Europe is particularly shaken by the crisis. Faced with the explosion of public debt, the response adopted is not to remedy the causes of the crisis but to subject the populations to a super-austerity cure. A new European measure is attempting to “homogenise” the different national policies and the way they are decided. How would you describe this “innovation”?
This “innovation” is really a dramatic amplification of the existing mechanisms of the present social super-austerity and of support for the financial markets. It is an offensive action they are calling “Pact for the Euro”, and it aims to engrave in stone national and European policies of massive new cuts in social rights. As the European capitalists are unable to curb the crisis, they are still further intensifying the race to financial competitiveness in the Euro zone. They are posing German conditions on all of us – the major German groups hope to draw all the benefits by reinforcing their financial domination over the Euro zone. All Europeans will have to pay a terrible price, with an even more serious explosion of inequities throughout Europe and between the various countries. This “Pact for the Euro” is a significant supplementary stage in the war that the capitalist forces are waging against the forces of labour and democracy.
What else has provoked the crisis if not the financial capitalist model on which the European Union has been built over the last years, and particularly the Euro zone? Europe is paying for these neoliberal political choices enforced by right-wing as well as social-liberal leaders with the Stability Pact, the role played by the ECB, social and fiscal dumping, the generalisation of job insecurity and the policies of deregulation that have subjected ever more European peoples and countries to the injunctions of the financial markets. They have the reduced the social rights of European citizens, unbalanced public budgets and inflated sovereign debts – which now provide the excuse for a new austerity cycle. These are the policies that are responsible for the crisis. It is an infernal spiral.
The accumulated measures to “reassure the markets” can only, with time, aggravate the situation. Colossal sums have been released with the Financial Stabilisation Fund to refloat the banks and the financial markets. This has not prevented speculative attacks on the debts of European states … but rather strengthened their grip on political power, of which the peoples have been deprived.
What do the markets care, since the governments intend making the European citizens pay for the crisis by imposing austerity measures copied from the “structural adjustment” policies demanded by the IMF? These choices lead the European countries, in the first pace the so-called “peripheral” countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, into a spiral of economic recession and social regression, although the whole euro zone is affected and all the European peoples are hit.
The obsession remains of “lowering labour costs” to pay better dividends to shareholders. While in the European Union the share of wages in the GDP has already dropped by 10% in the last 15 years and has been transferred to capital, the Pact will accentuate this injustice by reverting from collective agreements to “decentralised negotiations”, by imposing a wage freeze and ending the indexing of wages on prices. According to Messrs. Barrosos and Von Rompuy: “Substantial and sustained increases (of wages) can be a sign of the erosion of competitiveness”! With respect to state employees, the countries are enjoined to guarantee “wage moderation”, cut the number of employees and cut social expenditure.
As far as working conditions are concerned, the model is still more “flexi-security”, which should rather be called “maxi-precariety” – which already covers some 40% of those actively employed in Europe, principally young people, women and immigrants, This “precariat” no longer even enjoys guarantees of the number of days or hours of work, since according to the above authorities it is necessary to “limit the unjustified restrictions on work” (quotas, closing shops at certain hours or in certain areas …), This means an end to the Sunday rest day and to restrictions on night work. Ill paid and insecure, wage earners will increasingly pay higher taxes and have to work longer hours since the Pact provides for transferringtaxation from work to consumption as well as a “harmonisation” of the retirement age to 67.
This is the future that the ultraliberals are concocting for us … and since European citizens cannot accept such regression they will not be consulted – worse, new mechanisms for bypassing popular sovereignty are being established. After forcing through the Lisbon Treaty and setting up a half-year control of national budgets by the European Commission, the countries must write into their legislation, or even into their constitutions, an “obligation to conform to the EU’s budgetary rules”. They want to lock up our societies by depriving the people of the freedom of their political and economic choices. To describe this new retreat from democracy John Monks, President of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) found an apt formula: he spoke of a system that could “reduce the member states to a quasi-colonial status”. This is the reality of their alleged “innovation”.
To what extent do the new measures alter the conditions of social and political struggle in Europe? On the one hand, homogenisation of policies carried out and on the other an increase in divisions. How does the European Left intend to encourage solidaristic and united struggles?
Evidently the bypassing of democracy that I have just described, as well as the impoverishment and harder working conditions for people in the EU member countries, do not make things easier. This being said, however, a deep-seated anger is being expressed. This anger is legitimate and can open the way to change. Social mobilisations against austerity are developing throughout Europe. The trade-union condemnation of the “Pact for the Euro” is very strong. It must be added that the mobilisations largely surpass the capacities of “classic” mobilisations, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I am thinking, for example, of the movement of the “moneyless” in Portugal, which started with Facebook. The number of those acting and becoming aware is constantly increasing. It is the irruption of the “precarious” onto the political scene.
