(Un)Making Europe and the Brexit Conundrum

Image: Phil Roeder / Flickr

Tuesday 17th October, 2017

Photini Vrikki

For everyone interested in the ways in which capitalism, solidarities, and subjectivities have changed Europe, the European Sociological Association (ESA) conference in Athens in September 2017 offered the ideal venue to debate the making and unmaking of Europe after the financial crisis of 2008. In Athens, at the heart of the European crisis, we got to listen to a number of speakers arguing about how a sociology that matters should evolve if we want to avoid the mistakes of the past and make, remake, and unmake a European society. In what follows, I will focus on the special evening session with Yanis Varoufakis and Donatella della Porta, since their speeches had a direct link to the talk I gave at the conference with the title ‘The (dis)connections of a shared society: Brexit and the social media interruptions producing fluid forms of citizenship.’

In my talk I called attention to the ways in which Brexit has brought forward new social movements. More specifically, I focused on the Twitter narratives produced by two such movements: #1DayWithoutUs and #MarchForScience. I suggested that by studying the presence of these actions on Twitter, we could unveil how migrants in the UK and British citizens alike express their dissatisfaction with the current political climate through emotionally charged tweets that show solidarity in a number of ways. The forms of expression that create these solidarities construct a concept of a fluid citizenship identity that is apparent in tweets that show support to these movements through comments of encouragement, by pointing out the significance of migrants in the cultural and financial sectors of the UK and by arguing for their importance to the UK’s workforce and society. I showed that the ‘expert voices’ are becoming more active in the public sphere, that we have new kinds of elastic solidarities forming, and that unfortunately right wing ideologies are on the rise, as they appear even more loudly on Twitter. By focusing on these aspects I endeavoured to show how these social (dis)connections, which are part and parcel of the contemporary British society, are far from the ‘shared society’ Theresa May has alluded to in some of her speeches as prime minister.

During their talks Yanis Varoufakis and Donatella della Porta made their own references to Brexit, however, what became particularly clear at the outset of Varoufakis’ and della Porta’s speeches were the declaration of their own political and sociological leanings. They each focused on a much broader category of progressiveness—that of what comes after the European Union and that of a poised critical reflection of Europeanism. There were interesting points of overlap between their two talks, though taking ‘rejection’ and ‘reform’ respectively as the identificatory point of reference for a union that is on the brick of foundational changes also makes for interestingly similar problems of definition when Varoufakis and della Porta ‘theorised’ their positions.

Both speakers justified their respective foci by arguing that the European Union has gone through a number of strong and identity changing conflicts that were produced and reproduced across Europe since 2008. They argued that some European countries had been marginalised in the EU and have not had equal access to decisions that were taken, e.g. when it came to Greece and the country’s financial struggles. This in turn has impacted the kinds of issues and relationships that populist and nationalist behaviours have attached to in some countries, such as in the UK—Brexit being one of the major results of nationalism attitudes penetrating the discourses of Europe. While there is ample evidence that the different dynamics and accelerations of EU members often share the blame for the current problems EU is facing, it is much more difficult to argue about what the next step should be; though both Varoufakis and della Porta offered dynamic models for what can be done. I would argue that the value of their two talks was not that they offered a convincing account of ‘a different Europe’ or of ‘an improved Europe’ but rather that the interventions they made, with regard to ways of (un)making Europe, grounded the ways in which the reception of these two attitudes is crucial in contributing to the big divisions in the union: by either rejecting ‘Europe’s failed neoliberal experiment’ as Varoufakis called it or as della Porta argued, by taking the time to reform Europe through ‘optimistic’ social movements.

