Image: Fotomovimiento / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Image: Fotomovimiento / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

DiEM and Co.

Mario Candeias

Movements for Real Democracy in Europe – Everyone Doing Her Thing or Connective Praxis?

The European Crisis is leading to rampant chauvinism, racism, and disintegration. Driven by this dynamic Europe is governed by state-of-emergency politics. Austerity, an intensified dismantling of labour and social rights and an inhuman, militarized border regime are being implemented in authoritarian ways, while asylum law is being whittled away.

Simple democratic demands – whether the hope for shelter and protection from war, for a good life for all, or the simple idea that elections should influence political decisions – are rejected by the ruling institutions.

Since 2011, democracy movements have been putting up resistance, first mainly in Greece and Spain. Now, after the Greek experience, with the submission of the Syriza government to the new Memorandum, diverse initiatives are trying to advance a democracy movement that also operates on a European level – before it is too late and disintegration leads to a fall back into the 1930s.

European platform

With this aim, Yanis Varoufakis and Srecko Horvat are proposing the founding of a European platform. The ‘DiEM25’ initiative was presented on the 9 February in Berlin with major media coverage. It attracted great interest, and the Volksbühne’s spaces could not contain the crowd, which was in part remedied by video transmissions in spaces of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and other venues as well as live streaming. The initiative struck a chord amongst many who want to be able, finally, to do something. Varoufakis and Horvat are not aiming at the usual suspects but want also to speak to social democratic and liberal democratic forces. DiEM25 wants to connect self-organization, local work, and a transnational project. “It is doubtful that this can succeed. Movements are not founded in press conferences. But despite this the Varoufakis initiative is important”, as Raul Zelik aptly puts it. It is generating attention around the hope for another Europe. In these times, this is already a great deal. “If organizational processes do not take place on the local level, which change the life and thinking of frustrated passive spectators, then a right-wing revolution will continue to take the streets. It is precisely those who do not feel represented, those who are furious at the ‚democratic establishment’ who must be given a perspective beyond that of the right-wing mob, and they can only learn this through their own democratic praxis”, in the words of Margarita Tsomou.

The initiative around the so-called Plan B (Mélanchon, Zoe Konstantopoulou, Lafontaine et al.) is also pursuing a debate on a new direction for the process of European integration and not only a debate on a left exit, ‘lexit’ (Owen Jones), from the euro. Its strategic focus aims at an alternative currency and financial system and hopes to harness the disillusionment and rejection of the European Union. However, the spectrum of participants at the 23 – 24 January meeting in Paris was narrow and mostly characterized by prominent politicians and economists. The rejection of reforming the euro and the European institutions limits the initiative’s power of attraction and has injected a spirit of discord within the European left.

A Plan B has to be broader, as recommended by the initiative around Miguel Urbán of Podemos, which called for a meeting for a Plan B in Madrid on 19 – 21 February. Almost 2,500 people came. It is meant to be distinctly more movement-oriented, even if Spain’s big movements, like the PAH, were largely absent and its forms are very traditional, in no way corresponding to the character of the new movements. It was thematically broader: currency and institutions, debt, ecology, work, and not least the border regime and the movement of refugees were at the centre of the discussion. Its effect was more like a social forum of long ago: some European nexuses met, like the Debt Network, which was a good thing, but that would have happened in any case without this meeting. Some things were not even discussed in relation to Europe: for example the dismantling of labour laws and healthcare systems or the ecological crisis. Apart from a few moments, the dramatic sharpening of the European crisis was not even addressed. If Plan B in Paris was too narrow, the Madrid Plan B ended in a truly random enumeration of desirable items and declarations. But there was also a perceptible will to bring things together: DiEM25 was invited as well as the Paris Plan B initiative, Blockupy, and the GUE/NGL. But this good will was repeatedly annulled by mutual attempts at monopolization and the one-sided declaration against the euro and the EU, as for example in the prominent interventions by Zoe Konstantopoulou right after the painstakingly formulated declaration of consensus was read out loud.

The network AlterSummit is also continuing to attempt a European coordination of activities – with limited effect. Radical left movements like Blockupy, by contrast, are relying on manifold processes of intervention in concrete everyday organizing in connection with transnational assemblies and civil disobedience, but they are still in a process of strategic clarification. Blockupy is oriented strategically to actions in spring 2017 and the beginning of the electoral campaign for the German Bundestag. The initiative ‘Refounding Europe’, mostly based in the trade unions, is also oriented to the situation in Germany with a view to addressing the situation in Europe. A fall congress is planned, for it is not enough to rely on movement in Europe’s periphery – there must also be movement in the core of the authoritarian crisis regime in Germany.

