Solidaridad, lucha y cooperación: South Europe Summercamp

This article is a translation of Joan’s post on his blog. Joan is Spanish and activist of Red Equo Jovem, but among his many talents, he also speaks and spend regularly some time in France, where he is in touch with the French Young Greens (Les Jeunes Ecologistes). After being a participant to the Southern Summer Camp, he wrote about his adventures, his encounters and his thoughts that you can read below.

Thanks a million times to Sara, French local group of Lyon, for the translation !

Last week, the Jeunes Ecologistes, the French Young Greens, welcomed Young Greens from Portugal, Spain, Catalonia, France, Italy, Malta and Bulgaria for the Southern Europe SummerCamp.

During this meet-up, we were able to share our impressions and experiences of the economic crisis each country of Southern Europe is currently going through, make ecological propositions for a fairer and better society, learn from some of the other most dynamic and important environmental youth movements in Europe, confront our ideas with representatives from Northern Europe, and discuss our position regarding the 2014 election, taking into account the crisis and the North/South imbalances on our continent.

 Our camp:

This meet-up took place at the YesWeCamp !, an self-managed architectural project based in the outskirts of Marseille, this year’s European Capital of Culture.

Construction: The YesWeCamp ! consisted of refurbished trailers, transformed and redecorated until they resembled works of art, or wooden structures built with discarded pallets, metal sheets, or even plastic. A large space was also set apart for tents, where most of the people who came to camp slept.

Water: the camp had running water for general consumption, but no sewers. The water for showers (in which only Marseille soap or biodegradable soaps were allowed) was filtered and purified thanks to a system made out of stones, sand and plants, so it could be reused in the kitchen garden; dry toilets used sawdust, which is then used as fertilizer (no, this fertilizer would not be produced in the camp itself).

Art: The camp had several stages and show spaces, furthermore the construction of the camp itself was perceived as a cultural artifact. In this line of thought, the official currency of the camp was the “Gaston”, which had already been used during the Off festival of Marseille 2013 (during the Marseille European Capital of Culture occasion in 2013). On the campsite cohabitated not only the participants of the Southern Europe Summer Camp, but also the Young Greens who were participating at the same time to their “Open Forum”, or Forum ouVert.

 Perspectives from southern Europe…

 The most interesting part of the SummerCamp, as well as the most challenging, was indubitably exchanging our perspectives on the economic crisis. An incapacitated political elite, corrupt and close-minded, exemplified by a right-wing section incapable of hearing its citizens’ needs, center-left parties which have turned their backs on their principles, set on developing the neo-liberal project of the Troika, the disappearance of the welfare state, budget restrictions and public service privatizations ranging from education to transports as well as health systems and security, governments emphasizing “national pride” to lead us down the garden path (as the Catalan trial or the Gilbratar “conflict” as instrumentalized by the CIU and the PP respectively show), the hardships of thousands of young people who cannot find a job and no longer have any recourse to help them. These concepts which in Spain already appear to have gained a veneer of normalcy are present, with slight variations, in all the countries which surround us.

Malta, surprisingly enough, is the exception on those topics, with a much lower unemployment rate compared to Spain and Portugal, and mostly free social services despite the lowering of income taxes. It appears that the small size of the country, as well as the fiscal niches it provides for a few businesses, supports the government budget well. With the exception of France, the situation of all the Green parties of southern Europe were very similar. Most of them have not been elected into parliament and they are almost all immersed in the tricky question “to join a coalition or not to join” with ideologically similar parties. Participants from Malta for instance told us that the Green Party was the third party in the country, country in which the parliament only holds two parties! Where Portugal is concerned, they hope to gain ground during their local elections, to strengthen their position in view of integrating the current coalition with the Communist party and thus have a better situation on the ballot sheets. In Italy, the political “circus” makes any public vote of confidence difficult. Furthermore, support from Monica Frassoni, one of the spokespeople for the European Green Party, to the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà list during the previous general election in Italy has created feelings of mistrust among the Green activists and followers, who did not belong to this coalition. Finally, the emergence of the Five Star Movement has brought up many questions: for instance, what would happen during the European elections if this party wanted to join the Green section of the European Parliament (as has the Pirate Party from Sweden)?

