Does Europe need new catastrophes? - RSA

Does Europe need new catastrophes?


  • Institutional reform
  • Global

This is an English language version of an oped origionally published in the Austrian newspaper, Der Standard.

Europe has been undergoing a three decade long social and cultural revolution. Yet, at the same time its democratic, social democratic, and economic structures have remained incredibly resistant to change. It is in this gap that the range of populist movements currently flourishing on the continent have emerged. Some see this as a passing phase. In reality, to coin a phrase, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

My own country, the UK, has voted to depart the EU. The temptation on the continent will be to see this as simply the latest example of British exceptionalism. If EU leaders see it in such terms then that would be a mistake of historic proportions. Each country experiences the ongoing revolution in specific ways with different historical, institutional and cultural starting points.

Britain is exceptional but so are Germany, Greece, Finland, Denmark or France! The nations suffering from a punitive Euro regime need no convincing of this. The UK may be about to go through a similarly intransigent process. As Europeans, we should hope not. We can either contend with the changes our societies are experiencing together or seek to punish each other for our differences.  If we do the latter then what moral basis do the EU and the range of other European institutions have?

The answer would be little and Britain wouldn’t be the last the walk away. 

So what is the nature of the social and cultural revolution? The answer is polarisation and insecurity. The economy has become big and small, the industrial firm has become or been replaced by a series of platforms sustaining networks, the job has been increasingly casualised and disaggregated into a series of tasks, and European societies have become polarised between future-looking and diversity-loving cosmopolitans and past-seeking conservatives. 

It’s not a case of arguing who is right and wrong. The point to focus on is that Europe has been through social and cultural revolutions in the past but its societies have, eventually, found ways to respond. Unfortunately, these moments of solidarity have too often come following catastrophic failure. Hopefully, a new consensus can be struck before such failure.

The changes we are seeing don’t have a single cause. They are a combination of new technology enabling the reorganisation of economic life through automation, coordination, and networks. It is through this process that ‘jobs’ are increasingly becoming a series of tasks and we see this trend most visibly in the so-called ‘gig economy’ exemplified by companies such as Uber.

Some of the changes have come through shifts in law such as welfare systems becoming more intrusive – and punitive – in many countries adding to a sense of insecurity. 60% of work in OECD countries has come from ‘non-standard work’ – ie casual, part-time or often low-paid self-employment – since the 1990s. ‘Non-standard’ workers are paid relatively poorly and experience lower job quality.

And finally, there is a shift in our cultural values between those who embrace the cultural fruits of globalisation and those who are suspicious of them.

Europe is in a centrifugal moment. And yet its leaders are trying to hold onto old solidarities and failing. The EU itself is bound more by power and rules than cooperation and affinity. Political parties, particularly on the left, cling onto old constituencies and fail to reach beyond them. Public institutions are left in old forms, not least welfare systems designed for the industrial era, missing the important changes to the nature of work and life. Unions, churches, civic institutions of all kinds struggle to respond to a world of divergence and kinetic social movements and identities rapidly forming and the receding through social media. There are interesting innovators in solidarities for the new age such as Mayor Ada Colau’s local democracy experiments in Barcelona. Yet, these examples are too few and too far between.

One source of genuine hope is the movement for Universal Basic Income – which is designed to be platform to support the new world of work that has already emerged and give people more control over their lives. A Basic Income is a regular payment made to every citizen without condition. Its strength is that it provides a basic level of security that supports both the individual and common life. Experiments are due to begin in both Finland and the Netherlands. The movement is spreading – the first referendum on Basic Income was held in Switzerland earlier this year.

The slogan on the ‘Brexit’ campaign was ‘take back control’. Whether or not exiting the EU actually does bring about more control for the average UK person remains to be seen, but the point is that the strong desire for control is clear. We now need a range of political and social innovations to give people some more control over lives that have become insecure for too many.

Universal Basic Income is only the beginning but it is the key foundation for new solidarities in European nations. Will we find the leadership and politics to make this happen? It’s impossible to say but what is certain is that we are on the wrong track and desperately need to steer a different course.     

Anthony Painter is Director of the RSA Action and Research Centre. He is author of ‘Creative citizen, creative state: the principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income.’

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