• The Left and the European Parliament

  • By Francis Wurtz | 20 May 09
  • It is considered good form in some leftist circles – particularly the “far left” – to look down on the European Parliament: “What are you doing in this mess?”; “Decisions are taken elsewhere”; “Any change is illusory”… I understand, naturally, and share the exasperation generated as much by the structural orientation of European Union policies as by the deep lack of democracy in the way that it functions. I too deplore the “parliamentary cretinism” that leads elected representatives to shut themselves up too frequently in the “bubble” of their assembly, far from real life, and to vastly overestimate their personal ability to change things. But, there is, in my opinion, more to it than that.

    Permanent cooperation with social movements

    The conditions in which the European political struggle generally takes place often are not recognised, along with the prerogatives acquired by the Strasbourg Parliament, in particular, over the last 15 years – notably in the area of “co-decision.”  In a number of areas, particularly those related to the European internal market, the European Commission proposes draft Directives or Regulations, but it is the European Parliament and the Council (which represents the 27 governments) that amends or rejects them. And if these two institutions are unable to agree on a text, identical down to the last comma, the directive or the regulation cannot take effect.  In many instances, the Parliament, therefore, has the power it needs to block or annul a Commission proposal. It did not, for example, approve a proposal to liberalise port services and blocked one on working hours that would have allowed each member state to authorise a workweek of 65 hours or more.

    Too often, unfortunately, the situation is otherwise: Nearly every time that the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) presents an amendment to reject a Commission proposal, which it does nearly systematically, it receives only a hundred or so votes in favour and is rejected by a majority (including the European Socialists) that prefers to modify the text without going to the core of the issue. This is what happened with the “Bolkestein Directive”: The majority simply reduced its scope, leaving the mistaken impression that it does not apply to sectors that it does not specifically cover – health, social services in the general interest …  An outright rejection of such an emblematic text, would have, in the end, made it much more politically difficult for the European Commission to renew its assault on these points. Which it already has begun to do.

    It is obvious: The problem is not the Parliament’s lack of power. Rather, there are not enough MEPs willing to break – with their actions and with their votes – from the logic of liberalism. To declare that “the European Parliament is useless” sounds “leftist” but helps the right … and its allies. Meanwhile, directives are passed and peacefully transposed into the national legislation of each member state.

    Two questions deserve clarification in this context. The first concerns an apparent contradiction: If the prerogatives of the European Parliament have been reinforced by the recent Treaties, why have we fought them? The answer is because these same Treaties have, above all, integrated and codified a liberal economic model – with constraining regulations on every member state that signed and ratified them. As a result, a “different Europe” requires a different treaty. This is fundamental. But this does not obviate the potential – and the left’s duty – to use the new power of this Parliament to oppose these regulations, to prevent them – as much as possible – from becoming directives and to question the legitimacy of the current (liberal) model in order to prepare the ground for an alternative. A little dialectic never hurt the class struggle.

    The other question to clarify is the link between this type of parliamentary action and social movements. Without the support of social struggles, the associative movement, citizen networks, local elected representatives, a group like ours would have been ruthlessly marginalised within the European Parliament. On the other hand, by becoming the privileged interlocutor of the social players charged with the need to “change Europe,” the group has become an undeniable presence in the political face-off within all the European institutions. It is clear, therefore, that our group needs these close and permanent cooperative ties with unions, NGOs and networks of the left in order to carry useful weight.

    I should add that the opposite also is true. Social mobilisations alone are not enough to shift the political balance of power. There is no mechanical link between the power of a demonstration in front of the Parliament and the outcome of a parliamentary vote. Changing the status quo in Europe requires construction over time, using social struggles, exchange of ideas and political interventions – from the “ground” on up to the institutions.

    What was striking about the extraordinary citizens’ irruption into the campaign for the 2005 referendum in France was that it encompassed all levels of intervention. Let me point out that the launching of this movement took place in the European Parliament on September 3, 2003, in the form of reasoned opposition by the GUE-NGL group, which stood alone in the face of the “standing ovation” of a subjugated Parliament for Mr. Giscard d’Estaing, the “father of the Constitution”, who came to present the draft constitutional treaty that had emerged from the “Convention” over which he presided. This revelation of “the hidden face of the Constitution” was communicated in several million flyers distributed all over the country by a political party – the French Communist Party (PCF), as it happens – convinced of the justice of the cause and organised enough to reach a large part of the population. The most politicised of our fellow citizens reached out to more and more organisations on the left – united for once. A debate was launched that snowballed across Europe as progressive people in other European countries joined in. This is the best illustration of the “new political path” and the only one able, we think, to change Europe in the long run.