The need to concentrate forces on the European level is obviously seen as urgent and is being pursued accordingly. The effort would be wasted if in the end numerous initiatives compete with each other, do not achieve a critical mass, and fizzle out without having effect. There is much discussion of ‘what is to be done’, about what needs to be changed, but seldom is the question asked of who the hell will do it and how. There are hardly any discussions on the political form of organizing and the process of discovering connective praxis’s. The debate is programmatically clogged – even after the coup against Syriza, the notion is ‘if we had the better alternatives it would have worked’. What remains clearest, however, is the lack of foundation on the ground behind most initiatives. They are in danger of becoming an activist European jet set that produces an air bubble of excited discussion without touching the real relations of force in the EU.

Everyday organising and municipalism

The forces that could be called movements for a new municipalism have a somewhat different focus. They assume that far-reaching attempts at European organizing will come to nothing if there is no organizing basis in the daily life of individuals, in the neighborhoods, at the workplace, in the municipalities. In the Spanish state, connective platforms were able to win most of the country’s large cities. It is not only in Barcelona and Madrid that the new left municipal governments have appointed mayors. In the USA too the many successes after the demise of the Occupy movement can mostly be seen at the local and municipal level (for example, in passing minimum wage legislation). In Italy there is a long, left tradition of social centres and municipal policies as places of organizing and survival of the left. The municipality needs to be won back as a place of politics, (self-)organizing, and participation.

With Syriza, the limits of national left governments in an authoritarian Europe became clear. This also applies of course to a new municipalism, but in another way. Therefore it is also about jumping scale – the translation to, and connection of such politics and organizing with, a European level. For a network of cities and regions, or, more emphatically, the perspective of a European Commune as the constitutive process for another Europe from below. Accordingly, the connective municipal platforms have been conspicuously engaged in the founding of DiEM25. The network of the Ciudades Rebeldes that have alternative governments since May are primary examples of what a democratization movement might look like – a praxis that is increasingly gaining importance for instance in Germany, from welcome refugee initiatives, to right to the city movements and platforms, to new initiatives for organizing in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

It is no coincidence that the new movements have formed especially at the neighborhood and city levels. With restricted resources this is the necessary – although insufficient – location of the political organizing of a popular movement to ‘become more’, in which participatory forms of organization, of assemblies, can be connected to the credible representation of interests and institutional praxis’s that open up the apparatuses for ‘the masses’, and move consultation and decisions back into civil society. In each case the question needs to be concretely posed of where, according to each situation, the appropriate location of organizing can be.

In Portugal, where organizing around everyday life has had limited success until now and where you can’t wait for any European movement to happen, the opportunity for tolerating an anti-austerity government of the PS on the part of left parties offered a prospect, just as the Syriza government in Greece is trying to buy time to defend itself against the EU’s impositions and demands for cuts and border closings, while solidary structures ad movements carry out concrete aid and organizing. In Italy the local dimension has been where left structures survive and from where the countrywide platform of the Coalizione Sociale, essentially borne by the metalworkers’ union FIOM-CGIL and diverse civil-society organizations, has evolved. Concurrently, there is the foundation of a new left party in order to present candidates in the upcoming municipal and countrywide elections. In other words, it is a not a matter of either … or but of priorities specific to each situation.

Sovereignty and constitutive process

The Plan B initiatives emphasize the demand to win back sovereignty. With the focus tied to the defense of achievements on the national level, this demand is easily abbreviated to the ‘national sovereignty’ of a state. And this is absolutely what is intended – but it does not have to be this way. In times of transnational production networks and financial markets it can hardly be expected that we can win back sovereignty on the national level alone. In any case we have to ask whom this sovereignty would be for. Certainly not for a state. What people complain about is that they no longer have influence over their immediate conditions of life; they want to shape these themselves. What is involved therefore is not a falling back into a nationalist discourse but a sovereignty of the popular classes, of everyone. This relates to all levels of politics – municipal, regional, national, and supranational – in the strict sense of the word ‘transnational’, cutting across all levels. From Plan B to DiEM25, this kind of sovereignty discourse could be a connecting perspective. The means and aims of a refounding of Europe would therefore be a strengthening of the sovereign, of each of the populations of the Member States, beyond citizenship. In this way the impulse for renationalization could be reworked as an impulse for decentralization and Europeanization. From the left, a critique of the real evolutions of the European project of domination and emancipatory concepts of an alternative European architecture are equally needed. Authoritarian constitutionalism has to be opposed by a progressive constitutionalism that involves a reappropriation of sovereignty.

