Name one utopic vision that turned reality? A few years ago, with a group of colleagues from LUMES, while working on envisioning future environmental scenarios, we came upon this question. When my turn arrived, I’ve named the European Union as the most incredible utopic vision ever to become a reality. As an argument, I’ve reconstructed the post-II World War Europe, devastated by death and destruction. Envisioning any kind of union among peoples and nations that were emerging from under the ruins of such an unprecedented scale of violence was a brave act of utopia. It required forgiveness, generosity, and humbleness, but above all, it needed a strong shared vision.
‘But, ‘your utopia’ is nothing but a union of big banks and corporations,’ a colleague from the UK fired back at my example. Her resentment was nothing new. I have heard it all over Europe. Many people see the EU as distant and senseless machinery run by grey bureaucrats, big businesses, and banks. This gloom vision got further enhanced after the 2008 economic-financial crises, which exposed what Jürgen Habermas (2012), the great German philosopher, called the ‘Europe-wide erosion of solidarity.’ Instead of seizing the moment to support Europe’s most vulnerable parts and make the ‘More Europe’ message become the cohesive power behind the stronger European sense of identity, the message people understood was ‘More Euros’ for the banks and bureaucrats.
Europe’s image became one of ‘Men in Black’ ordering nations to cut on their social welfare. This image gave oxygen to the populist and nationalist movements that, from being marginal expressions, started to gain momentum and spread all over Europe. Their rise added additional pressure to the state governments who, as Habermas described it «lack courage and are thrashing around helplessly in a dilemma between the imperatives of the major banks and the rating agencies, on the one side, and their fear of losing legitimacy among their own frustrated populations, on the other.» (Habermas, 2012)
Again, the economy is central to the EU’s construction. It is the backbone of European integrations and the reflection of its origins. It was the big industrialists backed by political elites that picked up on the ‘utopic vision’ and turned it into an economic union. The European Coal and Steel Community was the seed of today’s European Union. Still, we would be cynical not to acknowledge that economic interests were the backbone of all kinds of unions since way back in history. Particularly it has been in the case of the violent European continent past (where wars were the ‘normal’ and peace the exceptional periods of time) where the economy was used as a powerful peace-making tool.
One exquisite example of it comes recorded in the Aharnians, the oldest surviving comedy by Aristophanes, staged in 425 BC. E. In the play, a farmer is turned into a hero. After being sick and tired of having his household destroyed in Sparta and Athens’ endless wars, he reached a private truce with Sparta. His land was demilitarized and excluded from future warfare operations. This left the farmer exposed to the hatred of the locals, who considered him a traitor. But the stage then gets divided into two parts. In one part, the Athenian general drums up the men while preparing to go to war. On the other side, the farmer enjoys the wellbeing of peace. His part gets slowly turned into a fair where trade and commerce are bringing people together. Lastly, his part grows until it finally covers the entire stage.
Frontrunners of the green transnational cooperation
An economy is a tool, but it is we who need to decide its use and purpose. We have witnessed its peace-making potential. Now it is time to take it a step further. With the increasing climate, change-related challenges economy must become a tool and not the antithesis of ecology. To do so, the economy must adopt the principles of eco-effectiveness and «make people native to the planet once more by re-establishing a positive link between human activity and natural systems.» (Braungart, McDonough & Bollinger, 2007)
This link is the notion that one can only be sustainable locally. Despite the evident interconnected holistic that defines Earth as a system, it is still a system of systems. Even though all individuals contribute to the overall conditions, it is only at the local level that these actions can be managed and controlled. Any successful sustainable strategy implementation begins with local practices. That is why ‘More Europe’ can only be achieved through ‘More Local.’
The same as a forest is more productive when the trees are closer together; the economy is more sustainable when companies are closer together. The closeness provides conditions for synergetic and symbiotic productive relationships, where waste is being minimized, and energy use efficiency is maximized. In this process, it is the small companies that need to be supported. They provide the same service as fungi do in the forest. When walking the forest, it is mostly the big trees what most people can see, but it is what happens underneath our feet that makes the forest function. The fungi networks operate as a gigantic redistribution mechanism, as Peter Wohlleben well described it.
The same thing happens with seeing the EU. Although it is the big businesses and banks that most people can see, small companies keep the economy running. It is these companies that provide the same service as fungi in the forest, and operate as social security systems, which ensure that in society, no one falls too far behind (Wohlleben, 2015). They are the bloodline of the European economy and need to be treated as such.
With nation-states being paralyzed by a «lack of courage,» cities are gaining a more dominant role in building a stronger European identity. Their increasing economic power will soon require them to be transferred equivalent political power. The process of globalization acts as the accelerator of urbanization. At the same time, «cities and local governments have been developing the organisations that allow them to have the global reach that they need to bridge the various scales at which the global issues that affect them operate.» (Curtis, 2014) One of the main issues where cities can successfully substitute the inert nation-states’ transnational cooperation is implementing solutions, strategies, and governance to meet global environmental goals.
The ‘erosion of solidarity’ that many are experiencing in the EU can be overcome by strengthening the local societies and economies. Cities play a major cohesive role in this process and operate as vehicles of eco-effectiveness. The fundamental role of cities in transnational cooperation is becoming a reality. The formation of the Fehrman Belt Region is one of the examples. This ongoing process that will lead to three large cities from three European countries merge into one regional unit is a melting pot where national and regional identities are being shaped into the new expression of European identity.
While engaging more locally, the peoples of the Fehmarn Belt Region are becoming more European. This empowers them to act within the frames and scales that can be managed and administered through direct participatory processes around the notion that ‘question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be’ (Harvey, 2003). Through facilitating the development of such processes, the EU can see its identity being forged. The strengthening of the local eco-effective communities will lead to a stronger European Union and one giant step further on the path towards a «politically constituted world society» (Habermas, 2012).
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