22 May 2014 | by Rafael Ziegler


Why Europe should take a bath

The case for small acts of concrete solidarity

Money rules the world, but who rules the money? With respect to its new banknotes, the European Central Bank provides a clue: look at the banknote “against the light. A faint image becomes visible and shows a portrait of Europa”[1], the mythological figure. Does Europa rule the money?

Europa is the daughter of Phoenician royals, whose kingdom today would be located in Lebanon and Jordan. When Europa plays at the beach, a stranger approaches her. It is a bull. The princess plays with the bull. She curls flowers around his horns. He swims with her across the sea to what we call Europe today.

Did Europe start with a rape? Or a love trip across the Mediterranean Sea? Whatever the answer, according to the myth, Europa swims with a stranger. Europe is born through the waters; it comes from elsewhere.

In Europe, princess and bull marry. The bull becomes an ox. In medieval Europe, the invention of the scratch-plow met fruitful soils, not just in the geographic sense but also in the cognitive sense of a Christian world-view ready to use the land. The scratch-plow pulled by oxen increased the wealth, but this land use, so the famous thesis of historian Lynn White Jr., is also at the roots of our contemporary ecological crisis. “The friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips. . . . Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature”[2]. The exploitation of nature was not limited to land. Historian David Blackbourn describes the making of modern German as a conquest of water:  swamps, wetlands and soils were drained, rivers rectified, and dams built[3]. The conquest of land and water initially sustains the wealth of Europe, but never entirely tames nature. With industrialization and its numerous innovations for the use of fossil fuels, Europe further increases it wealth and power, even beyond its continental boundaries, even beyond the planetary boundaries.  Nature still was not be tamed, but industrializing Europe laid the foundation for human societies to have such significant impact on the planet that the term Anthropocene is seriously considered to denote a new global epoch caused by these changes[4]. The European industrialization was accompanied by a growth in finance, by capitalists and financial markets - the ox again becomes a bull again: symbol of economic potency and the rise of the stock exchange.

Thus the European Central Bank, located just a short walk away from the bull in front of the Frankfurt stock exchange, points to a multilayered, economic myth. Europa’s marriage with the bull creates wealth. And even today people would swim across the Mediterranean, if only European police and military would let them (and should they not let them, if this is the naming-giving myth of Europe?). The core of the contemporary Europe myth is economic. It is one of economic co-operation building peace across the continent. Economic performance not only legitimates the European Union as a supra-national entity; the economic cooperation even somehow subsequently leads to the required political structures. This style of thinking, even with a view to difficult challenges, is illustrated by the former president of the EU-Commission Romano Prodi as follows: “When we created the euro, my objection, as an economist (and I talked about it with Kohl and with all the heads of government) was: how can we have a common currency without shared financial, economical and political pillars? The wise answer was: for the moment we’ve made this leap forward. The rest will follow.”[5]  

Yet this idea of “the-rest-will-follow” hardly keeps the continent afloat. Accordingly, Prodi’s successor José Barros stated in State of the Union address in 2013:  “These are challenging times, a real-stress test for the EU . . . Let’s make no mistake: there is no way back to business as usual[6]”. If business as usual means: economic cooperation followed somehow by political cooperation, then no way back to business as usual presumably means that there are economic, social and ecological challenges that are not somehow dissolved by way of political catch-up. These challenges are numerous and serious: There is the old question of who belongs or should belong to Europe, an important background theme in the Ukraine crisis.  There is the more recent question, whether a union with North-South inequalities and inequalities in the life prospects between the generations will stick together, and if it ought to do so. In 2013, youth unemployment reached over 23% on average across the EU, and in Spain and Greece even reached levels beyond 50%[7].  And last but not least, there is the challenge of a “Europe of fear” (Prodi[8]):  fear of China, fear of Russia –  there is also a bear in front of the Frankfurt stock exchange, that in the year of the Ukraine crisis many will view with new eyes -, fear of globalization, fear of ecological crisis, and of course fear of those, who come across the Mediterranean Sea.

Still, a closer look at the lost “business as usual” is worth it. Its attraction was personified in the post-war years by Jean Monnet. The French entrepreneur was a driving force of a Europe of projects.  Via projects such as the European Coal and Steel Community, he successfully advanced economic cooperation in the 50ies and 60ies. The Monnet Method named after him stands for the concrete solidarity of common action.

