In Search of European Contentious Politics

Weak European Coordination

Contentious politics pertaining to the debasing of welfare services cannot be considered in isolation from the wider contestation against austerity policies which have been targeting European welfare states and industrial relations in the post-financial crisis context. When drawing the big picture, it appears that protest at the national level has been confined to certain countries and has had limited results, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand pan-European coordination has been weak.

Logically, protest has been most vigorous in the countries which have known drastic austerity plans. Everywhere, workers unions were part of the protest, especially the public sector workers who have been a main target of austerity plans and the conditionality attached to financial assistance from the ‘troika’ (IMF, ECB and EU Commission). Greece, of course, constitutes an extreme case. Between 2010 and 2013, the public sector union Anotati Diikisi Enoseon Dimosion Ypallilon (ADEDY), for example, took part in about 40 general strikes (PSI 2013). Not much changed afterwards, and the last general strike was conducted against the agreement found in July 2015 for the ultimate rescue avoiding a ‘grexit’ from the Eurozone. In Spain, a first austerity package adopted by the Prime Minister Zapatero in 2010 triggered strike action in the public sector. Every area has been affected by the cuts. In 2013, over 1000 musicians staged concerts in 16 Spanish cities in order to protest against cuts in support for orchestras and tax increases on cultural products. In March 2015, the education sector was massively mobilized in a strike against policies fostering privatization and cutting grants for underprivileged students. Since 2010, recurring mobilization in specific sectors was illustrated by symbolic colours: ‘health care employees organised a white protest wave (marea blanca), education employees a green wave (marea verde) and employees of the public administration a black one (marea negra)’ (Kohler and Caleja Gimenez 2013, p. 15). The improvement of welfare services and the fight against privatization has also been central in the protest movement which was initiated on 15 May 2011 by citizens claiming to be Indignados! (Dhaliwal 2012). In Portugal, massive demonstrations against austerity that gathered hundreds of thousands of people across the country in September 2012 were triggered by a call from a small group of activists. They were followed a few weeks later by two other demonstrations organized by the main union Confederagao Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses. Belgium and France, countries which were never under financial assistance and only enforced austerity measures with delay, also witnessed repeated demonstrations and protest actions against austerity. In November 2012, 30,000 people supported by unions as well as student and pensioner organizations rallied in Ljubljana to protest against austerity Since 2009, repeated protest actions took place in Ireland: they have been led by public sector workers, students, the Occupy movement or the movement ‘Ballyhea Says No’, a group of protesters who, from March 2011 onwards, have been performing a ‘no bailout march’ every Sunday after the mass in the village of Ballyhea located between Cork and Limerick. In contrast with the myth of a widely accepted neo-liberalism in the Baltic countries, Latvia witnessed large scale demonstrations since 2008, 2009 and up until 2015 involving notably healthcare workers, farmers and teachers (Sommers 2014). The list would be endless as virtually every EU country has witnessed contestation against austerity. Yet, such protest has been rather ineffective in stopping austerity policies and has had little or no impact on governments’ decisions across Europe.

This is (arguably) due to the fact that, while austerity has been defined as a political line at the EU level—with fiscal discipline being enforced through even more stringent policy instruments—protest was only very weakly Europeanized. For example, while a European network for welfare services was set up in 2006 in the framework of the European Social Forum (see Chap. 3, Sect. 1.3), no such transnational network could be detected in the post-crisis context. Although the ‘troika’ was taken as a target in the countries under financial assistance programmes, demonstrations and protest actions were mainly directed against national governments and national austerity plans. European transnational networks did not play a significant role. In France, for example, a national movement for the defence of welfare services continued to be active, with a demonstration in 2015 in Gueret, but the website of the movement displays no content related to Europe since 2011.[1] This is not to say that, more generally, nothing happened at the scale of the EU. Over the past decade, the ETUC has expressed an increasingly critical stance towards EU policies and rejected for the first time an EU treaty when Member States agreed upon the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, known as the ‘fiscal compact’. A main claim of ETUC was that

The need for economic governance is being used as a means of restricting negotiating mechanisms and results, attacking industrial relations systems and put downward pressure on collectively agreed wage levels; to weaken social protection and the right to strike and privatise welfare services. The





29 September 2010

Demonstration in Brussels: participation of 30 European organizations

Demonstrations in 12 European cities

'No to austerity— priority for jobs and growth!'

