Progressive forces must stand up to the rise of far-right movements by building a social Europe, and the run-up to the EU elections provides a “historic window of opportunity”, leftist leader Gregor Gysi told EURACTIV in an interview.
Gysi also said that the conservatives in Europe are in crisis and social democrats have “largely faded into insignificance” and it was time to offer Europeans “common economic, social, democratic and peaceful future”.
Gregor Gysi, the president of the European Left party provided written replies to EURACTIV’s questions.
Many argue that the upcoming elections might turn into a referendum on the very existence of the European Union. Do you agree? What are the next European elections going to be about in your opinion?
The forthcoming European election is a crucial one. Over the last few years, right-wing parties have had particular success in establishing themselves and building networks. It is clear that today’s European Union, with its dogma of the internal market and associated neo-liberal policies, has played a major part in this development.
Being “pro-European” means being a fierce critic of today’s EU and its policies, which lack solidarity, are antisocial, undemocratic, ecologically unsustainable, opaque and increasingly military. If it is to have a future, the EU has to be linked once more to social welfare and peace initiatives. It can only survive if it is supported by the majority of people in its member states.
This logic has been mainly put forward by the far-right, which has been on the rise for years and could become a very important force after next year’s polls. It’s been often said that this has been the result of the failure of both conservatives and social-democrats to address people’s needs. What is your assessment?
Our experience with large coalitions of social democrats and conservatives in Europe proves that conservatives are in crisis and social democrats have largely faded into insignificance.
At the same time, the rise of right-wing nationalism reminds us that we have to concentrate on defending our position on a social and democratic society in Europe and beyond. Labour market reforms such as Agenda 2010 and those that are currently being enacted in France with the associated dismantling of workers’ rights are not going to stop society lurching to the right. Indeed, the opposite is true.
The mass protests against the reforms of French President Emmanuel Macron have attracted support across Europe. Contrary to the extensive debate and discussion that is occurring in other social democratic parties, Jeremy Corbyn has shown that social democracy can only succeed if it has a clear left-wing manifesto.
Let’s say it is indeed the result of bad policymaking. Why is it the far-right and not the left, progressive forces, that has been able to capitalise on people’s discontent? What lessons should the European Left learn?
The European Union is caught up in a financial crisis, the euro crisis, the so-called refugee crisis and a crisis of democracy, which is manifesting itself in growing nationalism and the rise of the right. It is the same in our everyday lives – we can cope with one crisis, but when several come at once we may collapse under their weight.
A number of policy options are available for dealing with the crisis in the EU. One is the “nationalist” option, which would ultimately lead to the break-up of the EU. I am not in favour of this, because nation-states no longer have the power to organise social security at a desirable level in the face of transnationally structured markets, nor to have any control over the economy.
How could Greece or Luxembourg seriously negotiate a fair-trade agreement with the US or Canada that protects social standards? So it is in the interest of societies that there should be social guarantees and minimum standards at a European level, otherwise the dog-eat-dog competition of capitalist national economies would play out at the expense of the weakest.
People feel insecure. Right-wing extremism offers them simple – but wrong – solutions. The Left has not yet recovered from the failure of state socialism. For many people, internationalist solutions seem too complicated.
The European Left barely has support in the Eastern countries, where we have seen authoritarian governments gain power. Does this concern you? How to address this issue?
Most left-wing parties in Eastern Europe are very small because of their experiences of state socialism, with the exception of CP Bohemia and Moravia, and Levica in Slovenia. In the last national election, Levica made significant gains in votes and seats, winning close to 82,000 votes, or 9.3%. We also see how politics is changing in Eastern Europe. Social and political upheavals also offer an opportunity for policies that focus on social, environmental, democratic, integrative and peaceful transformation.
Time is tight, how to get people’s trust back?
In the EU, some 120 million people live in poverty and 21 million are unemployed. In some countries, unemployment has been above 20% for many years. The EU can only be saved if it focuses on creating social security and environmental sustainability. Peace must also be one of the cornerstones of the EU. This is contradicted by the proposed Defence Fund and the EU’s pandering to NATO in terms of security policy.
