National Sections of the L5I:

Europe: Resistance returns

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When talking about Europe, bourgeois politicians never tire of pointing out that the crisis is not yet over. Well, that is certainly quite clear to workers, the unemployed, the youth and the pensioners who experience the crisis every day. In almost all southern and eastern European states, there is mass unemployment, which has forced the younger generation in particular out of the labour market. Social benefits have also been drastically slashed.

Economically, the EU has been teetering between recession and stagnation for four years. The goal of the "Lisbon agenda", to replace the United States as the world's number one economy by 2010, was clearly missed. The debt crisis was the direct consequence of the financial and economic crisis of 2007/08. Within the framework of the EU, German imperialism in particular was able to profit from the crisis. German capital was able to extend its dominant role in the internal market, weakening competing capitals and politically enforcing the austerity programme through budget cuts and credit restrictions.

The debt crisis reinforced the existing "Maastricht Treaty" with regard to budget deficits, which were tightened by the EU fiscal pact. This envisages a Europe-wide limit on government debt, following the German example.

After 2011, the "PIIGS"; Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, were the first countries to be subjected to the austerity programme. This was accompanied by drastic cuts in public services and in social benefits. There were even changes of government in Italy and Greece, with a “troika” imposed on Greece to ensure the savings targets of the EU bureaucracy were met.

This clearly shows who has to pay for the crisis of the banks and capital; the workers, the unemployed, pensioners and youth through systematic mass impoverishment.
But even in 2014 the crisis is not over; currently Italy, France and Belgium are in the midst of new cuts in social spending and other attacks. Thus, the crisis is drawing in wider circles and, for the first time since 2011, has begun to have a direct impact on the states of "Core Europe" such as France and Belgium.

Behind this is the drive of sections of European capital who are determined to challenge the United States as the "hegemon" of the imperialist order. To this end, there is now a new offensive of capital, but there is also a new wave of resistance by the organised labour movement. In Italy and Belgium, these new austerity measures by capital and State are meeting powerful and militant sections of the European proletariat. These are objectively in a position to fend off the attacks and to give the European resistance a new class struggle perspective.

Italy

Prime Minister Renzi has dubbed the attack on workers' rights the "Job Act". It provides for de facto abolition of employment protection and even more precarious working conditions. Renzi openly collaborated with the opposition leader Berlusconi to pass this Bill through the Senate. This happened on December 3, along with a vote of confidence in the incumbent Prime Minister. In this way, the Government made its own future dependent on the success of their attack on the rights of the workers.

The government is relying on two smaller bourgeois coalition partners: the "Citizen List", SC, set up by "transitional premier" Monti, and the “New Centre-Right”, NCD, a breakaway group from Berlusconi's “People of Freedom” party. So Renzi is pressing ahead with Monti's policy, whose main thrust is public service cuts. Salaries have now been frozen for 6 years. At the same time, 10 percent of the 3 million jobs have been axed. The raising of the retirement age, begun under Monti, has also continued. The only concession from the Renzi government was a tax relief of €80 for employees on less than €1,500 per month. This was presented as a “turning point” by most union leaders who, therefore, continue to support the government.

In early 2014, Renzi led a coup in the ruling Democratic Party (PD) that removed his party colleague, Letta. At first, the 39 year old Renzi was hailed as a reviver of the creaking parliamentary system, but his characterisation as the "Italian Tony Blair" showed what policies were to be expected.

The attacks were negotiated with the capitalists' association "Confindustria" and the heads of the trade union confederations CGIL and FIOM. This was similar to the "Alliance for Work" in Germany by which the ruling Social Democrats, from the outset, integrated the union leaders into attacking the rights of their members. In Italy, however, this policy was not accepted by the membership and CGIL and FIOM were forced to organise a one million strong demonstration against the attacks in Rome on 25 October.

This was repeated on November 14 with protests in at least 25 cities. On these protests, the COBAS, USB and CUB unions organised their own demonstrations. For the 5th December, all the trades unions called for an 8-hour general strike, shutting down both the public and the private sectors.

The open confrontation of the Renzi Government with the unions has created deep divisions between the ruling Democratic Party and parts of its base. When Renzi called for a support rally in Florence, where he was previously Mayor, only about 10,000 supporters turned out.

