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15-M and ‘Nuit Debout’: A Chance for a More Democratic EU?

Next month, the Movimiento ‘15-M’ will be celebrating its fifth anniversary. But that is not the only reason it is currently in the news again.  It is also because the French movement ‘Nuit Debout’ vividly recalls the protests on the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. And, sure enough, the media have been quick to link ‘Nuit Debout’ to ‘Occupy’ in the USA or the Spanish ‘Indignados’.

The ‘Nuit Debout’ movement started as a protest against a proposed change of French labour laws. What in the beginning was a conventional protest campaign initiated by trade unions and civil society organisations, soon turned into something a lot more radical that spread like wildfire among the young and disgruntled: ‘staying up all night’ (Nuit Debout) has become a symbol of defiance and hope in the barren political landscape of France. Although there are crucial differences between 15-M and ‘Nuit Debout’, e.g. concerning their origin or their relationship with the trade unions, both movements strive for more participation in politics and more democracy. There are also similarities regarding their structure and organisation: both movements hold meetings and debates which are meant to lead to proposals. The main objective of both initiatives is to call for change and to reconnect citizens with politics. In the case of Spain, the movement gave birth to a political party ‘Podemos’, an example how mass support can be translated into political action. Although at this moment it looks as if forming a political party does not belong to the objectives of ‘Nuit Debout’, we will have to wait and see what happens.

There is no doubt that the European Union stands for democracy. Especially in Spain, where the accession to the European Union was linked to the consolidation of democracy after Franco’s dictatorship. However, this feeling has changed in the last years, not only in Spain, and movements like ‘15-M’or ‘Nuit Debout’ prove that point. According to Eurobarometer data from 2015 (see chart below), only 19 per cent of Spanish citizens still declare that to them the EU means ‘democracy’. With 24 respectively 25 per cent. the associations ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘waste of money’ have scored higher percentages. The economic crisis has much to do with this increase of negative attitudes: the number of Spaniards who associate the EU with democracy reached 36 per cent in 2009 and decreased afterwards.  However, in all fairness it has to be said that this percentage was also low (22 per cent) in the years before the economic crisis, 2005 and 2007. Unfortunately, we do not have earlier data which could show whether it was higher in previous years (though I am convinced that this was the case). Yet, that since the economic and financial crisis a growing number of people associate ideas like ‘bureaucracy’ or ‘waste of money’ with the EU is obvious. If we compare the Spanish data with the EU average, the EU percentages are more stable over the years, the increase of negative attitudes towards the EU is less pronounced, though we witness the same negative trend as in Spain.

Not only these data or the rise of popular movements like 15-M or ‘Nuit Debout’ show the necessity to think of a democratisation of Europe, so do initiatives like ‘Diem25’ (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), ‘For a Plan B in Europe’ or ‘Austerexit’ which denounce the lack of democracy in the European Union. ‘Diem25’ think that the EU is an exceptional achievement, but we need to democratise it. Its motto is: ‘Democratise Europe! For the EU will either be democratised or it will disintegrate!’ For them, it is the Brussels bureaucracy along with the euro, which divide the Member States. They claim that the EU puts economic interests before social policies, thus not taking into account the will of the European people. One of the most visible promoters of the latter movement is Greek’s former Minister of Finance Varoufakis, who was also one of the participants in the ‘Plan B’ Conference that took place in Madrid last February.

Although most of these initiatives emerged as a result of the austerity measures and the reforms imposed to improve the economic situation, they go beyond that: they question the European Union as it is right now and ask for a more inclusive and democratic EU. Since the economic recession the number of critical voices has not stopped increasing. Not only because of the austerity measures and reforms or the lack of solidarity among Member States, but also because of the way the refugee crisis was dealt with, especially the EU-Turkey deal. The perception that the decisions about economic issues are being taken by technocrats who give preference to economic success over social issues undermined the idea of the EU as democracy. The refugee crisis and the incapacity of the EU to solve this humanitarian catastrophe have not helped either. Human rights together with the social needs of people should be the EU’s top priorities but at the moment this is, unfortunately, not the case. As if this were not enough, over the past few days we learned about the alleged involvement of several European banks and people in positions of authority through the ‘Panama papers’ leak. This new leak proves the total lack of transparency in international finance, one of the main criticisms of the before mentioned movements and initiatives.

As all these new initiatives and movements have a common objective, a more social and democratic Europe, cooperation should be obvious. The international commission of the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement has already launched a call for a global meeting on 15 May coinciding with the fifth anniversary of 15-M in Madrid. The idea behind this is to extend the protests to other European countries. European citizens want to be more involved in politics and they want to be part of a different EU. These initiatives can be a way to get there and to reconnect citizens with politics. I hope that Spanish and other European citizens will continue to associate the EU with democracy. We can all contribute to this. It is important that people think in a European perspective and are involved in European matters. To achieve this, two things are necessary. Firstly, the lack of interest in or knowledge of the EU among European citizens needs to be tackled. Secondly, we need the European institutions to be more transparent and European leaders more open to citizens’ demands. This is what the people involved in these new movements and initiatives demand. Here lies a unique opportunity for the European institutions and leaders to reconnect with the citizens. It shouldn’t be wasted in times like these.

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