by Sunna Kovanen & Ruby van der Wekken
Spring 2016 a Berlin-based Commonsnetwork, among others, called some 30 practitioners and researchers of commons all over Europe to meet for the first time and to build European-wide cooperation. The meeting took place on May 2016 at an organic farm in Villarceaux, some 40km outside of Paris. The next step was to call up a meeting of 120 Commoners all over Europe 15-17th November in Brussels and at the European Parliament, to strengthen the transnational movement for commons both at the grassroots as well as at the heights of international policy. Here is the report of our travels.
Building the knowledge from the nodes into action at the core
A first activity of the European Commons Assembly starting from the Villarceaux meetings in which also Ruby participated, was to amend a Call for the process, which is now hosted on the website of the commons assembly and open for signatures (Welcome to sign on!).
The objective was to bring together a trans-local coalition of action groups and processes of commoning in different spheres and to build a bottom-up movement to support commons-enforcing policies.
Over the following months, the assembly grew in numbers on its e-list and online working space whilst the organisatory team was also discussing with the European Parliament intergroup on public services and common goods, founded on 2015 and chaired by Marisa Mattias (Left bloque, Portugal). This led to the calling together of a larger network-meeting for all the practitioners in the field of commons their invitation to meet and discuss with to the European Parliament.
To collect the experiences of the current pressing challenges in the local level, we were asked to draft policy proposals online, before ever having worked together or met each other live. Sunna was working with policy on welfare services and social protection, Ruby started up on Currency as a commons, and we were both involved with a group on Solidarity economy & the Commons, which merged finally with other proposals into a paper on territorial commons.
For someone coming to the themes mainly from studies and activism, the policy drafting process was a really empowering experience of co-work beyond major differences in age, status or professional background. As a result we gained over 25 policy proposals with strong overlaps. Many had contributed things that they anyway worked with, but did not have the time or experience to adapt their work to the work of others or to existing EU-policies.
This shows how massive resource of knowledge and support we could have for the local actions, but that it needs also a lot of work to bring it all coherent usefully together. Finally 10 proposals were finalized, from which three dealing with energy, territories (including land & food), as well as democracy were presented at the parliament.
Before heading to the Parliament Ruby participated in a session on mapping, giving rise to its own host of questions. Different mapping initiatives and their objectives were shared, as also we did with our envisioning of wanting to map solidarity economy actors and promote further cooperation between solidarity economy actors and a strengthening of our commons and commoning. TransforMap on which also we map, will be sharing soon a manifesto for the mapping of the commons for us to comment on. Sunna, on the other hand, met with her group on social protection, and got once again convinced on the importance of general welfare policies and social rights for flourishing of active local production.
Supporting the local commons in the shadows of the institutions
The first evening’s meeting took place in northern Brussels, more prominent from the news on police actions than postcards. Walking past impressive skyscrapers and small retailers from all corners of earth we reached one of the old industrial buildings, now used by Zinneke, a parade celebrating the cultural mix in Brussels once a year, and in other times a space for neighbourhood activities.
We got to meet at the “dance floor”, in the basement of Zinneke, and enjoyed the contrast of the location to the coming meetings within the EU and sensed some kind of pride of the colourful self-organization in these leftover areas of industrial era.
We heard from local initiatives, Commons Josaphat and Community Land Trust Brussels, promoting the public ownership and collaborative planning of urban space. The following discussion was maybe the most inspiring one of the whole meeting, as people with very diverse backgrounds and experiences threw out their advices and contacts to the Brussels group to support them in their local political campaign and asked critical questions.
Is the governance or the ownership of a commons the most important for commoning? Or is perhaps access even more important than ownership? Or do we want to actually come to real legal forms for the Commons? In addition it was commented that the whole categorization into Right and Left, practitioners and theorists, or the framing between different commons (public or civil society or yet something else), as thinking and speaking in categories produces the modern mindset we want to challenge.
