The European Parliament Focuses on Commons

The European Parliament is formally focusing on the commons paradigm through a new “Intergroup on common goods,” which is part of a larger group known as the "European Parliamentary Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services."  The group met for the first time on May 26 in Brussels, at the European Parliament.  At this early stage, it’s hard to tell if it will be influential either within the European Parliament or with the public, but it certainly represents a significant new threshold for commons activism. 

Intergroups are official forums of the Parliament at which members, political organizations and movements can air their views and try to rally attention to a given topic. As Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network writes:

Even though the intergroups have no legislative power, they can be valuable having such a representation in the European Parliament. At the minimum, it is a multiparty forum where one can exchange views and propose ideas on particular subjects in an informal way. Those who choose to work with such an intergroup, its Members of Parliament, and civil society or lobbyists, share the notion that a certain topic is important and can focus on how to get things done.

Now there will also be a Commons Intergroup. This particular group will allow for discussions on policy from a shared perspective: the idea that “the commons” – is an important and helpful way of framing the important themes of present times. As there can only be so many Intergroups, inevitably the group is the result of a political compromise. It has been formed by Members of the European Parliament from the Greens, the left group GUE, the large Social Democrat party (S&D) and the group EFDD which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party. The movement on water as a commons has been instrumental for the mobilization of the intergroup. 

For political reasons, the Commons Intergroup is one of two subgroups of the European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services. MEP Marisa Matias from GUE is the president of the Commons Intergroup.

Bloemen sees the very formation of the Intergroup as “confirmation of the aspirations and discourse of the commons becoming a political force.”  But she also wonders “how an intergroup with such a broad scope as commons or common goods [can] be useful? Aren’t the daily activities of the European Parliament in the end about concrete policies, amendments to policy proposals and votes?” 

These were not the only questions about the new Intergroup.  Denis Postle, a Brit who blogs at psyCommons, wrote about his own misgivings about the meeting – and its promise:

There were repeated calls for “the need for debate” but debate was overwhelmingly subordinate to a series of charismatic and often vociferous presentations mostly from the podium, peppered with multiple exhortations that the commons and common goods “were a good idea,” “we must…” “we need…” “we have to…” etc., etc. Lots of talk about commons not much apparently from commons. When I spoke to ask the other delegates “who we were” and how many had direct experience of commoning, around a third of the audience put up their hands, an indicator perhaps that less preaching to the converted would have been appropriate.

This was an inaugural meeting, so uncertainty and clumsiness can be excused, however on balance the presentations had a lot to say about common goods resources, i.e., a city’s water supply and much less about commoning, often a fragile flower growing out of peer-to-peer governance, commitment and emotional competence.

Was this a meeting then, as it perhaps seemed, where the old left was trying to befriend a new and promising flavour of the political month? There was no coffee break and apart from casual chat before the meeting, no interaction between the assembled delegates –the old paradigm of a representative polity?

And yet… in her introductory remarks Marisa Matias outlined two agenda items, “how to think outside the logic of the state” and “how to handle the management of the commons,” both radical contradictions of neoliberal preferences. Perhaps this Common Goods Intergroup event was a way of introducing to an old politics, news of political innovation that was proving unexpectedly and improbably successful.

The arrival of the Commons Integroup can’t help but provoke reflections on the rising tide of other commons initiatives in Europe.  There were the recent elections of leaders in Barcelona with an explicit commons agenda; the new public/commons partnerships instigated by the city governments of Bologna and other Italian cities; the festivals for the commons in Greece, Italy and elsewhere; the re-muncipalization of the Paris water supply; and the growing interest in the commons paradigm among French academics and graduate students, especially as the performance of the Socialist Party declines.

As a creature of the European Parliament, the Commons Intergroup may face some serious challenges in advancing a commons agenda, however. How will it deal with the multiple definitions of commons, the diversity of voices, and the wide-open agenda that could focus on dozens of suitable topics?  Still, it is significant that there was sufficient interest among credentialed European political factions to discuss the commons and give it a political presence That’s a huge advance.

So now there exists a forum in which to hash through conflicting views of the commons and to give visibility to a neglected realm of European public policy.  Let the debates begin over whether the commons is a resource alone or a social activity, what should be considered a commons, and how best to protect them from enclosure. Let us hear, too, of the many innovative policy initiatives that might support and protect commons.

An important conversation has begun!