    The main elements of our left identity

    Naturally, the ways in which this citizens’ movement connects with political and parliamentary activity vary from one country to another and also from one issue to another. The left in the Netherlands and in Ireland had its own victorious experience with the Treaty. In Italy and Germany, the left succeeded in turning out extraordinary demonstrations for peace. In Austria, resistance to Haider impressed all of Europe. In the Nordic countries, ecology and feminism moved to the forefront.

    For a group like ours, the goal since then has been, and will be, to share this experience in order to build together a strong left identity that transcends member parties, and, in the event, their specific positioning in the political spectrum. If I had to highlight some key elements of this “GUE-NGL identity,” I would cite: the social order, ecology, feminism, solidarity, democracy and human rights, peace.

    The social order

    We are working to build a Europe where the principal priority would be to put people first – for their equality, fulfilment of their potential and their rights. This includes employment and the training that should be guaranteed to men and women alike. It covers education, research and culture. It includes health and living conditions. And, it calls for a contemporary form of citizenship, in the workplace as in society. Choices like these need adequate resources. We especially advocate the mobilisation of all pertinent instruments to direct funds towards the financing of these priorities. Which brings us back to our respective proposals concerning the European Central Bank, selective credit, public finance, taxation of capital movements and global action to significantly reform international institutions. For some of us, this also means support for the emergence of a real common global currency for a common financing of the goods and services common to all mankind.

    Ecology

    We are working for a Europe that takes the initiative in the area of ecology. I am thinking of the climate, biodiversity, clean energy, public transport and combined road-rail transport, decent housing, clean air, responsible and public water management. In addition, I recognise also, in this context, the need to aspire to a new food and agricultural policy that protects farmers and not agribusiness.

    Women’s rights

    We are working for a Europe that recognises the equal rights of men and women in all areas of life – starting with the workplace. For many of us, women’s rights are essential to the transformation of society. Europe should be anti-patriarchal and associations should be recognised as partners in the social and societal dialogue. In order to reinforce all rights, we demand that the most progressive laws in effect in the European Union apply to all women who live in Europe – including laws on parity, a cornerstone of democracy. We especially demand recognition of the right to reproductive health and sexual education; effective respect for the right of women to contraception and abortion; a framework law to protect women from violence.

    Solidarity

    We are working for a Europe where people stand together, where exclusion is excluded, precariousness banished and discrimination, racism, xenophobia and homophobia proscribed; where people are not pitted against each other and where partnership with the South is based on equality and not on submission, mutual development and not predation, respect and not condescension or disdain. This sort of Europe should proscribe the poverty that affects 65 million Europeans, two-thirds of them young! Residents should enjoy the same rights as other citizens – including the right to vote in local elections. And this sort of Europe should protect refugees instead of protecting against them. In such a Europe, there is no place for a text like the “Directive of Shame” on detention centres, nor for the pursuit of people without identity papers!

    Democracy 

    We are working for a structure that would actively and durably involve citizens in all important undertakings: development of policy, control of its implementation, evaluation of results. We are mobilising also for effective respect of fundamental rights in the European Union: It is significant that the author of the only report that the current legislature has adopted on this question is Giusto Catania. a member of our group. The report covers all forms of discrimination – from the cases of immigrants and refugees to the rights of children as well as social rights.

    Peace

    We are working for a Europe that will use its weight and its influence to create new rules in international relations: more equitable, more democratic, more peaceful.

    Faced with the intransigence of unresolved conflicts – like the occupation of Palestine and the criminal suffocation of the people of Gaza –, faced with the growing banality of war – as in Iraq or Afghanistan – Europe should take a stand; without obligation to the governments responsible, Europe should put its authority at the service of political solutions based on international law; commit itself to renewed efforts toward disarmament and not accept the installation of an “anti-missile shield” on its soil; it must liberate itself from the guardianship of NATO, which no longer has reason to exist.

    Faced with the scandal of hunger, with flagrantly unequal development and with all the maladjustments of a runaway system, Europe should make a commitment to rise above economic warfare and the survival of the fittest in order to build cooperative relationships based on mutual and complementary interest. One billion human beings suffer from malnutrition in the 21st century. This is a monstrosity that Europe should not accommodate!

