European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup

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Description

Sophie Bloemen:

"The new European Parliament will see a Commons Intergroup among its 28 intergroups. The Parliament’s main political factions decided on the list of intergroups in December. In order to form an intergroup there need to be three supporting political groups at least, which can be quite a challenge as each political group can only join a limited number of intergroups.

Even though the intergroups have no legislative power, it 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 (MEPs) 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." (http://www.euroalter.com/2015/what-we-share-a-commons-intergroup-takes-off-in-the-eu-parliament)

Status

  • "Common Goods Intergroup members: the Greens, the left group GUE, the Social Democrat party (S&D) and the EFDD (joint president Nigel Farage) and which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party." [1]

Discussion

Is the commons movement becoming a political force?

Sophie Bloemen:

"The commons intergroup ended up joining the already existing one on Public Services and in the process of political shuffling, the name ended up shifting to common goods. So officially referred to as ‘intergroup on commons goods’, it is part of the ‘European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.’ Practically the group will operate in two subgroups. The president of the sub group on the commons is MEP Marisa Matias from GUE.

The intergroup can be understood as confirmation of the aspirations and discourse of the commons becoming a political force. In a way, the bottom-up movement is given a certain political legitimacy by the intergroup. Nevertheless, the question arises: How can an intergroup with such a broad scope as commons or common goods be useful? Aren’t the daily activities of the European Parliament in the end about concrete policies, amendments to policy proposals and votes?

We have to take a step back and ask: What are commons? What are common goods? There are distinct definitions: On the one hand, an operational notion would define commons as shared resources, governed by a certain community. On the other hand, a moral notion would say commons or common goods refer to goods that benefit society as a whole, and are fundamental to people’s lives, regardless of how they are governed.

These could be many things. Politically it will be more about claiming certain matters as commons or common goods, for example natural resources, health services or useful knowledge. Tackling core areas of our co-existence from a perspective of the commons is of great significance. It’s important because eventually this will lead to a move towards the sustainable management- and equitable sharing of resources.

Another aspect that makes this approach appealing is that the commons movement takes a community and ecological systems perspective. This philosophy moves away from a purely individual rights-, market- and private property based worldview. No need to elaborate that for many this worldview is at the root of the current economic and environmental crises.

Commons thinking expresses a strong denial of the idea that society is and should be composed of atomized individuals living as consumers. Instead the commons discourse points to the possibility that people can live their lives as citizens, deeply embedded in social relationships. Moreover, that citizens’ active participation is important in realizing wellbeing and a well-functioning society.

Hence, for politics and policy, what the commons or common goods are is not established and remains dynamic. This makes it all pretty exciting. Like we have a charter of human rights, we might have a modern charter of the commons some day. To illustrate what working from a commons perspective might look like in practice we can consider the EU’s policies on knowledge management.

Its fair to say these policies are currently far removed from a commons approach: the EU puts great emphasis on what one could call the ‘enclosure of knowledge’. This enclosure happens through the expansion of intellectual property protection, both within Europe and outside of it by means of trade policies. Apart from spurring innovation and helping European industries, this also results in, for instance, long patent monopolies on medicines and long copyright terms. In numerous instances the EU’s policies stifle possibilities to share knowledge and innovation, as well its collaborative production.

There has been quite some push back and the European Commission has taken efforts that recognize the need to share and embrace the possibilities of the digital age. This view is reflected by commitments on open access, open data in some of its policies and the exploration of open science. However, make no mistake, these moves towards knowledge sharing remain timid. The EU remains mostly conservative when it comes to private interests of publishers or the pharmaceutical industry, which also have great influence with their armies of lobbyists. Could the Commons Intergroup make a difference?

The intergroup could allow for an opportunity to work on knowledge policy issues from a collective perspective. Additionally there is the option to work in tandem with political actors working on access to knowledge and digital rights. Perhaps the policy implications will not always be ground-breaking and will often be similar to existing proposals, such as exceptions on copyright, sharing of green technologies, net neutrality or conditions on EU funded research. Nonetheless, the approach provides an additional political basis and rationale for these policies.

