Porto Alegre By The Arno

With a backdrop of failure in Europe’s democratic institutions, the best of the continent’s civil society thronged to the welcoming streets and piazzas of Florence last month. Trade unions, peace movements, networks of activists campaigning against neo-liberalism and all its octopoid tentacles, women’s groups, anti-racist organisations, radical artists and writers all gathered for the European Social Forum (ESF), a spin-off from January’s World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.

The ESF is the first Europe-wide response to the democratic deficit (an increasingly yawning chasm) created by Brussels. There were 60,000 people in attendance. They had come from every European country — from “outsider” countries like Russia, Norway and Turkey, as well as the inner elite of Germany, Italy and France. They debated and planned action on common European problems, and addressed problems the EU creates in the South (especially Africa) through its self-interested economics. The impetus towards creating direct, effective international forms of democracy was given added urgency by the fact that at the same time as the ESF the UN and European countries were failing to stand up to US bullying over Iraq.

It was timely that this powerful commitment to “another Europe” was expressed just as EU countries were also drawing up a “constitution” for European citizenship. While Giscard D’Estaing sits in closed sessions with his elite “convention”, the actual citizens of Europe are sharing their concerns directly with each other. These concerns include: the future democratic autonomy of their nations, regions, cities and communities; the social right to health, housing, asylum and a high-quality environment; and the desire to live in something other than a shopping mall for the big corporations.

In the immediate post-war decades, the aim of creating a common market and a democratic Europe might have seemed compatible. Both were viewed as conditions for a lasting peace. Now, in an economic world dominated by multinational corporations (some with turnovers the size of the GDP of several European nations), democracy and a de-regulated market are directly in conflict.

It is clear that at present it is corporate-driven values that predominate in Europe. Indeed, our representatives in the European Parliament are frequently reduced to being monitors of the “free” trade and investment area that the EU has become.

For example, the EU negotiations over GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services) will determine the future of public services. Yet the talks are so secret that MEPs have to rely on leaks to find out what is really going on. If they want information on a formal basis, they have to sign guarantees of confidentiality.

Gone is the EU’s historic commitment to subsidiarity and the principle that any matter that can be governed at a lower level should be governed so. When, for example, MEPs and NGOs cited subsidiarity to challenge an EU directive requiring compulsory competitive tendering of state transport contracts a senior European Commission representative told them that “free trade overrules the principle”.

Given this context, the ESF’s task is more far reaching than the creation of a vast talking shop. It must create much more vigorous, more direct forms of democratic control over the quasi-state institutions of the EU than the ones the European Parliament currently provides.

This poses questions for the ESF’s own organisation. At present, it is an open coalition of already formed national social forums from some countries, and ad hoc committees from others. These bodies are in turn composed of a variety of social and trade union movements, as well as campaigning and lobbying groups and critical research organisations. They all share an opposition to corporate-driven globalisation and a willingness to work together on creating egalitarian democratic alternatives. Openness, flexibility and a respect for diversity are the guiding principles as individuals and organisations cooperate on joint actions and debate disagreements and compromise so as to move forward.

Social forums — whether global, continental, national or local — are a response to the simultaneous processes of growing participation in radical action and declining involvement in party politics. In fact, they provide a way for people to be active beyond particular campaigns without joining a political party. The question is: “How can this openness and sense of common ownership be maintained?”

This experimental form of organisation still has some way to develop.

The Florence forum certainly achieved diversity, but often failed to establish real dialogue in the formal sessions. Such debate happened to some degree in smaller workshops and in the cafes and bars afterwards. At times too, the formal sessions seemed pre-feminist in their platforms and style, but the large numbers of women present are sure to take this in hand. Certainly, those gathered in Florence — including many who were new to political conferences of any sort — felt a sense of excitement, of being present at a crucial stage in a hopeful democratic process, the success of which is up to them.

Copyright 2002 Red Pepper

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