As construction noise and traffic hummed in the background, two Turkish women sat on a park bench in Istanbul, talking about what they want from their city’s public spaces: “chit-chats, picnics, resting, walking, sunbathing.”
Other voices chimed in saying public spaces should be used for artistic activities, sports, theatrical performances, traditional games, or just congregating to drink coffee and talk. “Nothing happens if we don’t come together,” said another.
In their sunny idealism, they hardly sound like controversial demands, and even less like revolutionary rallying cries.
Yet these types of demands were what sparked the protests against the planned demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, which would have been replaced by a Ottoman architecture style shopping mall.
The demonstrations grew into a nationwide uprising involving millions of people, and a police response that resulted in several deaths, thousands of injuries and arrests. At times, the unrest threatened to bring down the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at the time was prime minister.
The protesters’ message was clear: Public space is serious business.
The notion of “the commons” is an ancient one. It is a broad term covering shared spaces, goods, natural resources, creativity and knowledge, which is held and governed collectively and democratically, rather than privately.
The concept has been growing in popularity among Europe’s social movements, especially since 2011, the year Spain’s “indignados” protesters took over their city squares, following the example of Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Later that year, the international “Occupy” movement used similar tactics.
Now, the idea of the commons as an organising principle has moved from the streets to the heart of the European political establishment. For the first time, one of the European Parliament’s 28 Intergroups – groups made up of members from different political groupings, and that focus on certain issues – is devoted to discussing and defending the commons.
The Intergroup on Public Services and Common Goods was launched at the end of May, with support and members from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the Greens, the European United Left and Italy’s Five Star Movement.
The Intergroup’s stated goal is to defend shared, common goods – such as water, medical innovations and open-source code – from privatisation.
Last week, the Intergroup hosted an unlikely meeting of grassroots activists and members of the European Parliament (MEPs) inside the parliament building, to mark the finale of the “Reclaiming the Commons” project that spawned the Turkish film mentioned above, among others.
In a sense, it was an incongruous location for the discussion – in a meeting room in the heart of bureaucratic politics.
For many of the commons activists, the European Parliament would represent exactly the type of institution from which democracy needs reclaiming.
“I’m amazed we managed to get the Intergroup accepted, to be honest,” British Labour MEP Julie Ward said after the meeting.
Ward, who was elected for the first time in 2014, believes that activist movements have recently begun to filter up into EU parliamentary politics.
“There are a lot of new MEPs here, and a lot of them have activist or campaigning backgrounds,” explained Ward.
“And for some of us with activist backgrounds, we don’t want to let it go. Public services are under threat everywhere, and it’s up to us to stand up for them,” Ward said.
The tussle between state and private ownership highlights why the commons has become a fashionable piece of language – especially given recent history.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, centre-left parties across Western Europe have jettisoned the word “socialism”, or of anything that smacks of shared ownership.
In the case of the UK’s Labour Party, this was reflected in the modification of the party constitution’s Clause Four, on Tony Blair’s initiative, to remove a reference to “common ownership”.
But, some looking at the composition of the Intergroup, ask if the word “commons” is in fact just modish code for “socialism”? Ward said she is proud to have described herself as a socialist when campaigning, but noted that the Greens were also members of the Intergroup.
Ward conceded that such a working group – tasked with obstructing privatisation, dismantling intellectual copyright and regulating market intervention – will face staunch opposition from business friendly MEPs in the European Parliament and lobbyists close to it.
But, Ward added, “politics is a fight”.
The ‘institutional glass ceiling’
The idea of the commons can often seem quite abstract, making it potentially difficult for the Intergroup to focus on tangible goals or legislation. But it doesn’t have to be that way, explained Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network, one of the guest speakers at the European Parliament event.
“If you talk about participatory democracy, [the Intergroup] already is serving as an anchor for these political networks to convene,” Bloemen said.
“I think it could potentially start formulating policy proposals on specific issues – in particular the protection of water, and the digital commons,” explained Bloemen.
But the MEPs will not be able to do this alone, Bloemen believes, and will need to reach out to the same activists who generated this energy in the first place. This is something she witnessed first-hand while living in Oakland during the Occupy movement.
As an example of this grassroots energy, Bloemen cited the collaborative spirit of so-called “hacker spaces” for sharing knowledge and skills to collectively solve problems in local communities.
“These hacker spaces are not just a geeky computer thing. It wasn’t all about computer code or open-source software. There were a lot of different groups, it was very community-based. For example, there was a sewing group, and one on participatory budgeting, and a food network. It was about pooling resources, about a community doing things together,” Bloemen told.
In “Municipal Recipes“, a Spanish film produced as part of the “Reclaiming The Commons” project about the citizens’ platforms that last month launched many “indignados” into power in Barcelona, Madrid and beyond, Gala Pin asked her fellow activists, “How do you not hit your head on the institutional glass ceiling?”
Shortly after the film was made, Pin was elected to Barcelona town hall along with 10 other city councillors. In Brussels and in Barcelona, the coming months and years are going to provide a fascinating answer to Pin’s question – can the people elected to defend the commons do so from inside the institutions of power?
Recetas municipales. Una conversación sobre el cuidado de las ciudades from ZEMOS98 on Vimeo. (Press “cc” to activate English subtitles)
Lead image by Olmo Calvo