Carmine Greusard–Deffeuille mulls over Europe’s crisis of confidence, and the new solutions offered by UCL-run platform Talos on driving political change in Europe.
Political apathy is the problem of our time. Widespread distrust of domestic governments, the European Union, and international bodies alike is an incontestable presence in today’s politics. This disengagement has prompted the rise of extremism, populism and nationalism in the political trend of the past decade at least. Worldwide, and in Europe, traditional governing parties have failed to address this threat. The roots of people’s discontent are complex and deep; regardless, it is blowing in the face of today’s democracies.
One factor for this distrust is the feeling that citizens have lost their agency in current democratic political structures. Institutions look complicated, impenetrable and ineffective, and voters do not know what their representatives are really doing in the end. Who really holds the decision-making power? The European Union is often used as a scapegoat for this very problem: technocratic, bureaucratic, run by and for the elite. Where is the “will of the people”?
Some organisations are trying to challenge this dangerous status quo, and the UCL-run movement, Talos, is one of them. Pi Politics met with two of Talos’s committee members, to evaluate their view of policy-making in the EU, and what they see as the solution.
Ultimately, Talos’ objective is to boost civic and democratic agency of citizens in the EU. The organisation supports campaigns such as European Parliament’s “This time I am voting” campaign, or initiatives for the recognition on the continent of all earned diplomas in the European Union. Talos describes itself as a neutral-lobbying organisation: they assist EU citizens in bringing petitions on various issues to discussion at EU parliament level, in an attempt to improve local participation in international politics.
This bottom-up approach to policymaking seems to be increasingly desired by European peoples, as recent protests have shown. People are demanding more direct democracy: a sort of pan-European version of the Ancient Greek Αγορα. However, even the biggest agora could never fit millions of people. Platforms such as Talos, acting as intermediaries helping citizens to be heard and drive change, could be a solution. In France, the Gilets Jaunes are trying to push for the adoption of the RIC (Referendum of Civic Initiative) to enable citizens to vote on major national decisions, instead of just MPs. To avoid this backlash against traditional modes of legislation, governments will need to be prepared to produce this inclusive political climate themselves.
Indeed, today’s democratic regimes are struggling. The “will of the people” has become a confusing concept. In Britain, Brexit has been triggered by a very slight (and arguably misinformed) majority. In France, the National Assembly, with a majority of MPs coming from President Emmanuel Macron’s party, were theoretically elected according to the will of the French people. A year and a half later, those same French people are out in the streets railing against those same representatives. Where does the will of the people really lie: in elections, or in public discontent?
In anticipation of this complex question, organisations like Talos think it’s essential to promote citizens’ political agency outside of election times. On a concrete case such as Brexit (apologies, we had to), Talos believes their platform would have been useful at the start of the process, where people could have shared ideas and discussed their complaints. Today, so close to the deadline and with so much political negotiation going on behind closed doors, they are not sure if they would be able to make a difference or have a political power to drive change in crisis time: it is too late for the will of the people to rise again. Talos’s challenge is in placing itself in-between an acceptation of EU technocracy and promoting the political agency of the “people”.
Political elites have lost the trust of the people. Disconnected, the traditional governing class has paved the way for rise of extremists and demagogues. Populists are promising more government efficiency and the scrapping of the elite’s power bases. Bureaucratic and elitist government institutions have driven populations to political alienation. It is therefore surprising that an organisation trying to combat technocracy like Talos aims to bring about change through traditional pathways.
Talos is not UCL Union-affiliated and is registered in Austria. It is not-for-profit and has no revenue stream, relying instead on the motivation and talent of its committee members. Talos claims to be a networking tool for individuals who seek to push European change. When asked how many networks they are effectively part of, the interviewees replied with a bit of an awkward smile. From the outside, the organisation can be seen as a CV-boosting smoke screen. However, Talos’ members still seem keen and genuinely motivated by its aims and future prospects. After all, the organisation was only founded in 2017; it is still young. While committee members graduating poses a risk for its continuity, Talos members swear they will continue to participate after their graduation.
At the moment, Talos recognises it has not yet had a huge impact. In the end, the process of EU decision-making seems impenetrable, echoing the constant criticism of the EU’s lack of transparency. Is Talos really relevant today, where change is mostly driven by emotional politics and not traditional, technocratic change? It is not clear whether Talos symbolises a truly positive means of driving institutional change in Europe, or whether it is simply another platform for technocracy, pigeon-holed into the EU bureaucracy narrative, with which people are increasingly dissatisfied. The European Union was funded and developed on strong neoliberals ideals. But is it time for a change? Macron, who many see as a living embodiment of liberalism, recognised in his 2019 vows that this neoliberal age was on the verge of extinction. Elitist politics and bureaucratic processes are no longer concepts most people are willing to support. Citizens want agency, or at the very least understanding.
Politics and change are not easy tasks, especially on a European scale. The different decision-making levels are complex, even for experts. Perhaps the European Union simply needs to become less bureaucratic: either by making it more representative and open, or by making it completely autonomous and free from slow, secretive political processes. All in all, the fact that Talos needed to be created shows the necessity for addressing the people’s distrust in politics. Whether Talos has found an effective solution to this problem or not is another matter. Adding complexity to complexity is a dangerous game. As Talos reminds us, politics is a process, change takes time. But is the “will of the people” still willing to wait?
Find Talos at https://talos.eu/ and on social media.