It is time to offer Europeans a common economic, social, democratic and peaceful future. A Europe of the people, not of banks and corporations. We need regulation of the financial markets and a fundamental shift in the role of the European Central Bank. Financial speculation must be stopped, tax evasion combated, and tax havens dried up.
How to draw the line between defending people’s rights and populism?
Human rights are clearly defined. Populists invoke certain human rights in order to violate or negate others. It is right-wing populists who are banking on the disintegration and break-up of the EU. For me, right-wing populism is a term of convenience. It was coined when political parties forced their way into government – parties that we would have liked to describe as right-wing extremists, such as the FPÖ in Austria or the Lega Nord in Italy.
Now, these parties claim that their policies address needs that other parties are ignoring. They are blurring the boundaries with the right by using language that reflects radical right-wing phrases from the Nazi era. In this way, these parties are appealing to people who feel neglected by other political parties, while simultaneously opening themselves up to the far-right. Sometimes they pay the price for this when they are taken over by far-right extremists, as is the case with the AfD.
Not only the far-right but the conservatives – and even a few socialist governments – have capitalised on people’s discontent, turning migrants into scapegoats and therefore fuelling racism. How to counter this hate speech?
It is high time for the reasons behind the flow of refugees to be properly identified and combated in order to end this relationship of dependence. One way of doing this is to create an economic basis through investment and trade so that, for example, African economies are integrated into the global value chain.
But the EU is linking financial aid to the closure of refugee routes and is prepared to make agreements with inhumane regimes such as in Eritrea, Chad and Libya. This is a clear step backwards to neo-colonial behaviour. But closing migration routes does not solve any problems, nor does it help to combat the causes of the refugee crisis.
This is the direction that the FRONTEX border regime has been following for many years, but it is the wrong one. Preserving the right to asylum; creating legal opportunities for actually exercising this right; and systematically combating the military, economic, environmental and social causes of flight.
Conservatives and social-democrats are facing a deep crisis but the European Left is divided. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has launched his own movement (Maintenant, le peuple) with electoral aspirations, as has Yannis Varoufakis (DIEM25)… How does the European Left intend to deal with this? Are you trying to join forces with them?
At present, there are at least three competing approaches among left-wing parties in Europe, from the Social Democrats to the Greens: the European Left, the Diem25 initiative launched by Yanis Varoufakis, and the approach of Jean-Luc Melenchon and his Plan B. In the European Parliament at least, there is currently a combined group, the GUE/NGL.
This makes political sense as we have to fight for them and not thoughtlessly put them at risk. Either we settle our disputes and overcome the danger of division, or the future of Europe and the EU will be decided without us. We can become stronger together or lose significance on our own. We must never forget who our real opponents are.
The European Left recently celebrated its Conference and decided to accept external candidatures for the lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. Has this something to do with these growing movements as it gives its leaders a chance to be elected without actually joining the party?
The run-up to the European elections provides a historic window of opportunity. At the moment, only the European Left is registered as a left-wing party and is the only one that can “officially” nominate a frontrunner. I know some of our member parties view this with scepticism, but many are keen to take advantage of this opportunity. In this case, we need someone who will be the face of the Left in Europe against the extreme right and neoliberals. We need someone who is prepared to travel and is able to contribute to good election results in various countries. This person also needs to represent the Left’s desire for unity in a credible way.
Several prominent leaders, including Greece Primer Minister Alexis Tsipras, have called on progressive parties to join forces against the far-right for the next European elections. Is the European Left considering any form of alliance at the moment?
The dogma of neo-liberal austerity policies, soaring social inequality between rich and poor, unfair trade agreements, the rapid advance of militarisation of the EU, the ongoing destruction of the environment, the gender inequality that still exists, global policies that cause migration through war and economic policy – these are all challenges that must be faced together by all left-wing and progressive parties. They have to propose solutions to these serious problems. All left-wing and progressive parties have to stand up to the growth of the right in Europe, but a democratic and social new start for Europe can only succeed if the Left takes a united stand.
Do you think it is possible to have a leftist Commission in Europe? The S&D plus GUE/NGL combination is working pretty well in Portugal so far.
