European social model increasingly a myth

20 October 2005

European social model increasingly a myth

The SP's Euro-MPs are in London this week for a conference of the United Left Group (GUE/NGL), of which the party's delegation forms the Dutch section. The theme of the conference – or 'study days' as the twice-yearly event is known – was the future of the 'European social model', and researchers, journalists and trade unionists were there to give their views on the subject, which will also be the topic of an informal summit – hosted by Tony Blair in London this weekend – of the European Council, the body which brings together heads of EU member state governments. The different experts gathered at the GUE/NGL conference told a range of stories, but the tone of each of was clear: the whole idea of a European social model is in increasing danger of becoming a myth.

Jeremy Corbyn MP
Amongst the speakers was Jeremy Corbyn, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party but a vociferous critic of the direction in which Blair has taken the party and the government. Calling the planned summit “an attempt to export New Labour policies to continental Europe and to increase the role of the private sector" he said that these policies had led to the disastrous example of health care in the UK. While the EU had always presented itself as a defender of a high quality welfare state, we were now getting signals that the cost of maintaining such was too high, which had "become a real mantra for Tony Blair."

Mr Corbyn added that attacks on the welfare state had begun during the 1980s under Thatcher. New Labour had invested more in education and health care, but this was done through bolstering the private sector and forcing through spending cuts. "I hope that this meeting contributes to an international approach against this sort of liberalisation and against any further handing over of power to multinational corporations. Giving up our system of social protection and returning to the nineteenth century is unacceptable."

United Left Group (GUE/NGL) Study Days

Trade unionist Jimmy Reid
Jimmy Reid was born in the 1950s in the slums of Glasgow. He remembers a life shadowed by terrible housing conditions, mass unemployment, hunger and poverty. One of seven children, he saw three of his sisters die. Yet as he pointed out, Glasgow was then the second biggest city of the biggest empire the world had ever seen. "We were told that this empire was ours by right. I was always sceptical about that. To close the gap between rich and poor, you need state intervention. European politicians with their 'social model' are leading us back to a system of insecurity and poverty and long working hours, to the end of the welfare state which we built. We must never again allow the amoral forces of the free market to rule our lives."

Professor Allyson Pollock on health care
"Britain was always a laboratory for the welfare state, but it is now a laboratory for privatisation and the handing over of the public sector to the market," said University College London health policy expert Professor Allyson Pollock. Thatcher, she continued had introduced a relatively mild form of privatisation, transferring managerial powers in health care to the private sector while safeguarding the interests of professionals in the field. From the beginning of the 1990s market mechanisms were introduced with the idea of instilling free market discipline, but ownership remained in public hands. After that came the so-called 'public-private partnerships', and public services were handed over to multinational corporations. These public services, Professor Pollock explained, were financed by banks on the basis of contracts of 60 years' duration. The function of the state was reduced to paying debts to this sort of enterprise. For the Blair government, she said, it didn't matter who was offering the health care, as long as it was publicly financed. This has made it an extremely expensive form of financing "If you want to offer resistance to this, what's needed is a coalition of academics, trade unions and politicians. The last phase of this policy of cuts is the paying out of public moneys on the basis of tenders put out to enterprises throughout the world. The costs are now much higher, while the quality of care is ever lower."

Kartika Liotard and Erik Meijer at the GUE conference

Philippe Marlier on the Third Way politics of Tony Blair
London University political scientist Philippe Marlier said that Blair had succeeded in reformulating the neoliberal trend in this new phase of globalisation as a 'Third Way model', but in reality it turns out to involve the day-to-day growth in the numbers of children living in poverty. Yet the left had failed to formulate a good alternative. "In relation to democratic principles Blair's policy is that there is no means of political participation other than as consumers via the market."

Conference chairs

Brian Denny from the Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
"The Services Directive, with the famous 'Country of Origin Principle' would lead to a race to the bottom in the area of working conditions. Countless demonstrations have made it clear how unpopular this proposal is." Transport Union official Brian Denny gave a number of examples of the increasing activism of the European Commission, whose members had condemned workers' actions in Sweden, and the seamen's' and dockworkers' strikes in France. He saw the struggle against the Services Directive as a fight for local and national democracy, arguing that each country's workers must organise their own resistance on the basis of their own assessment of the concrete situation in which they found themselves.

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