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Party of the European Left’s fourth congress: building unity to build hope

By Dick Nichols

February 24, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- When the 200-plus delegates finally voted on the two main documents presented to the fourth congress of the Party of the European Left (EL), held on December 13-15, 2013, in Madrid, there was a faint murmur of surprise at the degree of support received. After all, the EL is a mix of different but related political sensibilities, bringing together “anti-capitalist, communist, socialist, ecologist, feminist, eco-socialist, republican and other democratic forces”[i].

Its affiliates embody different national political cultures and are based on all sides of the widening north-south and east-west economic and social ravines that cross Europe, the European Union and the Eurozone. Moreover, it is only 10 years old, created in 2004 in a forced march driven by the process of European integration and the need to compete with other European “party families”.

This history naturally raises the question as to how real and relevant the deliberations of its congresses can be: like all the “European parties” the EL is basically an alliance of national parties[ii] and popular participation in European politics and elections has to date been the lowest for all levels of government.[iii] Therefore, how much inclination and energy do its affiliates have to devote to it?

In Madrid the amended version of the political document (“Unite for a Left Alternative in Europe”), outlining the EL’s analysis of the European and international crisis and its strategy for overcoming it, won 93.3% support, with 5.5% against and 1.2% abstaining.

The amended axes of its programmatic platform for the May 25, 2014, elections to the European parliament (“Escaping from Austerity, Rebuilding Europe”) won 86.4% support, with 6.5% against and 7.1% abstaining. It is to be further developed in the run-up to the election, in the light of amendments and suggestions already received and future contributions.[iv]

In an effort to further enrich this platform by connecting it more closely with the movements against austerity that have grown across Europe over the past five years, the EL will initiate a summit of social alternatives in autumn, on the different political terrain likely to emerge from the European parliamentary poll.

The congress also nominated Alexis Tsipras, national secretary of the Greek radical left party Syriza, to be the EL’s lead candidate in the European poll by standing for the position of European Commission president against the incumbent José Manuel Barroso, representative of the European right and emblem of EU austerity[v].

Tsipas’s candidacy, symbolic of the Greek people’s struggles against the catastrophic impact of the “memoranda” of the “Troika” (EU, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) on their country, is already stirring enthusiasm and capturing the imagination of left and progressive people beyond the boundaries of the EL.

For example, among Italy’s highly fragmented left an initiative in support of the Tsipras campaign is winning broad support, with nearly 24,000 signatures gathered to date. Sweden’s Left Party, not an EL member, announced at the congress that it would support Tsipras’s candidacy. The Netherlands Socialist Party, also not a member of the EL and opposed to standing for the European Commission presidency, recently invited the Syriza leader to give a presentation on his campaign to a special seminar.[vi]

Differing experiences and views of EU

How much was this successful effort to reach maximum consensus achieved by skating over longstanding differences among—and within—the European Left’s 26 member parties, each of which was entitled to send 12 delegates (six women and six men) to the Madrid congress?

These differences have not been small. They include: whether to advocate the austerity-stricken economies of the European “periphery” abandon the euro currency (used by 18 of the EU’s 28 member countries); whether to fight for a democratisation of the European Central Bank or completely give up on the euro and prepare the way for national “soft landings” as it disintegrates; whether to support an expansion of the European Union (EU) budget to offset cuts to welfare spending and public investment by national governments; what stance to take towards specific EU institutions, such as the European Court of Justice, and how to orient towards the growing struggles of Europe’s stateless nations and “minorities”.[vii]

Such disputes have arisen not so much from differing theoretical assessments of the EU, although these certainly exist, as from reality--the very different levels of economic development and mass living standards prevailing in its different member countries and the varied experience of the workings of the EU felt within different countries, particularly by the social and electoral bases of national left parties.

Put baldly, the EU, with median hourly earnings of €11.95 (2010 figure), looks very different to a worker in Romania (€1.96 an hour) than to one in Denmark (€24.97).

Before the present crisis broke, and despite the clearly neoliberal content of the Maastricht Treaty (1992) setting out the criteria for participating in the future common currency, in the Mediterranean and Eastern European regions parties to the left of the social democracy still tended to view the EU as an opportunity for climbing out of national poverty and backwardness. This had happened with the investment of European funds in Spain during the 1982-1996 Spanish Socialist Workers Party government.

However, their Scandinavian and Dutch counterparts early on viewed EU standards as increasing the threat to welfare systems, wage levels and working conditions won through trade union and workers’ struggle. For its part, Germany’s Die Linke tended to see the EU as still a potential antidote to old nationalisms, especially German nationalism. In 2003, the Party of Democratic Socialism, one of the two components of the future Die Linke, while opposed to the Maastricht, Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2001) treaties, was still supporting approval of the draft European constitution.

