Promise on the Belgian Left

Peter Mertens

The crisis of the political center has given the Workers' Party of Belgium a new lease on life.

Supporters of the Workers' Party of Belgium marching in 2015. Prima News

Interview by
Mario Cuenda García
Tommaso Segantini

The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) has seen surprising gains in recent months. Long marginalized electorally as a fringe Marxist organization, the PTB is now the third-largest political force in the French-speaking region of Wallonia, with polls giving the party 18 percent of voter support in the region, plus 10 percent in Brussels, Belgium’s capital.

With the 2019 federal elections approaching, the PTB aims to turn these results into a durable presence in Belgian politics.

Founded in 1979, the PTB entered the federal parliament for the first time in 2014 with two MPs, and has been working from the opposition to the current right-wing coalition in power in Belgium.

Peter Mertens, president of the party, sat down with Mario Cuenda García, a blogger and PPE student at the University of Warwick, and Tommaso Segantini, an independent freelance journalist who’s written for the New Arab, openDemocracy, and Telesur to discuss, among other topics, the prospects of the PTB in Belgium, its position on Europe, and the CETA affair of recent months.

Mertens stresses the need to create a counter-hegemonic bloc to the far right through a constant “presence of the ground” and a “strong anti-establishment discourse,” along with the creation of a transnational alliance of radical left-wing forces in Europe to provide an alternative to both the current policies of the European Union and rising nationalist forces.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

What influenced your development as a political militant?

Peter Mertens

I took my first steps as a political activist in antifascist campaigns in the 1980s. In those years, the Vlaams Blok, a well-organized secessionist party of the far-right, was gaining ground in the north of Belgium. Many people who were angry at and disillusioned with traditional political parties gravitated towards the Right. In the face of these events, there was a broad antifascist and antiracist movement, where I started my political militancy. It was only in 1991, during the demonstrations against the first Gulf War, that I came across the Workers’ Party of Belgium, which I joined shortly afterwards.

In regards to authors and personalities that have influenced me, I’ve had the chance, during my years at university in Antwerp, to have had three Marxist professors in philosophy, economics, and history. For example, my economics course was focused on Karl Marx’s Capital, and it is during that period that I became interested in Marx’s political economy. Today, studying Karl Marx in such depth at university seems completely impossible!

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

The PTB entered Belgium’s federal parliament for the first time in 2014 with two deputies out of a total of 150. Since then, it has worked from the opposition, and is strongly rising in the polls, especially in the region of Wallonia. What is your assessment of the PTB’s first two years in the federal parliament, and what are your expectations for the future?

Peter Mertens

The PTB does not have a parliamentary history. During the last two years, we have found confirmation that it is not in parliament that the most important decisions are made. Rather, informal meetings with lobbyists in surrounding restaurants and bars appear to be much more important in that respect.

Thanks to our entry into parliament in 2014, our party has access to a sum of public money available to political parties, even though other parties try to make our access to those funds the most complicated possible. The PTB is the only party in Belgium that is mostly financed by its members: 3/4 of our funding comes directly from them. For us, this is very important, because it keeps us independent from powerful lobby groups and multinationals.

Of course, we don’t have many financial resources. The functioning of our party relies, to a large extent, on the work of volunteers. We want to retain our Marxist identity, but it is still important that we professionalize the party and modernize our approach.

Besides these issues, I think that it is acknowledged that the PTB does good work. Even right-wing media write that we are always present and active, and that we are an effective opposition force.

Concerning our approach to work in the parliament, our motto is “street-council-street.” For us, the parliament is not an end in itself. It is not the final stage of our political struggle. It is extremely important for us that our local sections on the ground, in towns and inside enterprises, put forward their problems and proposals so that we can bring their voice to political institutions.

We also have our own research center, which coordinates our research in various domains. We therefore combine a presence on the ground with in-depth academic research to make proposals through the institutions. If our proposals are rejected, we start over from the streets and from the people.

Generally speaking, we are opposed to a “parliamentarist” vision of politics according to which all the work and the social movement depends upon what happens inside parliament. For us, extra-parliamentary initiatives and work on the ground remain the priority and the bulk of our struggle.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Belgium’s political system and institutional framework is very peculiar. The country is characterized by a very fragmented federal system, in which political parties have to continuously negotiate and form coalitions to govern or get measures passed. In this context, what can a radical leftist party like the PTB do to advance and implement its proposals?

Peter Mertens

There are two parts to the question.

