A Dutch activist addresses the new German Left Party

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René Roovers, regional councillor, adviser on employment and social policy to the United Left group of Euro-MPs, and member of the radical left Socialist Party of the Netherlands, this weekend addressed a conference of Germany’s new Left Party (Linkspartei/PDS). This is an edited version of his speech, which covered the experiences of his own highly successful party, the common struggle against the EU’s drive to neo-liberalism, and the role of the trade unions.

The debate on the social model of Europe is now sharpening. This is shown, for example, here in Germany by the way in which the new SPD-CDU Government announced a cut in social expenditure of 35 billion Euros, a move aimed at keeping expenditure within the limits of the three percent deficit allowed by the Stability Pact.

At present, in London, a special summit is being held, organised by Tony Blair, the UK´s prime minister and current president of the EU. He calls for modernising of the European social model. Blair´s so-called third way model involves modernising society based on the ideology of neo-liberalism. As a result, public services like transport, healthcare, housing etc, are handed over to the private market. In addition, people have to work longer hours for less pay and keep working until the age of 65 or even older, while the division between the poor and the rich grows bigger. Currently, in London alone, there are over 700.000 children living in poverty as the result of the policies of Thatcher and Blair. Now Blair wants to take the next step in breaking down the welfare state as we have known it in the 20th century.

What can we do?

In London last week the GUE/NGL, of which die Linke/PDS and the Socialist Party form part, organised a counter summit at which Francis Wurtz, the president of the GUE/NGL, concluded that the fight against liberalisation and for the protection of public services and social systems must be the first priority. As Wurtz said, “In a Europe where 68 million people, including 7 million children, live below the poverty line, there is an urgent need for a social alternative” and to demand employment, equality and social justice.

What have we done in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands we have a right wing government made up of Christian democrats and liberals. The government is advocating a policy quite like the one Gerhard Schroder was advocating here in Germany in his Agenda 2010. In the Dutch Parliament the left wing parties, the social democrats, greens and socialists are in a minority. In the polls, however, they have a large majority, indicating that the majority of the population wants the government to change, and in particular because of the need for a change in social policy. This led to a huge confrontation in autumn 2004. On the second of October almost half a million people demonstrated against government policy. They represented a coalition of left wing parties and all three of the national unions - who joined for the first time ever - around demands for the preservation of the pre-pension system, an end to the ruthless deep cuts in social policy and an end to the neoliberal policy of privatizing the public system of energy, public transport and healthcare. This mass demonstration put a great deal of pressure on the Balkenende government and in my opinion was the start of the campaign against the European Constitution which resulted in a NO.

Success on a European level

We were successful on the European level too. In November 2003 the European Parliament rejected the European Commission’s proposal for the liberalisation of port services. This was the result of a close corporation with dockers’ unions from all over Europe which organised strikes in almost all main ports. This has created a great deal of political pressure because ports are crucial for the economy. I was involved in the campaign in Belgium and the Netherlands, keeping unions closely informed on developments inside the parliament and supporting the unions in their campaign and in their strikes by speaking in canteens and on demonstrations wherever we could. In November, just before the final decision was taken in Parliament, dockers from all over Europe demonstrated angrily in Rotterdam, showing that they would never accept social dumping in the ports. In the end the proposal was rejected, an example of successful close cooperation of unions and left wing political parties.

Political pressure against the Bolkestein Service Directive.

In January 2003 Dutch EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein presented a proposal for liberalization of services in the internal market. The first protest against this directive came from the Belgian unions which demonstrated en masse against the so-called Bolkestein directive in July 2003. At the European Social Forum in London in autumn 2003 SP member of European parliament Kartika Liotard called for a European day of action on the 19th of March 2004. This day of action was referred to in the ESF final declaration. In the Netherlands the Socialist Party, in close corporation with the Dutch union FNV, initiated the broad movement ‘Stop the Services Directive’. We were in close contact with the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels and put pressure on ETUC to mobilize its European members to come to Brussels on the 19th of March. In the Netherlands the platform 'Stop the Bolkestein directive', which brought together social movements, unions and left wing political parties prepared a joint declaration which was distributed at almost every railway station in the Netherlands for several weeks in succession. Its main purpose was to explain the consequences of this directive for working people and public services. In March over one hundred thousand unionists and thousands of members of social movements and political parties from all over Europe came to Brussels. I think this was the first time a European directive provoked such a massive protest and this put a great deal of political pressure on the European Parliament.

The role of the unions in fighting neo-liberal policy

In my opinion these examples show that the positions of national and European unions are becoming more crucial to the possibility of success in changing the neoliberal policy within the European Union, a policy supported by right wing governments and multinational companies.

To change this policy I believe that it's necessary for national and European unions to rethink their position on their strategy for a social Europe. In 2000 the central banner in the demonstration in Brussels organised by the European unions for ´a social Europe` was telling us ´More Europe for a social Europe´. It supported market-oriented policies for growth and higher productivity as a condition for a social Europe and more jobs.

Now, 5 years later, the failure of the Lisbon strategy has shown that the unions need a new orientation. In order to contribute to the development of such a strategy, the GUE/NGL in the European Parliament has formulated some ideas on the social model which could provide a starting-point for the debate:

1. Expansion of public services in the fields of education, training, health and social services, as well as life-long learning, as a condition for innovation and improved productivity. According to most projections, the overall jobs balance sheet of ecological and social conversion strategies is positive.
2. Rejection of the new law for liberalizing services with its country of origin principle.
3. Instead of longer working hours we need working time reduction. In the EU the average of hours worked per week is 37.7 for all employees and 41.3 for full-time employees. People in Europe want a shorter working week: on average 34.5 hours. Experience in Germany and France clearly demonstrates that shorter working hours have created more employment and enhanced productivity
4. To promote investment, speculation in financial markets (hedge funds) must be limited and a redistribution from property, fortune and high-income households to low-income households is also needed to stimulate internal demand.

To achieve this change in the policy for Europe and in Germany and the Netherlands we need close corporation with the unions. I hope this conference is a further step on our way to mobilising and working together for a true social Europe.

To read more about René Roovers’ party, go to the SPNL English language news-feed here

See also: http://www.spectrezine.org/europe/Kartika3.htm