Monday, September 27, 2010

Workers of the world unite: there is no alternative

Every so often the Plain English Campaign in Britain accuses the main EU institutions of butchering Her Majesty’s tongue. As an Irishman, the campaign leaves me ambivalent. I have no desire to defend the purity of a language forced on much of the world by a brutish imperialism. But I loathe how the elite in Brussels deliberately uses words that mislead.

Despite not being typical Euro-jargon, the term “social partners” is especially horrid. It gives the impression that employers and trade unions both act altruistically and that they have equal access to the corridors of power.

This week the concept behind the “partnership” – one that is explicitly referred to in the EU’s treaties – will be exposed as fraudulent. On Wednesday (29 September) trade unionists from across Europe will protest at the cutbacks in public expenditure that our political masters tell us we have to swallow to have any chance of recovery from the economic crisis. Will the bosses of this continent be displaying solidarity with their “partners” on this day of action? You must be joking.

My hope is that there will be a massive turn-out of angry workers and that this will encourage trade union leaders to be more combative towards the EU’s institutions than they have been in recent years. The protesters’ key demands can be found in a policy paper titled “Towards A New Social Deal” published last year by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). While its diagnosis is correct – “the dominance of the neo-liberal economic model over the past 30 years has caused the economic catastrophe that Europe and the rest of the world are now experiencing” – it fails to grapple with ETUC’s own culpability in propping up the aforementioned model.

John Monks, ETUC’s general-secretary, made a strategic blunder over the past few years by campaigning in favour of the Lisbon treaty, which legally obliges the Union to follow neo-liberal precepts. The treaty, for example, commits the Union to fight all barriers to international trade – these include social or environmental standards that irritate multinational firms.

During 2009, Monks’ contention that the treaty benefited workers was regularly quoted by dodgy politicians and other establishment figures who bludgeoned Irish voters into accepting the treaty in a referendum – having rejected the same document a year earlier. The truth was that those politicians hadn’t the slightest interest in defending workers rights and that the treaty merely threw a few crumbs to workers.

Monks now has an opportunity to atone for his poor judgement by strenuously opposing the agenda of the EU’s predominantly right-leaning governments and institutions. Far from having no other option than imposing austerity measures on their populations, these myopic ideologues relish how they can ram through decisions that would have proven unpalatable during a boom.

Mark Weisbrot from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington has demolished the myth that there is no alternative to cutting social spending and raising the retirement age. He has suggested too that Europe’s policy-makers have presented a false picture of the woes besetting euro-zone economies. Whereas conventional “wisdom” has it that the Spanish had been profligate, the reality is that the ratio between the country’s debt and its gross domestic product fell from 59% to 36% from 2000 to 2007.

“What is really going on is that powerful interests within these countries – including Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal – are taking advantage of the situation to make the changes that they want,” Weisbrot wrote in July. “Perhaps even more importantly, the European authorities – including the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF – who are holding the purse strings of any bail-out funds, are even more committed than the national governments to right-wing policy changes. And they are further removed from any accountability to any electorate.”

Unfortunately, we lack economic commentators of Weisbrot’s calibre in Brussels. Instead, the researchers in corporate-funded think tanks that masquerade as independent “experts” have acted as cheerleaders for cutbacks. Ann Mettler, director of the Lisbon Council – a group dedicated to making Europe “competitive” – contradicts herself in her latest “e-brief” (a term that the Plain English Campaign must decry). After arguing that Europe needs more investment in education, she then proceeds to applaud cuts that affect vital services like education. Describing the upheaval in the Greek economy as a “healthy wake-up call” she writes that “in reality, what is today called ‘austerity’ is perhaps nothing more than at last making an effort to live within our means.”

It is instructive that another new Lisbon Council pamphlet was penned by Alessandro Leipold, a former senior official with the International Monetary Fund. Leipold has recommended that joint assistance from the EU and IMF “should become the norm” for economies in difficulty.

His blueprint is frightening. Over the summer, the IMF illustrated that it remains wedded to capitalist extremism when it attempted to bulldoze Hungary into abandoning a planned tax on banks. The Hungarian government was able to resist the fund’s pressure; poorer countries outside Europe have been unable to. Under the conditions of a $1.2 billion IMF loan to Jamaica, no new schools can be built for the island’s children.

The measures being taken in the name of economic recovery in Europe and around the world are manifestly unjust. Calling for workers of the world to unite against them might sound old-fashioned but in this respect at least, there is no alternative.

•First published by New Europe (, 26 September – 2 October, 2010

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