EPA in Vienna – ESF: a Leftist Kindergarten or Social Movement Cooperation

Tord Björk | ESF,Friends of the Earth,Travel | Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

The European Preparatory Assembly (EPA) for next European Social Forum to be held in Istanbul 2010 took place in Vienna in June. In short it was a step backward in spite of Austrian great efforts to strengthen the process. In Turkey the key organization and people that have carried on the preparations so far for almost two years have stepped aside and new people and organizations took over. Central is a committee of five trade unions. The new Turkish cooperation partners said no to strengthen the preparations and the momentum have at least temporarily been broken. The network meetings were few and not well attended but with soem good results as the CEE network. The Climate change network meeting also resulted in a useful outcome stressing the need for cooperation between different movements and constructive programs that can address both climate and job crisis.

I arrived early with the night train from Berlin. Things had changed completely. I needed a telephone book to find a number and address but was told that this did not exist anymore. Nor were there any internet cafés open at the Westbahnhof or nearby. It took me many hours to sort things out. Global 2000 was a great help. This organization is a member of Friends of the Earth. Last time I visited them the office was placed quite far out, filled with activist equipment, placards and the like. This time there was a new office closer to the centre in some less luxurious blocks easy accessible. This saved me and my need to use internet. I also bumped into an office meeting and made a report from FOEE AGM. Global 2000 is an effective NGO with many professionals in the staff working on controversial issues as GMO and nuclear power. There was a sense that the contact with lay activists had been lost and now needed more emphasis. There was a sense of rationality in the air, of high level intellectual and goal-oriented professional action reaching out to the political consumer. Quite far away from the less resourceful Friends of the Earth Sweden.

Finally I found Leo Gabriel from the Austrian Social Forum who had invited me at the anti-racist rally outside the parliament.  Austria have continued to make more and more strict laws against the interest of refugees and immigrants. Also people accused of having a fascist and antisemitic background were members of the parliament and Jews were amongst the protesters in the anti-racist rally which gathered a very large number of participants.

Among the demonstrators was a Swede according to Leo. He presented me to Peter Kreisky who was brought up in Sweden during the war when his father was a refugee.

We talked about the can company Felix were Peter worked as a boy while his father Bruno struggled in the exile resistance against fascism. It was nice to meet someone so well acquainted with Sweden down in the emperors city which Sweden as so many others failed to conquer in its imperialist days. Here the Mongols, Turks and Swedes have failed, only Hitler was well received and could conquer the city without any resistance after the fascists had massacred the workers movement with the Ottakring district as one of the last strongholds for the workers in 1934.


The EPA meeting took place in a Volkhochschule, a People´s high school in the midst of the old worker´s Ottakring district of Vienna established in 1905. It was a hundred years old and still a busy place were people go and learn things, in the old days both workers and women’s liberation activists and today participants in “democratic and intercultural” education. It is one of the oldest schools for education of after adulthood inspired by the Danish peoples high school movement and celebrated equally by social democrats and communists.

Here we entered among the many busy students. The network meetings took place in smaller appropriate rooms. Attendance was low compared to earlier EPAs. The environmental climate meetings though got for the first time a wide interest from others than environmentalist, small farmers and climate campaigners. We were very few from these movements, basically myself from Friends of the Earth Sweden and Alexandra Strickner from Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy and Attac. The Danish delegation from Climate Forum 09 would arrive later to the plenary session on Saturday. Some 40 people attended interested to hear about the preparations for the Copenhagen Summit. The divergence became very clear. Trade unionists from Belgium were especially ambitious in the practical planning. A train for some 700 people was in the preparation for participants to go from Brussels to Copenhagen and the Summit Summit in December. They also stated their political purpose clearly. It was only to support the politicians. This is in strong contrast with the different actions and the Climate Forum 09 that is in preparation. Here the basis are political platforms with specific demands both for constructive solutions and against solutions that will have a negative effect on both environment and social justice. It is clear that participants in the ESF-process have very divergent agendas.