What about the public? While the concept resonates with more and more people, we are far removed from a commons consensus in society. In politics, the promoters of the commons perspective will have to be strategic, form alliances and make compromises, as one cannot change the world in one go. So it should be approached thoughtfully. For many of the core issues related to commons-thinking, the new intergroup could provide a useful forum. For the commons movement it will certainly provide, once operational, a good place to find political friends." (http://www.euroalter.com/2015/what-we-share-a-commons-intergroup-takes-off-in-the-eu-parliament)

Review of the first intergroup meeting

1. Official review by Birgit Daiber:

"On May 26, the Intergroup on the Commons was launched. The conference focused on the definition of the commons and included the participation of both scholars and activists. It aimed at sharing experiences and analysis on what the commons are, how they can be relevant for Europe and what role the intergroup can play within the debate on the commons. This launch - first event of a long series to come - is the preliminary step for future activities of the intergroup, whose board is composed by M. Matias (GUE/GNL), S. Cofferati (S&D), A. Jongerius (S&D), D. Tamburrano (EFDD) and E. Urtasun (Greens).

The meeting started with a video by Stefano Rodotà - Italian legal scholar expert of commons - focusing on the importance of the commons from a legal perspective in a context of social and economic crisis, and on the connection between the debate of the commons and fundamental rights.

The first panel focused on legal, economic and political approach to the commons, with interventions by Anne Le Strat (former president of Aqua Publica Europea), Paolo Napoli (legal scholar) and Benjamin Coriat (economist). Several key aspects of the debate and of the definition of the commons were discussed with legal and economic contributions going from Ostrom, to the current legal approach of Italian scholars.

The idea that it is time for commons to find their place in the legal debate was reinforced; this should be done by adopting a perspective that considers law as a dynamic tool, both at national and European level. Furthermore, it was stressed that it is time for making commons part of the European political debate, using them to pave the way for alternatives to the current socio-economic model.

During the second panel, some concrete examples and experiences were presented. Two relevant perspectives were discussed within the debate: water and digital commons. For the digital perspective, Michel Bauwens (Director and founder of the P2P Foundation) and Ricardo La Fuente (Free Culture Activist) discussed the importance of participatory processes and cooperation. Jan Willeam Goudriaan (vice president of the ECI Right2Water and Secretary General of EPSU) and Ruben Martinez Moreno (Fundacion de los Communes and la Hidra Cooperativa) elaborated on water and commons.

Goudriaan underlined the importance of future approaches of the intergroup in view of the interaction with the European Commission policy process. Moreno focused on the commons as a way to reinvent the concept of public and to respond to economic and social crisis, especially in more affected countries such as Spain and Greece. Creativity, sustainability, transition, participation and circularity are among the key words that emerged from the interventions and the following debate. Both panels, indeed, were followed by interesting debates with the audience, which was itself made of activists and organisations involved in the debate about the commons.

Different areas of interest for the future of the intergroup have been identified at the level of theoretical analysis as well as of concrete experiences. The importance of a legal recognition of the commons, including in a human rights perspective, goes in parallel with the discussion on property and State. It emerged the importance of elaborating a reflection based on practices, such as: urban commons, natural resources, self-organised workplaces, collaborative economy, digital commons and knowledge. The global scale of the debate was also stressed, referring to the threats represented by international trade agreements such as the CETA and the TTIP.

The event was closed by the MEPs involved in the board who are committed to the topic and are oriented to create a space for further discussions. In particular, the role to be played by civil society was strongly stressed by the MEPs (and by the public along the whole debate). Furthermore, in the view of the need for a legal recognition of the commons, recognized by all the participants as fundamental, two possible steps are identified by the MEPs: on the one hand a more consistent analysis of what already exists and can be used to protect and reinforce the commons and, on the other hand, the elaboration of a joint resolution on the Commons.

A lot was discussed and still a lot remains to be done. But, it’s definitely time for the commons in Europe!"



2. Unofficial review by Denis Postle:

"Shock and awe at the huge scale of the Brussels European Parliament building and the hushed modernity of its vast interior – the Charlie Hebdo effect piled onto the Bin Laden effect meant the whole place seemed imprisoned in that other aspect of modernity, security. There were also the twin Britshocks of realising during the meeting that what I was hearing were the voices of southern Europe, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, and that of the 50-60 participants, I was apparently the only Brit. Coupled with this was the reminder that however good the four-language interpretation was, it put a huge burden on attention, and being able to grasp what was being said – Italian man speaking in the room – English woman interpreter in the ears.

