SPECIAL REPORT / 240 people were arrested on Thursday (15 May) around the European Business Summit venue in Brussels during non-violent protests organised by trade unions and citizens’ groups.
The protestors had gathered to denounce the budgetary austerity policies in Europe, and the ongoing talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the USA, which they say is being negotiated "in total opacity".
'We don't want more business in Europe'
“Today multinationals are inviting political decision makers like the European trade commissioner Karel De Gucht and they are discussing putting more business in Europe," said Felipe Van Keirsblick, the secretary general of the Belgian trade union for employees, the CNE-CNG.
"We don’t want more business in Europe, we want more democracy in Europe and that’s what people want, not what multinationals want,” Van Keirsblick said.
What started as a large non-violent protest made up of citizens from all over Europe and from different cultural and professional backgrounds – from farmers to administrative employees and students – was soon reduced to a much smaller group, after the police entered Louise Square, a luxurious shopping district area of Brussels not far from the venue (see footage from the Belgian public broadcaster).
For the protesters, it was a "sign that our politicians are bowing down before business interests".
The business summit, which spanned over two days in one of the most prestigious conference venues in Brussels, the Egmont Palace, discussed how to build a more competitive Europe, with panel discussions dedicated to the issues such as banking union, financing innovation and “maintaining citizens’ trust”.
Although well-meaning, the summit also revealed a widening gap between what protesters called the “Europe from above” and the “Europe from below”, embodied in the TTIP talks process.
Despite projections of growth and job creation the US-EU trade deal would bring, protesters were categorically opposed to it.
“When Mexico and the United States twenty years ago started NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Area, they said it would create a million jobs. They’ve lost millions of jobs. Even the figures coming from the European Commission say that very, very little jobs will be created, but people must know that this possible creation of jobs –that never occurs – is only for some little groups, for the richest people. The free trade area between EU and USA will destroy jobs, social protection and environmental rights, especially in the South, the East and for the poor in Europe,” the unions declared.
Business interests, they say, erode democracy and threaten the European social model.
'Reality vs perception'
While protesters were venting their discontent, a panel debate moderated by EurActiv at the event was dealing precisely with the issue of: How can business maintain citizens’ trust?.
A trade union representative, businesswomen and men, and a member of the EU Commission tried to identify the problems.
The representative for Business Europe, Renate Hornung-Draus, however insisted that “perception and reality” are not necessarily the same.
“Citizens have different facets, they’re workers, they’re investors, and trust is a complex notion, it is not always factual,” she said, pointing at the last Eurobarometer survey on working conditions, in which 77% of respondents said they were satisfied.
Hornung-Draus highlighted the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for businesses, big and small, a core issue in managing the reputation of a company. However, she said, most entrepreneurs do not wish to see harmonisation of CSR at European level.
“The problem is that people have contradictory aspirations. They want a social enterprise but they also want cheap products. What people want is very nice, but it’s not enough to shape policy and take decisions,” she said.
But for Patrick Ischert from the European Trade Union Confederation, the problem lies much deeper.
“Remember the food scandals, Rana Plaza, remember the NSA scandal, and the mine tragedy in Turkey. CSR is an opportunity for good businesses and a challenge for bad ones, we need regulation. How can we have citizens trust when lobbyist spend €120 million for the financial sector only? And what is the independence of the Commission towards them,” he asked.
Business ethics were at the heart of the British “self-made” businesswoman, Madi Sharma who “built eight international companies on trust, values and valuing human capital.”
Sharma harshly criticised the direction Europe has taken, stressing that it “lacks vision”.
“We talk about democracy and human rights but we put trade first, we give our resources to China and we discriminate against 51% of the population, the women,” she added.
'Europe in a mess'
However the European Commission representative, Paola Testori-Coggi reminded “that Europe is still the place with the greatest democracy and highest standards of living, safety, workers’ protection, access to quality healthcare”.
But the arguments failed to convince the trade unionist, who stressed that the economic and financial crisis “undermined the trust of the citizens in general” because labour standards determined by the International Labour Organisation “are not being respected in Europe”, he also lashed out at the REFIT legislation which treats issues like the working time directive as “administrative burden”.
For Itschert, despite the high level of wellbeing in Europe, the foundations the union was built on are being dismantled, prompting him to compare today’s EU to Thatcherism.
But as the moderator, Daniela Vincenti, pointed out at the start of the debate, “not only trade unionists” have warned against the erosion of standards on the continent, quoting Philippe Legrain, former adviser to Commission president José Manuel Barroso. "Legrain says that the EU will not be able to sustain its social system because the wobbliest recovery.”
Pascoe Sabido, from the Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group, said "Once again we have seen that the priorities of big business are placed above those of Europe's citizens. It's simply not acceptable to arbitrarily arrest peaceful protestors for trying to make their voices heard above the billions of dollars spent by multinational corporations on lobbying. Democracy is truly broken and it doesn't appear like our political leaders are in any hurry to fix it".
Noemi Costa from the Coalizione Centri Sociale and the Blockupy International Coordinating Committee said “By being here today we've shown that solidarity beyond borders is necessary and possible. This is another step in building a transeuropean movement to fight back against the neoliberal crisis policies coming out of Brussels. Up until the elections we will be in the streets, demanding the Europe that we really want.”
- 19-23 May: 5th round of EU-US trade talks in Arlington, Virginia