Thousands of activists and trade union representatives came together in Athens for a two-day forum aimed at opposing eurozone austerity measures and finding unconventional solutions to EU problems.
In a document titled "A Peoples' Manifesto," the participants of the Alter Summit summed up their views at the close of the event. They see the debt of the crisis-hit eurozone countries as illegitimate, because it "was amassed with no regard for the common good," and are calling for opposition to austerity measures and growing inequality. At the same time, they hope the European Union will "strengthen and develop the social and ecological commons" and conduct stricter supervision of European institutions.
The writers of the manifesto did not agree with each other on all points, however. For some, the message it conveyed was not radical enough. There was also dispute about whether the indebted countries should be advised to leave the European Union and the eurozone.
Christian Pilichowski, for one, does not advocate the exit strategy. The delegate from the French metalworkers' trade union FTM CGT calls for intra-European solutions. He also wants to see a turnaround in the overall approach, as he believes the stringent cuts applied across the continent exacerbate the problem. "This isn't about a Greek, Spanish or Portuguese crisis - what we have is a European crisis," he said.
He pointed out that angry people have been protesting against the EU - yet from his perspective the problem is not the EU itself but the way politics is conducted. In order to alleviate the crisis, wages and salaries need to be increased and employee rights strengthened, he believes.
France in danger?
France, the EU's largest country by surface area, was particularly well represented at the summit. Delegates from 24 French labor unions and NGOs made their voices heard at the event, advocating more social equality in Europe and showing solidarity with Greece.
Pilichowski sees no hope in the free market and in austerity measures. He also disapproves of the path taken by French President Francois Hollande, viewing it as a continuation of his predecessor's, Nicolas Sarkozy's, political course. He believes that France needs to break with the past and that labor unions have a duty to spread awareness about the issue. This is why he came to the Alter Summit.
Most of the participants at the conference had clear left-wing leanings. Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras made a short guest appearance. He is currently on an equal footing with conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in Greek opinion polls.
By choosing Athens as the location for the summit, the representatives of the various movements wanted to show solidarity with crisis-plagued Greece. Their manifesto harshly criticizes the bailout troika made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In workshops, the activists argued that Greece was a case study showing the consequences austerity measures could have in other European countries.
Spotlight on poverty in Greece
In order to understand why many Greeks oppose the Troika and are turning to left-wing parties, one need only speak to some of the country's young people - such as Irene Agathopoulou. The 27-year-old from the northern city of Kilkis has been involved in the establishment of special pharmacies that provide free medicine to the needy. At the Alter Summit she spoke about her experiences, saying the demand for such pharmacies was great as 40 percent of Greeks don't have any health insurance. The situation is made more difficult in that Greek pharmaceutical companies are curbing their production, and international producers are only prepared to trade for cash.
Such a situation calls for unconventional measures, believes Agathopoulou. "We have asked patients' families to donate medicine that is no longer needed - from ointments to cancer drugs," she said. In the city of Kilkis alone, there are over 800 people who depend on free medicine. She is also aware of hospitals that have benefited from the service, which is technically illegal.
The Kilkis pharmacy project made news throughout the country. In the 2012 election, Agathopoulou ran for parliament as a member of the left-wing SYRIZA party and managed to get in. At 27, she is the youngest member of parliament, and she now hopes to attract international attention to Greek social projects. She has already received enquiries about the free medicine handouts from other EU countries, as well as offers of assistance.
Many of the summit's participants presented Greece as a negative example, showing what devastating effects austerity measures can have on healthcare in the European Union. They believe that public health insurance and medicine distribution systems are at risk of collapse. The manifesto also demands a stop to privatization in the healthcare sector.
In support of migrants and refugees
Another focus of the Alter Summit is the welfare of immigrants and asylum-seekers in Europe. According to some of the activists, there are plenty of negative examples in this area in Greece alone. During an April visit to Lesbos - Greece's third-largest island, not far from the Turkish coast - Germany's Left party member Annette Groth was stunned. "There's not enough of anything," she said at the Alter Summit. "The refugees are being fed by the local people - 20 women who cook every day." She pointed out that the island lacked a proper facility for accommodating asylum-seekers - it only has a few police stations and a closed-off harbor area.
At the conference, Groth was keen to advocate more rights and greater protection for asylum-seekers and migrant workers. She was therefore disappointed to find that the topic was mostly overlooked, and shocked when the suggestion was made that the European social movement should focus on campaigning for the ratification of the UN convention on migrant rights. Groth sees this as something that should be left to the politicians and lawyers - she expected something different from the popular movement.
The "Peoples' Manifesto" demands the closure of detention camps and the EU's border protection agency Frontex. However, it is too optimistic to expect any major changes in this area, according to Karim Essahli. He is a Morocco-born French citizen who has lived in Norway for 19 years, and he represented the Norwegian trade union federation LO at the summit. Essahli emphasized that, in any case, most of the work has to be done by local popular movements in the various countries, but he agreed that the summit was an important opportunity to meet like-minded people and establish cooperation.
The Alter Summit ended with its participants gathering in Athens city center, where they mounted a mass protest against the government's harsh austerity measures.