Europe Movements Unite against Austerity

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Europe Movements Unite against Austerity
By: HIC-HLRN
25 June 2015
 

Athens—The history of privatization dates from ancient Greece, when governments contracted most public functions to the private sector. However, the present consequences of privatizing public assets and transferring private debt to public liability form a lethal public-policy cocktail that has afflicted the most vulnerable inhabitants of Europe, as evidenced by the current wave of forced evictions and homelessness.

Greece, the modern European state most notoriously affected by austerity measures, hosted an International Meeting on the Right to Housing on 20–21 June 2015. The participants reviewed the common issues among European housing rights movements, especially in the Mediterranean Coast region, and shared strategies to restore housing rights to those whom European austerity policies have afflicted, especially by forced evictions. The two-day meeting provided the substantive input into the following deliberations of the European Coalition on the Right to Housing and Land that the meeting’s participants programmed during 22–23 June 2015. Both events were part of the Week of Action in Solidarity with Greece and against Austerity, from 20 to 26 June

The first day was a structured hearing of common and country-specific issues that affirmed the basis for concerted action around three main topics: Land and housing dispossession, Debt as an instrument for social control and Migrants and refugee housing needs in the European South, while the second day presented alternatives to the current housing policies, collective ownerships schemes and urban spaces as commons and a final panel on planning for action.

The participants decried the government and official-media attempts to divide peoples at the European level, as well as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who actually share a common struggle to realize adequate housing wherever they are on the European Continent. The meetings coincided also with the World Refugee Day (21 June) and focused on the protection gap vis-à-vis human rights obligations of European states, including those enshrined in the Refugee Convention (1951) and the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (1966).

Some pointed out the hypocrisy in the mentality of “Fortress Europe,” repelling immigration, by a continent that has colonized much of the New World, whose emigrants entirely replaced and/or eliminated indigenous peoples, even those who have disappeared and remain unacknowledged. While some pointed out that no matter how governments try to stop immigration, there will be no solution if inequality, injustice and poverty are not addressed globally, others expressed their concerns about the European policies in this matter. The participants gathered at Athens expressed their global and common responsibility to uphold the human rights of all, regardless of migration status.

The Meeting contrasted the present conditions under austerity and the human rights obligations of states. Participants noted that even the OECD World Economic Outlook (2011) on economic restructuring found that policies needed to reflect greater flexibility and ensure more “mobility” of inhabitants, in order to meet their human rights and needs, as well as the needs of the economic system, in general.

The local testimonies presented the needed alternative solutions in Greece, including local cases of Phelerion Bay (Athens), alternatives to the privatization of marine infrastructure on the Island of Corfu, to the plan to privatize the former Ellinikon Athens Airport property, the illicit auctions of properties leading to forced evictions in Pireaus, the confiscation of the commons at Glyfada and various other efforts to privatize the Greek people’s landed, historic and environmental assets through the Cooperation for the Privatization of Public Property (ITAIPED). Testimonies also focused on the new legislation that enables the Greek Orthodox Church to dispose of irreplaceable natural environments for capital gains against the interest of the faithful community and posterity. The Greek Orthodox Church has emerged as an agent of privatizing land and environmental resources for dubious financial gain, especially after the legislative liberalization, which accompanied the financial crisis and legislative responses that allowed for liberal sale of the “commons.”

Testimonies from Cyprus, England, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, England, Portugal, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and France further affirmed the common struggles among European nations and peoples to realize adequate housing in the context of the current financial processes of dispossession that also constitute gross violations of their human rights. As previously reported by HLRN and its partner ASIA-USB in the UPR process (2014), Italy, for example, has sacrificed 10,000 social housing units to private interests. A similar situation is currently happening in Spain, where social housing units under bank`s control have been sold to vulture funds in a desperate attempt to get rid of what they consider a burden.

The combined financial and housing crisis in Spain was prominent on the agenda, especially with personal and technical reports from the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), the movement opposing the forced evictions of inhabitants affected by the housing bubble. Among those most violated in the Spanish mortgage/foreclosure crisis and austerity policy have been the immigrants. Their stories at Athens were particularly compelling.

