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The moral notion of common goods

THE GLOCAL / Citizens' councils can revitalize Europe. Their success depends both on their ability to strengthen the EU's participatory political processes, and on greater responsiveness to citizens' local communities. Here we look at how the first "European Commons Assembly" provided an opportunity for information-based political reforms together – based on social and ecological sustainability.


With author David Hammerstein

In May 2016 voted The European Parliament over a change to "recognize energy as a common good" as part of a report on decentralized local production: "New agreement for energy consumers". Although the amendment was voted down by 298 votes to 345, this vote shows that almost half of Europe's democratically elected representatives see energy as a common good.

The amendment was proposed by the Commons Intergroup, part of the European Parliament's group for "common goods and public services" – ie members of the European Parliament from various political groups, mainly the Greens and the United Left (GUE / NGL) and several members of the Socialists & Democrats Group (S&D).

In mid-November 2016 was citizens' councila European Commons Assembly organized in collaboration with the Commons Intergroup of the European Parliament, to promote the establishment of creative institutions and political alternatives, from the local to the European level. In the convening notice, citizens from all over Europe wrote: "We urge governments, local and national, as well as EU institutions, to facilitate citizen councils, to eliminate barriers and obstacles, to open doors for citizen participation, and to prioritize what is best for the community in all politics. "[1]

Citizens' Council in Europe

Today, however, the dominant discourses that pervade all political discussions in the EU are about economic growth, competitiveness and efficiency. Most of the EU's policy is concentrated on macroeconomic indicators and the promotion of large commercial players. The view of citizens often becomes too one-dimensional – they are considered business people or consumers. For many Europeans, and for many global citizens, the EU's activities therefore revolve around large companies and large member states.

Academic research, energy production, nature conservation, health, creative sectors, medical development and digital innovation.

There is a growing concern among citizens that decisions affecting local communities are often driven by distant centralized institutions with other priorities. In fact, the growing sense of lack of control erodes trust in our political institutions, fueling xenophobia and nationalist movements.

The dominant European political priorities today stand in stark contrast to the citizens' council initiatives (also called civic assembly, citizen assembly) – such ethical worldviews favor management, peer-to-peer cooperation as well as social and ecological sustainability. The assembly discourse is about people as actors closely intertwined in social relations, societies and ecosystems. These holistic perspectives also tend to overcome a dominant subject-object dualism, and human activity is considered part of the larger, living biophysical communities.

Across Europe, more and more people are creating resources in community: either in small local initiatives or in larger networks, new civic and economic structures, which move beyond the rigid dualisms – such as producer/consumer, commercial/non-commercial, state/market-based and public/private. They build successful new hybrid projects. The assemblies use voluntary cooperation in open networks to generate a social/environmental value, in ways that large markets and exclusive private property rights neither can nor will. These have enormous value, because even if they are not income-generating, they nevertheless constitute a significant part of social welfare in academic research, energy production, nature conservation, health, creative sectors, medical development and digital innovation.

However, this is largely ignored by the EU's decision-makers and institutions. The consequence is that such social value creation shrinks, or even worse, that it is taken over by large investors and companies. We can cite examples such as renewable energy from society, Wikipedia, permaculture, cooperative economy, solidarity structures and open source software. Sometimes local people's assembly initiatives are triggered by an economic crisis and thus bad conditions, or as a response to political powerlessness – or that initiatives are driven forward by a need for social-ecological cohesion.

Natural resources, health services or useful knowledge, or decentralized renewable energy.

Citizens' councils can encourage EU institutions to adopt a more holistic ecological approach by combining cooperative, participatory and egalitarian principles with concrete conditions in favor of social cohesion and environmental goals. The moral notion of common goods refers to goods that benefit the whole of society and are fundamental to people's lives, regardless of how they are governed. Certain benefits must first be politically recognized as public goods in order to be managed as such – sustainably and fairly, whether it concerns participation, access or use. This applies, for example, to natural resources, health services or useful knowledge, or decentralized renewable energy.

