The challenges of European social movements

Tuesday 30 September 2008, by Esther Vivas, Josep Maria Antentas

The 5th European Social Forum (ESF) that ended last 21st of September in
Malmö (Sweden) is a good occasion to reflect on the trajectory and
challenges of an initiative that has allowed activists and movements from
across the continent to meet and exchange.

From its first meeting in November 2002 in Florence to today, the ESF has
simultaneously achieved a lot and very little. The social forums are not an
aim in themselves, but an instrument to serve discussion and joint
campaigns and mobilizations. They only have meaning if they help us to
advance in this direction. The forums have not themselves created lasting
convergences or the development of concrete struggles, but they have had a
general positive influence in this direction. The great merit of the ESF
process has been to affirm a space of convergence in the struggles against
neoliberal policies on a European scale. Although weak and without firm
roots, they have been a reference point for most of the social forces
opposed to these policies. Something that has not been the case, for
example, with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), caught up in
its policy of “critical support” to the neoliberal logic of the European
Union (EU).

The international context in which the ESF has been developed has changed
from its beginnings, during the growth of the global justice movement. The
latter grew rapidly until the mobilizations against the G8 in Genoa in July
2001 and the attacks of September 11 in New York. After some initial
hesitations, in which the movement seemed to lose ground, the new stage
was characterized by the centrality acquired by the fight against
“permanent global war”, whose zenith was the protests of 2003 against the
invasion of Iraq. This was the scene in which the first ESF in November
2002 in Florence took place.

Starting from its second meeting in Paris in November 2003, the ESF
developed in a phase characterized by the loss of centrality of the
international mobilizations for global justice and of its unifying
capacity, in a context of sharpening and multiplication of concrete
struggles against neoliberalism and of greater sectional dispersion and
“nationalization” of these struggles. A scene, really, marked by a crisis
of perspective on the part of the global justice movement and the World
Social Forum in which the ESF is framed. Later meetings in London in 2004
and Athens in 2006 showed the continuity of the process and its rooting in
new countries, but also its difficulties in continuing to develop and move
forward. After the novelty effect and the initial impulse, in recent years
the dynamic of the ESF shows symptoms of decline, routinism and loss of
concrete usefulness.

Today, the great challenge of the European social movements is to be able
to articulate an answer on a continental scale to the neoliberal logic of
European integration and to measures like the “Returns Directive”
[harmonizing EU procedures for the expulsion of “illegally staying”
immigrants] or the as yet unapproved Working Time Directive raising the
limit of the working week to 65 hours. The success of the first ESF
generated enormous expectations on its potential on this terrain. In fact
too many. After the international day against the war in Iraq, February
15. 2003, called by this first meeting of the forum, which brought
millions of people on the streets, the great challenge was to take a real
step forward in the continental articulation of the struggles. The
propagandistic formula used at the time was “to make February 15 social”.
But the subsequent advances in this area have been limited, generating a
certain sensation of frustration and stagnation. The Iraq war had a
centralizing effect that does not exist in other areas.

The logic of governmental policies is the same across the EU and obeys the
agreements taken in this framework. But the rate and dynamics of
application of the reforms are different in each country. In recent years,
the social resistance to neoliberalism has been considerable. It is
nevertheless still very defensive (with some precise exceptions), and
often ends in defeats or precarious victories and are developed in an
unfavourable context. All this makes the initiation of coordinated
initiatives on European scale difficult. Nevertheless, there has been
important progress in some areas, some linked to the dynamic of the ESF
and others not, like the harmonization of European networks and campaigns
on specific subjects like days (many still symbolic and limited) of
simultaneous mobilization in several countries, for example that impelled
by the student movement against the European Higher Education Area [EHEA, the so-called “Bologna Process” that intends to reform the European higher education system] or determined “Euro strikes” in some companies.

We need to advance then in this “Europeanization” of the resistance. In
fact, the European social movements have the double challenge of deepening
their local roots and fortifying themselves “from below” and, in parallel,
creating forms of national and international articulation, that avoid the
isolation of social resistance through spaces like forums, concrete
campaigns and networks. Florence was a spectacular and promising start on
a road that has been difficult and complex, with advances and backward
movements, winding and not very linear: the road to the construction of a
Europe of the peoples opposed to the logic of the capital.

*Josep Maria Antentas is a member of the editorial board of the magazine
Viento Sur, and teaches sociology at the Autonomous University of

Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements
(CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is author of the book in Spanish
“Stand up against external debt” and co-coordinator of the books also in
Spanish “Supermarkets, no thanks” and “Where is fair trade headed?”. She
is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur
( This article first appeared in Spanish at the
newspaper Público, on 21/09/2008.The English version was published
originally at the online magazine InternationalViewPoint.

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