Hugh Caffrey, of the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW), writing in its magazine “Socialism Today” (May 2009) about the Green Party’s stance towards the EU’s postal privatization directive makes a serious allegation: “The Green Party in the European parliament supports this directive!”. This is part of an attempt to portray the Greens as neo-liberal and pro-privatisation. This story has also been circulated and reiterated on the Socialist Unity blog as ‘Euro-Greens – A Sorry Tale’
However, a statement by the Greens / EFA group in the European Parliament clearly states their opposition to the directive:
“The Greens are opposed to the proposal that looks set to be voted on, which would lead to a serious deterioration of postal services in rural, peripheral or ‘mountainous’ regions. There are no adequate guarantees for financing the provision of a universal service, which would mean private operators can reap the benefits of profitable routes, leaving the taxpayer to bear responsibility for a universal service”
Furthermore, the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) has made many public statements against postal privatisation such as this one by Prospective Green Party Euro-MP for Eastern Region, Councillor Rupert Read:
“We strongly oppose any privatisation of Royal Mail. The Green Party has long campaigned against transferring essential public services to private hands…Privatisation benefits big business interests, not consumers. We have seen this in the NHS, BT and the railways, to name a few instances. A report by Postwatch, the consumer watchdog, has failed to find any significant benefits to individual users from the ‘liberalisation’ of the postal service…To call for the part-privatisation of a major British institution at a time when the dangers of ‘the market’ have been so clearly exposed in recent months is clearly madness. The substantial job losses called for by this report are the last thing our struggling economy needs at the moment”
So whats going on? Who is telling the truth?
As evidence for his claim, Caffery had quoted from a document by the Greens / EFA group in the European Parliament.
Caffery quotes this Green / EFA group document as saying: “The objective of the postal directive is to guarantee a high-quality universal service. The opening of the market is not an objective in itself, but… to facilitate the achievement of a high-quality universal service”. He goes on to interpret this paragraph as saying: “In other words, they agree with New Labour that it doesn’t matter how a service is delivered, so long as it is delivered. But privatisation cannot and will not deliver high-quality public services”.
I want to show how Caffery has only made a selective quotation from the offending paragraph, in order to misrepresent the real position of the Greens / EFA in the European Parliament. The real position of the document is far more critical of and opposed to postal privatization or ‘market-opening’ or ‘liberalisation’. Caffrey’s article was published in the run up to the euro-elections, where the Socialist Party was part of the ‘No2EU – yes to democracy’ platform and thus competing for the ‘left of labour vote’ with the Green Party.
So to start, lets re-locate the offending sentence back into its surrounding original text in the Green / EFA document:
“Greens/EFA consider that the objective of the Postal Directives is to guarantee a high-quality universal service. The opening of the market is not an objective in itself, but eventually a mean to facilitate the achievement of a high-quality universal service. In case of a contradiction between the objective of universal service and liberalisation, other means of ensuring universal service must be found or maintained. This interpretation is in conformity with the Treaty itself…”
What could this mean? What is at first glaring is that Caffery has missed out is the crucial sentence following the one he gives us, a sentence which changes the whole meaning: “In case of a contradiction between the objective of universal service and liberalisation, other means of ensuring universal service must be found or maintained”.
Lets deconstruct the paragraph:
“Greens/EFA consider that the objective of the Postal Directives…This interpretation is in conformity with the Treaty itself” This part of the document is clearly seeking legalistic grounds on which to base its argument. Its starting point is possible interpretations of the existing EU law, not stating its own pure principles.
Starting from this, the Green / EFA document argues that the stated aim of the Directive is not ‘opening to the market’ itself, but instead a ‘high-quality universal service’. Furthermore, it then immediately goes on to state that liberalisation can in fact contradict the stated aim of a ‘high-quality universal service’. Therefore ‘other means [than liberalization] of ensuring universal service must be found or maintained’. Other means…maintained? Other means including public ownership and protection form the market! The offending paragraph therefore in fact argues that member states can have a right to keep their post service public!
Lets put this paragraph in its context. Since the 1990’s, the European Commission (the unelected pro-capitalist central driving executive power of the EU) has been trying to force through post service privatisation (termed ‘opening of the market’ or ‘liberalization’). The main instrument for this is the ‘Postal Directive’ (Directive 97/67/EC) revised in 2002 and 2008. Central to the Comissions gradual ‘market opening’ have been a series of steps to reduce the areas exempt from market competition and reserved for public services.