There should indeed be a consideration of whether certain competences should be given ‘back’ from the European to other levels. This issue involves a new connection of decentrality to transnational mediations: As far as municipal concerns go, decisions should be taken on this level; issues that might have effects beyond the municipality or a specific region should be decided on higher levels, on a trans-regional or national level with the participation of those concerned; and finally there are questions that might be dealt with on a European level, for instance European infrastructures, climate politics, regulating financial markets. What these issues are would be clarified in a constitutive process that aims at a fundamental new institutional constitution and state structure for the European project. This also has to do with the refoundation of existing institutions, without being limited to this.

In view of EU institutions obstructed by the ruling powers, left parties in Europe must fail with necessity if they do not work towards reconfiguring the structures themselves and shifting the terrain of struggle: Without a fundamental calling into question of the existing institutions and the creation of new ones no initiative will have a chance. Furthermore, the exclusive concentration on the European Parliament within the European ensemble of state apparatuses would also be a self-limitation to an almost hopelessly obstructed terrain. Therefore the terrain has to be shifted and democratic counter-institutions built. A participatory, local, and transregionally connected constitutive process of consultation and organizing in council-like structures – from neighborhoods all the way up to the European level – would have the enormous task of consolidating various positions of the left into a common alternative. In so doing there we don’t have to wait for the institutions to allow or even start such a process; it ‘simply’ has to be organized without permission.

It is not only at the level of civil society that “public discourse and political processes of deliberation should be organized but also at the level of the EU institutions. These processes could actively use the European Parliament and the idea of a European convention without however limiting themselves to this” (Wolf 2016). At the end of the process there could perhaps be a constitutional assembly for Europe that would at least have to be put together through general elections – a strategy that already at the beginning of the 20th century made possible the masses’ entry into politics and is now being updated by DiEM25, among others. What kind of Europe do we want? How do we want to live in it?

But that is the third step. An alternative cannot be formulated in an abstract, idealistic way but on the basis of the everyday problems of people and the real relations of force. In philosophy, a constitutive process first of all describes not a constitutional process but the creation of a political subject of the Many; otherwise the discussion would remain abstract and tend to become technocratic without a prospect of implementation.

Such a constitutive process can and must be launched on all levels – from the municipalities to the European level, both against and ‘in and against’ the existing institutions. Examples are the rebel cities within the Spanish state, which are struggling against the national state to carve out new competences or, for example, the use of debt audits to force a renegotiation and cancellation of debts. A further example is the Catalonian independence process; also the discussion of the Madrid Plan B initiative about a ‘unilateral’ redefinition of the relation to the EU by means of a centre-left government (or a bloc of southern European centre-left governments), with the aim of compelling a reconstitution process inside the EU – a refoundation that defends the positive elements of the EU and transcends them. This would need to be complemented by a European process of deliberation such as the various European platforms have initiated.

A wild referendum

Too complicated? Perhaps it helps to think of the constitutive process as an umbrella, with the demand for real democracy as the vanishing point. Onto this ‘empty signifier’ the most diverse groups and initiatives can inscribe their interests and projects, pursue their specific praxis, and at the same time continue their important issues (from TTIP, to debt, anti-austerity, to welcome refugee initiatives, Catalonian independence, or debates on the Euro and the currency system) – but as part of a constitutive process from below, always addressing this as a point of reference, as a perspective. Each of these issues and movements involves eminent questions of democracy and the structure of another Europe.

And we have seen that European campaigns can serve for refounding a political space in Europe from below. By now there are diverse experiences, for example with campaigns on water, ACTA, harbours, and of course TTIP.