First, on the Belgian political system: the PTB is the only national party of the country, which is absurd. In Switzerland, Germany, and other countries with a federal system, political parties are organized at a national level. In Belgium, parties are tied to their geographical or linguistic region, whereas the government is federal in nature; this system really complicates the functioning of political institutions of the country.

The position of the PTB is that it is necessary to re-federalize, so to bring under federal control, many policy domains. It makes much more sense. One example is the environmental question. For us, these and many other questions should be dealt with at a federal level. We are the only party in the country that holds this position.

The second part of the question is about whether the PTB could potentially be part of government in the future. Our position is that in today’s context, we do not have the necessary conditions to govern. Let me tell you why. The crucial question for us is that, if we govern, we need the political conditions to break with current European policy. If the necessary balance of forces in Europe is not there, if we do not have solid and determined partners that are radically opposed to European austerity, I think we will be overwhelmed by European institutions.

We do not oppose participation in power and decision-making as a matter of principle. At a local level we are part of governing coalitions, but if we are to govern at a federal level, we want to have the entire panel of instruments and options available. If the most important decisions are taken, as it happens today, by the commission and the European lobbycracy, our range of action would be very limited.

The case of Greece can serve as a useful lesson. A full-fledged economic war was waged against Alexis Tsipras and Syriza. European institutions even cut off monetary supplies to the country. I respect Tsipras, and I understand that the situation in Greece was very difficult. However, I also think that the capitulation of Syriza, which is currently implementing a third memorandum imposed by the troika, has been a massive blow for the Left in Europe.

It is also a matter of responsibility. If the Left goes into power and applies neoliberal policies, it would pave the way for the far right. This is exactly what happened in France. François Hollande and his policies are the primary generators of the National Front’s rise.

Currently, we are trying to build a counter-movement capable of changing the balance of forces in Belgium and at a European level. We think this makes up a better, clearer, and more honest strategy.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

The massive layoffs of workers that occurred at Caterpillar Inc. in September, with the closure of a construction site in Gosselies in the south of Belgium, sparked outrage. What position do you think the state should adopt in regards to multinational corporations?

Peter Mertens

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, we keep on hearing that in order to be more competitive and attract foreign investments, states should slash corporate taxes, decrease spending for social security, bring down salaries, etc. The United States and especially Europe have implemented these policies, and it has been a disaster.

In the four years that followed the outbreak of the crisis, there has been a decrease of €354 billion in private investments inside the European Union. Instead of being invested and creating jobs, capital accumulated by corporations has generally been used in two ways. Firstly, for mergers with and acquisitions of other companies, which means that corporations get bigger and bigger, eventually creating de facto monopolies.

Secondly, multinational corporations speculate in the financial sector, creating very risky financial bubbles, or place their money in tax havens. So in the end, the capital that has been transferred from the working class towards big capital since 2008 has not been reinvested in the real economy, but is accumulated by a very small portion of the population.

For the PTB, the matter should not be reduced to private investments. In Belgium and in Europe we have to increase salaries and the bargaining power of trade unions in order to revitalize the economy. Salaries have been stagnating or decreasing since the beginning of the crisis. There is obviously a negative impact on the economy when people consume less.

In terms of government spending, it is necessary to break the European Stability and Growth Pact, and allow states to make serious and ambitious investments. This is not the case in Europe today. Europe needs a long-term industrial plan, a sort of Marshall Plan, to transition to an ecological and more just economic system.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Negotiations around the TTIP seem to have come to a dead end, thanks to popular mobilization across Europe. In October, the parliament of Belgium’s French-speaking region, Wallonia, vetoed the approval of CETA, the free-trade agreement with Canada. Surprisingly, the Belgian Socialist Party (PS), unlike other center-left forces in Europe, initially opposed the treaty. In the end, however, an agreement has been found, the PS gave its approval, and the treaty passed. What is your analysis of the developments outlined above around CETA?

Peter Mertens

Between 2009 and 2014, negotiations around CETA took place in secret, in an undemocratic way, strongly influenced by lobby groups working on behalf of multinational corporations and the financial sector. In September 2014, under popular pressure, six hundred pages of the treaty were made public; but, no government in Europe opened a discussion on the treaty. European parliaments neglected their most essential and basic task, that is, opening a democratic debate. The only exception was Wallonia. The parliament of Wallonia simply followed the basic procedure of a functioning representative democracy, and discussed the treaty.

Commissions of experts around different aspects of the treaty were created. My impression is that the PS initially wanted to sign the treaty. However, as they opened the gates to democracy, all the assessments by experts and people directly concerned by the treaty (farmers, industrial workers, etc.), were negative. These people made their voices heard, and the PS, at that point, could not ignore them. This democratic factor played a very important role in the initial rejection of CETA by the Walloon government. The pressure of the PTB also certainly played a role.

