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(en) Anarkismo.net: The Bolkestein Dirrective - Social Dumping and International Challenges By Laure Akai

Date Mon, 30 Jan 2006 18:06:27 +0200


The legislation which will propel the Lisbon strategy in its drive to
impose a more neo-liberal economic model on Europe has already
been met with opposition but there is still a need to propose
strategies for the creation of an equitable, libertarian society.
The labour movement has found internationally, it seems, an issue
around which to mobilize: the Directive on Services in the Internal
Market, otherwise known as the Bolkestein Directive. The directive,
which would remove barriers to the provision of services between
member states, is most often criticized for its “country of origin
principle”. Under this principle, companies which are registered
in any EU member state may not only provide services in any other,
but also can employee workers to perform such services abroad
remaining subject to the law of the country in which they are
registered. It is feared that businesses will utilize this law to take
advantage of less strident labour and environmental standards in
countries with more relaxed standards. An inevitable race to the
bottom is bound to occur.
The Lisbon Strategy and the Erosion of the Social Model
The interests of business and labourers are bound to clash so long as
the mandate for profit runs business practice. But just as investors,
producers and employees strive to drive labour costs down, workers,
particularly those in “developing” countries and other
low-wage locations, strive to earn more. Those living in richer
environments on the other hand are hoping to maintain their levels
of affluence and stave off any further erosion of their living
standards.

With the destruction of capitalism being an option that fewer and
fewer are willing to propose, we are offered up a poor choice of
scenarios, each replete with numerous inevitable problems. Some
offer us national protectionism and a high level of state intervention
in the economy, but this solution often obfuscates the fact that some
levels of capitalistic attainment have been achieved through decades
- even centuries of the systematic use of capital, economic
imperialism, economic and environmental exploitation. Others
embrace globalization as an inevitability and urge us to answer its
challenge by becoming “competitive”. And then there are the
fence sitters who wish to find some solution in-between, with some
gestures towards global competitiveness but the retention of just a
high enough level of protectionism to make sure that the state (and,
more importantly, the corporations) won’t be facing any social
revolutions.

It is in this context that the European Union, dominated by some of
the richest countries in the world, is confronted with the economic
and political realities of not only the globalized world, but of a
growing portion of citizens within its own borders.

Those governments clinging to “the social model” are in fact
engaged in some sort of theatrical enterprise for, despite
considerable political pluralism in the EU, it has long ago committed
itself to eroding this model in favour of a more competitive,
profit-driven one.

The Lisbon Agenda has been a plan in place concerning the future
of the EU workforce for quite some time now, but the labour
movement and the left missed the wake-up call; indeed some even
welcome the strategy. (1) It has been misread due to
capitalism’s language of sedation: periods of unemployment are
turned into attractive “career breaks” and having to leave
your home to relocate for a job becomes a “freedom”. Labour
flexibility is needed to “create jobs” and “social
partnership” means that they’ll negotiate the slow erosion of
your working conditions with trade union leaders and write some
laws about “protection of workers” that will protect you from
some nuisances – except the inevitable slide into the global
struggle for competitive survival.
Bolkestein
If the language of the Lisbon Agenda was too misleading to set off
many alarms, then at least the Bolkestein Directive has caught some
people’s attention. Mass protests have occurred in connection
with it and there is an ongoing campaign throughout many
European countries.

Unfortunately, the debate has sometimes taken on xenophobic and
protectionist overtones, such as the noise about “the Polish
plumber”, which became connected not only to EU
enlargement, but to the Directive as well. This leads us to a number
of questions, namely, what people propose instead and how the EU
without the Directive would resolve the problems of labour
disparities.

The first aspect of the Bolkestein Directive, the freedom of
establishment, as been a business issue for 30 years already and has
become a limited reality with the adoption of the European Company
form of registration (SE) which came into force in 2004. With a SE,
a company registered and operating out of one country (provided it
has its physical seat actually in that country), can change its place of
operation without liquidating the original company and
re-registering. This issue of establishment has many limitations,
including capital limitations, thus it does not extend to most
self-employed entrepreneurs (like our friend the plumber), many of
whom are also limited by regulations concerning the recognition of
professional qualifications, etc..

However, it is the country of origin principle which presents the
potential bonanza as it would allow employers to avoid such pesky
profit-eaters as local minimum wages.

Proponents of the Directive are of course quick to point out that a
country can employee numerous derogations. Articles 17-19 (in
addition to allowing governments exemptions in areas such as postal
and other services ) allow governments to employ derogations for
compelling reasons of public health, public security, public policy or
environmental concerns. In other words, these economic
“freedoms” can (and will) be selectively regulated by
member states.

This doesn’t mean that governments will use them, although it
is likely that they will be seen, especially in areas with either strong
protectionist tendencies or large militant labour unions.

Such measures, however, do not offer any solution to the basic
problems of wage disparity, on either the global or the European
level.

