A Marxist in the European Parliament

Marc Botenga
David Broder

Last week’s elections produced grim results for the Left across most of the continent. But in Belgium, the Workers’ Party made a historic breakthrough.

A Workers' Party of Belgium climate demonstration on December 2, 2018. Marc Botenga / Facebook

Interview by
David Broder

Of orthodox Marxist-Leninist background, the Workers’ Party of Belgium has in recent years begun to look like one of the most dynamic forces on the European left. Sunday’s elections only confirmed this picture. While the vote for the EU Parliament in Brussels saw setbacks for the radical left across most of the continent — the GUE/NGL group fell from fifty-two seats to just thirty-eight in the 751-member assembly — the leading exception was in Belgium itself.

The far right is, here as elsewhere in Europe, a dangerous force. The Flemish-nationalist Vlaams Belang made strong gains in Sunday’s regional, national, and European elections, which were held simultaneously after the right-wing government fell in a dispute over migrant numbers. Yet just as big a story on election night were the advances for the Workers’ Party (PTB), which scored almost 9 percent of the vote nationally, more than doubling its support.

As well as increasing its number of MPs from two to twelve and electing a host of members in Belgium’s regional assemblies, the PTB also made a breakthrough in the European election, as Marc Botenga became its first member of the EU Parliament. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Marc about the reasons for the PTB’s success, building a social alternative to the far right, and the wider difficulties for the European left.

David Broder

You campaigned as “La gauche qui pique contre l’Europe du fric” — “the Left with a kick, against the Europe of big money.” Your campaign especially highlighted the revolving door between politics and business, for instance how former European Commission president José Barroso immediately went to work for Goldman Sachs.

But if the institutions of the European Union are opaque, that also means citizens don’t take an interest in what their representatives (MEPs) are doing. What do you think you can do as an MEP to expose what’s going on in Brussels?

Marc Botenga

First, I’ll note that the slogan against the Europe of big money has three dimensions. There is the revolving door and the high salaries of the European Union’s own officials – it’s obscene that a public servant could be paid €30,000 a month when one in three people in Brussels itself are living in poverty.

Then there is the priority of economic freedoms over social and ecological measures — every law has to be checked to ensure it complies with the free movement of capital and services. Giving priority to the law of the market shows what kind of Europe you’re building. And then there is austerity — it makes the people pay while the rich benefit.

But yes, looking at how the European Union functions, when we go around the country on the campaign trail we see people’s first reaction is they say they don’t follow it, or they don’t care. That’s no coincidence — the European Union is difficult to understand. But what we see in our meeting and discussions with voters is that you can achieve a lot when you make clear what is at stake.

Take the case of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a complex trade treaty — no voter is going to read a 1700 page document. But by talking about chlorinated chicken or taking a Trojan horse through the streets of Brussels, you can break it down into symbolic issues. And again with the revolving door, if you look at the EU climate commissioner who had been an owner of two oil companies and sold the shares to a family holding only when he became commissioner, no one can doubt that is a problem.

This kind of practical illustration of what is at stake also helps stimulate mobilization. That is how we succeeded in stopping the multilateral investment agreement, and it almost happened with CETA. That kind of movement, and not just tabling the best amendment in the European Parliament, is what is going to make a difference in the battle of ideas.

David Broder

You mention the priority to free movement of capital and services in the European Union as an issue, and we could mention other treaty provisions that enshrine privatization and competition. Looking for a way out of this, some on the radical left some talk of “breaking out of the European treaties,” others of rewriting them or disobeying them. Given the difficulty changing the EU treaties, what do you think is the way out?

Marc Botenga

We can’t do everything and are very humble — we have a vision, a strategy we hope is useful to people, and we hope to contribute to a wider change. But we have a lot to learn, too.

At the same time, these strategies are not all mutually exclusive. We want to break with the logic of the treaties — the prioritization of competition and competitiveness — and this can be done in different ways. For instance, in the case of the Fourth Railway Package, which liberalizes passenger train services and imposes similar measures for freight train services.

Faced with such a package, we think Belgium should disobey it. That isn’t just a national response in one country, but also makes it possible to build European solidarity movements. As we saw with the strikes against privatization on the French railways last year, there would be a lot of support for such a position there, too. The important thing is to create a type of disobedience that can spread and win, even if not necessarily in all twenty-eight countries at once.

And indeed, I always quote the example of the European dockworkers. In the 2000s they succeeded in defending their working conditions by organizing pan-European strikes,  building a more favorable power balance through their mobilization and forcing the Commission to withdraw the liberalization proposals.

