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.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Firenze 10+10 – Reflections on the Left in Europe

From 8 to 11 November 2012, I attended the Firenze 10+10 meeting of European anti – neo-liberal globalisation movements in Florence/Italy. Florence had partly also been chosen as the location for this meeting in memory of the remarkable first European Social Forum held in that city in November 2002. In this post, I will reflect on the achievements of Firenze 10+10 and analyse the situation of the European Left more generally.

Florence 10 years after

The differences with the European Social Forum ten years ago could not have been bigger. Back then around 32,000 to 40,000 delegates, some even spoke of 60,000 people on the last day, from all over Europe, plus 80 further countries, had gathered in Florence. The ESF culminated in one of the largest anti-war demonstrations ever on the afternoon of 9 November, when 500,000 protestors according to police estimates¾almost 1 million according to the organizers¾marched peacefully through the streets of Florence against the impending war on Iraq (Bieler and Morton 2004). Registration in November 2002 took almost two hours due to the large queues of participants. This time, I entered the much smaller registration room and proceeded immediately to the registration desk. The whole process took no longer than five minutes. Organisers of Firenze 10+10 speak about more than 4000 delegates, 300 networks from all over Europe and beyond, but these figures look rather optimistic to me. There was plenty of space at all events, it was easy to get translation equipment and the Fortezza da Basso, the main location as in 2002, was never really crowded.

Photo by Stan Jourdan
Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to focus only on the number of participants or number of events, when assessing Firenze 10+10. As in 2002, the main task was to share analyses of the current situation in Europe and debate joint activities of resistance against neo-liberal restructuring. As in 2002, the challenge was to broaden the social basis of resistance through forming large alliances between social movements, NGOs and trade unions. If at all, this task has become even more urgent now considering the current wave of austerity across Europe in response to the global financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis of the Eurozone.

Reform or ...?

Photo by perunaltracitta
Participants generally agreed on their negative assessment of austerity and the need to push European and national policy-making towards a socially progressive agenda. How this is to be done in practice, however, brought to the fore old divisions between reformist and transformational strategies. For example, the workshop on Friday afternoon, 9 November on ‘Workers rights, No precarious work, Basic Income, Pensions: setting a strategy’ brought together a range of trade union representatives from the Italian CGIL confederation, the French CGT, the Italian metalworkers’ union FIOM and a Belgian trade union to discuss the current attacks on industrial relations regimes as part of the wider austerity drive. Across Europe, we would witness drastic wage cuts, the possibility for companies to opt out of collective bargaining structures with FIAT driving this process in Italy, and an increasing involvement by the Commission in the flexibilisation of national labour markets. There was a general agreement that European-wide co-operation and mobilisation was required to resist these pressures and to ensure that workers on temporary contracts are moved onto permanent ones.

These issues are clearly important. And yet, it is rather unclear how this theme on its own could provide the basis for a more progressive strategy forward. First, because it focuses on policies of the past in that it attempts to defend social partnership institutions established in the 1950s and 1960s, when labour was able to balance the power of capital. Of course, these institutions need to be defended as much as possible, but it is necessary to realise at the same time that social partnership arrangements have become hollowed out or even dismantled for some time. Moreover, where they do still exist, fewer and fewer workers are actually covered by them as the informal, precarious part of labour markets with workers on temporary and part-time contracts is growing. Second, such a focus is not very helpful, as the almost exclusive emphasis on workplace issues does not provide scope for co-operation with other social movements. And finally, this focus on defending past successes does not challenge the destructive dynamics of capitalism more fundamentally. At the same time, however, we should not be too critical of these trade unions either. The very fact that they were at Firenze 10+10 and prepared to expose themselves to more radical criticism is testimony to their willingness to be active in a wider movement of resistance. Unlike many other unions from Germany, the UK, Scandinavian countries, etc. they were at least present.

Firenze 10+10 programme, Photo by Stan Jourdan

A similar reformist tendency was noticeable in the work of the European Progressive Economists Network (E-PEN), which met on several occasions during Firenze 10+10 to work on a joint text as the basis for wider mobilisation. For example, in the final declaration it is stated that ‘the European Central Bank must act as a lender of last resort in the government bond markets’. This reflects the idea that a different institutional set-up may prevent crisis, overlooking the crisis-ridden tendency of capitalist social relations of production regardless of the particular institutional framework. The document argues that ‘the financial system must be brought under social control’, but what social control may mean in practice was left vague. The document, as one participant pointed out, is clearly a post-Keynesian position. The focus is on how to make capitalism manageable, not on how to transform it. And yet, it would be too harsh simply to dismiss this initiative on this basis. The very fact that economists have come to Florence and drafted a joint text over hours and were then prepared to engage with the main process of Firenze 10+10 and the other groups involved is commendable. While still post-Keynesian, the related process may offer the opportunity to move towards more radical economic thinking. 


