27 March 2013, by Sol Trumbo Vila
The European Spring’s Days of Action, that targeted the EU Summit and its austerity agenda, provides important lessons on how to develop alliances between trade unions, grassroots movements and civil society organisations.
This article analyses these initial experiences as a contribution towards building more successful actions that aim to construct a pan-European social movement.
For a European Spring was launched as a call for action on March 13-14, 2013 supported by 73 organizations from 13 European countries. This has been the first significant effort since the crisis erupted in 2008 to build a pan-European movement focused on the European Union (EU) institutions and their role in intensifying the economic, political and social crisis throughout Europe.
There are important if initial lessons that can be learned from this experience, namely:
- The strategic position of the Belgian movements in the mobilization actions and protests that target the EU institutions in Brussels. These include trade unions, grass-roots movements and civil society organizations. In this context, the prevailing political environment in Belgium becomes particularly relevant.
- Faced with different options to mobilize, Trade Unions chose in this instance the existing union structures under the framework of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), instead of building new political platforms with emerging new movements.
- However, a new political dynamic was generated when the European Spring mobilized and effectively organized under the call to End Austerity and denounce the role of the EU institutions. This was reflected both in the slogan of the Belgian Trade Unions and eventually in the final ETUC call.
- The European Spring also introduced some innovative forms of organization and cross border action which facilitated the participation of a broad range of citizens irrespective of their political affiliation and organization.
- The European Spring message exposed the further institutionalization of the neoliberal doctrine at the EU level as it is being concretized in the disastrous austerity and privatization policies as well as in the accelerated restructuring and centralization of power and decision making away from the member states. The Fiscal Union envisaged at the EU December 2012 Summit and the Banking Union and governance ‘by contract’ anticipated at the March 2013 EU Summit were put into focus and public debate.
- Furthermore the European Spring action had a wide public outreach through sustained use of its social media resources (live-streaming). Some mainstream media, including the New York Times covered the key messages of the European Spring as well as picking up some specific responses of the Belgian authorities – the banning of the demonstration in Central Brussels and the arrest of 32 people who peacefully occupied the Directorate General of Economic Affairs of the European Commission (DG ECFIN).
These developments are the result of a complex process of convergence directly related with the current context of the institutionalization of the neoliberal doctrine within the EU.
Origins of the European Spring
The European Spring alliance is a result of two main developments in Europe related to the deepening of the current crisis. On the one hand, there is a process of convergence amongst European civil society organizations and Trade Unions – in particular in the Alter Summit. At the same time in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there has been an eruption of theIndignados and other ‘’squares’’ and protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Blockupy Frankfurt alliance.
The movements and organizations involved in both these trends met for the first time at the Firenze 10+10 event in Florence on November 8-11, 2012 which resulted in the agreements to organize Days of Action and a common European resistance to the neoliberal policies imposed by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Found). In addition to the explicit support of the first transnational strike organized by the European Trade Unions on November 14, 2012, the Firenze 10+10 final declaration included a call for a European Action addressing the EU neoliberal agenda and targeting the March EU Spring Summit. This call for action became crystalized in the European Spring.
The European Spring process
The course of constructing the alliance towards a pan European action, building on the existing national resistances, encountered several challenges. The initial will to act together expressed in Firenze was complicated by the announcement in early December of the ETUC’s call for Action targeting the EU Spring Summit and setting the date for March 13-14, which was supported by all the Trade Unions. In response to this, the newly formed European Spring coalition decided to mobilize during the same days of action. This meant pursuing a course of convergence with the Trade Unions even if the mobilization in midweek was less favorable for the mobilization of civil society and grassroots movements.
To concretize its call to action, the European Spring alliance through open assembly and decision making processes, decided to call for a demonstration in Brussels against the EU Summit and its austerity policies. While the ETUC’s proposal for action was a rally with a call for “Social investment and youth unemployment policies”.
From this moment on, the European Spring acted decisively to coordinate both de-centralized actions for the 13th of March (a call shared with the ETUC) as well as the demonstration in Brussels on March 14th. For the later, the coordination with Belgium civil society organizations and grass-roots movements was crucial to hosting the European activists that would travel to Brussels.
The engagement of the Belgian Trade Unions
In February the month prior to the European Spring action, the political climate of resistance in Belgium intensified in response to the austerity measures being imposed by the EU and the Belgian government. On February 21st, provoked by these austerity policies the country’s three major trade unions organized a 30-40,000 strong demonstration in Brussels.
Then at the beginning of March, a relevant Belgium Trade Union considered joining the European Spring demonstration against the Summit. This development, in addition to a massive layoff of Belgium industrial workers and the further imposition of austerity measures, resulted in a Belgium trade unions Confederation (with 1.5 million members) calling for a demonstration the same day as the European Spring demonstration and the ETUC rally.
The political significance of this call was that it explicitly addressed the EU Summit and the role of the EU institutions in the austerity measures being imposed in Belgium, this message was then included in the ETUC rally.
Brussels blockade of the European Spring
The political atmosphere in Brussels was again aggravated by the decision of the Belgium police to ban the demonstration just a few days prior to March 14th. This unwarranted decision was explained by the authorities as “lacking resources” to provide necessary security. The formal letter of protest against this unreasonable decision was supported by 19 members of the European Parliament.
Faced with the banning of the march, the European Spring coalition decided then to join the march of the Belgium Trade Unions – on the grounds of sharing a common message against austerity and the role of the EU institutions. This decision was also to express solidarity with the Belgium Trade Unions in their struggles against lay-offs and unemployment.
Austerity “Awards” for ECFIN – and new forms of Pan-European political action
The de-centralized actions on March 13th took place in several European cities responding to the issues and agendas in the national context of the crisis but also linking to the role of the EU institutions. The demonstration on March 14th in Brussels brought 10,000-15,000 trade unionists to the streets, which was also joined by the European Spring block composed by diverse organisations and activists drawn mainly from Blockupy people (Germany), Socialist Youth Front (Denmark) and Belgium based activists.
After the demonstration, 150 activists from all over Europe, including some Belgium trade unionists peacefully blocked the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN) – the body responsible for designing the austerity policies of the European Commission. This action of blockade was to enable the conferring of the “Austerity Awards” to the ECFIN.
After the “Awards” ceremony, the lobby of the building was peacefully occupied and an assembly was organized inside the cafeteria. Although the activists vacated the building upon request, the police nevertheless arrested 32 people of the European Spring alliance. The circumstances around the arrests were very irregular, with the police arbitrarily arresting people seemingly to meet a pre-set quota. After some hours of detention, all were released without charges. However it is still not clear if charges will be made later – and in view of this, the European Spring is preparing its legal strategy.
This action dramatically pinpointed the responsibility of ECFIN in the disastrous course of austerity – impacting now not only in the countries in crisis in the South of Europe, but being registered also in the heart of the Brussels bubble. The message of the European Spring was carried as a counter narrative to that of the EU Summit leaders and the Troika in both thealternative media and in some mainstream media (New York Times, Russia Today).
The European Spring, although very initially, has demonstrated that the EU neoliberal narratives and policies can be effectively questioned and that a common pan European resistance is possible. However advancing this resistance will require new forms of cross border political action which will be strengthened in the process towards the Blockupy (European Central Bank) in Frankfurt (May 31-June 1) and the Alter Summit in Athens (June 7-9).