This could easily be another article dealing with the usual suspects in the European political sphere – Brexit, migration, the “undemocratic East”, populism, financial crisis, what have you. Even though there is no discussing Europe without them, in this article you will get to know about two citizens’ initiatives that deal with Europe’s (current) state and shape: The Congress of Europe, based in our very own city of Amsterdam and the Bulgarian political party “GERB” (acronym translates into ‘Citizens for a European development of Bulgaria’).
Starting off with the Congress of Europe, this initiative has been started just this year by Victor Broers, who is an independent speaker, thinker and writer. Having written many books on the economic dimension of Europe but being also a well-known speaker across conferences and strategy sessions on Euro- pean policy, he has made it his task to create a network across various (academic) fields, disciplines, career paths etc. in order to develop a new path to European politics. Various team members, ranging from students to artists, founders of think tanks and researchers reflect the variety that is being looked for in the initiative. In order to physically bring the variety of disciplines, views and experiences together, this initiative specifically aims at creating a large, pan-European network in co-operation with other citizens’ initiatives as well, hosting congresses and organising further events all across the continent.
The Congress of Europe presents itself as an initiative that searches for answers to the turbulent and uncertain times we live in. The feeding of demagogues on this uncertainty managed to reward us with a new uprising of populism and scepticism towards the Euro- pean project; an attempt to have the world shrink down to the size of the nation-state again. Instead of looking for the back-door exit in times of difficulty, CoE is rallying up to charge forward into building a future that will answer our current uncertainties.
Okay so what is the big deal? Is this not a repetition of what proud Europeans in the institutions and elsewhere have been saying since the onset of these crises? As much as this might be true, there is more to the CoE. On the one hand it is true that especially the European institutions themselves have been fighting to maintain a picture of a forward oriented institutional framework that is sup- posed to be there for all European citizens, taking into account all kinds of expertise and experience to enrich the European project. However the general feeling prevailing in Europe currently is that Europe is in decline. Referring back to the usual suspects, many have said that these crises will make or break the EU. However the EU itself, apart from being quite challenged by these issues, seems to be a bit outworn in its approach to the crises and its citizens.
One of the key issues that the European project has always had and will presumably always have is that it is very difficult for EU to communicate itself to the citizens it is trying to represent. Many have labelled the EU a conglomerate of lobbyists, stakeholders and elitists, who altogether are trying to generate a pull of European integration towards private interests and increases in profit. It can be argued that this results from a general lack of understanding for the EU itself, a true gap between those who made it their central task to think Europe and those who are not as connected to the political happenings of the continent. However this stance of “you do not like Europe because you would not understand it” only amplifies and exacerbates the EU’s existing problem. Such a stance cannot be representative of how European politics are going to be perceived and communicated. The old days of economic achievement have created a basis, which calls for furthering a common political voice, the move from an economic towards a political union. That cannot be achieved if the idea of a united Europe continues to find bearing only for the few.
“One of the key issues that the European project has always had … is that is very difficult for the EU to communicate
itself to the citizens it is trying to represent”
It does seem like the institutions and governments reached a stalemate when it comes to dealing with these issues in a way that is graspable, understandable and defensible for the European population as a whole. Maybe the Congress of Europe in a way can actual- ly contribute to bring about new ways and insights into what is going on in the political sphere of Europe against the usual aphasia and shrug of shoulders that have increasingly become the response to it.
Turning to the Other Europe, the fairly new party GERB, established in March 2006 had managed to make thinking Europe its strong point, which even won the party elections and a leading role in government since it first ran. A citizens’ initiative concerned with a European development of a country that is situated in a rather ambiguous in-between, on the crossroads to Europe: Bulgaria. From a Western perspective it will make very little sense to rally for a European development because thinking Europe has already been an intrinsic part to the Western political sphere since the early days of European integration in the 1950s. Yet, after more than 40 years of socialist rule and continuous government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) from 1997 until 2009, Bulgarians had to seriously ask themselves the question of where they want to head in terms of orientation.
Of course many internal affairs had made for GERB to take over as for example proven cases of corruption and the BSP’s failure to react to the world economic crisis, leaving them at the end of their term with great budget deficits.
Apart from these internal affairs it is interes- ting to see what Europe means when looked at from the other side of the now gone Iron Curtain. The GERB seems representative of an answer to the most critical of political questions to a small country, which is so much on the verge of Europe that it finds itself under the cultural, historical and politi- cal influence of at least three great players, namely Turkey, Russia and the West. This question concerned which road to take, which way to face, which development will be most beneficial for the Bulgarian people; and the answer was Europe.
If we put this excitement about becoming a part of Europe against the critical phase the founding states of the European project seem to face, one central factor becomes evident that distinguishes the West from the East: The West can very much take it for granted that the European project exists and that they are part of it. This is clear from the long history European integration has back into the beginnings of the Cold War. Critical phases have been what the European project constantly grew on and it would be very short sighted to presume that this would find an end just because of new crises.
In that sense, the CoE is a brave initiative that instead of listening to voices that want to take the European project back to places it has long surpassed, charges forward to see which new ways we can find to include the European population more into a European political sphere and think Europe according to the challenges it faces today. The question to GERB was a much more fundamental question to the Bulgarian population: will we firmly stand behind the development that we had desired before or will we now draw in our horns and fall back into a case of ambiguity? An ambiguity, which has historically proven to be of detriment to Bulgaria as a whole. In both cases, for the Congress of Eu- rope and GERB the answer was Europe now, more than ever.
Two initiatives, two sides of Europe, both rallying for propelling Europe into greater dimensions even though the underlying ques- tions are so different. Europe can be a widely inclusive answer to the pressing questions of our time. It is essential for us to participate in that process though and deal with it beyond the signs of complication and aphasia. This article was just intended to be a short peak into what people from both sides of Europe have thought of in order to materialize such a way forward.