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The European debt crisis has brought people together across borders

Social movements mobilisation activities increased across borders as a reaction to the economic crisis that has especially hit southern Europe over the past decade as indicated by the Associate Professor Sevasti Chatzopoulou.
Sevasti Chatzopoulou
Photo: Uffe Weng

"We are all Greeks now."

Slogans like the above appeared on banners and posters across Europe, as a declaration of solidarity with the Greek people after the debt crisis that Greece and other European countries have experienced in the wake of the financial crisis in 2007-2008.

The Danish trade union federation, LO, expressed its support to the Greek population, during the protests in Greece in 2011, especially since the trade unions do not have the same access to policy making decisions as in Denmark and they need different forms of actions.

Previously, social movements primarily mobilized at the national level and have engaged in national issues, but Associate Professor Sevasti Chatzopoulou of Roskilde University has observed in her research changes in mobilisation patterns in connection with the European debt crisis.

The crisis created a new opportunity structure for social mobilization and action, particularly as the EU institutions did not only decide austerity measures but became involved in the management of the management and the implementation of these austerity policies, which were previously exclusively the competence of the national governments.

"An interesting difference compared to earlier has been that the social movements began to collaborate in a more organized way across borders. The transnational movements involve people and groups that have roots in a national context, but act across borders", explains Sevasti Chatzopoulou.

Social movements across Europe developed a sense of community that faces the same problems which require common solutions.  Thus, the target of their protests is no longer just national, such as a government, but can also be supranational, such as the various EU institutions or the banks.  Through their collaborations, the movements develop networks, where they can exchange information, knowledge, experiences, learn from each other and frame common messages and claims.

So, even though certain observers have wondered whether the EU is about to dissolve, these developments have also had a unifying effect in other areas.

Democratic deficit

The European debt crisis broke out for real in 2009, when Greece's economy suffered seriously, and afterwards it hit countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Italy.

The financial crisis triggered EU responses and in 2010, the so-called Troika consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund intervened in order to manage the crisis. The Troika proposed various austerity policies in several of the countries affected by the crisis, as a condition for these countries receiving an EU bailouts. Since then, the troika has been expanded to a quartet, and it also includes now the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Decisions concerning the management measures of crisis were transferred from the national governments over to the supranational institutions, which constitutes an important change within the EU economic governance and contributed to the transnationalisation of social movements.

"The EU became not only an important player in the decision-making process, but also in the implementation of national policy making, resulting  in the mobilisation of transnational social movements, particularly as the actors in most of the supranational institutions, apart of the European Parliament, are not directly elected by the people, they are appointed” explains Sevasti Chatzopoulou.

Therefore, protesters do not only contest the austerity measures but also the democratic deficit in the EU governance system.

"The democratic deficit is not a new issue, but now it has become more pronounced and has a more transnational perspective", notes the Associate Professor.

A new feeling of identity

While language and culture differences were considered barriers to transnationalisation of social movements, they have now managed to overcome these issues and develop a sense of a common identity, and now protesters from Spain have begun to talk about the situation in Greece and vice versa.

"People no longer talk about themselves only as Greeks, Spaniards or Italians, but as European people, who face exactly the same problems no matter where they live. The common problems make people feel more alike, rather than focusing on their differences.  Nevertheless, this sense of community is not equally strong among people from all member states. It is most pronounced among people from countries mostly affected by the crisis, such as Greece, Spain and Italy", says Sevasti Chatzopoulou.

The fact that problems are similar beyond borders and solutions are decided by supranational institutions,  makes social movements to adapt their mobilisation similarly.  Besides, technology and new media makes it easier to communicate between countries. Many movements are using new technologies in organising and coordinating their activities through e.g. Facebook and other social media.

The common goal has united people across political boundaries, at least for a while.

“In Greece, when social movements in response to the crisis started, it included people from different political backgrounds, but during the process there has been a clearer division between right and left-wing groups", says Sevasti Chatzopoulou.

Has generated attention

Through demonstrations, meetings, posters and art, the social movements have attempted to gain the attention of the responsible EU institutions and influence the decisions.  Although the goal may not be fully achieved, transnational movements have nevertheless had an effect.

"The effect may not have been so huge yet, but in my opinion, they have managed to create awareness on the common problems and establish a dialogue, and this has been very important. They have played a significant role in creating a different discourse about democracy in Europe. We are beginning to observe discussions about reforming the EU and finding common democratic solutions to common problems", concludes Sevasti Chatzopoulou.

She stresses that the social transnational movements do not necessarily want to disolve the EU, but would prefer a reformed EU.

Sevasti Chatzopoulou, Associate Professor of European Bureaucratic Politics at the Department of Social Sciences and Business. She teaches and is responsible for various courses, such as International Studies, EU Governance, International Public Administration and Politics, The International Civil Servant and Europeanization and Globalization.

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