That doesn’t come from nowhere — the marvelous strike movement in France, the worker involvement and passenger support took months of work to build. But it’s about building solidarity rooted in those kinds of struggles.

David Broder

The Socialists fell back slightly here as around Europe, but your rise in vote share was much greater. Where are the new voters from the PTB coming from — are they disaffected Socialists, people who didn’t vote before? And what mobilized them?

Marc Botenga

At this stage it is difficult to ascertain the precise movements of voters. The Socialists did particularly badly in the north of the country [Flanders], in the south [Wallonia, French-speaking] they lost but remained the leading party. Doubtless we won some voters disappointed by their record.

In Belgium voting is compulsory, but that doesn’t mean that people necessarily do — in cities like Charleroi as many as 20-25 percent don’t vote. People often register their disgust with politics by issuing a blank vote — casting an unmarked ballot. So going door to door or campaigning in markets we made a special effort to say: we feel your distrust with politicians, and we here to change things, not to fill our pockets or serve ourselves. That is why a PTB representative takes an average worker’s wage, not whatever salary is proposed for that office.

As for mobilizing voters, we drew the debate onto issues where the other parties were forced to copy us. Take pensions — the average is €1200 a month and just €900 for women, whereas being in a retirement home can easily cost €1600. The pension age has also been raised from sixty-five to sixty-seven. We made a demand for a €1500 minimum and then the other parties sought to imitate us — the Socialists especially “copy-pasted” our program.

Another case would be energy — in Belgium the value-added tax (VAT) is 21 percent for luxury goods and 6 percent for basic ones, yet home energy is counted as a “luxury” and thus has the same VAT as champagne. But if you don’t have electricity you’re not doing a lot in your flat!

So, we make radical but fundamental demands that are, at the same time, “normal” common sense. Whereas the far right want to talk only about immigration we are the ones talking about social themes, and unlike the Socialists our promises don’t expire on election day itself.

At the same time, we’re not just saying, “vote for us.” We already planned meetings for after the elections, with people we’ve met; for while our MPs will do a great job, we also need to stimulate a different balance of power in the streets. Even the most basic democratic demands were won by class struggle, not by well-meaning politicians, and that applies also to winning social demands.

David Broder

And how about who’s joining your party?

Marc Botenga

Today our party is growing very fast — we need to count up who joined during the campaign, but the total membership surpasses sixteen thousand. One thing we’re very happy about is that we have elected workers into parliament, for normally it’s a place you don’t see many. On Sunday for example we elected a former airplane cleaning worker Maria Vindevoghel and, Roberto D’Amico, a former worker from Caterpillar to the federal parliament and also a former bus driver, Youssef Handichi, to the regional parliament in Brussels. All of them also have a trade union background.

In French-speaking Belgium, for the European election, six of our fourteen candidates were trade unionists and a majority are workers. We are a party of labor but also have small traders coming to us because the liberals, who always claimed to be on the side of small and medium businesses, are in fact organizing tax evasion for multinationals.

Strikingly, there are also a lot of young people from the climate movement, among others, and the party is also culturally diverse. That’s no miracle — it’s the result of grassroots work that’s going on in working-class neighborhoods. If with last October’s local contests and now the regional, federal, and European elections on Sunday, electoral work has taken center stage, it’s also important to be active outside of election time, to be part of working-class communities.

David Broder

The PTB also elected twelve members to the Belgian parliament, up from two seats, and were one of the biggest winners of the federal election. You got over 13 percent in both Brussels and Wallonia and over 5 percent in Flanders, but there the Vlaams Belang was much stronger. Indeed, Wallonia seems to be one of very few parts of Europe where the far right isn’t on the rise. What explains this difference — and are you competing with the far right for similar voters?

Marc Botenga

The strength of the far right owes to many factors. Two are that when social democracy started to decline in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, disappointing its own working-class base, we were perceived — probably rightly — as too small and radical as to be an alternative. The previous incarnation of the far right, Vlaams Blok, gobbled up support in those years. Flanders has always had a certain Flemish nationalism which does have an important cultural influence, and the radical right has been able to capitalize on this.

N-VA — an alt-right and nationalist Flemish party which presents itself as not on the far right, and indeed an obstacle against it — has succeeded in waging a cultural battle that draws the whole political terrain to the right and opens the way to far-right themes and vocabulary. This has helped Vlaams Belang become the second biggest party in Flanders.

Yet in this election, we also saw that this region is no monolith. Electing members to the Flemish parliament, and to the federal Belgian parliament from Flanders, we have broken through the far-right’s claim that there is “no place” for Marxists or leftists in Flanders, resisting their violent rhetoric against “rats” on the Left.