For Italy’s Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC), “Europe” has represented a potential counterweight to national Italian politics, dominated by the mafia, a corrupt media baron like Silvio Berlusconi and the Catholic Church hierarchy. [viii]

The differences also reflect varying assessments of how open the EU is to reform after decades of itself become more “state like” by taking over powers from member states. The latest wave of “reforms” increasing EU control over fiscal policy and banking regulation plus the rising chorus of calls for the EU to become “a real federation”[ix] have only increased the pressures generating differing responses from the various national left parties.

For example, left “euroscepticism” has now reached the point, in the case of Sweden’s Left Party and the Netherlands Socialist Party, of demands that their governments follow the example of United Kingdom premier David Cameron and have a national referendum on their countries’ ongoing EU membership. In January, SP member of the European Parliament (MEP) Denis de Jong found himself in agreement with British Eurosceptics at an Open Europe forum in London:

It was in a certain sense a relief to speak to an audience which at least shares your analysis in this respect: the more powers go to Brussels, the stronger the opposition to this will become. The Europhobe forces, people such as Wilders and Le Pen, will then obviously become ever stronger with all the consequences that will bring. So it’s high time we proposed a realistic alternative. The SP wants to do this by putting the role of the national parliaments centre stage. More veto rights, more possibilities for opt-outs, what the British call ‘flexibilisation’ of Europe, and in this area we find much to agree on.[x]

In this context should energy be put into trying to democratise the present European machinery (by increasing the powers of the 766-seat European Parliament, including the power to initiate legislation), even following the line of the Greens’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance and Liberals and Democrats in For Europe, their “manifesto for a post-national revolution in Europe“?[xi] Or should the march towards federation be reversed, firstly by giving European Council of national leaders veto powers such that no European institution, including the European Parliament, can override the positions of member states? Or is any attempt at reforming central EU structures basically a waste of time because its very foundations are rotten (stance of Denmark’s People’s Movement against the EU, supported by the Red-Green Alliance, RGA)?

Moreover, since more than 60 years of expanding “Europe” have created a European sphere of decision making to which all forces must relate; at what level, national and/or European, should they fight for their proposals to be implemented,?

Even the most “Eurosceptic” formations face this question. Hence parties that are opposed to any expansion of European institutions find themselves putting forward proposals for European minimum standards with regard to wages, working conditions and protection of the environment. But how should the shared idea of a “social and environmental Europe” be implemented? Through multilateral agreements among member states or through EU bodies or some combination of both?

This span of differences is reflected in the sometimes low level of unity in the votes of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), the left parliamentary group in the European Parliament. This caucus includes forces outside the European Left (such as the Netherlands Socialist Party, Ireland’s Socialist Party and Sinn Féin, Denmark’s People’s Movement against the EU, the Socialist Party of Latvia, Sweden’s Left Party, Croatia’s Labourists, and Greek and Portuguese communists). It therefore covers viewpoints ranging from denunciation of the European Union as “the European imperialist centre” (Communist Party of Greece, KKE)[xii] to the critical support of Croatia’s Labourists. However, the issues generating the differences across both networks are very largely the same—what alternative to neoliberal capitalist Europe should the left propose?

In his pamphlet for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, The Parties of the Left in Europe: A Comparison of the Positions on European Policy Leading into the 2014 European Elections, Thilo Janssen speculates: “Going into the European election of 2014, the GUE/NGL will presumably not be capable of drafting a common goal for the future of the institutional architecture of the EU:” Even a common EL position would have to be diluted because “the accession of the Danish RGA to the EL in 2010 means that an electorally significant full member has been accepted which rejects the generally federalist positions of other EL parties.”

It was to help create as inclusive a discussion as possible on such issues that the EL invited non-EL GUE/NGL affiliates and other left forces from around the world to the Madrid congress, where some (like the Netherland’s Socialist Party and Sweden’s Left Party) addressed plenary sessions.

Convergence against austerity

Notwithstanding these differences real convergence was registered by the Madrid vote. At bottom, it was made possible and necessary by the terrible increase in social pain across Europe resulting from the EU institutions’ and national governments’ management of the economic crisis and the massive social revolt this has generated.

The crisis has exposed to tens of millions what the successive EU treaties and agreements really mean. It has shown through painful experience how neoliberal capitalist Europe—based on the free movement of capital, labour and services and with national governments obliged to inflict austerity by “Brussels”—does not and cannot lead to a levelling up of social standards in the “periphery” towards those in the “core”. On the contrary, the recession has been much more violent in the periphery and any future growth will go to the wealthiest classes within it.

The expansion of the EU towards the countries of the former Soviet bloc has also meant a drop in benefits to its previously poorest member states. Economies like Spain’s and Ireland’s, which had previously been eligible for European development grants, now have reduced access to EU funding because their GDPs pre-crisis had risen above the eligibility threshold (75% of average EU GDP per capita).