We can’t say nothing has been achieved, even though the treaty has been signed. This debate around CETA in the last weeks brought up some fundamental questions regarding democracy, the transparency of this kind of commercial treaty, and their potential implications. These are, in my opinion, essential questions to raise awareness and educate people. Even though the treaty will be ratified, there are some positive elements to retain. That a public debate was started can be considered positive.

At the level of the substance of the treaty, just to be clear, nothing has changed. There have been vague promises, maybe some very little advances, but the heart of the treaty remains unchanged, and that is, corporations will dominate and set the rules.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

The referendum campaign in the United Kingdom brought to light the difficulty for the radical left in Europe to propose solutions to the current state of the European Union. On one side, far-right Euroskeptic parties, through xenophobic and ultra-nationalist slanders, essentially want to blow it up and destroy it; on the other, liberal and social-democratic parties radically defend the status quo. What is the position of the PTB in regards to the European Union? Is it possible, in your opinion, to alter the balance of power in Europe and push for radical reform?

Peter Mertens

In 2011, I wrote a book entitled Comment osent-t-ils? (How Dare They?). It was a great success here in Belgium. In the book I contemplated three options regarding the future of Europe. The first scenario was that of a more dictatorial Europe, with more policies similar to the Stability Pact or the Six-Pack determined by Berlin and Frankfurt. The second scenario was that of a dangerous rise of nationalist forces, which could make Europe implode.

The Left must not fall in one of these two traps. As a Marxist, and coming from an authentic leftist tradition, I think we have to try to radically change Europe from the inside. We should not dynamite the entire European idea, but, like an engineer working on a bridge, dynamite the bad columns.

Defending a position of withdrawal from the European Union in Belgium, at the heart of Europe, is not going to raise public awareness a lot, I think. The situation is obviously different in countries at the periphery of the continent, and I understand that for them the possibility of leaving the eurozone, can be a topic of debate.

We have to change Europe at its very foundations; making small, symbolic reforms is not enough. A radical change includes reconsidering the roles of the ECB and the commission, eliminating the Stability Pact, and many other things. We need a Europe built on solidarity between all European countries.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Should European left movements imagine a unionist and coordinated strategy at a European level to advance a common vision and concrete proposals? Does the future pass through a pan-European movement that could push for radical reforms in different countries?

Peter Mertens

Yes, I think we must get there at some point in the future. In the European Parliament, there is already the European United Left-Nordic Green Left parliamentary group (GUE/NGL), which is composed of different leftist parties in Europe. We now have a parliamentary collaborator who works with the GUE/NGL in the European Parliament, even though we don’t have European MPs yet. Thus, some sort of exchange already exists at this level.

Discussions are taking place within the Left in Europe concerning which strategies to adopt to bring about change. Personally, I think we are living an intermediary period of change. This means that in the years to come, there will be other honest, but rather limited, attempts to change like Tsipras did, which will be crushed, in my opinion. For instance, we support Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, because he has brought a breath of fresh air to the Labour Party, but his range of action remains quite constrained by his own party and the British political system.

Those are the kind of intermediary experiences we still need in Europe to define a proper strategy. But in general, regarding your question, I agree we need more coordination. The European left has to work together, learn from past negative experiences, and move forward.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

There have been demonstrations, but Belgian society seems relatively apathetic and passive towards neoliberal and regressive policies. What must the Left in Belgium do to mobilize people, following examples from the past few years in countries such as Spain, Portugal, or Greece? Can a progressive movement capable of changing the current power balance in the country be created?

Peter Mertens

I disagree with your analysis. The current right-wing government, composed of liberal parties, Flemish nationalists, and Christian Democrats, was formed in September 2014. These parties have pride in calling themselves “Thatcherites”; indeed, they are very proud to apply, as Europe’s teacher’s pet, all the disastrous Thatcherite measures.

In the autumn of 2014, in response to that government, Belgium witnessed, proportionally, the biggest mobilizations in Europe. First, there was a demonstration with over 120,000 trade unionists in November 2014, followed by three general strikes in all of the country’s provinces. Then, on December 15 of the same year, there was a big general strike at a national level, one of the biggest general strikes of the last years. Finally, in 2016, there were two demonstrations with more than sixty thousand people. If you look at these numbers, taking into consideration that the population of Belgium is around eleven million people, it’s impressive.

