transform! europe at the ATTAC Summer University

More than 2000 people from across Europe and beyond gathered in Paris, from the 19 to 23 August, on the occasion of the “European Summer University for Social Movements” – organized by the network Attac Europe. Transform! participated in the event as one of the co-organizers.

Through a large seminar divided into three sessions, transform! europe gave the floor to academics, trade unionists, social movements activists and progressive politicians in order to address the most critical issues faced by the European Union: austerity policies and alternatives, European trade unions’ response to the crisis, the new political landscape after the EU elections, the citizens’ perceptions in the crisis and the electoral turnout, as well as the relations between social movements and new political constructions.


1. Austerity Policies, New Breaches and Alternatives

Seven years of devastating crisis management, driven by austerity policies and backed by the EU institutions and ruling elites, have had tremendous consequences upon national labour legislations and trade union’s bargaining rights, as well as upon trade and current account whose imbalances threaten the world economy as a whole. In return, European alternatives to the Troika’s recipes have been developed by trade unions and networks of heterodox economists – such as the European Trade Union Confederation and the EuroMemo group. Steffen Lehndorff’s and Trevor Evans’ presentations can be found on the right, at “Documentation”.

Steffen Lehndorff, from the Institute for Labour and Technologies (Duisburg, Germany), opened the discussion by dealing with the crisis management in Europe and its consequences. His main thesis can be summed up as follows: the nature of the European integration process has been characterized by reinforced austeritarian features – as for the contraction of austerity and authoritarian – ever since the crisis broke out. The effects of such recipes on the real economy, as well as on affected states’ national production and debt/GDPs ratios, turned out to be disastrous. The most striking example is clearly the case of Greece, whose GDP in 2013 attained only 75% of its pre-crisis 2008 level – while its public debt has been continuously rising. The implementation of either the Memoranda of Understanding (EoM) or smoother austeritarian policies as response to the financial and economic crisis led to a sharp rise in unemployment throughout Europe – with a particular intensity in so-called peripheral EU countries. The crisis was used as an opportunity to conduct labour market reforms that, for instance, loosen the conditions for dismissal and the restriction for temporary contracts, decrease the bargaining coverage and contractual minimum wages. Just to name a few effects. More arguments are to be found in the book he edited, “The Triumph of Failed Ideas. European Models of Capitalism in the Crisis”.1)

Trevor Evans, coordinator of the EuroMemo Group2), focused his presentation on two areas – namely, the rise of trade and current account imbalances between members of the Euro Zone since the introduction of the euro in 1999 and the alternative economic policies proposed by the EuroMemo group. The current account balance tells us if a country has a deficit or a surplus with regard to the goods, services, income and current transfers. Southern EU countries have a negative balance that needs to be understood in the context of Germany’s highly positive balance. This phenomenon has been fuelled by the introduction of a euro sanctifying a monetary policy independent from democratic control, but definitely not from private financial institutions – whose will shapes its political orientation. The EuroMemo Group defined a set of alternatives of different nature applying to various areas. Firstly, the fiscal policy must be changed, so that it can promote employment in socially and environmentally desirable jobs with “decent work”. But to do so, one must immediately put an end to the highly restrictive conditions of the Fiscal Compact and eliminate the current account imbalances within the Euro Zone. Secondly, a new tax policy should be implemented, while all states should show commitment to progressive taxation and to a close harmonization between them. Thirdly, and when it comes to monetary policy, ECB decisions must be brought under democratic control and be capable of ensuring adequate provisions of credit at low rates of interest to support investment and employment. Fourthly, an authentic European-wide investment plan for socio-ecological restructuring must be set in motion – allowing for a sustainable growth and contributing in countering the divide between European “core” and “periphery”. Last but not least, it is necessary that the wage and employment policy takes a radically different direction. The growth of low paid jobs and precarious employment must be reversed and the gap between growth of labour productivity and wage rises must be closed.

