“We don’t change policies depending on elections.”

Cian O'Donovan
Jul 31, 2015 · 5 min read

by Cian O’Donovan and Phil Johnstone

Following Syriza’s general election victory early in 2015, Jyrki Katainen, Vice President of the European Commission, issued the above warning: local political mandates would not be allowed influence policy made at the heart of Europe [1]. He was correct, but only partially. While events subsequent to Greece’s bail-out referendum in July suggested no, Greece’s votes do not count, it appears that national interests in his own country, and many northern EU members did. A new urgency has gripped discussion of democracy within the European Union. Social scientists and political campaigners are two groups for whom these questions have become increasingly important Events in Greece and beyond have led many to question the very nature of the European project, and the role within it of democracy.

How are we to understand Europe? Fintan O’Toole recently presented Europe as a narrative, constructed in the last century as a countervailing force against Eurasia’s other big ideas, totalitarianism and communism [1]. Europe then not as a social sphere, but as a shared story. In a union of 28 electorates, political systems and news cycles, this shared story matters, especially to those of us who who seek to influence, be it through policy debates or political activism. This European story we have woven into our own, using it to address national challenges when individual democracies weren’t up to the job. Europe excelled in narrating the challenges of yesterday, post war and cold war reconstruction of infrastructures and institutions and livelihoods. Through environmental challenges and climate change legislation, Europe is at least addressing challenges of tomorrow, issues many nations have been reluctant to confront individually. But what of challenges of today, youth unemployment, northward migration and distribution of risk and reward in the great Eurozone experiment? It is here, where perhaps we need shared stories most, Europe’s narrative threads have come undone.

Why does democracy matter to Europe? Democracy is readily understood as a term we can apply to electoral systems and representative government — France is a democracy, China is not, Russia we’re not quite certain. More relevant to this debate however, democracy is a process. Crucially it provides us with capacities for challenging power [3]. The power to make war, the power to emit fossil fuels, the power to “disrupt” a city’s transport and housing infrastructure in the interest of distant venture capital (à la the EC vs Silicon Valley). For those who are many in number but less in power, the process of democracy is often the best chance to make progressive change., Over the past half century a great number of civil society organisations in Europe and beyond have used democracy as a core process through which they have influenced the present and future [4,5]. In the story of Europe, democracy has long been a central theme, but for how much longer?


“the balance between politics and the market has come out of sync, at the cost of the welfare state…Key decisions are being taken by the council, the commission and ECB — in other words, the very institutions that are either insufficiently legitimated to take such decisions or lack any democratic basis”


Jürgen Habermas, a named co-author of the European story, in recent comments suggested “the balance between politics and the market has come out of sync, at the cost of the welfare state…Key decisions are being taken by the council, the commission and ECB — in other words, the very institutions that are either insufficiently legitimated to take such decisions or lack any democratic basis” [6]. While Habermas’ medicine — further federal integration — threatens to kill the patient, there is surely something useful in his diagnosis. This is evident in the conflicting stories of debt, morality and trust in the Greek crises, observed throughout the continent. On the one hand, there is the ongoing integration of markets and legislation, whilst on the other, serious issues remain, where from both the left and right, from Syrizia and Podemos, to UKIP and ‘Alternative to Germany’ fragmentation of local political settlements can be understood in local democratic contexts, but also as counters to Brussels technocracy.

For academics, activists, indeed Europeans seeking progressive social change, these debates require urgent attention. Academics, regardless of political hue or intent, are not neutral in the story of Europe, least of all policy influencing social scientists promoting “transitions” to “sustainable” futures. Our work deliberately seeks, through transformation or discontinuation processes, changes in technology and social practices. These changes both challenge and remake the power structures of Europe [7]. Germany’s Energiewende — its rapid roll out of renewable technologies — offers one example from the domain of electricity production in which pro-active citizens and movements have challenged vested utility interests [5]. The end game: wind and solar power are up, the share price of Germany’s traditional electric utilities down.

Lessons drawn from Germany by many researchers have led to policy prescriptions which emphasise the need to ‘accelerate’ these transitions; to foster ‘deliberate’ coordinated action; for ‘big’ transitions across the continent. But in the scale and urgency of these debates there is risk that democratic deficits and dissatisfaction with the policy process could grow stronger still. The danger here is that these stories are no longer co-created, but imposed top-down.

So what next for analysts and activists contemplating transitions in an uncertain Europe? An initial step surely is for scholars to better understand the our democratic contexts. Who is contributing to these new European stories, and crucially, who is not. Here then in our rejoiner to the activists, campaigners and publics. If a shared story of Europe is to continue, evolve or be remade, surely the most promising path is participation. Addressing the terms of this participation we close with a simple question. What can the social scientists learn from the new forms and models of campaigning, activism and politics we have seen throughout Europe so far this decade?

About the authors

The authors are researchers at SPRU — Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

At IST 2015

On August 27th we are hosting a special dialogue session with organisers, activists, academics and journalists discussing these issues. The event is part of IST 2015, the International Sustainability Transitions conference, being held at the University of Sussex, Brighton.

Invited guest participants include:

If you would like to participate, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Selected bibliography

  1. Katainen, Jyrki 2015. http://theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/03/beginning-end-european-union-angela-merkel
  2. O’Toole, F., 2015. Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/05/europe-fictional-construct-legacies-of-war
  3. Johnstone, P. & Stirling, A., 2015. Comparing Nuclear Power Trajectories in Germany and the UK: From “Regimes” to “ Democracies” in Sociotechnical Transitions and Discontinuities, SPRU Working Paper Series 2015–18, University of Sussex, Brighton. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=2015-18-swps-johnston-stirling.pdf&site=25
  4. Hess, D.J., 2009. Localist Movements in a Global Economy, The MIT Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/318457573
  5. Stirling, A., 2014. Transforming power: Social science and the politics of energy choices. Energy Research & Social Science, pp.1–13. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629614000036
  6. Oltermann, P., 2015. Jürgen Habermas’s verdict on the EU/Greece debt deal — full transcript http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/16/jurgen-habermas-eu-greece-debt-deal
  7. Grin, J. 2012. “Changing governments, kitchens, supermarkets, firms and farms: the governance of transitions between societal practices and supply systems.” In Food practices in transition: changing food consumption, retail and production in the age of reflexive modernity pp 35–56. New York; Routledge http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/548660264

Story Europe

Catalyzing New Narratives for Europe Through Collective Intelligence

Cian O'Donovan

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Researching the politics of technology & innovation @SPRU — University of Sussex. Discovering Ireland with Uplift.ie

Story Europe

Catalyzing New Narratives for Europe Through Collective Intelligence