by Alessandra Silveira, Editor
On the Southern EU countries summit – challenges of democracy in times of austerity and dismay
Last Saturday, 28 January 2017, seven Member States from the south of Europe (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain) gathered in Lisbon to send the message of their national public opinions to the public opinions of the other Member States of the Union: surely the EU has to fight terrorism and to adopt a cohesive migration policy but such issues cannot bypass the attention towards the economic problem. It is a clamour of the Southern Europe in the regard that economic convergence becomes priority in the EU’s strategy through policies that create financial capacity in the euro zone and the development of European programmes to support investment. In the horizon, there would be solutions which involve a larger risk sharing – as the adoption of common taxes, an European system of bank deposit guarantee, common debt issue (eurobonds) as well as policies of positive discrimination in favour of indebted Member States that fulfil the adjustment rules.
The message of the citizens from the south of Europe holds that they advanced in the structural reforms and budgetary consolidation as much as it was possible (and the results in Spain and Portugal, mostly, are clear). But under the current circumstances of strong indebtedness and high unemployment it’s impossible to carry on without some relief from the financing constraints. Otherwise the Mediterranean societies will be driven to a situation of social rupture with unpredictable consequences, considering the populisms that lurk around. All that is inserted in a broader debate that the European institutions are facing on how to produce more jobs and better economic performance so that the European citizens can again see the European integration as an asset in their lives. It wasn’t for a different reason that in the first session of January the European Parliament approved a report on the Social Pillar (here). In the same regard, in March the European Commission will submit proposals aiming at reinforcing the social rights – that is, the access to minimum wage and minimum insertion allowances, access to a compulsory health insurance, extinction of unpaid internships, etc. In a year in which there are elections in several Member States, the strengthening of social protection means a European strategy to hinder the adhesion to populist movements.
The European Union seems to have finally awakened to the need of treating the causes of populism, instead of its effects. The enforceable reforms in the EU are part of a larger problem which is to know up to what extent globalisation is bearable. Today we are conscious that globalisation has limits. And that if we don’t make up for the excluded from it – that means the millions of workers in the industrialised countries who have lost their jobs and hope in the future of their children –, protectionism is just around the corner. After all no-one lives without future. And as Danilo Zolo would put it in Sulla paura, fear is the elementary pulse of the human being. Difficult as it is for us as heirs of the liberal revolutions to take in, what phenomena as Brexit and Trump show is that voters prefer security over freedom. That’s why security, since that one which is about physical safety until national security, is an essential value of democracy and human dignity. In this sense, the great goal of politics in current times must be, as much as possible, to reduce fear for power and fear are firmly related. There is no apology here to a securitarian drift but instead the retrieval of the security value – as reduction of uncertainty – to an anthropological axiom vis-à-vis populism.
Everything becomes more difficult because the European citizens (from the north and the south, from economies more or less robust) long for distinct things and sometimes contradictory between them. In other words, the distrust between the north and the south of Europe provokes resistances and the impasse in the euro zone. How to create then a political space that reconciles them and promote commitments between antagonistic views for Europe? And that allows the choice amongst distinct political alternatives for the Union to the detriment of the sluggish alternative of being either in favour or against integration (Brexit)? It is certainly not an easy task. But the solution is widely studied in the works of Ulrich Beck and Jürgen Habermas. And it demands a different practise i) from the governments of the Member States (that shelter themselves in the discourse of the European democratic deficit to be unaccountable of the destinies of the European Union), ii) from the media (that can contribute decisively to the mutual openness of the national public opinions by reporting political positions/controversies that the European affairs cause in other Member States) and iii) from the national political parties (that in the will of winning elections sowed the winds of segregation between the national politics and the European politics, and now they reap the whirlwind of populism and xenophobia).
Despite the existence of a common matrix heritage – fundamental rights, democracy, rule of law – the truth is that the European citizens don’t know each other. Therefore, it’s necessary to invest in their mutual mindfulness. That’s something that we are not going to reach merely consulting the internet ever. It can help in the dissemination of information but it has clear limits in the age of “post-truth”. A late Portuguese thinker, Eduardo Prado Coelho, used to say that the great task of a European cultural policy for real should be translation. But translation in the broad sense: not only translating texts, but translating minds, forms of behaviour. Translating in the sense of “turning to us” as we only relate to what we know.
Picture credits: 2016 State of the Union debate by European Parliament.