Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 1 December 2003


BLURB:  A “global progressive forum” was organized by European Social Democratic parties last week.  Stunned by their electoral defeats and their disconnection with people, the Social Democrats are reviewing their policies and reaching out to form new alliances with civil society groups.  Is it a public relations exercise, or are they serious about changing their policies and promoting  alternatives to the present unequal and unfair global structures?


Stung and shocked by the rise of right wing parties and groups in Europe and the United States, the Social Democratic political parties in Europe have launched an initiative to counter this trend by building what they call a “global progressive alliance.”

Last week, they organized a three-day Global Progressive Forum attended by 1,500 people, and held at the European Parliament premises in Brussels.  Participants included politicians, trade unionists, civil society organizations, and academics, mainly from Europe, with a small number from developing countries.

The leaders of this Forum include its chairman, former Denmark premier Poul Nyrup Rasmussen;  the president of the Socialist International and former Portugal premier Antonio Guterres;  President of the Party of European Socialists (PES) Robin Cook of Britain, and President of the PES Group in European Parliament Enrique Baron Crespo.

The Forum’s aim, as described by Rasmussen, is to change today’s troubled and divided planet, by reshaping globalisation patterns and strengthening global governance.

“This is possible only if wider progressive alliances for change can bring together progressive politics, NGOs, trade unions, ethical businesses and academia worldwide,” said Rasmussen, adding that the Forum was a focal point to bring progressive forces to share ideas and pool influence.

Behind the nice words, it is also clear that the Social Democrat parties have been shaken by their poor performances in most European countries in recent years.  They controlled the governments of 13 European countries a few years ago, but only a few (such as Britain, Sweden and Germany) today.

And the emergence of extreme right-wing parties that took some of their votes in such countries as France and Holland have shocked them. 

Moreover, many idealistic citizens, especially the young, have become disenchanted with political parties and politicians.  Millions have expressed their activism in social movements, NGOs and street protests, whilst shunning the parties including the Social Democrats.

By initiating the Forum, some of the Social Democrat leaders hope to form alliances between their parties and the thriving pool of activism of the social movements that have renounced corporate-driven globalisation and free-market fundamentalism. The  bridge  building is seen as even more urgent in view of the aggressive unilateral actions of the United States, which threatens the post-war multilateral system.

The obvious questions that non-party participants were asking themselves of the former Prime Ministers and other political leaders were:  “What did you do when you yourselves were in power?  Have you really learnt the lessons and will you do differently if you return to power?  And as for the Social Democrats who are in power (like Tony Blair in Britain), what are they doing that is different from the Conservatives that you are criticizing?”

By the end of the meeting, the questions had not yet been adequately answered.  But participants felt they had gotten to know the politicians a little better.

Many participants were passionate about how the “European model” was more humane than the brutal model of capitalism practiced in the U.S., how it was being damaged by the Conservatives, and how it must be rescued.

The “European model” was characterized by Johannes Swoboda, an Austrian and Vice President of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament as combining market forces with social rights, fighting against social exclusion, making public services as important as the market, respect for cultural diversity and the environment, and the use of persuasion not force (as in the case of Iraq).

This model is in danger, he said, as Social Democrats had not defended it enough.  It was being taken over by the neo-liberal model pushed by the US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  In Europe, public services were under attack and had to be defended.

At the Forum’s closing session, I replied to this point by saying that the much-praised European model had been promoted by the Social Democrats only for European countries, but when in power they were actually pushing onto the developing countries what they criticize as the “US model” of neo-liberal free-market policies.  It seemed to people from the South that the Social Democrats in power wanted the European model only for Europeans.

The European countries are no better, and sometimes worse, than the US, in how they make use of the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and World Bank, or their own bilateral policies, to bully the developing countries into accepting policies that are damaging to them but  beneficial to the rich countries,

If the European Social Democrat leaders were serious about forming a global alliance to help poorer countries, they had to first change the European Commission’s current proposals in the WTO to drastically open up the markets in the developing countries, whilst protecting European markets especially in agriculture.

In response to this, former Portugal premier Antonio Guterres acknowledged it was important to address this double standard.

“Even if we promote the European social model, it does not mean that the relations of Europe to the developing countries is any different from those of the US to them.  In fact part of the financing of the European model comes from resources transferred to Europe from the South by the unfair North-South relations that favour the North.

“It is clear from my talks with other Socialist International parties from the developing countries, that the developing countries see no difference between Europe and the US in terms of their positions on North-South relations, whether in Cancun regarding the WTO, or in the environment and other talks at the United Nations.

