frontline 6

Brussels EU summit faces mass protests

Flares are back. French CGT railwayworker protests.

In December 2001 the European Union met for its summit at the palace of Laeken in Brussels. Among the topics up for discussion were the war and terrorism and, of course, the arrival of the euro. But while our leaders debated and negotiated the European working class was also making its voice heard. Mass demonstrations were held by unions, peace protestors and campaigners against capitalist globalisation. In addition, the third conference of the European anti-capitalist Left took place in the city. Alister Black looks at the events and at how the Left is responding to the new developments within the EU.

With the euro replacing many local currencies on January 1st 2002, 300 million European Union citizens experienced the latest incarnation of European integration. The EEC, and now the EU, has grown over the years from an economic "common market" to incorporate closer political union and now a single currency. The EU is one of the key institutions of world capitalism and has been in the forefront of the wave of neo-liberal globalisation.


Privatisation and 'liberalisation' of public services such as education, postal services and energy are a central part of the economic strategy of the EU. During the summit EU finance ministers met to discuss their plans and to review their progress towards their stated goal of becoming the most 'competitive' economy in the world by 2010. This means reducing or getting rid of any kind of state protection of industries, such as nationalised postal services or state regulation of energy providers. At successive EU summits European leaders have pressed for greater liberalisation of gas and electricity, postal services, financial services, rail and air traffic. The Economist noted that: "Business groups and the European Commission have made common cause in calling for speedier market liberalisation and structural reforms as new economic forecasts have pointed to slow growth continuing." (1)

This fits in nicely with the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). This aims to force irreversible 'liberalisation' of public services. This can be enforced by economic sanctions. The definition of services has been given as "anything you can't drop on your foot"(2), with the military as the only exception. EU governments want to open up markets for European companies. for services such as water provision in North America and in developing countries.

The statement from the Laeken summit stated that the EU was "a power seeking to set globalisation within a moral framework, in other words to anchor it in solidarity and sustainable development."(3) This is nothing more than spin but reflects the pressure felt by some EU politicians, such as the ruling French Socialist Party.


One of the main topics discussed during the EU summit was the question of the 'war on terrorism'. European leaders have responded to the September 11 attacks by drawing up 'anti-terrorist' measures which constitute serious attacks on civil liberties. The EU is moving to create a common legislative framework with respect to terrorism. That means establishing a common definition of terrorism and penalties for it. They are also planning to introduce a European arrest warrant, which would make extradition from one country to another within the EU automatic, with no chance to challenge it in a court of law.

The definition of terrorism that EU have drawn up includes

"(i) seriously intimidating a population, or;

(ii) unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or to abstain from performing any act, or;

(iii) destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or international organisation" (4).

These clauses would cover every protest group from the Countryside Alliance to Greenpeace.

The definition also defines terrorism as "causing extensive damage to a government or public facility, a transport system, an infrastructure facility, including an information system, a fixed platform located on a continental shelf, a public place or private property likely to put in danger human lives or produce considerable economic loss"

This clause would cover trade-union activity such as a strike on an oil-rig or at a power-station. The EU wriggles out of this accusation by tagging on to this definition a declaration stating that the rules are not aimed at unions or anti-globalisation protestors. This declaration has no legal force; the definition of terrorism does, and so takes precedence.


These meetings and decisions were not met with silence. On the eve of the summit a massive demonstration of 100,000 trades-unionists gathered in Brussels. The demonstration organisedon December 13 by the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) drew participants from more than 25 countries. The largest contingents on the demonstration were from the French and Belgian unions. Thousands of members of the French CGT streamed through the streets with their red flags and banners. The CGT had hired six TGV trains for the demo and hundreds of buses. Among the largest contingents were postal workers and teachers. Belgian workers from the crisis-hit Sabena airline were joined by Zeebrugge dockers in their hundreds. Fire fighters joined the demonstration, in their fire-engines!

The main theme pushed on the demo by the ETUC was 'Europe - that's us'. The ETUC actually welcomed the conclusions of the Laeken summit, whilst calling for greater measures towards full employment. The friendly relations between the unions and the EU contrast with the mood on the demo. The massive turnout indicates that European workers are very concerned about the impact of recession on their jobs, in the electronics and airline industries particularly. Public sector workers are concerned about the faster pace of 'liberalisation' and the encroachment of private industry into the public sector.

Whilst the union leaders were happy to allow their members to 'let off steam', they had few answers. But the strength of the European working class coming together to defend common interests was evident to all who witnessed it and participated in the demonstration. In a global economy this kind of protest, like the French Marks and Spencers workers who protested in London, will become more common.