Tomas (It)-Social Networks. See Libex.Eu

Vibrant and caring local communities

Due to its central role in shaping the policies of all member states as well as its significant budget, the EU is well positioned in many fields to facilitate, strengthen and promote joint activities and citizens' councils. These initiatives and practices will require more flexible institutional and legal frameworks, which at the same time prevent the centralization of market power and promote a dynamic, cooperative, self-governing community life and networks – where the policy stimulates a flourishing of vibrant and caring local communities. To a certain extent, this also involves stimulating new economic identities, where an individual or a group orients its economic activity towards safeguarding the good of the community and its natural, social and cultural surroundings – instead of maximizing material interests.

According to a 2015 report published by the "Regional Committee", such an approach means that "the actors do not just share a resource, but collaborate to create, produce or regenerate a common resource for a wider audience: the community. They cooperate, they join together for the community". This means helping people and communities to generate and regenerate urban, cultural and natural communities with active citizens, makers, designers, artists, carers, local eco-farmers and renewable energy advocates. It also means being positive about an open knowledge economy at the same time that the internet takes on the role of a digital commons based on open standards, universal access, flexible copyright rules, decentralized digital infrastructure and democratic governance.

Knowledge management's policy

When it comes to a policy for knowledge management, the EU attaches great importance to what can be called "knowledge protection". This protectionism takes place through an extended protection of intellectual property, both inside and outside Europe, using trade policy as a tool. Apart from possibly stimulating innovation and helping European industries, this also results in long-lasting drug patent monopolies and long-lasting copyright terms.

The copyright reform that was discussed in 2016 is of crucial importance for digital information websites that are built together. It will set the boundaries for innovative social value creation through online sharing and collaboration. Adequate copyright exceptions and limitations are essential. For example, allowing text and data exchange will support scientific and academic research. Moreover, securing the right to link information is one of the main characteristics of online sharing.

At the global level, through the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the EU tends to defend knowledge protection with intellectual property rights for all kinds of industries, from medicine and broadcast signals to educational materials and climate technology. The EU needs to be more open to socially inclusive and flexible business models that are compatible with the digital age as well as with pressing human needs – both in the North and in the South.

The European Commission has shown that it recognizes the need to share knowledge and exploit the opportunities that exist in a digital age. – with access to research and development funding, accessible and open data in certain political decisions and exploration of open science.

However, knowledge sharing remains cautious. The EU's political strategies mostly serve the interests of the cultural industry, the pharmaceutical industry or the agricultural industry.

Collaborative economy – Uber and Airbnb

In its "Digital Single Market" strategy, the EU continues to allow centralized infrastructures to giant telecom operators and monopolistic Internetcompanies that control and commoditize users' online activities: accompanied by the misuse of our personal data from social media for arbitrary political-economic control and profiteering.

The few proposed European market regulations support a community-controlled or self-produced renewable energy.

As part of the digital strategy, the European Commission launched its agenda for the sharing economy in June 2016. It addressed issues of taxation, market responsibility, contracts and consumer issues. However, it failed to take into account democratic structures, social justice and ecological health – the cornerstones of cooperative initiatives that are for the common good.

The EU agenda, on the other hand, appears to welcome – with a few technical reservations – multinational collaboration platforms such as Uber and Airbnb despite the companies' tendency to undermine national laws that ensure fair competition and protect employees.

The engine of a community-based collaborative economy is not just consumers who want to own or buy a service. The consumer is often also a producer and/or involved in the collaboration platforms. A support for such platform economies requires an approach that understands and recognizes the value of local social relations, autonomous technologies, social justice and environmental sustainability goals.

Energy as a common good?

The EU is leading the way when it comes to global climate and Energy solutionscommitments. Although large energy companies are now investing in renewable energy sources, they may not be best suited to alleviate our socio-ecological dilemma: the commercial companies have little incentive to reduce overall energy consumption or to prioritize the social engagement of local communities. At the same time becomes new climate technology little shared with developing countries. This is partly due to the aforementioned protection of intellectual property and a resistance to sharing knowledge. In this conflict, the EU is fighting to keep all knowledge about climate technology within UN forums.

In general, the EU's energy strategy revolves around large gas pipelines, giant energy infrastructures and modest CO2-reductions. Despite more and more Europeans producing their energy locally or at home, the few proposed European market regulations would support community-controlled or self-produced renewable energy and would not offer financial arrangements for community-based energy. Nor do they defend the right to sell current to the mains. Policy proposals in the EU often support neither feed-in tariffs [what power producers pay to feed power into a point in the grid, red note] nor flexible grid infrastructures to provide assistance to local renewable energy sources. Little is being done to eliminate massive direct or indirect subsidies to large gas, coal and nuclear power projects.