Jean-François Tamellini, federal secretary of the Belgian trade union FGTB, shared with the audience his experience on the unions’ proposals to lead the EU out of the crisis. It requires a substantial increase in demand that could only be provided in the form of a pan-European investment plan. The proposals set out in in the Confederation of German Trade Unions’ (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund – DGB) Marshall Plan for Europe3) appear to enjoy wide consensus and were therefore widely incorporated into the European Trade Union Confederation’s (ETUC) Plan for investment, sustainable growth and quality jobs4). The focus on competition at the core of the current crisis management has done nothing but deepening the divides within the EU. Such a large public investment plan is well understood as a tool to bring about the much-needed greater cohesion and to contribute to reducing EU internal disparities. In order to really give the EU the opportunity to meet the social and ecological challenges ahead, the ETUC recommends to invest 2% of EU GDP per year over a 10-year period in energy efficiency, sustainable industries, research and development, as well as in public services. That is to say 260 billion € per year. According to Jean-François Tamellini, these proposals, that are at least put on the table and go in the right direction, do not address the core issues: the scope of financial speculation and the capital-labour ration, very unfavorable for the latter. After decades of mainstream neoliberal discourse and the shock of the economic crises, working classes face despair – and experience growing difficulties to believe in a progressive social change. Convincing that such a change is possible should be the unions’ top priority if they wish to exert significant influence over the European political agenda.

Marc Delepouve, Professor of Mathematics (Lille, France), enriched the discussion by bringing up the issue of energetic transition. Only a both progressive and ecological energetic transition will substantially reduce energetic dependence on financial markets. That is the reason why this question must be tackled in the framework of every emancipatory project aiming at exiting from the multi-level crisis faced by the EU.


2. Perceptions in the Crisis and New Political Landscape

The previous elections to the European Parliament, held from 22 to 25 May, had a unique resonance and must be assessed in the context of the long-lasting economic crisis shaking up the continent as a whole – though with different degrees of intensity. The proponents of the austeritarian policies have been weakened – doomed to rule together, validating de facto the new political divide separating those who advocate for the Memoranda of Understanding from those opposing them – and the electoral turnout was never so low. How does the new European political landscape look like? How do citizens consider politics of social change after seven years of global crisis? Where does the Left stand? What were the ingredients that led to the rise of the extreme right and nationalist’s political forces in Europe?

Walter Baier, economist and coordinator of transform! europe, dedicated his presentation to the situation of the Left in Europe after the EU elections. The Confederal Group of the United Left at the European Parliament, GUE/NGL, rose significantly compared to the past legislature – from 35 MEPs up to 52 MEPs. This increase in seats is mostly due to the very good results of the Left – in its diversity – in Spain and in Greece. Izquierda Unida sent 5 MEPs to Brussels and Strasburg, the elected representative of Bask coalition Bildu joined the GUE/NGL, and the citizen’s initiative Podemos managed to get 5 elected representatives in spite of – thanks to? – its novelty. While in Greece, Syriza sent 6 MEPs to Brussels and Strasburg. Beyond a certain restructuring of the European Left, these results show that its message was better heard and delivered in the Southern countries the most afflicted by the crisis. A research conducted by the Vienna office of transform! europe shows the Left in Western Europe (the first 9 EEC members) has been experiencing a structural decline in votes. While obtaining 14,8% of the votes at the occasion of the first European elections in 1974, the Left in the 9 Western European countries only gathered 5,14% of the votes in 2014. The situation in the Eastern and Central European EU countries is even more fragile. In this respect, the following figure is very enlightening: on the 12 981 378 votes for the Left across Europe in 2014, only 678 628 of them came from the post-1995 member states – mostly Eastern Europeans. This is a crucial challenge that an authentic pan-European Left cannot afford not to take seriously.

Elisabeth Gauthier, director of Espaces Marx and member of the managing board of transform! europe, presented the first outcomes of an ongoing German-French research project on the citizens’ perceptions and consciousness in the crisis – jointly led by Espaces Marx and Sozialismus. Ever since the outbreak of the crisis, there has been a growing criticism of the political and economic “system”, as well as of the neoliberal recipes. The feeling of unease towards the “system” has grown into a feeling of anger, along with the deepening of the social consequences of the crisis. However, there clearly are certain limitations in the perceptions when it comes to the causes of the crisis, the alternatives, and the credibility of the ways that yet remain to be explored to exit from the crisis. An “anger with no address”, currently very favorable for the extreme right, takes more and more room in the public space: both trade unions and Left parties are for now unable to turn it into a convincing emancipatory project. Although surveys show that, for 90% of the French respondents, finance rules the world and that, for 51% of EU respondents (worth mentioning: 53% of German respondents), austerity is simply not working, no progressive radical change of the political and economic “system” is at sight in the near future – with the notable exception of Greece and maybe soon of Spain, as recent polls show. Even in Germany, often described as an island of prosperity amongst an ocean of uncertainty, the foundations look rather shaky. Beyond the fear of degrading towards other EU countries’ situation, it is the growing internal inequalities threatening to further damage the German social cohesion that causes the bitter sweet feeling of living in a “paradise under threat”. The most economically and socially fragile parts of the population – those which would need politics the most – consider that politics cannot or do not want to do anything for them anymore. More generally, there is a lack of confidence in democracy and politics. Not only the most outraged citizens think that they are giving too much to society in relation with what they receive in return: this concerns 74% of French voters. 64% of them also believe that there are too many foreigners. The National Front has developed a very effective “anti-systemic” discourse and attracts much more voters than the Left, as the results of the 2014 EU elections show.

