Europe: Continent beset with economic, social and political crisis

Workers start fight-back and search for a real socialist alternative

Over 70 representatives of sections and supporters of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa met in Belgium, from 2-9 December, to discuss the world situation in a period of deep capitalist crisis and when working people are facing intense attacks against their living standards.

We previously published a summary of the CWI International Executive Committee (IEC) meeting discussion on the ‘World economy and world relations’ and the statement on the current world situation adopted by the CWI IEC. Below we report on the discussion on Europe. Later this week, we will publish a summary of the discussion on Programme and Slogans (the Transitional Programme today).

Continent beset with economic, social and political crisis

While there is variation in the economic, social and political developments across Europe, no country has escaped the effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The CWI International Executive Committee (CWI) discussion examined the consequences of the situation for working class people and the struggles to defend living conditions in the face of attempts to make workers and young people pay the price of the crisis.

In his introduction to the discussion, Tony Saunois, International Secretary of the CWI, described the bleak economic outlook for the region. Perspectives for economic recovery in the short term are anaemic, at best, in some countries, and ruled out in others.

Where some governments claim ‘recovery’ this will not be a return to the levels of pre-‘credit crunch’ The weak growth in countries such as Germany is, in reality, jobless and based on short-term stimulus packages, such as the ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme and other specific measures.

The general picture is one of economic malaise, with soaring national debts and growing unemployment. In fact, the timing of the withdrawal of stimulus measures, which have staved off more prolonged economic crisis, at this stage, could be the trigger for a double dip.

During the discussion, Danny Byrne reported that Spain predicted a return to growth by 2011 and planned to withdraw stimulus packages by then – an indication of massive attacks on working class people. But the Spanish government has yet to encounter the main battalions of the Spanish working class and there is the potential for huge explosions in this situation.

Stimulus packages were introduced as knee-jerk reactions by governments attempting to prevent complete economic collapse. Tony pointed out how bank nationalisations do not represent a break with the neo-liberal policies of privatisation. The British government has stated its intention to sell of any profitable parts of the nationalised banking sector at the first possible moment. Encouraged by the anti-working class policies of the European Union (EU) institutions, the British and French governments are pursuing postal services privatisation.

Ireland and Spain, until very recently the ‘success stories’ of the EU, when economic growth soared, now face profound crises. The Irish government is borrowing €500 million a week and Spanish youth are confronted with 38% unemployment. Along with Portugal, Greece and Eastern Europe, they form an “arc of instability”. In a stark warning of what this situation could pose elsewhere, half the hospitals in Latvia have been closed and public sector pay has been cut by 40%, as the IMF demands brutal measures in return for an emergency loan.


Jobless and joyless

Behind Germany’s figures for overall national growth, the details of the situation betray the perspective of problems for the future, even in the short term. Aron explained that 30% of the factories in the south west, an area of mainly engineering and the car industry, will go bankrupt, described as, “Detroit coming to Stuttgart”. Overcapacity of 40-50% exists in the car industry but newer industries such as the high tech sector have also been hit hard.

With countries such as Iceland going bankrupt, elements of the instability associated with many Latin American economies had come to Europe. These can not only be seen in the dramatic shifts on the economic plane but also socially. A vivid picture of the misery being meted out to working people and youth was shown in the description of a strip of land outside Madrid, in Spain, previously one of the main beneficiaries of the boom, where a shanty town has now been established. Drug barons exploit up to 30,000 desperate people a day.

Cedric Gerome painted a devastating picture of Portugal, the ‘sick man’ of Europe. Thirty five years after winning independence from Portugal, Angola now sees immigrants form its former coloniser, with 60,000-100,000 Portuguese people seeking work in the former colony. Around 92% of Portuguese people see the economic prospects as bad and a majority are dissatisfied with life.

Sascha from Germany described some of the psychological consequences of the recession, with big increases in stress caused by the insecurity workers feel with regards to jobs and pay. A wave of suicides among employees at France Telecom and the widespread sympathy for the suicide of the goalkeeper for the German national football team are among the instances that illustrate the pressure people face.



No European government can claim long-term stability. It is impossible to speak of one stable or strong government. Some currently do not face a serious alternative and the lack of a working class political alternative weakens the working class’s potential to fight back. However, by placing the cost of the crisis on the backs of working and young people, governments will only deepen the crisis and will faced mass opposition and social explosions, at some stage. Angela Merkel’s government in Germany was recently re-elected but already the cracks are starting to show. The new labour minister, Franz Josef Jung, had to resign amid allegations of a cover-up relating to a deadly Nato air strike in Afghanistan.

