Reunion with a twist: inheriting from Amsterdam and Seattle

Following CEO's EU in Crisis conference, we are sharing contributions from conference participants. At the conference, Gisela Dütting and Ailko van der Veen reflect on how social movements have developed since 1997.

The CEO/TNI conference “EU in crisis” felt like a reunion, even though many of the people were new. The atmosphere was the same as in 1997, during the activities around the Treaty of Amsterdam, where 50 000 people showed up for demonstrations supporting the Summit from Below. While there was already the beginning of a pan- European movement, who could foresee the European Social Forum, the protests in Prague, Gothenburg and Genoa, or the World Social Forum in 1997?

Just as in 1997, social movements are forced to react. Although the stakes seem to be the same as in 1997, the urgency is much more felt at the conference in Brussels. The sequence of political developments is fast in a tempo determined by the financial markets. While European politicians used to say that we should not expect quick changes as democracy takes lots of time, financial markets have changed the game. National constitutions are changed in weeks and EU decision-making on billions of euros is cleared in a few days. For the European Stability Mechanism, legal vehicles and procedures are fixed and approved within a few weeks.

Linking SAPs and EU austerity

In September 1994, World Bank officials celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Worldbank/ International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Madrid and activists from all over the world met in Madrid too, to protest the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). Spanish social movements and NGOs organised teach-ins and other activities. The international counter-conference was well attended and made it every day into the (inter)national press. At the end of each evening, all conference participants - led by the distinguished speakers - would march to the WorldBank / IMF hotel and sing Unhappy Birthday songs.

In 1994, we saw how destructive the economic policies dictated by World Bank and IMF had been in various African, Asian and Latin American countries. The campaign and the conference were called “50 Años bastan / Fifty years is enough”. At the same time, the social future of the European Union was at stake (with the Maastricht treaty on the Euro in 1992), and EU policies looked frightfully similar to the underlying economic models of Structural Adjustment Programs. Quite a number of the Unhappy Birthday singers joined the activities in Amsterdam in 1997. However, in 1997 we underestimated how quickly the shit would hit the fan and no one probably foresaw the role of the IMF in turning Europe’s economy around and making it safe for the banking industry.

Pan EU-activism after 1997

The activities of 1997 did not evolve into a strong pan European movement. Some networks like the Women for a Different Europe network, continued informally for a few years. Other networks, like Corporate Europe Observatory continued as separate organisations. Pan European activities like the Counter Summit in Cologne and the European Social Forum faded in their impact over time.

At the same time, the Just globalisation movement came up internationally, with Seattle in 1999 as its public start. While a lot of EU activists were directly involved, they found no space in the various international events, like the World Social Forum, to keep a special stream of European-based activism alive. Despite the enlargement of the European Union, the links with activists in East and Central Europe were (too) few. Positive exceptions were links within environmental movements, feminist and women’s initiatives, some youth / cultural initiatives and the more formal links between trade unions.

The context of 1997

In 1997, the unifying slogan was: “Towards a social, democratic, green, peaceful and feminist Europe”. The slogan, prepared by the Dutch NGO / social movement coalition was broadly debated, and reflected the views of the groups involved. All activists, belonging to the Dutch Platform towards a Different Europe, were specialists in their own fields, often the best informed on the European Union, but also the only ones with a critical and detailed view of the political developments in Europe. Although the theme attracted national and international press, the activities around the Treaty of Amsterdam (although located in the Netherlands) failed to attract a lot of people from the Netherlands itself. The campaign failed to mobilise on a significant scale simply because the theme had no political urgency for a broader audience.

One of the main themes in 1997 was the so-called democratic deficit of the European Union. It was clear that the European Parliament had a very limited role and decision power rested mainly with the European Commission and especially the European Council (the meetings of the national ministers). Activists were broadly divided between those who believed that the democratic deficit was beyond repair and those who believed that the EU institutions could be reformed. Especially as a majority of EU countries of that time had Labour / Socialist led governments, many activists believed that the European Union could be induced to enforce the highest standards on all countries. Among activists this is no longer the case: a debate on reforming the EU institutions, or striving towards a progressive EU Parliament is almost non-existent. Most activists see the extensive corruption, the collusion with big business and the absence in the EU institutions of a debate on alternative proposals as evidence. In all EU countries, social democratic parties (and many green parties) have voted in favour of bank bail-outs without conditions and in favour of Austerity Programs.