The panels recounted the failure of policies that promote high-income housing in low-income neighborhoods with a pretext to bring about a “trickle-down” effect to improve poor living conditions. Rather than relying on fallacies, communities are left to their own means to realize the human right to adequate housing—and other related essentials of life. The experiences shared from Milan exemplified the solidarity economies of communities across Italy. Such practices shed light on the extra-market alternatives that operationalize social production of housing, local food systems, popular exchange of skills and services, as well as the social function of property. Examples from Germany also demonstrated how communities struggle similarly across Europe to sustain their own housing solutions through democratic social formations.

Cyprus, as always, was a special case among the Meeting’s examples, not least because of its unique 40-year partition and occupation. More important for the purposes of consolidating the European Coalition on the Right to Housing and Land, however, was the common practice of forced evictions experienced across the Euro Zone. In this sense, all countries represented, regardless of specificity, were united in their experiences and indignation.

Habitat International Coalition was present to offer support in linking the European issues with global processes and practices. That ranged from availing the Violation Database for European monitoring to delivering direct training and materials for using the human rights arguments and machinery in the struggle.

The HIC Secretary General explained how solidarity with movements can benefit from relating to the movements promoting the right to the city, the social function of property, and anchoring the human right to housing in the Habitat III process.

The Outcome

The essential personal contact of the meeting’s participants enabled parties to assess their commonalities and complementarities. The program proceeded logically from general to specific, and channeled learning across borders.

The International Meeting on the Right to Housing produced an inventory of issues to be addressed by civil society and social movements in the coming year(s). It reserved the detail of the “human right to housing” and treaty law approaches for future actions, but produced an inventory of transferrable policy strategies and demands common to all participants.

Demands of European governments:

  • Reinstitute labor housing

  • Economic transitional justice

  • Ceasing all sales of public property

  • Cede vacant housing to the homeless

  • Rent subsidies to destitute households

  • Stop forcing refugees and migrants to grovel

  • Provide rent subsidies to destitute households

  • Debt relief and tax exemption for working forces

  • Cancellation of the housing debt of all unemployed

  • Direct protection of all households against foreclosure

  • Humanitarian visas available to migrants and refugees

  • More rational approach to refugees and migrants, asylum-seeking and job-seeking movement.

Demands of European governments and international parties:

  • Debt relief and cancellation

  • A new Marshall Plan, but this time devoted to people and communities (and not banks), and involving the North Africa and Middle East states

Strategies/approaches:

  • Mobilize and educate communities about housing rights and contradictions of policies and practices

  • Engaging with local government and local authorities to make public land, properties, housing available for evicted and homeless residents

  • Engaging local organizations as implementers

  • “Socialize” hosting costs/rents for those who cannot afford adequate housing

  • Form rural and urban housing cooperatives and solidarity economies

  • Direct actions:

    • Using humor and irony to expose contradictions

  • Promote establishment of European and international monitoring forums and accountability mechanisms

  • Appeal to existing European and international monitoring forums and accountability mechanisms

  • Engage in current international monitoring forums and accountability mechanisms:

    • Monitor UPR and CESCR obligations and commitments of Greece, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey

  • Local communities aiding needy migrants and refugees in situ and in their forward movement

Historically, the European housing rights movement has been diverse and fragmented. This European Coalition on the Right to Housing and Land already has helped resolve that by focusing on the common ground that austerity has created. It promises now to coordinate actions Europe wide. Unfortunately, the presence of local movements and organizations during the coordination meetings of the Coalition was not as important as it was during the previous days. In any case the members of the European Coalition on the Right to Housing and Land showed great interest in the regional coordination of their work and demands.

Photo: HIC General-Secretary Álvaro Puertas Robina addresses the Athens gathering. Also pictured: Rita Silva, HABITA Lisbon (L) and Ringo Gotsleben, Alliance to Stop Evictions (Berlin).

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