Inevitably the size and strength of the D13 demo put the D14 demo on the following day against capitalist globalisation into perspective. Nevertheless, the event was far from insignificant, mobilising 25-30 000 demonstrators from all over Europe. It was organised by the Belgian D14 collective which included most of the small Belgian Left, NGOs such as Oxfam and also the anti-globalisation movement ATTAC. The theme of the event was 'For Global Justice and Peace' and the aim was clearly to continue the process of moving the anti-globalisation movement in an anti-war and anti-imperialist direction.

Around sixty members of the SSP made the long trip to Belgium for the demo. Many of them were young people who had got involved in the anti-war movement. The banners of the Scottish Socialist Youth, the SSP and the Unison branch of the victorious striking medical secretaries marched alongside socialists, trade-unionists and anti-war protestors from all over Europe. The NGOs like War on Want and Oxfam made an impact with their eye-catching giant globe including dancers and silver painted drummers. There was a large delegation of libertarian and anarchist groups with their characteristic red and black banners. This is an informal movement rather than an organisation, but the bloc was large and disciplined and included many youth of around 14-15 years old.

The march was lively but peaceful, with the sub-zero temperatures affecting the militant mood somewhat. Only at the end as the demo moved into a warehouse for the closing rally did some trouble kick off as some anarchists trashed a couple of banks. The police used this as an excuse to attack the peaceful demonstrators in the warehouse. But those who were in Genoa commented on how tame the response was in comparison to Italy.

The feeling at the end of the demo was that it had been a success, but the real power in society had been evident on the previous day. Unlike in Genoa the 'anti-globalisers' and the labour movement marched separately. Bringing the two together is the next problem the movement must face.


Immediately before the demonstrations the third conference of the European anti-capitalist left was held in Brussels. The conference had been organised by four of the parties who had participated in the first two events. These were the SSP, the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) of France, the Red-Green Alliance of Denmark and the Left Bloc of Portugal. Also there were representatives of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) of Italy, the Socialist Alliance, SWP and Socialist Party from England. 'La Gauche' from Luxemburg and Solidarités from Switzerland were there. From Spain came two groups who were on the left of the 'Izquerida Unida' (United Left) bloc and from Turkey the ÖDP (Freedom and Solidarity Party) was present.

The meeting agreed a statement which agreed to a common approach to questions of war, racism, the EU, civil liberties and globalisation - the full statement can be found on the ISM website here. The discussion was not without controversy and there was some debate over how the anti-war movement should take up the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. The statement agreed notes: "We unambiguously condemn the September 11 attacks as an act of mass terror against the civilian population. The project of reactionary Islamic organisations like Al-Qaida is to establish a theocratic, totalitarian and oppressive society. They have used terrorist means to contest the control of foreign multinationals over the immense richness of the region. But they don't struggle for the liberation and welfare of their people. This condemnation must be accompanied by a denunciation of all racist and Islamophobic campaigns."(5)

The Socialist Party of England and the PRC both wanted to consult their organisations before signing the statement.

Alain Krivine, MEP for the LCR came straight from the Strasbourg parliament to report on the latest 'anti-terrorist' measures being agreed by the EU, noted above. The SSP called for the conference participants to co-ordinate opposition to this scheme across the continent.

The SSP have been supporters of this project since its inception and we have argued for a European Socialist Alliance. That a common approach on all the central questions was agreed is significant for the Left in Europe. Also significant was the expansion of the discussions to include the PRC who are a large and serious force in Italian politics with deep roots in the working class and who played the central role in organising the massive Genoa demos and mobilising the working class for those demos. What is also clear from the meeting is that some of the organisations involved are at different stages on the road. Unity, even the broad unity of an alliance, can't be declared. Rather it is a process which is ongoing and in which the SSP must play a central part . The dialogue will continue.

The demos of D13 and D14 and the conference all form part of the same movement against capitalist globalisation. The events in Brussels demonstrated that this movement has not been cowed by the 'war on terrorism' and the racism and jingoism associated with it.

The EU now wants to be an even greater world power and the launch of the euro may hasten this. It will be ready to use the powers gained during the 'war on terrorism' to attack civil liberties and to oppose the working class movement.

Socialists will need to co-ordinate on an all-European basis more than ever before to counter these attacks. The ISM and the European Marxist Left have a key role to play in this process.


1. The Economist, 14.12.2001
2. Attac newsletter
3. EU Laeken summit statement
4. Framework agreed by the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on 6-7 December 2001.
5. Conference of the European anti-capitalist Left Brussels, 12-13 December 2001, Statement.