On a political level, we all agreed on the fact that austerity must cease, as it causes brain drain and migrations, child malnutrition, even child mortality; and encourages the unfair advantage of a few countries able to maintain or increase their prosperity, not despite but because of the situation in southern Europe (students who have attended public institutions are now working outside their country, a historically low currency value thanks to the hardships encountered by the ‘frontier countries’ etc.)

…in contrast to the rest of the European Union

Whereas in the South we all agree to « Stop austerity now », northern Europe seems to prefer the slogan « Solidarity and Solidity ». Claude Weinber, Secretary General for the Green European Foundation, GEF, and Ska Keller, Eurodeputy for Die Grünen and a candidate for the FYED at the European Green Party primaries, explained to us that in general, the idea that the Northern and Central Europe is financing the fecklessness and the laziness of the south is widespread, and that the main focus should be on a balanced budget. Thus the Green Parties will try to be careful when mentioning a key topic for voters, to avoid connecting European solidarity to “self-indulgence” for the countries in the south. Apparently, even claiming “Solidarity and solidity” is both “radical” and “risky” in today’s German political climate.

It seems of little importance in the electoral debate that « balancing » a budget is well nigh impossible when debt reimbursement continues to be sky high ; that the deficit is not the consequence of government spending but of lack of revenue, meaning that the crisis is causing the deficit and not the opposite, that most of the deficit is caused by government bailouts of financial groups contributing to the crisis, or even that part of the problem is the lack of democratic oversight on the economy. True austerity, in the authentic meaning of the word, is important- not wasting the taxpayer’s money is essential. But the impression publicized by the austerity dogma, that southern Europe has been living beyond its means and thus deserves to be “punished”, is quite another matter. Obviously, it is essential that Green Parties in the healthier European countries can communicate with and be supported by voters. But it is also essential for them not to follow the demagogical and selfish logic which for example enables Angela Merkel’s many supports in Germany; they must offer a true opportunity for change, leading to a truly collegial Europe. Thus we may rejoice in the fact that Die Grünen have officially rejected any type of coalition with Merkel’s party, and has obtained that Merkel gives up her main objectives for the European elections.

On the camp site, we also discussed the « change of direction » of Europe which was to be expected after the presumed entry of Die Grünen (with social-democrat party SPD) in the government. Even if this was not the main point of the pre-electoral debate, making the campaign more focused on Europe is a point emphasized by the German Greens, especially the Youth movement. And among the preoccupations shown in the party’s first campaign ad (see above), we can see that “Europe’s youth must find jobs” (1:00 mn) If there had been an election change after September 22d, the Green Party could have had a golden opportunity to show, through major change on the government’s position on European matters, that they are a truly credible and European option, giving a great starting point to other Green parties for the May 2014 elections.

Debates and political workshops

At SummerCamp we had the opportunity to exchange political views in the fields of ecology, economy and social matters.

Circular economy

François-Michel Lambert, a French Green parliamentary member from the Bouches-du-Rhone region in France, who is both vice-president of the sustainable development working group at the National Assembly and the president of the Institute for Circular Economy, was kind enough to make this concept accessible to us during a workshop.

To sum up, the final aim is to create an economy with no waste, where waste produced by a business or an industry becomes a starting material for another. Each gram of matter must be maximized for profit, or to put it differently each concrete activity must mobilize a tiny amount of resources. But this also means taking political decisions focused on the service industry and on existent needs rather than on the possession of objects (for instance the “bicing” bicycle renting systems go in this direction), make corporate governance more democratic and guarantee social equilibrium.