The mass actions in October and November were very militant. Motorway junctions and the Colosseum were occupied for hours by public transport workers in Rome. At the same time, there were also clashes between the unions. For example, CUB, Cobas and USB leaders were not allowed to speak at the central rally of FIOM and CGIL in Milan and were blocked from reaching the stage by the security service.

In this situation, the revolutionary left must relate directly to the resulting contradictions and divisions between, on the one hand, the CGIL and FIOM, and, on the other, the Democratic Party. The FIOM participated in the negotiation of the massive restructuring at FIAT and, far from developing any resistance, it did all it could to prevent it. Now these attacks are sharper and extended to include the entire working class.

However, the socialist left must also take on the sometimes sectarian politics of trade unions such as COBAS and openly call for a united front against the Renzi government, to lead the entire class in the resistance. It is not enough just to criticise the large trade unions such as CGIL and FIOM that are connected to the PD or to organise separate protests and demonstrations. These unions are trying to channel the protests into negotiations for minor "improvements" and this policy must be attacked with united action based on a common policy. Only in this way can the workers free themselves from the social partnership illusions of the CGIL and FIOM leaders and reshape their unions into fighting organisations against Renzi's attacks.

Organisations such as Sinistra Anticapitalista and other socialist leftists must actively intervene in these movements, ultimately with the aim of building a revolutionary party, based on a revolutionary programme and firmly anchored in the Italian working class that can break the subordination to the Democratic Party and the trade union leaders.

Protests in Belgium

Yesterday's general strike, which closed down virtually the whole country and cut international links by both air and rail, was the highest point so far in a wave of resistance that has been growing for several weeks. It is the working class reply to the formation of a new right conservative/neo-liberal government, whose first measure was a 10 percent pay cut in the civil service. In addition, the retirement age has been raised to 67 and the existing regulations that protect wages from inflation are to be withdrawn – workers are expected to lose over €330 a year on average.

On November 6, over 130,000 workers closed down the capital, Brussels. They occupied the building of the Employers' Association, FEB, and fought street battles with police after provocations by Nazis and "civilian officials". In the third week of November, there were limited strikes in different regions in Belgium, which shut down public transport.

The new government was installed after the minority government of the Walloon Socialist Party under premier Di Rupo collapsed. In the Belgian parliamentary system there is a Walloon and a Flemish chamber with similar Socialist, Christian Democrat and liberal groupings, but with a stronger Right in Flanders. In recent years, the right-wing extremist and separatist "Vlaams Belang" was an important factor.

This year, the right-wing populist NVA (New Flemish Alliance) became the most powerful force in the Flemish Chamber. It emerged from the Flemish conservative parties and became part of the new coalition government under party leader de Bever. Now, two liberal parties; the Walloon Reform Movement, MR, of the new premier Charles Michel and the Flemish Liberal Democrats, VLD, govern together with the Flemish Christian Democrats, CDV, and the right-wing populists.

Although there is no consensus within the government over the main demand of the NVA, which wants a medium term secession of Flanders, they were nonetheless united over the attacks on the Belgian working class. This is one of the best trade union organised working classes in Europe. According to various counts, the unions organise more than 3 million. In contrast to the party system, there are no regional divisions within the unions. There are two associations; the more Christian Social CSC/ACV and the "Socialist" oriented FGTB/ABVV. Although they have different names in the different parts of the country, they are able to mobilise together.

However, the rank and file of the trade unions and the left groups need to realise that they cannot win their fight under the leadership of either the Walloon PS of ex-premier di Rupo or the union leaders who only want to negotiate over the reforms. Even at the big demonstration in Brussels, di Rupo only complained that the Government had enforced these attacks "over the heads of the people", and the union leaders were singing the same song.

They want to resurrect the previously well established social partnership even with neo-Liberals and right-wing populists, not understanding why the Government precisely does not want to do that and is instead proposing "Thatcherism" for Belgium. The current government also pointed to the billions of euros of cuts made by Di Rupo during his time in office between 2011 and 2014. The Belgian working class needs to free itself from the domination of the PS, democratically control the strikes and all negotiations between the government and the trade union leaders.