In France, 64% of the population think that the government of Nicolas Sarkozy is going in the wrong direction. Despite state intervention to bail out the banks, the main direction of his administration has been a continuation with a vicious neo-liberal programme. Alex from France described the reality of 60,000 newly unemployed people waiting to be processed in the job centres, of a crisis of teacher shortages and of the general strikes that have taken place.

Even in Russia, where Putin enjoys 65% support, there are signs of growing tensions. Igor, from Moscow, described the resistance to state intervention from big business bosses and a potential for a split among the ruling elite.

‘Lesser evilism’ is a feature now, whereby hated governments are elected or maintain power on the basis of not being as hated or feared as the other capitalist parties. In Britain, New Labour, which is detested, might not face a total wipe out – simply on the basis that the Tories have shown intention in making savage social cuts over a shorter time span and there is also memory of how bad Thatcher was – but there is no significant difference between the two parties’ policies.

October 2009 saw the election of a new government in Greece. On the basis of the hatred of the right-wing government rather than on grounds of popular support for their policies, the social democratic party, PASOK, was elected. The other side of the PASOK victory was the weakness of the Left in Greece to respond to the crisis. Too often the left parties have limited their demands and programme.

With the shift of the former parties of social democracy to the right, in most countries working class people face a huge political vacuum. Where new left political formations have been initiated, such as with Syriza in Greece, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA – Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) in France and the Left Party (Die Linke) in Germany, a battle is being waged to secure them as parties of struggle.

Syriza had become a real reference point on the Greek left and at one stage had up to 18% support in the polls but received only 4.8% in the European elections. Nikos from Greece described how Syriza paid for its failure to play an active role in the struggles of the working class and youth. When the youth movements brought the country to a standstill, late 2008, Syriza was alone in supporting the young people but failed to actively engage and, as a result, lost support. The right-wing of Syriza was able to have an influence. But CWI members in Syriza participate in the ‘Second Wave’, a left bloc within Syriza, to attempt to democratise and restructure the party and to put it on a more political footing. The future of Syriza is not yet decided but it will depend on its ability to orientate to the struggles ahead.

The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA – Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) also suffered a fall in support in the European elections. Virginie from France described how the response of the leadership was not to engage in workers’ struggles and win support but to turn to the right. The extent of this lack of confidence in struggle can be seen in the NPA’s proposed programme for the next election. It is limited to putting demands on regional rather than national government – thus not raising real opposition to job cuts or pay freezes which require action by national government. CWI members are now participating in a left alternative in the NPA, arguing for a programme of struggle.

Judy Beishon described the process that is underway in Britain whereby the constituents of ‘No2EU-Yes to Democracy’, a electoral coalition involving a national trade union, the RMT transport workers’ union, which stood in the European elections, are discussing a coalition of trade unionists and socialists for the coming British general election.

Where workers have a left alternative there can be big support for socialist policies. One fifth of the Portuguese electorate voted for the Left Bloc and the Communist Party (CP). Unfortunately these parties now risk undermining support for the left and for socialism by failing to live up to their potential. The Left Bloc focuses on the electoral plane rather than engaging in working class struggle. The CP, despite gaining 40% in some important industrial areas, has not used its position to lead struggles.

Die Linke (Left Party, in Germany, has seen some electoral success and has been able to cut across the growth of the far-right to an extent on the national plane but has also dropped its anti-capitalism to an extent. The question of entering coalitions with capitalist parties is now posed. Die Linke would do well to study the lessons of the demise of the Refounded Communist Party (PRC) in Italy, where participation in capitalist government and the administering of cuts and attacks on the working class on the basis of so-called ‘pragmatism’, led to the party’s almost total collapse. It is now necessary for socialists in Italy to rebuild a fighting mass left. The CWI in Italy and supporters of Contra Corrente, along with left-wing trade union activists, will participate in a debate in one of Italy’s biggest union federations, Cgil, concerning a document calling for fighting trade unionism that was put forward by the metal workers’ union.


Sectarianism and racism

In Scotland, the SNP minority government, elected in 2007, evoked the idea of an arc of prosperity, made up of Ireland, Iceland and Norway. This image is now somewhat damaged. But Philip from Dundee predicted that the election of a Tory government in Westminster could see a sharp rise in the mood for independence.