I was in Brussels on March 24 of last year, the day the Pact was signed. A huge rally of trade unionists answering the call of the ETUC and the FGTB took place in front of the European Council. On March 26 Great Britain saw its first general strike since 1926. On April 9 of last year, a Euro-demonstration took place in Budapest. To these social mobilisations must be added some remarkable political upheavals. For example, the Irish general elections knocked out the two parties of the coalition government responsible for the austerity plan; people have called it a “riot in the ballot boxes”.
In this context, to help continue these struggles and their convergence, the ELP’s responsibility is to put forward a project and political alternatives. We cannot be content just to denounce or accept conciliation with the present logic. The International Conference of March 10 to 12 last year, in Athens, on the initiative of the ELP, Synaspismos, Transform! and of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, is a good illustration of this approach.
We have worked on the problem of national debts with economists, sociologists, politicians and trade unionists. We have thought about the need to reject the increasing trend to blackmail the countries and about emergency cancellation measures, of reconstruction with substantial drops in interest rates, but also about structural measures at the European as well as country levels.
This was also my opportunity, as president of the ELP, to show my solidarity with the Greek people, publicly to attack the content of the “Pact for the Euro” and to launch an appeal for the creation, throughout Europe, of resistance fronts of democratic, political and social forces against this new assault on behalf of the markets.
In the course of this meeting, Francis Wurtz presented the ELP campaign for a Social Development and Solidarity Fund. This fund (the exact opposite of the Financial Stabilisation fund) could be a great tool for carrying out an alternative policy. Through its objectives and mode of financing, it would, on the one hand, enable the EU and the states to free themselves from the grip of the markets and, on the other hand, finance public investment projects that would help the creation of stable and decently paid employment as well as projects of more general interest.
These are the three objectives that we want to see debated (among ourselves and with citizens) all through the ELP’s campaign. We could thus present two fundamental questions to society: must we continue to let the financial markets lay down the law or should we return control of budgetary, monetary and economic choices to the people? Must public money be used on behalf of the banks and firms that fire, delocalise, and create job insecurity, or should it be used for jobs and projects that respect humanity and the planet? This political campaign must begin here and now. I am convinced that our objectives and approach can bring together many forces, within our countries and at European level.
The liberal reply to the crisis in Europe – despite the interventionist policies of some European countries and institutions – encourages the strengthening of extreme and populist right forces. What are the lessons here for the left?
The extreme right has always used social despair and insecurity to push forward its nauseating policies. With the global crisis we are going through, it was inevitable that the wolf would come out into the open. We are, indeed, seeing a worrying rise in extreme and populist right-wing groups in Europe. Even more worrying is the fact that “government” right-wing groups and the European Union are not trying to rein them in. For example, none of them batted an eyelash when the Hungarian government – which has the presidency of the Union at present – attacked freedom of expression in its country. I would go so far as to say that the governments encourage the extreme right with their anti-immigration policies. In France, the racist remarks of members of the government are becoming a regular feature, the state organs are used to hunt down immigrants, stigmatising and endangering sections of the population that are already overexploited. During the first round of the last cantonal council elections, the Front de Gauche (Left Front) confirmed its position as the second largest organisation of the left, with 8.9% of the votes (after the Socialists with 25%). This is good news, but the context remains difficult: there was a record rate of abstention (56%) and the National Front (taking advantage of strong media coverage and of the daily expression of its ideas by the party in office) secured 14%. This is a first ever for this kind of election.
In Europe, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are telling us that austerity cures are only aimed at rehabilitating the economy of the “lame ducks” that were endangering the single currency and the economies of the other EU members. Everything is being done to single out scapegoats, to set the peoples against one another, to avoid highlighting those really responsible for the crisis. Why should the ECB charge Greece interest rates 10 times higher than some banks do if not to designate it as a “black sheep”? Evidently, there is no better breeding ground for developing xenophobic theses. It is a real danger – history has already proven that, in Europe, the division of the peoples in times of crisis can lead to the worst.
Faced with this, we must make a clean break with these devastating ideologies. We must re-establish the truth: it is not the immigrants who are responsible for the decline in European living conditions, nor are the “peripheral” countries leading Europe into a dead end. “Who is profiting from the crisis?” That is the question that could help us, along with our fellow citizens, designate those responsible for the present situation.
