Is it possible to reform the European Union in a left-wing spirit? What are the tasks for the anti-capitalist left for the here and now? Heinz Bierbaum, president of the European Left Party speaks to Cross-border Talks
Heinz Bierbaum is a sociologist and economist and head of the International Commission of the party Die LINKE. In December 2019 he was elected new president of the Party of the European Left. He was a Secretary of the trade union IG Metall from 1980 to 1996, and his scholarly work focuses on industrial and social policy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and all its consequences are pushing Europe towards a new crisis situation…
In fact, Europe has long been in a deep economic, political and social crisis. After the 2008-2009 crisis, there was no “return to normalcy.” Then came the pandemic – which only exacerbated the problems that already existed. And now the war creates a whole new, even more difficult situation.
At the beginning of the pandemic there were voices that a changed political situation there would also be a new opening on the left. States intervened in the market, governments implemented support programs for employers and employees, and the slogan of nationalizing enterprises to save jobs flashed through the public debate. In the end, there was no breakthrough – even if the left was electorally successful in places where it had already been gaining strength, it was the right, and the far right, that benefited most from the pandemic.
While the crisis in Europe has been going on for years, and the left has not been able to overcome its internal crisis either. Let me be clear: we, the socialist left, are simply weak. We have not formulated a strong, distinctive program that would convince voters. We know, not only in theory, that our weakness leads to the rise of the extreme right – and yet we still cannot overcome this weakness.
Let me give you an example: during the pandemic in many countries, workers were tired and angry with their situation. They were losing their jobs, they couldn’t send their children to school normally because remote learning was being implemented, for which no one was really prepared. And then the force that was most actively trying to win them over was the far right and the associated anti-vaccine movements. They were the ones who rallied people to demonstrations, channelled their anger into hostility towards vaccination, and although their views were actually shared by a minority of the population, they made a lot of noise around them.
We were not able to mobilize this anger that was smoldering against the system. We didn’t even have one common position: part of the radical left was in favor of hard lockdowns and zero covid policy, another focused on defending civil rights and liberties. This lack of a unified leftist view that puts the human being at the center was a mistake.
The Party of the European Left tries to play a coordinating role that binds together the organizations that belong to it. We are now working to strengthen our political profile. We have recently issued our position paper on fundamental issues for the future of Europe. In it we make it clear: it’s time to put an end to austerity policies and any policies that get in the way of building a social Europe. It’s time to invest in public services and create a European Health Fund. And finally, to protect our communities from extreme right-wing hate speech, from xenophobia. Nor is it too late to demand that patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines be removed, that they become a common good and that no one can profit from a coronavirus pandemic anymore. We must simply save people.
And what happens after a pandemic? What programmatic proposals do you have here?
A very important theme for the European Left Party is a just, green transition. We want the future Europe to be more egalitarian and more environmentally friendly. In our view, this cannot be achieved unless we go beyond certain limits of the capitalist economy.
We demand strong state investment in the green economy and this is only the first step. We have to get out of capitalism. I am not afraid to talk about the need for systemic change. Building such a system that takes into account climate change and is not destructive to nature, and at the same time gives every person a chance to realize their needs – this is the challenge.
The European Left Party also does not stop fighting for peace and disarmament.
The war in Ukraine has not changed your position?
On March 18 we had a meeting of the presidents of the member parties on this issue. On several points we agree completely. We all condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see it as a violation of international law. We see no justification for Putin’s actions. For us, waging wars in general is not a solution to political problems.
But we are also all opposed to a new arms race. We differ on whether to support sending arms to Ukraine. Some parties, like the Danish Red-Greens, are in favor. Others, like Die Linke, are against. We are in favor of building a European security system, not of radically increasing spending on armaments and basing our security only on NATO. Because we also remember the history of NATO.
But there are no differences between the parties on the migration crisis associated with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. Our position on refugees, whether from Africa or the Middle East, has always been: we must welcome and help them. This must be the policy of the entire European Union, because it is the only fair solution. We are now taking the same approach to the Ukrainian refugees.
