Analysis: Springtime in Europe

Issue: 111

‘There is a strong sense in Europe that, because of weak governments and divided publics, the continent’s three big countries are unable to make the economic changes that most political leaders agree are essential to restoring growth.’ So said the New York Times in the week that a humiliated French government withdrew its CPE attack on young workers’ rights and
Berlusconi was finally forced to concede defeat in Italy’s election.

France’s politics had been shaken to the core for the third time in less than 12 months. The no vote against the European constitution had been an enormously significant symbolic rejection of the neo-liberal aims of the whole political establishment. November’s revolt in the popular banlieue suburbs was a sign of intense political alienation of a large section of young
working class people. But the student-worker rebellion against the edict taking away the rights of young workers managed to have more than a symbolic impact. Drawing more than 3 million people into days of street action and breaking down some of the older barriers between students and workers, young and old, those in the cities and those in the banlieues, it fractured the coherence of Chirac’s government until, fearing what would happen next, he rescinded the measure. The biggest movement since 1968 had shown that demonstrations and token strikes can work. And it had done more. It had shown how the feeling expressed in the referendum has the potential to sweep governments away as they try to implement French capitalism’s programme of unpicking the compromises and concessions it made in the past, especially after its traumatic year of 1968, to provide stability for
its rule. Activists involved in the movement talk later in this issue about how it developed and what its implications are.

The electoral defeat of Berlusconi in Italy also shows the impact of
mass struggle, although you would not think so from the mainstream media report. The mass struggle took off the moment the new ministers tried to show how hard they could be, with the onslaught on the Genoa G8 protests and the murder of Carlo Giuliani in July 2001. The mass demonstrations that swept the country followed through into the waves of massive demonstrations across the country against the Iraq war, and huge demonstrations and a general strike against legal restrictions on workers’ rights. Looking back, it is clear that these blunted the offensive capacities of the Berlusconi government, causing frictions within his coalition which no amount of blustering could fully cover up. The prime minister who was part of the Blair-Berlusconi-Aznar axis, and was going to spearhead the neo-liberal onslaught across Europe and fight for the corner of US imperialism against ‘old Europe’, ended up with little in the way of a further domestic programme and talking about possible withdrawal from Iraq. Industrialists who had put their faith in him began to look for alternatives. But the great wave of protests ended more than two years ago, as trade union leaders and the leaders of the reformist DS left party argued for people to put their faith in the electoral path. Activists from Italy argue in
this issue that it is this which enabled Berlusconi to make enough of a comeback to win exactly half the votes. They also argue that the leaders of the biggest far left party, Rifondazione Comunista, who played an exemplary role at the time of Genoa, have put themselves in an invidious position by joining the new ‘centre-left’ government headed by the former head of the European Commission and apostle of neo-liberalism, Romano Prodi.

Germany has been relatively quiescent since negotiations over the
hung parliament resulting from last October’s general election led to the formation of the grand coalition of the Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats. But the underlying problems for German capitalism are not going away, as an interesting feature in the Financial Times in May spelt out. Those who control the biggest economy in Europe face long term dilemmas. Germany overtook the US as the world’s largest
exporter of goods in 2003 and in 2004 its trade surplus was six times bigger than China’s. But the domestic economy has been virtually stagnating, with a growth rate in recent years slower than that of France. Its answer in terms of profit making is to try to force up working hours and to hold down real wages (which have fallen over the last couple of years) at the same time as
pushing governments to proceed still further with counter-reforms that hit at job security.

But this means undermining the concessions to workers and their
organisations that have maintained social stability since the early post-war years. The Financial Times article warns of the possibility of ‘breakdown in social cohesion, with far-reaching political consequences’ and points to trends showing ‘an erosion of support for Germany’s large established parties and benefiting the extremes’. The fear in Germany is always that the ‘extreme’ which will grow most successfully will be the Nazi far right—and it has shown an occasional ability to pick up votes in local elections as well as to launch murderous attacks upon immigrants. But it was the left, not the right, that emerged as a focus of opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the big parties at last year’s national elections with the 8.9 percent vote for the joint list put together by the dissident trade unionists and Social Democrats who form the WASG in west Germany and the PDS in east Germany, running together as the Left Party. German activists talk here
about the attempt to create a single new left party across the whole country, the opportunities this presents, and the arguments it is creating.