Is the commons movement becoming a political force in Europe?

Sophie Bloemen on the occasion of the creation of a ‘Common Goods Intergroup’ at the European Parliament:

“The commons intergroup ended up joining the already existing one on Public Services and in the process of political shuffling, the name ended up shifting to common goods. So officially referred to as ‘intergroup on commons goods’, it is part of the ‘European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.’ Practically the group will operate in two subgroups. The president of the sub group on the commons is MEP Marisa Matias from GUE.

The intergroup can be understood as confirmation of the aspirations and discourse of the commons becoming a political force. In a way, the bottom-up movement is given a certain political legitimacy by the intergroup. Nevertheless, the question arises: How can an intergroup with such a broad scope as commons or common goods be useful? Aren’t the daily activities of the European Parliament in the end about concrete policies, amendments to policy proposals and votes?

We have to take a step back and ask: What are commons? What are common goods? There are distinct definitions: On the one hand, an operational notion would define commons as shared resources, governed by a certain community. On the other hand, a moral notion would say commons or common goods refer to goods that benefit society as a whole, and are fundamental to people’s lives, regardless of how they are governed.

These could be many things. Politically it will be more about claiming certain matters as commons or common goods, for example natural resources, health services or useful knowledge. Tackling core areas of our co-existence from a perspective of the commons is of great significance. It’s important because eventually this will lead to a move towards the sustainable management- and equitable sharing of resources.

Another aspect that makes this approach appealing is that the commons movement takes a community and ecological systems perspective. This philosophy moves away from a purely individual rights-, market- and private property based worldview. No need to elaborate that for many this worldview is at the root of the current economic and environmental crises.

Commons thinking expresses a strong denial of the idea that society is and should be composed of atomized individuals living as consumers. Instead the commons discourse points to the possibility that people can live their lives as citizens, deeply embedded in social relationships. Moreover, that citizens’ active participation is important in realizing wellbeing and a well-functioning society.

Hence, for politics and policy, what the commons or common goods are is not established and remains dynamic. This makes it all pretty exciting. Like we have a charter of human rights, we might have a modern charter of the commons some day. To illustrate what working from a commons perspective might look like in practice we can consider the EU’s policies on knowledge management.

Its fair to say these policies are currently far removed from a commons approach: the EU puts great emphasis on what one could call the ‘enclosure of knowledge’. This enclosure happens through the expansion of intellectual property protection, both within Europe and outside of it by means of trade policies. Apart from spurring innovation and helping European industries, this also results in, for instance, long patent monopolies on medicines and long copyright terms. In numerous instances the EU’s policies stifle possibilities to share knowledge and innovation, as well its collaborative production.

There has been quite some push back and the European Commission has taken efforts that recognize the need to share and embrace the possibilities of the digital age. This view is reflected by commitments on open access, open data in some of its policies and the exploration of open science. However, make no mistake, these moves towards knowledge sharing remain timid. The EU remains mostly conservative when it comes to private interests of publishers or the pharmaceutical industry, which also have great influence with their armies of lobbyists. Could the Commons Intergroup make a difference?

The intergroup could allow for an opportunity to work on knowledge policy issues from a collective perspective. Additionally there is the option to work in tandem with political actors working on access to knowledge and digital rights. Perhaps the policy implications will not always be ground-breaking and will often be similar to existing proposals, such as exceptions on copyright, sharing of green technologies, net neutrality or conditions on EU funded research. Nonetheless, the approach provides an additional political basis and rationale for these policies.
What about the public? While the concept resonates with more and more people, we are far removed from a commons consensus in society. In politics, the promoters of the commons perspective will have to be strategic, form alliances and make compromises, as one cannot change the world in one go. So it should be approached thoughtfully.

For many of the core issues related to commons-thinking, the new intergroup could provide a useful forum. For the commons movement it will certainly provide, once operational, a good place to find political friends.”

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