It is usually taken as a paradigm of a primary focus on economic development - a focus that in time of ecological and social crisis appears to be doubly problematic. “The rest does not follow”: economic growth does not simply lead to a rising living standard for everyone and in a sufficiently egalitarian manner, and it especially does not in a quasi-automatic second step yield solutions for social and ecological challenges. Rather, the Monnet method in practice appears to strengthen “Brussels”: lobbyists, bureaucracy and ever more norms and directives. Thus, cooperation on the European level also seems to follow the patterns of a bureaucratic Schicksalsmacht that Max Weber has diagnosed in the modern national state. This power disenchants Europe and turns problems into technocractic expert issues.  “If a degree and several internships are required to participate competently in the basic questions of a democratic system, then we should not be surprised, if the public is in a bad mood[9]”.

But rather than letting Europe take a bath (and sink?), we can also reconsider and rethink the method of concrete solidarity. We can revisit “the Europe of projects” with a view to our social and ecological challenges.  Some years ago, the poet and singer Heinz Ratz started a moral triathlon. He swam 815 km through Danube, Rhine and other European rivers, to “embrace the river” (Ratz) and to create attention for biodiversity protection.  A European swims with strangers. With our rivers? Ratz also hiked with homeless people from town to town, and he cycled – this is the third discipline – from one asylum centre to the next. Was he looking for Europa?

In February 2014, Ratz gave a talk in Tübingen, home of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. About the river Neckar flowing through Tübingen, Hölderlin writes in a poem that his heart awakened in his valleys, and that the river took him along to the Rhine, and then to the Paktolos, a Greek river now in Turkey – we are moving quickly to Europa’s birthplace in the poet’s imagination[10].  It is as if he reverses the journey of Europa in search of light and music, yet always keeping his Neckar in the mind. River Poetry as a guide to better understand ourselves, and the live of people coming to Europe today? Something like this is surely the mission of Ratz. He said, in a way that resonated with Gandhi’s perspective on social change, that he is not primarily interested in “societal problems but to see the human in the human”. And presumably the river in the river. His bike tour provoked the formation of the Band The Refugees, which subsequently had a successful concert tour.  Is this concrete solidarity in a new key?

About his river action, Ratz says today, that he had organized too much in solitary way. If he would do it again, he would organize it more together with others. Like Roberto Epple, the initiator of the European Rives Network. Epple fights for rivers and lakes – with a European swimming day. In the year 2000, the EU has set itself ambitious water conservation goals via its Water Framework Directive: good ecological and chemical status of rivers and lakes by 2015. By 2009, the union countries were meant to develop river management plans, in cooperation with the public and so as to achieve the goals on time. But in 2014 there are, especially in the South, still countries that have not submitted their management plans.  And the countries, which have submitted them, are not necessarily on target.  Germany is likely to attain good status for only about 20% of rivers and lakes. For all other rivers, there are exceptions and delays.  There is a progressive law but the exception has become the rule. So are we stuck with bureaucracy, paper work, many rules, North-South inequalities and poor ecological goal achievement?

The analysis of such questions of social change is complex, and there is little reason to think that mono-causal explanations (“bureaucracy”!) can shed more than partial light. Rather, we need to focus on several aspects at the same time: on the actors and their networks, on the institutions that validate and constrain the actors, and finally the cognitive frames we rely on when interpreting institutional rules and making judgments in action-contexts.[11]

On the level of actors and networks, the focus on social and ecological challenges reveals social innovators such as Roberto Epple and his European River Network (ERN) as “other” innovators next to the more familiar innovators of technical products and services for the market. These range from open networks such as the ERN to social enterprises such as Bybi, founded in Copenhague by Oliver Maxwell to promote urban honey production and create jobs for marginalized people. They also include the adaption of established institutions to new challenges such as the Open University envisaged by Michal Young[12]. As in the research on technical-economic innovation, there is a big variety of innovators and innovations that social science still has to systematize[13]. Yet, there can be no doubt that many innovators and innovations process become visible, once the narrow focus on technical-economic innovation is abandoned . . . and as in the story of Europa, these innovators need not be of EU-origin (Epple for one is born in Switzerland, and only moved to France for the sake of river conservation efforts at the Loire).

