THOUSANDS of people from across Europe are heading for the European Social Forum in Florence in Italy next week. They will be taking part in one of the biggest international gatherings of campaigners and activists Europe has seen. The forum culminates in a major Europe-wide anti-war demonstration next Saturday, 9 November.
The European Social Forum was launched at the World Social Forum, which took place in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre last January. Around 70,000 people gathered at the World Social Forum under the slogan 'Another world is possible'.
Next week's European Social Forum starts on Thursday and runs through to the weekend. It is set to be packed with meetings, seminars and assemblies. They will cover an amazing variety of issues, from war to transport, food to Palestine, and just about everything in between. Every morning conferences will be hosted by the European Social Forum, while afternoon seminars and workshops will be held by a wide range of organisations. Globalise Resistance from Britain is holding a seminar on 'Anti-capitalism: what we want and how to get it', while the Stop the War Coalition is staging one on 'Europe against war and terror'.
Amnesty International is holding a meeting on 'No weapons for atrocities'. Every evening there will be cultural events, street theatre and music - including a meeting on 'Michaelangelo and revolution'. Plan The culmination of the whole forum will be the massive anti-war demonstration on the Saturday evening.
A gathering of social movements from across Europe is also set for Sunday 10 November in Florence to plan for protests at the G8 summit of world leaders to be held in France next year.
The atmosphere in Italy in the run-up to the European Social Forum is buzzing. Sara Nocentini, a spokesperson for the forum organisers, told Socialist Worker, 'The biggest trade union federation in Italy, the CGIL, is now officially backing the anti-war demo on Saturday. We have 800 beds in private houses that people have offered to delegates coming to the forum. There is a special four-day pass available for those who register, giving big reductions on transport and restaurants. The local council has organised creches, and the left wing shopkeepers' association is offering special deals to people. The union federation has also said it will steward the event.'
Luciano Muhlbauer is on the organising committee of the Italian Social Forum. He described what has been happening in Italy: 'The government has been trying to whip up a campaign against the forum.
'They say violent anarchists will descend on Florence. The social forum is a political problem for the right wing prime minister Berlusconi, so he attacks it politically. But all the social movements are united. We have met with the local authorities in Florence. We have made definite arrangements for 20,000 people to come to the forum. We know that 700 are coming from Catalonia alone, a special ship is coming from Greece, and many delegations are coming from Eastern Europe. For the anti-war demonstration on Saturday 9 November special trains have been chartered from cities right across Italy.'
The European Social Forum is not just causing a buzz in Italy. Christine from Germany told Socialist Worker, 'We expect about 1,000 people from Germany to go. Some campaign against privatisation, others want to develop different kinds of living, and others want to fight for refugee rights. The most important reason overall is the question of war. People are very impressed by the plans for the big anti-war demo. And everyone wants to come back from Florence and build a stronger movement against war and neo-liberalism in Germany.'
Forces in the Florence debates
MANY DIFFERENT political groups will be represented in Florence.
Trade unions: The main militant unions are the CGIL and the metal workers' FIOM.
Autonomists: They organise spectacular stunts and actions but are suspicious of political parties and trade unions.
Cobas: A breakaway union with significant support influenced by the politics of the autonomists. It staged its own marches during a recent general strike rather than marching with the mass of workers.
Rifondazione: Left wing party containing different currents. Rifondazione was part of the Genoa protests last year and the recent general strikes. It mobilised 100,000 for an anti-war demonstration.
DS (Democratic Left): Party formed from part of the old Communist Party, but which now has politics similar to Tony Blair's. Some sections of the DS are supporting the forum.
REST OF EUROPE
Attac: Largely based in France, with branches elsewhere, Attac campaigns for a Tobin Tax on financial speculation. Attac has failed to mobilise protests against the war.
Globalise Resistance: Broad-based British anti-capitalist organisation that campaigns against privatisation and war.
International Socialist Tendency: Organisations in different countries linked with Britain's Socialist Workers Party.
NGOs: Non governmental organisations that can have very different political approaches. The main British ones are War On Want, Amnesty International and the World Development Movement.
On the road from Britain to Florence
OVER 1,000 people are travelling from Britain to the European Social Forum. One group is travelling from Nottingham. Becky is a student at Nottingham Trent University and active in Student World Issues and Globalise Resistance.
She told Socialist Worker, 'There is a really good mixture of people going to Florence. They see a unique opportunity for people across Europe to build positive alternatives to capitalism and war. 'I am looking forward to the chance to speak to lots of different people - I feel I am on a steep learning curve! I always feel really inspired when I am with lots of people on a demo, so I am looking forward to that. And I am an artist, so I hope to get involved in some of the cultural activities.'
Phoebe Watkins is part of a delegation going from Camden in London's Unison union. She explained, 'People went from our union branch to the demo in Nice against the European Union summit in December 2000 and to the protest at the G8 summit in Genoa in July last year. They did reports for others when they came back, so there was a growing sense that we are part of a wider movement. We had an argument afterwards that the union should pay for low paid workers to go on similar events. Now we have four official delegates going to the ESF, and ten other people are going. The delegation is a good mixture of different ages and backgrounds.'
Bunny from Whitstable, Kent, told Socialist Worker that around ten people are booked to go to Florence from the area. The delegation includes a solicitor, a nurse, a postal worker and a disability rights activist.
'We are hoping to meet other activists and help to build Europe-wide action over defending asylum seekers, like around the Sangatte camp,' says Bunny. Tony Philips is the branch secretary of the London Fire Authority Unison branch. He told Socialist Worker, 'Our delegation to Florence is really good. There are two fire station cooks, two black members and two women, one of whom has not been active in the union before. In fact, some of the people now going actually voted against a delegation to Florence because they didn't really know what it was about. People are going because they are against the neo-liberal agenda and a range of other issues.'