    Faced with the forces of domination that oppress so many nations, Europe should not conform to the “Western” mould but should grow closer to all the countries that are seeking new ways to permit the emancipation and respect for the dignity of their people.

    In a word, we want to be a European lever to change the world!

    But for this resetting of priorities to become more than a catalogue of pious wishes and for it to actually, if very gradually, become reality, we must attack the sources of the model that failed at the same time that it impedes necessary change:  the “market economy open to free competition;” “free circulation of capital”; a Central Bank inaccessible to citizens as well as to public institutions and dedicated to financial markets; a so-called Stability Pact intended in fact to ration public social spending; generalised free-exchange of goods and services and its corollary: permanent pressure to lower wage costs, environmental standards, regulation and rights, in the name of competitiveness; major decision centres beyond the reach of ordinary citizens and their elected representatives. In other words, everything that has built a liberal Europe in all the treaties over the last 20 years, the Treaty of Lisbon included. Our group is the only one to reflect this coherence between the objectives and the means of a “different Europe”.

    A point of reference for progressives in Europe and around the world

    In the course of our battles, our paths naturally have crossed those of the entire European progressive spectrum. First, unions: Our principle has been to cooperate openly with all those who considered cooperation in their own interest, from the European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC) to the “European Social Forum” led by our friend Horst Schmidthenner, who is very committed to the struggle against a liberal Europe. On public services, for example, we were able to bring 22 European Union railway workers’ unions together with four parliamentary rapporteurs on a package of four directives intended to liberalise rail service. In another area, we initiated a hearing on a Commission Green Paper on the “modernisation of labour law”: more than 30 union representatives from 12 European countries, from the East as well as the West, took part. On the subject of the Bolkestein Directive, the diversity of our interlocutors was even greater because all the organisations present at the giant Brussels rally met with us the night before to exchange particularly valuable experience. In fact, hardly a month goes by without a working meeting with unions and leaders of social movements.

    We also are in permanent liaison with our friends of the Party of the European Left, to which many of the parties that make up our group belong; with representatives of progressive foundations – like the Transform ! network – as well as, more recently, with REALP, a new and promising network of European elected representatives.

    The same can be said for the associative movement, in all the areas cited above. This is true of movements for women’s rights – like the “European Feminist Initiative” or “Choisir”, and national associations as well. It is also the case for ecological organisations: Seven or eight years ago we undertook to cooperate over the long-term with Ricardo Petrella, internationally known for his fight for recognition of the right to water. This cooperation notably led to co-organisation of the first “World Assembly of Elected Representatives and Citizens for Water” in 2007 in the hemicycle of the European Parliament. Many other environmental challenges – like asbestos and global warming – have led to initiatives that have associated our group with very representative organisations. We also are proud of having invited Dr. Pachaury, President of the GIEC (IPCC) – the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace – to address the current session of Parliament in order to give him the opportunity to make MEPs more aware of the consequences of climate change.

    Associations that support the cause of immigrants and refugees also have recognised our group as a primary channel of communication on behalf of their struggle, particularly in the fight against detention centres and the “Directive of Shame”: visits to Lampedusa, to Melilla, to the Canary Islands; a hearing at the European Parliament; a travelling exhibition; an online petition; an educational brochure. Our group has played a role that the relevant associative movement has found useful.

    I already have alluded to human rights: A report by our colleague Catania led to wide agreement with associations committed to human rights. Specific initiatives on the rights of homosexuals in Europe brought together associations like LGTB-ILGA-SOS HOMOPHOBIA.

    Finally, the group’s commitment to international solidarity has made it, if I may say so, the point of reference in the European Parliament for the forces of progress in a good many regions of the world: from Palestine to Turkish Kurdistan; from Africa to the new democracies of Latin America; from Iraq to Afghanistan; from the Czech Republic (where the “anti-missile shield” is supposed to be planted) to the NATO summit in Strasbourg and in Kehl, we have worked to be present on the side of those committed to peace in the world.

    In the same spirit, our group took an active part in all large altermondialist gatherings since the beginning of this movement – the inter-ministerial conference of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 – up to the present day. Thus, the GUE-NGL, in cooperation with the Brazilian PT, created the World Parliamentary Forum within the World Social Forum in the first year of its existence in Porto Alegre in 2001 – an exciting experience!

    I hope that all those who work, in one way or another, with our group will recognise themselves in this too rapid overview. Their trust and their friendship are the encouragement we most value. A bientôt, for another chapter in our common commitment.