European Unions of the People
A million-signature petition for the protection of public services; a campaign for a regulatory framework with unambiguous definitions of the public and general interest; numerous mobilisations in favour of a social Europe based on citizen’s rights, access to services, common goods and the protection of universal welfare. All these initiatives indicate how social and trade union movements have become key to the defence of public services in Europe. They are rising to the challenge of preserving what is left of the European social model, defending public sector service provision and economic planning, and campaigning for a truly inclusive civil society.
The petition of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the campaign for a regulatory framework launched by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the many initiatives of movements across the continent (see boxes) are all part of the process of reforging the European Union along more social lines. They aim to revive a more interventionist and publicly-oriented politics after several decades in which various EU pacts and treaties, from the Maastricht growth and stability pact onwards, have steadily eroded the role of the public sector. A distinctive feature of these campaigns is a recognition of the importance of building alliances between trade unions and social movements and local communities.
A good example of this can be seen in Germany, where the service sector union Ver.di is leading a national mobilisation against government cuts in energy subsidies, a preparatory measure for privatisation. Energy provision in Germany depends on 1,400 municipal companies that could not sustain the proposed cuts without resorting to massive job losses.
‘The measure would benefit large private energy multinationals and take away municipal funds that would otherwise go to basic services such as public transport and the care of children and the elderly,’ explains Herman Schmidt of Ver.di. On 7 February, 25,000 people joined a union-led demonstration in Berlin against privatisation.
Next door in France, the Convergence Nationale des Collectifs de Défense et de Développement des Services Publics has emerged. This brings trade unions, consumer groups and political organisations together on a national scale to argue for the defence and democratisation of public services.
New approaches to local democracy and participation are at the heart of what is currently taking place in Spain and Italy (see Matt Little). In regions such as Tuscany and large cities such as Seville, as well as in many small municipalities, participatory budgets and diverse other democratic tools are becoming increasingly common in efforts to devolve decision-making and control over public services. Such measures help to build support for those services and strengthen resistance to privatisation.
In Italy, water has been at the centre of an increasingly successful struggle against privatisation. The Forum for Public Water, which brings together around 70 campaign groups with trade unions and over 700 municipalities, recently launched a national campaign to halt local water privatisations and bring back to public management the regional and local water services already privatised. At the same time that the World Water Citizens Assembly was meeting in Brussels and declaring water a public property and universal human right, the Italian forum held a huge demonstration in Palermo, where the centre-right regional government was transferring its water management – an especially vital resource in Sicily, a region constantly short of water – to private companies.
‘Oddly enough, privatisation of water is considered modern and innovative,’ comments Marco Bersani, from Attac Italia. ‘But private ownership and management of water is old. It was only at the beginning of the last century, in the face of mass epidemics, that governments realised the need for a public water service, accessible to everybody.’ The forum’s campaign has already collected 100,000 signatures.
In the UK, the defence of public services has been especially strong on the issue of the health service. Tens of thousands of people have attended demonstrations and signed petitions against cuts and privatisation of the NHS. The protest has the support of many MPs from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Local initiatives are strong, but until recently mobilisations have been limited by the lack of any unifying framework. A national campaign called Keep our NHS Public is now underway with over 30 branches across the country and the support of the Unison public service union as well as other national bodies. It aims to encourage common action and co-ordination in defence of accessible public health services.
The list of initiatives could continue. All kinds of local and national alliances are growing between local groups, spontaneous committees, social movements and trade union organisations.
Pan-European trade union campaigns
At a European level, trade unions are running two main campaigns. These seek, on the one hand, to defend public services and, on the other, to improve their accessibility and quality.
The former is represented by the European Public Services Union (EPSU)’s campaign for a EU legal framework on public services, started in May 2006. The latter, promoted by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) since November 2006, consists of a petition for ‘quality public services, accessible to all’.
ETUC’s starting point is the argument that ‘public services are essential for European social, economic and regional cohesion. These services should be of high quality and accessible to all citizens. Until now, the only alternatives proposed and applied have been privatisations and liberalisations.’ ETUC and its member unions have put an unprecedented organisational effort into reaching the target of one million signatures, which would guarantee a debate by the European Parliament. The petition calls for legislation to guarantee citizens’ rights in relation to key public services.
The European Socialist Party has recently come out in favour of the petition, through the coordinator of socialist MEPs, Martin Shultz. The Strasbourg Centre for European Studies (CEES) and the European Centre for Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) have also issued a joint declaration endorsing the petition and bringing the demand for judicial protection of services in the general interest before the European Parliament and Commission. And Britain’s largest public sector union, Unison, is just one of a number of national unions promoting the petition in their own countries. In the words of Unison general secretary Dave Prentis: ‘European public services are under attack and because of that Unison supports the petition for European regulation to protect them from the ideological attacks of the defenders of the free market.’
The EPSU campaign, which is closely related to the ETUC petition, calls for ‘a protected space for public services to be clearly identified’. ‘We are calling for legal protection that takes public services out of the reach of commercialisation and reaffirms the common principles of public service through the legal principle that general interest takes precedent over the laws of the free market,’ says EPSU communications and campaigns representative Brian Synnott. He stresses the need to guarantee local control over the management of basic services by, among other things, setting up a Public Services Observatory to monitor the impact of liberalisation.
