Article by Tomas Vanheste
Correspondent Europa between power and imagination
Translated from the original Dutch by D Verstraeten DiEM25 Belgium
Photo (c) by Étienne b. photography
They’re guys, but friendly guys. In the legendary café ‘la mort subite’, where many a revolutionary and artists conspired together, I encounter four followers of DiEM25.
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of Finance, launched this movement with a manifesto which explains its fundamental principles. Its motto: “The EU will either be democratised or disintegrate!”
‘The manifesto is an invitation’, says the Portuguese Guilherme Serodio, who came to Brussels in order to work in a think tank in the field of food safety, and has now co-founded a start-up for market transparency. ‘People can build their own groups, nobody organises it from the top down. DiEM25 grows organically, we connect and exchange. We use the collective intelligence generated in the network.’
‘We don’t have a formal structure or organisation’, adds Belgian IT-entrepreneur Joren De Wachter . ‘You do not need to become a member, the only thing we ask people who participate in the meetings is to support the manifesto. It is a real grass-roots movement. I have never been a member of a political party. Change does not come from the old guard – they are responsible for the present policy of austerity that has created so much destruction.’
‘Being half Greek, half Swede raised in Greece, I’m of course very concerned by what happens there’, says Erik Edman. ‘I was in Greece during the summers of unrest, at occupy the squares. I was also very much involved with everything Yanis Varoufakis did. The manifesto is for a large part based on the experiences which Yanis had with the EU. There is a lack of democracy at the heart of European decision making’. Erik came to Brussels with the intention of reforming the European institutions and works in an organisation that promotes Corporate Social Responsibility.
‘DiEM25 shows that it is possible to unite people from different political traditions and classes’
‘I’m from Portugal’, says Davide Castro, a colleague of Erik. ‘My family moved to England when I was twelve, because of the enormous crisis at the time, caused by the impact of the euro on the Portuguese economy and by allowing China into the World Trade Organisation. Industries collapsed, factories closed. After my graduation, I moved to Brussels to join those who also believe in the existence of alternatives to the present framework of the EU. (He founded ‘The Critique’). It doesn’t stop there. DiEM25 demonstrates that it is possible to unite people with different traditions and political backgrounds.’
Davide is the contact person for DiEM25 Belgium. When I approached him with the question if he could tell me more about the ideas and the plans of the movement, he suggested that we meet with a small group. And here we are, in ‘A La Mort Subite’, all guys. Nice, socially motivated, white, highly educated guys. ‘We want to be diverse’, they tell me. ‘And DiEM25 is really more mixed than this small group, certainly both sexes and all ages are present. We will also go into local communities and pubs to involve people of all backgrounds in our quest for a better Europe.’
With these four I talk about what democratisation entails – according to DiEM25 – and what their plans are to bring about this change.
More transparency in Brussels
‘The goal is a democratic Europe’, says Erik. ‘If we compared what we want with the present situation, we would become very depressed. That’s why we have planned several intermediate steps. Core issues that are presently very problematic in the way that Europe is being run. Step one is transparency. In order to have a healthy, functioning democracy, we need to know by whom, where and why decisions are made. Presently, government leaders and ministers disappear for hours behind closed doors and afterwards explain each in their own and different way what’s been decided. There’s no coherent story, there are no minutes of the meetings. In order to know if our representatives really represent us, we must know the facts. It is a very moderate demand really: we want to know what our representatives say in our name.’
DiEM25 issued a transparency petition – click here for the petition which has already been signed by 76000+ people – with demands like a public register of all meetings between lobbyists and employees of the European Commission and live streaming of all meetings of the European Council, the Eurogroup and the ministers of Finance.
‘In a democracy you need to be able to critically follow decision making’, explains Joren.
‘If it isn’t so, then it is not legitimate. If a law is adopted in the national parliament, each step of the decision-making is public’.
But, playing devil’s advocate, I ask: ‘Does the Dutch government not meet every Friday behind closed doors? Shouldn’t members of an administration be able to meet confidentially and freely to exchange ideas?’
‘True, but we want to hear the meetings of the Councils of Ministers in the EU when they vote on legislation’, counters Joren. ‘We don’t know what they say or how they vote. I am a lawyer. A decision, reached in secrecy, has no legitimacy. Montesquieu would abhor this way of decision-making.’
The final goal is a democratic Europe. Is it therefore necessary to deconstruct the EU and to build something different, or “simply” reform it ?
‘We don’t want to take down the EU, not yet’, answers Erik. ‘We believe in the European project. But we think that the EU alone doesn’t represent the European project. It doesn’t fulfil its potential. It is disintegrating. Brexit is the first symptom of a deeper disease. People do not feel that they have a connection with the EU. You cannot feel connected with a trading block’. He spits out this word. ‘The EU will have to democratise and bond with people or it will disintegrate.’