These reformist tendencies present at Firenze should not distract from the fact that more transformative initiatives were equally engaged in the meeting. For example, the Alternative Trade Mandate (ATM) alliance, bringing together almost 50 different organisations, organised a workshop on Friday, 9 November 2012. The alliance has the objective of developing a proposal for an alternative trade mandate for the EU. To date, it has developed a set of principles including the priority of human rights and social goals over corporate interests, the importance of self-determination, as well as the privileging of local over global integration. Based on different principles, such an alternative trade policy may be able to challenge the capitalist focus on market efficiency more fundamentally. As one participant pointed out, provided the alliance also focuses on trade imbalances within the EU, the ATM may also provide a contribution towards a progressive way out of the current crisis. In many respects, the process of an open democratic engagement from below, through which the ATM is constructed, is in itself a positive step forward, considering that trade liberalisation is normally negotiated by high level civil servants with the input of business interests behind closed doors. The challenge will be to persuade trade unions to participate in this process. To date, especially manufacturing trade unions have often supported traditional trade liberalisation (see Trade unions, free trade and the problem of transnational solidarity).

Other transformative tendencies at Firenze 10+10 included a workshop organised by the Corporate Europe Observatory on how to roll back corporate power and reclaim democracy, appreciating the importance of power in society in moves towards a more socially just order, as well as initiatives about natural and social commons. Not only should we reclaim commons lost to privatisation processes, it was argued, we also need to reflect more generally on how to organise the economy beyond the capitalist logic.

Photo by Stan Jourdan
The tensions over the correct strategy forward became exposed during the final assembly on Sunday, 11 November. Key participants of convergence groups had worked tirelessly over the previous days on a joint text summarising the discussions and developing a concrete plan for action. In the final meeting, however, this document had been vetoed. Instead of a final text, a more general call for mobilisation was presented to the assembly. This led to an angry response by a representative of the Italian trade union COBAS. The call for mobilisation was weak, he stated, and this in a situation, when left forces should focus on the impending general strikes in Europe on 14 November. The goal had been to develop an overall document with a focus on a few concrete actions. This had not been achieved. Other speakers joined in and demanded a stronger text, in which the decisions reached at Firenze 10+10 were listed. The meeting would have to be considered a failure, if joint decisions could not be taken. Others, however, pointed out that a show of unity was most important in view of the crisis and a common text better than a text supported only by some (see also Firenze 10+10: Learning from defeat).

A fragmented and weak European Left

When assessing the strength of the European Left, it is not only important who was present at Firenze 10+10, but also who was not. As one Norwegian trade unionist remarked, the people and organisations fighting austerity on the streets in Athens, Portugal and elsewhere did not consider that it was important for them to be present in Florence. Moreover, while many strong trade unions had not sent delegations to Florence, many of the organisations present would be NGOs without a clear mass basis. 

And yet, as an Italian trade unionist remarked at the final assembly, if the Left is fragmented and weak, and this was ultimately visible to all participants, then Firenze was, nonetheless, highly important and should be considered a positive step forward, at least in that it presents new potential for more successful strategies of resistance. The fact that the whole meeting was based on a broad consensus, combining economic concerns around trade liberalisation, the attack on workers’ rights and social justice, with concerns for the environment and a strengthened feminist network should not be underestimated. 

Firenze 10+10 also witnessed the official launch of the Alter Summit on Saturday, 10 November, i.e. the launch of a process towards establishing a broad based alliance of social movements, unions, academics and political personalities to challenge austerity and neo-liberal restructuring across Europe. The fact that the first Alter Summit is scheduled to take place in Athens, Greece in 2013 is in itself a signal of solidarity with the oppressed and a sign of protest against austerity.

‘Alternatives exist. What is lacking today is a balance of power to implement these alternatives and devise political processes in order to bring back the European project on the track of democracy, social and ecological progress. The alternative summit we call for will be a first step towards achieving these goals’ (Call for an alternative summit).

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:
29 November 2012

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