• The Indignados movement in Spain has spawned followers across the globe (Photo: Ojo Espejo)

EU commission willing to meet 'Indignados' in Brussels

14.10.11 @ 17:53

  1. By Leigh Phillips

The European Commission is willing to meet with representatives of the growing 'indignado' anti-austerity movement and has actively attempted to make contact with the young people, a contingent of whom who have marched from Madrid to Brussels protesting a European Union they say places the interests of banks and big business ahead of ordinary citizens.

"If the indignados come here, Of course I would feel obliged to meet with them," employment and social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor told reporters on Thursday (13 October).

Inspired by the Arab Spring, the non-violent movement kicked off on 15 May as young people took over the squares of Spanish cities. The scale of the protests have waxed and waned throughout the year, but between 6.5 million and 8 million Spaniards have participated in the protests according to an estimate by RTVE, the Spanish public broadcaster, and pollsters report that some 80 percent of the population back their cause.

Last weekend, a group of indignados arrived in Brussels after an 80 day trek from Spain. Hundreds of marchers have also made their way to the European capital from Germany and the Netherlands.

The Spanish indignados have in turn inspired similar protests in Greece, Israel, Pakistan, India and the United States, where under a different title - first Occupy Wall Street, then Occupy Boston, Chicago and so on - encampments of young people have targetted stock exchanges and other symbols of economic power.

Whatever they call themselves, the movement, which has won high-profile backing from Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank, and Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, has clearly tapped into a vein of popular dissatisfaction with high unemployment and cuts to social programmes while banks receive trillions in bail-outs. The protests have since spread to over a 150 cities around the world.

On Saturday, demonstrations are planned in 951 cities and 82 countries, the movement claims.

The Hungarian commissioner, who had a long history on the academic left before joining the EU executive, said: "I am absolutely sympathetic about exposing indignation about unemployment."

However, he criticised their targetting of EU institutions: "They should be aware that the Spanish situation was not created here ... to target the European Commission is probably not right.

"They should go to Frankfurt instead,” he joked in a reference to the headquarters of the European Central Bank.

Andor’s staff have tried to make contact with the protestors via the commission’s offices in Spain. They add that the commissioner would even be willing to visit the Parc Elizabeth in the European capital, where they have set up camp.

"If he were invited to the park where they are camped, he could come. He would consider an invitation," said one official. "He’s open. Why would he not be willing to meet them?"

But the indignados must come with a concrete series of complaints to discuss, his staff say: "There has to be a minimum of things to talk about. They have to be really forward with what they want. [The commissioner] does not want to talk about food additives or nuclear power. But he could talk about unemployment and jobs. Do they see a case for European intervention in this area?"

The openness on the part of the employment commissioner contrasts with their reception at the European Parliament on Tuesday after they had been asked by a left-wing Spanish MEP, Willy Meyer, to a meeting to discuss their concerns.

Despite being invited into the building by the euro-deputy, Belgian riot police, including officers on horseback, blocked a group of about 30 indignados from entering the building upon the request of the parliament’s services.

A group of seven was finally let in after MEPs complained.

"The security services behaved in an unacceptable manner to prevent the indignados from entering and treated them like criminals, instead of ordinary people coming in peace to present their concerns," said Meyer after the incident.

A spokesman for the left-wing United European Left grouping in the chamber, David Lundy, told EUobserver: "It was just so over the top. These people had zero intention of storming the parliament. And to think that the square in front of the parliament has just been renamed ‘Solidarnosc Esplanade’, after another democracy protest movement."

Indignados and MEPs debate the crisis

’The EU doesn’t represent citizens’

This website caught up with one of the activists involved who arrived in Brussels separately from the marchers to meet with NGOs and discuss the growing protest movement.

Javier Toret, a Barcelona organiser with Democracy Real Ya (Real Democracy Now), the grassroots citizens' organization that was one of the catalysts for the wider protests, explained why they are targetting the EU and not just their own domestic political and economic elites.

"We believe that real democracy is no longer possible in one country, but on a European level," he said. "The commission, the European Central Bank - they are imposing austerity on us, yet they are not democratic institutions. They are not elected by citizens and they do not represent our interests."

He says the movement is not anti-EU, but that in the wake of the crisis, the whole European project must be rebuilt from the ground up.

Listing a set of far-reaching demands that extend well beyond not merely commissioner Andor’s areas of responsibility, but all the legal powers of the EU executive, Toret did not apologise for the movement’s radical aims.

"It is necessary to completely refound the EU institutions," he said, adding a comment that could perhaps have come out of the mouth of former Belgian prime minister and arch euro-federalist Guy Verhofstadt: "We need a new European constitution written by the citizens."

He said that the attempt at writing a European constitution that was defeated by referendums in France and Netherlands in 2005 was doomed to fail because this was organised in a "top-down" fashion and "constitutionalised neo-liberalism at the EU level."

"This constitution should define new principles of social justice across the European continent, that puts an end to the privileges of politicians and bankers, that goes beyond our current system of political parties and representative democracy and embraces participatory democracy."

He insists that such demands are not hopelessly idealistic and points to an EU-accession candidate as an example. He wants European citizens to draft the document directly, "like they are doing in Iceland."

Icelandic experiment

In the wake of the small north Atlantic nation’s economic collapse, the country embarked on one of the most radical experiments in democracy in history: A new constitution has been crafted by a 25-member assembly of non-politicians that used online ‘crowdsourcing’ via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, incorporating the sometimes bizarre, sometimes very specific recommendations of ordinary citizens.

The indignados movement has come under criticism in the press for its at times incoherent demands. At their Brussels encampment, political workshop subjects have ranged from adjustments to Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, the nature of the eurozone debt crisis and the role of lobbyists in EU policy-making to ‘shamanistic chants’ and ‘collectivist aesthetics’ in art.

A messy "press conference" at the camp organised on Thursday took over two hours to complete as all questions could be answered by anyone instead of by professional spokespeople, yielding contradictory responses.