Europeanisation from below: still time for another Europe?

(Social EuropeIn the latest contribution to our ‘Europe2025’ series, Donatella della Porta argues that it has become increasingly difficult for social movements to envision another Europe from below.

Progressive social movement organisations have long been critical of the European Union—and progressively more so. Yet at the same time they have sought to promote ‘another Europe’.

They Europeanised their organisational networks and action strategies, developing cosmopolitan identities. As with the labour movement during the development of nation-states, they seemed destined to play a valuable role in pushing for a social and democratic Europe. At the beginning of the millennium, cosmopolitan activists of the global justice movement (GJM) developed significant critical visions of Europe, elaborating complex proposals for reform of EU policies and politics.

The financial crisis, and especially the EU’s response of austerity—the treatment of Greece epitomising an increasing market orientation, with less and less attention to a ‘Europe of the citizens’—has certainly frustrated hopes for a social Europe. The promotion by the EU of a narrative of the crisis as the responsibility of the weaker countries and the imposition of neoliberal programmes, oriented to the mantra of privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation, have not only made for ‘social butchery’ but also promoted competition among countries, through the (unsustainable) idea that all member states must simultaneously build an export-oriented economy.

During the same period, the treatment of the so called ‘refugee crisis’ via a strengthening of the external border—making Europe more and more similar to a fortress—has also manifested the lack of solidarity within the EU, with the battles over the allocation of migrants to each state and the visible failure of the Dublin regulation. Meanwhile, the management of the eurozone crisis increased the power of the least transparent institutions within the EU, reducing the role of the European Parliament, as also the parliaments of the member states.

Given such an evolution—going against all proposals for a social Europe, an inclusive Europe and a democratic Europe—is there still time to develop ideas of another Europe?


Research on social movements and Europeanisation had indicated a move away from protest towards advocacy, understood as an adaptation of movements to EU structures. But there was also evidence of a repoliticisation of EU issues, which saw the selective use of unconventional, protest-oriented strategies among groups forming part of the GJM. The European Social Forum, the largest annual gathering and arena for debate for the GJM in Europe, had expressed criticism of representative institutions within a broader frame, where the EU in particular was stigmatised because of its neoliberalism and lack of democratic accountability. Trust in the EU among activists surveyed at various ESF meetings was indeed low and dropped steadily from one forum to the next.

Within this critical political vision, however, images of another Europe signalled hope in reformist efforts to make European institutions more democratic and accountable. The image of ‘another Europe’—rather than ‘no Europe’—was often stressed in debates. While critical of existing policies and politics, many social-movement organisations were open to interactions with some institutions within the EU (such as the European Parliament and some departments of the European Commission), building upon the belief that representative institutions could be usefully reformed.

Recent progressive movements—from those mobilising against austerity to those mobilising in solidarity with refugees—testify to a shift in visions of, and practices towards, ‘another Europe’. In particular, anti-austerity protesters targeted what they perceived as the collusion of the economic and political elites. Social-movement organisations which mobilised in solidarity with migrants saw European institutions as betraying very basic rights. Protesters in those countries hit hardest by the economic crisis, cuts in public expenditure and related increases in inequality tended to have particularly low trust in EU institutions. As for their protest repertoires, counter-summits at meetings of the European Council have been replaced with occupations of public squares—that is, at the local level, where protesters feel some headway may be made in terms of rebuilding democracy.

Protest campaigns at the EU level—such as Blockupy actions targeting the European Central Bank or days of action promoted by the European trade unions—testify to the perceived need for political contention at that level but also to the great difficulty of mobilising transnationally. The acampadas against austerity policies, what have come to be known as the Indignados and Occupy movements, have been read as spaces of prefigurative politics—spaces for living out and building real democracies, as opposed to engaging with a system no longer capable of implementing democracy. While certainly inclusive, they however also point to a downward shift of scale for contentious politics, from the EU level to the national or even the local.

The increasing criticism of existing EU institutions has targeted their democratic deficit, perceived as worsening during the financial crisis and counterposed to national sovereignty, but also their policies, perceived as less and less driven by considerations of social justice and solidarity. There has been criticism too of the definition of Europe as an exclusive polity, with proposals to go instead ‘beyond Europe’. While federalist visions are therefore less and less widespread, a soft cosmopolitanism aims at combining different territorial levels—regaining territorial controls at the national, but also the local, level within mutualist conceptions.

In particular, the financial crisis, with the increasing power of the least democratically accountable institutions (such as the European Central Bank or the Eurogroup), is seen as a critical juncture, bringing EU institutions even closer to business and further from the citizens. In addition, the failure of the EU to deal with the ‘refugee crisis’ is perceived as further reducing the opportunities to create inclusive European institutions.

Social-movement studies have distinguished paths of domestication (the targeting of national government to address Europe-wide problems and policies), externalisation (the targeting of EU institutions to address national problems and policies) and transnationalisation (the construction of European networks targeting EU institutions). While the European Social Forum process had been analysed as an example of transnationalisation, more critical visions of Europe interact now with a move towards domestication, within a downward territorial shift of scale.

Arenas for debate

Neoliberal governance at the EU level has attacked those actors, such as trade unions or civil-society organisations, which had participated in the creation of arenas for debate around another Europe. These had also provided important mobilising resources for protest events such as counter-summits and the European Social Fora—which, while critical, had been however pivotal for imagining another Europe. Lacking these resources, with the fragmentation of struggles which late neoliberalism has brought about, progressive social movements seem less and less able to produce alternative frames for Europe, or even to talk about Europe.

At the same time, however, with very marginal exceptions, they have retained a cosmopolitan vision, with the idea of building another Europe proving resilient even in the face of these challenges. In fact, through the continuation of transnational interactions around issues such as gender rights and climate change, progressive movements are calling for a convergence of struggles—from which other visions of Europe could yet develop.​

About Donatella Della Porta

Donatella Della Porta is professor of political science at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, where she also leads the Center on Social Movement Studies (Cosmos). Her research includes social movements, political violence, terrorism, corruption, the police and the policing of protest.