The 1997 directive put this protected level reserved for public services at items weighing less than 350 grams. The 2002 revision reduced the reserved areas to items weighing less than 100 grams by 2003, and to items weighing less than 50 grams by 2006. More recently, the battle has been around abolishing the 50 grams protected zone altogether and moving to full ‘market opening’.
In this battle this the document considered here by the grouping of the Greens and the EFA in the European Parliament takes the right side. Its main argument was to oppose the move towards further liberalization. As the Greens document states:
“Greens/EFA consider that Member States should be allowed to maintain a reserved area for items weighing less than 50 grams. Reserved areas have proved to be efficient and economically rational means to finance universal service obligations. By contrast, the opening of market to competition for items under 50 grams has not proved efficient in securing prices for private consumers and SMEs. Furthermore there are serious indications that it has lowered social and employment conditions in the postal sector in Member States concerned”.
Much of the rest of the Greens document is taken up by quoting various research reports including those by trades unions that show how liberalization and market opening lead to job losses, worse employment conditions, a worse service and higher prices. They argue that:
“In Member States which have experienced full liberalisation so far, there are signs of negative impacts on employment levels and conditions in the postal sectors, but also regarding the financing of universal service and the level of prices”
The Euro-Greens document gives as an example: “In Germany, a study commissioned by the German trade union Ver.Di shows a net loss of 29000 jobs in the Deutsche Post, 15000 of which have not been compensated by job creation by new operators ; furthermore, the majority (2/3) of new jobs created by these new operators are highly precarious (“mini-jobs”) and paid less than 400 € per month”.
The rest of the document is full of similar arguments that try to block the directive being used as an attack on public services: Thus subsidiarity is invoked to defend the right of member states to maintain public postal services:
“Greens/EFA consider that, in conformity with the principle of subsidiarity, Member States should be allowed to require the provision in all parts of their territory of a full range of universal service obligations….[they list a range of social considerations]…Consequently, Member States should be allowed to use any financing means compatible with the Treaty in order to finance universal service”
The Greens document explicitly criticizes liberalization and its effects on workers and services:
“Greens/EFA consider that Member States should be allowed to preserve quantitative and qualitative employment and social standards as well as environmental standards in the postal sector”; “Greens/EFA consider that Member States should also request all the operators to respect fully their labour laws, i.e. any legal or contractual provision concerning employment conditions, working conditions, including health and safety at work and the relationship between employers and workers” ;“Greens/EFA consider that Member States should also request the operators to respect fully their social security legislation, as well as the exercise of fundamental rights, including the right to negotiate, conclude and enforce collective agreements and to take industrial action The document ends by noting how postal liberalization damages the environment and leads to monopoly by private corporations like DHL and Federal Express.
So this is not, as Caffery claims, a document proclaiming support for postal privatization. Rather, it is a carefully worded document that seeks to provide a space for defence of public services and is critical of neo-liberalisation of postal services. Now, in my opinion, the Greens document is still problematic – it is framed in mealy-mouthed and ambiguous legalistic argumentation that does not state opposition to market opening, liberalization and privatization in a clear enough way. It is critical of the effects of liberalization on services, workers and the environment, but not oppositional enough. I think it should state clearly that publicly owned and democratically controlled services are necessary, and should be defended and extended, by political means as well as action by unions and social movements.
It is far from perfect – but it is not a neo-liberal attack on public services that Caffrey would have us believe through his use of selective quotation. I think that the Green documents real problems and ambiguities reflect the contradictory composition of the European Parliamentary Green / EFA group, and also the contradictory nature of contemporary green parties. These contain different elements, petty-bourgeois and working class, socialist and radical liberal, utopian and pragmatic. The Green parties have different trajectories and histories, some have sold out when seduced by power, others have stood alongside social movements and the unions. Some have also been transformed from their original liberal posture by the wave of social movements against neo-liberalism since the battle of Seattle and after, and now are on the left, although still in a contradictory way. But for all their faults, the real picture of Green politics is totally different form the merely propagandistic caricature painted by Caffrey for the Socialist Party. And this last point is important. Socialists need an accurate assessment of different movements and parties in order to find the best terrain on which to fight and to form the best alliances. We cannot get this if we only read the blatant propaganda of sects, who wish to promote themselves by smearing other groups on the left.