Citizen Action in Europe’s Periphery: “An Antidote to Powerlessness”

Polish Mothers in Krakow. Polish artist Cecilya Malik began a
campaign against the removal of the obligation for private
landowners to apply for permission to cut down trees. Credit:
Tomasz Wiech

By Daan Bauwens
GHENT, Belguim, Dec 6 2018 (IPS)

Unjustified extra charges on drinking water, exploitation of
labourers in the countryside and uncontrolled property speculation.
In Europe’s periphery, citizens’ initiatives show how all too
prevalent modern-day ailments can be tackled successfully. More
often than not with the help of artists.

Spring 2014.

Pressured by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund
and the European Central Bank, the government of an Ireland
suffering from imposed austerity measures decides to introduce an
additional levy on drinking water. Spontaneous protest ensue. A
single woman, waking up in the middle of the night when workers are
installing a water meter outside her house, comes out and blocks
their way whilst still her night gown. She manages to get them to
leave without finishing the job.

The meter fairy

Thousands follow her example in the following weeks. Some are
arrested and convicted. In the southern coastal town of Cobh,
citizens set up guard posts on bridges and boats to inform other
citizens when the water company is arriving and where exactly
it’s heading. Soon the protest receives the support of the trade
unions and political parties, leading up to a demonstration march
of 120,000 people in October of the same year. Mass demonstrations
are subsequently held all through the country, often ending in
concerts by popular Irish artists.

The largest protest campaign the country had ever seen forced
the government to reduce the proposed water tax by 75 percent. The
water tax is currently still on the table, but the Irish now have
got the “meter fairy”. Residents of a house where a new water
meter has just been installed can text their address to a certain
number. The same night craftsmen will come over and remove the

Property speculation

“Let me conclude with a warning,” says Brendan Ogle, one of
the leading activists in the protests, “while we are progressing
in some ways, we are at the same time slipping back to the darkest
of ages.” Ogle refers to the housing emergency in his hometown
Dublin, where rents have risen so sharply that this year the city
has become most expensive place to live in the Eurozone, leaping
ahead of both Paris and London.

“We squatted in an empty building and started a community
centre for homeless people where they could stay and sleep,” says
Ogle. “The court finally ordered we leave building, stating that
while the homeless emergency is important, it is not more important
than the right to property. Last Thursday, the 24th person that we
housed in the building died on the streets. This in only 16

It seems to be a trend in cities all over Europe: a housing
market under pressure causes speculation, leading to growing
numbers of homeless people. The state doesn’t act and the law is
not on the side of those who want to solve the problem.

Summit for activists

The same happened to Maria Sanchez of Cerro Liberdad, an
citizen’s initiative which occupied an empty Andalusian farm
owned by a bank. Sanchez put local labourers to work in decent
conditions in a region that suffers from poverty and exploitation,
and in March of this year she was arrested. All traces that her
movement had left in the farm were erased.

“I did what the government fails to do,” she says, “I told
that to the judge. This was not a crime.”

Ogle and Sanchez were just two of the 90 activists from all over
Europe present at the summit “The Art of Organising Hope” that
was held in early November in the Belgian town of Ghent. At the
summit they showed each other how exactly they realised their plans
to fight injustice, with the emphasis on the practical side of

The summit was the culmination of a research all across Europe
that a fellowship of volunteers, journalists, artists and activists
undertook in 2016 and 2017. Thoroughly documenting 60 grassroots
and civil society organisations, they looked for hopeful
discourses, methods and practices to counter the present-day
upsurge of Euroscepticism and indifference.

Radical imagination

In the final selection of activists to be present at the summit,
the majority turned out to be from Europe’s periphery with an
especially large representation from the Balkans. That was no
coincidence according to initiator and organiser Dominique
Willaert, artistic leader of the Ghent-based social-artistic
movement Victoria Deluxe.

“Activism and imagination at Europe’s external borders is
much more radical than in Western Europe,” he says, “we brought
them here especially to fertilise us with their imagination. During
our trips around Europe we noticed that people in the periphery
don’t feel as though they belong to Europe. That is most
noticeable in countries that have fallen victim to European
austerity measures.”

“The difference between them and us is striking,” he
continues, “in Western Europe we strive for consensus and
negotiation with the government, many organisations depend on the
government for funding, so they become policy implementers. The
activism and imagination of the external borders is much more

According to Willaert, it is exactly that imagination and
radicalism that Western Europe needs. “We must give citizens the
feeling that they have power and can create movements that bring
change. Powerlessness can mean the end of Europe.”

Polish mothers on tree stumps

In the citizen’s projects at the summit it was moreover
apparent that a large number was led by artists. “In order to
develop deep democracy, new methods and symbols are needed,”
Dominique Willaert explains his team’s choice, “we must go
beyond the idea of parliaments and elected representatives. There
is a need for new stories and images that can fertilise communities
and mobilise people. That requires the help of artists.”

And social media seem to be quite an effective to tool in
bringing that about, it seems. At the main stage, Polish Anna
Alboth and Belgian Leen Van Waes told the story of how their
Facebook solidarity campaign for for Syrian civilians led to a
march that mobilised more than 4000 participants from 62 countries.
The Civil March For Aleppo lasted eight and a half months, passing
through Europe on foot from Berlin to Syria, an action that got the
organising team nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The most mobilising image came from the Polish artist Cecilya
Malik. In the beginning of January a controversial new law removed
the obligation for private landowners to apply for permission to
cut down trees, pay compensation or plant new trees, or even inform
the authorities of the plans to cut down trees. Up until now, more
than one million trees have been reported cut down with newly
cleared spaces in cities, towns and countryside as a

“I knew I had to do something,” Malik says, “but I had a
six-month-old baby. So I came up with the plan to sit on one of the
stumps every day, let someone take a picture of me while I was
breastfeeding and share that image on social media.” The Polish
government did not reverse the law despite the hundreds of mothers
following Malik’s example. But the media attention on
breastfeeding mothers on tree stumps did lead to a surge in
environmental consciousness with the general public. This way, a
new draft law excluding the vast majority of NGOs from the
consultation process on environmental projects, was shelved for the
time being.

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Citizen Action in Europe’s Periphery: “An Antidote to
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Citizen Action in Europe’s Periphery: “An Antidote to Powerlessness”