” arts to their programmes.  The EU prides itself on its “Unity in Diversity” but nowhere more so than the ways member states deal with their own citizens and residents in their countries.  This point was raised at the meeting by representatives of member state governments. The Torch paper underplays the wide nature of “migrants” weakening many assumptions and recommendations he made.  There are, post 1945, four main waves of migration, loosely described as “guest worker”, post colonial, economic and intra-EU free movement. Western Europe has seen the four waves, in different mixes, from the 1950s. The newer member states in Central Europe had a long period of increasing mono-culture and a more recent and shorter experience of both emigration and fluidity.  Countries with a history of being emigrants themselves now find themselves receiving migrants. In many countries migrants, as in newcomers, are outnumbered by second and third generation citizens, no longer migrants nor should they be considered as such. Racism not migration is the issue.

Each country has a different mix based on their own history. I found both the Torch paper and the report on the meeting too timid in their views. The hard topics are avoided: religious  and cultural differences, the rise of overt racism (in Greece for example with Golden Dawn, in Hungary etc). In short: the policies and practices of the last decade do not seem to be working. More of the same is not enough.  What was missing from the Torch paper and it seems from the OMC is the realisation that change is needed within the arts and creative industry sectors, as employers of managers and artists. Adding activities on the margins of the mainstream is not enough.

Brussels naturally, hosts two conferences which look at two sides of the second mega-theme.  Culture Action Europe, a lobby group for the arts sector, opens with a programme  Let’s ask ourselves: what we can do for the European project, in what ways can we be useful? And then: engage to do it!   I do admire the conference’s aim ” A starting point for a large-scale movement of European citizens, regardless of the sector in which they are engaged, to reclaim the destiny of the European project.”

These arts sector orientated debates are followed two weeks later at the Brussels Conversations on a Cultural Coalition for a Citizens Europe, discussing “the future of the European project and the citizen’s role in making it a reality”.  A brave aim when many are questioning the very concept of the European project. Was the Nobel Peace Prize the final accolade for the project now it has achieved its original aim of ensuring enduring peace between France and Germany?  I do like the conference proposition that  “The lectures and workshops in this encounter will move beyond the theoretical-legal-philosophical discussion and show that citizenship and its cultural component is something we should practice in our daily lives”.

A busy time indeed. And myself?  Well not to be left out I’m speaking at a conference in Paris on 23 November.  My theme?  “Europe: cultural solutions to a wicked problem?”

 

More Europe? yes, but not this one.

Four recent quotes:

Angela Merkel:  “We need  more Europe, a budget union, and we need a political union first and  foremost, we must, step by step, cede responsibilities to  Europe.”

David Cameron:  “If you think you can just establish a European Parliament and a  flag and everyone will be loyal to it, that’s nonsense.”

Esko Aho (former Finnish Prime Minister) :  “Europe is top of the world in designing strategies but is slow in acting

Michael Rake (Chair, BT)  “ There has been too much intellectual discussion … We’ve spent too much time focusing on the Lisbon Treaty rather than the Lisbon Agenda. Europe is facing huge competition from the South and the East in a globalized economy. It is very difficult for politicians to deal with this. It takes huge courage to say the truth clearly and to follow-up on it. It will require huge levels of leadership to bring us together now.”

All four are spot on.  The crisis of the eurocrisis is slowly making leaders realise that we now live in a different world to that when the EU was first started in a small way in 1956.  The processes, the mental attitude of the Euro-elites, are out of date.  Forming an ever closer union by small steps so no-one would notice is no longer valid. “Unity in diversity” is valid only if the emphasis is on “unity”. Those who prioritize “diversity” are those who are  now holding back the European dream in todays’ world.   The most recent example being the squabbles over the European Patent Office.  It brings considerable economic benefit to European companies in the global market place. Delayed and stalled because of languages and location squabbles.

If you want to prioritize diversity then you need to accept a much looser, more fragmented Europe.  That’s what Cameron would want; it’s not what the Europhiles have professed they want.  Now is the time , as Merkel says, to move authority to Brussels and away from national decisions.

But there is a catch and Cameron identifies it perfectly. Well two catches.  The EU institutions in Brussels are not fit for this new purpose. They were designed for a different world and a different purpose (even as recently as the Lisbon treaty).   They are not right in structural terms (and certainly not in efficiency terms) and neither in terms of the internal culture.  A stronger centre cannot work with intra-institutional bickering.

The second reason is demonstrated daily in the streets of Spain and Greece and other member states.  The “democratic deficit” long agonised over but rarely tackled in a serious manner (Mark Leonard points out the German problem) becomes a democratic nightmare if powers are transferred a la Merkel to the existing Brussels structure.   It is noticeable how little the weak European Parliament has been involved in the crisis of the eurocrisis.  The “secret” cabal of wise men (Juncker, van Rompuy, Draghi and Barroso)  asked to come up with a vision excludes the Parliament.

The EU has been built-in the crab-like culture of hidden alleyways.  In many ways it has been successful (again Cameron points out the real impact of low-cost air travel and cheaper roaming charges: pragmatic not intellectual).