In the absence of mass workers’ parties and decisive leadership from the trade unions, sectarian, racist and right-wing organisations have been able to gain an echo for their simplistic scape-goating of immigrants and minorities. Many of the main parties have given them legitimacy by taking up aspects of the racists’ programme.

Many towns in Northern Ireland have seen unemployment double and, as Gary explained, with one in three workers employed directly in the public sector, this is set to rise even further after the general election and when big cuts are announced. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 50% of children in Northern Ireland live below the poverty line. There has been a dramatic rise in sectarianism on the ground, with violence now spilling over into Belfast city centre.

In France, a debate on ‘national identity’ gives an opportunity for racist and far-right ideas to be aired. There is a mood for a Swiss-style anti-Muslim referendum on the question of minarets being agitated for by racist and far-right parties in Denmark and Austria.

In Italy, Berlusconi has adopted the programme of the neo-fascist Liga Nord wholesale and there are huge attacks on immigrants and on the working class in general.


What future for the EU?

Big strains will put on the institutions of the European Union due to the severity of the economic crisis. Between 2007 and 2010, eight million more people have been made unemployed in the Euro-zone and GDP is forecast to drop by 4% this year.

Joe Higgins MEP and the Socialist Party in Ireland were able to make the question of workers’ conditions the central question in the debate around the vote on the Lisbon Treaty in southern Ireland. Despite a very good ‘No’ campaign, the Treaty went through. Despite this ‘victory’ for the European bosses, the crisis is raising the possibility of countries such as Greece being forced out of the euro-zone.

Andros from Athens argued that it may prove very difficult for Greece to remain inside the euro-zone, given the constraints imposed by interest rates and the limitations on governments to devalue their currencies in short-term measures to avoid crisis. But Andros also explained that the Greek government would face difficulties should it be ejected. Previously when the Greek economy has been in a dire state the government bullied the Greek working class into accepting attacks on its conditions with the promise that making cuts would get it into the EU and that would be its salvation. This is no longer possible. And if the Greek government decided to come out of the euro-zone, it could no longer use the demands of EU legislation as an excuse for making cuts or privatising services.

A major question mark now hangs over EU expansion. Per-Åke from Sweden, who visited Latvia, described the disastrous economic situation in Latvia, which he recently visited. Latvia has gone from 9% growth to an 18% drop and unemployment is officially at 19.7%. The IMF is demanding swingeing cuts in exchange for a loan. Given the angry protests that have already taken place, the government is hesitant but has few options. The Latvian currency, the lat, is currently pegged to the euro in preparation for joining the Euro-zone. However, membership would limit Latvia’s options for dealing with the crisis and rule out devaluation.


Phases of struggle

Tony described how, in its response to the crisis, the working class has gone through different phases. There was, in many instances, an initial shock, as the horror of the economic crisis was felt. There was anger, as it became clear who would suffer the cost. There were big protests by students and pensioners in Ireland, in late 2008, and strikes and protests of public sector workers this year. In late 2008, we saw the youth movements in Greece. Sections of workers, denied their rights and faced with no other option, have made their anger and frustration clear. Sometimes desperate measures have been employed, such as ‘Bossnapping’ in France. Workers at French plants run by Sony, Caterpillar, 3M and German car parts maker, Continental, have held bosses hostage in protest against proposed job cuts and plant closures. In Vigo, in Spain, metal workers built barricades and clashed with riot police, as they defended their demonstration and went on strike over wages. In France, lorry drivers threatened to blow up their lorries when they faced being taken over by a low-paying employer.

Despite this, the development of struggles which have taken place has been limited, because of the cowardly role of the trade union leaders and a hope amongst a layer of workers that the crisis could be temporary. However, this will not last, as the effects of the crisis continue to hit and deepen. This will result in a new phase of struggle.

The participation of young and previously unorganised workers has also been a feature of the struggles, such as the workers who occupied the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight, Britain, and the Thomas Cooke travel agents in Dublin, Ireland. There have also been the student movements in Austria and Germany, which follow the university occupations and student protests of 2008 in Spain, Greece and Italy. In Germany, some of the students’ slogans have a class character: “Rich parents for all!” But in the absence of fighting leadership, a sense of fatalism could be sensed among the 5,000 students who protested in Latvia against increasing study fees, with one banner reading: “The last student to leave will turn out the light at the airport”!