The general strike on December 15 and the various regional mobilisations in Belgium offer the possibility for workers and activists to build their own strike committees, basing the resistance to the cuts in the population as a counterweight to the bureaucracy.

The social democratic PS and the union leaders want to use the strength of the Belgian working class only to revive the social partnership. However, the strength of the organised class also offers the option of opposing the cuts across all linguistic boundaries, and defeating the new Government.

Greece

The decision of the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, to bring forward the presidential election from February to this week might also appear to be a response to rising levels of street demonstrations in recent weeks.

Since the end of November, there have been sharp clashes between anarchists and the police. The reason is the hunger strike by the jailed anarchist Nikos Romanos, in protest at prison conditions. Nikos was a friend and comrade of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, who was murdered by the police in 2008. The confrontations included sporadic attacks on police stations that led to mass arrests and police further inflamed the situation by using their special powers against a demo of the physically impaired.

However, what prompted Samaras' action was not outbursts of street fighting but the likelihood that the election would otherwise have taken place in the midst of another financial crisis. Although Samaras just managed to put together a parliamentary majority for his 2015 budget last week and was allowed an extension of the deadline for repayment of debt by the European Central Bank, ECB, this only gave him a breathing space of two months. The deadline for the first repayment, of €2.5bn, now falls in March, to be followed by a total of a further €20bn by the end of next year.

In Greece, the President is elected by the parliament. Although the office is largely ceremonial, if parliament cannot agree a candidate after three rounds of elections, the constitution requires the parliament to be dissolved and general elections to be held. According to the opinion polls, if an election were held now, the left reformist party Syriza would certainly be the largest party and could even gain a parliamentary majority to form a government.

Given Syriza's past support for cancellation of the debt repayments and opposition to the austerity package imposed by the “Troika” of the ECB, the EU and the IMF, Samaras calculates that the possibility of a Syriza victory might be enough to scare a majority of parliamentarians to vote for his candidate, the former European Commissioner Stavros Dimas. However, this is a very high risk strategy. On the budget vote, Samaras mustered just 155 votes in a chamber of 300. To win in the first two of, at most, three rounds of election for the President, he needs 200, although “only” 180 in the third.

In all likelihood, therefore, Greek society is facing a return to acute crisis in the coming months. On top of internal political strife there will also be the inevitable pressure of the international money markets, forcing up the cost of Greek government borrowing. Indeed, some commentators, such as the Financial Times' John Dizard, are suggesting that the instability created by a Syriza victory and inability to repay debt on time could force Greece out of the Eurozone this time, and that this might be welcomed by the European authorities as a lesson to other states facing increasing pressure from their working classes.

The expectation is clear; a new government would have to enforce even tougher austerity measures than the country has already endured, either to be allowed to stay within the Eurozone or to defend the value of a restored drachma. But, if the crisis is all but inevitable, such an outcome is not. A united front of all the working class and Left organisations, committed to the building of delegate-based workers' councils that can mobilise millions to prevent the imposition of further austerity, could ensure a very different result. Revolutionaries in Greece need to fight not only for the building of such organisations but for them to be the basis of any new government, a workers' government.

Like their enemies, the bankers, the financiers and the Eurocrats, the Greek workers will need to think internationally, recognising the need not only to call for solidarity as international capital tries to break their resistance but for workers elsewhere in Europe to follow their lead. Particularly in countries that stand next in the firing line, like France and Italy, the ability of workers to defend what remains of past gains and to turn defensive struggles into offensive will be deeply influenced by the coming battles in Greece.

For a pan-European class struggle perspective

Against government and EU plans for austerity packages that will devastate living standards and turn the clock back decades, isolated or symbolic actions will not be enough. Here, too, the lessons from Greece, where there have been any number of demonstrations, strikes and even limited general strikes, have to be learnt by workers across the continent. The European working class needs a common perspective of class struggle, it needs common mass actions and a common programme against the EU bureaucracy, the Troika and against, in particular, German imperialism. That will be decisive! Understandable as anti-German slogans or paint bomb attacks on German embassies may be, what is much more important will be a common anti-capitalist revolutionary perspective of all European workers and the anti-capitalist Left.

Translated and updated from Neue Internationale 195, Berlin, December 2014

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