René Monzat, journalist and independent researcher, tackled the anchorage of the extreme and nationalist right in the European political – whose position has been further consolidated after the EU elections. The parties revolving around this political spectrum have taken advantage of the consequences of the economic crisis and growing criticism of political elites that implement austeritarian policies, irrespective of the party they are representing or the program for which they were elected. Beyond their differences, both strategic and ideological, the political forces of the nationalist and extreme right managed to exit from marginality up to the point of exerting a major influence on political debates – especially on issues dealing with migration, national identity and so-called social fraud. It has become a pan-European phenomenon, a “continental reality”. The economic crisis is fuelling a much bigger crisis that affects European consciousness as a whole. People stopped believing in an alternative emancipatory project. Political, economic and social evolutions within the European Union are hard to grasp, while the feeling of being ‘left aside” grows. This nexus of changes paves the way for the electoral success of the nationalist and extreme right’s forces. They are more and more perceived as political actors capable of providing credible solutions to solve the multi-level crisis. The Left has the duty to address the concerns expressed by such votes and to provide progressive answers to the issues raised by the nationalist and extreme right. Opposite from the social-democratic responses, a new Left project should be capable of filling the gap on austerity, unemployment and globalization. And therefore showing that if the nationalist and extreme right colored its program with a hint of anti-neoliberal and pro-social elements, it never challenges capitalist social relations. The Left should must better communicate on its ability of articulating different levels of actions – local, national, European, and global –, so that a progressive social change can occur. Regularization of finance, social and fiscal dumping, climate justice, migration flows… A retreat into the framework of a nation-state based on an ethno-cultural view of the “people” and the implementation of social policies targeting only national citizens without a fundamental criticism of the capitalist balance of power – as often proposed by the nationalist and extreme right – won’t allow to meet the transnational challenges mentioned above. The Left must learn to use this political space more efficiently if it wants to push back the extreme right into its initial marginality.

Marie-Christine Vergiat, member of the European Parliament (GUE/NGL – Front de Gauche), gave details of the parliamentary group GUE/NGL’s new composition. It differs from that of the former legislature not only by its significant growth, but mostly because it embraces more diversity – thanks to the membership of new parties. They joined the group together with their specific political culture, and it is likely that the GUE/NGL as a whole will benefit from this openness, making it an added-value to better address the challenges ahead. The current legislature of the European Parliament is already facing crucial issues: the safeguarding of human rights in the context of the rise of the nationalist and extreme right, the fight against discrimination of ethnic minorities and migrants, the fight against gender discrimination and youth unemployment – both phenomenon being aggravated by the deepening of the crisis –, as well as the fight against free trade agreements. For these very concrete and highly corrosive political struggles, joint battles can be fought with other progressive parliamentary groups – mostly together with the European Greens. The GUE/NGL’s political action led to concrete social victories, such as the right for all to have a banking account. It is of the utmost importance to make such victories more visible to counter the rise of the nationalist and extreme right.


3. Social Movements and New Political Constructions

The traditional political representation is in crisis, as shows the continuous decrease in voter turnout – with the extreme example of the recent European elections. However, new political constructions seem to succeed in attracting new voters and, beyond this, in including citizens into their day-to-day political action. Harsh austeritarian policies embodied in the Memoranda of Understanding led to massive citizen mobilization that went far beyond parties’ members. People took to the streets to reclaim the social, economic and democratic rights that had been dismantled by the Troika and huge parts of national political elites. In the countries the most affected by the crisis and its management – such as Greece and Spain –, the political landscape has experienced radical changes. Anti-austerity social movements became key actors: SYRIZA integrated many elements of the Occupy Syntagma movement and Podemos arose directly from the indignados. What were the conditions for the creation of this kind of new parties? What are their analysis on the European political crisis? What strategic relations do they want to have with Left parties?

