• Innovation – The Alter-Summit

  • By Elisabeth Gauthier | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: Alter Summit
  • For a long time discussions in European conferences, social forums and other assemblies have been either about the analysis of (European) conditions or the development of alternative proposals. In the context of the dramatic aggravation of the crisis the question is continually more sharply posed of a concrete strategy for changing European conditions. Such a European challenge becomes rather complicated if the realities between the South, the East and the North sharply diverge and the state of consciousness and debate is politically and historically very diverse. The commonality, however, is the generalisation of austerity policies – in some countries we can speak of social devastation and humanitarian catastrophe – and authoritarian forms of governance. It is increasingly recognised that a change in the relations of force in one country does not suffice for effecting changes there and in the EU. The complexity of the EU’s multi-polar power structure as well as its structural democratic deficit makes effective political intervention difficult. A simultaneous, uniformly oriented common initiative in all of Europe would appear unimaginable in the current phase. In this respect what needs to be done is to explore all deployable levers for social change and find new ones in order to gain the capacity to act in a multidimensional way.2 It would also be necessary to make visible and comprehensible everywhere the fact that the true nature of the confrontation in Europe is not a territorially based conflict between nations or regions but an intense class confrontation involving a radical dismantling of social and democratic gains. The creation of new alliances – on the national and European levels – becomes a decisive challenge in this context.

    The Alter-Summit (AS)3 is therefore conceived as a permanent process. The Athens meeting was its first prominent event.

    The European Social Forums promoted the cooperation of diverse actors as well as the emergence of new European networks and subjects. However, their typically non-binding nature no longer corresponds to the challenges which have to be met if the confrontation in Europe is to be brought forward such that the commonalities can be concretised in common political action and demands. Because the idea of an Alter-Summit responds to these challenges in the current phase it quickly found many adherents.



    Europe urgently needs an amalgamation of forces able to act against austerity and for the renewal of democracy. The mode of cooperation as an open, flexible and simultaneously permanent structure (network) allows a working process and capacity to react which the European Social Forum, for example, did not possess. Approximately 200 organisations are participating in the AS network. The support for the AS by three European trade-union federations in the ETUC (transport, public services and education) as well as a great many national unions (for example the British TUC) is a sign of changes in the trade-union sphere. Representatives of the ETUC also took part in the preparations and its chair spoke to the plenary session in Athens through a videoed message. It is increasingly evident that the unions’ power of negotiation and representation is being continually reduced, and at the same time European social democracy is dropping out as a political partner due to its increasingly social-liberal orientation. For the first time the ETUC has rejected a European treaty – the Fiscal Compact. In this configuration and in the context of the crisis new possibilities are opening up for dialogue with social and left movements.4

    Social movements are part of the realities especially of the South but also in part in countries of the East. In Spain and Portugal public congresses are being held on a civil-society organisational basis in order to define a government policy alternative to the dictates of the Troika. It is also there that the first transnational general strike was put into motion. In June 2012 in Greece, for the first time in Europe, an election took on the character of a break with the prevailing EU political system. New voices are being added to the familiar ones which have been pointing out how deeply stuck we are in a dangerous dead end. Critical networks of economists and social scientists are becoming active. Initiatives such as the Subversive Forum in Zagreb, the ‘Workers and Punk University’ in Ljubljana and the Coalition of Resistance in Great Britain are new forms of resistance and discussion of alternatives. Common actions are developing in ecological questions as well as around the public services such as education, transportation and healthcare, in activism against forced evictions in southern and eastern Europe as well as in solidarity with the self-governing Greek healthcare centres. This is also occurring around the rights of immigrants. A common question is the struggle for a radical change in the ECB’s missions and mode of functioning. In the immediate future the struggle against the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement could be organised Europe-wide. Creating a new European consciousness regarding the relations of force and the possible alliance partners therefore has to mean making all this energy visible and starting to relate to each other. This is the goal the AS is pursuing. A lot remains to be done.

    A European coordination is being constituted in which trade unions and the ETUC, European networks like Attac, transform! and EuroMemo as well as the representatives of the AS collectives in individual countries are cooperating.