Within today’s general perplexity, the anti-TTIP campaign is often pointed to as the new connective project. But this would be much too narrow. The anti-TTIP campaign is indispensable, but why should the Welcome Refugee activists or activists of the anti-austerity movements or the debt campaign now switch their activism to TTIP? Everyone tries to use good arguments pose his/her own project as central: Plan B does this with euro-exit, the Debt Network does this with the debt conference or audits, or NoBorder activists do it with refugees. None of these projects is sufficiently broad and at the same time focused. Alongside these extremely important projects there needs to be another connective project.

An element of a European constitutive process from below could be an campaign for a European citizens’ initiative that would identify a few still to be defined core goals – perhaps a) an end to social cuts and privatizations and for investment in a Europe-wide social infrastructure (healthcare, education, housing, and energy) as well as b) for a solidary way of dealing with refugees: a “Social European Citizenship” (Katja Kipping, Co-Chair of Die LINKE) independent from any citizenship to an European member state. It can by all means be formulated more concretely and better, but there should be no more than two or three points. That European campaigns are possible has been shown by the anti-TTIP campaign. This time it could be even more ambitious.

In any case, in an Emnid opinion poll European citizens clearly spoke in favour of a more social EU. The Bertelsmann Foundation, which (along with other organizations – see Vision Europe Summit 2015) commissioned the survey, were, by their own admission, surprised by the results in which 63 to 86 per cent of those questioned in Belgium, Finland, Italy, France, Portugal, and the UK were in favour of compulsory minimum standards for social security; in Germany the number was 77 per cent. Everywhere people were worried about the preservation of social security. ‘The survey data support a significantly more important role for the EU than it now has in order to guarantee, through reforms, the national social systems’ ability to survive and to establish a mandatory standard of social security in all Member States’ (Vision Europe Summit 2015, p. 2f.). At the same time, the majority in the dubiously called ‘net contributing Member States’ (with the exception of Finland) clearly favoured transfer payments to benefit the poorer Member States – even in Germany this was true of two-thirds of those questioned (Ibid.).

The anti-democratic hegemonism of European and German institutions and Greece’s submission and impoverishment are criticized even in the Germany by a significant minority of 20 to 30 per cent of the population, and this point of view reaches far into the left-liberal, Green, and bourgeois centre: outstanding intellectuals and politicians beyond the left like Jürgen Habermas, Gesine Schwan, Reinhard Bütikofer, and many others share this criticism. The drama of the refugees is aggravating this discomfort. “More than ever we have to go beyond the current limits of protest and build a social camp that says No (“OXI”) to cuts on social spending and the destruction of democracy, a camp that goes beyond classic left milieus” (Bernd Riexinger, Co-Chair of Die LINKE, 11 August 2015). In the rest of Europe, additionally, resentment especially of the German government has grown enormously. It would not be bad if left parties, social movements, and critical trade-unionists could unite around a few minimum demands and get a campaign of this type off the ground.

The European institutions will certainly reject such an initiative. However, as in the case of TTIP, precisely this rejection could have a mobilizing effect – for a kind of a wild referendum (Werner 2015) for a Europe from below, as the beginning of self-empowerment for a constitutive process.

This and other strategies are to be discussed at an RLS European strategy conference at the beginning of June with the most diverse social initiatives, groups, tendencies, and organizations. Alongside the political contents, this will also involve finding the adequate political forms or their interconnection as well as a strategy to connect the various levels – local/municipal, national, and European – in the light of the social left’s scarce resources. The question to be asked in every specific case and situation: where is the right level of political intervention and organization? The aim is – despite the diverse existing positions and goals, despite existing divisions – to find connective perspectives and praxis’s which make possible not a unified modus operandi but a synchronization of activities and resistance for another Europe. Together this time. The first step of every constitutive process is the creation of a political subject. There we go.

Translation: Eric Canepa

Tsomou, Margarita, 2016: Kick it like Varoufakis, ak – analyse & kritik No. 613 (16 February 2016),
Vision Europe Summit, 2015: Zukunft und Reform des Sozialstaats. Ergebnisse einer Umfrage in acht europäischen Ländern, November 2015,
Werner, Alban, 2015: Für ein wildes Referendum gegen Merkels Europa, Neues Deutschland, 13 August 2015,
Wolf, Frieder Otto, 2016: Wie kann aus der gegenwärtigen Krise ein konstitutiver Moment erkämpft werden?, RLS-Berlin (to be published)
Zelik, Raul, 2016: Ernste Lage, nächster Versuch. Zur Gründung der DiEM, Neues Deutschland, 11 February 2016,