- Interview by
- Aurore van Opstal
The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) is one of the European left’s fastest-growing forces. Of Marxist-Leninist background, the renovated party has in recent years gained electoral momentum, as working people seek an alternative to endless austerity. Its first MP, Raoul Hedebouw has become a household name since entering parliament in 2014, and in last October’s municipal contests it scored 12 percent in Brussels.
Polling strongly ahead of May 26’s European, federal and regional elections, the PTB can expect not only to achieve representation in the European Parliament, but also to elect a team of strong candidates to Belgium’s own Chamber of Representatives.
Marc Botenga is the PTB’s lead candidate for the European elections. He spoke to Mediapart’s Aurore van Opstal about Europe’s crisis, the rise of the far right, and how the Left can stop Le Pen and Salvini posing as the only force for change.
Your program talks about leaving austerity behind. What are you going to do, concretely, to break out of the European treaties and the austerity they impose?
That’s just what we need to do — to break with the logic of the European treaties and to invest in social policies, in infrastructure, in our roads, in the environment. Without such a break, then any promise of real change is an empty one. Around Europe, the traditional parties have made workers pay for the crisis. In Europe today we have 113 million people in a situation of poverty or social exclusion. We have 700,000 people who sleep in the street every night.
We especially need to free ourselves of the rules of the European Semester [the European Commission’s control of national budgets and imposition of economic priorities] and the Fiscal Compact, a treaty which imposes austerity [by fixing limits on borrowing]. We need to act on a social basis — the refusal to obey anti-social policies. There is already a “yellow card” mechanism by which member states can oppose a proposal from the European Commission, for reasons of subsidiarity. We want to extend this principle to all socially regressive policies, so that a member state can pull out the red card and say: no to this rule, we won’t impose this harm on our population.
The PTB speaks of resistance against the European Union’s current logic. But is it against the rise of Euroscepticism and populism?
I think that Euroscepticism is created by the policies and indeed the very ordering of the European Union. It is the logic of competition, written in stone in the European treaties, which makes people feel they are being scammed by the EU. These treaties organize the competition of all against all, impose austerity in order to fund bank bailouts, and push for the deregulation and privatization of public services. Workers see that the EU does not mean social progress, like they were promised, but social dumping and the race to the bottom. Rather than giving more prosperity, the EU offers ever more austerity. That’s what creates Euroscepticism.
The policies of Merkel and Macron — neoliberal policies — strengthen the far right. If there is never money for social housing, for schools, that’s like telling people they should fight their neighbor to get the last school place or a decent home. That creates a mutual sense of hostility. What we need, then, is a break with this competition. That is the only way to stop the rise of the far right. Macron and Le Pen are just two sides of the same coin. We are proposing a clear alternative, replacing competition with cooperation.
What do you think about how much members of the European Parliament (MEP) get paid?
MEPs, yes, but also European commissioners, whose salaries we should also be talking about! They can easily get almost €25,000 a month. The President of the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker, is getting a whole €32,000 a month. It’s obscene! These people are making Europe’s laws. But on salaries like that, how can they understand the life of a worker who can’t afford to get to the end of the month? Or the life of an elderly person whose pension isn’t enough to get by?
And it’s not only a matter of salaries. The European commissioners often come from the world of banks and multinationals. After their five years at the Commission they often go back there. But who was someone like José Barroso really working for during his term as EC President, if immediately afterward he went to Goldman Sachs? What about the Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, who went over to Arcelor Mittal? These are legitimate questions. And the same is true the other way round: if the European commissioner for the climate was himself the owner of two oil companies, and the commissioner for financial stability came from a financial lobby, who were they working for?
It’s so absurd as to be almost a caricature, but it’s also revolting. We need to put a stop to this system. This pay creates a political caste very far from ordinary folks but very close to the multinationals.
But how about you: don’t you risk becoming distant from the average worker’s realities if you become an MEP on €6,000 a month (after tax)?
No! The PTB is very clear on this: we have committed to hand back anything above the average Belgian worker’s salary. That’s what we’ve promised and that’s what we’ll do after the election.
That’s important. Because if we enter into this machine without firm principles, then it will just eat us alive. To avoid that, we have to go into it telling ourselves: I’ve committed not to get rich doing this, because politics is about serving people, not yourself.
What is the PTB’s strategy for Europe?
The EU was built by multinationals. That’s not just some slogan. In the 1980s the European integration process stalled. The big European multinationals sat around a table — the European Round Table of Industrialists — together with two European Commission figures, the Belgian captain of industry Etienne Davignon and the Frenchman François-Xavier Ortoli. It’s obvious what kind of form the EU was going take, when the European commissioners teamed up with multinationals to tell the heads of government how the project should be advanced. The nascent EU thus took the form of deregulation and of handing everything over to the market. We can easily see this in the Single European Act of 1986, which preceded the Maastricht Treaty.
