A Forum of contradictions: the 3rd ESF

The third European Social Forum (ESF) took place in London from 14-17 October 2004, with over 400 events ranging in their scope from Asbestos to Zapatismo.

November 1, 2004
3 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes

Britain and Europe

In the run up to next year’s G8 meeting in Scotland, several key debates challenged the myth that “the British government has a positive development agenda and is a champion of the world’s poor.” The EU’s Constitutional treaty (to be ratified on 30 October) also came in for heavy criticism. The Assembly of Social Movements rejected a treaty which “consecrates neo-liberalism as the official doctrine of the EU.”

Trade unions take a step forward

The ESF marked a significant development in cross European trade union co-operation, with the formal agreement between Ver.di (the German public sector union) and UNISON jointly to resist privatisation. “This gives a green light to UNISON and Verdi activists joining forces at a local level,” said Kenny Bell of Newcastle Unison. Generally the Forum marked a further increase in trade union participation.

Neo-liberalism at the ESF

The Greater London Authority’s (GLA) role in organising the Forum drew protests and criticism from several of those involved including Babels, the international network of volunteer interpreters. It used the occasion of a meeting where Ken Livingstone was scheduled to speak (he did not turn up) to deliver a highly critical statement of the GLA’s “neo-liberal practices of organisation, management and service delivery.” Discussions on, for example, the campaign to boycott Coke, sat uneasily alongside the corporate food outlets selling Coca-Cola.

Numbers and diversity

At 20,000 people, the numbers attending were considerably lower than at the previous ESFs in Florence and Paris, but there was also a significant broadening of international participation. The delegations from Eastern Europe were several times the size of those at previous Forums. Closer to home, many community activists from the North of England found the cost of the ESF prohibitive. Anne Scargill and the network of women in mining or ex-mining areas wanted to participate but “No way could we afford the fees, transport and accommodation.”

Demonstration

Sunday’s demonstration included large and lively contingents from across the whole continent, a new phenomenon on the streets of London. It was almost surreal, therefore, to hear no speakers from European delegations. Raffaella Bolini, from the Italian ESF Committee, said: “We have to say that it wasn’t our demonstration in the end. This confirmed the difficulties there have been in London.” But she also added that “these problems must not obscure the success of the event.” The demonstration was also marred by over-policing and unprovoked arrests, including of a member of the ESF co-ordinating committee after stewards refused him entry to the platform.

Beyond the ESF

The official ESF was surrounded by a variety of ‘autonomous spaces’. Highlights included a Schnews conference on ‘How Direct Action Can Change the World’, discussions on ‘precarity’ (the situation of casualised labour), and a memorable party hosted by the No Vox network.

The future of the ESF

The ESF now moves on to Greece in spring 2006, but the discussion on its future shape has already started. There is a widespread recognition amongst Forum organizers from across Europe that changes are needed. According to Raffaella Bolini, “We need to place more emphasis on exchanging experiences, on developing long term campaigns rather than just going from one demonstration to another.”


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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