The Bolkestein Directive: death blow for a social Europe


October 17, 2005 19:55 | By Kartika Liotard, MEP

The European elite has a reputation for not really listening to the public. The pressure from Commission president José Manuel Barroso and the current president of the European Council, Tony Blair, to bring about the speedy approval of the Bolkestein Directive, is perhaps the most dramatic example of this. This ultra-liberal measure represents a death blow for the struggle for a social Europe and flies in the face of all of the feelings which European citizens have expressed in relation to the extent to which 'Brussels' should involve itself in their everyday lives.

The French and Dutch No to the European constitution were to a large measure provoked by an aversion to the Union's ever-increasing liberalising drift. This was a progressive No, a call for a halt to Europe's unbridled interference in matters better regulated at the national level. The Bolkestein Directive is the most far-reaching of all such measures dreamed up by the Commission and would liberalise the little that's left under national responsibility. Countless actions by political parties, trade unions and social organisations have already been carried out against the Services Directive. The proposal has also provoked a record number of more than a thousand European Parliament amendments, amongst them motions to remove the Directive's core, the appalling Country of Origin Principle, which states that foreign service providers in whatever member state would be able to operate with no regard for the regulations prevailing in the host country. Polish workers, for example could be employed in the Netherlands or the UK under Polish conditions of work and service. Despite this, the Commission is sticking to its text, complete and unabridged. If, next week, when the Parliament votes definitively on the proposal, the affair ends with it giving its approval, we might well conclude that the struggle for a social Europe is done for. Institutions and ways of working which are particular to a certain member state, even ones with which everyone is more-or-less happy, will come under the hammer of European liberalisation, sacrificed to the idol of the totally free market. Citizens and governments will have still less influence over the direction of their societies. We will see a race to the bottom in which the lowest standards to be found in Europe will become the target to be aimed for. Small firms will have to contend with unfair competition from service providers, in particular from Eastern Europe, and will be unable to survive. Meanwhile eastern European workers brought in by these companies will be further exploited and unable to achieve the living standards which they expected when they in most cases enthusiastically approved their country's membership of the European Union. The Bolkestein Directive for the most part creates victims. Only the multinational service providers will gain from it.

Supporters argue that all will turn out well and that the Bolkestein Directive will not interfere in the member states in social matters such as working conditions, labour rights, health care, education, culture, water supply and social housing. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The shadow of this latest liberalisation goes before it. Thousands of Dutch lorry drivers have already seen their jobs handed over to exploited Polish truckers. Dutch firms are establishing subsidiaries in eastern Europe in order to continue working in the Netherlands, but under far less exacting standards and requirements. And only a short time ago 'Brussels' demanded that Dutch housing associations sell their stock of rented social accommodation so that it too could be brought under the discipline of the free market.

The Dutch and French No to the constitution shook the whole of Europe to its foundations. Since then, however, there has been a return to business as usual. The unprecedented broad protest against the Services Directive temporarily rocked the Commission. Yet here too the threads have been picked up again and Tony Blair has expressed the wish to force the project to a successful conclusion by the end of the year. These are the two most essential points to emerge from European decision-making during 2005. The Netherlands and France have shown that when citizens are really given the right to speak, they will opt for a social approach as against the free-market fundamentalism preached by Brussels. Opposition to the Services Directive is perhaps even more important than the voting down of the constitution. With 'Bolkestein' the genie of liberalisation is definitively out of the bottle and a real Pandora's Box is opened which would turn Europe upside down. Liberalisation is easy enough to bring about, but extremely difficult if not impossible to reverse. Democratic control over a society's direction, gained through decades of struggle, can be destroyed with the stroke of a pen, driving us back to the conditions of the past. This must not happen. There must for this reason be no European constitution, and absolutely no directive which in one fell swoop hands 70% of economic and social activities over to the jungle law of the free market.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament. The Socialist Party, which she represents, is affiliated to the United Left Group (GUE-NGL).

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