In its November 2013 document Refounding Europe, the Communist Party of France (PCF) charted the evolution of popular attitudes to the EU since its founding.

For several decades European construction enjoyed a broad consensus because of its proclaimed purpose of creating the conditions for lasting peace between yesterday’s enemies. Gradually, as that goal appeared to have been reached and the neoliberal dynamic and authoritarian and bureaucratic practices of ‘Brussels’ by contrast intensified, protest acquired a new dimension.

It was the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) that precipitated this shift in attitude, one that kept asserting itself up until the political earthquake of 2005, with the stunning incursion of citizens in France into the European political debate and their highly symbolical rejection of the European constitutional treaty project. The catastrophic management of the euro crisis from 2009 completed the job of digging the ditch between citizens and European institutions, this time across the entire “union”.

The impact of this shift on the parties of the EL has been as follows. Since its founding in 2004 the EL has always called for European treaties from Maastricht onwards to be revoked, however the description of the alternative proposed has evolved from one of reforming the EU to one of radically refounding it. In November 2007, at its second congress and after the 2005 French and Dutch referenda rejecting the draft European constitutional treaty, the EL was still saying in its political theses, that “the condition for more acceptance of the EU by its citizens is more opportunities to participate. The European Left stands for the democratisation of the European Union and of its institutional structure.”

At its third congress, in 2010, the EL resolved to use the European Citizens’ Initiative contained in the 2009 Lisbon treaty to call for the creation of a “European public bank for social and ecological development and solidarity”, but the European Commission rejected the proposal, claiming it had no legal basis under EU treaties.

The Madrid political resolution sees the chances for democratisation of the present EU as practically non-existent:

Real citizens’ intervention is quite simply intolerable for EU leaders, as it is incompatible with their class vision of the European project. Powers are confiscated from citizens and their elected representatives, in favour of technocratic institutions such as the European Commission that are fully aligned with neoliberal policies and ‘protected’ from all public accountability… All of the votes of citizens who have clearly rejected neoliberal European construction have been flouted.

Echoing Refounding Europe, the Madrid document proposes

a break in order to found a new European project, one which is based on the interest of the peoples and respect for their sovereignty…our goal is to break with this [neoliberal] consensus through the convergence in action of the various political forces that exist in the European countries, struggling in the street and in the institutions, with an anti-capitalist perspective.

Moreover, “the EU is setting itself against the people of the whole world” by its support for free-trade areas, by its “Fortress Europe” policies, “which sentence migrant populations to absolute exclusion or even imprisonment in spaces where no law is applied”, and by its alignment with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). As for the environment, “the European market in carbon emissions has opened a new territory for speculation, which benefits the worst polluters.”

The basis for the large majority in Madrid was therefore the shared understanding that, in the words of the political document:

today, crucial choices have to be made. There will be no maintaining of the status quo or going backwards. If current choices are upheld, the EU will be reduced to an authoritarian management board and producer of social regression, threatening any idea of solidarity and European justice.

As Catarina Martins, national co-president of Portugal’s Left Bloc, told the congress:

For us Europe was development, but now it’s the opposite—the destruction of workers’ rights across all countries. This Europe cannot be amended.

Need for united left alternative

The other major pressure making for consensus at Madrid was the recognition that the EL had to do everything to provide tens of millions of disillusioned people with as convincing an alternative as possible for the May 25 European elections, seen not as an end in themselves but as an important opportunity to strengthen social resistance and popular morale, and so help shift the balance of forces in Europe to the left.

In the 2009 European poll the GUE/NGL parties averaged a low 4.8%, making that caucus the second-smallest in the European parliament. The higher degrees of support received—34.9% in Greek Cyprus (Progressive Party of Working People, AKEL), 22.9% in Portugal (Left Bloc and the Communist Party), 14.2% in the Czech Republic (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSCM), 14% in the Irish Republic (Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party), 13.1% in Greece (KKE and Syriza), 7.5% in Germany (Die Linke),7.2% in Denmark (People’s Movement Against the EU), 7.1% in the Netherlands (Socialist Party) and 6.1% in France (Left Front, Front de Gauche)—were offset by low scores in Sweden, Finland and Eastern Europe.

Today, with politics across Europe polarised by the crisis and support for traditional conservative, social-democratic and liberal governments falling in the most damaged countries, the left vote has risen sharply at the national level, notably in Greece, the Spanish state and France. Moreover, the experience of five years of resistance to austerity, marked by general strikes and huge protests, has also brought home the stark reality that without the election of left governments committed to ending austerity and starting the transition to a socially just alternative, the hell of capitalist “restructuring” will just keep grinding on.

