European Alternatives: rooted cosmopolitanism and the distance of Europe

There are many good reasons to criticize the current European Union. I don’t need to list them here. One persistent complaint about the very possibility of a European Union is that it is too distant from ‘everyday life’. This kind of complaint is different to disagreement with current policies of the Union, and also goes beyond noticing a ‘democratic deficit’: it suggests that the European Union could never be something that people identify with, or that people find representative or responsive, because it is somehow necessarily too distant. Decisions are made ‘in Brussels’, which is not the real Brussels, but some place infinitely further away than Belgium.

This kind of complaint is very similar to a complaint that is often made to the philosophical idea of cosmopolitanism: ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of no (particular) place at all’, runs the criticism, ‘and so cannot feel a strong enough community bond to act politically’.

What is more, this ‘cosmopolitan’ outlook tends to be identified with a metropolitan, jet-setting, highly individualistic elite ‘class’, themselves distant from the everyday concerns of everyday people, allergic to notions of loyalty, authority, belonging, family and all similar things. Perhaps such people are behind the machinations of the European Union… if only we could find and catch them. Sometimes this cosmopolitan outlook of a liberal class, and its supposed dominance in mainstream party politics, is identified as a cause for the disenchantment and alienation which leads people to vote for populist and right wing parties like UKIP or support movements like PEGIDA. (link

No doubt some such rootless people exist. But what is striking to me is that in contemporary Europe, people I’ve come in contact with who are concerned about the world (is anyone seriously not interested at all in the future of the planet and what happens in other parts of the world?) also tend to be highly concerned with their immediate surroundings, with the place they are in, and people they are in contact with. Their concern with the ’world’ or the planet is not a concern with an abstract entity, but with something concrete they can act on starting where they are, which has a past which existed before them, and (we all hope) a future that will exist after them.

Such people are not by any means allergic to loyalty, or the authority of what is right, or notions of belonging, even if they might critically question each invocation of these values and understand that communities ‘they’ belong to might not trump all others.

Those who have been involved in European Alternatives tend to be curious, interested in what is happening around them, and motivated to do something about it. They are not all or even in majority from a metropolitan or wealthy background, even if there is a strong majority who are highly educated. This latter can, I think, be easily explained: a prerequisite for the kind of outlook I am describing is a strong self-reflexivity; the ability to critically question and understand the possibility of different points of view and interests. This ability is promoted by good formal education, but formal education is by no means the only way to develop it.

The activities of European Alternatives have always been trans-local as they attempt to be transnational. Our hypothesis is that every place has connections and relations with other places beyond and outside of it. These connections and relations are decreasingly ‘national’ in scope, and cross all kinds of borders. Our everyday realities are increasingly connected and affected by what is going on elsewhere, through the economy, through media and communications, through climate change, through the increased movement of people. This is what we have tried to show with our Transeuropa Festival, or our Transeuropa Caravans.

That our local lives are being increasingly affected by what is happening elsewhere, outside of our immediate view or possibility to intervene, could legitimately be a reason to be fearful. Such a phenomenon risks taking both control and certainty away from us. It risks creating ‘distance’. But these risks only come to bear by our failure to create political, social and cultural connections and institutions which allow us to impact and decide on our futures. Perhaps at some point in European history national institutions were appropriate for this: for making visible the relevant factors affecting our lives, and for allowing effective political intervention where this is possible. Now they are inadequate, and everyone feels it, even those (especially those) wishing for the ‘return’ of the strong nation-state.

European Alternatives can be understood as enacting one variant has been called a ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’: not unconcerned with where we are, where we’ve come from and the people who are immediately around us, but also understanding firstly that these personal histories do not always have a priority, and secondly that ‘where we are’, and ‘who we’re with’ have increasingly trans-border answers which tend to be ignored or made invisible by mainstream political and media institutions.

What does this tell us about the European Union and the far-away Brussels? Well, that a certain set of European institutions would actually be very well placed to restore democratic agency to people in a world becoming more interconnected, but this democratic agency is not to be recovered at an abstract or general level, but in specific localized situations, where a transnational political agency is actually required because the nature of the local problem requires it. Identifying these specific situations, and explaining how the EU can address them in terms that refer to the local situation is the main challenge for the EU. It goes beyond a communication problem, to requiring flexible and adaptable policy-making, rather than ‘one size fits all’ or centralized planning, which nevertheless has European dimension. To achieve both of these things, more citizen participation and co-design of policies seems to be the most promising way: the only way to get the high sensitiveness to local specificities, enough involvement of citizens to make the policies adaptable, and enough ownership of the citizens to bring that policy (and the institutions behind it) closer.