In the everyday life of the network there is surely no need to define one “most important” identifying border or practise, because both ownership and governance, both institutional and grassroots processes are running forth simultaneously. What defines and fixes the element that makes commoning to rise or fall, is the concrete political conflict. For example in the case of Commons Josaphat in Brussels and Aikapankki´s tax case at home, there will be neither access to the resource nor chance to learn better governance models, if legal structure prevents the commons from working.
Political (party) action Encounter with local Diem 25
The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), is a Pan-European political movement launched in 2015 by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, wanting to reform the EU’s existing institutions to become a union of people governed by consent. Local Diem25 activists explained that Diem25 must not be too much seen as a new kid on the block – it is part of a longer process, which has build up a momentum to claim that the system is bankrupt. They told also that Diem25 is working on a pan European agenda, which would also include a European charter on the commons. Participants discussed, whether the commons discussion could perhaps be a better tool for advocating the objectives of the movement than DIEM´s current emphasis on democracy & transparency.
A recurring point coming up in the discussion with DIEM25, as also on other instances, was the current perceived rise in Fascism, and the question, if commons & commoning can stand against Fascism and appeal also to the people that voted for “Trump“. For some any future for Europe lies beyond political parties, beyond state nationalism and market fundamentalism – and one slogan heard was “We need to make the commons great again” However, some days after the meetings, the discussion still went on whether it makes sense to use such slogans of imperial domination and primitive logic as the opponent.
European Commons Assembly at the European Parliament
It was challenging, naturally, to step into the european parliament straight on with our diverging views, before having determined what do we actually stand for. Alone the hierarchical and formal seating and the heaviness of the institution brought feelings of frustration for many, but going in was the only way to reach the MEPs in the first place.
At the end, however, some real debate arose as well, as the MEPs present at the session spoke on the ”European agenda for collaborative economy”, which had come out in June 2016, as part of the Digital Single Market strategy. One participant voiced out strong criticism of the emphasis on centralised platforms in the policy framework which pays attention neither to democratic participation, social issues nor ecological concerns. This criticism highlights the importance of combining the values of solidarity economy with the policy work for commoning.
According to the MEPs they are trying to introduce amendments on common goods into legislation, and that they would wish to create a regular channel to reach the field, to monitor and to introduce commons-favouring policies step by step. One proposed communication opportunity was www.commonseurope.eu; and in addition ECA was suggested to define certain focal points which could have an effect on the institutional work. Some participants commented critically, though, that it is not the objective of the ECA to put forward some experts, but that it is exactly the assembly process which should brought to the forefront
Content & structure of the ECA process
There was good energy in Zinneke cellar dance floor room the morning after the EP parliament session. The debrief following the session at the EP brought up, that some really wanted to further the policy work and for instance address the Common Agricultural Policy, which mentions nothing on the Commons. Others then again said, they wished to concentrate on the exchange of practices at the local level instead. The general agreement was that both practises will continue.
The Assembly broke out into different working groups, as for instance around financing the Commons where Ruby joined. It already had its first debate regarding the need for redistribution of money or/and alternative financial system creation. Another working group was on communications, whilst Sunna joined the large table on the organisation of the actual Assembly process itself, which will cover at least the exchange of information and support between different localities. The working groups will be continuing on the ECA’s working space (for now) on Loomio.
Besides the assembly process continuing on-line, important is of course the question of the next milestone, as it will not be at the European Parliament. One idea was to awake a big buzz via a huge commons festival, It was great to hear of the different suggestions already made for the next ECA : at the Tate modern, Madrid November 2017, RIPESS SE annual meeting possibly in Athens and so on.. At least there is a lot of positive energy and futures to enliven if such a cultural event would take place.
In these times such meetings with inspiring people and learning from long-standing but creative, value-based and positive examples gives a great bunch of energy to go on the work at home. Welcome to join! Commons.fi at any of the upcoming commons assembly meetings (follow the website and facebook group).