The European Social Forum: the SP goes to Athens

7 May 2006

The European Social Forum: the SP goes to Athens

The SP sent a delegation of four to this year's European Social Forum in Athens: Members of Parliament Harry van Bommel and Ewout Irrgang were joined by national secretary Hans van Heijningen and Dennis de Jong, chair of the Social Globalisation Working Party. The four were able to participate in numerous events, sometimes with the help of simultaneous interpretation through headphones, which was often provided.

The programme for the ESF ran to 64 pages. Just as was the case in Florence, Paris and last year in London, it was difficult to decide between the many interesting events, meetings and themes. This time, moreover, more than on previous occasions, we were there with a mission: the ESF, we hoped, would provide us with material for the SP's coming campaign “A World to Share”, which we will be conducting over the coming two months. The point of the campaign is to raise the tempo of the debate on the Netherlands' overseas development aid. In addition, we were looking for ideas to take into the Netherlands Social Forum to be held in Nijmegen later in the month.

Harry van Bommel at the Anti-Capitalista shop

On the first day Harry and Hans attended a workshop on the future of the European Union, in which Francis Wurtz, leader of the United Left Group in the European Parliament (GUE/NGL), played a central role, arguing that there was every reason for optimism for people such as himself who were working to change the EU. “We have had three successes in a row,” he said. “We were able to take a stand against the neoliberal European Constitution. We managed to block the Port Services Directive. And we amended the Bolkestein Directive to the point where Mr Bolkestein no longer wants his name associated with it. That gives me enormous hope for the future of our movement. If we really want to, we can change Europe.” He went on to issue a plea for closer cooperation between progressive political parties and organisations in different parts of Europe.

At the same time Ewout dropped in on a workshop on the WTO negotiations around 'Non Agricultural Market Access' (NAMA), which turned out to mean everything except agriculture and services. The workshop was organised by an alliance of seventy NGOs, “From Seattle to Brussels”, established at the Seattle WTO ministerial in 1999. One of the most interesting speakers was Mari-Lou Madle from Focus on the Global South, a Philippines-based research group. She explained that developing countries had made a big mistake at the beginning of the Doha round in thinking that by offering concessions on access to their markets they would be able in return to extract concessions on agricultural policy from the developed countries of the west. They are still waiting. Developing countries' negotiators agreed to a so-called “Swiss formula” by which countries with relatively high import tariffs – for which read the developing countries – would reduce these by more than those with lower tariffs – the developed countries of the west. Mari-Lou Madle told the meeting that her country had massively lowered import tariffs on all but a very few products, with serious consequences for the fisheries sector which was as a result likely to be wiped out.

Happily, at least on a general level, there's good news. Frustrated by the attitude of the western countries the negotiations are currently stalled. Meanwhile, a group of poor countries, the NAMA-11, has been formed in order to avoid mistakes made in past negotiations. That won't be easy, but developing countries are slowly beginning to learn more and more about how to defend their own interests.

Hans van Heijningen with Farooq Tariq, Labour Party of Pakistan

In the evening another event organised by From Seattle to Brussels attracted trade unionists from a number of different European countries, as well as Attac members from Britain, Belgium, France and Italy. The two groups came together in what is known as the Network. One Belgian trade unionist summed up the issues surrounding world trade: "The negotiators in the WTO and EU negotiate over the heads of ordinary people. Not that there isn't anything at stake for us in these talks, because as a worker you run the risk of finding your head on the block if they succeed in these talks in liberalising the market in services. Trade unions in European countries and in poor parts of the world aren't seen as important players when it comes to multi-nationals pushing their own interests. Happily, however, we live in a democracy where we can inform people and get then on to the street. With a hundred people on the street you can't achieve anything, but if you can mobilise thousands, you become something."

A British activist from the Network drew attention to the particular situation of women, who, she said, "play a central role in the services sector. From teachers in my city to prostitutes in tropical tourist resorts, it's women who supply the services, as well as unpaid housework, child care and care of the sick. It must be obvious that care is much more than the market, that we have no interest in an imposed market-working which will force down wages and working conditions. Life is much more than the market; out of mutual concern and solidarity we must keep such services out of the claws of the market."

