2015 has certainly been an extraordinary year for social work in Europe. Never before, since the second world war, did European societies simultaneously face so many issues fundamentally challenging our thinking about 'Europe' as a political, cultural and social entity. This was certainly a vastly contradictory process that saw the emergence of both the Politics of Despair and the Politics of Hope. The former was primarily represented in the rise of nationalist parties, the grotesque effort to make far-right ideologies appear ‘mainstream’ and finally in the continued disintegration of the, anyway limited, values of ‘actually existing social Europe’. The Politics of Hope, on the other hand, was expressed through the plethora and richness of independent -yet interrelated- collective actions that gave us a glimpse of how an alternative Europe could look like; one that is based on solidarity, humanity, internationalism and equality. Solidarity with refugees and the growing confidence of the anti-austerity movement have been two prime examples of this alternative Europe glimpse. Social Workers can be proud of their 2015 record towards supporting both movements.
In 2016 the stakes will be really high, both for European societies and of course for social work. The three main areas where social work practitioners, students and educators will be asked to reaffirm their values will be the ‘migrant crisis’, the articulation of new social welfare narratives and the creation of politically meaningful alliances.
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. This has been the largest movement of people fleeing persecution in modern European history. The political and humanitarian crisis we have been witnessing is fuelled by conflicts in Northern and Eastern Africa, in the Middle East and Central Asia. The constant flow of images of destruction, death and devastation from regions affected by conflict can only serve as a reminder of the horrors of colonial and sectarian politics. European governments have been historically involved,one way or another, in all those conflicts. Unashamedly, they still do. Let’s not forget that what is described at the moment as the removal process of ‘vicious and evil regimes’ in most cases refers to regimes selected, installed and supported by western countries.
The response to the migrant crisis has exposed a fascinating discrepancy between European governments and European societies. In 2015 alone, 3,406 men, women and children instead of finding a safe haven in Europe, died brutally in their effort to reach the continent. This was mainly due to the stubborn and unprincipled decision of European Governments to turn Europe into a Fortress of cruelty and intolerance, refusing to ensure safe passage to asylum seekers. Instead of providing a safe land passage, a number of walls and barriers were erected. Ironically, this happened almost a quarter of century after the fall of the berlin wall, when the people of Europe emphatically pronounced a ‘walls no more’ commitment.
Nevertheless, 2015 saw a plethora of grassroots responses showing that an alternative Europe already exists. Among others, these were expressed through the spontaneous acts of Greek fishermen and islanders who despite the economic crisis provided unconditional support to those reaching Greek shores. It was reflected in the way German and Austrian societies warmly welcomed refugees. It was crystalized in the way British and French activists challenged the brutality of their governments that had led to the creation of the Calais ‘jungle’. An alternative Europe of humanity and social justice has been shaped through the small acts of millions of Europeans who refused to accept bigotry, coercion and xenophobia as ‘European values’.
In several cases, social workers supported those movements through their direct work with refugees, awareness raising activities, and solidarity events. SWAN, EASSW and IFSW were instrumental in facilitating and co-ordinating solidarity activities. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the power of numerous spontaneous and grassroots activities organized by social workers across Europe, outside the radar of established social work organisations. As the EU seems determined to ‘outsource’ the refugee crisis and divert it to non-European countries, in 2016 social workers will need to achieve a far better level of co-ordination and actively work with social movements.
Apart from the refugee crisis, 2015 will be remembered as the year when the anti-austerity movement grew in confidence and openly challenged EU orthodoxies. Social workers were among the first to witness the consequences of the politics of austerity. The implementation of the Holy Trinity of neoliberal economics (privatization, deregulation and cuts) were taken to a whole new level in the year that passed. Although at a different pace and intensity, all European societies experienced the woes of the ideologically driven idea of ‘trickle down’ economics which dictates that large corporations and the richest in society should be left uninterrupted in their processes of accumulating wealth, while the working classes are crushed through the the disintegration of social services and deregulation of working conditions.
In fact, social work and the welfare state were particularly hit in 2015. The advancement of ‘outsourcing’ social services has created an unethical, illogical and shameful stock market of people’s pains and suffering. In this dystopian market a nexus of businesses and NGO’s place price tags on people’s needs. Private companies or large charities of questionable principles and backgrounds have been invited to control means testing procdures and the implementation of government policies in the fields of benefit provision, unemployment, and adult care. Evidence suggests that they did so with notable viciousness that in many cases their practices had nothing to envy from Victorian Era brutality. Adoption, fostering and residential care have been described and treated as ‘booming markets’ while state services are starved of funding and resources. In some countries, like Spain, Ireland or Greece, where economies were placed under direct supervision from the European Central Bank, social services experienced cuts so extreme that bordered on state violence. According to former Greek Finance Minster- these cuts amount to practices of fiscal waterboarding as they leave whole communities and the most vulnerable groups of the population in agony.
If anything, 2015 also showed that merely striving to ‘defend’ the welfare state 'as we knew it' is not enough. The Greek example of a radical-left-turned- ‘moderate’ government demonstrated that defensive action is not enough. SYRIZA in Greece rose into power through the determination of the Greek people to challenge the asphyxiation of austerity. In the June 2015 referendum, and after the EU institutions had already shown in full force their determination to crush any challenge to their neoliberal orthodoxy, the Greek people did not retreat in fear. Instead, the ‘OXI’ word (Greek for No) became a powerful pan-european symbol of defiance which inspired people across the continent and gave an incredible boost to the politics of hope. A 21st century synonymous to “No Passaran”. The subsequent capitulation of the Greek government offered a valuable lesson to social movements: the struggle for an alternative Europe cannot be limited to defensive and apprehensive efforts aiming at ‘protecting what we had’. The people of Europe need not only challenge neoliberalism but primarily articulate a confident, persuasive and achievable new narrative and praxis that will radically re-shape Europe. A narrative that focuses on the creation of social equality through progressive redistribution of wealth, universal provision of health care and welfare services and economic growth based on the provision of stable and secure employment.
Social workers, find themselves in a unique position in society, as they are usually among the first to witness the catastrophic consequences of marketization and austerity. They work at the sharp edge of society, at the point where government policies on the most vulnerable people in society come into direct effect. Day in, day out they see how poverty and inequality crush people’s lives and aspirations. They know all too well that poverty and unemployment have never been the result of ‘feeble’, lazy or immoral individuals. On the contrary they recognize that millions of people across Europe have been stripped of the opportunities to well being and happiness on the basis of where and by whom were they born. Social class is still the most powerful determinant of people’s lives. Social workers’ knowledge and expertise is essential in enriching the debate for a progressive redefinition of ‘Social Europe’. This cannot happen in isolation. Neither social work alone constitutes a social movement, nor social workers hold a magical stick capable of effortlessly improving lives. Social work, however, can be a really crucial part of broad social and political alliances that bring together diverse knowledge, strategies and practices aiming at the articulation of a radical alternative for European politics that defies the Holy Trinnity of neoliberalism. After all, if the idea of a genuinely, unconditionally and irreversibly Social Europe is still considered radical, then social workers should be the new radicals of 2016.