The European Commons Assembly: a brief report

Hundreds of people gathered last week in Brussels (15-17 november) for a very first ‘assembly of the commons’. No doubt about it: this was a success and the meeting on the 16th in the European Parliament was very interesting.

I attended only two meetings: the first one on the evening of the 15th was a discussion with representatives of DiEM25, the European movement initiated by Yannis Varoufakis. The second one was the formal gathering in  the European Parliament for a discussion with the existing ‘intergroup’ of the commons (with members of different political groups).

Though very different in nature I was mostly surprised by the very high quality of all discussions.

With DiEM, it was emphasized that we have to look for a ‘third space’, that is in between the bankrupt world of the establishment and institutions, on the one hand, and the new nationalism emerging in  Europe and the rest of the world.

We have to promote democracy at all levels, and even if, indeed, there is no European ‘demos’ yet, this can only come out of the struggle itself. It is not something you can create out of nothing or you have to wait for.

Different representatives of DiEM explained how they worked on and with democracy, creating new narratives and opening spaces for new policies.

Several participants in the meeting also voiced their utopian visions on going beyond left and right (but ‘forward’!), in abandoning nation states, on the need for a ‘home’ or community… Many of these ideas are far from new and can be linked back to the movement of 1968 or even before, but the positive thing about this meeting was the belief in the need of transnational organisation.

This movement is important for the world of ‘commons’ in that it wants to involve citizens in the shaping of democracy and thus in the building of institutions and policies. DiEM certainly is not the first European movement to start work on democracy, but it is the one that today has the greatest potential.

Institutional work

There were less utopian ideas the day after in the European Parliament. The objective of this gathering was to create a solid platform from which to influence European policies. In that way it was indeed a turning point: if successful it will be a new way of doing things in favour of sustainability, equality and democracy. If the platform succeeds in having a voice in the institutions, it can be a first step towards system change, a first step in a long journey.

We all know how difficult this journey will be, first of all because we have no consensual definition of what ‘commons’ are. It was described as something that belongs to all of us, as belonging itself, as something that is managed collectively, as something that resists enclosure, etc.

The meeting started with a presentation of some important current initiatives: the community land trust in Brussels, the agroecological community gardens in Barcelona and a network communication infrastructure in Greece, Germany and Spain.

All of them led to many questions that cannot be answered easily at this stage: about ownership, the common interest, the social return, the measuring of results, class habitus and the power relations within which each of these initiatives have to operate.

The second part of the meeting was spent on three concrete proposals for the European institutions. The first one was – in my eyes – a not very convincing demand for more direct democracy, inspired by the examples of the G1000 in Belgium and the way Iceland solved its financial crisis. Democracy, I think, cannot purely be the result of individual action but has to be based on collective action and organisation of citizens.

The second example concerned territorial commons and the fact that the common agricultural policy does not even know the concept of commons. The demand is to introduce it and to make space for alternative policies and practices for a common management of land.

The third example concerned the energy cooperatives that have quite some success already but for which European policies could do a lot more in terms of research, promotion and funding.

In the discussion a proposal was made to create a kind of decentralised think tank where all initiatives could be examined and where policy proposals could be worked at. The important thing we need is indeed a concrete output.

In my intervention, I invited the assembly to take up the point of the social commons, our economic and social rights, social protection and public services. Since production is not possible without reproduction, both points deserve a serious examination in terms of commons.

The members of parliament that were present, Marisa Matias from GUE, Ernest Urtasun from the Greens, Darío Tamburano, EFDD (Movimento 5 Stelle), as well as Sergio Cofferati and Julie Ward from S&D. They were very enthusiastic and promised their active involvement for the future. A concrete way to continue the cooperation is to organise a consultation of the European Commons Assembly on all important dossiers discussed in Parliament.

This first meeting cannot be seen as an event, but has to be considered as the beginning of a process. In that sense it is normal that many questions remained unanswered or were not even mentioned. At some points, the discussion was highly confusing and looked like a show.

One of these questions concerns the point of ownership and the possibility of private ownership within a commons approach. Another concerns the transformative nature of the commons. Do we see them as a way to change the economy and our societies, or merely as another way of living and working within the existing system? What is the role of the State? What can we do to politicize the commons? Slightly worrying was the absence of any mention of conflict, as if all commoners necessarily live and will always live in harmony with each other and with commoners of different groups. Maybe, progressive commoners will have to look for criteria in order to ensure their initiatives and projects are truly transformative.

Again, this assembly was nothing more than a first step in a long journey. The quality of the debates and of the participants are very promising for the future.

(There was also a meeting on mapping. For notes see here:



Francine Mestrum