James O'Nions writes from Athens. The 4th European Social Forum started in Athens on Thursday. Previous ESFs have been around a year apart, but it has been a year and a half since the last one. Those who remember the vast distances between sites at the Paris ESF were relieved to find that the event was all on one site, albeit one which is some distance from the centre of the city.
Other changes since London in 2004 have seen the enormous Plenaries (which we organised by the organising committee) abandoned in favour of concentrating on Seminars and Workshops (which are organised by the participants). Given the fractious nature of the haggling over who the speakers on each Plenary should be this was a sensible move and the event doesn't seem to have been harmed by it. There were still alot of Seminars though, too many really, with many similar titles repeated, sometimes at the same times, which meant lots of half empty meetings.
Of course, this might not have been the case if there had been more participants. The highest estimate I've heard is 15,000 people, which is down on London, and considerably down on Florence and Paris. Of course, the population of Greece is only 11 million, which means the ESF here would always have had fewer people from the host country than previous events, but participants from other countries also seem to have been fewer in number. With Rifondazione Comunista activists having been overwhelmingly concerned with the national elections in Italy, there seems to have been fewer Italians here. In the UK the SWP have also been overwhelmingly concerned with elections too, whilst many of the others who were involved in the London ESF came out of the process rather fed up with the ESF and certainly unmotivated to mobilise for Greece.
Since the event isn't offering much thats new even in its fourth incarnation, thats hardly surprising. One useful thing which does appear to have come out of the ESF process is the building up of pan-european networks around specific issues such as education or refugee rights, but these now have a life of their own, and will continue should the ESF peter out after Athens. Normally by this stage, the venue for the next ESF has been set, or is being hotly debated. All we know in Athens is that there will be a meeting in September to discuss where the ESF goes next, and no-one has shown any particular enthusiasm for holding it in their city or country. I suspect that if the Social Forum does happen again, it will look quite different and will not be for several years.