Ominously, too, in a range of countries (Greece, France, UK and Netherlands) the far-right message of xenophobia and exclusion is also winning increasing support, raising the stakes for a convincing left alternative at the European level. According to opinions polls, if an election were held today the European Parliament would have a large eurosceptic, xenophobic and racist minority, led by the French National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom (VVF) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), along with similar Scandinavian and eastern European outfits.

The urgency of the challenge was projected from the very opening of the congress, when, after receiving greetings from the EL’s affiliate organisations in the Spanish state--the United Left (IU), Catalonia’s United and Alternative Left (EUiA) and the Communist Party of Spain (PCE)--Cayo Lara, IU national coordinator, set the tone of the gathering:

Welcome to Madrid, which at one time it was said would be the tomb of fascism. [xiii] Our fighters of those times didn’t achieve that, but today it’s up to us to see that this EL congress is of use in taking a step forward, so that one day we can talk of the tomb of the Troika. That would be a good homage to what we weren’t able to achieve such a long time ago.

It’s up to us to work and to contribute our modest grain of sand to try to unite the alternative European left. I know we have very many differences, but why is it that the right wing doesn’t have such problems at the moment of getting agreement on the common, on the essential? Why does the left have such problems and why does it take us so much work to get agreement, to set up fronts and make common alliance against the common enemy, which does have a clear view of what it’s defending?

To all appearances we are a long way from our goal, but we just can’t stay so far off, because not to forge the necessary unity of the alternative left in Europe will mean that the same old gang, the economic and political right, will just keep winning.

Lara also put the struggle for left electoral unity in the context of the Europe-wide class struggle:

One day we may win government, but that does not mean winning power … we need to have the people organised, civil society organised. When we adopt measures and form the government that’s needed, we shall need the organised people to support those measures so that we are not pushed backwards, so that “No Pasarán” will become reality in Europe.

A voice from Bolivia

Bolivia’s vice-president Álvaro García Linera next stressed in a special invitation address the economic, political, intellectual and moral exhaustion of “self-absorbed and self-satisfied” capitalist Europe, while observing that “something is missing in [the left’s] responses, something is missing in our proposals”. García Linera made five suggestions for the European left to take on board. These were: not to be satisfied with diagnosis and denunciation; to recover the idea of democracy by “ridding ourselves of the conception that it is a merely an institutional question”; to reaffirm “the universal core principles of common rights [and] of politics as common good”; “to fight for a new relation between human beings and nature”; and “to reclaim the heroic dimension of politics.” (See http://links.org.au/node/3712 for an English translation of García Linera’s complete speech.)

After the presentation of the two main document drafts, outgoing EL president and Communist Party of France (PCF) national secretary Pierre Laurent spelled out his view of the tasks of “what may be the most crucial congress since the creation of the EL”.

We must in these three days make the choices that will make the EL a major actor in the class conflict that is intensifying in the EU and throughout Europe. If we are capable of opening perspectives for progress to those civil, social and political forces that are looking for an alternative outcome based on solidarity, our advances can be important. This must be our central objective: to enable the strongest possible advance of left forces in each European country and to strengthen with these results the GUE-NGL group in the European parliament.

Laurent also anticipated potential debates of the congress—on the euro and whether should the EL put up its own candidate for the position of president of the European Commission, when this might be seen as legitimising the very institutions the EL opposes. On this last issue Laurent spelled out the PCF viewpoint:

The peoples, the workers, all those who are fighting against austerity and for the refounding of Europe should have a spokeperson. For the EL, this candidacy would be a strong symbol of hope for Europe. Greece has served as guinea-pig for the policies of austerity. But Greece has resisted and still resists. Syriza, the party of which Alexis Tsipras is president, has been able to draw the Greek people together against barbaric memoranda and authoritarianism and for a recovery of Greece within a Europe based on solidarity. The voice of Alexis Tsipras will be that of resistance and hope in the face of ultra-liberal policies and the threat of the far right…

The time has come to decide. A very large majority among us is favourable. Certain parties are not, not in opposition to Alexis’s candidacy, but in opposition to the concept, which would give credibility to a commission that we judge to be illegitimate and anti-democratic. We shall carry out this debate in depth and in the spirit of coming together that characterises us.

On the euro, Laurent said:

Voices have been raised in in favour of the withdrawal of this or that country from the euro zone, which would leads in more or less time to its dissolution. This debate also involves left forces. While we can understand that exasperation can lead citizens to envisage this extreme option as long as austerity is the only prospect, we would still think that we would be dealing with a false solution involving serious dangers. In the pitiless world in which we live, it would drive peoples, increasingly competing among themselves, to wage merciless economic war. The big corporations and the hegemonic states would doubtless be the only winners of this “every man for himself” approach.