This alliance of those at the top of society was for three decades or so largely able to do as it pleased, for there was no counter-power from below at the European level. But today Europe-wide struggles are tentatively emerging. What we want to do is to strengthen them. Faced with their unity, we need to build our own. Faced with their power, we need a counter-power.
This counter-power will come from the kind of Europe-wide struggles that we see with the Ryanair workers, who managed to force their bosses to back down by taking strike action across the continent. Or that of Europe’s dockers, who have mounted transnational strikes blocking the European ports, forcing the European Commission to beat a retreat. Or that of the young people marching for the climate: even without talking about the EU, they very quickly got organized across the continent.
Is the PTB’s campaign dividing the wider Belgian left?
Quite the contrary: we’re strengthening it, not least since we may well take an MEP off the Right. But more generally, we are something of a locomotive pulling things to the left. For ten years we campaigned for a tax on millionaires. Such a tax would only affect the ultra-rich, but it is fundamentally important for society and democracy. Why? Because there’s an ever-greater concentration of wealth. Ten years on, the Socialist Party is talking about such a measure and even the Greens have adopted this PTB demand.
We see the same thing with our call for free, high-quality public transport. When we proposed this at the 2018 local elections, the traditional parties replied: no, it’s unfeasible, you are populists who will promise the moon on a stick…Today the Socialists and in part the Greens (and even some of the Humanist Democratic Center) have begun to pick up on this idea. So, we also serve to pull everything to the left. If you don’t want the Socialists’ and the Greens’ promises to expire on voting day itself, then you need a strong PTB.
Isn’t the EU a success, in the sense that there have been seventy years of peace in Europe?
Well, not in Europe as a whole! Let’s remember the terrible war in Yugoslavia. But most importantly, the EU is ever more oriented toward war. Even its basic treaty obliges member-states to improve their military capabilities. And at the European level, MEPs and the European Council have just adopted a European Defense Fund plan which will flood the arms-industry multinationals with billions of euros. Other European projects like the space program or even the interconnected infrastructure mechanism are now taking on a military dimension. The EU is preparing for war. Up till now it was its member states who destroyed entire countries, like Libya. Perhaps soon they will be doing so under the European flag. What kind of peace project is that?
Is there not, though, a need for “more Europe” today — greater action coordinated at the EU level — to respond to the social and climate crisis?
I don’t like the false dilemma between more Europe and less Europe. Europe is a continent, whereas the EU is a set of institutions and treaties. We need European cooperation on a series of issues like the ecological transition, taking in refugees, or tax evasion by multinationals. We need to cooperate so that we can get to grips with these challenges.
But more cooperation does not mean “more of the EU.” Let’s take climate change as an example. How does the EU want to tackle the climate crisis? With a carbon market, a market of pollution permits, that allows companies to buy and sell the right to pollute, rather than reduce their emissions. Do we need more of this kind of approach? The PTB’s answer is a clear no. We need European cooperation on the climate question, but this has to help us be more ambitious, to impose binding standards on multinationals and to break with the market. So there is something very insidious, indeed dangerous in the question “more or less Europe.” The real question is: which Europe?
What do you want to do to break the ties between MEPs and multinationals?
The multinationals’ lobbies are a huge problem, and part of the EU’s DNA. You enter the European Commission as a young graduate, they give you a nice salary and a nice suit and tell you that you’ll be writing Europe’s laws. But where should you begin? Well, Business Europe or some other lobby will have a nice text ready and you can start off from that. Sadly, the picture I’m painting here is hardly a caricature. Multinationals intervene at all levels of the writing of laws. Certain trade treaties are 95 percent the product of consulting multinationals.
This European Commission writes draft legislation which is then sent along to the European Parliament and the Council. Here, too, there are lobbies active among the MEPs, aides, advisers and so on.
Breaking these ties concretely means revolutionizing the European institutions and their functioning. We have some concrete proposals for these elections, starting with an effective and binding register of interests that allows for transparency. That doesn’t exist yet. Secondly, European commissioners and MEPs should be barred from taking up a position on a company board or any decision-making body for a bank or multinational for seven years after their term ends. Why seven years? Because that’s the length of the EU’s multi-annual financial framework. More fundamentally, we need to review how institutions function and give citizens a much more direct influence. We are proposing Citizen Initiative Referendums, especially at the EU level.
What should be done with the EU’s Article 63 on the free movement of capital, especially in light on Article 48 on treaty change?
The fundamental problem is what the treaties prioritize. It’s mad that when you take some socially-progressive measure you have to check if it conforms to the treaty provisions guaranteeing the free movement of services and capital.