    The balance sheet of Athens

    At the June AS in Athens there was confirmation of the need for, but also the possibility of, discovering new paths to a new level of the cooperation of movements, networks and unions.

    Some important goals were achieved, but there were disappointments. There was massive participation neither from European countries – best represented were Norway, France and Germany – nor from Greece itself. It was a European meeting of representatives from organisations and countries of all regions, born of the readiness to organise not only common resistance but also to work together on a European alternative.

    In general it was determined that the Manifesto represented important progress. The months-long transparent mode of working not only succeeded in bringing out convergences and common analyses but also in producing an actual ‘common’ text and, on such a common basis, defining the goal of a radical reorientation of European structures.

    The breakout groups (‘assemblies’) organised around individual issues proved to be more complicated. Proposals for ongoing actions were the main result, especially where common goals and methods had been determined before the Summit and where the articulation of the different issues with the whole project and the Manifesto was the focus. Once again we saw the difficulty of moving from the redaction of a European Manifesto to common action. Even the European Social Forum’s weaknesses, in which single issues were simply added up and in a certain sense ‘isolated’ from each other, could not be entirely avoided. The theme of further thinking is now: What contents, what factors could effectively crystallise the common will to change Europe profoundly? This has to be approached with a mixture of realism and ambition.


    The challenge to political parties

    In terms of the political parties, the AS – in contrast to the Social Forums – does seek dialogue with political organisations and personalities which share the ideas represented by the AS and actively support the project. A distinction was thus drawn between institutions and political parties which support austerity and de-democratisation and those who oppose it. The wish to alter the relation of forces also implies discussing the question of political representation and the exercise of power – and thinking about how movements, trade unions and networks, but also political parties, which want to contest the prevailing logic, can act. Moreover, it is a matter of collecting all available forces, in a situation in which there is great tension between anger and powerlessness and between criticism of the prevailing conditions and the weight of neoliberal doctrine of sacrifice. Doubt that politics can be a means for change is becoming increasingly massive.5 In light of the dramatic situation, we see the development of experiments with new forms of cooperation between diverse protagonists, in which full respect for the autonomy of all participants must be the rule. At the same time, movements such as Occupy, with their radical distance from existing structures, are introducing new challenges which themselves contributed to changes in the political culture of organisations. In the AS, too, the question has been addressed of how bridges can be built in this respect. The comparison between the situations in single countries also shows that for many large movements (in Bulgaria and Turkey) the lack of significant political support is a problem. Another example is Greece, where numerous social protagonists have contributed to building SYRIZA.

    The organisations that have up to now been engaged in the AS are the Party of the European Left andthe European Parliament group GUE/NGL, with the French Greens having publicly declared their support as have individual parliamentarians and members of social democratic and green parties which also sent speakers to Athens. There is also support from the anti-capitalist left. The commonality is that all these social and political actors wish to create an alternative cultural hegemony.


    What next?

    Common working processes have to be defined, in which the AS’ ambition to shift the relation of forces in Europe must be at the centre. The AS wants to avoid annually repeated meetings that could become empty shells. A new quality has to be achieved. A multi-level process that makes sense for all therefore has to be invented. The October working session defined the global strategic goals for the next 10 months in terms of a permanent working process: ‘Continuing the consolidation and expansion of the Alter-Summit network at the European and national level. Not as an end in itself, but to increase our capacity to intensify the dialogue among us in accordance with our Manifesto and to act with the will to change the balance of power in order to establish a new Europe.’ Enabling the capacity to react, organising central events, coordinating decentralised initiatives in order to create something common from them, creating and exchanging targeted information, promoting solidarity and new alliances, reinforcing Europe-wide confrontations like those around the Transatlantic Free-Trade Agreement – all of this is on the agenda.