Dragan Nikcevic, sociologist and member of the Initiative for a Democratic Socialism, opened the session by presenting the political situation of Slovenia, as well as the background of the very young coalition of the United Left. In comparison with neighbor countries, there is a rather high rate of membership in trade unions. The tradition of collective bargaining is well-rooted, which tended to prevent a certain radicalism of social demands. From the dismemberment of Yugoslavia up to the outbreak of the global financial crisis, trade unions played a major role in the progressive arena. The birth of the coalition of the United Left has to be understood in the light of two interconnected events – a global one and a regional one. The outbreak of the global financial crisis represented a major turning point for the “Swiss of the Balkans”, with massive labour market flexibilization towards more and more precariousness – especially for the youth, with the implementation of “mini-jobs”. Already in 2007, a very efficient student and precarious academics movement took place in Croatia. It is in this context, and by using the regional dynamic, that the Institute of Labour Studies was created in Ljubljana. Its members, mostly precarious academics, were at the forefront of the Initiative for a Democratic Socialism – at the root of numerous educational projects, such as the Workers and Punks University. The very young coalition of the United Left – barely more than six months old – is not a mere a coalition of parties, but also includes citizens and student movements. Competing for the very first time at the occasion of the previous EU elections, the coalition managed to attract a 5,47% of the voters – quite a significant number of voters and well beyond public polls’ projections in spite of a meagre media coverage. It converted the try shortly afterwards, this time for the national elections, and even entered the Parliament – with 6% of the votes and 6 sits.

Jorge Lago, sociologist and founding member of Podemos, focused his presentation on the new Spanish political formation. Born and conceived in January 2014 as an electoral platform for the EU elections, one can say about the radically democratic movement that it met its primary objective: it succeeded in challenging the well-established political lines by sending 5 MEPs to Brussels and Strasburg, and in attracting over 100 000 citizens to become party members/activists – in less than a year. If the young party arose from the 15-M movement – the indignados movement occupying the squares that started in Madrid on the 15th of May 2011 –, it doesn’t want and cannot fully represent it. Its birth occurred in a deep regime crisis that goes far beyond that of the political representation. The political, cultural and institutional consensus disappeared, while new frameworks of social and political subjectivity started to play a central role. In order to fully understand the implications of the social change, the economic crisis must be articulated with the regime crisis. There is a total disaffection for the neoliberal policies being implemented since nearly 20 years by both the social-democrats (PSOE) and the conservatives (PP), without that Izquierda Unida (IU) was truly capable of massively reversing the trend. That is this political space that Podemos tries to occupy. To bring back citizens to politics, they decided to form new axes of political representation – “beyond the traditional Right / Left divide” – and to build up a “new political project” in order to address the citizens’ anger with “new progressive answers”. Otherwise, the social outburst wouldn’t have had any political consequences. The purpose of Podemos was to unite the actors of the 15-M movement, the active minority, with the people that supported them – almost 90% of the population, according to polls. This massive part of the population must be offered a relevant political offer providing responses to their social demands through a radical democratization of all levels of political action. In other words, the idea was to create a “we” that hadn’t existed so far and to unite against the financial oligarchy, corrupted political elites and the Troika. But from this antagonistic dialectic, it has to go from an “anti” discourse up to a positive force of new emancipatory proposals. It should not be – once again – about the final objectives of political action or collective commitment, but rather about “the here and the now”’ in order to tackle the needs of concretely acting today. Podemos refuses to “take comfort in a futurization of the political action” and seeks to involve as many citizens as possible in the present democratic action.

