Engaging with Europe: Lessons for Transnational Activists

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29.09.2021
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10 min read
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Contemporary Struggles, Transnationalist Theories
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Anti-fascist Fishmob, Finland (CC BY 4.0)

Why are activists (re)engaging with Europe?

Europe can no longer be ignored, even if one deals with national, or even local, issues. While until about a decade ago civil society organisations were able to go about their business and largely disregard European politics, this is no longer the case. We are observing a shift from a disinterested or matter-of-fact attitude towards Europe among civil society, and a renewed interest in all matters European, combined with a critical reengagement with the EU on a political level. This isn’t to say that Europe had not been at all an object of political contestation before, but that the prevailing attitudes among civil society were either those of somewhat blind faith in the project, or disenchantment, while vehement anti-Europeanism were the domain of the radical and extreme right.

This discovery of Europe didn’t arise in vacuum and has been prompted by a series of earth-shattering crises that ravaged Europe in the twenty-first century. The multiple crises that hit Europe in the twenty-first century, and the sprouting of regressive political forces that capitalised on them, have been a wake-up call especially for progressive civil society. These were predominantly the 2008 financial, and the ensuing Euro crisis, and the migration emergency of 2015, and now COVID-19, that constituted the main turning points.

These crises – causing the breakdown of economic and human insecurity – have been instrumentalised for political gain and thereby exacerbated by populist political forces. These were, in part, precisely ethno-nationalist populists of various guises who have managed to shake civil society out of their complacency over the trajectory of European integration, to critique it, and to reformulate it. This has led to the repoliticisation of the issue of Europe, forcing civil society to take a stance. In other words, civil society begun its reengagement with Europe in response to those crises, but also to the regressive political takeovers they enabled. Ironically, right-wing populist  contestation of Europe has also changed. Their stance has shifted from the disavowal of the European project to a renaissance of the Europe of fatherlands idea. Particularly following Brexit, most populists do not want to ‘leave’ Europe, they want to take it over.

Consequently, an activist or civil society organisation trying to work on any issue in Europe today needs to be aware of those dynamics discussed above. One can no longer disregard what used to be coined as “European” politics and keep one’s attention on the national and local sphere alone. In result of the financial, migration, and increasingly the COVID-induced health crises policies conceptualised on the European level are the bread and butter of every policy debate. Close scrutiny of what issues are taken up by the Council of Ministers, what is legislated in the European Parliament, what agendas are open to public consultation by the European Commission, and what are the rulings of the European Court of Justice are a must for any transnational activist. Even if one is uncompromisingly critical of the EU, disregarding the European dimension of a political and policy debate is out of step with reality. This is equally true of, for example, local organisations extending help to migrants and refugees, as it is of associations advocating for media transparency across the continent.

How are activists (re)engaging with Europe?

There are broadly three (ideal) types of ways in which civil society actors engage with Europe. These are not discrete categories, but rather ways of categorising their action. The first type are civil society actors who want to actively promote European integration, and often also European identity, as well as participate in discussions on the future of the European project. These Traditional Europeanists advocate for European integration and reform efforts in some form. They identify positive advantages of EU membership, seek further European constitutional reform and democratisation, and sometimes promote European, as opposed to national, identities. They play an important role in how the public understand the European level but have been put on the defensive to a large degree due to the growth of ethno-populist forces. Nonetheless, they remain well connected within the institutional space of Europe. These actors have been a fixture of European civic space throughout the evolution of the contemporary European Union.

The second type are actors who see Europe as a means to further their core agendas on specific issues such as education, transparency, migration, climate change, social rights, etc. For these Instrumental Europeanists, the European level of decision-making matters for advocacy and campaigning on particular issues. This is because they recognise the EU has an impact on how social issues originate, unfold, and have to be tackled. Even if their day-to-day work is restricted to a national state, the issues they deal with are part of the larger European context. While previously those actors might have been either uninterested in European matters or took European integration for granted. Today, many of them acknowledge the European dimension of their networks, take advantage of EU funding, or seek partnerships and synergies across Europe to tackle particular problems.

