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Public Services in Europe: from privatisation to participation
Giulio Marcon and Duccio Zola
Eurotopia, May 2007
Giulio Marcon and Duccio Zola survey the resistance to privatisation
across Europe, highlighting the role of pan-European trade union
initiatives and a growing alliance between social movements and the unions.
A million-signature petition for the protection of public services; a
campaign for a regulatory framework with unambiguous definitions of the
public and general interest; numerous mobilisations in favour of a
social Europe based on citizen’s rights, access to services, common
goods and the protection of universal welfare. All these initiatives
indicate how social and trade union movements have become key to the
defence of public services in Europe. They are rising to the challenge
of preserving what is left of the European social model, defending
public sector service provision and economic planning, and campaigning
for a truly inclusive civil society.
The petition of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the
campaign for a regulatory framework launched by the European Federation
of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the many initiatives of movements
across the continent (see boxes) are all part of the process of
reforging the European Union along more social lines. They aim to revive
a more interventionist and publicly-oriented politics after several
decades in which various EU pacts and treaties, from the Maastricht
growth and stability pact onwards, have steadily eroded the role of the
public sector. A distinctive feature of these campaigns is a recognition
of the importance of building alliances between trade unions and social
movements and local communities.
A good example of this can be seen in Germany, where the service sector
union Ver.di is leading a national mobilisation against government cuts
in energy subsidies, a preparatory measure for privatisation. Energy
provision in Germany depends on 1,400 municipal companies that could not
sustain the proposed cuts without resorting to massive job losses.
‘The measure would benefit large private energy multinationals and take
away municipal funds that would otherwise go to basic services such as
public transport and the care of children and the elderly,’ explains
Herman Schmidt of Ver.di. On 7 February, 25,000 people joined a
union-led demonstration in Berlin against privatisation.
Next door in France, the Convergence Nationale des Collectifs de Défense
et de Développement des Services Publics has emerged. This brings trade
unions, consumer groups and political organisations together on a
national scale to argue for the defence and democratisation of public
New approaches to local democracy and participation are at the heart of
what is currently taking place in Spain and Italy (see Matt Little). In
regions such as Tuscany and large cities such as Seville, as well as in
many small municipalities, participatory budgets and diverse other
democratic tools are becoming increasingly common in efforts to devolve
decision-making and control over public services. Such measures help to
build support for those services and strengthen resistance to privatisation.
In Italy, water has been at the centre of an increasingly successful
struggle against privatisation. The Forum for Public Water, which brings
together around 70 campaign groups with trade unions and over 700
municipalities, recently launched a national campaign to halt local
water privatisations and bring back to public management the regional
and local water services already privatised. At the same time that the
World Water Citizens Assembly was meeting in Brussels and declaring
water a public property and universal human right, the Italian forum
held a huge demonstration in Palermo, where the centre-right regional
government was transferring its water management – an especially vital
resource in Sicily, a region constantly short of water – to private
‘Oddly enough, privatisation of water is considered modern and
innovative,’ comments Marco Bersani, from Attac Italia. ‘But private
ownership and management of water is old. It was only at the beginning
of the last century, in the face of mass epidemics, that governments
realised the need for a public water service, accessible to everybody.’
The forum’s campaign has already collected 100,000 signatures.
In the UK, the defence of public services has been especially strong on
the issue of the health service. Tens of thousands of people have
attended demonstrations and signed petitions against cuts and
privatisation of the NHS. The protest has the support of many MPs from
both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Local initiatives are
strong, but until recently mobilisations have been limited by the lack
of any unifying framework. A national campaign called Keep our NHS
Public is now underway with over 30 branches across the country and the
support of the Unison public service union as well as other national
bodies. It aims to encourage common action and co-ordination in defence
of accessible public health services.
The list of initiatives could continue. All kinds of local and national
alliances are growing between local groups, spontaneous committees,
social movements and trade union organisations.
Pan-European trade union campaigns
At a European level, trade unions are running two main campaigns. These
seek, on the one hand, to defend public services and, on the other, to
improve their accessibility and quality.
The former is represented by the European Public Services Union (EPSU)’s
campaign for a EU legal framework on public services, started in May
2006. The latter, promoted by the European Trade Union Confederation
(ETUC) since November 2006, consists of a petition for ‘quality public
services, accessible to all’.
ETUC’s starting point is the argument that ‘public services are
essential for European social, economic and regional cohesion. These
services should be of high quality and accessible to all citizens. Until
now, the only alternatives proposed and applied have been privatisations
and liberalisations.’ ETUC and its member unions have put an
unprecedented organisational effort into reaching the target of one
million signatures, which would guarantee a debate by the European
Parliament. The petition calls for legislation to guarantee citizens’
rights in relation to key public services.
The European Socialist Party has recently come out in favour of the
petition, through the coordinator of socialist MEPs, Martin Shultz. The
Strasbourg Centre for European Studies (CEES) and the European Centre
for Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of General
Economic Interest (CEEP) have also issued a joint declaration endorsing
the petition and bringing the demand for judicial protection of services
in the general interest before the European Parliament and Commission.
And Britain’s largest public sector union, Unison, is just one of a
number of national unions promoting the petition in their own countries.
In the words of Unison general secretary Dave Prentis: ‘European public
services are under attack and because of that Unison supports the
petition for European regulation to protect them from the ideological
attacks of the defenders of the free market.’
The EPSU campaign, which is closely related to the ETUC petition, calls
for ‘a protected space for public services to be clearly identified’.