The general public in Europe is well aware of the paradox, that while the broad economic agenda in Europe is no longer determined by the national states, it is the national governments that have to negotiate with the European Commission and other EU institutions. The negotiations on austerity packages have national governments on one side of the table and the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF on the other side.

Reshuffling between 1997 and 2012

Inside the social movements, the overall analysis of the various crises in Europe has remained more or less the same. New is the feeling of urgency and a general feeling of doom and gloom. What has shifted are the political context, debates on each theme and the political weight of each theme and movement, as part of the whole.

For example, ecological themes have gained more visibility, in politics and among the general public in all countries in Europe. Various new streams of thought on the subject have emerged. The debate on the Green Economy shows one strand of activism and analysis that tries to include green initiatives within the mainstream economic models, leaning strongly on technical possibilities.

Overall, the feminist analysis has lost importance; neither the analysis itself nor the political movements have gained in strength and gendered economic thinking or feminist economics are almost invisible in the EU debates.

Interestingly, the peace movement has not been able to achieve substantial results, despite a high public support in Europe for anti-war movements. A variety of themes has been added to the discussions though: the new digital control over all citizens, the new (legal) possibilities for police repression, closer collaboration between police and army, and Frontex, coordinating border control.

In 1997, quite a number of the more radical trade unions and union activists attended. In 2012, the official public service branch of the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) is prominently present, and so are other trade union representatives. At the CEO / TNI Conference, the EPSU representative shied away from checking the audience on trade union membership; everyone would know the outcome of that mini-poll, but the root causes of this disjunction between EU activists and unionism are not debated. Maybe it is too painful, given the decreasing numbers of unionised workers across Europe, especially among the young, and the position of the ETUC on EU issues. What has totally been lost between 1997 and 2012 are references to “we, the workers”.

Migrant organisations were present in 1997 and in 2012 but not in numbers that could be expected by the heated debates on migration in the EU. Most self-organisations of migrants are fragmented on an ethnic basis and have very little national or pan European organisational power as yet.

Newcomers on the scene are development organisations, who were not included in 1997. In various EU countries, they have come aboard with their special expertise on debt. For example in Ireland, Jubilee is bringing its experience on odious debts, debt audits and other strategies from the global south to the EU.

The debate on the Tobin tax of 1997 has shifted to the FTT, the Financial Transactions Tax or the Robin Hood tax. Some groups within the EU establishment are now open to the FTT, but not the part that was so central in the debates on the Tobin tax: how to use the money, once the tax is levied. Similarly, there is a debate going on in various EU countries about breaking-up the banks but it is no longer a debate on how to make all banks function differently, including governance. Activists are talking about ‘Moving your money to a better bank’, no longer about socialising banks. All types of Marxist strategies have gone out of fashion, 1960s economic policies have made a come-back among journalists, economists and the general public.

One of the big steps forward in 2012 is that among activists, it is a shared conviction that going back to the previous welfare state is no longer possible. There is no nostalgia for an imagined past as it is obvious that the European welfare states rested on exploitation of social relations and social exclusion, on exploitation of nature and on exploitation of the global south. That type of welfare state is unsustainable. One speaker at the conference mentioned that this welfare state was unsustainable, simply because it has led to the present situation.


Activists in 2012 are speaking about undermining legitimacy and creating new narratives. It is recognised that politicians and bankers have lost credibility, and are hated by the general public up to a degree. Recently, Eurocrats have complained to their trade unions and to the Belgium government, that they have started feeling uncomfortable in Brussels, as some activists are singling them out, protesting EU decisions (one poster shows the slogan: use your tie, with a picture of a hanged Eurocrat).

The conclusion is however, that although politicians have lost credibility, it has not yet brought on something new. Neither are (ex) politicians scared for any type of (legal or other) repercussion. The EU narrative can still swing many ways as well.