European Social Forum: Breaking down barriers?

Petty national concerns appear to be alive and well in the European Social Forum

Anybody who thought that the main business of the ESF was to unite the progressive left across Europe and break down national boundaries was in for a shock in Genoa. Nationalism is alive and well, even if it appears in a most bizarre form.

The main plenary sessions during the ESF will be addressed by 275 speakers. But rather than organising the sessions to produce the most lively debate between divergent or opposing views, the French organising committee has opted for a solution based on nationality. At the beginning of the weekend, they produced a list of the precise population of each European country, then calculated how many speakers each country should get - in proportion to the number of residents. They added or took away a couple of speakers here or there, according to the size of the respective anti-capitalist movements.

While some delegations, especially the German group, disagreed with this method, it was adopted as a starting point. Then the national delegations started to bargain for more. In particular Chris Nineham and Alex Callinicos were outraged that there were only 12 British speakers proposed, while Germany was allocated 21. “The British anti-war movement was a lot bigger than anything in Germany,” they stated. Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that comrades Nineham and Callinicos were motivated by nationalism. As SWP ‘patriots’ first and foremost, they have their eye on as many as the ‘British’ speaker slots they can get their sectarian hands on.

After several hours of wrangling, the Germans gave up some of ‘their’ speakers: “I just couldn’t be bothered any more - it was getting too silly,” Hugo Braun, a leading member of the German Communist Party (DKP) and German Attac, told me. Now we, the British, can bring 15 speakers (13 English and 2 Scottish) to Paris instead of the original 12, while the Jerries get only 18. Good news, isn’t it?

There will be a French speaker in every single one of the 55 sessions, as the ‘proportionality’ rule does not apply to the host country - a regulation made up by … the host country. To be fair, the Italians made use of this home advantage at last year’s ESF in Florence too. This year, there will be 22 Italian speakers, Greece will get 11 and Ireland only three.

It will be a nightmare for the programme working group to decide who will speak in each plenary. Restricted as they are to taking so many from each country, they may be forced to exclude important and interesting individuals on the grounds of nationality! But, hey, it will surely be fun to track down the single speaker from Cyprus, Malta and Iceland … especially as nobody from these countries has ever attended an ESF meeting.