Transnational social movements as a democratising force.

Article published on April 10, 2002
community published
Article published on April 10, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The European Union needs to become democratic if it wishes to survive on the continent that invented the word. How can we open new paths to democracy at the European level?

The European Union, as a body that affects the daily lives of so many people, needs to be democratic if it wishes to survive on the continent that invented the word. However, democracy has so far only been applied from the small group up to the level of the nation-state. Can it be applied in an entity as large as the ever enlarging European Union? I for one believe that it can. Just as those that through trial and error succeeded in unifying Europe into the system of nation-states we see today had to be inventive in order to create a contract relationship between themselves and the peoples, so we must be inventive today. Yet, simply because the last answer to the problem of no taxation without representation was electoral systems and variations on the theme of representative democracy, does not mean that this solution is still appropriate in the European context. As Delors said, the European Union is an unidentified political object. This necessarily means that we have to rethink our traditional approaches to democracy where it is concerned. Traditional approaches are useful and needed, but in the age of global communication, their weighting at least must differ. With the number of seats in the European Parliament likely to be capped at 700, no matter how large the Union becomes, representative democracy in the way it is understood in the context of the nation-state is not going to be enough for all those who are European citizens. Other channels of representation must be opened up in order to create a thicker sense of democracy, citizenship and belonging.

The experience that we gain from the formation of the nation-state shows us that this was essentially a bargaining process between different levels of society (Te Brake). However, this process took place in a world much more Hobbesian than our own. Homo homini lupus was the order of the day. Today, the European Union gives us the unprecedented chance to learn from that historical process in the building of the next democratic level up from the nation-state. With the benefit of previous experiences, we can much more easily identify problems that may occur and take steps to avoid them.

For example, we know now from experience the dangers of attempting to unify nation through homogenising their populations, manipulating myths and symbols, creating imaginary communities. On paper, at least, groups of people with entirely different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs can live peacefully together through a common commitment to equality, democracy, freedom, human rights. The European Union should not be afraid of the massive differences perceived between the populations of its member-states, but celebrate them, recognise them, and above all use them.

Which brings me to why I believe that transnational social movements are just the ticket for solving these problems. The amount of literature and discussion that surrounds the issue of what form the European polity will or should finally take indicates only one definite fact: that the current institutions are not fully formed, their roles and powers are open to reform. However, a brief review of the main theories of European integration will show that, no matter what final form the European polity might take, the role of transnational social movements will be paramount to its claim to legitimacy among the citizens.

Under the intergovernmental model, where the European Union is considered as a loose organisation of independent yet co-operative nation-states, the role of the transnational social movement will be to use the national government as an intermediary for the eventual representation of their claims. The transnational nature will be important, for if different European governments find themselves subject to the same claims from their citizens, then these claims will be rightly recognised as the wishes of the European people.

If the supranational model should be the eventual model adopted by the Union, transnational social movements will have a more direct role in the influencing of European institutions, presenting their claims straight to the European level. More likely, at least in the shorter term, will be a mixture of these two levels depending on the pillar that certain policy areas are assigned to. Such a composite polity (Imig and Tarrow, 2001) will mean a composite role for transnational social movements. They will work on several different levels, making horizontal and vertical connections, which will work to bring the European decision-making process back to the citizens.

Another reason to make moves to encourage and develop the role for these movements at the European level is the mysterious problem of the democratic deficit. Primarily, policy formation within the Commission can be described as a very elitist affair, distant an impenetrable to the vast majority of ordinary citizens. The Commission, a body understaffed for the duties it must carry out, relies on outside bodies for expert and detailed information. Business and industry groups, as those with the best organisational and financial backup, tend to dominate in competition for places on advisory committees, or their information is the most up-to-date and detailed when provided to the Commission. Yet these groups are precisely those least likely to represent the views of ordinary citizens. They usually represent very specialised, economic interests.

Some citizens and single issue groups, already well-established and highly respected, do have influence on the Commission. But because of the technocratic character of the latter, wider issues are broken down into smaller, technical, bite-size chunks. Therefore, according to Mazey, these groups may only influence low politics.

The guiding principles behind policy, or their general direction, is closed to influence from these groups.

All this to highlight that the development of transnational social movements will not only aid in the creation of a deeper sense of identification between European citizens, it would also represent an inventive solution to the democratic deficit, by encouraging direct participation at the European level. The Commission has in fact acknowledged this, in a discussion paper by Romano Prodi and Neil Kinnock, but so far not enough is being done to encourage to emergence and effectiveness of such movements.

On the philosophical level, I would consider Habermas writing on the importance of social movements in Europe to be true and pertinent. (All ideas found in his 2001 volume The Postnational Constellation). Apart from the more indirect comments that can be made about transnational social movements contributing to the establishment of an ideal speech situation, Habermas has also made more direct comments on their role.

Firstly, only such movements could convince the international community of a real public will to see a real international co-operation that oversteps the borders of nation-states. Only by joining together can we convince the more small-minded and nationalistic of our politicians of our existence, and our thoughts. Should these movements become successful and popular, they would render the insurmountable problems of todays world approachable. For example, Habermas points out the relative inability of nation-states today to control their own economies, a result of globalisation, foreign direct investment and markets chasing out politics. For many globalisation, and inhuman capitalism, creates problems that seem too big to control. This is because they are being viewed from the perspective of nation-states. If these problems are viewed from the perspective of a European people and polity, the greater part of an entire continent attempting to work together, these problems can be tackled.

Following monetary union, the democratic deficit is likely to become more apparent to the average European citizen through the decisions of the European Central Bank. In order to legitimise those decisions, eventually common taxation, minimum wage and social policies will be undertaken. Yet this will only be possible if trust can be achieved between nations and individuals can consider themselves to be real members of a supranational polity. Transnational social movements would be instrumental in such a common will formation.

So, we can see that this is an important area for further study and development for many reasons. In a historical perspective, we can see from the study of the function of national movements both today and in their past role in the formation of nation-states that there is great precedent for supposing that transnational social movements will be important in shaping the future European polity. They could also be important in the current effort to remedy the democratic deficit, especially in the wake of monetary union, as a new channel of citizen representation. On a more abstract level, we can argue their importance in terms of Habermas argument for the structural transformation of the public sphere. Or even, from the opposite school, from Foucaults arguments on the importance of resistance and the continual reinvention of power processes. Finally, the subject has been highlighted as important to European democracy by the Commission itself.