Still yet the network meeting could conclude in making a statement that is useful in the preparations to promote political goals that hitherto have been marginalised. Political goals that are important for building alliances between different movements and for reaching out to the general public. The political demand was to focus on the need for a constructive solution to the climate crisis that will bring about jobs. So far in the preparations the radical activists in the consensus process used in the Climate Justice Action network have blocked this demand from getting wider support. The environmental NGOs tend also to see this demand as marginal and the radical environmental groups tend to focus on degrowth in a socially neutral way and thus also avoiding this issue. Only in the ESF process has it been possible to get a broader support among different movement for this demand.

The next day the European Preparatory meeting started. The main hall were this meeting took place was impressive, once financed by the baron Rotchild who saw the need in supporting education of workers. The assembly was dominated by a struggle between the Austrian organisers and Western Europeans, mainly French attempts at questioning the leadership of the meeting. Under the surface was the fact of the change in leadership of the Turkish Organizing Committee.

The Austrian organisers had untactically named its proposal for a European preparatory group European Organizing Committee. Thus the name was the same as that of the organisers in the host country which is normally also called organizing committee. Such labelling caused confusion. There was also not enough flexibility from the Austrian side once the criticism was expressed although in the end willingness to change the name. The label European Organizing Committee was kept in the discussion to long in spite of that it was not intended to have the same postion visavi ESF as the organizing committee of the host country/ies.

Probably the Austrians felt that their proposals was in the interest of all. They had especially gone to Istanbul to meet the new TOC and present their idea of the need of a European preparatory group that continously could help the Turkish preparations.and that the Turks had agreed to the idea. The need for a better organisation have been clearly seen in the preparation for the ESF 2008 in Malmö. There are numerous practical tasks left without follow-up between the ESFs. The haphazardous way important things as supporting CEE participation, fund-rasing or spreading of information is managed causes severe unnecessary problem. The fact that most ESFs have left big debts behind of hundreds of thousands Euros shows that there is something basically wrong in the preparation process.

But no arguments helped. The TOC opinion, if they ever accepted the Austrian idea in the first place at the visit in Istanbul, was now that they did not want any European group that continously helped with the preparations whatever label it had. To talk to the TOC representatives was as talking to empty eyes. I must admit that it made me very uneasy to sense this lack of interest in practical preparations. It was not only disinterest in the idea of setting up a European preparatory group. Worse was the disinterest in any specific practical experiences from preparing a ESF. As experience tells us that to start in advance is crucial to many aspects as fund-rasing, CEE participation, getting new groups involved etc it was discouraging to to feel that the new TOC tin the hands of trade unions was disinterested in not only a group but also specific ideas and practical needs of immediate nature for improving the organizing of next ESF

Discouraging was also the unqualified assessment of the ESF in Malmö. The practical problems with dispersed localities and unsufficient number of volunteers for organizing the event are well-known facts. In the case of the localities it is trivial. As there were no other option than Malmö to place ESF and as there were no other localities to be found in this small city there were no alternatives. The lack of volunteers could have been different. When similar or higher amounts of people took part in the activities at the EU Summit in Gothenburg these problems did not occur (instead the police caused severe problems). The trade unions and Attac who dominated the board of the Nordic Organizing Committee had chosen a model for the preparations that promoted professionalization and thus activists were marginalised and the mobilization of volunteers failed. The Swedish trade unions were as disinterested in practical preparations as now it seems that the trade union dominated TOC is.