“Europe needs to take a different role in the multilateral system.  We (the Social Democrats) have to change our aid and trade policies if we are to have any credibility in the South.”

Guterres said the neo-liberal ideology and the neo-conservative agenda with their own logic in world affairs were strongly entrenched, with thousands of advocates in bureaucracies.

He gave this example:  “When I became Prime Minister, and saw the speaking notes that were prepared for me, I could not read them out as they were opposite to what I thought.”

He said when he was premier, there were 13 social democrat governments in Europe. “We were naïve, we were in government but not in power, because of the neo-liberal intellectual domination.

“We never really decided together what the IMF and World Bank should be doing and how to change them.  We have been naïve, we thought as we were in government we did not need to change the rules and governance system.  We thought we were the governance system, but we were not.”

Guterres said his obsession now was that “we must prepare ourselves for the next round”, when the social democratic parties would return to power. “We cannot have a situation of coming to the next round in power and only then start thinking, what shall we do?  It is our duty to work together to prepare for the next round of power, where we have to work for the people.”

Robin Cook, who became famous by resigning as House of Commons leader in protest against Tony Blair’s Iraq war policies, spoke in the same vein.  He said that firstly, “solidarity must be global.”    The party’s solidarity principle had to be applied globally, not just nationally.  “Children go hungry in other countries as we agonise how our children grow too fat,” he said.

He said the US developed its power in the 19th century by protecting its industry whilst benefiting from free trade in agriculture.  Now the US is reversing that for developing countries, whose industries have to face competition from free trade in industry, whilst their their farmers are not allowed to benefit from exports as there is no free trade in agriculture.

Cook said Europe was also pushing the same policies as the US, and it must now change its priorities.

He added that secondly, “security must be multilateral”.  Decisions on security had to be taken collectively and not by individual countries.  “Now we can’t find any teeny weeny bit of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we must bury the idea that any country has the right to a pre-emptive strike.”

The atrocity of September 11 showed how interdependent we are on security, added Cook.  “I am stressed that Bush found the opposite lesson and brought about the collapse of the international fight against terrorism due to the invasion of Iraq.

“The US is pursuing in Iraq a counter productive strategy.  Terrorism cannot be defeated by firepower alone which creates sympathy for the terrorists with their public.  We must find peace in the Middle East and justice for the Palestinians as the best way to stop terrorism.  It is perverse to witness (Israeli premier) Sharon building a wall (in the West Bank), which is a reverse of the globalisation trend.”

The activist and author, Susan George, said that Europe had a key choice to make – submit to the US empire or build a model for other countries as an alternative to the US-led neo-liberal model.

She said Europe must build on its postwar history to propose a different model than what the US is proposing.  The European model, based on public health care, better relations with the South, public regulation of the market, the rule of law and not invasions, had been built painfully, with many people dying in the struggle creating it.

However, it was not easy to get Europe to promote its own model.  Instead, today, Europe is helping the US to promote neo-liberalism globally, many European countries sided with the US in its Iraq war, and the European Commission’s trade agenda reflects the interests of European transnational companies.

Thus today there was only a slim hope for providing the world with a European model. More struggle is needed, said George.   “The people are watching what choice the Social Democrats will make – will they make a clean break with neo-liberalism or not?”

In his summing up, Forum chair Rasmussen said he felt that people were willing to gather around a global progressive agenda.  The Social Democratic parties, NGOs and unions are part of this feeling, that “we can change the world.”

He added that neither social democracy nor civil society can shape a better world on its own, and each needed the other.  Political parties had become disconnected from people and there had to be a “re-connection”, with new connections and directions.

His “dream” for the Forum was to bring the distance shorter between “what we discuss here and the political decisions that are made.”

Rasmussen announced some of the proposals put forward in the 18 roundtables.  Among them:  an advisory group for reform of Europe’s WTO and trade policy; a task force of the European Socialists on a European policy on security and defence;  global networking and on the UN Millennium Development Goals;  a human rights monitoring group;  new thinking on environment and poverty; a platform for the fight against AIDS;  a network on education for all;  and support for the International Labour Organisation’s project on social dimensions on globalisation as an alternative to the Washington Consensus.   

The European Social Democrat politicians have raised expectations with the holding of this Forum.  But the skeptics continue to wonder whether it will be “political business as usual” after the meeting.  It remains to be seen whether the momentum generated can be maintained, and whether the proposals announced will lead to anything concrete.