EPSU is effectively pursuing the juridical regulation of public services through a European regulatory framework that definitively clarifies which sectors belong in this sphere and ends the terminological and judicial uncertainties suffered by public services as a result of the ambiguities of existing EU provisions. The guiding principles for such a framework include equality of access – forbidding any form of discrimination against users; universality – through the provision of services to all citizens; and accessibility – with price and tariff control.
Protection for the citizen-user (including rights to information, confidentiality and compensation) would be added to these core principles, as would a guarantee of respect for workers’ rights, contractual procedures and trade union relations. It is, then, a campaign for democratic control, with new forms of user and worker participation and specific standards for transparency and impartiality. The aim is to ensure a balance between different interest groups and protect the most vulnerable.
The campaign is politically active in the EU, preparing lobbying strategies within the framework of the European Parliament and Commission, as well as institutions such as the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. The initiative is building up to the presentation of an initial proposal for a European judicial framework for public services in June.
The Social Forums
The novelty of the present campaigns is the emergence of a common direction between unions and social movements. The European Social Forum (ESF), from its first 60,000-strong gathering in Florence in November 2002, has represented an extraordinary space in which social movements and trade unions have come together. Among the discussions at the Florence ESF were three days of seminars around the theme of ‘Public Services and Privatisations’, driven by French, Austrian, Italian, Swiss and other groups from Attac, Espace Marx, Collectif Services Publiques, World Development Movement, Globalise Resistance, together with trade union groups such as Funzione Pubblica of the CGIL and the COBAS (Grassroots Committees).
A similar seminar took place between movements and unions on a European scale at the following ESF in Paris in October 2003. This produced a commitment, supported by the Assembly of Social Movements, to unite the initiatives of movements around public services with the work of trade unions. Campaigners placed this in the context of a more general opposition to the European constitution, which was in the process of being approved at that time.
At the third ESF, in London in 2004, the same convergence of trade unions and social movements resisting privatisation took place. This time the debate about the Bolkestein directive took off and the issues of education, health, energy and water were dealt with in more detail.
‘We reject the privatisation of public services and common goods such as water,’ stated the declaration of the Assembly of Social Movements, which closed the forum. ‘We support the mobilisation of 11 November 2004 against the Bolkestein directive,’ it continued. ‘We call for national mobilisations in all European countries. We call for a central demonstration in Brussels on 19 March  against the war, against racism, against a neoliberal Europe, against privatisation, against the Bolkestein project, and against the attacks on the working day ... We call on all social movements and European unions to take the streets on this day.’
Just a few thousand people turned up to the first of these demonstrations, on 11 November 2004, in Brussels. In March 2005, however, 150,000 people rallied to a joint call by the ESF and the ETUC to coincide with a meeting of European social policy ministers and the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.
The alliance between social movements and trade unions is built on the common battleground of the links between neoliberalism, war, attacks on public services and the erosion of rights in Europe. The European Stop Bolkestein campaign was very important in bringing people together; in a very short space of time it succeeded in uniting hundreds of organisations, from international trade unions and NGOs to transnational networks, left wing parties and local and national grassroots movements.
Another milestone was the 50,000-strong demonstration of 14 February 2006, called by the ETUC in Strasbourg to mark the European Parliament vote on the Bolkestein directive on services in the EU internal market. That mobilisation achieved changes to the final text of the directive, eliminating those elements posing a particular threat to the protection of European public services and getting issues of labour rights and health excluded.
This partly rewarded the efforts of movements and unions, although they were far from satisfied with the results. Criticisms were centred on the profound ambiguities in the text, which leaves unanswered the question of precisely which services should be protected from the invasion of the profit motive.
The European Network
The qualitative leap in Europe-wide organisation represented by the Stop Bolkestein campaign was consolidated at the fourth ESF in Athens in May 2006. In the Greek capital the first ‘European Network for Public Services’ was launched and 40 trade union organisations and movements subscribed to the ‘Athens Declaration: Another Europe with public services for all’. Especially notable was the participation of many local government bodies, some of which work through the Convention Européenne des Autorités Locales pour la Promotion des Services Publiques.
The shared principle for the network is that safeguarding high quality public services for all underpins the respect for the fundamental rights of the citizen that should be central to the European social model. The aim of the network is to follow up the mobilisations around Bolkestein and provide a stable coordinating role between all the different organisations concerned with this issue – including social and trade union movements and local authorities.
The network hopes that by exchanging experiences and information it will stimulate and coordinate action that will ‘determine – both at a European and a national level – the conditions necessary to define and regulate those services entrusted to public power and to keep them safe from the logic of liberalisation, privatisation, and/or private profit’. The network intends that by action on a continental level it will add to the pressure being applied to state institutions. An important moment in this process will be the first ‘European Forum of Social Movements for European Public Services’, planned for November 2007 in Greece.
‘Through the networks we should reach a genuine rethinking of liberal policies, both in the respective governments and in the European Commission,’ comments Rosa Pavanelli, national secretary of Funzione Pubblica of the CGIL. ‘This is fundamental, not only in terms of directives on different public services, such as social and health services, but also in terms of the content that should be shared with all citizens when the European constitutional treaty process is resumed.’