Giving leadership to the movement

Around 50 representatives from across Europe met over the weekend of January 15-16 in Brussels to discuss the future of the European Social Forum. The debate on left unity beyond the ESF in particular revealed increasing tensions, reports Tina Becker. Interestingly, the Socialist Workers Party was nowhere to be seen

If we assess this meeting from the objective viewpoint of the kind of organisational structures and political discussions needed to achieve a viable alternative to global capitalism, then it represents a dire failure. However, if we take the current status quo of the ESF and left cooperation across Europe as our point of reference, then the gathering took some small, but important steps forward. Since there is no elected and accountable leadership of the ESF, this meeting was called by the organisers in order to work out a number of recommendations to be put to the next European preparatory assembly (EPA) on February 25-27 in Athens. This assembly - as our highest body - will have to make the final decision. A rather cumbersome and slow method, particularly as an authoritative de facto leadership has actually evolved: It was personified in the 50 or so people present at this so-called 'working group', ranging from representatives of Italy's Rifondazione Comunista and the union Cobas, through Attac France and the CGT union centre, to various groups and organisations from across Europe. The Socialist Workers Party, a relatively important player, did not attend the meeting, for its own reasons (see opposite). The discussions of the weekend centred on two main questions. Firstly, do we need an ESF leadership/secretariat/commission and what should be its remit? Secondly (and, of course, related to the first point), how important are European-wide networks and campaigns to the ESF? During the course of both discussions, an increasing division among our forces became obvious. While the reformist Attac France has been on the right of our movement from the start, the left is slowly starting to cohere its forces. The general, Europe-wide decline of the spontaneous so-called 'anti-capitalist movement' (which in fact never really took off in a number of countries, including Britain) seems to have produced a realisation that the current form of our extremely loose cooperation is not sufficient. After all, since the first ESF in 2002, our governments have succeeded in incorporating 10 new countries into the EU and agreeing their constitution. The ESF is in its fourth year - but the European left has not really moved on, either politically or organisationally. ESF leadership Anne Mc Shane of the CPGB said that "we have a leadership of sorts that is unaccountable. An openly elected or appointed secretariat would help to move our cooperation forward." A number of comrades seemed very aware of the problem. Our proposal for a leadership, or secretariat, was echoed by a number of contributions from other countries: * For the German Social Forum, Hugo Braun criticised the lack of "political efficiency of our processes. We need a certain structure - not a politburo, of course, but a secretariat that can translate and distribute proposals and documents and facilitate the ESF. For example, there is nobody who deals with the press." * Gerald Ryser (from the Village Economique et Sociale) was one of the few French representatives in favour of a secretariat. He criticised "our current undemocratic procedures. I think we need a group or secretariat that can meet on a permanent basis - a stable and accountable team in charge of organisational matters." * Simo Endre from the Hungarian Social Forum demanded "more openness and an end to the hidden and unappointed method". * Peter Damo from the Romanian Social Forum called for "a stable body of people that could help facilitate the enlargement and visibility of ESF". Many repeated comrade Braun's point about the undesirability of a 'politburo', as they called it. However, it does not take a genius to work out that even an 'organisation working group' or secretariat would inevitably take on political functions as well. While in our opinion this would be a positive and long overdue development, for Pierre Khalfa from Attac France this was exactly the argument against having any kind of secretariat: "We will never find agreement on having a leadership, because it would play a political role, whether it wants to or not." Comrade Khalfa, who represents the Union Syndicale G10 Solidaires and is a leading representative of the French delegation at the ESF, thought there could be "no legitimacy for an elected group to represent the diverse European movements". The only other country delegation supporting them were the comrades from Greece. Panayotis Yulis from the Greek Social Forum thought that "any kind leadership body will not be able to represent social movements. A lot of people would drop out - they don't want to take part in elections". Anastasia Theodorakopoulos from the Greek left-reformist party, Synapsismos, had a more rational approach. She said: "I understand the good reasons for a secretariat. But at the moment, I fear it will destroy the ESF. We should not go too fast with our changes." Unfortunately, the two comrades from Italy remained tight-lipped on the subject, supporting neither position - and thereby, of course, the status quo. While privately they seem in favour of an accountable leadership, they appeared aware that a secretariat could indeed be the end of the ESF as we know it. But would that be such a bad thing? If some organisations involved in the ESF cannot accept that things have to change, they should consider if they should still be involved in our organisation - they should certainly not be allowed to stop us from moving forward. French memory loss Two years ago the comrades from France were dancing to a different tune. In fact, it was them who suggested in November 2002 that the preparations for the ESF 2003 in Paris should be overseen by an elected "European steering committee" of "around 100 people". However, when we challenged comrade Khalfa about this proposal and the different attitude the comrades are now taking, he was very insistent that no such proposal had ever been made: "We have never been in favour of an ESF leadership - that would be impossible," he told CPGB comrades. It is not easy to rebut this strange memory loss. Incredible as it might sound, over the last four years there have been no minutes taken at ESF assemblies and no official record of decisions, let alone proposals tabled. Luckily, we quoted extensively from the comrades' document in the Weekly Worker at the time, so here is a reminder: the European steering committee, the comrades argued, "should be composed of representatives of European networks and of the national mobilisation committees. Its composition must reflect "¦ diversity of movements and networks, diversity of representation from countries, particularly eastern Europe and the Balkans. The steering committee is an open structure whose composition will be decided in a transparent manner and whose membership list will be in the public domain. In order to assure the continuity of its work it is highly desirable, if not indispensable, to seek continuity within the committee's membership" (Weekly Worker November 28 2002). Further, they proposed