Interview conducted by Francine Mestrum
What do you make of the Action Day and the European demonstration that took place in Brussels on September 29?
The September 29 demonstration was a great success – in two ways. First, we were able to bring together 100,000 people in Brussels. Then, there were simultaneous demonstrations in a dozen European cities, and other demonstrations already had taken place the week before in Rumania and the Czech Republic. Today there is a real desire to coordinate in the face of demands from our governments and from the European Commission, which now wants the right to oversee national budgets. The situation, therefore, is now much worse than in the past.
What is important is that yesterday’s demonstration was not just a symbolic gesture. Rather, it showed that we have launched a real process. The movement will continue and grow in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and France. In the wake of the crisis, people are feeling deeply uneasy. We saw this in the swift reaction to the banks and, today, we see the extraordinary financial results of large companies at a time when their workers are presented with austerity programmes.
Today, we face a social crisis and a political crisis with more and more serious shifts to the extreme right.
What were the difficulties that had to be overcome for such a mobilisation to occur?
It was not difficult to organise the demonstration because we are profoundly convinced that there is a real need to react and all the unions, at every level, share this conviction. This, of course, is a necessary condition for successful organisation. In fact, the aftermath of the Greek crisis also made us understand what is really happening in Europe. We already have seen the same policies at work in the Third World and we are well aware of the consequences.
Many activists wonder about the link between national movements – for example, the opposition to retirement reform in France – and European movements. How do you see the synergy between these two levels of intervention?
Even synergy between the European and the national level is no longer a problem. People have understood that there is a real convergence. On social questions, the national level, of course, prevails, but we also need the European dimension. This is why the question of income and a minimum wage is so important, not only directly for the population as a whole but also in order to have points of comparison across Europe.
How do you see the post-September 29 period? Will the people continue to have to pay for the crisis?
This struggle will continue in different countries. We will work with the Hungarian and Polish presidencies on social dumping and international competition. The goal is to be able to achieve a state of social law.
Even though all the movements were in favour of this Day of European Mobilisation, some of them were reticent about the slogan: “Growth, No Cuts”. In order to improve the dialogue between the social and the ecological movements, could you explain what the ETUC means by “growth”?
It is very important because we have never before had such a need for real European policies. We know that, in terms of energy, natural resources and equipment, demand is very strong and that there is therefore great potential for growth. Now, everybody can respond each in his or her own way – look out for Number One and God will take care of the rest – or we can try to work together at the European level. The big countries, like France and Germany, can compete and the little countries will be the big losers. We cannot just be happy with additional investment in different countries, we have to arrive at a critical mass of investment in Europe and at the financing of European infrastructure. But it is necessary to make investment possible. Barroso touched on this point in an obscure way in his “State of the Union” of a few weeks ago. He knows that there is enormous need for investment and that we need a real European plan. It will be difficult not to raise taxes. As far as growth is concerned, it is clear that growth must be green. We are working on this issue in close collaboration with social NGOs, notably with the Social Platform. The issue is particularly clear in the automotive sector, everything from electric cars to public transport. But what we observe today, notably with the new middle class in India and in China, is that consumerism is something other than consumption.
All direct investment goes to places where research and development are oriented toward green technologies, and all the jobs are going to have to come from this sector. This is not something that is happening on the margins of our economy; rather, it is happening at the very heart of our entire economy.
That being said, the arguments that we sometimes hear in Europe in favour of a different type of economic system often are the arguments of the privileged. These arguments are totally inaudible for 80% of the world’s population. Often, the demands of the privileged are quite appealing – for restrained growth, for example – but it is important to bear in mind that any changes in Western Europe have a significant effect on growth in the rest of the world. The great majority of the population does not want to give up its comforts and individual rights. The ecological NGOs now know that ecology has a significant social dimension, while we know that social policy must take the ecological dimension into account. From now on there is a real convergence; both sides have taken steps in the right direction and there will be no return to primitively polarised positions. We have to figure out how to provide electricity to a large share of the world’s population.
Technology has a very great role to play in this context, in all sectors, including agriculture because water scarcity and drought will cause many problems. We can see clearly today that climate change accelerates inequality. One of our struggles in the future will involve the right to energy, along with the price of energy. Then there is the fight for water. Water is priceless, it’s true, but water has a cost, so we will have to be able to find financial instruments to make water available to all. Take the example of Egypt: to speak of access to water means speaking of public services. At the same time, we see the overriding role played by a few great families. Apart from the intellectual discussion that is always possible, it will be necessary to collaborate with others, to verify the point of view of our partners. Above all, we must not think that we Westerners always have the best solution for every problem.
The question then becomes how best to manage the resources of our planet, which is also a question of technology. This is true, particularly, for nanotechnologies, the real technological transformation of the future, which marries chemistry to physics and which will, perhaps, allow us to produce renewable energy on a large scale, or even from new material.
What is the advantage of Europe in all of this? Europe does not have a great deal to offer. There are more and more Chinese researchers today; they create a university per week. India trains 350,000 new engineers per year. We cannot, therefore, continue to claim intellectual superiority. But we have things to share. We know that democracy is much more than the organisation of elections. We know that transparency at all levels is crucial, in technology as well as in the world of finance. It is a battle that we can fight at the global level.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is wrong when it says, as the Socialist Pascal Lamy does, that trade has nothing to do with environmental and social issues. We are sliding more and more into struggles against poverty and towards charitable activity. This is linked to the development of the “informal” sector and of short-term, insecure employment. More and more NGOs are getting involved. However, it is necessary, above all, to prevent this poverty and precariousness, keeping to the principle of collective labour on the basis of the Philadelphia Declaration that asserts that labour is not a commodity. The NGOs can do remarkable work, but this is not a good response to the problems that arise and that are linked to social relations. There are more and more workers in the world, and the great challenge is to find collective solutions based on social law, not just provide charity. An alliance with the social NGOs is no doubt necessary in order to meet the most immediate needs, but there is also the need for a social environment in which there is a redistribution of the profits of production and of the value added by work more than by capital. In this area intellectual objectivity is important. We must remain lucid and see that good intentions are not enough, despite all the generosity behind them. We are in a social arena that must be defined with our social partners. In this context, we also need to speak about taxation and the taxation of financial transactions. Because when we reject the instruments of redistribution, democracy becomes more and more hypothetical.
What follow-up is planned after the success of the October 28 Day of Action?
As we announced at today's press conference, we are going to organise activity against austerity on a European scale. We will create an Internet page, which will regularly provide information about the measures taken by the governments of each country, so as to make a working tool available to everyone1), Our website will help people keep track of the extent of their austerity policies. Two important initiatives are being envisaged, one on December 15 or on an adjacent day, during the next meeting of the European Council, and then a European demonstration in a Central European country, in Budapest, in March 2011.
1) See the ETUC site.