On the institutional level, this extended focus gives rise to a discussion of definitions, and operationalization. The national and European support for innovations based on research and development and aimed at new products and services for the market is well established. The importance of government and regulation for fostering such innovation is well understood[14]; and an “active state” is ethically called for in the light of the global sustainability crisis[15]. More challenging, is the role of government and supranational entities such as the EU for social innovation. The Bureau of European Policy Advisors has defined social innovations as new ideas (products, services, and models) that simultaneously meet social ends (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations[16]. A growing body of social science research seeks to provide the theoretical foundations for such social innovation. While this is a fascinating body of new research, it is clear that it so far lags behind the practice of social innovations on the ground and that therefore the discussion of the structural support for social innovation is still at a very early stage. Innovation, no matter if technical or social, requires the practical diffusion and adaptation of ideas. Yet, how to systematically or even fairly support innovations that do not aim at products and services for the market, or not exclusively so, is still an open question.

Still, there are first-bottom up solutions for such support. Many of those approaches focus on creating space for the development and diffusion of new ideas: hubs, thematically oriented co-working spaces, think and do tanks and even former monasteries[17] have appeared in European cities over the last decade and provide support networks for the development of ideas. Visitors to such spaces know that they are rarely homogeneous in a nationality sense. Rather they are space for idea developers from many nations that are attracted by various social and ecological visions and that testify to a growing number of young European, who are well-educated but do not fit or do not want to fit in the traditional labor market.      

This finally takes us to cognitive frames that orients our interpretation of rules and action contexts, that help us select what is “relevant” and “worth having a closer look at”, and therefore also guide our expectations. At the level of cognitive frames, the way of thinking about innovation and the way of thinking about the EU as a peace project for Europa (and beyond) can fruitfully meet.  On the level of our conception of innovators, Monnet is a reminder of the entrepreneur beyond a narrow managerial way of thinking. Curiously, this aspect might be easier to see from outside than from within. In the United States, William Drayton founder of the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka, has identified Jean Monnet already in the 1990s as one of the leading social entrepreneurs[18]. Here entrepreneur takes on the wide sense of practically initiating and implementing novel approaches in politics, economy and civil society, as well as across these spheres. Incidentally, this wide use of the term is not novel as such but has already been noted by Joseph Schumpeter, the classic origin of the theory of entrepreneurship[19].  Drawing his inspiration from the artists of the Renaissance, Schumpeter argued that there is entrepreneurship in many spheres of the social world, but that in capitalist systems for-profit entrepreneurship in the economy will be most dynamic, not least due the availability of credit and financial markets noted already above. However, this historical, nuanced perspective on social change has been largely buried by the prevailing focus on business entrepreneurship in the mainstream media with their focus on the likes of Apple, Google etc. 

Notoriously, former US-president Georg W. Bush Jr. even puzzled “old Europe” with claim that the French do not have a word for entrepreneur. A British Lord reflected: “I cannot resist going back to a point that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, about Mr Bush, who asked why the French do not have a word for ‘entrepreneur’. If you translate it correctly [from the French] it means an undertaker; someone who undertakes something, like an Unternehmer in Germany. But if you translate the word back into English, it means something slightly different; it means dead things. If you translate the English ‘undertaker’ into French, you get ‘croque-mort’-an old crock, perhaps like your Lordships' House”[20].

So let’s use the word innovator instead, and note that France, too, has innovators . . .  and that the Lord’s musings on France, England, Germany and death take us to the beginnings of Monnet as an innovator. This business *entrepreneur* from a family of Cognac producer in Cognac (France) first travelled to England, Germany, the Unites States, Russia and China to sell the cognac of his family[21]. But the wars interrupted the family business. First in WWI, and then again in WW II, Monnet promoted the coordination of military efforts and related supply and transport so as to strengthen the unity of these two countries first against Prussian Germany, and then against Nazi-Germany. He made action plans for the two countries to work together, and spend much of his time to get these plans into the hands of the right people in the British and French governments. This is a focus on political and military change.   

Like Monnet, today’s innovators seek to turn ideas into concrete action programs for use and in such a way that gets at a key aspect of the societal challenge. While contacts to decision-makers no doubt remain important, there is however much more involvement of citizens already in the development and adaption of the project. These are processes that aim to be much more “with” and not just “for citizens”. It is a network of small acts of solidarity, rather than a few big elite-driven projects of common action.