the election of a secretariat of "around 20 people". This body "will be responsible for all the tasks of preparation, coordination (notably with the relevant local councils) and the material organisation of ESF 2003. It will work under the political direction of the European steering committee (which will guarantee its functioning), and in close liaison with the French mobilisation committee. Its constitution must also reflect a balance between the different social movements." This was a far more detailed and far-reaching plan than most of the proposals in favour of a secretariat we heard over the weekend. However, at the time it was roundly defeated by the rest of the European delegations - the Italian comrades in particular were still drunk on the spirit of spontaneity. Things have changed quite a lot since then: Rifondazione Comunista, the backbone of the local social forums in Italy, has again joined the Olive Tree coalition of the Democratic Left party, which hopes to defeat Silvio Berlusconi at the next general election in 2006. In most countries, the social forums have reached an impasse - not surprisingly, as most of these organisations only deal with local subjects or concentrate on single-issue campaigns. Quite simply, they cannot offer the inspiring global alternative that many people are looking for. In France, the Socialist Party lost the general elections of 2002 to Chirac's rightwing coalition. As you would expect, in opposition the SP has moved to the left and encouraged some of its members to join Attac. But with the increased influence of the SP and the SP-led trade union bureaucracy, Attac seems to have shifted further to the right. Comrades from Attac France are certainly in the forefront of the campaign against an accountable leadership body. They seem happy with ESF power structures just as they are: they can apply the brakes and stop the whole European left from moving forward. That would be more difficult in a democratically organised body that allowed the majority to make decisions. In any case, comrades from organisations that are in favour of an accountable secretariat are planning to present a joint proposal to the next EPA in February - this could represent an important step forward in an attempt to differentiate ourselves from the conservative wing of our movement. The main task, however, will be to convince our Italian comrades to come out and openly fight for what is necessary. European networks Political differences were also reflected in our discussion on the role of European-wide campaigns and networks in the ESF, and our French comrades again played a negative role. So far, the few networks that have emerged from the ESF process are organised mainly outside the official structures, on the initiative of individuals or particular groups: there is one on education (which mainly brings together a small number of teachers' unions), the Campaign for a Social Europe and a network that unites all those who campaign for a 'no' in the forthcoming referendums on the EU constitutional treaty. As there is no ESF secretariat that could coordinate these efforts, it can be hard to keep track of the campaigns that have been set up and when they are meeting. While they were quiet on the question of an ESF leadership, the two Italian delegates strongly emphasised the need to incorporate networks and campaigns into the ESF. Both Franco Russo (from Rifondazione Comunista and the Forum per la Democrazia Costituzionale Europea) and Piero Bernocchi (Cobas union) insisted that in future European-wide networks should not only meet during the EPA - they should gather on the first day of our weekend assemblies, the comrade said. While most of the French comrades wanted to leave open the question of when and how the networks meet, comrade Russo quite rightly argued against such a laissez-faire approach: "Firstly, network meetings will facilitate and encourage our cooperation across Europe and should be the centre of our organisation," he stressed. "Secondly, their discussions should inform our assembly and make the whole weekend event more political. They should also help planning for the seminars and other meetings at our next ESF in 2006." Quite right. Politics must come first. So far, discussion of our political differences (as well as our agreements) has been totally sidelined in the ESF process. Sure, some 'big' debates have been staged at the ESF itself, but these have often been very abstract and have not served to stimulate cooperation at all. Piero Bernocchi also suggested that we should "abolish the artificial distinction between the ESF and the assembly of the social movements". The ASM was introduced as a way to sidestep the idiotic 'rule' imposed by the World Social Forum, according to which social forums cannot decide anything or agree on joint action. So the ASM normally takes place on the last day of our ESF assemblies (as well as on the last day of the ESF itself) with pretty much the identical group of participants. Pierre Khalfa insisted that this - just like the setting up of an accountable leadership - was "impossible": "What about the organisations that want to come to our ESF but do not want to be part of the mobilising aspect?" He was supported by Jean-Michel Joubien from the CGT union centre, who insisted that his organisation could not possibly support any joint actions. This is silly. Properly incorporating the networks into our ESF would not mean that all organisations involved in the ESF have to participate in all activities or sign all political statements. More to the point, if some of these organisations and union bureaucracies are not interested in increasing our effectiveness across Europe - what the hell are they doing in the ESF? We should not allow our united work to be held back by forces that are dependent on a good relationship with their own state and/or their funders. Of course, they can participate in the ESF itself - but they should not be allowed to dominate our preparations and proceedings and stop us from increasing the level of our cooperation. Proposals for Athens Here are the positive recommendations of the 'working group' in a nutshell - none of these are final, as the ESF assembly in Athens (February 25-27) will make the decision. * European-wide networks and campaigns should be at the centre of the ESF. * ESF preparatory assemblies (EPA) should last three days (Friday-Sunday). Networks and campaigns should meet on the Friday and report back to the open assembly on Saturday morning, thereby informing and inspiring the assembly politically. * The ESF itself, which should take place every two years, should last longer than the ESF London. As a minimum, we should enable participants to enjoy three full days of discussion and networking * Thematic conferences should be introduced into the ESF itself. They could last up to a full day and should bring together discussions and ideas emerging from the seminars and workshops around particular themes (Europe, racism, etc) * Networks and campaigns should be given official space at the next ESF in order to help facilitate their cooperation. Other related articles * Que? No SWP? - Just where were the SWP that weekend? * Euro-nationalism from Attac - Anne McShane reports on Attac's oppositon to ESF restructuring * Call of the European demo on March 19 2005 in Brussel