Ten years ago 60,000 activists converged in Florence for the first European Social Forum to discuss building another world.
That meeting, four months before the invasion of Iraq, catalysed the largest demonstrations Europe has ever seen on 15 February 2003, not to mention the international campaign for tax justice, a financial transactions tax and more besides. The campaign against Third World debt was a major issue at the event.
This weekend we met in Florence again, and again debt was one of the crucial issues – this time how we defeat a cycle of debt and austerity that is tearing the heart out of Europe.
The purpose of Firenze 10+10 was to begin creating a European movement capable of this challenge – moving beyond words to actions. The backdrop to the meeting was set the evening before the conference started, when the Greek parliament discussed its most draconian package of austerity yet. Outside the Greek parliament, water cannon were used for the first time since the dictatorship. Syntagma Square in Athens was not visible through vast plumes of teargas, as the parliament bowed to the demands of the EU and IMF and cut 8,000 more civil service jobs, slashed pensions and the minimum wage and sold more of the country off to the 1%.
Debt activists attending the conference from Greece were distraught as they told us the true extent of social destruction in their country; for instance, immigrants are now hounded and attacked by neo-Nazi gangs who worship Hitler and control sections of Athens. They are protected by a police force which spends its time beating up defenceless protestors: “I was beaten up myself twice” one activist tells us “and anyone who looks or behaves differently – an activist, anyone who looks foreign, gay people – they are all a target for the Nazis.” It seems incredible that such things have come to pass in a part of our own continent, well known to tourists for decades.
A day after the budget decision, Greece was told by its Troika overlords – the EU, European Central Bank and IMF – that it had still not done enough to guarantee the next tranche of funding which would save it from a notional ‘bankruptcy’. No wonder, because the very ‘bail-outs’, which have done nothing for Greece’s people and have only repaid Greece’s German, French and British creditors, have come attached to such austerity as to make the country’s debt balloon. Unemployment has now topped 25%, and is approaching 60% of young people. Economic sadism runs rampant across the continent.
In Florence, debt campaigners from Greece came together with colleagues from Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy, France and Belgium to discuss how they are confronting the policies and institutions which have created this crisis. Based on campaigns developed in countries like Brazil, the Philippines and Ecuador, debt audit groups have sprung up. They believe it is not legitimate to force a people to pay for debts run up by reckless banks, who gambled and lost. They argue these debts must be audited by the people and democratic decisions made about how to deal with them, including the repudiation of any debts deemed illegitimate. The notion that a large part of these debts are illegitimate – summed up in the popular slogan ‘Don’t Owe, Won’t Pay’ – underlies their attempts to question the whole financial system which has driven us to crisis.
Debt groups are gaining substantial support within their societies. In Spain, former IMF head and Spanish Finance Minister is facing shareholder action because of his role as chair of the collapsed Bankia group. In Belgium, debt activists are hauling their government before the courts for having breached the constitution in the bailing out of failed bank Dexia, claiming its speculative activities infected local government throughout the country. In Italy and France, debt audit groups are empowering activists to dig into and challenge the debts of local municipalities, asking who they benefited and why they were incurred.
In Spain, a new forum, Agora 99, aims to bring the spirit of the Indignados movement to the issue of debt – tying together personal debt, student debt, banking debt and sovereign debt in a quest to regain our rights. Through Barcelona’s now famous neighbourhood assemblies, activists challenging debt are getting involved in the movement against evictions. By preventing people being thrown out of their houses, activists are able to work with citizens to give them an understanding of the bigger ‘debt’ picture, created in Spain’s case by a housing bubble fuelled by European bank speculation.
The growth of personal debt movements in the US and beyond, off-shoots from the Occupy movement, promise similar alliances across the world, enabling activists to get to the heart of how deep the role of debt and the banks reach into our society.
The Florence conference encouraged the ‘convergence’ of different strands of thought and activism. Demands and activities around debt were brought together with proposals for tax reform, scrapping the EU’s fiscal compact and the democratisation of banking. In turn these were brought together with proposals to regain our resources, like water and land, from multinational corporations.
Formulating a common position which does not run to the length of a book is not easy, but the basis of a roadmap for a European movement was eventually agreed. A major day of action against the next EU Summit in Brussels will be held on 23 March, together with a mobilisation of women against debt and austerity on 8 March, a blockade of the European Central Bank in late May and a summit in Greece in June. The conference also endorsed the historic general strike called across five countries on 14 November 2012.
These activities are important because it is only through action that enough trust will be built between movements, campaigns and trade unions to form a genuinely European movement. Sitting in a room and discussing demands tends to highlight differences rather than what we hold in common.
Many participants from the worst crisis-hit countries, Greece especially, are right to feel disappointed that clearer solidarity action with their struggle was not agreed. A movement capable of getting millions of people to demonstrate against the illegal war in Iraq and to bring institutions like the WTO and IMF to a standstill over 10 years, has a duty to do more – much more – to shine a light on the great crime being committed against our own neighbours, our own societies.
Florence was planned as a wake-up call to activist organisations across Europe. They will need many more shots of espresso if we are to have a hope of breathing life into something we can genuinely call a European movement. Progress was made, but with the disintegration of Greece before our eyes, it is a race against time.