100,000a people in Brussels

10 March 2011

Demonstration in Brussels: mainly Belgian organizations + Euro-demonstration on 9 April 2011 in Budapest

Various uncoordinated demonstrations in March and April: London, France, Spain, Germany

'No to austerity plans in Europe'


'No to austerity, for a social Europe, for fair pay and for jobs'

50,000 people, 45

organizations from 22 countries15

29 February 2012 & 14 November 2012

Decentralized European day of action: demonstrations in Spain, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon and Athens Decentralized European day of action and solidarity

'Enough is enough! Alternatives do exist. For employment and social justice!'

'For jobs and solidarity in Europe. No to austerity'


14 March 2013

European Trade Union Action

Various uncoordinated demonstrations throughout March in Austria, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, UK



Demonstration in Brussels with participation of union leaders from: Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, UK

Source'. ETUC,

aAccording to Jo§l Decaillon, Deputy Secretary General of ETUC, 'Apres la journee d'action et I'euro-manifestation du 29 septembre 2010 a Bruxelles', Espaces Marx,, date accessed 19 November 2015. bRTBF, 'Budapest: 50,000 manifestants pour une Europe plus sociale',, accessed 15 November 2015.

ETUC actively resists these attacks, which, cumulated over the years, will dismantle a social model which is unique in the world. The wrong and socially harmful German initiatives such as Agenda 2010 or increasing the retirement age should not be imposed on other European countries. (ETUC 2012)

While the PSI and EPSU have systematically supported mobilization of national unions, the main pan-European form of mobilization has been the European days of action called by the ETUC since 2010. Table 6.3 gives indications as to the nature of union mobilization for the European days of action organized between 2010 and 2013. Looking at the various actions, we can suppose that, due to declining centralized mobilization in 2011, the European confederation decided to call for decentralized actions in 2012, as opposed to rallies in Brussels (or elsewhere).

In fact, at its 2011 congress in Athens the ETUC adopted a proposal for a pan-European strike, an ambitious plan which was planned for the European day of action of14 November 2012. Scholarly assessments vary with regard to the success of this action day. Dufresne and Pernot (2013) stress that, for the first time in the history of the labour movement, an inter-sectoral transnational strike took place in six European countries.[2] [3] They nevertheless point out that participation in the European day of action was differentiated across three clusters of EU Member States: southern countries which were largely striking; France and central and eastern European countries where many workers and people rallied for demonstrations; and northern European countries where unions organized meetings and mainly symbolic actions aimed at expressing solidarity towards the countries hit by the crisis. In fact, it is difficult to find a trace of the 2012 European day of action in the media. Rather, it is manifestations of violence in Spain and elsewhere which attracted their attention.11 There is no indication that European days have been organized by the ETUC after 2013. Over the past year, ETUC and EPSU have focused to a large extent on protest against the TTIP. Although it is fair for them to surf on the new wave of discontent towards global capi?talism, which the TTIP embodies, workers’ rights and welfare services do not seem to be the prevailing subjects of concern in the debate. To sum up, although workers have mobilized Europe-wide to a fair extent, it has been difficult to articulate and coordinate a European, transnational contestation against austerity in general, and attacks on welfare services, in particular.

