Participation, transparency and direct democracy are still part of the DNA of civil society organisations. And as part of the heritage of the students’ movements of 50 years ago these values are still at the top of the list. But the results of (relatively) recent referenda such as those France, in the Netherlands or the UK BREXIT vote, paint a much more ambiguous picture now than then. These forms of direct democracy do not automatically lead to more democracy, but often leave division and a poisoned climate behind. Catalonia, although an illegal vote, is the most recent example.
Not only is it still not clear under which conditions the UK will leave the European Union, as the current PM and her government have not indicated a clear path, but its society is more divided than ever. The UK is divided within regions, cities, classes, generations, families. Violent xenophobia accompanies the changes in society and those who govern do not seem to understand that they are also responsible for social cohesion. In a way, it shows that the “cultural” revolution from the Thatcher era has had an impact on more than just economic policies. The leader of the Labour party tirelessly – and rightly so – explains that the UK is leaving the EU, but not Europe! The multiple consequences of the exit are being reported by the media day by day as numerous treaties and bilateral agreements are being revisited, and yet it seems that the move keeps inspiring other political forces in other countries to try to follow suit.
The slightly less negative effect is that it has served as a wake-up call, mobilising pro-European forces, not only in Britain, to rethink whether the vote should only be about whether to leave or whether there should be other forms to remain. It is not only UK citizens who need to be convinced to remain. The European Union must stick to the recent commitment on the European Pillar of Social Rights, get away from only internal market and market driven democracies, and take the Treaty objective of social and territorial cohesion seriously. The moment of truth will be the Multiannual Financial Framework on the menu of today’s European summit. Common sense must prevail, the acknowledgement that social investment has the highest benefit rate of all: social cohesion. Furthermore it does not need a narrative, but a concept of how to reconcile diverging interests under the umbrella of a well understood sustainable societal development strategy. Cohesion and sustainability go together, but imply a break from the new forms of short term capitalism. The so-called third way, the naive thinking that market forces could be unleashed to be contained, is not the answer. The truth is that they still need to be constrained. Regulation is a facilitator and not a handicap and this as valid for markets as it is for societies.
Civil society organisations have started – in parallel to parties and unions – to think about the upcoming European elections. We need a vision and we have some positive achievements on our side, but we are still not where we want to be when it comes to the Europeanisation of thinking and acting outside of the comfort zone of the convinced. Communicating Europe cannot be left to the institutions. A grassroots movement and citizens’ dialogue must include their organisations – but even this common ground cannot be taken for granted, as the regular questions about our representativeness and credibility show. Delivering on promises and reducing inequalities in Europe should be not only the mantra but the principle that will guide communications as well as the process of common manifestos.
Unfortunately Europe is in a shape where we cannot allow ourselves to sit back and let “them” do. It is our project and our future, but we have to look for a new (perhaps better) shape!