European ‘Spectre of flexibilisation' meets growing resistance

30 April 2006

European ‘Spectre of flexibilisation' meets growing resistance

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of flexibilisation. Virtually all European governments are scaring the living daylights out of their countries' citizens with a policy of deteriorating employment contracts, relaxation of laws on dismissal and attacks on pension rights. But in France this spring the people have spoken, telling their government – and with complete success - to take another look.

At a meeting this weekend in Paris French activists talked about this struggle to an audience of representatives of left parties from other parts of Europe, giving their explanation for its success. The attempt by the French government to end protection from dismissal for young people in their first jobs crashed headlong this month into a solid wall of resistance from angry students, school students, trade unions and left political parties. For three months French schools and universities were occupied and mass demonstrations organised. At the same time evidence was produced that flexibilisation brings nothing but social and economic misery. In the end, the concerted efforts of school students, students and workers forced the government to capitulate.

Since then the position of prime minister Dominique de Villepin appears to have become untenable, while the standing of President Jacques Chirac has, following the French people's 'no' to the European Constitution in 2005, taken a further colossal blow. Opinion polls predict that the right wing government will be ejected at the elections of 2007 and the left be brought to power. Last week the social democratic Socialist Party (PS), the Communist Party (PCF) and other left parties met to assess the state of play and to see, following their successful campaign of resistance, just what holds them together and what divides them, as PCF president Marie-George Buffet explained in her speech.

In Paris it became clear that throughout Europe governments are set on introducing more flexible employment conditions in an attempt to stimulate economic growth and create employment. SP national secretary Hans van Heijningen and Senator Tiny Kox, leader of the SP's group in the upper house, explained to the audience that in the Netherlands flexibilisation has turned out to be no magic wand, despite the fact that ten years ago it was seen as the absolute basis of the Dutch “polder model”. The “purple” coalition of social democrats and free market liberals which was in power until 2003 demonstrated only that this “polder wonder” was in fact unsustainable. The temporary jobs which it generated disappeared as soon as the economic situation deteriorated. Unemployment has since then grown more strongly than elsewhere, while the innovative power of Dutch firms lags behind because entrepreneurs have invested too little in their personnel.

Despite this the government wants ever more flexibilisation, lower benefits and reduced pension rights, while social democrat leader Wouter Bos of the PvdA (Labour Party) and Green Left parliamentary group leader Femke Halsema argue for further weakening of protection against unfair dismissal, a position which has angered trade unionists, as well as the SP, who point out that at the end of 2004 300,000 people gathered on the Museumplein in Amsterdam precisely to protest against such a policy.

In Paris the SP delegation was also primarily interested in how the alliance of left parties, students and trade unions was brought into being and maintained as an effective force. Opinion polls in the Netherlands also indicate a potential left majority but the question remains as to whether this can lead to real left cooperation if the PvdA and Green Left are moving to the right on such a crucial point.

In countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Greece and the Czech Republic attempts are also being made to lengthen the period in which new employees can be summarily dismissed and to reduce social rights in general. This year every government in the European Union must report to their national parliaments on the steps they have taken to fulfil the requirements of the EU's ‘Lisbon Strategy’, a programme which demands further flexibilisation of labour markets with the aim of making the European economy more competitive. The European Commission is now proposing what it calls ‘flexsecurity’, supposedly a means whereby member states can reconcile flexibility with social security and social rights.

The meeting in Paris agreed that participants from different countries would as far as possible keep each other up to date with new proposals towards flexibilisation as well as resistance to these plans.

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