    The fact that the AS is an amalgamation of partly very representative organisations, makes it necessary to adopt very clear and transparent modes of work, which allow the organisations to participate as such. If it proves possible to bring the analyses and proposals developed together in the AS into the participating organisations, anchor them among the members and promote a common consciousness, the bases will have been laid for common action and in so doing the potential for shifting the relation of forces in Europe made more real. In a situation in which for many the sense of powerlessness cripples the instinct to rebellion, in which the sense of powerlessness is reinforced by the current European configuration, in which the lack of the power of interpretation makes movement difficult, in which divisions make it hard to recognise the enemy, but, at the same time, in which the dramatic urgency requires a major social and political dynamic on the part of the population, new paths to break the reigning sense of powerlessness must be opened and entered with great determination. A crucial area here is the creation of the consciousness that potential, contents and forces exist with which to transform Europe democratically. It is also a matter of tackling the paradox that in many countries significant movements are questioning the logic of the EU without being connected to each other, and they do not experience their work as part of a whole. In this respect one of the most important questions for the AS is whether it can create nexuses between the actually existing movements.


    There are already some starting points for this. The intention is for the Manifesto to become a common good, an element of common action, a binding element of diverse struggles by bringing this into the organisations and beyond Europe specialists. It demonstrates that there is a common vision today to fundamentally change Europe in response to the destructive crisis. This vision can – at a European and /or a national level – informdifferent struggles and confrontations to promote European unity, interpreting the actions and counteracting the fragmentation of oppositional forces. A campaign based on the Manifesto is planned.

    It is also a matter of determining what the questions are around which common initiatives, alliances and mobilisations can be organised and what proposals can crystallise and promote common action. Europeanisation of social struggles requires working to raise awareness of its European aspects. The Greek EU presidency in the first semester of2014 represents a new challenge. The opening of the new ECB headquarters in Frankfurt, the confrontations around the ‘commons’, the Europeanisation of national budget policy and the generalisation of precarisation and impoverishment were put forward in the breakout groups. European campaigns, citizens’ initiatives and thematic conferences are to be organised in the future around certain issues. The experiences with the European Citizens’ Initiative around the question of water, Blockupy and also the transnational strike of 14 November 2012 are considered points of departure.

    Still to be solved are questions of how feminist issues (prominently featured in the Manifesto) can become common property, of how the protection and rights of immigrants should be articulated with conflicts around the rights of the working population and how ecological and social demands can be tied together.

    The question of the necessary offensive against extreme right forces in all of Europe formed the substance of one of the biggest thematic gatherings. This is a major challenge which concerns more than just anti-fascist activists. We intend to tackle the issue on a European level. An adequate strategy for the struggle against the extreme right is the subject of broad discussions among the social movements, and a European conference on this theme is being planned. It is also relatively clear that 2014 will be approached as the centenary of the breakout of World War I and that here Europe’s role in the world must also be addressed. Furthermore, the Transatlantic Free-Trade Agreement will doubtless become a broadly mobilising issue. The same can be said for the opening of the new ECB office in autumn of 2014, on which occasion sights should be more sharply trained on the national central banks. Individual networks or groups of networks intend to feed the dynamic through thematic conferences. Confronting austerity together could also be a rallying point, what with clashes around budgets increasingly controlled by the EU.

    The upcoming European elections (May 2014) are also frequently regarded as an opportunity for this. What is important here is not to remain wedded to the traditional forms – in which the movements turn to the candidates with their appeals or requests – and to use this truly European moment more effectively. The AS will intervene in the debate from the perspective of the Manifesto and with a view to promoting its autonomous agenda. There still needs to be work on the forms which such an effort could take. Innovation is needed!  n


    translated by Eric Canepa



    1   This is a revised version of an article published in German in Sand im Getriebe -(September 2013) to reflect the results of the October working meeting of the Alter-Summit.

    2   For a more detailed treatment see Elisabeth Gauthier, ‘Fünf Argumente für ein “Alter Summit”’ in Sozialismus 12/2012.

    3   Available on the homepage www.altersummit.eu are the Manifesto in several languages, the list of participating organisations and the reports from Athens as well as current information.

    4   See Steffen Lehndorff, ‘Trade Unions: The Difficult Path to Solidarity in One’s Own Interest’ in Transform! 12/2013, pp. 68-74.

    5   See the study carried out in 2012: Richard Detje / Wolfgang Menz / Sarah Nies / Dieter Sauer / Joachim Bischoff, Krisenerfahrungen und Politik, Hamburg VSA 2013.

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