Europe has sunk into a profound crisis but our politicians remain committed to the failed neoliberal policies of the past. In fact, the only way out of the crisis is through a Europe-wide social and solidary policy.
Brussels: the heart of Europe
I am writing this in Brussels, the capital of Europe. The crisis is affecting Brussels as it does other cities and countries in Europe. The reality of Brussels is not different from that of the rest of Europe. One in three inhabitants is living in poverty. Unemployment figures have risen above 20% and in some city quarters youth unemployment has reached 50%. The school dropout figure is 25% and both housing and health care are fast becoming unaffordable for many. The heart of Europe is ill and weak.
Burning red figures
Europe is caught in one of the worst crises of the last hundred years. What started as a crisis in the financial markets has evolved into an economic and social crisis. For 2013 a food crisis is expected and the energy crisis is just around the corner too. On top of that, the climate change crisis should not be neglected: the billions’ worth of damages caused by hurricane Sandy are a signal from nature. Our planet can no longer support our way of life – whether we deny it or not.
The figures themselves tell the whole story. We are facing the deepest income inequality ever since the distribution of wealth has started to be measured. The most recent figures released by Eurostat show that more than 18 million are unemployed in the eurozone alone. This is the highest figure since 1995. In southern Europe the unemployment figures are truly catastrophic. Poverty is on the rise: almost 25% of Europeans are likely to spend their entire lives in poverty.
All over Europe, thousands of jobs are being axed every single day. This translates into many more thousands of people who slip out of the middle and working classes and into precariousness and poverty. They can no longer pay their bills. The number of debt settlements is hallucinating.
It is not just manual labourers who are hit: the middle classes are shrinking fast: if this continues at the current rate, the middle class is doomed to disappear. Our society is being transformed into a sharply divided binary: a tiny ultra-rich elite and a gigantic poor underclass.
Let’s look at a concrete example – the ‘model’ which politicians all over Europe never tire to extol: Germany. ‘The Germans’ are indeed getting ever wealthier, but it is mainly the top segment of the population which is increasing its already considerable wealth. The wealthiest 10% owns more than half of the Total wealth of Germany, whereas the poorest 50% of the population between them has to divide 1 (one) percent of the wealth.
These figures hide human beings. In times of crisis, it is the weakest segment of society which is hit hardest. Take a look at the conditions of the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the youth and the migrants, especially in those countries which have been affected the most by now: their prospect for the future is a dead-end street, and a short one at that.
The crisis was caused by the excessive greed of a tiny elite, hungry for ever increasing profit margins and willing to that end to irresponsibly gamble with other people’s money and not shrinking away from any criminal and illegal acts. It is the shareholders, institutional investors, the banks and hedge funds and their ‘top managers’ who bear the main responsibility for the current humanitarian disaster. But they have been enabled to do so by the neoliberal international institutions and the local politicians in every country: they also bear a crushing responsibility. Yet none of them are called on to pay for their crimes and the crisis that they caused.
On the contrary, it is mostly the workers who are made to pay for the crisis. In Belgium alone, 1,000 people are made unemployed every month, with notorious peaks such as the 10,000 jobs axed directly and indirectly by the car multinational Ford Motor Company. Those who have not yet lost their employment are under immense and ever increasing pressure to be ever more productive for ever lower wages. The current wages of labourers and functionaries in Greece, Spain or Portugal are not even sufficient to survive, let alone have an actual life. Millions of Germans have been reduced to working poor. In Italy, the infamous troika (IMF, EC, ECB) has carried out a naked coup and placed their own Goldman Sachs man at the head of the government. The current head honcho of the IMF, Christine Lagarde is now demanding a ‘reform of the Belgian labour market’, which is not organised in a sufficiently neoliberal way to her taste. Although she somehow also concluded that ‘unemployment figures are on the low side’.
‘There is no alternative’ is the mantra endlessly repeated by our politicians, top managers and assorted talking heads in the mainstream media. The choice they have made is clear: those not responsible for causing the crisis are to be punished for it, so that those responsible for it can further increase their wealth and power.
Meanwhile, labour rights are lost and undermined everywhere and workers are reduced to replaceable, worthless, flexible pawns. Just like companies, they are supposed to compete with each other, both inside their own workplace and with workers all over the world. It is no coincidence that the main objective put forward by the EU is to become ‘the most competitive market in the world’. Competition is one of the core values of neoliberal capitalism.
Secure employment has become a thing of the past. For all workers. Not just for those starting out. Also for those who are in mid-career and for those about to retire. The social security system which has been built and maintained by the taxes and contributions paid by all workers over several generations, is being destroyed and sold out while we stand by and watch.
Striking is a duty
These facts and figures, this Europe-wide reality which is being imposed on us, means that action form our side is not only required – it is a positive duty which we urgently need to carry out, not just for ourselves and those of our generation, but for our children and their children. The unions have an important role to play here, as important and urgent a role as they ever have had in the past. It is down to the unions all over Europe to do what the workers have created them for: to take the side of the workers both in their own country and in all of Europe and indeed to show solidarity with workers all over the world.
Competition is the core value of the capitalist elite. The core value of the unions is the exact opposite: solidarity. No matter what their political hue is.
It is time for the unions to rise up and show – with concrete action – that the ongoing social destruction is unacceptable. Virtually all of the workers’ rights – and indeed of the human rights and democratic rights – which we enjoy today have literally been obtained with blood, sweat and tears. The unions have to choose the side of those who have worked for decades, contributing to a pension fund only to see it disappear through reckless speculation. Those workers have contributed the lions’ share to the Construction of the social security system and they are entitled to enjoy its benefits now. The unions have to take action too for the youth and the children: this generation is being fooled by the materialism and consumerism spoon-fed them by the corporate world, the media and the politicians – virtually blinding them for the fact that they have virtually no perspectives for any future employment, health care pensions or social mobility.
For a Europe which is social and solidary
The globalisation of our World has connected workers worldwide in a shared common struggle – whether they like or even recognise the fact or not. Despite the difficulties involved in cooperation and solidarity across geographic, political and cultural boundaries, there is no longer any alternative. The struggle against the antisocial neoliberal policies which are being implemented on the local, European and international levels can only succeed if we wage on the local, European and international levels too.
As the Belgian socialist workers’ union summarizes it in its slogan: ‘United we stand’. It is up to the unions to make up what they have largely failed to do in the recent past show solidarity, unity and raise a common voice throughout the whole of Europe on November 14th. We have felt and experienced the crisis and its severe consequences every day. Let’s now raise our voices and loudly express our call, the call of all workers united, the call of resistance, the call for a social and solidary Europe.
Bleri Lleshi is a political philosopher, activist and documentary maker
Translated from Dutch to English by Bart Peeters
This text will be published in ten other languages on this blog.