Discussion

Laurent’s was the first indication of debates to come. Its character was set by a number of unique features of the EL, that unprecedented “new beast” in the words of Renato Soeiro, the Left Bloc’s representative on the statutes commission. More a coalition of parties than a party, made up roughly half and half of mass parties with parliamentary representation and small parties without any major institutional presence, the delegates to the congress embodied a wide spectrum of opinion and of political cultures, especially when its observer organisations were included.

In addition, the congress procedure was for amendments not to be put directly before plenary sessions, but passed to an amendments working group for consideration by the drafters of the document concerned.

In the quite unstructured discussion that resulted, the successive interventions roughly fell into six classes:

* National reports that didn’t directly address the draft congress documents, but used the presence of left delegations from all Europe to press the importance of specific issues or to explain the political situation in their countries. This was notable with the eastern European and Cypriot parties;

* Commentary on various aspects of the draft documents from those parties supporting them, in particular defence of their stance of opposing abandonment of the euro (PCF speakers);

* Explanations of positions of critical support for the documents (Swiss Party of Labour, Czech Party of Democratic Socialism, Party of Italian Communists);

* Explanations of position by non-EL parties invited to the congress (Sweden’s Left Party, Netherlands’ Socialist Party);

* Explanations of specific positions of EL parties not shared by the majority of the EL (the Denmark’s RGA);

* Some global disagreement with the documents’ approach of refounding Europe, counterposed to the need to prepare the masses of Europe to seize power. This was the approach of the German Communist Party, whose delegate described the proposed EL line as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and invited the congress to study the resolutions of the 15th International Meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties (held in Lisbon, November 8-10, 2013).

* Delegates also addressed issues raised in motions on items not covered by the two main documents.

The themes most emphasised were the threat of the far right, especially as it was trying to project a “social” rhetoric against the EU and the euro; (i.e., trying to steal some of the left’s own clothes); the urgent need to build cross-European campaigns that could unite workers and young people across the divides deepened by EU policy; the importance of the struggle against apathy, abstentionism and mass prejudice towards politics per se (reflected for some in the rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy); the need to push for specific material gains that pointed the way to a different Europe (such as a PCF delegate’s call for a campaign in support of the European Tobin Tax, presently stalled in the European Commission because of blackmail by French and German banks); and the appalling situation for young people in southern Europe and the need to build a European youth movement against austerity (Finnish Left Alliance Youth).

Amendments agreed

During this ongoing debate, amendments were submitted to an amendments working group. When the amended draft documents re-emerged for vote on the final day, they contained some notable changes (shown below in italics).

The political document specified that the transformation of the Eurozone would require breaking the frame of the treaties that the ECB and the EU as a whole are based on, which are binding the ECB and EU to follow neoliberal policies. This requires as well a fundamental change in the relation of forces between the classes on a European level. In addition, defeating austerity would require “when the question of power has become a practical reality refusal to adhere to the European treaties and intergovernmental agreements such as the Fiscal Compact and renunciation of them.

On the euro the draft position of not advocating withdrawal was softened to one of noting that withdrawal from the euro would not automatically lead to more progressive policies, reflecting a concession to the argument that, in certain circumstances, abandonment of the euro could be a lesser evil for a left government (a position being put by the Left Party).

The other major change was a specific proposal to create a European institution able to finance at a very low interest rate, even a zero rate, public spending of national states and enterprise investment if they develop employment according to precise social and ecological criteria. In this way we can concretely begin to radically question the independence and mission of the European Central Bank, as well as the current architecture of the euro and its governance.

The programmatic platform was improved by the addition of a sixth “programmatic axis” to the five contained in the draft. It gathered together all the demands relating to ecology and the transition to environmental sustainability under the heading, “A new model for social and ecological development”, putting the fight for sustainability on the same level as that against austerity, for peace and for a citizen’s revolution to give power to the people (a formulation of France’s Left Party and Left Front now adopted at the European level).

The inclusion of the amendment on social and ecological development was also the result of the intervention of the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), whose co-president Jean-Luc Mélenchon commented on his blog:

The “citizens’ revolution” is a strategy. We must say in support of what project. Here, the issue is one of breaking with production for the sake of production and reformulating the collectivist project as a project in the name of general human interest.

The six axes of the EL’s European election platform now read:

Resist austerity: For a new model for social and ecological development;

Give power to the people, for a citizen’s revolution;

For a social Europe, a Europe of rights;

For fair trade with the world—refuse the big transatlantic market;

For a Europe of peace.

What to do about the debt?

The other major amendment to the programmatic platform changed the explicit commitment in the draft to a citizens’ audit of public debt and to the cancellation of debt that these audits find to be “illegitimate”. The point dealing with debt was entitled, “The debt will not be paid”.