Criticism on these practical matters are well deserved and not much to be embarrassed about. What is discouraging is that the ESF in Malmö also was in general dismissed politically as well. This is false. The assessments made by a large number of groups states the opposite. This becomes obvious when reading some 2000 reports on the internet about ESF in Malmö including many from outside the Nordic countries. More or less all movements report from Malmö that it was a political step forward for them and for cooperation with other movements. What was lacking was a general political debate about the connection of issues and the different crisis. But this was stopped not by the Nordic organizations but by a French intervention against a Via Campesina proposal at a European programme meeting. The political attack on the Nordic organisers coming to a large degree from French delegates is misdirected. It became clear in the discussion that few of the EPA delegates build their judgements on serious analysis and studies. Instead superficial opportunistic arguments dominates the discussion which do not bring the ESF process forward. The experience from the ESF 2008 preparations is also that many Western European organisations claim interest in supporting the practical preparation including funding of the Solidarity fund and then afterwards quickly forget it while an overdimensioned interest instead is put into discussing the programme at high costs at special meetings outside the EPAs.

The Austrians had done a lot of effort in preparing the event. They made strong effort in translation and had interpreters organised. They also made a lot of fund-raising for CEE participants. Thus the tradition to maintain a strong CEE presence in the process from the ESF 2008 process was maintained. The journey to meet the new TOC in Istanbul also shows a clear committment to the practical needs of preparing next ESF. Instead of seeing the psoitive side of these efforts and the need to enforce the practical preparation the meeting tended to act in a rather disgraceful manner. Partly this was due to inflexibility from the Austrian chair but it certainly could have been done in another way. In practice the meeting ended with that the secretary took over and the Austrian leadership of the meeting was put aside.

If the discussions in plenary were discouring the discussions in the corridors was much more so. Thanks god for not being a leftists! I do not mind cooperating with the left and as independent of them I tend to be told all bad things about the others. My own experience is that all strands have positive aspects and that the way criticism against the others are handled sometimes become comical and a way to avoid the problems the own left-wing tendency have. What happened was a big shift in the view of the former main collaboration partners in Turkey. A key organisation in the former TOC was the Socialist Workers Party in Turkey, SWP. Their main strength had been in building broader coalitions working against war and also campaigning on climate change. Now when the power relations shifted in Turkey suddenly many reminded themselves of hw this trotskyist tendency which SWP belongs too was an obstacle to many in different parts of Europe. Whether this was relevant for the case of Turkey seemed not of interest. My experience of the SWP tendency in different countries is different from situation. I do ot like the opportunistic tendency to put only one issue a a time as the only important thing but the activist commitment is many time sincere and important in a European political were politics more and more is based on dependence of donors, a problem which is very clear in the environmental movement. My experience as coordinator of the European contact group for ESF 2008 is that the former TOC was a great help in the preparations that time upon time helped out in practical problematic situations, directly contrary to the experiences which now was brought up from other countries. Two times I also visited EPA meetings in Istanbul and both times it was clear that the participation from  environmentalists and other kind of movements was broad. The climate change network meeting had 55 participants, larger than any other environmental network meeting during EPAs that I know of. The discussion also had a high level, more so than in Vienna. It is as if the left that dominates the EPA process opportunistically changes its assessments according to who is in power and not according to principles and relevant serious judgement.

Now what caused the split in Turkey was never really clear. The SWP people stated that it was political and part of a great split in the whole left in Turkey and due to the developments when five trade unions established a  special committee within TOC to guide the work. Thus they saw both political developments outside TOC and thus only informally connected to the ESF process as well as the formal aspects within TOC as an argument for leaving their active participation. The new TOC organisers claimed that the informal political aspects was irrelevant and at the formal level that SWP at first had agreed to the new group of five trade unions as guiding and not controlling the TOC. Only when, in the new situation, SWP people presented the idea that some of them should be part of the professional staff to prepare ESF and were refused so the SWP left. The two stories are not necessarily contradictory. What is illogical is the way the new TOC treats the two similar ideas to have guiding groups supporting TOC, in one case consisting of five Turkish trade union, in the other case European organisations helping with the preparation. In the case of the five trade unions guiding group this is not only willingly accepted but also claimed to be of no importance for the possibility for TOC to have a open and democratic decision process. In the case of an All-European support group the claims are exactly the opposite and the idea bluntly refused.

