EU faces challenge of connecting with new wave of protest movements

Protests reveal deep frustration with representative democracy as currently practised

Protesters  in Sao Paulo earlier this month. “Wu Ming” argues that there is “a new international consciousness and activism sweeping world cities from Istanbul to São Paulo to Cairo and all around Europe”. Photograph: New York Times

Protesters in Sao Paulo earlier this month. “Wu Ming” argues that there is “a new international consciousness and activism sweeping world cities from Istanbul to São Paulo to Cairo and all around Europe”. Photograph: New York Times

Sat, Jun 29, 2013, 01:00

“We have a strange sort of centrality in public debate. It is a contradiction in terms: we are at the fringes but also at the centre.” So said one of the four members of Wu Ming, a collective of Italian fiction writers, storytellers and politico-cultural activists based in Bologna, in a recent interview. Wu Ming means anonymous in Chinese.

His point highlights their influence and those who think like them as part of a new international consciousness and activism sweeping world cities from Istanbul to São Paulo to Cairo and all around Europe. It is a “subterranean politics” suddenly influencing a crisis-prone political and media mainstream, according to one recent study.

From the libertarian and autonomist left, as befits their city, Wu Ming’s novel Altai, based on the conflict between the Venetian republic and the Ottomans in 1569-71, has just been translated into English. Published in Italian in 2009, it contains many interesting parallels between that period, which culminated in the naval battle of Lepanto, and now. The Venetian victory there is often quoted by representatives of the far right Northern League in their battles against immigration and Islam. The website is full of lively commentary, including scathing criticism of the Grillo movement as another piece of right-wing authoritarianism.

I read Altai on holiday in Bozburun on the Aegean south coast of Turkey last week, a heavenly place for sailing and swimming. The story traces the fortunes of a Venetian secret service agent who becomes a scapegoat for a fire in the city’s arsenal. His escape to Dubrovnik, Salonika and Constantinople reopens his rejected Jewish identity as he briefs the Jewish banking family funding the Ottoman attack on Cyprus in the hope that the island could then become a haven for their people and a place of safe tolerance for other European minorities.

The plan goes horribly wrong in its military execution - a case of means determining ends according to Ismail, an old associate of the family and a veteran of the radical Anabaptist movement in Germany from the 1520s. He says such utopias can only be made from below, cutting across the practical if constrained toleration for Jews and others in the Ottoman empire and its capital city.

It was fascinating to meet a group of Turks from Istanbul talking about the Taksim Square protest movement against Erdogan - and to recommend the book to them. This was doubly so when some of them turned out to be Jewish and still speaking Ladino, the Sephardic language their ancestors brought from Spain after they were expelled in 1492, many of them settling in Salonika, Constantinople and other Ottoman cities.

The younger ones are hopeful about change, believing the movement represents an irreversible shift towards a more pluralist civil society, notwithstanding Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism, widespread arrests of activists and journalists and the cultural polarisation which the older ones find much more alarming. All are impressed with the spontaneity, innovation and humour of the protests and how they go beyond existing political divisions. But this is a large society facing a turbulent transition in an unsettled region, despite its economic dynamism. It is surely better to engage than shun Turkey, as EU ministers decided this week to reopen accession talks in the autumn.

How such subterranean politics suddenly bubble up into the European mainstream is the subject of a study by Mary Kaldor and others at the London School of Economics (see It examines recent movements in Germany, Spain, Hungary and Italy and several trans-European ones. It finds they are all about politics, expressing a deep frustration with representative democracy as currently practised.

This reflects the widespread collapse of trust in leaders and institutions seen in polling surveys, a dramatic shift which explains why these alternative movements get such a public hearing. They emphasise participation, process, leaderlessness, substitutionality, anonymity between individuals, based on widespread mobilising use of social media, rather than developed political demands. These are well-educated activists like Wu Ming, a new unemployed young middle class also reflecting widespread youth unemployment in many EU member-states.

Surprisingly the Europe of the EU is invisible to these movements. Older narratives of peace not war pass them by, while they take the new continental mobilities for granted. The challenge for the EU is to find a way to connect with them by offering a regional way between disempowering globalisation and disempowered nation-states to re-empower citizens and democracy. There is a real hunger for convincing answers to these questions as the fringe comes to the centre.

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