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We are the European people

An innovative survey of activists across Europe casts light on the successes and failures of the continent’s social movements and the problems and challenges that they face

June 1, 2006
13 min read

Four and a half years on from the first European Social Forum (ESF), and with the fourth, in Athens, just successfully completed, it is a useful time for us all to reflect. As part of this process, more than 30 activists from across Europe have responded to a survey aimed to stimulate such shared thinking on questions concerning building a European ‘us’: key moments, networks, main impacts, failures, innovations, recurrent problems and challenges for the ESF.

This article from the latest issue of Eurotopia, which brings together those responses, is just a rough beginning. It is also a pilot experiment in applying the ESF open space philosophy to the collective construction of an ‘E-yearbook’ on social movements in Europe (see It is part of an attempt, in short, to bring together a multiplicity of voices and to see how far we, the people of the European social movements, are able to share a common vision.

Is there a ‘we’ on the European scale?

‘The “we” should not be taken for granted,’ warned an activist researcher from Athens. But there was significant agreement among our activist respondents about a pan-European ‘we’ – understood as diverse movements, struggles, networks and political tendencies building common campaigns and opening new public space for discussion across the continent, as part of a struggle for another world.

Many responses stressed this diversity of the ‘we’. Some described the diversity of political tendencies, others of strategic vision. A particular divergence of emphasis occurred over the relationship between ‘the European’ and other local, national, regional and global dimensions. Some stressed the need to create a European common ground and denounced too much focus on national or local levels, while others argued for the need for concrete connections with everyday struggles at the local level. A Catalan respondent emphasised the European ‘we’ as a transit for a global ‘we’ – reminding us that the ESF was a response to a global call at the World Social Forum.

What were the key moments contributing towards a European ‘we’?

One response offered a useful criterion for a key moment as ‘one which succeeded in putting a changing movement into a relationship with movements elsewhere and starting a chain reaction’. Although everyone emphasised some moments more than others – with a lot of agreement over Genoa 2001 and Florence 2002 – a pattern emerges from these lists.

First, there is the period between the end of 1980 and November 1999 – which, looking back, was one of build-up, when campaigns exposing the anti-democratic role of multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and WTO begin to appear. The counter-summit in Amsterdam in April 1997 stimulated the first networking processes at the European level, most notably the European marches against unemployment and social insecurity. International networking with global objectives grew rapidly and ambitiously in the 1990s with the emergence of transnational movements such as ATTAC, People’s Global Action and Via Campesina.

The mobilisation against the WTO in Seattle in November 1999 saw this emerging global movement burst into the headlines. In Europe, as elsewhere, there was an extraordinary surge of transnational activism. In 2002, the first ESF took place in Florence, followed by Paris in 2003 and London in 2004. To varying degrees these facilitated a process of European mobilisation and also moved the emphasis on to developing positive proposals and alternatives. Florence has a special place in the collective memory because of the number of people who attended and the call for an international mobilisation against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003.

The defeat of the Aznar government in Spain in 2004 was the first sign of national repercussions to internationally inspired mobilisations; the fall of Berlusconi in Italy was the latest. ‘We are now in a new phase when movements based in particular territories see global transformation as starting from the transformation of where they are,’ as one activist put it.

Similar thinking is shared by two leading activists in the more militant sections of the Italian trade union movement, FIOM and Cobas. They see the campaign against Berlusconi’s ‘gran opera’ (great works), such as the high-speed train link in the Sussa Valley, and that of French youth against insecure job contracts, as signs, in the words of one, ‘that the global justice movement is putting down roots’. A regular ESF participant from Moscow referred to what he hoped would mark a key moment in the future, opening a new phase to the east: a G8 contra-summit meeting planned for St Petersburg in July.

What pan-European networks and groupings have been built?

Whatever else it has or hasn’t achieved, the ESF has been, as one response put it, ‘a space for the interaction of networks in a process of continuous redefinition’. There has been little, if any building of more permanent structures, like the ATTAC model. Autonomy and collaboration are the keywords of these fluid new ‘structures’.

Responses highlighted the following networks, but there are hundreds more: the list keeps growing – and changing.

  • the ‘No US Bases’ network, which started in Paris in 2003 and now involves anti-war activists all over the globe;
  • the ESF education network, which coordinates activists in teaching unions across Europe;
  • the health network, whose union participation is not strong but has greater participation of citizens’ associations and local communities;
  • the Euromayday coordination of marches against social insecurity, which meets at the ESF;
  • the Charter of Principles for Another Europe;
  • European Coordination for Palestine;
  • the pan-European network on housing rights; and
  • the migrants network.

    The relationship of feminist organisations to the ESF is important and uneasy. One of the Athens women’s assembly organisers reported: ‘Women’s networking has been strengthened by the social forum; on the other hand many women are wary because of a certain male domination.’

    What impact have we had?

    The activists surveyed were cautious of claiming too much – and the general feeling was that it is not enough anyway!

    The most visible impact, most agreed, has been to undermine the legitimacy of the institutions of the much vaunted ‘new world order’; to open up a public debate; and to compel world leaders to hide behind high walls or in inaccessible places.

    ‘Before the birth of this movement, neoliberalism was opposed only by nationalism and protectionism. Now the debate is about which kind of globalisation we want – neoliberal versus social and democratic globalisation,’ said one activist. ‘Capitalism has lost its inevitability,’ said another.

    New ideas for alternatives are on the agenda too; the cross fertilisation of experiences and ideas has led to what one respondent called ‘the widening of the range of democratic tools for managing the common good and public decisions’.

    There have also been important impacts in terms of defeating or weakening neoliberal measures within pan-national institutions. The success of the ‘European no’ in France is the most notable. The weakening of the Bolkestein directive (the EU directive introducing market forces to essential services) was another example, although the objective was its abolition.