The meeting started half an hour late, which despite effective facilitation put all the speakers under pressure. And speakers there were in plenty, arrayed in one-to-many conference style. 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. Lot’s 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. The meeting certainly seemed in no doubt that a wider extension of the common goods theme might be one way to shape a new and very necessary politics. As Marisa Matias the impressive Portuguese MEP who had convened the meeting said at the end of her introduction, ‘the Left is lost’.

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.

Only days before, Barcelona and possibly Madrid had elected officials with a ‘commons’ agenda; and… Anne le Strat outlined the successful Eau de Paris return of the Paris water supply to municipal ownership (paralleled by at least one other commune I know of in the Ardeche); There were several references to commons rights progress in Spain, and in Italy a supreme court decision had opened constitutional protocols to commons forms of organisation, along with the adoption of ‘beni comuni’ as a legal concept. Alongside this, as Benjamin Coriat outlined, in Barcelona the recovery of the commons appeared to be afoot.

A delegate from Transform made a reminder that there was a continuing need for recovery of the many public goods had been given to exponents of capital, she also argued for the establishment of a federation of commons. Paoli Napoli from CENJ, a French judicial research centre argued convincingly in favour of questioning the validity of state monopolies as a way of discovering commons. Ricardo la Fuente a Portuguese Free Culture activist drew attention to the scale of the capture of the internet commons by Facebook and Google, US dominated vertical monopolies that threaten the integrity and freedoms of the internet. He argued that safe-guarding access to the public sphere of the internet was a vital aspect of the commons agenda.

Michel Bauwens, a long-time peer to peer exponent, spoke about the digital commons, a driver of the unprecedented social change that underlies the commons movement. Bauwens outlined three digital commons institutions, one: the huge numbers of people who are contributors to the building of open public goods such as Linux, Arduino and Wikipedia etc (not to mention the countless millions of blogs like this!); secondly: the digital enterprises that feature peer-to-peer governance and transparency, he gave as examples: Loomio, Inspiral etc.; and third: for-benefit foundations such as the P2P Foundation and many others.

Bauwens warned that digital innovation presently tends to be compromised, since to pick up the resources to expand and develop an innovation, means becoming a ‘start-up’ with the likelihood of capture by venture capital. Devising alternative ways of financing commons innovation, he seemed to be saying, will be a vital part of an emerging commons economy. Bauwens left early to talk to the mayor of Ghent about another current proposal – Assemblies of the Commons – he also mentioned generating Chambers of the Commons, mirroring, at least in the UK, the ubiquitous ‘chambers of commerce’ and lastly the need, as he put it, to develop an ‘operating system’ for the commons. All welcome news.

In conclusion: Encouraging evidence from across southern Europe that there were a variety of instances of participatory politics inspired by, or already implementing commons/common goods. Great resources: the whole meeting was streamed live and by the following morning a video of it had been posted by the EFDD group with English interpretation.

And… the meeting had a classroom format – people sitting in rows facing expert speakers. As a groupwork facilitator I long ago learned that such a format inhibits or prevents the kind of face to face (and peer to peer) cooperation and communal knowing that commoning requires. This is not a minor matter, conversations are shaped by context. If this is the only Parliamentary format for commons/common goods discussion/negotiation/interpretation, I’d be concerned that this infrastructure could inadvertently exclude the intended benefits.

And yet… perhaps too much should not be expected from a body such as the Parliament which is devoted to scrutiny and correctivity, not usually a recipe for innovation. The European Parliament is an extant political forum, it mends and bends the proposals of European institutions. Diemut Theato, an MEP I happen to have met, some years ago demonstrated this when, due to her leadership and financial perspicacity, the entire European Commission had to resign. The Parliament’s potential ability to bounce back European legislation that ignores, compromises or damages the common good is very welcome. With regard to the common good, every little helps!" (https://psycommons.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/the-commons-a-new-european-concept-inaugural-meeting-of-the-european-parliament-common-goods-intergroup/)

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