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The Ever Broader Coalition Against 'Bolkestein'

The success story of the Services Directive is one of a critical minority being able to eventually gather a broad coalition and see its claims endorsed or, to borrow Tilly’s and Tarrow’s terms, ‘certified’ by a majority and key actors within the decision-making process (Tilly and Tarrow 2007, p. 215). Two institutional aspects shaped the process of coalition building in a decisive fashion, which can both be thought of as the political opportunity structure or the institutional setting of the EU (cf. 1.2): the first aspect is the involvement of the EP as a co-legislator on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers under the procedure of co-decision; the second is the activation of all channels of politicization and mobilization in the EU multi-level polity. Drawing on a typology elaborated by students of the Europeanization of collective action (Imig and Tarrow 2001a, b; Balme and Chabanet 2002; della Porta and Caiani 2007), it is possible to observe that resistance to the Services Directive operated simultaneously through three types of channels: transnational, supranational and domestic.

From the outset, opponents of the directive within unions and the alter- globalist movement understood that, facing a closed, neoliberal-minded Commission and a majority of pro-liberalization governments within the Council, the EP (and the two left-wing-minded rapporteurs) had to be a key ally for the directive to be rejected or significantly altered.[1] For most MEPs, the conflict and its resolution was an instance of a twofold institutional and political assertion picturing the EP as the most democratic and socially minded institutions of the EU. When the compromise was adopted in 2006, E. Gebhardt claimed that

The European Parliament has proved its strength with today’s vote and

demonstrated that it is the best protector of citizens’ rights. By putting people at the heart of policy, after tough negotiations we have now succeeded in structuring freedom of services in Europe along social and equitable lines. This has enabled us to clear the way to a more social and united Europe.[2]

Inside as well as outside of the EP, the coalition progressively expanded to a wide range of actors and organizations ranging from the radical left, alterglobalist associations and greens to the social democrats and even pro-regulation conservatives and liberals in Belgium, France and Germany (mainly).

Transnational networks within the alterglobalist and labour movement were key in making the legislative piece contentious. Critical assessments of the Services Directive proposal originated from whistle-blowers within Belgian socialist circles and organizations of the Belgian Social Forum, which includes all Belgian unions and NGOs such as Oxfam. The socialist think tank Institut Vandervelde launched the online petition and website Stopbolkestein. With 80,000 individual signatures, the endorsement of over 300 organizations in ten European countries, Stopbolkestein became the platform for rallying contestation across transnational activist networks.[3] [4] [5] The initial contestation gained an important echo through the ESF at the 2004 meeting in London, where the Belgian Social Forum organized a workshop dedicated to the ‘Bolkestein directive’. At this occasion, contacts were established with numerous organizations of the radical left such as the French Ligue communiste revolutionnaire. The general assembly of social movements closing the forum agreed to call for a large anti-Bolkestein rally in March 2005.11 The anti-Bolkestein campaign was also strongly endorsed by the coordination of the ‘ATTACs of Europe’ who organized specific activities, notably in connection with the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty.1 2 The strength of transnational channels of contestation lies in the convergence between NGOs and radical groupings within the alterglobalist movement, on the one hand, and unions, including both radical and more centrist unions such as the French Confederation franqaise democratique du travail (CFDT) or the German union confederation DGB, on the other. In spite of divergence of views,[6] [7] the convergence in action climaxed in the demonstration on 19 March 2005 in Brussels which gathered about 50,000 people.

In the course of 2004, resistance to the Services Directive proposal extended from weakly institutionalized networks to the supranational channels available in the EU multi-level governance, mainly political groups in the EP and the ETUC. Originally rather quiet on the issue, ETUC progressively endorsed a leadership role coordinating union contestation vis-a-vis ‘Bolkestein’ in Brussels. Likewise, MEPs belonging to the left-wing political parties were also highly involved in the diffusion and politicization of the conflict. The members of the Confederal Group of the GUE/NGL were very active in feeding mobilization both in their country on the ground and in the EP, 1 4 especially the French communist F Wurtz, who was the President of the group, or the German MEP from die Linke Sarah Wagenknecht. In November 2004, the two co-rapporteurs of the two EP committees in charge, E. Gebhardt (internal market and consumer protection) and A. Van Lancker (employment and social affairs), organized a public hearing where a range of lawyers, unionists and experts expressed their views on the directive proposal. As a result, E. Gebhardt concluded in her working document from December 2004 that ‘the Commission should be invited to either withdraw its proposal or to substantially re-work on it’ (European Parliament 2004). On the day prior to the demonstration of March 2005, a conference co-organized by ATTAC Wallonia-Brussels and the group GUE/NGL in the EP gathered representatives of unions, ATTAC and various NGOs as well as A. Van Lancker. The anti-Bolkestein coalition was then at its strongest.

However, the high level of politicization in this debate was also—if not foremost—reached through domestic channels, a process referred to as ‘internalization’ or ‘domestication’. While the issue was first addressed by organizations of the (radical) left, their purpose was to reach central decision-making institutions such as parliaments and governments. In Belgium, it is the French-speaking Socialist Party in government which to a large extent instigated mobilization.[8] In addition to the Stopbolkestein campaign, this prompted a declaration by 110 socialist mayors against the directive as well as a resolution adopted unanimously in the House of Representatives in June 2004 asking the federal government notably to ‘confirm its demands with regard to the protection of SGI’ (Chambre des representants de Belgique 2005).

