Monday, January 27, 2014


Ukrainian VOST leaders, President Oleksander Dzhulyk (on the right) and Vice-President Yuri Kyrilo, asking for European help and sanctions at the start of the seminar because of the 5th social week in Oostende, Belgium.
The seminar started with a modest protest of 2 trade union leaders of VOST Ukraine. They held up the flag of Ukraine between them together with protest signs asking for European help and sanctions. After Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, had held his opening speech, they asked him what Europe is planning to do with Ukraine?

Van Rompuy expressed his disappointment that the president of Ukrainian Janoekovitsj did not sign the historical document on cooperation with the EU during the 2 days meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania in December last month. During that meeting it was the President himself who declared that he could not sign because of pressures from Moscow. The president did not have the clear political will to come to an agreement with the EU. However, Van Rompuy confirmed that the door is still open for cooperation between the EU and Ukraine. In the mean time the EU will put maximum pressures to the Government of Ukraine not to use violence. Violence is not the answer to the prostests but political reforms. He doubts the effectiveness of EU sanctions on the Ukraine, it did not work in the case of Belorus. The EU will look for the best way to help Ukraine. During the visit of President Putin to Brussels, the EU will also speak to him about Ukraine.

From right to left. Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council (Mr. Europe) speaking. Jaap Smit, President of the 5th Social Week and Cardinal Peter Turkson.

The seminar was organized by ACW, the Umbrella of Christian Workers Organizations in Belgium, together with the European Centre for Workers Questions (EZA) and others, financially supported by the European Commission. The guiding slogan of the seminar was “Europe the age of responsibility”.

The participants, coming from all corners of Europe, were welcomed by Jaap Smit, Chairman of the initiative Committee of the 5th European Social week and until the 1st of January President of the Dutch trade union confederation CNV. His message was critical on Europe. Europeans are living in difficult times. “Nowadays 25% of young people in the EU are unemployed...The number of men and women living below the poverty line, is growing (from 20 to 24 million). European responses have thus far proved to be insufficient.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson stressed during his opening speech the importance of the Christian social ethics as guidelines for the current European and global challenges. According to the Cardinal the Compendium of Social Teachings of the Catholic Church is a source of wisdom, inspiration and guidance. The starting point is the goodness of God's creation which leads to 4 pillars: human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity (participation) complemented by reconciliation. We are all equal in dignity but we are not all the same. Solidarity means making history with others based on participation (no exclusion). The biblical question “where is your brother” is a radical challenge, an option for the poor. Fraternity is a global challenge. We share the same house (earth). Charity makes it possible to create a part of heaven on earth.

Fritz Neugebauer, President of the Austrian trade union of Public Servants (GÖD) and second President of the Autrian Parliament, went back to the ancient commandments that everybody knows, as the basis for business ethics, entrepreneurship and social dialogue: you shall not kill, you shall not steal (do not be corrupt, do not bribe people), you shall not lie (do not falsify money, no money laundering, do not authorize false audits etc.) and you shall not sexually abuse anybody. The principle of reciprocity must lead us: do not do to another what you do not want to be done to you.

Herman van Rompuy, also called Mr. Europe, is Europe's little Obama. Van Rompuy is not elected by European voters like Obama is elected by American voters. He is chosen by European leaders who indeed have been elected by their national voters. Van Rompuy is also not chief of the army like Obama but the European leaders who choose him, have armies like for example France and Great Britain but also smaller nations as Belgium and the Netherlands. The US and the European armies are cooperating in the NATO, a kind of Euro-American army that is operating world wide like for example these days in some African countries. So his words may not have the political weight like those of Obama but they are also important. Compared to the US, Europa is a soft world power, but still a power.

By his visit to the seminar, Van Rompuy showed his democratic attitude. He stressed that measures taken by the EU to restore financial stability, were aimed to create employment. The downfall of the EURO, which was at a certain moment not far away, would have destroyed the greatest political project of the 19th century, the creation of the EU. According to him there is no alternative for this European project of peace, progress and democracy.