The challenge will soon be both to help the Ukrainians and to protect them from exploitation by businesses that count on cheap labor and easy profits. And the extreme right will also try to play this crisis to their advantage…
… and we must resist it now. Each of the member parties must put pressure, with all its strength, on the government of its own country to manage migration policy in such a way as to prevent both the development of racist sentiments and exploitation.
I have no doubt that the European Union as a whole should also become more involved in supporting refugees. What Brussels has done so far is far from sufficient. Refugees have been allowed in, they have been allowed to stay legally within the borders of the EU, but whether they actually find shelter, a roof over their heads, a job, depends to a great extent on the involvement of ordinary people, volunteers, NGOs. Representatives of the Party of the European Left who are members of the European Parliament have long been calling for a more active migration policy from Brussels. A policy that is active and friendly to the people who come here to save their lives, not one that consists of pushing them away and building camps.
But is this even possible? During the 2008 crisis, the European Union opted for cuts and austerity policies. This was a course that was good for business, not for the workers who had to bear the brunt of the crisis. During the pandemic crisis, the EU also left the interests of powerful corporations untouched. Can the EU be reformed to be a truly social Europe?
This is a fundamental question that we constantly ask ourselves in the European Left Party. The Union based on the Maastricht Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty is not the Europe we want. For the people on the left, Europe is still a battlefield. We must constantly demand a policy that puts the interests of the majority, the interests of the workers, first.
We want a Europe that is truly democratic, fair, ecological, and peaceful. I am convinced that such a vision is not impossible to achieve. However, we must still be present in the debate about what kind of EU its inhabitants need. Our voice must be heard more.
It seems that the left, including the socialist left, will have a chance to change the EU as a whole only when it becomes a serious force in the individual member states.
So what to do to achieve this aim – here and now?
There are several questions in which we need to be particularly involved. We have already mentioned the refugee crisis and the protection of workers – both refugees and migrants as well as citizens of member states – from exploitation. This is a task that party activists must engage in together with the trade unions.
Another issue is the energy crisis and rising energy prices. We are preparing a Europe-wide campaign against shifting the consequences and this crisis onto the shoulders of ordinary people.
The third topic is the right to housing. There is a shortage of affordable housing in metropolitan areas across the continent, and we’re going to call for it. Both for social housing and for cheap apartments for rent.
These are the demands that can show that the left understands the most pressing problems of workers, i.e. the majority of each society. Then there is perhaps the most obvious issue: involvement during specific protests, strikes, and fights waged by the working class. We must be together with the workers, on their side. If the left does not listen to the people, if it does not respond to their concerns, if it is simply not part of the working class, then our good intentions simply will not bear fruit. And vice versa: this is how, for example, one of our member parties, the Labour Party of Belgium (PTB), operates. The result is the growing confidence it enjoys among voters.
I admit that the relationship between the radical European left and the trade unions in recent years has not been the best, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is closer to the Social Democrats’ fraction in the European Parliament. However, these relations are already improving, we have established cooperation with the ETUC, and we also work closely with the industrial confederation IndustriALL – mainly on the topic of fair, green transformation.
Both we and the trade unions are close to the problem of how to carry out this transformation in such a way as to meet the challenges of the climate crisis and at the same time not to allow mass impoverishment of employees. We want not only to preserve jobs and protect people, but also to actively involve them in the transformation processes. They have the right to co-determine what will happen in their local communities when industrial production ceases.
You say: get out of capitalism. And what will happen next?
Here, too, the majority of parties in the European Left Party are united. We want socialism. We want democratic socialism, because we also want to achieve it through democratic elections.
In the past, in the history of the left, it was easier to say: we want socialism, especially since nobody knew exactly how this system would work in practice. After the collapse of the so-called “real socialism” we have a more difficult task, now it is easier for the right wing to present people with “simple solutions” which in fact do not solve anything. We have to construct our message more carefully. But we can, for example, start by saying that the market will not solve everything, then explain why the state’s involvement in the economy is necessary, how we will all benefit from it. And so on to explain what democratic socialism really means.
Photo: Heinz Bierbaum (source: Heinz Bierbaum)