Proponents of Bolkestein also point out that one of the assumptions
of the directive is that there will be certain harmonization in the EU
in strategic areas. In other words, they claim that if standards in
certain areas are harmonized, then the country of origin principle will
not be an instrument to take advantage of lower standards. Only we
can see no talk of concrete harmonization in many critical questions;
most often harmonization is spoken about in terms of debt
collection, consumer protection, accounting standards and health
care. And, even if the last might seem like a safeguard, the EU
experience has shown that harmonized standards can actually lead
to far lower standards in some countries. (2)

The one area where a revolutionary change could be carried out is in
the area of wage harmonization – for example, an EU-wide
minimum wage, and industrial standards. (The reason an EU
minimum wage in itself is no solution and why industrial minimums
would have to be employed is that, for example, you presently can
find some experienced nurses and dental assistances from Poland
working in North England for the minimum wage, which is not up to
any industrial standards, is highly exploitative and is still driving
wages down.) But this will never be proposed by the Eurocrats, nor
is it likely to be proposed by certain segments of organized labour
who doubtlessly predict that they will either be forced to negotiate
down standards or, for some of the lower-waged workers, remove
the one incentive people had for hiring them.

It begs then to ask which solutions are being proposed? Controlled
labour market migration is the political solution de rigueur, but it is
not only a one-sided solution, but also a basic violation of the
principle of freedom of movement. I say that it is one sided because
we hear all the time about how “X country needs qualified so
and so” or “doesn’t need” something else; the other
side of the situation reflects a power relationship where the richer
country can afford people like qualified doctors and engineers while
the poorer suffers a brain drain. Ultimately, the brain drain and lack
on progress on wage and living standards in one country will just
exacerbate the problem.

Many of the anti-Bolkesteiners remain silent on that question. Like
the early “anti-globalization” movement, it hopes to draw a
wide segment of oppositionists into a coalition, and indeed it has.
While the calls for “protecting” labour may seem noble
enough, I’d like to ask who and what they envision the
protecting force to be (although I already know it’s the state).
I’d also be interested in how the social model is to be exactly
protected? By improving labour standards and leveling real wages
throughout the EU or by closing off the workplace and service
market to foreigners? Or do they expect governments to implement
measures to force businesses in the EU to maintain high labour
costs?
A Radical Perspective
When we perceive that an initiative will undermine the position of
the average worker, we should attack it because each additional
concession to capitalism is further consolidation of its power. Thus it
is perfectly natural to rally around slogans such as “Stop
Bolkestein” – but like most single-issue campaigns, even a
victory would be a limited one because we have only prevented the
exacerbation of the problem but not done anything to get rid of it.
Furthermore, it is more than likely that if this Directive fails,
something else will come along to try to achieve the same aim. With
this cynicism, I do not mean to be discouraging, but rather to call for
a wider approach and vision.

Within the context of protest politics, we often find even radical
activists calling for “protection” and “rights”, which
rests on the assumption that there is a body, be it the nation state or
an extra-national institution, which regulates for the good of society,
above the interests of capital. This illusion is becoming more and
more appallingly naïve; money making and capital interests are
firmly entrenched in government. The moments where the state
plays social protector are acts of cheap PR played out with our public
funds which we have worked for and earned and opposition to the
bottom line can only take place in relation to the power and wealth of
the society; in this, some nation states are at a distinct disadvantages
in the spectacle known as “protecting its subjects”.

Many leftists envision the transition of the state from power broker
and capital enabler to social protector and insurer. While this
(arguably) may be a considerable improvement in its role, there is
also the perspective of decommissioning it and replacing it with
workers’ self-government and international federalism. The
underlying principle, the creation of a libertarian society, would
presuppose various mechanisms for the elimination of material
deprivation and disparity, and, most importantly, the elimination of
the causes of inequity. Within the restraints of this article, it would
not be possible to explore the framework for the creation of such a
libertarian society, but we are convinced of the following: the key to
the creation of any future socially equitable society lies in divesting
capital and state of its powers.

We see the challenge of the international labor movement, (or in the
case of this particular issue, of the European one), not in pressing for
more hollow promises from insincere politicians, nor even in
achieving the scrapping of the Directive, but in experiencing the
mobilization in a different way. Rather than marching in
pre-coordinated marches as one of an orchestrated mass, we would
like working people to experience a sense of self-activity and
interconnectivity. We do not see the challenge in getting labour
leaders in negotiations with state and EU functionaries, or even in
talks amongst themselves, but in rank and file workers deciding on a
strategy of activity and horizontal organization as opposed to
participating at the bottom of a top-down movement as a protected
subject. The discussion needs to begin on a much wider scale as to
the possibilities of international grassroots coordination and direct
action with a view to libertarian organizational and revolutionary
possibilities.

With this, we call on like-minded people and organizations to take
up the opposition to the Bolkestein Directive from a more radical
perspective and to promote a revolutionary vision of self-organization
and self-management in the framework of this campaign. Stopping
Bolkestein is not enough. Neither is stopping capitalism.



NOTES
(1) Labour ministers maintain that labour flexibility can co-exist
along with a high-level of social security. Some labour leaders seem
to have tragically misread the subtext of the Agenda, believing it is
actually a strategy for preserving the social model. As late as last
year, the Guardian published an article on the Lisbon Agenda where
leaders such as John Monks of the European Trade Union
Confederation said that they had “done well in reviving the
agenda only a week after many thought that social Europe was
dead". For them, the implementation of the strategy seems to be still
up to question. "The Lisbon Strategy must be implemented in a
manner that is economically, socially and ecologically balanced."

(2) There are numerous examples of this but one that comes to
mind is food standards. We were able to see in some areas of food
production that when Poland adopted EU standards, they were
sometimes much lower than the old local standards, especially in
terms of the amounts of food additives permissible.
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