Brussels is not a hotbed of popular mobilisation. Few rights struggles start here, but it is one of the biggest power centres in the world and it is one of the main chapters in the book on inequality, write Laura Sullivan and Jenny Ricks.
Laura Sullivan is the European Director of ActionAid International. Jenny Ricks is the Convenor of the Fight Inequality Alliance.
Some 60-80% of the laws that affect people in Europe are made in Brussels. Many of those laws offer us protection on issues like the environment, consumer issues and health. Most of the time EU laws are not the problem, rather the systematic scrapping of those laws under the heading of ‘better regulation’. And with many corporations headquartered in Brussels, decisions on things like trade and investment policy don’t always come down in favour of the majority of people living in Europe or outside it. From the irony of the CAP that promotes land concentration and industrial farming in Europe while favouring exports of subsidised products that destroy local markets in the Global South, to the relentless revolving doors story that allows ex-Commission President Barroso to join Goldman Sachs, corporation interests come first.
With that in mind, last week saw the connection of two agendas in Europe. One, a growing group of organisations in Brussels that want to see the EU survive and thrive, but in a way that puts people and planet back at the centre of its agenda. The other is a new global initiative called the Fight Inequality Alliance. It brings together all kinds of organisations working primarily on rights and the environment, who are seeking to challenge the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small elite. They want to build power from below and across borders to fight for solutions to solve the inequality crisis. At the event organised by ActionAid, Oxfam and the ITUC the question was, how can Europe help fight inequality? Even better – how can Europe itself change by listening to voices both inside and out who acknowledge that inequality is a crisis and that our economic and political systems badly need to change?
Already we have a world and an economic system that was upside down. It allows bankers to make a massive bet on the future of entire societies, and get bailed out of it by taxpayers. It’s a global system that will mean that – based on current progress – it will take 170 years for women to get equal pay to men. A system that pays little attention to life-changing land reform processes that affects millions in Africa whilst allowing a corporate land grabbing spree across the continent under the guise of promoting the role of private sector in development. A system where multinationals pay little to no taxes whilst governments are starved of the revenue they need to pay for public services that deliver peoples’ rights. In the US, it has allowed CEOs in the US to earn 204 times what average workers do. In the UK, it has seen shareholders dividends rise from £10 in every £100 profit in 1970 to £70 today, begging the question what is a corporation for?
Today many of those who uphold and benefit from those systems fuelling inequality are in power. There is a deep irony in the fact that many of those who voted for Trump and for Brexit last year are those most affected by inequality. Since then, Trump’s has started to appoint the very business leaders who have been busy over the last decades backing deregulation, reinforcing inequalities and runaway climate change. There is also a rhetoric coming from some leaders that appears to speak to the concerns of those at the frontlines of inequality, but only delivers more of the same. The words of activist Naomi Klein come to mind because by now there are most definitely “no non-radical solutions” left.
The question now being asked by those interested in building a more equal and sustainable societies is what role could Europe – much beyond Brussels – play to fight inequality? Fight Inequality Alliance members globally have started thinking about what their vision for the world we want is. At European level, several ideas are starting to sprout about where to begin.
If you believe in Stiglitz’s ‘It’s the politics, stupid!’, then a radical democratisation of EU institutions would be a good place to start and there are already alternatives on offer. Some favour the idea of rethinking elections along the lines of a lottery system of citizens fully participating in real debates and deciding, as inspired by ancient Greece, new experiments from Iceland to Ireland and the writings of David Van Reybrouck in ‘Against Elections’.
Others see a major job to be done to tackle the financial sector, challenging the access the lobby has to the corridors of power in Brussels. Tax justice is a logical entry point for many: changing the rules and make corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Wealth can be part of the solution, if it’s actually redistributed via progressive taxes (progressively spent). Overall, there is an agreement that we won’t get anywhere unless European leaders change their tune and drop their somewhat ridiculous obsession with economic growth as the main or only filter for every decision they take. Look at Nigeria, which had a growth rate of 7% over the period of 2003-2009, a rate European leaders can only dream of. Much of it led to more millionaires (up 44%), the incomes to the rich growing (up 18%) while those to the poor fell (down 12%). Wealth has just not been trickling down. Has it anywhere?
One thing is for sure, it is going to take some huge changes to reanimate Europe. Can it be done? We believe so – if the fight against inequality is at its heart.