Varoufakis walked a predominantly young sociologist crowd through a historical and intellectual history of what he assumed as the rise and fall of the European Union. He welcomed us to the ‘eye of Europe’s storm’, Greece, and suggested that Athens can be considered as a field trip to austerity. He playfully argued that he was glad sociologists still exist, since Thatcher wanted to close Sociology departments in the UK when he was a student in the UK, because for her Sociology departments were considered unnecessary—Thatcher’s ‘There’s no such thing as society’ rang very familiar here. For Varoufakis, this venom against Sociology was linked to the transformation of western capitalism and the ‘ideological need to bleach out the main meta-narrative regarding the world we lived in’: anything that couldn’t be quantified as exchanges between ‘autonomous self motivated fully sovereign individuals’ was not worth doing. For Varoufakis ‘measurement culture’ and quantification walked hand in hand and led us to the golden years of capitalism (the 50s and 60s) which in their turn led us into an abyss in which Europe disintegrated as a union, and which can evolve into something worse that might emulate what we experienced in Europe in the 1940s. The speaker suggested that neoliberalism was the ideological cover for the financialisation of the 70s, which demanded the complete eradication of all checks, balances, and regulations, for the benefit of Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt, and Paris.

Europe’s growth immaturity, Varoufakis argued, can be seen in its members’ (or the elites’ within the EU) inability or unwillingness to understand the minimum prerequisites necessary for the continuation of the EU and of the eurozone. He proclaimed that ‘Europe is a joke’ because by being so obstinate on imposing austerity measures to Greece they are feeding the beast of nationalism internationally. Varoufakis concluded by pointing to our need for a new progressive international across Europe and ended his talk by noting that it's not enough to study society, we also need to defend it.

In the second part of the plenary, Donatella della Porta took the stand to make a case for how an international of critical Europeanists could be developed on the basis of a number of assumptions formed through her research on social movements. Looking through the spectrum of social movements, della Porta deviated from Varoufakis’ talk, to suggest that we can’t see Europeanisation as a linear trend, but instead as a trend which implies different types of paths and types of characteristics in different moments in time. She focused on the argument that even if in a selective way, and even the interruptions, social movements of the progressive type have not given up the chance and the opportunities that will allow us to have a different Europe.

And indeed, as she pointed out, social movements have developed some corrective mechanisms to Europeanisation which are similar to what the European Social Forum (ESF) had addressed in 2006: reject the neoliberal Europe, create a Europe that is feminist, ecological, open, a Europe of peace, social justice, sustainable life, food sovereignty and solidarity, respecting minority rights and self-determinism of peoples. These ‘motivational frames’ were built on what social movements did not want the EU to become but eventually became, a neoliberal Europe. The social Europe and optimism that these social movements looked forward to had been institutionally exaggerated and taken advantage of, della Porta suggested, in order to create certain (faulty) narratives around the identity of Europe. Because the Europe we experienced from 2006-2008, was a Europe that was more and more neoliberal and less open to pressures from below.

Similar to Varoufakis’ argument, della Porta suggested that the crisis introduced constraints on democracy because memorandums of agreements that were imposed on a number of EU nations, ‘eliminated the democratic dialectic of government and opposition.’ According to her, along with this challenge came the challenge of responsibility: trust in EU institutions failed dramatically in all European institutions and more dramatically in the countries that were hit the most by the crisis. With this point, della Porta began her final remarks suggesting some challenges and opportunities for social movements. For her, there is a capacity to bridge concerns on nationalisms with serenity and attention to global issues and to create new types of alternatives in the streets, in institutions, new movements parties, and referendums from below.

Donatella della Porta concluded by suggesting that we are in a period were ‘all is dead but the new is not born yet’ and a moment in which ‘strong mobilisations allow us to be optimistic. We are in a time in which ideologies and utopias are again emerging in the practice of movements.’ As sociologists, we are in the context in which conflicts are still ‘open-ended and there is a lot we can do’ but more importantly ‘we can also steer them in the right direction.’

Both speeches challenged and confirmed some of my pre-conceived notions about Europe and the relation between bottom-up action and the power structures of the union. In general, the conference furthered my understanding of the historical origins of some of our beliefs about Europe. But it is perhaps most of all the diversity of some of the methods and analyses which were presented which were most revealing and which unsettled the stability of some of my thinking about European identity in particular. The ESA conference served to set out new questions to be answered and new challenges for a Europe that is entering a turbulent time with nationalisms and right-wing parties on the rise.

Photini Vrikki is Research Fellow in Digital Humanities in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Brunel University. She tweets at @iPhotini.

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