On 10 and 11 March 2011, I attended the First Social Conference in Europe. Around 80 representatives of European trade unions and social movements met in Brussels to move towards joint activities of resistance against neo-liberal restructuring. While the two days were very fruitful in relation to an open exchange of positions and the formulation of joint draft papers, a draft declaration, and a press release, the groups present ultimately failed to adopt priorities for joint actions in the short- to medium-term.
Since 2002, six European Social Forums have been held in Europe. Social Forums have had the task to provide a space for organisations critical of neo-liberal globalisation including trade unions, social movements and NGOs to meet, exchange their analyses and positions and identify potential areas for joint activities. There has, however, been an increasing criticism of the forum process that it would not lead to joint actions. The forums had failed, it has been argued, to develop a significant impact on policy-making. The First Social Conference in Europe, initiated at the fifth European Social Forum in Malmö in September 2008, tried to move beyond that. Membership was not open, similarly minded participating organisations had been carefully selected. Debate was, of course, part of the meeting, but the overall objective was to move to joint actions. Hence, five working parties were asked to establish three to four priorities for action each in their afternoon meetings. A list of 17 themes/areas for actions resulted from these deliberations and were presented as a list to the participants on the second day. Nevertheless, when asked to identify four to five priorities, which everybody could support and agree on joint activities, the discussion quickly stalled. More debate was needed, delegates pointed out. Draft papers needed to be reflected upon further. Additional meetings to deepen the discussions would be welcome, but nobody wanted to commit himself/herself or his/her organisation to any kind of joint activity.
The lack of joint actions was ultimately also due to different understandings of the situation. On the one hand, Joel Decaillon from the ETUC emphasised the importance of ensuring national and European competitiveness in view of the emerging markets. Asbjörn Wahl, on the other hand, from the Norwegian Municipal Workers’ Union and the Norwegian Campaign for the Welfare State, emphasised the importance of not subjecting one’s strategies to these requirements by the employers. It would now be important to focus on the question of power and how critical movements could shift the balance of power in favour of labour. Social Dialogue within the EU institutions and at the national level could not be the way forward. Moreover, representatives from social NGOs such as the European Anti-Poverty Network complained about the heavy emphasis on trade union issues. The language would be too much about ‘workers’, not people, the focus too heavily on economic power structures instead of rights. Issues such as social rights, minimum income, the environment or the preservation of public services, the Commons, would be missing. Social movements, who are currently involved in struggles against restructuring, were completely absent from the conference in the first place.
This does not mean that the two-day conference was a failure. Clearly, discussions were deepened and analyses sharpened. The main objective, however, to move from discussion towards joint action was not accomplished. The picture which emerged was the picture of a highly fragmented 'movement of the movements'. Shared analyses were not enough to move forward. Considering the onslaught by capital, exemplified by the new 'competitiveness pact' at the European level, the lack of a united resistance movement is rather worrying.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
24 March 2011