The third type are political disruptors emerging from civil society who take for granted that all politics (in Europe) is European these days. For Insurgent Europeanists, civil society is either at their origin or it provides them with a strong base of intellectual and operational support. The actors in this group engage at the level of EU politics and tend to be concerned with furthering European integration in some form, although they often disagree on how this should be done. They realise that a return to a politics of the nation-state is impossible. [1] They are distinguished from traditional political parties by their social movement and insurgent character. These actors represent a new development in the landscape of European civic space insofar as they do not separate the national and European political fields and treat them as one.

What are activists demanding of Europe?

One important thing that activists demand of Europe is that it becomes a true guardian and custodian of values – they want a Normative Europe. They do not see the EU merely as a financial resource, a playground for intergovernmental bargaining, and a scapegoat for failing national administrations. This had been the domain of many mainstream parties on both the right and the left of the political spectrum before the series of crises erupted. Today, activist civil society actors frame Europe as a source of universal standards as human rights, equality, and the rule of law. This is particularly important in countries where the rule of law has been threatened in recent years (mainly in Central Europe), but also elsewhere where European values are pitted against those represented illiberal regimes. Increasingly, transnational activists clearly articulate what their values are in order to identify kindred souls in the field.

Increasingly, civil society wants a Europe of citizens, cities, and regions, not only of nation states – they want a more Popular Europe. On a practical level, civil society wants to include more ordinary citizens and local actors in policy making and give them the maximum agency possible in terms of implementation. They want to do away with the elitism of Europe and ensure more direct participation. This is already taking place on various levels of governance. Transnational activists seek opportunities to have their voices heard via civic hearings and consultations. They engage in participatory activities and devices that are available and demand them to be put into practice where they are not.

Europe has been exposed to a series of global threats in the twenty-first century: the financial, migration, and climate crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Many in civil society want Europe to step in as a unit of decision making to pursue adequate solutions to them – they want a Responsive Europe. Transnational activists increasingly identify issues and causes which can be subject to European measures. They seek out like-minded groups elsewhere in Europe on the basis of concrete policy agendas.

Conclusion

Mindful of the crises of the past decade, activist civil society’s increasing focus on Europe means that it is ready to engage with formal politics on the European level, more than ever before [2]. Today, instead of pro- and anti-Europe, those are competing visions of Europe that are the basis of the public debate and a tool to pursue concrete policy goals. In particular, progressive civil society has rediscovered Europe as a source of values, it seeks to more direct participation in European affairs, and wants the EU to take the lead in tackling global crises [3]. Lastly, what is becoming increasingly clear is that a physical presence in Brussels is no longer important for engagement in European issues. European affairs is now carried out also locally, and can even be done as an action of an individual, what matters are the networks that transnational activists build and harness to pursue their goals.

  • 1.Cooper, L; Dunin-Wąsowicz, R; Kaldor, M; Milanese, N; Rangelov, I. “The Rise of Insurgent Europeanism”. LSE IDEAS 2021
  • 2.Dunin-Wąsowicz, Roch. 'Hollowing out the state'. The future of European democracy: Fixing a troubled continent. LSE Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, 2019
  • 3.Cooper, L; Dunin-Wąsowicz, R; Milanese, N. “The dawn of a Europe of many visions: What the European election manifestos tell us about the conflict and paralysis ahead”. LSE Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, 2019
  • About the contributor

    Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz
    Lecturer & Researcher at the UCL Social Research Institute & the LSE IDEAS

    Dr Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz is a sociologist. He graduated from the New School for Social Research in New York City and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Currently, he lectures sociology at the UCL Social Research Institute and researches European civil society at LSE IDEAS. He is the author of numerous reports and articles on the social organization and civic identity of Polish migrants in the UK, on the social repercussions of Brexit, and on European democracy.