From right to left. Bartho Pronk, President of EZA, speaking. Jerôme Vignon, Chairman of the French Social Week and Pierre Defriagne, Professor in Economy and Director of Maradiaga Foundation at the College of Europe in Brugge, Belgium.

Indeed big mistakes have been made: bad financial risk management by banks and other institutions, not enough supervision by the national banks and excessive indebtedness stimulated by low interests. The economic recession was the consequence of artificially economic growth based on easy credits and loans, for governments and private enterprise. But already before the economic crisis, Europe had serious problems with finding answers on the global challenge of China and other fast growing economies like Brazil and India. Economic growth was already low, unemployment already high. That is why Europe was already looking for new strategies like the Lissabon strategy and Europe 20/20. Today these reforms have become more urgent than ever.

According to Van Rompuy restoring economic growth is the main condition for restoring employment. But will work the classical model of economic growth to create employment once again, or has it become obsolete because of the globalisation? According to Bartho Pronk the political agreement on the introduction of a minimum wage by the German Coalition of christian and social democrats is a first positive step in the right direction. The minimum wages make it easier to watch over labour contracts. The minimum wage will also help the “working poor” to become less poor. However, Pronk notes in Europe a tendency “towards the abolition of the social security systems, without taking in consideration the vulnerable position of many people...The quality of our Western civilisation is under pressure, because self-interests and consumerism often replace an attitude of responsibility and participation.”

From right to left. Bernard Edmunds, Professor in Social Philosophy and Director of the Oswald von Nell-Breuning Institut, Frankfurt, Germany and Bea Cantillon, Professor at the University of Antwerp and President of the Centre for Social Policy Herman Deleeck. 

Most of the speakers at the seminar agreed that at the heart of the European Social Model should stay the social dialogue between the three stake holders: trade unions representing workers, employers organizations and governments. The social dialogue is a proper tool to regulate the ongoing conflict between capital and labour. Social dialogue brings social peace en economic stability. It is also a proper way to maintain solidarity between the individual (employed and unemployed) and the society, between those who have work and those who have not: the unemployed, the sick and the retired people.

But as already said, the model is under pressure. Capital is considered as more important than labour. The Anglo-Saxon model of a share holders economy displaces the Rhineland model of the social-market economy. Inequalities are becoming greater as a result of long term unemployment, new technologies, instability of families and globalisation with its delocalisation and flexibilisation. Jerome Vignon, chairman of the French Social week, insists that social priorities must be put above those of capital.

From right to left. Georges Dassis (Greece), President of the Workers Group of the Economic and Social Committee. Patrick Develtere, President ACW and Fritz Neugebauer, second President of the Parliament of Austria and President of the trade union GÖD.

By comparing the post war model of the USA with that of Europe, Professor Bea Cantillon of the University of Antwerp, concluded that the European Union must become a so called transfer union, a union of financial solidarity. The classical idea that economic convergence leads to social convergence, does not work. Europe has today a well developed common market but not a common social security system. Therefore a new European paradigm is needed: a European minimum wage must be introduced, the EU must become a transfer union of solidarity between North and South, West and East and there must be introduced a common social policy supervised by the EU like now has been developed for the budget policy of the EU members.

Professor Bernhard Edmunds is critical about the underlying concepts of the free market. Europe should not accept the classical liberal idea of maximum liberty for the individual and a minimum of state intervention. Europe must go back to the Social Christian thesis that human beings essentially are social beings. Therefore Europe as an economic community (common market) should also be a political community with social dimensions. In the same direction Patrick Develtere, director of ACW, advocates a more qualitative economic growth as the answer to the growing environment problems, the depletion of raw materials and the climate change, caused by human economic activities.

The idea of the European Union as a transfer union with shared financial solidarity, a more social Europe and a Europe with qualitative economic growth are today very contested by right wing politicians in many European countries. Their promise that going back to the old times of nationalism, autonomy, independence and no immigration will restore the national welfare state of the past, is believed by a growing group of voters. These voters see Brussels as a financial machine wasting their money and not anymore as a project for economic progress as stated by Van Rompuy. So van Rompuy was right to conclude that the next European Parliament elections in the month of May will become a test for he future of the EU.   

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