‘We are calling for legal protection that takes public services out of
the reach of commercialisation and reaffirms the common principles of
public service through the legal principle that general interest takes
precedent over the laws of the free market,’ says EPSU communications
and campaigns representative Brian Synnott. He stresses the need to
guarantee local control over the management of basic services by, among
other things, setting up a Public Services Observatory to monitor the
impact of liberalisation.
EPSU is effectively pursuing the juridical regulation of public services
through a European regulatory framework that definitively clarifies
which sectors belong in this sphere and ends the terminological and
judicial uncertainties suffered by public services as a result of the
ambiguities of existing EU provisions. The guiding principles for such a
framework include equality of access – forbidding any form of
discrimination against users; universality – through the provision of
services to all citizens; and accessibility – with price and tariff control.
Protection for the citizen-user (including rights to information,
confidentiality and compensation) would be added to these core
principles, as would a guarantee of respect for workers’ rights,
contractual procedures and trade union relations. It is, then, a
campaign for democratic control, with new forms of user and worker
participation and specific standards for transparency and impartiality.
The aim is to ensure a balance between different interest groups and
protect the most vulnerable.
The campaign is politically active in the EU, preparing lobbying
strategies within the framework of the European Parliament and
Commission, as well as institutions such as the Economic and Social
Committee and the Committee of the Regions. The initiative is building
up to the presentation of an initial proposal for a European judicial
framework for public services in June.
The Social Forums
The novelty of the present campaigns is the emergence of a common
direction between unions and social movements. The European Social Forum
(ESF), from its first 60,000-strong gathering in Florence in November
2002, has represented an extraordinary space in which social movements
and trade unions have come together. Among the discussions at the
Florence ESF were three days of seminars around the theme of ‘Public
Services and Privatisations’, driven by French, Austrian, Italian, Swiss
and other groups from Attac, Espace Marx, Collectif Services Publiques,
World Development Movement, Globalise Resistance, together with trade
union groups such as Funzione Pubblica of the CGIL and the COBAS
A similar seminar took place between movements and unions on a European
scale at the following ESF in Paris in October 2003. This produced a
commitment, supported by the Assembly of Social Movements, to unite the
initiatives of movements around public services with the work of trade
unions. Campaigners placed this in the context of a more general
opposition to the European constitution, which was in the process of
being approved at that time.
At the third ESF, in London in 2004, the same convergence of trade
unions and social movements resisting privatisation took place. This
time the debate about the Bolkestein directive took off and the issues
of education, health, energy and water were dealt with in more detail.
‘We reject the privatisation of public services and common goods such as
water,’ stated the declaration of the Assembly of Social Movements,
which closed the forum. ‘We support the mobilisation of 11 November 2004
against the Bolkestein directive,’ it continued. ‘We call for national
mobilisations in all European countries. We call for a central
demonstration in Brussels on 19 March  against the war, against
racism, against a neoliberal Europe, against privatisation, against the
Bolkestein project, and against the attacks on the working day ... We
call on all social movements and European unions to take the streets on
Just a few thousand people turned up to the first of these
demonstrations, on 11 November 2004, in Brussels. In March 2005,
however, 150,000 people rallied to a joint call by the ESF and the ETUC
to coincide with a meeting of European social policy ministers and the
second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.
The alliance between social movements and trade unions is built on the
common battleground of the links between neoliberalism, war, attacks on
public services and the erosion of rights in Europe. The European Stop
Bolkestein campaign was very important in bringing people together; in a
very short space of time it succeeded in uniting hundreds of
organisations, from international trade unions and NGOs to transnational
networks, left wing parties and local and national grassroots movements.
Another milestone was the 50,000-strong demonstration of 14 February
2006, called by the ETUC in Strasbourg to mark the European Parliament
vote on the Bolkestein directive on services in the EU internal market.
That mobilisation achieved changes to the final text of the directive,
eliminating those elements posing a particular threat to the protection
of European public services and getting issues of labour rights and
This partly rewarded the efforts of movements and unions, although they
were far from satisfied with the results. Criticisms were centred on the
profound ambiguities in the text, which leaves unanswered the question
of precisely which services should be protected from the invasion of the
The European Network
The qualitative leap in Europe-wide organisation represented by the Stop
Bolkestein campaign was consolidated at the fourth ESF in Athens in May
2006. In the Greek capital the first ‘European Network for Public
Services’ was launched and 40 trade union organisations and movements
subscribed to the ‘Athens Declaration: Another Europe with public
services for all’. Especially notable was the participation of many
local government bodies, some of which work through the Convention
Européenne des Autorités Locales pour la Promotion des Services Publiques.
The shared principle for the network is that safeguarding high quality
public services for all underpins the respect for the fundamental rights
of the citizen that should be central to the European social model. The
aim of the network is to follow up the mobilisations around Bolkestein
and provide a stable coordinating role between all the different
organisations concerned with this issue – including social and trade
union movements and local authorities.
The network hopes that by exchanging experiences and information it will
stimulate and coordinate action that will ‘determine – both at a
European and a national level – the conditions necessary to define and
regulate those services entrusted to public power and to keep them safe
from the logic of liberalisation, privatisation, and/or private profit’.
The network intends that by action on a continental level it will add to
the pressure being applied to state institutions. An important moment in
this process will be the first ‘European Forum of Social Movements for
European Public Services’, planned for November 2007 in Greece.
‘Through the networks we should reach a genuine rethinking of liberal
policies, both in the respective governments and in the European
Commission,’ comments Rosa Pavanelli, national secretary of Funzione
Pubblica of the CGIL. ‘This is fundamental, not only in terms of
directives on different public services, such as social and health
services, but also in terms of the content that should be shared with
all citizens when the European constitutional treaty process is resumed.’
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