My role at the meeting was rather ungrateful. I reported about the bankruptcy of the Nordic organisers after ESF and the failure in paying the costs of Babels and cultural workers as well as others. This issue is something I might come back to in later contribution on my blog socialforumjourney. The reactions on the report were firstly to the point but after a while there were tendencies to state things against a position that was claimed to be ours in the Nordic countries when it fact in was a speculation made by the person thus enabling himself or herself to make a stronger statement against a non-existant position. It was also discouraging to sense a lack of interest in being committed to the idea to expand the ESF process to the Nordic countries. It was if the challenge to integrate the Nordic experiences was a to hard task for the original initiators of the ESF process in Southern Europe and that they now gladly retracted back to the Mediterranean waters.

In my role as one of the few environmentalists it was more fun. The statements on climate change and job-creation in plenary and in the network meeting is most helpful. I found two French delegates that helped my out a lot with the climate network meeting. As I have a private ”campaign” blaming more or less all bad things about the ESF process on the French it was lovely to find some French delegates who both talked and did things in a focused and  efficient way. It is nice to get my prejudices contradicted. So it was when reading the reports from ESF in Malmö. No country had as diverging reports as those in France. Both experienced activists as Christophe Aguiton and young activists as one contributor to L’Humanité had strong positive evaluation of ESF 2008, in L’Humanité the message was that Malmö was young and energetic. In not other country were the opnions as contradictory and strongly expressed as in France to my knowledge. But the positive judgements now seemed wiped away from the minds of the French.

Conclusions are hard to make. My obsession with the problems dealing with a consensus process in practice dominated by internal French positions that quite often are contradictory was met by a commentator from the old TOC, this is a French affair and it is just to love it or leave it. Another Greek comment was that ESF 2101 will be a Turkish affair and that this is good. The Turkish mass organisations have the capacity to carry out the task well practically. To a large degree this EPA behaved as a leftist kindergarten.

In general the kind of movement that participate in the ESF process are of utmost importance for the strand of the environmental movement that I belong to. Many environmental organisations only focus on environmental issues and often only on lobbying. My strand sees the necessity of alliances between different social movements. In the preparations for the Climate summit and the building of a movement of movements for climate justice this is of great importance. In the ESF process there are both in Eastern and Western Europe many of the only really existing social movements able and actively interested in building such alliances. But that the dominant leftist forces sees the trade unions as the cardinal and unquestionable central movement creates problems, also for the trade unions that in this way are not confronted with the need to treat other movements as equal cooperation partners.

What was really fun was to meet all the CEE participants, the famous Matyas Benyik and Endre Simo from Hungary, Peter Damo from Romania, Mirek Prokes as always administrating all our needs for minutes and order in the papers, the nicely provocative Alla Glinchikova from Russia as well as  Svetlana and Yulia from Law Institute in Moscow. Together with the Austrian pacifist Mathias Reichl and the Russian women the EPA meeting in Vienna ended with all the human benefits that one can get out of political meetings.

We talked a lot about Stanislav Markelov from the Law Institute in Moscow that did so much for the ESF process at the EPA meeting in Kiev and as a strong advocate for Caucasian cases at ESF in Malmö. He was murdered in January directly outside the court building in Moscow together with the young activists Anastasia Baburova directly after a trial against someone accused of human rights violation in Chechnya. It was clear that is very hard to replace this very committed lawyer who have helped so many social movements in Russia. We strolled along the streets in Vienna guided by our Austrian friend, went to the empress castle and looked at an exhibition of paintings and drawings from the time of Rembrandt. This made me leave Vienna in a nice mood.

PS You can read about Stanislav’s adventures during ESF at the mayors dinner and with the police on this blog: http://www.aktivism.info/socialforumjourney/?p=142

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