This civic point is important. If one revisits Monnet and the EU as an economic-cooperation-for- peace-project, it is clear that the EU does not start as a project for liberalizing as many markets as possible but in the first place as a response to the most severe shock ever experienced on the European continent: the Second World War (and it is here that Monnet starts his memoirs, with an account of his effort to create military cooperation between France and the United Kingdom in 1940). This shock created space for a novel, more democratic foundation of countries such as Germany, helped created the space for a UN-Charter and human rights, and especially for the project of a political union of Europa[22]. These are political responses to a serious challenge.

No doubt, such responses cannot be simply “repeated”. But their memory casts a different light on the idea of Brussels as an impersonal Schicksalsmacht enforcing the increased competition of nations. Rather, a renewed perspective on Europe makes visible the need to focus on the new challenges and opportunities for dealing with them as actors, in institutions with changing cognitive frames.  To wit: Take your swimming suit, experience and learn together with others.  Epple and his collaborators invite all European to reconcile with their rivers and lakes, and to this end swim together and at the same time in their rivers and lakes at the European swimming day. With this collective Big Jump they enjoy the “embrace of the river”, and at the same time create many public signs for water conservation in Europe.

If we could swim in the Loire and the Vistula, the Ebro and the Danube an all the other rivers and lakes without disgust, what would Europe be like then? Are these “simple” needs – walking and swimming without prohibition or disgust – early signs of a renewed European vision in the face of the most serious challenge not just for Europe but for the human population as such? The global sustainability crisis with climate change and water stress on the ecological side, and inequality on the social side hits a Europe with a shared, densely populated nature; a continent full of stories, including that of “sustainable forestry” emerging in response to wood shortage in the early stages of industrializing Europe[23].  The idea of Europe, says Robert Menasse, is more sustainable than the current way of economic organization[24]. Is this idea maybe sustainability itself? And are European perceptions of the global social-ecological crisis already strong enough that Europeans will respond with the same sense of urgency that people like Monnet pushed for concrete acts of solidarity during the second world war? 

A social and ecological Europe needs innovators: people, organizations, networks that see new possibilities to meet needs (or rediscover old ones), and that do not just complain about bureaucracy and powerlessness. Innovators who as poets, engineers, entrepreneurs and free-swimmers of all kinds co-create new processes of experience and learning. Innovators whose sources of inspiration are neither exclusively economic, nor parochially “old” European: Mahatma Gandhi and Muhamad Yunus, just as much as Jean Monnet and Franz Beckenbauer. Innovators who do not only ask what keeps us together - the dominant culture? The Judeo-Christian heritage? But innovators who also make proposals, what can bring us together - apart from the Champions League – and who propose ideas that can carry us and keep Europe afloat.

A social and ecological Europe needs institutions and cognitive frames that creates space for the carrying out of many, interlinked innovations and concrete acts of solidarity in response to the socio-ecological global crisis. Many of these innovations will be technical, for example for renewable energies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet already the climate case shows that this will not be sufficient:  for the world to stay within less than two degrees of global warming, only about 25% of the available fossil fuel reserves can bused up. Not using available fossil fuels requires a change in the cognitive frame of modern economies.  It requires social and not just technical innovation.

It requires innovators, who take things so seriously that they not only want progressive laws, conventions and protocols but also their implementation. In contrast to the late 40s and 50s of the last century, there is no shortage of European laws, directives and norms. There is therefore also plenty of potential for a shared consciousness and “organic” solidarity based on law (in the sense of Durkheim). No doubt, this potential can only unfold, if the law is practically experienced, and if there are shared learning experiences towards its implementation, adaptation and revision.

Social and ecological projects are a contribution to move forward the Europe of citizens (and of those freshly arrived) and its organization (“Brussels”) via a shared and public formation of will. If a cause is associated with experience and emotions, then we are also more likely to care about it. If Europe goes swimming, it also goes voting.  Therefore a Europe of social and ecological projects, and the transnational movement of young (and old) social and ecological innovators, makes a contribution to public spheres across national boundaries that philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas argue to be necessary for a democratic, political entity[25].  Is it an accident that the biggest European civic referendum initiative so far demanded the implementation of the human right to water in Europe (and collected 1.884.790 signatures across Europe)? At the very least, it is significant accident: the focus on a human right asserts a public interest in terms of a global not just European mindframe, and in terms of the myth of Europa, it reminds us that Europe comes from elsewhere: its territorial boundaries remain subject to a continuous search of understanding that transcend the continent.     

