The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Bilbao European Forum: The European left re-grouping towards another Europe?

Calling every European citizen! EUROPE MUST BE ON ALERT AND CALLED UP! Let’s recover over future! For a permanent collaboration and a convergent action between leftists, green and progressive forces in Europe – this was the call by left parties across the EU for their meeting in Bilbao, 9 to 11 November 2018. Over three days, representatives from across Europe met and discussed the danger of the rise of the far right, the possibilities for an ecological transition as well as a new economic order based on social justice and solidarity. In this blog post, I will critically reflect on this meeting.

There is a considerable tradition of progressive left forces meeting at the European level in order to prepare joint strategies towards another Europe. In November 2002, 60000 activists met in Florence/Italy for one week for the first European Social Forum to discuss joint activities. The call for global demonstrations against the impending war on Iraq in February 2003, issued at that meeting, was only one of the concrete outcomes (Bieler and Morton 2004). 10 years later, activists met again in Florence to reflect on progress. The European Social Forum had petered out as a process, but still a couple of thousand activists came together exploring new avenues of resistance. Workshops had been organised around concrete efforts of drafting an Alternative Trade Mandate and energising the European Citizens Initiative ‘Water is a Human Right’. Finally, activists launched the project of an AlterSummit (see Firenze 10 + 10). How does the Bilbao European Forum measure up against these historical experiences?

Right from the outset it became clear that this was a much smaller meeting. About 400 people had signed up and were in attendance, I was told. Delegates consisted of almost exclusively representatives from political parties of the left. This included the comparatively large and powerful German Die Linke, other parties linked to the GUE/NGL parliamentary group in the European Parliament (EP) such as the Greek Syriza party, the left-wing electoral alliance Unidos Podemos/Spain and the left Basque nationalist party Eh Bildu as well as a whole range of small leftist splinter groups and several representatives of the British Labour Party. This focus on political parties was a clear difference to previous European meetings of the left. In the past, the picture had been dominated by social movements representing environmental and developmental concerns as well as social justice issues. There were some trade unions represented in Bilbao, but unlike in the past this only included established trade unions such as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European level IndustiAll or the Spanish trade union CCOO. None of the more radical, rank-and-file trade unions such as the Italian Cobas or USB or the French SUD were present. Ecological transition was discussed, but the environmental aspect was covered by small green parties. No environmental movement or NGO was in Bilbao.

Inevitably, the lack of broader forces of civil society had a direct impact on the strategies discussed. Again and again representatives referred to the forthcoming elections to the EP in 2019 as a main focus for joint actions. Political actions were reduced to parliamentarism. Even the trade unionists participating in the Forum had as their main focus an activity for the elections: the drafting of a Trade Union Charter, which can be submitted to election candidates. If they endorse the key principles of this Charter, then they receive trade union support. People referred to successful struggles of new, more radical trade unions in organising Deliveroo workers or fast food sector workers, but these unions were not present. Groups such as the Spanish PAH, supporting people in their struggles against eviction from their homes were not in Bilbao, activists engaged in struggles against water privatisation neither. Ultimately, the groups represented reflected the establishment of the European left with a strong focus on the institutional structure of the EU.

The most dynamic session with a concrete outcome was the women plenary on Saturday For a Europe of Equality: Stop the Patriarchy. After a series of testimonies by female activists reporting on struggles for decent pay and working conditions, for example, for hotel cleaners, the debate moved towards a proposal of organising a feminist strike across Europe on 8 March 2019. Some female delegates raised concerns about the attractiveness of such a strike in their country, but after it was made clear that participation could be done in different forms, discussions moved swiftly towards the concrete organisation of that action.

Otherwise, the various plenaries and workshops were dominated by panel presentations with little time for discussion. And when there was time, some representatives reverted to reading out a prepared statement by their organisation rather than engaging with the themes introduced by one or the other speaker.

Thematic discussions often remained at the surface with little concrete proposals. Discussions of an alternative economy did stress the importance of the solidarity economy, for example, but it was not spelled out what this could imply for joint demands at the European level. There were calls for alternative visions for Europe, to re-appropriate key terms of European integration by the Left. What this means in concrete terms, however, as far as a vision for the future social relations of production of Europe is concerned, remained unanswered. This is in direct contrast, for example, to the British Labour Party’s election Manifesto, which has earmarked key sectors for nationalisation and pledged a regional investment bank in order to stimulate the economy in disadvantaged areas. The Labour Party has understood that a society based on solidarity requires a different way of how production is organised. 

This does not mean that the Forum will not have an important role to play in future struggles for Another Europe. Considering the rise of the far right across Europe, it is paramount for the Left to regroup and explore strategies of overcoming its own fragmentation. Political parties do have a role to play, as does the EP. On its own, however, a European Forum of political parties can never be enough. Unless these parties reconnect with social movements and a much broader range of trade unions, the full force of the Left in Europe cannot be assembled. Only a much broader alliance of left forces in Europe will be able to move to ‘a path towards a new economic, social and ecological model, including new responses to emancipation and democratic progress to face the most important challenges of mankind, as stated in the final declaration (Bilbao European Forum, 11 November 2018).  

We are at a crossroads in Europe and the Left is not yet in a state of seriously challenging dominant forces of austerity or the nationalist and xenophobic programmes of the extreme right.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

16 November 2018

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