It’s time to look east

The contrast could hardly have been more stark. Tony Blair began his 'big conversation' at the end of November with a 40-minute lecture accompanied by a team of Guardian journalists, a smattering of rolling TV news cameras and what appeared to be an audience consisting of Labour councillors and party members. Two weeks earlier 60,000 young Europeans had been engaged in their own big conversation at the European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris.
January 2004

The 'international conversation' was almost entirely ignored by the British press. The Guardian, to its credit, allowed me to cover it online. It also had a curtain-raiser report by its Parisian correspondent and a piece by star columnist and ESF speaker George Monbiot.

The Times and The Daily Mail also showed some interest - not in the ESF itself, but only because 'hundreds of anti-capitalist hardliners' were expected to travel from Paris to join the anti-Bush demonstrations.

Beyond that, a 150-word 'news in brief' item in The Times sneered: 'France rolled out the red carpet yesterday for a state-sponsored jamboree of Europe's anti-globalisation movement.' And that was it.

Or not quite.

Retrospectively, in his Guardian Unlimited column, Europe minister Denis MacShane smeared the entire event (which he himself did not attend, naturally) as 'anti-semitic' because it made a 'star speaker' out of Geneva-based intellectual Tariq Ramadan.

The absence of the British press in Paris was echoed by another omission: the lack of Eastern European delegates. With the accession to the EU of the 10 mainly Eastern European new states next May, and the current inter-governmental arguments over the content of the proposed EU constitution, this was a serious blind spot.

The Eastern Europeans' absence may be tacit confirmation of a right-wing centre of gravity in 'New Europe'. This is perhaps due to the experience of Soviet occupation, but the decision to hold the next ESF in London, rather than in the East, looks more and more like a lost opportunity.

World Development Movement policy officer Clare Joy certainly thinks so. "With the EU one of the four big players in [world] trade negotiations, citizens within Europe need to be more proactive in putting pressure on Brussels, and to do that the powers of the new constitution need to be understood."

There were seminars in Paris on the new EU constitution. One speaker demanded a show of hands on how many of the 700 or so delegates present had read the document. But only a miniscule smattering of arms went up, and she wisely pointed out that this alone was reason to vote against the constitution - no matter what it may contain.






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