A new European Union is called for: a strong Parliament for democratic control: a single President presiding, subject to Parliament over a European civil service (a reformed Commission)  who are accountable to the Parliament in far more detail and authority than “co-decision” can ever achieve.

But it is essential to gain public support.  Not through fear as demonstrated in the recent Irish vote. Not through bullying and threats as we are seeing before the Greek vote; not through symbolism as Cameron warns against; but through a bottom up, citizens led new Europe.

That is what the Year of Active Citizenship should be about rather than extolling the virtues of the current Commission. Let us not repeat the mistake of the Convention. It started with the aim of bringing Europe closer to the people (surely the wrong way round but let’s overlook that) and ended up under the Kerr/Amato insiders smug approach of a constitution of supreme legal and bureaucratic sub-clauses.  A ratings agency would have used its lowest junk score.

More Europe?  Yes. But not more of the same Europe.

 

More Europe? More Europeans

With austerity and unemployment rising across most of Europe now is certainly the time for more Europe.  Comments by candidate Sarkozy, seeking the racist vote were quite frankly appalling for a President or any politician seeking high office.   (“They must know which side of the Mediterraean they live in”).

I make no concessions to this view.  The closer, and to adopt a Chinese buzz word in its most progressive meaning, harmonious Europe we have the better for everyone.  It is not just a case for eurozone countries to work together or closing down out-of-date tax loopholes between countries. We need to move to a more positive approach to Europeanness at the personal level. For far too long the EU has focused on the corporate and national.  In the next period.. and starting now not waiting for the 2014-20  “Europe 2020” agenda the priority must be to bring Europeans together.

“Unity in Diversity” is being abused to mean “my diversity is paramount” as nationalism and regionalism take precedence. It is no use arguing for More Europe if the target audience, the participants are the already cosmopolitan members of European society.   At the same time I think it is useless to promote some ideal “European Culture”: a favoured viewpoint of an intellectual elite.

As a starting point I recommend this publication from the Council of Europe:  “A Handbook on Tolerance and Cultural Diversity in Europe”.   The European Year of Citizens in 2013 has a fundamental political task in taking head on politicians at local, regional and national level, the commission and civil society.

Should citizens take the lead in the Year of Citizens?

The European Commission has proposed 2013 to be the “European Year of Citizens”.    Its aims, sorry, challenges, are to:

  • raise citizens’ awareness of their right to reside freely within the European Union and of how they can benefit from EU rights and policies;
  • stimulate citizens’ active participation in EU policy-making;
  • build debate about the impact and potential of the right to free movement, especially on strengthening cohesion and people’s mutual understanding of one another.

Now most of these “Years” seek raise awareness of  an issue.  The concept is favoured by UNESCO, Council of Europe, various UN agencies as well as the EU.   One major weakness is that very few of the promoters put any money behind them; they expect others to spend their own money to deliver the results.   I haven’t seen any serious long-term evaluation of the years but they seem to be liked by officials and politicians.

The concept of European citizenship is important and in my view a Good Thing. Indeed if we are to survive the eurocrisis over the next few years then a greater shared sense of community amongst voters is essential. We can no longer continue to live in a Europe with its own variation of the Clash of Civilisations.

So how can we be better European citizens and what can the powers that be do?  Here are five ideas:

*  EU citizens living in other EU countries should be allowed to vote in the national elections as well as local and regional. No taxations without representation worked in a country two hundred or so years ago.  Voting is not the end of the world but it indicates a degree of equality and of belonging.

*  If you have a bank account in one EU country then you should be able to able an account in another automatically. No more Catch-22s when moving within the EU.

*  Ministries of Foreign Affairs should be renamed European and Foreign Ministries (some, Austria have done this). Again to demonstrate that being European is not being foreign.

*  The next elections for the European Parliament should be contested in the name of the political groupings in the Parliament with a single EU wide manifesto  and not by domestic political parties.  Citizens should vote for the various presidents directly, of Council and Commission.

* No discrimination in various tax and social security systems between EU citizens and domestic citizens.

There will be more.. please add them

More Europe

The current eurozone financial crisis prompts calls for “more Europe”.  About time too.  For over 60 years Europhiles, and I count myself as one of them, have paid lip service to the declaration “an ever closer and deeper Union”.  It has been so much part of the Euro-mantra that is was on automatic pilot.  It never appealed to the Brits of course. They had they own micro-triumph in the drafting process of the Lisbon Constitution/Treaty which slighty watered down the phrase.

But it remains part of the Euro-DNA.  Of course it was meant to be achieved by technocratic stealth through the Monnet method: little bit at a time, keep below the radar, slow accretion, don’t upset anyone (and don’t tell the voters.. the original sin of the grand old men of the founding fathers).

The euro crisis has flushed everything out into the open.  A Euro monetary union which allowed the largest country, Germany, to ignore its own rules within a year or two of starting, surprisingly finds itself unworkable at the first real sign of trouble.

Fiscal and transfer unions are intregal parts of a monetary union.  Now is the time for ever deeper and closer to be realised.  And very quickly.

The Polish Foreign Ministers’ speech in Berlin sets out quite clearly the path ahead. Read it and lets start the ball rolling.