For a 'social Europe benefiting all': Gabi Zimmer, head of the GUE/NGL parliamentary group

Interview conducted by Maxime Benatouil

June 24, 2014 -- Transform!, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Recently re-elected at the head of the GUE/NGL parliamentary group, Gabi Zimmer (from Germany's Die LINKE) delivers insights on the new GUE/NGL’s composition. It has significantly grown, numbering 52 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in the new legislature -- up from 35 in the previous parliament.

How would you assess the results for the political forces that have jointly managed European institutions since the beginning of European integration, namely the conservatives, the social-democrats and the liberals?

Gabi Zimmer: The results of the European elections are very ambivalent. On the one hand, we have to acknowledge that there is a slim majority for the conservatives. MEPs from the European Popular Party will most likely form a sort of great coalition with the social democrats and the liberals. But on the other hand, this does not reflect the wishes of the people for another policy. The results showed that they want the European Union to change, and its policies to go in another direction. Moreover, it is not possible to talk about the outcomes of the European elections without mentioning the results of extreme right and nationalist political forces.

The so-called great coalition between the three parties isn’t the right way to address this challenge and to make clear that another Europe is necessary. We need an EU that would be different from the one we have now and from what extreme right and nationalist political parties are offering. We need alternatives based on solidarity and social cooperation. We need to put an immediate end to austerity policies and to the negotiations between the EU and the USA regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). I’m not sure that the three bigger political parties will do so. They will carry on with the same policies.

How do you analyse the good results of extreme, nationalist and populist right-wing parties? What consequences will these results have on EU policies and on the European Parliament?

It results from the crisis management, as well as from the general atmosphere within the EU. A lot of people lost their basis for dignity, together with their trust in the EU and in the institutions altogether. The EU is not seen as capable of showing solidarity anymore. The extreme right is working very hard to be considered the only alternative. They pretend that the return to the framework of nation-state is the prerequisite for change. They are not interested in a more social Europe benefiting all. They put their own people and nation-state first, to the detriment of the European common good. Their policies are designed to exclude even more of the most excluded parts of the population: the migrants, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and unemployed. The attacks on democracy experienced in the past years and the lack of trust in institutions gave more resonance to their ideas.

As the left, we didn’t make clear enough that the crisis was a crisis of European dimension. And that this European crisis cannot be solved within the framework of national-state. Of course, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have had problems within their national economies. But these problems are not to blame for the crisis. The EU bears responsibility. And so does the financial capital, organised at a European level and at a global level. The answers to exit from the crisis can only be given at a European level. This is truly another way. The challenge for the left is to give a European answer to the crisis. We didn’t make it clear enough. We have had too many doubts and hesitations on whether or not this was the most appropriate solution to lead the EU out of the crisis. To me, it is clear that we need a Europe of solidarity, to put an end to austerity, to invest -– so that the member states can meet the stakes of a sustainable, social, ecological and economic development. This is the most appropriate answer.

We need common rules to have control over the financial capital at the European level. And not only to focus on the national advantages that some member states might have. In this respect, we didn’t do enough. I hope that we will learn something from it. I think the left shouldn’t try to catch up with nationalist right’s answers. The alternatives to exit from the European crisis cannot be designed at the national level.

Look at Syriza in Greece. It has always stated that a European answer was necessary. It doesn’t consider that leaving the eurozone is a viable alternative. Again, going back to the national borders isn’t a solution that the left should support. Because the risk is high that the people will then say: let’s vote for the original, let’s vote for the first ones that put this option on the table –- namely the extreme right. The strength of the left lies in its ability to cooperate in a transnational manner, with the European and the global left. Not only at the international level, but in an authentic transnational manner with new forms of cooperation. Ultimately, this strength of ours will help convincing people that the left can provide the good answers. For now, they are afraid of losing the base for a good life and for the future. We have to cope with this reality.

The left must find ways to establish new relations enabling us to make another policy. Rosa Luxemburg once said that the left should support the people when the people need it -– and not to wait for a deterioration leading to a situation so unsustainable that there would be a revolution. Who knows if it would be a leftist revolution? It could as well be a right-wing revolution!

The parliamentary group GUE/NGL has significantly grown, rejuvenated, feminised and diversified. How would you characterise these changes? What consequences will they have on the working methods of the GUE/NGL?