This is only conceivable if social democrats adopt a left-wing manifesto and change their political direction. The social democratic parties are in crisis wherever they have given up representing the interests of the workers and the majority of the population in favour of austerity policies and neo-liberalism.
Faced with the advances being made by extreme right-wing parties in Europe, as an internationalist party, we have to muster all our resources and fight for greater tolerance and openness to other cultures, so that we can become an effective opposition to the right. We need social democracy in order to change politics in Europe. It is the task of the Left to exert pressure on social democrats with the aim of encouraging some of them at least to abandon their neoliberal politics and return to social justice as their fundamental orientation.
Jeremy Corbyn recently asked Syriza government for advice in case he ever gets to 10 Downing Street because he assumed his government would be under attack. Was Syriza the lost hope of the European Left after it failed to pursue its programme once in office? Given the Greek example, is there any hope for a truly leftist government in Europe?
This cannot be done by a single left-wing government in the EU’s economically weakest country. Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble are responsible for Europe’s austerity policy. The crisis was used to represent countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain as classic debtors. The policies of the European troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank – forced sovereign states with democratically elected governments to adopt austerity measures.
Greece has finally emerged from eight years in the eurozone bail-out programme. This is an initial success for the Syriza-led government, which took over the country in a very difficult situation. The problem is that the troika is demanding the cuts remain in place. Reports on the issue have always overlooked two facts: the Greek bail-out was, in reality, a bail-out for the French and German banks. The interest on the loans means that Germany has made billions in profits without paying a single euro to Greece itself.
A country also needs growth in order to repay its debts. But if the economy is being throttled by austerity measures, countries can never repay their debts without taking on new debt. This kind of policy, which was pursued until the end of the memorandum, cannot go well. Europe is not just an economic entity, it is also a political structure.
Our solution to the crisis consists of debt restructuring and a so-called “Marshall Plan” for rebuilding these countries. This is an investment programme for the public and social sectors with a focus on education, culture, health and care provision, transport and housing, all to be paid for by a capital levy. We are fighting for this kind of solidarity-based solution.
By the way, if Brexit never happens, do you think it is easier for Mr Tsipras to join the socialists or for Mr Corbyn to join the European Left? And now that I mentioned social-democrats and Mr Tsipras, are you concerned that Syriza will leave the European Left to join the Socialist and Democrats?
Brexit is proof that the unlikeliest of things can happen.
Both have their party families and it’s not so easy to shake off your family. The European Left believes it has a responsibility to the people of Europe to work for unity among left-wing and progressive parties in the fight against neoliberal politics, for example through the Bilbao Forum to be held from 9-11 November 2018 and via other progressive alliances. We invite all left-wing and progressive parties to make use of the run-up to the European elections to prepare themselves through intensive dialogue.
When addressing the European Parliament recently, Mr Tsipras said that many pointed at him as a threat for Europe but that the real threat was those who wanted to destroy the EU, not those who want to reform it. Does the European Left want to be a threat to the EU or to reform it?
Right-wing populists are banking on the disintegration and break-up of the EU. In our election platform, which we adopted as our working basis on 30 September 2018 at the General Assembly, we propose another way. We want to build Europe on a new basis of solidarity that respects the sovereignty of peoples. Our goal is to bring fresh hope. A new quest for cooperation and solidarity at the European level, in the service of our people and the people of the world. The Manifesto of the European Left proposes a democratic, social, environmental and peaceful basis for society.
Brexit, migration, the financial crisis… This has been a rather difficult period for Europe. What do you think are the main challenges for the next Commission and what is the European Left’s position?
The EU’s underlying treaties place the emphasis on market freedoms and everything else is subordinate. This has to be corrected in order to prevent the break-up of the EU. This correction is difficult, but difficulty cannot be a serious objection to such a policy. We might be called naive – so be it. It is not the job of the Left to do only easy things. The struggle against the economically powerful has never been easy and it never will be. People who call for a retreat into nationalism are running away from the difficulties of the struggle. Let us be courageous, let us fight for a better, more democratic, social and peaceful Europe.