Beyond traditional organizations of the labour movement, the main new aspect of contentious politics in relation with the financial crisis has been the eruption of spontaneous movements such as Occupy, the Indignados or smaller local groups and actions led by ordinary citizens and young people who were not necessarily involved in political activism prior to the crisis. A group of scholars have called these movements ‘subterranean’ in order to illustrate their underground nature as opposed to established forms of contentious politics led by unions or well-known associations and NGOs (Kaldor et al. 2013). Although the calls for the protection and even the development of welfare services are very much present in the discourse of these new movements, their claims relate in the first place to the quality of democracy. The common ground of all the movements which have flourished since 2008 is a call for new forms of democracy which radically differ from ‘politics as usual’. This implies a deeply rooted hostility towards representative institutions and established organizations such as political parties and unions, which are often seen as confiscators of democracy. From an organizational and cultural point of view, these groups are mainly local and cherish horizontality, internal democracy, autonomy and creativity. A second key aspect is that Europe appears to be almost irrelevant, not only as a topic but also as an arena for mobilization. While the ‘troika’ has been a main target of such anti-austerity movements, the EU appears amalgamated into the compound of multinational banks and international organizations which have significant power but are democratically unaccountable. Contrary to former movements, the EU institutions are not being specifically targeted as decision-making political bodies. This is a major difference compared with the global justice movement, which had endeavoured to build another Europe by making transnational networks the laboratory of a transnational, European democracy. A consequence of all this has been an overall poor degree of transnational coordination. The Indignados or the movement Democracia real ya! (real democracy now) were emulated in Portugal, Greece and France but transnational coordination was weak. Prolonging the many marches throughout Spain, a small contingent of Indignados undertook to march to Brussels, starting in July in Madrid and arriving in Belgium in October. On their way through France and Belgium, the activists collected claims and grievances in the ‘book of the people’, an 8-page document dealing (in three languages), among other things, with democracy, the environment, politics, social policy and human rights.[4] In this book, the defence of welfare services and stopping privatizations is one of the many claims made. The book was supposed to be handed in symbolically to the European Parliament, but the group of 30 activists who intended to enter the building of the Parliament was stopped by the security services. Eventually, a group of seven could meet MEPs. Interestingly, the then Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Lazlo Andor, tried to set up a meeting with the activists in Brussels, possibly in the square where they planned to camp, given that there would be ‘a minimum of things to talk about’, for example, EU policy in the area of unemployment and jobs.[5] Yet, there is no evidence that such a meeting ever took place. According to Pianta and Gerbaudo (2013):

The relevance of Europe in all these actions appears to be minimal. In the original policy platform of the main Spanish group, Democracia Real Ya, the only direct mention of the European Union is the request for ‘compulsory referenda on laws imposed by the European Union’. There is no talk of more or less integration and any other reform at the European level. Another measure with continental repercussions is the request to introduce the Tobin Tax on financial transactions, petitioning against banks’ malpractices and tax havens. The platform also asks for substantial welfare reforms such as the reintroduction of a euro subsidy for those out of work, but all these requests are made at the national level. The assemblies, the other main actor in the indignados movement, only managed to approve a minimum consensus document which was the product of a very tortuous process of elaboration and is not very substantive in terms of policy proposals.

The connection between the movement and EU decision making was weak. At the main rally on the 15 October 2011, approximately 7000 people marched through Brussels: while the march passed near to the EU headquarters in the Schumann area, the loudest manifestations of protest were directed at the symbols of economic and financial power as demonstrators threw shoes at the old stock exchange building in the centre of Brussels (Bourse) or expressed hostility when passing by the buildings of large international banks.[6] In addition to relatively low numbers, the march to Europe attracted only scant media attention outside of Brussels. Examining the various forms of diffusion of anti-austerity protest, social- movements scholars conclude to a shift, from thick transnational movements illustrated by the global justice movement to thin transnational mobilization reflected in anti-austerity movements (Mattoni and della Porta 2014). Insofar, there is clearly a departure from a model of contentious politics in Europe based on articulated policy demands made in the framework of coordinated transnational networks in conjunction with established organizations (parties and unions) and targeting EU institutions as the relevant locus of power and decision making. While the broad austerity agenda has been increasingly coordinated at the EU level, the possibility to resist the direct and indirect targeting of welfare services has been largely precluded in such a broader environment for contentious politics. This has been furthermore underpinned by the dominant discourse interpreting the crisis.

  • [1] See, date accessed 19 November 2015.
  • [2] Belgium (French-speaking part), Greece, Italy, Lithuania (transport sector only), Portugal, Spain.
  • [3] ‘Europe’s day of anti-austerity strikes and protests turn violent—as it happened’, The Guardian.,14 November 2014,, accessed 26 August 2015.
  • [4] ‘Marche des indignes a Bruxelles. Cahier de doleances. Marchas Indignadas in Brusselas. Libro delos pueblos. The indignant marches to Brussels. Book of the people’,, date accessed 28 August 2015.
  • [5] ‘EU commission willing to meet ‘Indignados’ in Brussels’, EUobserver, 14 October 2011,, date accessed 18 August 2015.
  • [6] ‘7000 Indignes manifestent a Bruxelles’, RTBF,, date accessed 28 August 2015.
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