When delegates received the amended document on the last day, all that had disappeared, to be replaced by, “The debt is not a national problem. We need to find a European solidarity solution”, along with the commitment that the EL would organise a conference on the issue of the restructuring of public debt.[xiv]

This change was the outcome of a congress-long background discussion between major EL parties. EL executive and Communist Party of Spain member Maite Mola told the media: “The viewpoint of the Danish RGA and ours and Greece’s is not the same. They see the debt as a problem of the South, and their proposals go in the direction of solidarity, of ‘helping’ the southern countries.”[xv]

Other delegations supported a position of total non-payment of the public debt, with payment of “illegitimate” debt only as a fall-back position. At the end of the negotiations the position adopted was that of Syriza, which of all EL affiliates will be the first have to face the debt issue head-on if it wins the next Greek election. In his programmatic declaration as EL lead candidate Alexis Tsipras later called for a European debt conference, along the lines of the 1953 London Debt Agreement which made Germany’s debt repayments conditional on its rate of economic growth.[xvi]

While any sort of thorough discussion of the debt could not be had in the plenary session, informal reports on the negotiations among delegations mentioned the need to work out in more detail options for counteracting the countermeasures of creditor financial institutions and European bodies in the case of unilateral debt non-payment or rescheduling.

Notwithstanding this compromise, major EL affiliates such as Spain’s United Left and Portugal’s Left Bloc will go to the May European elections in their countries committed to citizens’ debt audits and non-payment of illegitimate debt.

Other debates

The amendment on the position on debt showed that major issues of debate occurred when there was disagreement among the EL’s major affiliates. This situation was repeated over four other issues.

Candidate for European Commission president

Opposition to running a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission came from the Red-Green Alliance, supporter of the Danish Movement Against the EU in European elections. In the discussion on the principle involved, an RGA delegate argued that the “European Commission is not the legitimate leadership of Europe” and that standing for the position of EC president would make the left vulnerable to right-wing Eurosceptic charges of hypocrisy.

Responses came from the Left Bloc’s Catarina Martins (“Alexis Tsipras is the voice of the people against finance”), French Uniting Left leader Christian Piquet (“Tsipras can make the EL known in all Europe”), France’s Left Party co-president Martine Billard (“Tsipras [is] a symbol of the struggles of the peoples against the politics of austerity”) and other delegates who pointed out that the EL would be left without a lead candidate to put up against its political opponents[xvii] if the RGA position were adopted.

In the end the resolution proposing that the EL stand for EC presidency stated:

Our candidacy will strongly criticise the non-democratic nature of [EU] institutions…and demand a democratic rebuilding of the Union, respecting the sovereignty of the peoples and of the European nations. Our candidacy will be a megaphone for all citizens who want to stop austerity and open the way for a social, ecological and democratic rebuilding of Europe…We offer this candidacy to all the forces wishing to unite for a different future of human progress in Europe.

This motion was adopted by 79.6% of the delegates, with 13.2% opposing and 7.2% abstaining. Tsipras was then adopted as the EL’s candidate with 84.2% in favour, 7.3% against and 8.5% abstaining.

Should the EL call itself ‘ecosocialist’?

Besides its successful reworking of the basic platform for the European elections, the French Left Party also put effort into a specific resolution that would have the EL adopt ecosocialist goals and identify itself as ecosocialist. This resolution, moved in slightly amended form as a joint proposal with Die Linke, Syriza, the Left Bloc and the Red-Green Alliance, was opposed by the main communist parties in the EL (PCF and PCE), not on the grounds of its specific content, but because the self-description “ecosocialist” would be an unnecessarily restrictive ideological tag, contradicting the EL’s practice of providing a home for all sensibilities to the left of the social democracy.

The motion was narrowly adopted (47.6% to 42.9%, with 9.5% abstaining). On his blog, Mélenchon, who did not attend the congress, celebrated this win over what he called the “old” parties as “making ecosocialism the axis of ideological orientation” for the EL. However, whether pushing such a motion through this congress was a useful way actually to advance ecosocialist consciousness and convictions among parties still coming to terms with all its complexities remains to be seen.

Presidency of EL

The other area of Left Party intervention concerned the EL presidency. Three weeks before the congress France’s Left Party proposed that the EL adopt a male-female co-presidency formula, and that incumbent president Pierre Laurent not repeat in the position. However, for the EL’s statutes commission the time for amendments to the statutes had closed, and discussing the Left Party proposal would require it to be submitted to all affiliates. The statutes commission decided to refer the proposal to the next congress and go with the existing presidential arrangement.

