Working Paper 8
How European Protest Transforms Institutions of the Public Sphere: Discourse and Decision-Making in the European Social Forum Process
Against the background of the alleged democratic deficit of EU institutions, this case study explores how politicization and emerging transnational public spaces in European protest movements innovate existing practices of discursive or grassroots deliberative democracy in national social movements. I studied the European Social Forum (ESF) process, a transnational participatory democracy platform created by civil society groups and social movement organizations. I explored discourse and decision-making in the small-scale European Assemblies in which hundreds of activists have met six times a year since 2002 to organize the ESFs, and form campaigns on issues such as global and social justice, peace, climate change, migration, health, or education. Comparing activists’ democratic norms and discourse practices in these frequently occurring European Assemblies with social forum assemblies at the national level in Germany, Italy and the UK, I arrived at a surprising result: European Assemblies reflect a higher degree of discursive inclusivity, dialogue and transparency in decision-making and discussion compared to national social forum assemblies. In this paper I discuss structural, strategic and cultural changes that occur in the process of a Europeanization “from below”, that is, when social movement activists work together transnationally across a certain time period. I argue that European protest as a form of contentious Europeanization has developed new social practices and actors that innovate existing practices of participatory democracy at the national level, showing the relevance of social movements to democratize European integration.