By Stefania Milan
"We still believe in the welfare state. The challenge for us here today is to defend and promote public services," Dave Prentis from the British union UNISON said at a meeting on public services and the welfare state at the European Social Forum.
Union activists and associations are coming together to oppose a proposal presented in January 2004 by the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union (EU), on 'services in the internal market'.
The proposal was submitted by internal market commissioner Frits Bolkestein and has come to be known as the Bolkestein directive.
If approved by the European parliament, it will open up the EU internal market in services, obliging member states to reduce administrative burdens to permit cross- borders businesses.
Public services are at stake, many delegates at the European Social Forum (ESF) say. They fear the new law will affect workers and citizens' right to basic social services such as medical care, education, transport and telecommunication.
"This directive will permit every firm delivering services to move freely within EU borders," the Socialist European parliament member Kartika Liotard said at a seminar on 'how to fight the Bolkestein directive'.
"What is dangerous is the so-called principle of the country of origin; the country where the company is registered will be the legal reference for its future operations," Liotard said. "Big multinationals can move to a country with less restrictive rules and settle there, and the other EU countries have to accept the legislation of that country when the company is operating."
This is particularly dangerous for workers, say unions.
"Workers will not have any more basic guarantees," a worker intervened to say. "Firms can do everything that is allowed by the lowest labour legislation, simply moving to a country with less social rights."
Unions and non-governmental organisations have organised several demonstrations against the directive in Belgium, France and other northern countries. "Now it is time to start a strong campaign against liberalisation and privatisation of social services," Marco Bersani from ATTAC Italy told IPS. "We all need to work together -- associations, unions and political parties -- if we want a different social model for Europe."
ATTAC, an "international movement for democratic control of financial markets and their institutions" is strongly opposing privatisation of public services "because there will be no social guarantees any more if we do not resist it," Bersani said.
Citizens will also be affected by the law, delegates said. "We need an accountable welfare state based on our needs, from the cradle to the grave. We have an alternative vision based on rights and not on privileges," said a British activist.
The proposal is now being discussed by the European Parliament, and an approval is expected on July next year. A second hearing following the first Aug. 28, will take place Nov. 11 at the European parliament in Brussels. Demonstrations are being planned for that day.
"As parliamentarians we are working to exclude the biggest number of services from the directive," Lionard said. "It is important that civil society strongly opposes the law."
An Italian activist said "we need a strong united battle of citizens and unions against the idea of privatised public service. And in the future money from taxes should not be used to finance wars, but to increase the services to citizens."
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2004 Inter Press Services