So be sure, these are water-marks, faint images in the European mythscape and not least hopes. Hope, Vaclav Havel said, is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning – if we pause to appreciate it, look closely at our money, and swim together.                                                                                                                             


[1], last accessed 17.11.2014

[2] White, Lynn (1967): The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. In: Science 155 (3767), 1203–1207.

[3] Blackbourn, David (2006): The Conquest of Nature. Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany. London: W. W. Norton & Company.

[4] Crutzen, Paul J. (2002): Geology of mankind. In: Nature 415 (6867), 23.

[5] Taken from a Euro-News interview with Prodi on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of the introduction of the Euro  (, last accessed 17.11.2014.

[6], last accessed 17.11.2014.

[7] Source: Eurostat. Online available at, last accessed 17.11.2014.

[8], last accessed 17.11.2014.

[9] Quoted from a comment on democracy in the EU by Bettina Gaus,!136615/, 17.11.2014.

[10] Friedrich Hölderlin, Der Neckar (written between 1800-1806).

[11] The analysis of social change based on a social grid of networks, institutions and frameworks has been proposed by Jens Beckert for the analysis of social change in markets (Beckert, Jens (2010): How Do Fields Change? The Interrelations of Institutions, Networks, and Cognition in the Dynamics of Markets. In: Organization Studies 31 (5), 605–627. The social grid approach can be extended to include the analysis of social change process beyond the market (Nicholls, Alex and Ziegler, Rafael (2014): An extended social grid model for the study of marginalization processes and social innovation, Paper for D1.1. FP-7 Project Cressi (613261).

[12] Examples are from Science Communication Unit, University of West England (2014): Science for Environment Policy In-Depth Report: Social Innovation and the Environment. Report produced for the European Commission DG Environment. Online, last accessed 17.11.2014) and from Mulgan, Geoff; Tucker, Simon; Ali, Rushanara; Sanders, Ben (2007): Social Innovation. What it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated. Working Paper, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Oxford.

[13] Moulaert, Frank; Maccallum, Diane; Mehmood, Abdid; Hamdouch, Abdelillah (Eds.): The International Handbook on Social Innovation. Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research. Cheltenham: Elgar, 2014; Nicholls, Alex; Murdock, Alexander (eds.) (2012): Social innovation. Blurring boundaries to reconfigure markets. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[14] Mazzucato, Mariana (2013): The entrepreneurial state. Debunking public vs. private sector myths. Revised edition. New York: Anthem Press.

[15]See German Advistory Council on Global Change (WGBU) (2011): World in Transition. A Social Contract for Sustainability. WGBU. Berlin. .

[16] Bureau of European Policy Advisers: Empowering people, driving change. Social Innovation in the European Union. Online, last accessed: 17.11.2014. 9

[17], last accessed 17.11.2014

[18], last accessed 17.11.2014.

[19] Swedberg, Richard (2009): Schumpeter’s full model of entrepreneurship: economic, non-economic and social entrepreneurship. In: Rafael Ziegler (Hg.): An Introduction to Social Entepreneurship: Voices, Preconditions, Contexts. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 155–175.

[20], last accessed 17.11.2014

[21] Jean Monnet (1976), Mémoirs, Paris: Fayard. Chapitre 2 “Une enfance a Cognac”.

[22] John Fossum und Augstìn Fossum (The Constitution’s Gift. A Constitutional Theory for a Democratic Union, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011, 78f) argue that in “stunde null (zero hour) of Europe” after WWII the postwar constitutions of five out of six of the founding countries contained clauses “establishing supranational integration as a core constitutional objective and purpose” (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands but only indirectly Luxembourg). The constitutions limit national sovereignty, if this is necessary for the organization of peace and if reciprocity is guaranteed (see ibid. ft 7)

[23] Scott, James (1998): Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

[24] Interview „Der beste Ort der Welt“, die taz, 12.4.2014.

[25] Jürgen Habermas (2011): Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay. Frankfurt: edition suhrkamp

About the author

Rafael Ziegler is a GETIDOS Fellow.

This text was first published on Agora42 in German. A revised English version was later published on Social Innovation Community on the Big Jump, European River Swimming Day. The text was written in the context of the collaborative campaign Big Jump Challenge.