A large part of the EU's energy budget could be earmarked for joint renewable projects and compatible infrastructure, with broad citizen participation. This will help to optimize the costs of secure energy supply through efficient, short and visible distribution loops while promoting a flexible local energy autonomy. The EU could have a "common" energy in contrast to the current main strategy of energy as a commodity.

Research and funding

EU research and innovation policy, such as Horizon 2020, the European Research Council, or public-private partnerships such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative, unfortunately also continue to favor privatized knowledge from EU-funded scientific, technological and academic projects. Instead, one could try to ensure a fair public return on public investment by imposing conditions such as social licensing, open source research and open data.

Shall EU's financing policy support for the community, it will mean earmarking significant parts of the EU's funding program with criteria and indicators for community-based activities in the fields of economy, environment, culture and research.

Through its Horizon 2020 research and development programme, the EU is already funding important projects: initiatives working to decentralize internet infrastructure, such as "DCent" and "Netcoms", as well as a network of renewable energy cooperatives in the community, which RESCOOPS – and urban joint projects such as Barcelona's wifi network:

The requirements and procedures for EU funding and grants can thus be tailored to socially beneficial projects, for example to contribute with sums corresponding to sums collected from citizen-funded projects, municipal or local community-based risk sharing, small-scale self-managed projects and flexible administration requirements.

Participatory political processes

Citizens' lack of trust in the European project is largely due to the lack of democracy, whether it is a lack of transparency, the power of corporate lobbies, the irresponsible role of national politicians vis-à-vis Brussels or the lack of a public debate on politics. Citizens must feel a stronger connection to – and have opportunities to get involved in – the EU's policy-making.

The renewal of citizens' councils depends on the EU's participatory political processes, greater institutional and legal responsiveness to local communities as well as concrete progress in creating transnational cooperation instruments for citizens who will influence the Union's policy. New digital tools can highlight the EU's political decisions and strengthen citizens' opinions on concrete legislation – for example, the proposal for a green program in the European Parliament.

The European Parliament's inquiry committee should be an important channel of citizen power in favor of the application of EU laws in defense of environmental or social standards. Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of political support, visibility and sufficient resources to respond quickly to the citizens' concerned inquiries. The European Citizens Initiative process, initiated as an instrument for transnational grassroots citizen bills, has been a failure due to a series of byzantine processes and a lack of political will to take this seriously. The institutions need more support.

The citizens' council's potential

The EU crisis calls for new, unifying and constructive narratives that will displace the xenophobic populist right wing with demands for democracy and sovereignty. The narrative of citizens' councils – with its emphasis on participatory democracy, community, ecology and stewardship – can give new life to progressive politics and contribute to a better, socially and ecologically sustainable Europe.

The citizens' council's logic can provide clear political guidelines and is not placed in one ideological framework of "left" or "right". It does not pretend to have an answer to all our problems. Yet it provides a clear ethical perspective and helps us understand what happens when people collectively manage resources without the dominant, centralized roles of either the state or the market.

The EU's overall political goals and positions stand in stark contrast to a community approach. What is needed to favor this shift is a citizen-friendly shift in the discussions and proposals for political forces of change – such as the Greens, and left and social liberal parties – which are favorable EU political environments where activities for the good of the community can more easily take root and flourish .

The European Commons Assembly received support from the European Cultural Foundation, the Lunt Foundation and the Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer and was co-initiated by the Commons Network. The Commons Network – where the article authors are co-founders – is a civil organization and think tank that is concerned with building bridges between public assembly and politics. See also sources such as: Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein: Supporting the commons: Opportunities in the EU policy landscape. Executive summary and recommendations, working paper. Developed with support from the European Cultural Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. See: The-Commons-andthe-EU-Executive-Summary.pdf Green European Journal 14 (2016), special issue entitled Finding common ground, edition/finding-common-ground/ Sophie Jerram: Solidarity in Brussels: The voices of the European Commons Assembly, Commons Transition, 12 December 2016, commonstransition. org/solidarity-in-brusselsthe-voices-of-the-european-commons-assembly/


This article was first published in a special issue of the Green European Journal, entitled Finding common ground.

See also the interview with Daniel Freund about today's new citizens' council,
The Future of Europe on page 3.


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