In France, school students have taken up struggle and have not yet been defeated.

There has been a certain delay in a generalised response, as working-class people hope that things will revert to ‘normal’ and that this economic crisis is just a temporary blip. Of course, this misplaced hope is reinforced by reports of ‘green shoots’ and economic recovery promoted by governments desperate to avoid facing mass workers’ struggles.

Judy reported on the sharp increase in industrial struggle in Britain. Workers were forced to take action to defend their rights, even when the trade union leaders failed to support them, and there has been a series of occupations and strikes, some of which ignored vicious anti-trade union laws.


Testing times for trade union leaderships

The leaders of the Irish trade unions are currently being severely tested as the Irish government seeks a €4 billion cut in the budget. After two decades of ‘partnership’ deals between the trade unions and the Irish government, the union leadership and structures are ill-equipped for the epic battle to defend their members necessitated by the attacks. Irish workers have proved their huge anger and their desire for a movement in the mass participation by public sector workers in the strikes and demonstrations that have taken place so far. But now the trade union leadership has sold them out. In fact, they even proposed an offer of workers taking twelve days of unpaid holiday – a pay cut in a slightly different form!

But it is not only in Ireland where the trade union leadership has been found wanting. The need for working class organisations that are ‘fit for purpose’ in this period of onslaught against workers’ living standards is one of the tasks now posed.

Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP, described the preference of many trade union leaders to attempt a compromise with the bosses. But as Joe warned with a quote from the great Irish Marxist, James Connolly: “Timidity in the slave induces audacity in the tyrant”! The experience has been that where workers accept any reduction in pay and conditions the bosses will come back for more.

In Germany, where nine million workers will engage in wage negotiations next year, the metal workers’ trade union leaders are proposing a shorter working week with loss of pay as the only alternative to jobs cuts. The CWI demands a shorter working week but with no loss of pay, as one aspect of a programme against mass unemployment. The CWI puts forward a strategy of defending pay and conditions.

Els from Belgium reported on the struggle of the Bayer chemical workers in Antwerp. These workers were threatened with a four-year wage freeze and an attempt to lengthen the working week. A CWI member is in a leading position in the Bayer workers’ union and won support for the position that the workforce would accept neither a minute on the day nor a penny off the pay. The struggle was broadened out and won the support of the entire chemical industry in Antwerp and eventually of the trade union leadership.

No return to ‘normal’

In replying to the discussion on Europe, Niall Mulholland from the CWI’s International Secretariat, emphasised that we are still in the first phase of the crisis and its consequences and would be mistaken to think things will remain as they are.

The hangover from the collapse of Stalinism and the impact that had on mass consciousness is yet to be overcome, as is the blocking role played by many trade union leaders.

Surveys over the last year have shown that, despite the invitation from the like of Tony Blair to view ourselves as ‘middle class’, working class people are more conscious of their class position in society. Big sections of the middle classes are also being hammered by the crisis, with, for example, thousands of lawyers losing their jobs in the financial City of London.

Although class consciousness has still a long way to develop, the discussion showed the preparedness of big sections of working class people to fight against the attacks they face. As the lingering hopes of a return to ‘normal’ fade and an increased understanding of the joyless and jobless future takes root, mass struggles and opposition to capitalism will grow.

Nikos from Greece described the movements of the youth in late 2008. They were sparked by the shooting of a teenager by police but the underlying reasons were the living conditions of young people in work and education. While they may be extreme in Greece, with 25% unemployment and many jobs part-time, low-paid and precarious, the conditions of youth throughout Europe are rapidly catching up and similar movements are possible. In Ireland, a quarter will be taken from unemployment benefit for under 23 year-olds. This has not yet sparked mass opposition and protests but campaigns like Youth Fight for Jobs will provide a vehicle for young people to link up and fight back.

Joe Higgins made the point that now, when movements of the working class occur, the CWI’s programme of class struggle and for a socialist alternative is given more concrete meaning for working people and youth and wins a much wider echo.

The CWI will play an important role in the process of the radicalisation of workers and youth, with, for example, Joe Higgins in the European Parliament, CWI councillors in a number of European countries and with the emphasis that the CWI puts on mass struggle, through our roles in new left parties and in the trade unions.

As more and more people across Europe draw the conclusion that another way of organising society is required to end the waste and chaos of capitalism, increased numbers of workers and youth will look towards a socialist alternative.

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December 2009