Jara, a Brazilian, reported on the situation in the south of her country."Almost all services are privatised," she said, "and because of this the gap between rich and poor is widening in every respect. In most European countries you're half-way there. In god's name do your best to stop this development," she pleaded, "because every day we see how worthless things become if the public sector is sold off."

At the end of the workshop Network members resolved to step up lobbying of Euro-MPs in an attempt to dissuade them from supporting the EU's drive towards deregulation of services.

At the end of the first day Susan George, director of the TransNational Institute (TNI) and figurehead of the movement for social globalisation, gave a fiery speech in which she said that we should be proud that "We were able to stand up against the European Constitution. We were able to stop the flexibilisation of the law in dismissals. Together we are strong!".

Friday began with a workshop on the EU's neoliberal 'Lisbon Strategy', by means of which Europe is supposed to achieve the world's most competitive economy by 2010. In the discussion, trade union leaders from Germany, France and Greece attempted to propose alternatives to this approach, which everyone agreed was leading to the rundown of social provision, to unemployment and the weakening of the public sector. A German trade unionist, Horst Schmitthenner from IG Metal said that the alternative was to get rid of the Stability Pact, with its restraints on public spending, stop the privatisation of public services and put an end to the erosion of benefits for the unemployed. The French speaker called for more cooperation between governments and trade unions, but the Greek was sceptical: in his country it was impossible to work with the conservative administration.

Also on Friday we had the opportunity to meet with Berber activists from Algeria as well as militants from the Pakistan Labour Party and hear about the problems of organising in such repressive countries. We also ran into other SP members, including Elisabeth Spaan from Amsterdam and Michel Eggermont from Utrecht. Erik Meijer, one of the party's two Euro-MPs, was also in Athens with the delegation from his European Parliamentary political group, the same GUE/NGL whose leader, Francis Wurtz, we had heard speak the previous day.

In the afternoon Ewout attended a "Stamp Out Poverty" workshop on new means to raise the money needed to finance the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the series of eight targets – concerning such matters as access to water, health care, gender equality and poverty – agreed by the UN, the idea being that they should be reached by 2015. The number of people living in extreme poverty, for example, should be halved by that date. A report from David Hilman of Stamp Out Poverty, a coalition of some fifty British NGOs, was optimistic about growing support for a "Tobin Tax", a levy on cross-border capital transactions which, even if set as low as 0.005%, would bring in much of the cash needed to fund the fight against poverty. Belgium has gone so far as to pass a law which states that the country will introduce such a tax when all other countries in the Eurozone do so. The new left government in Norway is seriously considering becoming the first country in the world to bring in a Tobin Tax. France, Brazil, Chile and Norway have agreed a plan to finance the goals by means of a very small tax on airline tickets. The tax will be introduced simultaneously by the four countries on 1 September 2006 and is expected to bring in between €200m and €500m. Activists from ten countries attended this workshop and Ewout was pleased to hear that they were confident that next year would see a left government in power in the Netherlands!

The next day Ewout followed up this session with one on 'debt forgiveness' for poor countries. International agreements over this might look good on the surface, but the devil is in the detail, and it turns out that developing countries will profit far less from such accords than it might appear. Meanwhile, Harry took part in a workshop with Helmut Schulz, who represents the German PDS on the secretariat of the GUE/NGL and advises the group on economic affairs. Also on the platform was Francine Mestrum from the Belgian affiliate of Attac. Helmut argued that the Stability Pacts should be abolished and replaced with a new pact to promote employment and good quality education.

 Another World is Possible

These were the last events before the afternoon demonstration, which attracted tens of thousands of people and which, with the exception of the usual pitched battle involving police and a few "autonomists" and the like, this time just by the US Embassy, went off peacefully and in great good humour. Banners showed the breadth of concerns shared by most who had come to Athens for the ESF and the many local people who turned out to support the demonstration: "No attack on Iran", "Peace for the Palestinians", "No sell-off of public services", "Another Europe is Possible". The SP delegation was disappointed to see no Dutch people from other organisations, but the demo did attract a bewildering range of nationalities – Kurd, Turk, Palestinian, Belgian, British, French people in particularly large numbers, Basques, and Germans amongst them.

 People above profit

The demonstration ended in an exuberant party in Syntagma Square. Even the police estimated that 80,000 had been present on the march – an impressive end to the Fourth European Social Forum.

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