One of the key points is that in the present structure, debate and choice are forbidden
Please explain in detail what you mean by democratisation?
Guilherme: ‘If you build something to allow people to participate more, you have to involve them from the start. It’s not that we say: this is democracy and this is the way to achieve it. No, let’s all come together, think about what democracy is and build it.’
Joren: ‘One of the core issues is that, in the present structure, debate and choice are forbidden. Economic policy is constitutionalised. This is crazy. Economic policy is the essence of democratic choice. The EU was top-down up to now: They say “We are the governments, the enlightened people and we’re going to tell you what to do”. Whereas what we advocate is a twenty-first century bottom-up system.’
Davide: ‘In 2018, we want to have a constitutional assembly, where a lot of people from all over Europe meet with experts, generating and harnessing a lot of collective intelligence and get them to think on how to get out of this situation.’
‘Europeanising’ the biggest issues
The manifesto states that DiEM25 wants to Europeanise policy in five essential areas: State debt, banks, insufficient investments, migration and increasing poverty. At the same time it states that the national right to self-determination should be respected. Is that not contradictory?
Davide: ‘Critics will say that European countries are too diverse to be unified, but the lack of democracy and transparency is an issue that can unify a lot of people in the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece and England. We really should recognise the real fears and concerns that exist all over Europe and deal with it in a manner which surmounts borders. DiEM25 is unique because that’s exactly what it does. It is a European movement which tries to bring change all over the continent.’
Joren: ‘There’s no contradiction between sovereignty at national level and a European identity and citizenship that allows you to act also at that level. People who point to an opposition between those two are still thinking along twentieth century lines. It is perfectly possible for those two to co-exist and supplement each other. A more democratic European level increases sovereignty at each level.’
You can easily say that there’s no contradiction. But in these Eurosceptic times, people experience it differently. Opinion polls show that most citizens want that power to flow back from the EU to member states.
Davide: ‘We’re talking about issues like the lack of investment, the banking crisis and migration. These cannot be solved at the level of the nation state. Critics may say that it is utopian to have a pan-European movement that will address these problems, but it is rather utopian to say that they will disappear by letting things remain as they are…we need to think about alternatives.’
Erik: ‘We aren’t Eurosceptics like Farage, but rather EU-sceptics. Skeptome means that you think it out. We consider the EU as this wonderful idea, designed in response to very ugly times, but realised in the wrong way.’
The question is: what kind of Europe do you want? One where roaming is free or one where you have to wait two hours in a queue at the borders?
Guilherme: ‘I also don’t think that there are many countries where people would vote for leaving the EU, certainly not after the Brexit referendum. I think there are many people who say: I feel European, but I’m not represented by this EU. And there’s a whole generation of Erasmus students emerging.’
Joren: ‘Only journalists ask this question. By framing the debate in this manner, you are part of the problem. It is an unfair question. It sets the nation state against Europe. They are both part of the same process. If you say that people should choose, you confound the debate and you are not intellectually honest. The question is not whether you want more or less Europe, but what kind of Europe you want. A Europe where there’s free roaming, or one where you have to queue two hours at the border? A Europe where children can study in another country or one where you have to pay duties on imports from Italy?’
Erik: ‘Our point is that, if people see what Europe can be (that’s what creating awareness is about), they would agree. Europe and the nation states are now presented as communicating vessels. If one does more, that means that the other does less. That’s totally wrong, because the sovereignty of the nation state stopped existing a long time ago in this globalised world. As a Greek, I can tell you: the state lost its sovereignty a long time ago.’
Diem25 makes noise
Beautiful, such agreement on Europe, but how is DiEM25 going to act concretely to change Europe, I wonder.
‘We man the barricades’, jokes Erik.
‘We are a political movement’, says Joren. ‘We will organise debates, let people express themselves in publications and petitions. We are going to make noise in the public arena, put forward ideas, and influence the terms that the debate will be held under.’
‘Do not accuse us too fast of holding philosophical debates without having practical solutions’, says Guilherme. ‘That was precisely what happened to Yanis Varoufakis during the months of the Greek tragedy. He wanted to hold a discussion on the system, but he was told: you are too philosophical, we have to be practical. During our events, we brainstorm and build together. It’s all about togetherness.’
‘We connect networks,’ says Davide. ‘Last Sunday, we came together for the fourth time in a General Assembly. You co-operate better if you get to know each other better. It is essential to create a friendly atmosphere.’
I will follow them, these friends.
(This article originated on the ad-free journalism platform The Correspondent, your antidote to the daily news grind. Like this piece? Sign up to receive a story a week from The Correspondent at corr.es/newsletter. Like Tomas Vanheste on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @tvanheste.)