But I acknowledge that there are problems as well. Trade unions are quite successful in attracting and mobilizing people, but too often, they do not obtain results. A lack of concrete results is spreading discouragement and defeatism. Furthermore, after the jihadist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the Belgian government took advantage of the generalized sensation of fear among the population to placate the situation. As a result, security became the major issue dominating political debates, with socioeconomic issues, which had occupied a central position in 2014, relegated to the margins.

Nonetheless, trade unions’ successful mobilization efforts have shown that change is possible in Belgium. With the PTB, we are working towards a strategic plan for the spring of 2017, notably with the creation of a broad citizens’ movement that could reach people beyond the circles of trade union militancy.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

What future do you envisage for trade unions in Belgium, and which strategies can unions adopt to regain credibility as social actors and their demonstrate their capability to organize and mobilize people?

Peter Mertens

Six months ago, the University of Leuven did an important study on the appreciation of trade unions in Belgium. I was surprised by the results. According to the study, two out of three Belgians were totally in favor of an active role of trade unions. I was surprised because the study was done during the strike of railway workers, when attacks against and negative media coverage of unions were the strongest. It appears that even though there has been a lot of bashing of trade unions, the majority of people still support them because they recognize that trade unions serve an important function, and that without them people would be alone, unprotected, and vulnerable.

But it is true that there can be problems with union strategy. A strike can be a powerful weapon, but not each strike is productive of positive results. If, for example, here in Belgium, only a part of the country goes on strike, then the strike might be instrumentalized by separatist forces. These will make a nationalist issue out of it, rather than one of class struggle.

The strength of the 2014 protests and movement lay in its unity at four different levels. There was unity between the north and the south of the country, between Wallonia and Flanders; and unity between the two major trade unions, the social-democratic and the Christian Democratic unions; unity between the private and the public sector; and finally unity between trade unions and broader citizens’ movements.

We have to work towards achieving these optimal conditions. With the PTB, we are trying to create this unity at different levels. We supported, for example, a sort of Gramscian-inspired broad movement called “Hart boven Hard / Tout Autre Chose,” whose aim is to construct a progressive social movement around the trade unions, but in which various citizen’s organizations are also represented, in order to achieve a higher mobilization potential.

Mario Cuenda García and Tommaso Segantini

Far-right parties are on the rise in Europe, and even here in Belgium, they are increasing in the polls. These parties often seem to monopolize the discourse around topics such as security, immigration, or foreign affairs, pushing the political chessboard to the right. How to counter this right-wing cultural hegemony?

Peter Mertens

By constructing our own hegemony.

In 1991, the Vlaams Blok won 33 percent of the vote in Antwerp. Our strategy with the antifascist front back then was to constantly mobilize against the Vlaams Blok. Thanks to our initiatives, a sanitary cordon against them was installed in many public spaces, such as universities. We obtained results, but we did not beat racism. Some years later, we were asking ourselves “where is our hegemony?” It was nowhere to be found, because we lost social-democratic voters, who moved to the far right.

Today, voters are disgusted by the ruling elites that govern Europe, and are easily attracted by political forces that use the most marginalized groups of society, like refugees and migrants, as scapegoats.

On the Left, we not only have to firmly reject this kind of discourse, but it is crucial that we advance our own discourse and back it up with actions. A strong anti-establishment discourse is needed from the Left. We have to aim higher and explain to people that the real enemy is above them, and not below them. Of course it is harder to get this kind of message across, because the migrant is visible, while capitalists are hidden in Panama or in out-of-sight offices. It is their job to be invisible.

People agree that capital accumulation by the richest one percent is unjust, that financial speculation of banks continues and enriches a tiny elite, whereas living conditions for the great majority decline or do not improve. People understand that the current system does not work. I believe this conscience exists, but is often expressed in an unclear or contradictory way. It is our job to raise awareness and redirect people’s anger in the right direction. Otherwise, it is people like Marine Le Pen who will exploit people’s suffering.

Finally, on the Left, we also have to set the example. All the leaders and representatives of our party live with €1,600 to €1,900 per month. We have set up a program called “Doctors for the people,” consisting of eleven small medical centers where our doctors attend patients for free in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Thanks to this kind of initiative, people who could potentially be attracted by the far right see that the PTB does not only talk the talk, but also engages in concrete action.

We are in the process of constructing our own strength, our own authenticity, and therefore our own hegemony. One of the reasons why the PTB is rising in the polls in Wallonia is because I think, we are, slowly but surely, constructing our cultural hegemony, and people are attracted by it. We are a party which is authentic and dynamic, and that gives people hope.