We faced difficult circumstances — the far right has been normalized, including even being invited on children’s TV shows to dance along with other politicians, and had maybe twenty times more media coverage than us. But taking people’s social concerns and fears seriously is the necessary condition for breaking through the far right’s appeal and providing a locomotive that can pull things to the left. Indeed, we especially invested effort in Antwerp, because it was important to elect people in different parts of the country.

In Wallonia, it is true, the far right has made no breakthrough. This has to do with our work. But we shouldn’t idealize this as if it were a racist-free paradise. In the local elections, in some cities far-right forces scored double figures, if taken together, and the potential does exist.

But we struggle against this and have succeeded in denying the space for such a party to emerge in Wallonia. We have had success in mobilizing an anti-establishment vote, by talking about people’s wages, their future, their jobs, but there’s also a cultural battle to be had against the far right. At the same time, if we do get an “anti-establishment” vote, people are becoming more aware of our specific program with around 840 concrete proposals and alternatives.

David Broder

The results across Europe were disappointing for the radical Left — the GUE fell from fifty-two seats to thirty-eight, and parties like Podemos and France Insoumise did particularly poorly. Having long given up its anti-austerity agenda, this election also marked the final demise of the Syriza government in Greece. But while the centrist blocs lost ground, overall we don’t get the impression the Left is taking advantage of the crisis in the European Union. Why do you think the PTB bucked the trend?

Marc Botenga

Evidently Syriza couldn’t present itself as the alternative because it was in government and had accepted the framework imposed upon it. But it would be hard to draw out any one factor that explains the (perhaps temporary) setbacks for Podemos or France Insoumise.

When I spoke before of us having a lot to learn it wasn’t just etiquette — I really meant it. We are a structured party and not a movement, but the current situation also involves growing pains — our situation shouldn’t be idealized. At the same time, every national situation is different and I’d be wary of over-generalizing. Some people say that our situation today is a bit like the First International with its variety of forces, I think maybe that’s true. We know more or less what the differences are between parties, and need to find what we can learn from each other.

But I would say that I think one of the successes we have had is to have a rhetoric and practice of rupture, insisting that we’re not like other parties while also offering concrete solutions.

Positively, we believe in grassroots work. We are impatient for change but also build patiently, recognizing and saying that the vote for the PTB is just one step in building a counter-movement.

David Broder

You recently took part in the Plan B summit in Stockholm. Without doubt there is a body of thought on the Left critical of the European Union’s treaties, for instance the barriers they pose to state aid and borrowing for investment. But there doesn’t seem to be an actual plan B: a collective proposal that unites the parties of the European Left. Do you see any possibility of a process by which that might come about?

Marc Botenga

We want to break with the logic of the treaties. We do not necessarily need a blueprint for the perfect society, though we do have our vision of what a different society should be: socialism. We know this vision is not shared by all the parties on the European left. Indeed, it’s not so much just the European treaties that are the issue as it is the economic system as a whole — the treaties set those dogmas in stone, for sure, but if you want to break with this logic then going back to national law is not necessarily a solution.

Multinationals are more or less unified internationally, as are the European institutions (built, indeed, by the member states). So there remains the question of how to find European solutions, which doesn’t necessarily mean from Iceland to Turkey or in all twenty-eight EU member states, but build or reinforce social movements that span multiple countries and challenge the logic of handing everything over to the market.

Examples of international workers’ struggles like the dockworkers or Ryanair are an example of the solidarity we need, and the counter-power against these multinationals and institutions. The Left’s role is to amplify these struggles. In securing victories, like against a socially unjust tax on electricity (Turteltaks), we can build the feeling that it is possible to create another society that puts social needs and the planet at its core. Hope is, indeed, really important to mobilizing people. Certainly, in the youth climate march, we see that: they are clear that they want a society that puts the planet first, even if they don’t have the plan written in tiny detail.

But here again, we see the need to make the social question central. Multinationals plan for what should be produced where and when, and the planet deserves planned solutions too.

The important thing, though, is who pays for a Green New Deal and who controls it. The climate skeptics will have an easy time of things if they can say that ordinary people will be made to pay for the climate transition. And indeed, we need to cut emissions by 10 percent a year in Belgium. That’s not something that the market is going to take care of.

Diem25 or AOC or the Greens will all have their different vision of the Green New Deal, but the important thing is to assert democratic public planning over energy, for instance. There’s a nice line in JK Galbraith’s Predator State where he says either the ecological transition will be planned by a public authority with public power or planned away by private enterprises with nothing at heart but selling more oil and gas. I think that’s the dilemma we face.