How to make protest effective

We need to do more than march from A to B if we want political change.

It’s so difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the crisis in Europe. This past Saturday, I watched closely as Portuguese rallied in enormous numbers against the foreign imposed austerity measures. The energy of tens of thousands filling the streets is momentarily intoxicating as ever, especially when they sing Grandola, Vila Morena, a song charged with revolutionary energy and optimism. But as soon as the last verse is sung, the crowds begin to demobilise; videos, photos and memories are the only evidence that there was even a protest of such scale. Because the next day, as the political leaders remain indifferent, the discussion already switches to the next austerity measures and the next bleak economic headline.

This has played out countless times in each crisis hit country in the eurozone. The social anxiety of the public spills out onto the streets as anger and then recedes back into anxiety. Then, a sense of defeat sinks in during the following weeks and months, until the latest provocation of yet more sacrifices transforms that anxiety into yet more protests by thousands of angry, crisis-fatigued citizens.

I think the reason for this is obvious, though I suspect many who attend, promote and organise these protests don't want to hear it. The protests aren't to challenge the government, but only to probe the government's resolve. When the government's resolve proves to be unshaken, since there is no policy alternative within the current framework of the Troika, there's nowhere to go but to return to that state of social anxiety. The point A to point B marches play it safe, expressing their demands but not setting out an objective that is to be reached through various tactics. I would call it public relations but I think organisers of protests like Que Se Lixe A Troika on Saturday sincerely believe mass marches every few months can stop the austerity. I'm here to say that this is a miscalculation.

It’s easy to see how opposition to austerity will eventually triumph, the policies undoubtedly cause tremendous economic and social damage. Each round of cuts and tax hikes align more people against the government and the international creditors known as the Troika. Inevitably, the protests in Spain, Greece, and Portugal has swelled with each passing year. But this slow grind of declining legitimacy for governments in southern Europe has great risk. As we can see in Greece, a neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, has surged onto the highest stage of Greek politics, now polling 3rd overall, this as its militias violently attack immigrants on the streets. Spanish society, if eroded by a similar amount of austerity, could see regional and cultural differences hardened. Portugal, with no parliamentary far-right in existence, could be tempted by similar extreme nationalists in the years ahead as frustration with mainstream parties grow.

There is a clock ticking away in Europe, but it isn't necessarily counting down till the day when the streets banish the troika's authority. Rather, this is a clock ticking down to when that far-right menace erupts to break up the European project on its own terms, all the while fanning once-dormant national rivalries. This isn’t without precedent in Europe. It was during the 80s that another federation of nations, Yugoslavia, was subject to fierce austerity which provoked strike action like we see in Europe today. But they fell short, and by the early 90s, nationalists would assert themselves and give Europe another bloody chapter of warfare and ethnic cleansing.

The forces opposed to austerity must set political objectives, and deploy tactics to reach those objectives. This doesn’t have to mean preparing for insurrection and the siege of congress like some in Spain are organising for. In Portugal, daily mobilisations could replicate the success of the recent protests in Bulgaria. With the right-wing coalition government in Portugal plotting further austerity to the tune of 4 billion euros in cuts, the urgency should be widely shared. The streets must themselves become political actors, not merely a visualisation of the discontent politicians see in any monthly political survey. There has to be a willingness by anti-austerity forces to fail, to overplay their hand. It doesn't require the approval of the whole country or hundreds of thousands of people to get involved. Even thousands, if they are committed and share common purpose and tactics, can achieve a government's resignation. Those thousands shouldn’t be hard to find amid the misery that exists across southern Europe today.

This is a cross-post from David Ferreira's blog Igualitárista

A demonstrator at Saturday's protests in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty.)
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.