This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum Research Conference 2021 (17-18 June, online)
Writing a blog post about November 14th 2012 may seem like a delayed reaction after almost 9 years, but this day was central in my choice of a theme for a doctoral dissertation. This is why I am putting it under the spotlight again. I look at the day´s events using the theoretical framework of securitisation created by the Copenhagen Security School (Buzan et al. 1998).
On November 14th 2012, the European Union lived through a day of transnational protest, convened by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). This day was marked by demonstrations in several European cities, the largest taking place in several Spanish and Italian cities, the Portuguese capital and Athens, Greece. Marches also took place in about 100 French cities, as did sectorial national strikes across Europe (i.e. railway workers in Belgium and airport workers across Europe) and protesters also demonstrated in Brussels. In contrast, in northern European countries (Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark), that were less affected by the Great Depression, demonstrations were smaller and mostly motivated to show solidarity with Southern Europe. Those demonstrations were part of one of the largest coordinated protests at EU level, constituting a rare occasion of transnational, concerted mobilisation, gathering the attention of politicians, businesses, the media and social movements across the continent.
Despite the peaceful nature of most demonstrations, some events were marked by violence, both on the part of the protesters (police cars burned in Barcelona; electricity cuts in Madrid; objects thrown at banks and multinational companies, destruction of private property, attacks on security forces and roadblocks in Italy and Spain; objects thrown at policemen in Lisbon) and of the security forces, with the media, some political parties and politicians, civil society organizations and NGOs denouncing excessive use of force, which resulted in a significant number of injuries (50 in Lisbon, 70 in Madrid) and arrests (140 in Madrid, 60 in Rome).
I single out this protest event not only due to its explicit European nature, but also as it was the object of two completely different narratives. While the European Trade Union Confederation and some media refer to it in a celebratory manner as the “European Day of Action and Solidarity”, the same event is named “Day of the Rage” in other media. This second The “Day of the Rage” is a threat that needs to be tackled with a sense of emergency, both nationally and at European level, justifying securitising moves by different securitising actors (police forces, the judiciary, politicians, the media), both during and after the protest event.
During the protest, such actions included the deployment of special police units and riot police adopting urban combat tactics, such as charges, rubber bullets, tear gas, sound and water cannons, as well as crowd control tactics including kettling, mass arrests and dispersion by armoured vehicles. In Spain, military helicopters flew over the demonstrations.
After the protest, the reactions of governments, transnational institutions and multinationals to this day of protest are exemplified in those of the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso and of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. They recognized the duress of the sacrifices imposed on Southern Europeans, but continued to argue that austerity measures were the only solution to the financial crisis. These statements erased the possibility of the protest event resulting in any change in policy, thereby Further, the economic, financial and social costs of dissent were prioritised (politicians and business interests alike denounced losses of billions of Euros associated with the event), as was the fact that dissent would weigh negatively in countries´ ability to attract foreign investment, perpetuating the conditions that justified austerity to begin with, the responsibility of which was, this time around, attributed to the protesters themselves. In the media, protesters were described as violent thugs, as inconsiderate youths engaging in destruction for the sake of it, discursive constructions that devoid them of political identities and their actions of political meaning.
I posit, then, that this protest is paramount of the tendency for the securitisation of dissent in the EU. My analysis highlights the different dimensions of the securitising move, particularly noticeable during the event itself, but also visible in the discursive structures adopted by those in power. Securitising actors included politicians and political institutions, the police, the judiciary, private business interests and a part of the media, who, collectively posited the protest event as violent, dangerous, abnormal, and, finally, useless.
But I also uncovered some reactions resisting that move: desecuritising actors included European and national social movements, other politicians, and another part of the media, who described the protest as an example of European solidarity, a core value of the European Union, and who posited resistance to policies deemed unfair as a collective right of Europeans, both nationally and transnationally.
In my doctoral project, I am exploring the link between securitising protest and democratic erosion using Spain and Portugal as case studies. Although I am still at an early stage of my research, it is clear that the securitising tendencies I found by analysing this event are not the exception. If democratization happens bottom-up (Della Porta 2015), led by activist citizens making claims to justice (Isin 2011; 2012), limits to street politics, by effectively reducing the political space available to demonstrate dissent (Fominaya 2016), can put democracy at risk, so this is not an issue I take lightly. I hope to further understand exactly how these dynamics are at play as I continue my work.
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