We also have the duty to show that there will be no change, no way out, without solidarity, since all the peoples are being targeted and all are dealing with more or less brutal adjustment plans. Indeed, it must be noted that the “Pact for the Euro” does not only concern the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Irish or the Portuguese. No— they want it to be applied in all the countries of the EU!
We have a duty to promote the mutual cooperation and the solidarity of the European peoples, but also with the Mediterranean peoples and of the whole world. The Europe of peoples is not barricaded and it does not fantasise about immigration coming from the South. To talk about cooperation is not an irrelevant stand. It corresponds to real expectations from the Mediterranean countries – Tunisia and Egypt in particular need support to continue their revolutions. There is also an emergency in Libya, where only the military option has been used. We could begin by organising a Euro-Mediterranean Conference for human progress.
The ELP has decided to launch a campaign for a “citizen initiative” for a European Social Development Fund. Can you be more precise about the nature of this “citizen initiative” provision in the Lisbon Treaty and what has led you take this decision? And what is the objective?
The time has come for a European scale political counter-offensive against the generalised intensification of austerity policies. It is in this perspective that, during our 3rd Congress, we took the decision to wage a campaign for the creation of a European Social Development and Solidarity Fund. Everything confirms the topical relevance of this proposal, which will be refined throughout the campaign, taking into account the remarks of the member parties of the ELP and the forces that will be joining us.
Launched in Athens, a highly symbolic place, it will be the biggest public political campaign undertaken by the ELP on a European scale since its creation. Throughout the year 2011, we want to popularise this proposal and have it widely discussed with all the available forces. Moreover, based on a political mobilisation that we consider quite original in Europe – that is by using the European citizen initiative procedure – we want to stimulate debate on the two questions I have already cited, and more widely on the lines of a new mode of development.
Concretely, the organisers of a citizen initiative must form a “Citizens’ Committee” composed of at least seven citizens of the EU, living in at least seven different member states. They will have a year in which to collect “a minimum of a million citizens from a quarter of the EU member states” so as to “ask the European Commission to draft bills in areas that fall in its domain”. This is a minimalist conception of democracy and citizen intervention in the European public area. However, I think we have a duty to appropriate all the tools available and especially those that enable direct involvement of citizens in an alternative project, and not just against the neoliberal choices.
I am convinced that it must be an activist campaign, directly linked to the social struggles that the left needs to wage, in our countries, in Europe and in the world. This is starting right now with the Pact for the Euro.
This campaign will also be an opportunity for advancing other proposals regarding the national debts, the democratic control of banks, the development of a selective credit for serving human needs, the creation of new powers for the workers to intervene in their firms’ decisions – including strategic ones – and the setting up of a European minimum wage.
The ELP has just held its 3rd Congress, and you have just been elected President. What was new about this Congress and how do you see the next steps in encouraging the emergence of an authentic European political issue.
I am very proud and honoured by the trust shown to the French Communist Party through me. I am convinced of the need to coordinate and build our actions together for a common alternative at the European level. The crisis has reinforced this feeling: we must join forces, we cannot be dispersed or divided at a time when the peoples are suffering and we have some serious and joint ways of changing the situation.
Moreover, the speeches made by the delegates showed that, apart from the difference between various national situations and relations of forces, there is a very great convergence of analyses on the nature of the crisis, its roots and its dangers, and there is a determination to work together for a convergence of struggles and alternative policies.
In this respect, I think that the 3rd Congress was a very important one. We have not only decided to continue our work, we have moved forward a stage with the political campaign which I’ve been talking about. We are now a megaphone of European struggles and resistances – and the only ones who want a radical reorientation of Europe. We want to make credible and indispensible solutions for redirecting money to respond to human needs.
We will put in place these orientations with full respect for each of the member parties and organisations of the ELP, and with complete transparency. We will always make efforts to find a consensus so as to advance together towards that which unites us.
Another important decision of the Congress was to give a fresh impulse to our collective work thanks to a more collegial functioning and composition of the leadership. From now on it will consist of a President along with four Vice Presidents: Marisa Matias, Maite Mola, Gregore Petrenco and Alexis Tsipras. Finally, this new phase of the ELP seeks to encourage the involvement of members of our respective organisations. This will strengthen the ELP’s democratic foundation.
Thus, since the last congress, we have a way of working and political perspectives reflecting the Europe we want: united, democratic, at the service of humanity and the planet. With the Vice Presidents, the Executive Committee and the Council of Presidents, we will be the guarantors of transformative orientations.