In France, the debate over the Services Directive was closely intertwined with the referendum campaign over the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty. The ‘Bolkestein directive’ acted like an engine for the campagne du ‘non led by a myriad of groupings, parties and unions of the radical left, including the Communist Party, ATTAC and the alterglobalist think tank Fondation Copernic. The campaign peaked in early 2005, where hundreds of local committees for a ‘no of the left’ can claim to have organized about 1500 public meetings where the Services Directive was systematically discussed.[9] Although split on the issue of the Treaty ratification, the Socialist Party (in the opposition) took an official position critical of the proposal. The Services Directive was very instrumentally used by the dissidents in the party who campaigned against the Treaty.[10] As the ‘no’ campaign climaxed two months before the referendum in March 2005, the conservative government and President Chirac called vigorously for a substantial revision of the Services Directive proposal.

Germany displayed a similar, if delayed, politicization process with the anti-Bolkestein coalition progressively expanding from the radical left to the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), the then party of Chancellor Schroder. While mobilization started in 2004 within ATTAC and a broader network of left-wing NGOs called Europa von unten (Europe from the bottom), mobilization was more difficult to feed. This can be explained by the historical hostility between the neo-socialists of die Linke and the SPD, on the one hand, and the reluctance—still important at the time—among the media and political establishment to criticize the EU and its policies, on the other.[11] In this regard, Sigrid Skarpelis-Sperk, the rapporteur of the Bundestag on the Services Directive, acted as a key mediator of contention. A figure on the left wing of the SPD, and a critic of Chancellor Schroeder’s neoliberal reform agenda, Skarpelis-Sperk was well known among activist networks previously mobilized against services liberalization by the WTO.[12] When Skarpelis-Sperk discovered that the Services Directive had already been approved by the Bundestag through an automatic procedure without discussion, she formed a broad coalition with left-wing activists and unions and succeeded in eventually rallying the whole of the SPD parliamentary group against the directive. Thus, the Bundestag eventually adopted a resolution asking the government to take a critical stance on several aspects of the directive proposal, including the inclusion of SGI. Put under such pressure, the Chancellor had no choice but to reverse the initial support of Germany for the directive in the Council, and joined President Chirac in his call for a revision of the Commission proposal.

Finally, the Waxholm controversy which broke out in 2004 in Sweden also played a crucial role in the politicization of the Services Directive Europe-wide (Woolfson and Sommers 2006; Menz 2010). The conflict opposed the Latvian company Laval un Partneri, which was working on the construction of a school in the Swedish village of Waxholm but refused to abide by the Swedish collective agreements fixing pay and working conditions. As the Swedish construction union took action to block the construction site, the ECJ was called on to rule on possible obstruction to the freedom to provide services.[13] This controversy was seen as a blatant illustration of the conflict between EU law and national values and regulations involved with the Services Directive. It caused a diplomatic crisis between Sweden and Latvia, a vocal member of the liberal coalition supporting the Bolkestein version of the directive. Thus, while starting as a minority of left-wing activists and whistle-blowers, pro-regulation actors critical of the Commission’s proposal for services liberalization progressively gathered a broad coalition of organizations, institutions and governments across the whole political spectrum of the EU.

  • [1] Interview with a representative of the Belgian public services union CGSP, Brussels; Interviewwith a former representative of Institut Emile Vandervelde; interview with a representative ofETUC; interview with an activist at ATTAC Wallonia-Brussels; interview with representatives ofATTAC France; interview with a representative of the German Trade Union Confederation(Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [DGB]), Berlin, October 2008.
  • [2] Party of European Socialists, ‘Evelyne Gebhardt: Game, set, and match to the Services Directive.Way clear for a more social Europe’, communique de presse, 15 November 2006,, date accessed 26 November 2009; also interview with Evelyne Gebhardt, MEP, Brussels,June 2008.
  • [3] Interview with a former representative of Institut Emile Vandervelde, Brussels, March 2008.
  • [4] Interview with a representative of the French Ligue communiste revolutionnaire; interview witha representative of ATTAC Wallonia-Brussels.
  • [5] Interview with representative of ATTAC Deutschland, Berlin, May 2007.
  • [6] Two issues divided the most radical and the most centrist organizations: first, whether to call forthe rejection or substantial modification of the Services Directive proposal; the second was theupcoming French referendum on the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty and thedivision within the left between pro- and anti-ECT (with ETUC clearly supporting the ratification). Interview with two representatives of ETUC, Brussels, September 2007 and April 2009.
  • [7] Interview with Francis Wurtz, MEP, Brussels, May 2008; interview with Sarah Wagenknecht,telephone, February 2008.
  • [8] Interview with a former representative of the Institut Emile Vandervelde, Brussels, March 2008.
  • [9] I nterview with a representative of the Ligue Communiste revolutionnaire, Paris, June 2008;interview with a representative of the Communist Party, Paris, June 2009; interview with a representative of the Fondation Copernic, Paris, February 2007.
  • [10] Interview with Henri Emmanuelli, MP, Paris, June 2009. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabiuswas also a main opponent to the ECT within the Socialist party, see (Crespy, 2008).
  • [11] Interview with Angelika Schwall-Duren, Madrid, December 2008; Interview with SigridSkarpelis-Sperk, MP, Berlin, December 2008.
  • [12] Interview with Sigrid Skarpelis-Sperk; interview with a representative of IndustriegewerkschaftBau-Agrar-Umwelt, Berlin, November 2008; interview with a representative of Ver.di, Berlin, July2009.
  • [13] In the judgement Laval un Partneri of18 December 2007, the ECJ ruled in favour of the Latviancompany arguing that the right of unions to take collective action cannot infringe on competitionrules and the principle of freedom to provide services, a decision which caused much resent amongunions and specialists of EU law.
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