A Soul for Europe
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A Soul for Europe

Time of the Citizens: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for

Verena Ringler

Verena Ringler

We are witnessing the swift and serial capture of democracies in our midst. What to expect? What to do? “Institutions won’t save you,” wrote political scientist Masha Gessen and writer Teju Cole just hours after Donald Trump had been elected president to the United States in November 2016. Soon thereafter, the Turkish-US-American economist Daron Acemoğlu joined these voices, declaring in Foreign Policy magazine: “We are the last line of defense.”

We, the citizens?

Indeed, recent tectonic shifts in world affairs have fundamentally changed the roles of citizens in many places around the world. Like it or not, you, me, and us are more important than we might have wished for. For generations born after World War II and after the Vietnam War even, this is new and this is grand. It is not, however, comforting to realize that it’s us we have been waiting for, that we might really be the last line of defense against constitutional, state, or system capture. From Warsaw to Washington, and from Budapest to Brussels, what is clear is that taking an active role vis-à-vis our future is no longer a choice and no longer an option; rather, it is a necessity.

How can we grow into this new role? In most places across Europe, we still have the preconditions, the liberties, the guarantees, the resources and wealth of experience, the knowledge and the talent to influence our political framework.

And yet, we have a long way ahead of us. Who among ourselves has been devoting their professional or their spare time over many years to preserve peace and diversity, to unlock captured state and constitutional systems? We have a long way ahead of us. And, if we talk the talk of “people power” and “civil society”, we also need to walk the walk. That means behavioral changes in daily life. Body care and democracy care would be part of the same daily routine.

This is at least what filmmaker and activist Michael Moore committed demonstrators to at the ‘Women’s March on Washington’ back in the winter of 2017. He told them to devote themselves to democracy on a daily basis. One point was: “Join groups.” He said it did not matter whether you join groups that promote civil liberties, human- and minority rights or the ones that are committed to environmentalism or climate protection.

Now, let’s redirect this invitation to Europeans. We have elections coming up in countries that are all critical for the EU’s future: Sweden, Hungary, Italy. Also in Europe, civic engagement knows no limits and does not need an entry into the electoral register.

But do we even know groups we wanted to join if we could- could if we wanted? Who is actually standing up for the European core values that we treasure? Where can we deposit our preferences for a strong and consistent rule of law model at home and abroad, where can we learn about activism and put it into practice? Here’s a starters’ manual: European Alternatives (euroalter.com), Project for Democratic Union (democraticunion.eu) and European Democracy Lab (eusg.de) are start-ups of the past years. Polis180.org, theeuropeanway.org and europeisnotdead.com invite you to participate. The group ‘Aufstehen gegen Rassismus’ provides behavioral classes for supermarket check stands and pub talks, ‘Schmalbart’ advocates a fair and objective debating culture. ‘Savedemocracy’ offers monthly barcamps and hack days to discuss questions concerning democracy, while the large network of the European Federalists invited for the: ‘March for Europe’ in the view of EU-festivities in March 2017.

We could indeed experience a number of occasions recently where people power came to the fore: In Poland, the numerous and tenacious protests of the people against two proposed laws lead the government to revoke their propositions. In Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen was appointed president. For nearly two years now, the operation Libero successfully intervenes in referendums in Switzerland. A Hungarian referendum on EU refugee policies failed due to low participation rates. And last but not least, thousands of Europeans have been rallying in their cities in recent months for the “Pulse of Europe” movement. Now, it’s all about alliances, professionalism, and perseverance. Democracy care must become the new normal.

Verena Ringler (@VerenaRingler)

Verena Ringler has been shaping the Europe Cluster at Germany’s Stiftung Mercator since 2013. Previous stints have been as Deputy Head of Press and Public Affairs with the International Civilian Office / EU Special Representative in Kosovo (2006–09) and as Associate Editor with Foreign Policy magazine in Washington (2002–2006). Verena is a frequent public speaker on Europe (Club of Venice, TEDx) and is a member of the Councils of the Fondation Jean Monnet and the European Forum Alpbach.

Verena has been devising and is overlooking a large portfolio of projects which aim to strengthen European cohesion and our joint ability to act. Verena specifically encourages trust-building, co-creation, and co-operation across political parties, sectors and professions, as well as across countries, languages and generations. She aims to harness today’s insights into leadership and foresight practices for tackling challenges in European integration, suggesting that we can only solve the systemic problem sets of our time with systemic response mechanisms. Verena is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies




The A Soul for Europe Medium publication is the home of our recurring “Online Debates”. Where we foster serious discussions about the responsibility for the future of Europe and democracy through culture.

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A Soul for Europe

A Soul for Europe

We connect citizens and democratic institutions across Europe, fostering a sense of responsibility for the future of Europe and democracy through culture.

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