The European Village is a non-governmental organisation, functioning as a non-profit organisation, whose aim is to foster societal (non-profit) solidarity economy, bio-cultivation, moral consumption patterns and alternative models of living in eco-communities. The initiative was formed in 2006, initially organising youth exchange programmes via projects funded by the European Union. In 2010 the founders’ group decided to include in its services a kafeneio, i.e. a traditional café, where diverse people can meet and produce collectively alternative modes of living and thinking. In their economic interactions, they mostly deal with local organic producers they personally know, and most products they sell and promote are fair trade. This way their economic activity is considered more humanitarian and environmental friendly. One of the fundamental purposes of the initiative is to challenge the culture of individualism and greed of the contemporary society (European Village, 2014). In order to achieve the goals of solidarity economy, the tolerance of the ‘other’ and respect to the environment, they organise initiatives such as seminars on de-growth development, tai chi and yoga classes, puppet-shows and fairy-tale reading, creative writing, music and dance festivals, initiatives on green construction, organic cultivation and exchange of seeds and plants.
The EV consists of 15 people, but the most active ones are 10. They are organised around an assembly, which takes place once per month. All the members participate in the assembly, and decisions are taken by consensus. As they do not believe in majority or minorities in decision-making, they prefer to take decisions after thorough and extensive discussion until all the members reach consensus. “We believe that if decisions are taken via majority, then this will lead to a kind of segregation, as subgroups will be created and more problems will be created”. Fostering direct democratic decision-making is considered very crucial. As narrated by the interviewed member of the EV, for a problem that could not be resolved, they asked for the help of a consultation initiative that will conduct interviews with everyone and help them resolve the issue. And this way of thinking which is beyond segregation and isolation of the members with different ideas is considered basic aspect of alternative thinking and acting, indicating a paradigm of problem-solution to other initiatives.
The EV profits from the economic function of the kafeneio, thus from the money they gather for the classes and the seminars via a moneybox. As discussed in the interview, the money that is gathered from selling food and coffees is quite enough to cover the stable costs of the kafeneio. Profits hardly rise, but when they do, they use them for experimenting on new structures. For example, recently the EV has bought a plot of land that its members will experiment on it as an eco-community, for the plantation of organic crops. The members of the initiative work on a voluntary basis, hence they earn no money from the activities they foster. Moreover, the money raised in the moneybox is used to provide some allowance to the teachers and the performers.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The concept of diversity is considered by the EV as something positive, thus necessary in modern societies; however it has a negative notion if diversity is promoted in order to deliver assimilation and homogenisation.
“Diversity is like biodiversity which is essential for the ecosystem to survive… diversity works the same in cities […] it is a necessary ingredient which helps the system reach stability”.
The initiative promotes diversity as, especially in the kafeneio, people of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds get together and exchange ideas and everyday realities. The openness of the kafeneio, thus of the people it attracts as clients, has created an open space of actual encounter of different people and alternative ideas. As explained in the interview, the Greek locals are more biased against the initiative, and sometimes they characterise them as ‘hippies’. The migrants show more interest in the kafeneio, where they feel more welcome to hang out and participate in the projects. Social groups that would not communicate to each other, like hipsters, anarchists, environmentalists, migrants and homeless actually get to meet and interact with each other. The positive aspect of diversity is promoted, thus a vague concept of hyper-diversity is put forward, as one of the basic principles that are promoted by the EV in the space of the kafeneio is that of tolerance of the ‘other’ and respect of the different cultures.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Besides the openness that characterises the function of the EV and its projects, the democratic processes in decision-making can be considered a strong factor influencing its success in promoting solidarity economy. Moreover, in the interview it was highlighted that the deficiency of economic resources is a major factor of success; otherwise profits would become an issue of conflict. Hence the ideas and projects that are promoted are basically the outcome of democratic discourse, relying on little economic resources, following the principles of de-growth development theory. Moreover, the experimentation on alternative economic and sustainable structures can be considered as innovative approach, which has the potential to serve as an example to a society hit by the current monetary crisis. However, a factor that narrows the impact of the initiative is that such ideas are developed and discussed amongst like-minded people who are interested in de-growth. The interviewee expressed high expectations on the potential of the initiative, as their strategy is to develop after small steps, learn from their mistakes and offer an alternative example to the society.
The EV is an initiative inspired by sustainable development thinking and de-growth development. It does not foster diversity per se, however diversity, tolerance and respect of the different culture are considered as high qualifications of modern urban societies. Actually, a multicultural and diverse environment is considered as a prime background for the development of democratic decision-making and new inspirations. The openness of this initiative is expressed on the one hand, by the impetus to bring together different cultures, alternative and ethnic ones, thus on the way they promote new ideas that are based on low economic input and high societal potential, such as the cultivation of plots and the organisation of eco-communities. Actually, a positive of notion of hyper- diversity is promoted, as the basic goal of the arrangements in the established of a common ground for the divergent cultures that exist in the city. The European Village can be considered a small but innovative approach in fostering social cohesion and economic performance though in alternative modes of production and consumption.
Regarding the further development of the EV, the members are optimistic. The interest that is expressed by new members, the new ideas that are brought by groups that want to participate by adding to the existing initiatives, thus the new groups that have sprung out of the initial project are indicators that show the potential of this initiative. However, whether new ideas and creative approaches may contribute to alternative and sustainable de-growth development is put under question. On the one hand, such an approach may actually contribute to the development of alternative economic solutions; on the other hand it may end up as the experimentation of an inspired group of people.