The main take-away from the workshop was the realization that if we continue to live in the current capitalist climate, it will be necessary to promote circular economy measures, but that by itself, this will solve nothing, since they would not take into account the global consumption index nor a economic system focused on the needs of citizens. At any rate, it was interesting to listen to a more pragmatic take on ecology, rather than an ideological one, presenting measures which could and should be developed today, which even great businesses are requesting and with which the political class is still running late. It seems obvious we need a complete overhaul of our system, but the latter can only succeed if we start at the beginning, namely with the present.

Basic income

Télémaque Masson, a Young Green, presented a workshop on basic income. It was a concept I had already heard of, notably in the Green Party program in the United Kingdom during the last election cycle, but which left me quite dubious. I must admit I am a skeptic in this domain and I feel we need a society more conscious of its collective responsibility, but this discussion helped me to better understand the concept, and measure how much more elaborate it is than I previously thought.

Basic income, which is a European Citizen Initiative, consists in giving each person access to an income (the exact sum varies according to theories) with no strings attached. What appears at first glance to be “free money” has a justification and a theoretical, ethical and practical aspect. To summarize quickly, this is explained by the fact we have arrived at a level of mechanical prowess which enables us to feed, dress and support all members of society without needing everyone to work; this means we must destroy extreme poverty; we must admit that there exists jobs no one wants to do, but that if people do these jobs because of lack of choice in life, then this is a new kind of slavery and of social inequality. We must also acknowledge all types of work which are not compensated (like caring for the elderly, for children or keeping house) and which essentially fall to women. Basic income could eliminate the imbalance between, for instance, a stay-at-home wife and her working husband.

I have conflated the idea that « working is a question of dignity » on one side and « some reap the benefits of others’work” on the other, in the end both ideas come to the same thing; there is also the (completely false) idea that money represents something stable and concrete like gold or resources (which has not been the case since currencies have stopped basing themselves on real reserves). I also feel a certain anxiety towards the idea of letting people do what they want, meaning that some jobs useful to society could be done by no one. So I am currently admitting to myself that this modern slavery I discussed earlier exists.

How can we pay for basic income? This is a complex topic, since each option can have very different consequences; let us for the moment leave mathematical options aside.

 In the workshop of basic income, we discussed the fact that if traditional politics can be seen as a line going from left to right, between strong government on the one hand and the supremacy of the markets and of economic powers on the other, the Greens would occupy a third position, off the grid, namely true autonomy and individual freedom (by true I mean that each person must have the greatest capacity and opportunity to develop as a person and to fulfill his or her goals, which is obviously impossible in a capitalist system where power and poverty perpetuate themselves)

The basic income idea involves one real danger, which is that in neo-liberal circles, some people are defending another kind of basic income which would replace public services (education, health, research…) In other words, this would mean a real commodification of the welfare state, which would in all probability go against the initial goals of a basic income.

To put it in a nutshell, it is a complex topic, very possibly in the avant-garde of ideas for real individual emancipation, in which some people are deeply involved and which is the subject of much thought and even publications. I need to research this much more to be able to make a final decision on this subject.

Populism and far-right politics

Enzo Poultreniez, co-author of « Facing the French National Front party », led a discussion on populist organizations and far-right movements in Europe. He made a clear distinction between the two concepts, using the Front National (National Front party)’s trajectory as an example. When Jean-Marie Le Pen was leader of the party, which had managed to get as far as the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, the National Front was mostly a far-right party, with liberal economic leanings but socially conservative. However, when his daughter Marine took charge, the party became more populist. Its ambiguous answer to the question of same-sex marriage, instead of offering a clear rejection of it, or the state protectionism claimed by Marine, are a radical break with the origins of the party and have even created greater autonomy among the radical groups which used to be controlled by the National Front. Other surprising observations issued from this difference between populism and far-right ideas include the idea of “homonationalism”, the instrumentalization of islamophobia, which defines islam like a homophobic religion, to attract the gay vote. As he described this strategy, our guest pointed out ironically that “they prefer white gays to Arabs”.

