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English mobilisation for European Social Forum gathers momentum

The latest preparatory meeting of the English mobilisation for the second European Social Forum (ESF), taking place in Paris on 12-15 November 2003, was held on 17 May in Newcastle.

June 1, 2003
9 min read

Hosted by the local Unison branch who have been active participants in both the World and European Social Forum process, it was the first such meeting to be held outside of London, enabling new people based in the North of England to attend and have input into the mobilisation process. There was general agreement by all present that this was the most productive ESF meeting so far in England.

Most Red Pepper readers will be familiar with the World Social Forum (WSF) process out of which the ESF has been born. To recap briefly, the first WSF was held in January 2001, in the radical Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. It began as a counter-summit to the World Economic Forum, held annually in January at Davos, Switzerland, but since then has become a political process in its own right. As ‘Chico’ Whitaker, one of its key architects has argued, the main concept of the WSF is to provide a space ‘to allow all those who are fighting neo-liberalism to meet, hear each other, learn with the others struggles, discuss propositions of action, articulate themselves in new networks and new organisations and initiatives having in view to overcome the present globalisation process dominated by the big corporations’. Out of the WSF has come a process of regional social forums, of which the ESF in Florence, Italy last November was one of the first.

The Newcastle meeting was attended by many Unison members from the Northeast, leading organisers in Globalise Resistance (GR) and the SWP, several local SWP activists, a member of the Communist Pary of Great Britain, and several independent lefties, as well as Red Pepper. Around two-thirds of the attendees were local, with the rest made up of mainly London and Leeds-based activists.

The meeting revolved around three core issues: an update on latest preparations for the second ESF; the appropriate input of the English mobilisation into that process; and how the English mobilisation will ‘mobilise’ people from England to go to Paris.

An overview of the background and latest plans for the ESF was presented by members of the English mobilisation committee, including Chris Nineham and Jonathan Neale of the SWP and GR, Emilie Ferreira of GR, and Oscar Reyes. They argued that, generally, the French organisation of the ESF is undemocratic and in danger of bureaucratisation.

Like the WSF, the ESF will be divided into ‘official meetings’ – plenaries and seminars organised by the ESF organising committee which will receive free simultaneous translation into four or five European languages – and self-organised ‘workshops’ that anyone can propose, but which will not receive free translation. There will also be a parallel space within the ESF called the Assembly of the Social Movements (ASM) where actions and demonstrations can be proposed and formulated by social movements. The principles of the ESF mean that the Forum itself cannot call for and organise anything because it is only a space, not a political actor.

The official meetings will come under five main themes that have been provisionally drafted, each of which has numerous sub-themes (see www.fse-esf.org for the full programme):

-# Against war, for a Europe of peace and justice, of solidarity, open upon the world;

-# Against neo-liberalism, against patriarchy, for a social and democratic Europe of rights;

-# Against the logic of profit; for an ecologically sustainable society of social justice and for food sovereignty;

-# Against merchandising processes; for a Europe of democratic information, culture and education;

-# Against racism, xenophobia and exclusion, for the equality of rights, dialogue between cultures; for a Europe open to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

There will be twenty plenary sessions on ‘Confrontations and Articulations’, which include ‘Strategies’ in relation to war, Europe, social forums, trade unionism, the far right, and feminism; ‘Problem Regions’ such as Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Europe, the Kurds, the Berbers, Western Sahara, Africa, Latin America and Asia; ‘Dialogues/Confrontations’ between social/citizen and political party movements on democracy and welfare in Europe; and ‘Broad views’ on social protection, disability, cultural and national identities, and Islam in Europe among others. The following propositions have been retained as priorities for seminars:

-# Against the Internet as a laboratory for neo-liberalism and security politics; for equality and solidarity in the handling of information technology and communication.

-# Employment and globalisation; flexibility, work instability, workfare, employment pacts.

-# Secularity in tomorrow’s Europe – its values, its limits.

There was a general feeling at the Newcastle meeting that the wording of the themes was ‘academic’ and ‘boring’ but these will be refined over the coming period. More important is that they are not regarded as too contentious.

The proposed structure of the ESF as it currently stands:

Plenary sessions will be large conference-style events with space for around 2,000 participants. There will be around 50 plenaries. All national mobilisations will have the opportunity to propose speakers for these conferences. Last year, the English mobilisation proposed 14 speakers and all were included.

