SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 130 - July/August 2009

The euro-Greens and privatisation

An article in the May edition of Socialism Today (No.128), Who are the Euro-Greens?, has been criticised by Green Party members as inaccurately describing the Greens’ attitude to the European Union’s postal services directive. HUGH CAFFREY, the author of the original article, responds.

THE ARTICLE outlined the record of some Green parties in Europe, and the Green group in the European parliament. It pointed out how these parties when in government have supported privatisation and large-scale attacks on working-class people, not least currently in the Irish Republic coalition government. In the European parliament the Greens endorsed the neo-liberal Lisbon Treaty, albeit with the reservation that it was ‘in many ways unsatisfactory’.

Regarding the European Union’s postal services directive, which lies behind New Labour’s part-privatisation plans for the Royal Mail, the article said that "the Green Party in the European parliament supports this directive". It quoted their position paper of April 2007 to show how this document echoes the position of the mainstream pro-capitalist parties that it doesn’t matter whether a service is delivered in the public or private sector, so long as it is delivered. The argument in the article was that privatisation cannot and will not deliver high-quality services and should be opposed.

Several Greens have objected strongly to the characterisation of their position as being one of support for the postal directive, though not to the other points which the article contained. (See, for example, Barry Kaye, The Greens and privatisation – The facts, 9 June, 2009 on So what are the facts?

The third postal directive was passed by the European parliament in July 2007 and January 2008. The description accompanying the legislation states its aims as being:

i) to achieve an internal market for postal services through the removal of exclusive and special rights in the postal sector (the abolition of the reserved area), [ie for mail weighing less than 50 grams – HC] and the setting of the full market opening timetable;

ii) to safeguard a common level of universal services for users in all EU countries, and to offer a list of measures Member States may take to safeguard and finance, if necessary, the universal service;

iii) to set harmonised principles for the regulation of postal services in an open market environment, with the aim of reducing other obstacles to internal market functioning.

Originally the internal market in postal services was intended to be fully achieved this year. Following national ‘derogations’ from the timetable for liberalisation, however, in July 2007 the European Commission modified the proposal and proposed putting back the deadline to December 2010.

In the parliamentary debate as the directive received its first reading on 10 July 2007, four Green MEPs spoke. Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian MEP and Vice-President of the Green MEPs’ group, said: "Competition has always delivered positive results when it has operated within a good framework. The same applies to postal services – wherever feasible. For the sake of fairness, however, it must be said that in the latest phase of liberalisation, consumers, particularly in rural areas, have noted a decline in service quality. Private does not automatically mean good, just as state-owned is not automatically good. What we need is good, positive and fair conditions". On behalf of the Greens she opposed putting back the deadline to 2010: "I appeal to you: do not postpone your decision! Problems cannot be solved by shelving them…"

In the vote on 11 July many amendments were moved, including by the European United Left group (GUE/NGL) in the European parliament, which opposed the directive on principle and called for it to be rejected. A GUE/NGL amendment, amendment 67, was tabled first (in accordance with the parliamentary procedure that it is the "amendment that departs furthest from the original text" that is debated first). The GUE/NGL group all voted for it while the Greens split, with two for, 30 against, and six abstaining. The Greens later voted against the report on liberalisation and against the Commission’s modified proposal. What do these votes show?

In a press statement, Lichtenberger criticised the "postponement of the problems until 2012", and summarised the Green position on state involvement in the provision of postal services:

"With our amendments we intended to keep the so-called reserved area as an option for Member States. This would have maintained the possibility for Member States to choose a system whereby private service providers – mainly interested in commercial profitable mass mail – would have to cross-finance private mail operators in unprofitable rural areas. This would have been a much better solution than a return to the old system of state subsidies".

Clearly, this does not oppose the directive because of its neo-liberal content. It is in favour of market-based postal services but with private capital ‘cross-funding’ unprofitable services. But why would private capital be invested unless profit rates were assured? How would such a scheme differ in practise, for example, from New Labour’s private finance initiatives, with private companies sucking out profits from the provision of public services?

In the second reading parliamentary debate on 31 January 2008, the Greens took the same approach. The GUE/NGL group again moved amendments for a rejection of the directive and against its effects. The Greens again split over amendment ten (again the first tabled amendment), unanimously supported by the GUE/NGL group. Nine Greens voted in favour and 22 against. Three abstained including the British Green MEP, Caroline Lucas.

In quoting the position paper the Greens produced in April 2007, my article sought to show how, by their characterisation of the directive supporting liberalisation as a means to an end, then no matter how many amendments or criticisms were made, they end up saying that whether a service is publicly or privately owned is not important. Is this not what Lichtenberger clearly meant on 10 July 2007 when she said: "Private does not automatically mean good, just as state-owned is not automatically good. What we need is good, positive and fair conditions"?

Liberalisation means the private sector will eventually eliminate in practice the various qualifications which the Greens wished to attach to the postal directive. The ‘modified market’ which their amendments would create would merely re-order the existing situation in which capitalism continues to undermine a public service. The legislation itself talks of maintaining a universal service obligation, which some of the Green amendments were based around strengthening. But as the Communications Workers Union postal union has pointed out, the part-privatisation of Royal Mail (under the postal directive) will put this under direct threat.

The great majority of MEPs are staunchly pro-privatisation and therefore this legislation was going to be passed regardless of the Green group’s position. From a tactical point of view, to mobilise workers to combat a piece of legislation it is necessary to take a clear stand of principle. Parliamentary manoeuvring around ‘modifying amendments’ may be necessary, but not if they mean opposing rejection of the legislation. ‘Re-interpreting’ the postal directive to assist its amendment, but not taking the opportunity to vote for the most comprehensive rejection of the directive, is not a means to oppose privatisation or defend services, but a compromise too far.

In summary, the Greens sought to amend aspects of the directive, while praising ‘competition’ and advocating a ‘fairer’ form of it. By opposing the extension of the deadline, it would merely have meant that liberalisation, amended or otherwise, would have been enforced earlier. The GUE/NGL group opposed the directive because it means privatisation, and when that vote was lost then moved a series of amendments. The Greens did not oppose the legislation as a whole; they only wished to amend it. On the amendments most opposed to the directive, they were split but by a large majority voted against both times.

When the article summarised the Greens’ position as supporting the directive, this was too concise. Their position was to oppose the deadline being postponed, emphasise they are in favour of competition if only it was ‘fairer’, and move some amendments that would not stop the privatisation and ‘race to the bottom’ in postal services for which the directive is designed. At best this is ineffective and inconsistent, at worst it amounts to accepting it.

The entire logic of the directive and of ‘liberalisation’ is to let the market rip. The task now is one of struggle across the EU member states to decisively defeat national governments’ attempts to translate the postal directive into further assaults on our public services.


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