    On Iraq we did not stop the war but ‘we have punched big holes in the US’s ability to find allies,’ declared a community activist in Dublin, ‘and we have probably made the announced goal of an indefinitely long “war on terror”, going after one “rogue state” after another, untenable.’

    Finally, several responses stressed the importance of the impact of the movements and networks on everyday life, producing a pervasive challenge to the model of constant consumption and emphasising sustainability and ‘home production’.

    Where/how have we failed?

    Some people found the word failure inappropriate, either because ‘movements aim to move, and we are still in movement’ or because the achievement of very specific goals is too narrow a basis for assessing success or failure. Others had no hesitation in using the F word. A response from Moscow is stark: ‘We have failed. We are outsiders. Unless you break into the system of mainstream politics or/and destroy it altogether strategic change is not possible.’

    Other responses referred to the European movements’ failure effectively to fight against the war ‘with the Iraqi people or really act with the Palestinian civil society’. An activist from Florence made the general point that: ‘We have failed every time we don’t manage to put forward a positive proposal to match the ones we oppose.’

    What continuing problems do we face?

    In the survey, we listed a number of problems raised in discussions among Eurotopia partners: internal communication, mobility, accessibility – reaching beyond a movement/activist ghetto, language, democracy, inequalities within the movement. Some responses just said ‘All of these!’ – ‘plus,’ a Russian added, ‘the lack of resources (not just financial ones) in the east and the lack of understanding of the difficulties in the west.’

    Others spelt out the problems. There was considerable agreement about the problem of reaching out, connecting with ‘grassroots popular discontent’, going beyond ‘our people’. And several responses mentioned the problem of reproducing inequalities in terms of difficulties of access to our networks for migrants, the homeless and unemployed, for example.

    The publishers of Carta in Italy, one of Eurotopia’s partners, raised the problem of ‘news circulation’ (especially to and from Greece or Portugal or Poland) and the lack of a common political culture.

    Here we lag behind the EU: they have a common project for the continent – we don’t, yet.’ Others agreed with this in different ways: ‘We have not achieved a genuine “Europeanness”.’

    An activist in the Greek Network for Political and Social Rights was emphatic: ‘My organisation does not claim another Europe is possible. Another world, yes. We try not to identify ourselves as Europeans but as a hybrid – the old that comes from our national struggles and the new that does not uses national identities.’

    Where have we innovated to overcome these problems?

    Many respondents to our survey shared the view, as one activist described it, that ‘we had invented different ways to stay and act together, to establish relations, to find solutions by consensus, but still we don’t yet have an adequate new language to communicate in a broader way.’

    Several responses emphasised the new ways of combining research and activism, the new techno-political tools for communication, organisation and the systematisation of knowledge, at the same time reconceptualising the place of ‘intellectuals’. A number of responses highlighted the development of alternative systems of information to the mainstream media.

    How have we ourselves – our ways of organising, our culture, our awareness, our experience and our horizons – changed?

    Not everyone felt we had changed. ‘There are still the same power struggles between different groups,’ was one response. Others were more optimistic: ‘We are more open, more tolerant and we are much more able to work together than before.’

    This sentiment was echoed many times. Some related it directly to new ways of organising: ‘Through networks we’ve learnt to be together with people who are different. We’ve learnt to “contaminate” ourselves, learning from the cultures and practice and vision of the world of our travelling companions.’ This didn’t mean clear agreement on a single way forward: ‘We do not have a clear horizon any longer, but there is a lot of agreement that this horizon is to be built on the process of mobilisation.’

    What challenges are posed for the future of the ESF?

    ‘Our basic problem is expanding,’ declared a respondent from Greece. ‘Expanding to the east of Europe, expanding in terms of social depth so that we are in contact with the most excluded, the most flexible, precarious workers and the migrants, which we are not at present. This is the future of the forum.’

    Many agreed with this. A respondent involved in the first ESF drew out lessons for the future: ‘We need to find a more human “rhythm” for the meetings so that the main energies of social movements are not used up in constructing forums in which we discuss struggle at the expense of carrying out the struggles.’

    Writers from Carta presented a challenge: ‘It has to be more daring: dropping the idea of the national state as a useful tool, and starting to think on a truly continental scale. We need to build a stronger continental consciousness – that’s one of the purposes of Eurotopia.’

    Others stressed internal difficulties that many felt needed to be addressed, including ‘resolving the relationship between libertarian approaches and the methods of the organised left, which on several occasions has been disastrous. The aim of excluding the other group is not a realistic one, however complex the solutions needed to find a way of working together or at least in parallel.’

    Another response stressed: ‘We have still to face the problem of internal communication … The crucial need is for a clear decision-making process, which should be … as inclusive as possible.’ There was some anxiety about the amount of energy spent dealing with groups that operate as a block; others were calmly optimistic about the underlying democratic capacity of the ESF process: ‘After the failure of the attempt during the London ESF by certain groups to control power inside our movement, we have little to fear on the question of democracy.’

    Let the last word be from one of the Greek hosts of the last forum: ‘In developing common actions the forum is diverse and each component thinks differently about what is needed. This is the hybrid political and social personality of the forum. And there are no easy answers. Certainly it must be based on an alternative globalisation to avoid nostalgic nationalism. And certainly we need a renewal.’ Perhaps Athens will have helped to achieve it.

    This article is an edited version of an innovative, collaborative report produced using wiki software. You are invited to edit the material or add your own comments online. To do so, or to find out more about the survey responses and the activists who made them, visit

    Eurotopia is a group of radical democratic left publications from across Europe, including Red Pepper, inspired by the spirit of the social forums movement. For further information, visit

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