Bringing Nonviolence into the Building Sites of the European Union


Nonviolence has an established tradition in several disciplines, including political theory, international relations and political science. But its potential for the European Union (EU) has not been appraised yet. Roberto Baldoli and Claudio M. Radaelli explore nonviolence as an analytical and normative framework for the study of the EU. 

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As eventful years go by, the European Union (EU) citizens, policy-makers and theorists need new ways to address questions about power, democracy, and the stories we know and tell about integration. Specifically, what are the roots of EU power, and what is the quality of this power? What type of democratic governance is best suited and feasible for EU citizens? How could a narrative of integration emerge, from whom and with what kind of final destination in sight?

To answer these questions, we propose an un-orthodox, provocative, yet constructive framework –  nonviolence. Nonviolence is the force unleashed when the desire to harm is eradicated. The word ‘force’ makes us immediately think of power. More precisely, it’s power that emerges through action, even the disobedience of a single person (person power). And through praxis, not intellectual cogitation, nonviolence solidifies this power into governance, with swaraj (self-rule and self-government) and sarvodaya (the uplift of all).

The questions about power, democracy and narrative define three intellectual and political sites where there is already ongoing work. Yet nonviolence has been absent from these sites. We prefer to think of these as building sites, rather that scrapyards, hence our intent is constructive. In our JCMS article, we strongly object to the argument that nonviolence is simply a follow-up or another turn of the peace narrative. Instead we argue that nonviolence has a different and deeper analytical purchase – shedding light on neglected histories and dynamics of integration – as well as normative leverage in establishing a desirable horizon for EU governance, democracy and citizenship.

Nonviolence has an established tradition in different fields, such as political theory, security studies, social movements and peace research. Yet, what happens when we go right down the building sites of the EU ‘armed’ with nonviolence as praxis and intellectual compass?

The practice of nonviolence already exists in the  EU context and beyond, although EU institutions have made few attempts to claim and own it. Nonviolence has historically allowed European citizens to fight Nazism in countries such as Norway and even the Gestapo in Germany; to fight authoritarianism in Spain and Portugal; to free the East from communism and to join the EU; to raise hopes about a European future in the Maidan Revolution. Today, nonviolence shapes societies as civil resistance (a trend that is worldwide) and method to fight corruption and create integrity.

But how can we use it in the three ‘building sites’ of power, democracy and stories of integration?

Let us start with power. In EU daily political life as well as in theories of integration, power is often seen through the triad of military power, power as commodity, and power to destroy. Nonviolence turns this into the triad of civilian power, consent power and constructive power. Indeed, Gandhi’s constructive programme brings nonviolence way ahead of protest, complaint and mere ‘resistance’. The first building site of the EU may benefit greatly from the full adoption of this nonviolent triad. The focus on citizens, on their power to say no to unfair laws and to create alternatives reconnects the European people within a new inclusive bottom-up project. This is a project that in history has already demonstrated the effects of practices to defend our societies against tremendous dangers, such as the rise of dictators, invasions, armed groups or criminal organizations.

Today, what nonviolent practices show is that the key problems to overcome are not external enemies, but the many European internal divisions and impediments. Violence is the opposite of power, as Arendt would argue.

The nonviolent approach to power connects the individual, its moral responsibility, to society and governance. But democratic governance is not something that the ‘Institutions-capital-I’ concede to the citizens via intergovernmental conferences and Treaties. It emerges from daily practices of democracy. It emerges from a different approach to citizenship that goes beyond the focus on rights and instead centers on practices, of what we can do for one another. Hence, institutional design accompanies and protects the quality of democracy that is already there, in societal practices.

This brings us to the building site of democracy. Here nonviolence points towards self-governance and openness as organizational architecture of power, and omni-cracy, the power of all, as normative principle for EU politics and institutions. This normative principle is the basis of strong social accountability of institutions, something we found in the work of the political philosopher Aldo Capitini who created the expression omni-cracy to identify the democratic quality of nonviolence.

What about the third building site, the story or narrative of integration?

In terms of where the European project of integration should lead to, nonviolence does not provide an overarching final goal. In a sense, it is silent. Yet, the nonviolent narrative of the EU talks eloquently about political change. Change is brought about via a means-orientation to ends, without setting the objectives of change in advance. It is through praxis (that is, action, not thought) that change is literally incarnated in the actions of every individual and the implications of these actions. The ethical, political, institutional outcomes depend and co-evolve with the quality of praxis – we don’t have to set in advance the final destination as federation, confederation or demo(i)cracy. Thus, nonviolence says less than other theories of integration on the final destination of the EU, but it has the potential to achieve more. In short, a horizon, as Thomas Diez once said, not a precise destination.

This approach does not require billions from the EU budget. Of course our proposition, may or may not be accompanied by the necessary institutional change. Nonviolent praxis may bring about disintegration rather than more integration. Self-governance may not be recomposed in coherent forms of EU governance, especially if swaraj is decoupled from EU politics. Civil disobedience practiced by challenger governments may make the legal framework more fragile instead of more accountable. We know this. We do not argue that nonviolence is panacea for all the challenges of the EU. Rather, we advocate for the further exploration of the idea by citizens, policy-makers and theorists of integration committed to the messy building sites of the EU.

This piece draws on the article What Has Nonviolence Got To Do With The EU? published in JCMS.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Roberto Baldoli | @roberto_baldoli

Roberto Baldoli is Associate Staff at the School of Public Policy,  University College London. His research interests revolve around the themes of nonviolence and the European Union. His book ‘Reconstructing Nonviolence. A New Theory and Practice for a Post-Secular Society’ is now published by Routledge.

Claudio Radaelli@ProfCRadaelli

Claudio Radaelli is Professor of Public Policy, School of Public Policy, University College London. His research interests lie in European Union politics and governance and theories of the policy process.