The Left Front of France delegation then took their battle against Laurent to the congress plenary, with co-president Martine Billard explaining why it was impossible for their delegation to support Pierre Laurent. Billard said:

In France, we will have council elections two months before the European election. Unfortuantely, in Paris, Pierre Laurent, the national secretary of the PCF, has decided that the PCF will ally itself with the Socialist Party from the first round.[xviii] That poses a problem for the image of the EL presidency. We consider that the fact that the EL president calls for a joint ticket with the social democrats just two months before the European poll, blurs the message of the EL’s political independence, and not only in France. Also, in the name of the Left Party, I must regretfully announce, as we did two months ago, that we will vote against the renewal of Pierre Laurent’s mandate. This is not a questioning of the person, nor of the work done. It’s rejection of a clouding over of the EL’s political image.

Perhaps sensing a negative reaction to what many delegates saw as an unwarranted introduction of French disputes into a European forum, Left Party national secretary François Delapierre urged the plenary not to be afraid of debate, recalling the fiery clashes between Rosa Luxemburg and other leaders of the Second International:

There’s no need to fear difference. A living force dissents, listens, reacts. We can change course. Do-nothingness is not a guarantee of the future.

If anything, Delapierre’s intervention made matters worse for worse the French Left Party, with a number of delegations commenting in the corridors that, while they had been dismayed by the PCF decision to ally with the social-democratic Socialist Party in many towns for the French council elections, such differences could only be addressed seriously in France. As for Laurent, he replied that he was “committed” to the Left Front advancing in the council elections and that “I carry out this fight in Europe with the same frankness, determination and spirit [as in France].”

The result of the episode was that Laurent was re-elected with 78.6% support, while the four candidates for EL vice-presidents (Tsipras, Maite Mola, Left Bloc European MP Marisa Matias and Bulgarian Margarita Mileva) won 83.8%.

At the end of the congress the Left Party announced that it was suspending its EL membership until after the French municipal poll, a decision that was met with some incomprehension and dismay.[xix]

Feminist work in the EL

The last major dispute of the congress concerned the proposal, pushed by women from the PCE and PCF, to set up a working group on women’s rights and feminism within the EL. At present EL women operate within the EL Fem network, but according to PCE woman leader Cristina Simó, its work is not integrated into the core of the party’s work and the EL’s work in the area is frustratingly slow.

Simó and other women had tried to get this proposal adopted at the EL Fem meeting that preceded the congress, but without success. They then took it to the final plenary, where Simó argued that the idea of the working group was not to replace EL Fem, but to reinforce it. Simó called for the struggle for women’s rights to become a “central axis” of EL’s political action: “We can’t talk about social justice or democracy if one half is excluded.”

When this motion was finally put (the motions working group had originally proposed that it not be heard but this was overturned by the plenary), it lost by the narrowest of margins, by 44.6% to 46.9%. Laurent, conscious of the impact that the loss of the motion had on the women comrades, felt compelled to comment that “the men of EL are also feminists”.

Some conclusions

What did the congress finally achieve?

In immediate terms, it launched the Tsipras candidacy, which is already making waves with its message of breaking with EU austerity and fighting for a Europe based on the principles of social justice, democracy and environmental sustainability. It developed the basic program for that candidacy.

It also voted to organise a yearly “European Alternatives Forum” whose idea is “to create as large a political space as possible to deepen and enrich proposals, to give the EL more political clout on a European level” and to “program a yearly popular campaign around alternative proposals, involving citizens, with direct forms of participation (citizens’ vote, local referenda)”. A separate motion also committed the EL to activating a European Network of Culture.

The EL amended its statutes to allow organisations outside Europe that are politically close to it to become “EL partners” and it affiliated the important research network “Transform! Europe” directly to the party.

Less immediately, but maybe more importantly, it made advances in the collective thinking out of exactly what alternative the left needs to propose at the European level. Building on work like that contained in the PCF’s Refounding Europe, the EL and its affiliates are making a serious contribution to articulating a European alternative that will have some chance of inspiring mass support.

The congress also began to develop a position on an important issue that is bound to flare in coming years—the right of presently stateless peoples in Europe to self-determination. The formulation adopted was cautious (“we have known how complex these issues are and … how heterogeneous they can be”), but, prompted by the United and Alternative Left of Catalonia, called for “the guarantee of an informed debate and peaceful democratic consultation of the peoples concerned”.

The congress called on its member parties to support the May 15-25 international week of action against austerity and troika policies, which will culminate in the Blockupy protest outside the ECB headquarters in Frankfurt. It also committed to build a “broad citizenship and solidarity campaign” before the 2015 governmental climate change meeting in Paris.

Other resolutions adopted positions on the transatlantic market, immigration policy, food and agriculture policy, and support for Palestine, Western Sahara, Venezuela, Cuba and the Colombian peace process. All congress motions can be found here, and the vote on them here.