The opposite should be the case — rather than always starting by asking what the market needs, we should focus on what society and the planet need and put limits on capital to that effect. We are not against free movement as such, especially for people. But we give absolute priority to social and environmental needs and the measures that flow from that.
As for Article 48 and the complexity of changing the treaties: here, too, we need a change of approach. If we want to change the treaties, that demands that we build pressure within the various countries. We are often told that such change required unanimity among all member states, and that we’ll never get there. But if we have a strong movement that knows how to push the limits, then we can initiate a test of strength at the European level.
We have already seen examples of this: CETA and TTIP were rebuffed by the mobilizations in various countries. We need such a fight against the current treaties, at least as regards the fundamental principles — that is, a fight against competition, marketization and austerity, saying we don’t want all this anymore.
I really believe this is possible. Indeed, we saw as much with the response to the 2008 crisis. The banks had to be bailed out, which was illegal within the terms of European law. But all sorts of rules were set aside in order to save the banks, because there was a banking emergency
Today there is a social emergency, and clearly also a climate emergency. We can put these treaties to one side to deal with these emergencies, too. The important thing there is imposing pressure. Back then it was the banks that held sway over policy. Now, the workers need to impose their pressure on policy, so we can have a change of course.
You reject austerity. But aren’t you failing to see that this is the consequence of having a currency, the euro, that is stronger than others? Either the currency is devalued, in a form of protectionism, or else wages and benefit payments will be cut back.
The problem is not just the currency, but the whole economic structure and the established model based on competitiveness. But yes, of course, this currency is designed to allow European multinationals a place in global competition. The big companies in Japan and the USA have their respective currencies and the European multinationals also wanted their own single currency in order to take “their” place on the global markets. But today the economic model based on exports is coming up against its limits. Especially with slowing growth in China, a big export power like Germany also finds itself in difficulty, directly impacting countries like Belgium.
Within the EU, at the national level — especially in Southern Europe — the effect of losing macroeconomic levers like currency devaluation has been intensified by the rules barring public investment. The so-called “convergence” criteria of the Maastricht Treaty, which were meant to force very different economies into one same straitjacket, have in fact created even deeper divides between them. These criteria have been made gradually stricter and more restrictive with the sanctions obliging states to respect them.
For instance, the Fiscal Compact has introduced a new 0.5 percent criterion for the structural budget deficit, meaning you can have next to no budget deficit in a given year. Far from achieving convergence, European economic governance has made countries diverge yet further. Germany has benefited enormously from this — or rather, the big German companies, not the German pensioners rooting through garbage containers for food. Italy, which was the Eurozone’s second industrial power, ahead even of France, has lost 25 percent of its production capacity, a huge loss — not to mention the Greek case.
This competitive logic also intensifies inequalities within the individual countries. In the name of achieving competitiveness we turn to internal devaluation, another name for crushing wage levels.
Doesn’t the Portuguese example [where the Socialist Party governs backed by the Communist Party and Left Bloc] show that it is possible to return to economic growth even within the Eurozone?
The Portuguese situation is a peculiar one. Under the pressure of the good election results for the Communist Party and the Left Bloc, but also a number of social mobilizations, the Socialist Party had to agree to lead a minority government which cancelled a series of previous austerity measures. Its record shows that austerity doesn’t work and that we need to break with it.
But at the same time, the Socialist government wants to remain within the logic of the treaties, including the European criteria on debt and the budget deficit. This impacts public investment, which is extremely low in Portugal. And when you don’t invest in infrastructure, in services, you build up another, longer-term debt. Eventually you will have to repair this infrastructure and it will be even more expensive to do so. So in this sense, the future is left compromised. If you don’t break with the logic of the treaties, there’s no other way forward.
What is at stake in these European elections — and does the European Parliament have real power to do anything?
The European Parliament is something of a democratic cover for the EU: it has no ability to initiate legislation. But we shouldn’t act as if it had no powers at all. Theoretically, if MEPs wanted to, they could change the entire text of a directive proposed by the Commission. But with the traditional parties dominating, that is a wholly hypothetical possibility. And if the amendments had a radical social thrust, they would surely violate the EU’s treaties.
The European Parliament, too, is often more attentive to multinationals’ aspirations than those of ordinary folks. It’s not the counter-power we need. Rather, as in the case of Ryanair workers, dockers and young climate marchers, change is going to come from a show of strength in the streets!
In Belgium as elsewhere, these elections are about having authentic left-wing MEPs who can expose all the skullduggery and the anti-social policies in Europe’s institutions, encouraging social mobilizations. PTB MEPs will make the difference not by tabling the finest amendment but by exposing the documents and dossiers that are going unseen. This type of MEPs can help give strength and unity to the European movements against the Europe of the filthy rich.