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Ireland and Europe - Alternatives to Neoliberalism

28 February 2006

Kevin Keating

The above conference organised by the Campaign Against the EU Constitution took place in Liberty Hall on Saturday Feb. 18th. 

The main speaker was the author Susan George. The focus of the conference was that EU Directives, like those for transport, energy and postal services, would open the door to enforced privatisation, lead to price rises, reductions in quality of service, job losses and wage cuts. McCreevey’s Services Directive (Bolkenstein) would bring pressure to reduce wages and standards to the lowest levels in the EU - a real race to the bottom.

The conference was representative of the broad campaign being waged against the EU services directive to open services to bidding from across Europe.  This pressure to deregulate and privatise would be given added force by the proposed Bolkenstein directive proposing that, when workers moved from one country to another to work, the wages and conditions of the native country would apply, effectively pushing wages and condition down to those of the poorest province in Eastern Europe – the mechanism behind the Irish Ferries struggle. Susan George predicted that success for European bosses would mean a society with a comfortable 20% affluent and 80% of the population living in penury.

Opponents had grouped into a European network of NGOs, trade unions and political activists and had held a mass rally at the European parliament to force changes to the services directive, claiming that they had weakened the directives and blunted the offensives.

This lobbying activity and the claims arising from it pointed up serious political weaknesses in the campaign.  The speakers ignored the fact that the European parliament is not the ruling body, coming behind the Brussels secretariat and the council of ministers.  The focus on parliament tended to distract from the fact that the processes of deregulation and privatisation were being applied at the shop floor across Europe and that the current procedures and structures of the EU were perfectly able to support the bosses offensive. As a result the coalition, perfectly adequate for lobbying, lacked the structures and policies necessary to build working-class resistance.

These contradictions were present in the discussion.  All were aware that the Irish Ferries offensive had not needed any new directive. Teachers and health workers were able to document similar ongoing offensives in Education and Health in Ireland.  In a struggle in Sweden, where Latvian construction workers are being paid below the minimum wage, it seems likely that the courts will find against the Swedish trade unions without any new directive.

In fact the movement has two fatal flaws.  One is its unwillingness to see the working class as the basis of resistance.  Susan George said that it was too soon to build a new left movement, but by default that meant that the movement ended up basing itself on the existing social democratic organisations and the trade union bureaucracies.  This led to the second contradiction, that many of the ‘opposition’ were complicit in the offensive.  The afternoon session was chaired by Jack O’Connor of SIPTU, whose decades of social partnership have paved the way for privatisation and deregulation, who oversaw the Irish Ferries defeat and who is at present negotiating a new deal that will usher in a new wave of job and wage cuts in Ireland!

The fact is that Irish Ferries saw at least a limited mobilisation by Irish workers. These mobilisations have the power to push back the bosses offensive.  Movements committed to parliamentary lobbying and collaboration with the trade union leaderships will simply be unable to meet the challenges of future struggles.


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