FOR AS long as I can remember, people have been saying that the left needs to organise at a European level to match the development of the European Union. For years, this was just talk. Now, in an absent-minded sort of way, it's happening.
The main vehicle through which a European left is emerging is the European Social Forum (ESF). The first of these continent-wide gatherings of the anti-capitalist movement took place in Florence late last year. The next will be in Paris on 12-16 November. The ultimate decision-making body for the ESF is a European assembly open to all activists who choose to come along.
This meets about every two months in a different European city. The latest took place in Genoa the weekend before last. This method of decision-making has its disadvantages. The most obvious is that it favours those organisations that have the resources to send representatives to these meetings.
One of the great strengths of the ESF process, however, is that it brings together several hundred activists from all over Europe in regular discussions. Dozens must have taken part in all the meetings since the first one nearly 18 months ago.
This means that activists from many different countries and backgrounds are developing a habit of working and discussing together. In the process, we are getting to know one another. Political positions are being staked out and argued through. Usually ATTAC France, which campaigns for the regulation of financial markets, is on the right of the debates. Activists from Italy, Britain and Greece are typically found further to the left.
Inevitably, the assemblies vary in quality. The best so far took place in Barcelona last October.
It was here that the argument was made and won for the ESF in Florence to focus on the then imminent war on Iraq and to launch a call for an international day of protest on 15 February. So the ESF has helped to make history.
Unfortunately the assembly in Genoa didn't match these high standards. It was a diffuse and frustrating meeting. The reasons for this are, in the main, political. The Anglo-American conquest of Iraq disoriented many activists. They believed in effect that Bush and Blair had won.
So the different anti-war movements have agreed in principle that September will be a month of action against the occupation of Iraq. But nothing like the 27 September Stop the War Coalition demonstration in London seems to be planned in important European countries such as Italy and Spain. The leadership of ATTAC France has consistently been sceptical about the importance and significance of the anti-war movement.
Pierre Khalfa, a prominent member deeply involved in the ESF process, argued recently that Bush's war drive is an ideological project that has nothing intrinsically to do with either neo-liberalism or globalisation. The political confusion has been exacerbated by a lack of drive from the French organising committee of the next ESF.
The committee has won the support of a very broad spectrum of organisations, including several major trade unions. But the committee doesn't seem to have much political coherence. Its members offered very little leadership in Genoa, concentrating instead on organisational questions.
Various petty rows that should have been resolved in Paris took up the time of the European assembly. It would be a mistake, however, to paint too bleak a picture. The right wing of ATTAC do not represent the broader movement.
There was an exhibition in Genoa to mark the second anniversary of the protests at the Group of Eight summit. It demonstrated that, certainly in Italy, there is a very clear understanding of the organic connection between war and neo-liberalism. The assembly responded very well to those speakers seeking to offer a way forward to the movement.
These speakers stressed the importance of resisting the imperialist war and what the French Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensa•d calls the social war - the offensive that is being mounted against the welfare state all over Europe. The struggles to defend pensions in countries like France and Austria in recent months were in many people's minds.
Piero Bernocchi of the radical Italian union Cobas struck a chord when he talked about organising 'a social 15 February'. Despite the weaknesses of the French organising committee, Paris this autumn is likely to be an ideal site for the ESF.
Already, earlier this summer, France saw a huge strike wave against the government assault on pensions. Now the struggle is being continued by freelance cultural workers. This atmosphere of resistance will help make Paris in November the Mecca of tens of thousands from all over Europe who want to carry on fighting against the imperialist monster. Don't miss it!