The GUE/NGL is experiencing a historical moment -– because of the membership of new parties. The group has significantly grown and gathers now 52 MEPs. Not all of them come from parties that already cooperated with the GUE/NGL in the last legislature. New members have come to the group, together with their original political culture. Podemos [from Spain]is a new party, different from traditional left parties. It seeks to bring people closer to policy-making processes and to create unity against neoliberal policies. This approach to politics is radically different, and this could be very good for us. Of course, Podemos needs to familiarise with the functioning rules of the European Parliament, to find the right balance between these rules and their will to renew politics.

And of course, the older parties have to learn from the new ones –- such as Podemos or the Italian List for Tsipras -- especially from the relationship they have with citizens, the way they want to explain the work that will be done by the MEPs. We need to be sensitive to the different backgrounds of all our components.

In the aftermath of the European elections, we have had in-depth internal discussions on the way the group will be working for the next five years. It is very important. The GUE/NGL is an important political project for the left in Europe. Its different components are working very closely with each other. Our diversity is an added value, and we need to make sure that it will help us to get even more positive outcomes for the people. We recently decided that a single delegation cannot be granted the right of veto -– so that convenient solutions for the most of us won’t be jeopardised by a minority –- but the minority won’t be forced to follow rules they didn’t agree upon in the first place. We also agreed to have frameworks of minimum rules to allow for transparent and democratic working processes. Our leadership will be more collective. The group has now three vice-chairpersons with concrete responsibilities. In past legislatures, the vice-chairpersons were only supposed to replace the president in case of absence. These new internal changes will help us to gain in efficiency.

You have expressed the wish that the group could gain in capacity and political efficiency. As newly re-elected president, are you optimistic that this wish will come true?

The GUE/NGL isn’t able to change the EU as a whole from the European Parliament. But our work in the parliament is part of the strategic fight to change the EU –- even though we are not at the centre of this fight.

First, our group should give voice to those who aren’t heard otherwise and bring the expectations of civil society’s actors for another EU policy into the European Parliament. And this can be done through the organisation of meetings providing a space of discussion for those outside of the institutional system. Second, the GUE/NGL must become a shelter within the European Parliament for social movements, ecological movements, human rights movements, peace movements, transnational networks –- for all movements that need partners and cooperation for social change. Our role as a parliamentary group and as MEPs must not be reduced to the management of financial resources or a way to gain political prestige. The most crucial thing is to make our utmost to change the balance of power. Third, we have to use all the possibilities of parliamentary work to enhance the living conditions for the people. If there is a window of opportunity allowing for positive concrete changes, we need to seize it. For that reason, we need to monitor closely on the initiatives from the parliamentary committees, to prepare more initiative reports to put political pressure on the commission and to be as present as possible.

Let me give you an example. In the last legislature, a highlight for the left group was the launching of our parliamentary initiative for the right of every man and woman in the EU to have a bank account. This shows how important small steps can be and what concrete measures can be achieved at the European level. We need to support all the initiatives contributing to the interest of the people and of the member states by being active in as many Committees as possible. That’s how we should fulfill our parliamentary work, together with the strengthening of progressive movements. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

For GUE/NGL, what are the hugest challenges ahead? What political struggles are considered priorities by the group?

We will do everything in our power to push for an immediate end of austerity policies. Austerity is not the right way to exit from the crisis. We will have to work on alternatives regarding the debt crisis. What can we do to allow for member states –- such as Greece or other strongly hit countries –- to overcome the crisis and regain the possibility to ensure their social and economic development? We need to provide perspectives of a future with social security for the people. We will also have to work on initiatives preventing trade agreements between the EU and other world’s regions.

The TTIP is a priority, but it is not the only international trade agreement being discussed. We need to fight the very principles on which current trade agreements are based. We will support initiatives calling for equality and fairness of such agreements -– with high social and ecological standards -– and fighting against the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

We also have to pay attention to the unfolding events in Ukraine and to enhance our influence on the efforts to build up new bridges between the EU and Russia. In our opinion, the EU shouldn’t suspend ties with Russia. There must be another way to settle our differences and to create a new balance in Europe. Russia belongs to Europe, and can therefore not be excluded. And this applies also to Belarus and Moldova. We are equally concerned with the situation in Syria and in Iraq. The GUE/NGL will support answers of a non-military nature to these conflicts. Political solutions must be found, so that a sustainable development can be ensured in the region.

Finally, and because of the growth of extreme right’s political forces within the European Parliament and the fact that some of them even managed to form two groups, I think we should develop broader cooperation with other groups on concrete issues -– such as the safeguarding of human rights, the fight against discriminations of ethnic minorities and migrants. And of course against the TTIP.