Another topic to be underlined is the importance of political solutions offered by the Greens to fight against facism and xenophobia. It cannot be acceptable to use “bad immigration” as an explanation for poor integration and cultural tensions in some areas. We must focus on socio-economic conditions which hardly encourage people with jobs, resources or space to settle there. Local politics must not only focus on tourism but also true social cohesion in the outskirts of cities.

Furthermore, the trend followed by major political parties which consists of following the far-right’s lead in encouraging xenophobia, makes it all the more imperative that we Greens fight against this empty debate.

Preparing the 2014 European election

The SummerCamp was also a perfect moment to explain the FYEG campaign and poll southern European activists on their opinion. It was mostly useful in order to compare the experience and ambitions of groups with a certain degree of success, like the Joves of Esquerra Verda (Catalonia), or the Jeunes Ecologistes (France), with that of smaller or younger groups like the Red EQUO Joven or the Italian Young Greens.One of the main objectives of the regional SummerCamps which took place this summer (southern Europe, German-speaking countries, eastern Europe) was to ensure that the FYEG global manifesto and its propositions truly represented the diversity of the European experience. To reach this aim, each SummerCamp debated on the contents of the manifesto and compared it to the reality of each zone. For instance, among the activists from the Mediterranean, the emphasis was placed on fighting ever more vigorously the austerity measures, and we include the concept of illegitimate debt as well as the idea of citizen debt audit to the draft.

These modifications we discussed and approved of together between countries of southern Europe will be examined for possible amendments and voted during the FYEG general assembly which takes place in Bad Hersfeld in Germany. Furthermore, we are counting on the enthusiasm of the delegates present to further joint proposals, giving a more practical bent to our cooperation and the solidarity which is our aim.

EELV – The Greens’ experience in the French government

The end of SummerCamp coincided with the beginning of the summer university for the French ecological party. Green Parliament members and members of the government agreed on the importance of supporting the executive power. They emphasized the necessary changes in the domain of green taxation, energy transition with a sharp decrease in nuclear production, laws to protect renters and a whole series of decisions which, without an Green presence in the government, could never have succeeded.

After a few controversial measures taken by the French government and severe doubts on the impact and importance of ecology within it, a few voices were raised to ask for the Party leaders to break relations with the Socialist Party. Finally, only the congress itself will decide of that, but for the moment, the “official” position of the party is clear.

Appendix : a few conclusions, lessons and impressions from SummerCamp

  1.     Our comrades of Joves d’Esquerra Verda played a major role in describing the difficulty of the situation of people who had not realized how far down they had come in some geographic locations.

  2.  The Jeunes Écologistes are impressive hosts, and it’s easy to notice the effects of French political culture on them.

  3.  I must read much more on Basic Income. The idea is much better developed and studied than I previously realized, and the concept goes much further than “let’s give free money to everyone just because”.

  4.  It is possible and even necessary to explain complex political and economic ideas in a simple and understandable way, so that people who previously had no idea can understand them. The closer the explanation connects to people’s every day life , the easier to understand.

  5. With a basic solar water heater, forty people can shower before 9 AM with hot water. There is no good reason not to install this kind of system in every household.

  6. In politics, especially to the left side of the spectrum, we are often focused on the size of businesses, which leads us to almost sanctify small businesses. Even if it is true that small and medium-sized businesses are less prone to fraudulent behavior, create more jobs for each euro made and fight against oligopolies, we must focus more on tenure and governance in businesses, and not so much on their size. A small family business can exploit its workers more than a cooperative offering jobs to hundreds of people.

  7.  The question of the role of ecologists in a coalition government is a complex one : as a minority, are you just validating things that without your presence could never have happened (green taxation, right to decent lodgings, nuclear plants shutdown)? Do you give up on a government which goes against society?

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