Erik Demeester from the Editorial Board of Vonk/Unité the Marxist paper for the labour and looks briefly at the stake of those protests.
Six months ago the Belgian presidency of the European Union started in an atmosphere of social euphoria. Belgian was going to show the rest of Europe that they would be able to put the EU on a solid social track. Social Europe was on its way and the Belgian presidency would complete the triptych of political and monetary Europe.
The EU was in desperate need for a new popular legitimacy which was shaken by the result of the Irish referendum in which the majority rejected entry in the EU. As it could not get it from the launching of the new unified currency, the Euro it would find it by seducing the trade unions and the numerous NGO's. The deep crisis of legitimacy of the EU would be answered with the creation of a "civil society" of NGO's and TU who would "participate" in the elaboration of a new European constitution.
Many TU leaders and NGO professionals have been eager to present the EU in this process as a shield against the USA and Japan. An instrument able to protect the rights of the workers amidst the fierce international competition on world scale.
But this is a myth. The EU is not a shield for the workers rights. Quite the contrary. The world policy if capitalism of privatisation, deregulation, dismantlement of social security etc. have not been stopped neither hampered by the EU. Frankly speaking the EU has been the instrument of this world wide process on the European continent. Every national government has tried to hide behind the EU to wage an austerity policy. First we had the Maastricht criteria who forced national governments to cut the budget deficits, the public debt and inflation. This has achieved at a high social cost resulting in a net transfer of income and wealth from labour to capital. Then followed the measures of privatisation and deregulation. Then again the wages and working conditions of the different European countries were put up against each other provoking a downward spiral of social deterioration in the EU.
Those measures have provoked massive protests in all the main countries on the continent but who have been limited to the national borders. No real European struggle has been launched by the unions despite the protests in Italy in 1992 against the attacks against the pensions provoking the downfall of Berlusconi I. Then you had in 1993 the strike movement in Belgium culminating in a 24 general hour strike against the Global Plan (wage freeze). In 1994 the Spanish working class moves also in action with national all sectorial strikes. Then in 1995 we witnessed the magnificent movement of the French workers in November/December 1995 against the Plan Juppé organising the dismantlement of social security. Then in 1996 the German workers stage a series of spontaneous (!) strikes and very big demonstrations against a plan reforming the health insurance (reducing the benefits).
This wave of struggle has been decisive in the electoral victories of the left parties from 1996 to 1998. Right wing parties lost their grip on government power in three key countries of Europe (France, Germany and Britain). Then for the first time we have assisted to a European wide struggle against the closure of the Renault factory in Vilvoorde (Belgium). This led to some tactical social adjustments in the European vocabulary. From 1997 on at the Luxemburg summit the offensive for flexible labour markets is wrapped in a new social jargon of employability, adaptability etc
The shift to the left (socialist and communist votes in elections) and the important upsurge in trade union struggle in the second half of the '90 has been squandered by the Socialist parties in power. In no way have they been able to modify in whatever fundamental way the capitalist nature of the EU.
The European TUC (ETUC) has been the active accomplice of this policy of social legitimisation of the capitalist EU. Demonstrations were organised at the eve of many European summits in the last years. They reflected the growing understanding of many trade unionists of the need for a European wide struggle. But the lack of serious mobilisation and more importantly the very weak demands transforms those demo in ritual and harmless activity provoking cynicism amongst the most serious activists.
Take for instance the demand for the reduction of the working week to 35 hours in the whole of Europe. The ETUC puts forward the demand of the 35h week to be negotiated at the factory level and on an individual working career base! That's exactly what bosses in Europe want! Does the ETUC put up the demand for a European minimum wage. Again no! Is the ETUC in favour of a European minimum for social benefits! How can you be serious in struggling against the poverty in Europe if you accept that the level of many benefits is beneath the poverty level? In reality the ETUC is accepting the destructive competition between social systems in Europe.
The whole idea of a social Europe within the framework of a capitalist Europe is a pipe dream. It reduces the so-called social policy to some gadgets like the Vilvoorde directive (named after the city where the Renault factory was closed in 1997) which obliges companies to inform and negotiate first with the unions before closing a factory. In no way will this stop the closures of factories in Europe. The latest gadget consists in a European Fund in case of factory closure, which would "guarantee" a maximum of 3 months wage for sacked workers.
The biting recession on the continent will prove that those measures are completely impotent to defend the workers. This Europe can never be a shield for the workers.
The war against Afghanistan and the exacerbation of the crisis in the Middle East has also proven that Europe is completely incapable to play a unified and independent role on the international scene. In reality Europe has 15 different foreign policies the main ones clustering sometimes around the G3, France, Britain and Germany who also have different international interests in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Here also the quest for a specific European "touch" and different "values" in foreign policy separate from US imperialism has failed to materialise during the last 6 months of Belgian presidency.
The so-called war on terrorism has also accelerated in the last months the build-up of repressive legislation in the European Union. The finalised legal framework for a European magistrature called Eurojust is a serious threat to the democratic rights of individuals and trade unions in particular. Union actions like occupations of factories and public buildings, the blocking of roads etc will all fall under the new broad definition of terrorist activities. This way social resistance is criminalized and severely repressed.
The EU is no help in the struggle for peace in the world neither a bulwark against "liberalism", neither democratic like many trade unions and NGO's pretend.
Within the straitjacket of capitalism the EU will be useless for the defence of the interests the workers on the continent as well as in the rest of the world
That's why we need to step up the fight for a real socialist Europe.
See also: Voor een Socialistisch Europa! Pour une Europe Socialiste ! For a Socialist Europe! Für ein sozialistisches Europa! (text of the four-language leaflet for the Brussels demonstrations)