Seminars will be smaller sessions that can be proposed by any organisation, although space limitations will mean that groups will have to ‘share’ or ‘co-organise’. There will be between 150-170 seminars. The www.fse-esf.org website will be used to propose seminars and enable groups to see what others are doing and if sharing can be agreed. This is so far not happening and the website is currently not being utilised properly.

Workshops will in theory be the most democratic aspect of the ESF. They are smaller than seminars and any organisation can apply to hold one, even political parties (they still cannot speak officially at plenaries and seminars). Whereas most seminars will be shared by organisations, workshops don’t have to be although this will be encouraged, again using the website as an interface. There is no free translation for workshops, so it is worth bringing your own translators, but the workshops themselves are set to cost nothing.

One of the main tasks for the English mobilisation is to have input on who will speak at the plenaries and what the seminars will be on and who will organise them. It was agreed in Newcastle that the English mobilisation should make public as soon as possible the existence of this process of speaker and seminar proposal so that interested organisations could participate. It was also agreed that those interested should compile a list of speakers and seminars they would like to see in relation to the key themes and post them to the ESF email list. Neither of these things has happened yet.

The issue of seminars and workshops prompted a lengthy discussion on the purpose of the English mobilisation in relation to the ESF. There was strong agreement that going to the ESF was not about the ‘event’ as much as the ‘space’ and ‘process’ it represented. Activists wanted to achieve concrete results in Paris: to find groups and networks engaged in similar struggles to those across the UK, exchange experiences and contact details and see if some kind of cross-border action and relationships could be built. Many found this aspect of ‘networking’ frustrated at the first ESF in 2002, mainly because of the size of the event and near-impossibility of finding anyone from different countries active in the same areas. Emilie Ferreira argued that the proposed process of seminar and workshop posting and negotiation on the ESF website would hopefully solve this problem.

Out of this discussion came the idea of finding core themes that were relevant to Newcastle, for example, as a basis for seminar and workshop proposals to be formulated. Three themes for practical link-building emerged at the Newcastle meeting: (1) Privatisation (2) the Commodification of Cities (3) Racism and Asylum. Unison reps agreed to draft proposals for seminars on the first two, while it was agreed by some that the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers (CDAS) should be approached to propose a seminar on the third. Not all agreed though that ANL or CDAS were relevant organisations to problems of racism in their area.

In terms of how the English mobilisation should ‘mobilise’, there was general consensus on the following points: the need to start producing some basic publicity for the ESF using issues that local people will deem relevant and those we have identified; the need to have regional meetings/mobilisations and that meetings of the main English mobilisation have to move around the country; the national mobilisation should act as a facilitating body, and should not be in charge of the mobilisation; the national mobilisation should offer advice and practical help in enabling people to physically get to Paris; there should be a national office, and that money needs to be raised to help answer phones, etc; everyone should go away from the meeting and form local ESF mobilising groups; and the ESF should be pushed through the Stop the War groups, trade unions, community groups and centres, local media, and we should use political meetings to announce it.

More contentious were: how much of a role the national committee should play, how the committee could achieve democratic and representative status and how it would mobilise people from the country to go to the ESF. Some seemed to favour a central role played by the national mobilisation, with meetings only open to those who clearly ‘represented’ something, backed by national publicity, a national travel mobilisation and a national speakers tour that goes round the cities to help publicise the ESF. Others preferred to leave the national committee as a ‘facilitator’ and allow local mobilisation groups, when they emerge, to make their own travel arrangements, do their own publicity and organise their own mobilisation events. Where no mobilisation groups emerge, then the national centre should step in.

One major tension appeared on the issue of a national speakers tour. While events with speakers were seen as desirable, it was clear that some were very keen to push a national tour, but others wanted to avoid such a scenario, given that it will only penetrate the city, and probably will only go to the universities. Instead, one suggestion was that the English mobilisation should start from the principle that a national tour is there to help mobilise where local groups don’t exist.

Groups should feel free to invite their own speakers, shape their mobilisation according to local needs and issues, and then go on a speakers tour around the suburbs. Another suggestion was for the English committee to encourage the creation of local social forums that deal with specific issues and campaigns, and out of this mobilise for the ESF.

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