Finally, there was one congress session which was rather poorly attended. This was when delegations were offered a tour to Madrid’s monument to the International Brigades’ contribution in the Spanish Civil War. Those who went came back moved by the memory of the thousands of “foreigners” who had successfully fought to stop the Francoist forces outside Madrid, but were unable to prevent the black night of fascism and Nazism descending over Europe. It was a powerful reminder of the stakes in today’s fight for a human alternative to neoliberal Europe.

[Dick Nichols is Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal's and Green Left Weekly's correspondent based in Barcelon. Full details of the proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Party of the European Left, including interviews, are available at http://www.european-left.org/4-el-congress. Alexis Tsipras’s platform for the European elections can be found at http://links.org.au/node/3719.]

Notes

[ii] However, the EL does allow individual membership.

[iii] Participation averaged 62% across the EU in 1979 and had fallen to 43% by the 2009 poll. See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/000cdcd9d4/Turnout-%281979-2009%29.html for details.

[iv] National parties and coalitions are presently working out the detailed presentation of this agreed platform at the national level. For example, Portugal’s Left Bloc’s election program conference took place on February 15-16, and the Spanish United Left’s will take place on March 1.

[v] This is the first time the position European Commission president will be elected. The Lisbon Treaty provides that the European Parliament shall elect the European Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council taking into account the European election result.

[vii] For a useful summary of issues see The Parties of the Left in Europe: A Comparison of their Positions on European Policy Leading into the 2014 European Elections, by Thilo Janssen (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), available at http://www.rosalux.rs/de/artikl.php?id=316.

[viii] In Italy the tradition of progressive European federalism goes back to Altiero Spinelli, former member of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). He broke with the organisation over Stalin’s purges and later became a European commissioner and European MP as an independent on a PCI ticket. In his 1941 Vetotene Declaration, Spinelli said: “The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy, or of more or less socialism to be instituted; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power – and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity". The Left, Ecology, Freedom (SEL) party, set up by former PRC leader Nichi Vendola after the 2008 decimation of the PRC at the Italian national elections, sees itself in this tradition. As its program states: “Italy must once again become a protagonist in the construction of the United States of Europe, with a central, fair tax policy for the redistribution of wealth and the creation of a European plan for full employment, the transformation of the economy and of production circuits towards welfare and participation, and also a minimum income at the continental level.”

[ix] As in the work of the Spinelli group (see https://www.spinelligroup.eu/ ).

[x] For a detailed explanation of the Netherland’s Socialist Party’s viewpoint on Europe see this recent speech by leader Emile Roemer: http://international.sp.nl/bericht/118610/.

[xi] Here is the tone of For Europe: “Only a frontal attack can now save us. A direct attack on the real cause of the crisis: the unwillingness of the nation states to bring about a genuinely united and federal Europe. In other words, their unwillingness to surrender any more power to a united and federal Europe. The reality in Europe is clear: it is the egotism of the member states that is now determining Europe’s course and not the common European interest, not the interest of all of Europe’s citizens and peoples. As long as national interest and egotism prevail, it will be impossible to save Europe.” (page 11)

[xii] On October 1 last year the KKE MEPs launched INITIATIVE, an alliance with 28 European communist parties, with the goal contributing “to the research and study of issues concerning Europe, particularly concerning the EU, the political line which is drawn up in its framework and has an impact on the lives of the workers, as well as to assist the elaboration of joint positions of the parties and the coordination of their solidarity and their other activities”. The founding declaration also made clear that, “We are not full members of the so-called ‘European Parties’, which are formed by the EU and amongst them the so-called ‘European Left Party’.”

[xiii] 1936. The Madrid front during the Spanish Civil War held out against the Francoist forces to the battle cry of No Pasarán “They shall not pass”).

[xiv] The EL’s conference on public debt will take place in Brussels on March 11.

[xv] The RGA has taken particular interest in the debt question in southern Europe, especially Spain. The 2013 RGA National Conference featured a speaker from the Spanish Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), peaking in English. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpApsx9bf1M. The PAH representative’s contribution starts after five minutes.

[xvii] Since the EL fourth congress preselected Alexis Tsipras the other candidates preselected are: Martin Schultz (Party of European Socialists); Ska Keller and Jose Bové (Greens); and Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). The European People’s Party will preselect its candidate on March 7, while the European conservatives and reformists have decided not to run for the position.

[xviii] In France, elections are held in two rounds, with candidates eliminated in the second round if they do not win more than a certain percentage of the vote. This percentage is different according to the election concerned. In municipal elections, the system allows the Left Front to stand in its own name in the first round, while supporting Socialist Party candidates against right-wing tickets in the second round if its own vote is less than 10%. If the Left Front vote is more than 10% it is free to withdraw, stand again, or seek to negotiate a joint ticket with other forces.

[xix] There has since been a partial thaw in PCF-Left Party relations. See http://links.org.au/node/3683.

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