Nikos Graikos, Modern Greek teacher and activist in SYRIZA Paris, started his presentation dedicated to the development of the Greek Left political force by a short comparison with Podemos. If they share a strong will of “doing politics differently”, SYRIZA claims a different political legacy based on a rich historical and revolutionary tradition. The party arose in large part from the electoral coalition Synaspismos – which, at the beginning, included the once powerful Greek communist party (KKE) until the 1991 scission. SYRIZA grew and developed without pulling the plug on its diversity in terms of political traditions – just to name a few: feminists, ecologists, Marxists, Maoists, etc. It added to its name a “movement” component in 2003 – which shows, beyond the cosmetic effect, a special relation to social movements. It staunchly expressed solidarity with the youth revolt that followed the death at the hands of the police of Alexis Grigoropoulos, 15 years old, on 6 December 2008. This is one of the most important difference with the KKE that keeps focusing on itself and its members, without reaching out to other organizations. When SYRIZA says in one of its political slogan “No to politics by delegation”, it means that they don’t want to replace a pure and perfect ideological truth – namely that of the Troika – by another and to consider itself as a “savior by substitution to the Troika neoliberal savior”. The electoral list set up at the occasion of the European elections reflects SYRIZA commitment to openness, with 50% of party members and 50% from the social and citizens movements. This recipe has proved to be efficient – as the electoral results for the EU and, shortly afterwards, the regional elections showed. But even if the party were to form a government tomorrow, it would not mean that it really took power – which would still be owned by financial markets. To do so, SYRIZA needs to build or strengthen political, social and citizen alliances at every level of political action – local, national and European.

Annick Coupé, former spokesperson of the French trade union Solidaires, concluded the panel discussion. The traditional “division of labour” between the trade unions and the political parties has come to an end. This vision is now outdated, in spite of persistent habits. The idea according to which “the struggles will bear fruits later on” is currently being challenged. People hardly believe anymore that things can change and improve in the long run through social mobilization. No social movement alone has the response to all the problems related to the systemic crisis. Moreover, the Left-Right distinction has become blurry – as one can see with President Hollande’s neoliberalism – and this lack of political markers fuels the citizens’ disaffection for politics.  The issue of democracy goes far beyond the electoral framework. As one can see in popular districts, people stopped believing in politicians to solve their daily problems and to improve their living conditions. But this disaffection doesn’t lead to a citizen movement for more democracy from below. And the risk that the citizen anger can turn into a reactionary movement must be taken into consideration. Some trends going in this direction were to be seen in France, when the demonstrations against the extension of the right to marry to homosexual couples took place. What matters is to look for convergences between ongoing struggles, in order to articulate a progressive worldview – that “could be based, for instance, on the commons or the buen vivir”. Mobilizations cannot be “decreed from above”, without a popular support.



4. Public Research: For What Purpose? And For Whom?

Report by Marc Delepouve

The workshop was organized by the French academics’ union SNESUP-FSU, Espaces Marx, and transform! europe. Presentations of Isabelle Bruno, Marc Delepouve, Janine Guespin and Claude Calame were followed by an exchange with all the participants. The session was particularly rich: this report provides a rather short and incomplete overview.

The Enlightenment (see authors such as Kant) offers a view of knowledge and a definition of citizenship that make up a compass for research, as well as for education. After the Second World War, the institutionalization of research has increased significantly in Europe; the general principle was then that of a public research benefiting from a freedom which served economic development and the society as a whole. This freedom, far from being total, did not escape military exploitation.

A tension between research’s autonomy and liaison to society requires a democracy of choices on priorities, objectives, and research applications. It is important to invent forms of this democracy, taking into account already completed experiences – such as citizens’ conferences.

However, since the early 1980s, following different scenarios depending on countries, public research has been gradually mobilized for economic warfare and submitted to the domination of multinational corporations: mobilization and successive submission to the policies of free movement of capital and free trade. The result is the opposite of the message of the Enlightenment, to the detriment of democracy and effective fight against critical issues such as climate upheavals; some activities of public research even contribute to the worsening of these problems.

Social sciences and the humanities (SSH) are particularly affected by this shift. In France, the National Funding Agency for Research’s (Agence nationale de financement de la recherche)  last invitations to tender leave room for SSH, but mainly through their instrumentalization in the service of an industrial and political project. In addition, SHH are now partially oriented towards big data, these huge databases extracted from Internet. A view of SHS is thus developing in such a way that can, in return, be used to treat these big data for the economic and political powers.

Research is a tool of knowledge but also of power, and the future relies heavily on it. There can be no effective democracy without a democratic and citizen control over research. That is why the diffusion of scientific culture, as well as the knowledge of science, research and their stakes for society, are to be put at the forefront of any project for another Europe – in fact for any alter-globalization project.