The Workers’ Party of Belgium: 'At the European level we need European struggle'
First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PDVA) is one of the European Left’s lesser-known success stories. Although its leaders may not be as famous as Pablo Iglesias, Alexis Tsipras, or Jeremy Corbyn, the PTB’s consistent rise to a mass party with national influence in only 15 years is arguably one of the most remarkable trajectories of any left-wing party on the continent.
Founded in the late 1960s by student activists influenced by the politics of Maoism, the party embarked on a path of “renewal” in 2008 that saw it break with what it called its “sectarian past” and open up its membership to wider layers of activists and sympathizers. The results speak for themselves: the party has increased its membership nearly 30-fold, and gone from 0.8 percent to 8.6 in national elections in only a decade. According to current polls, the PTB stands a chance to take first place in Brussels in next year’s elections, and has established itself as one of the major parties in the rest of the country.
Although the PTB is not a member of the Party of the European Left, it maintains fraternal relations with socialist parties across the continent, and since 2019 has had one MEP represented in The Left in the European Parliament, Marc Botenga. Recently, he spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Loren Balhorn about his party’s success, how he reconciles Marxist politics with the EU’s limited democracy, and where he sees potential for building the class struggle in- and outside of the European Union.
You’re the PTB’s first MEP, elected in 2019 after working as a political advisor for The Left in the European Parliament for a few years. What, as a representative of a Marxist workers’ party in a bourgeois parliament with very limited democratic scope, do you actually do?
That’s a very good question, and I’m just not saying that to win time, as politicians sometimes do. It’s a good question because I’m not just the first PTB MEP, I’m the first Belgian MEP from any radical left party ever, meaning the Left in Belgium is confronted with the question for the very first time.
Fundamentally, we believe that change happens outside parliament, in the streets. You can find many things inside parliament, but power is generally not one of them. The real balance of forces is determined outside. We’ve seen this throughout Belgian history, such as how Social Security was won, or how the right to vote was approved by parties that did not believe in it, but felt forced to adopt it in order to avoid something they considered worse.
We bring concrete workers’ concerns to Parliament, but that’s not where it ends. We then go back and try to strengthen the movement in order to influence the balance of forces outside of parliament. We call this the “street — council — street” approach.
Okay, but how does that translate into a political strategy for Europe?
We adopt the same approach in the European Parliament. Take the ongoing struggle at the supermarket chain Delhaize: we had a debate in the Parliament about the future of the EU economy, and one speaker after the other said Europe was moving towards a better, more competitive economy. I had just come back from a picket line at Delhaize, and I asked the plenary, “Is that your new European economy? The destruction of workers’ rights, higher prices for customers, hardly any decent contracts, and no more trade unions? Is that the future?” This message of solidarity of course got back to the people of Delhaize, reinforcing the struggle.
But there’s an extra dimension, which is how do you reinforce social movements at a European level? We cannot win this with national working-class movements alone. We can win things at the national level, of course, but at the European level we need European struggle. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s happening in more and more sectors. Faced with the unity of European capital — at least on certain topics like the destruction of workers’ rights, liberalization, and market integration — we are seeing more and more worker actions at the European level.
The first iconic moment was the port workers’ organization of European strikes against liberalization directives in the 2000s, where a kind of ping-pong game between national strikes and mobilizations and European strikes and mobilizations developed. Port workers didn’t simply go on strike throughout Europe — the trade unions brought workers together, built a European movement, and broke through the narrative that each port is in competition with the rest. Ultimately, they blocked two directives, and in 2015 forced Parliament to divest the third one of any substance. Not bad, is it?
Another inspiring example is Ryanair, where you have workers from all kinds of nationalities on a single airplane, with who knows how many different contracts, salaries, etc. Yet, despite the fragmentation of the workforce, they succeeded in overcoming that and organized a strike in seven countries — that’s incredible! They didn’t win everything yet, but they pushed Ryanair to at least acknowledge the fact that trade unions exist.
What about politics outside of the workplace, specifically electoral politics? The European Union is much more fragmented than the workforce at Ryanair, with 27 member-states with their own languages, histories, and cultures, not to mention political traditions. Is something like a European demos possible, or even desirable?
I’m not sure if I would say we need a European demos, but we do need to unite sectoral struggles with European and global struggles. Take 2015, when Greece and German workers were played off against each other, although austerity had negative impacts on German workers and the only real beneficiaries of EU policies in Greece were the wealthy, like the big shipping magnates. It showed, once again, that the primary question in Europe is the class question, but at the time, we lacked a broad German or European movement in solidarity with Greek workers. There were some important solidarity demonstrations in Belgium and elsewhere, but I think more European mobilization would have helped.
That sounds good in theory, but in my experience it’s very difficult to convince people to pay attention to European politics. What happens in Brussels is very abstract and far away for most people. Perhaps this is less true for middle-class people, especially if they have a job that requires them to travel around the EU, but for most working people in Europe, the EU is not very tangible.
Yes and no. I think many workers have a concept of Europe, but not necessarily of the EU institutions, which are boring. Try to follow a debate in the European Parliament — you’ll probably get a coffee after five minutes and then go and play with your phone after seven minutes because they’re incredibly boring.
You’re talking about the MEPs themselves? They’re not even listening to each other?
Yes, I’m talking about the MEPs! Look at the language they use, you wonder if they actually understand what they’re saying. I think there’s a degree of strategy behind having institutions speak this way, because it completely alienates people. Then you get these crocodile tears from European bureaucrats who say, “Oh, no one cares about European politics.” Well, what do you expect? You don’t care about them either.
Salaries are another example. You cannot care about the European Union if you see that someone like Ursula Van der Leyen earns over 30,000 euro per month. I think there are actually a lot of European issues that people are interested in, but it doesn’t mean that they necessarily look at European institutions, which they see as disconnected.
The idea that the EU is a slow bureaucratic machine is bullshit — when they need to serve certain interests, they can do so very quickly. It took, what, 24, 48 hours to suspend all state aid rules to save the banks? With COVID, it took about a week or two to suspend the Stability and Growth Pact, which had been holy and sacred until then. But what did we see during the energy crisis? It took an entire year before they took a decision on the price caps for electricity and gas, which were designed to never be used.
These things create frustration and anger. Then, the question is where does that anger go? It would be a mistake to think that it will necessarily go in the right direction, but it’s not the case that people simply don’t care.
In that sense, do you think the Left in Europe needs something like a concrete vision or plan for transforming the EU? More fundamentally, can it be transformed, or do we need to start over from scratch?
It’s a basic fact that this European Union and all of its institutions were created by and for European capital. Everything inside the EU is done not just to broaden, but also deepen the market, which means privatization — right now it’s health care, then it will be water, and so on.
Thus, the first thing we need to say is that these European institutions are incompatible with pro-worker policies. But the other thing is, we can’t just leave them, if that would just take us back to a national market. We’re in a market system, which, as Marx explained, puts workers in competition but also raises the possibility of common, united struggle and bringing the working class together. So, how do we move from a Europe of multinationals to a Europe of workers?
We have to unmask the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of certain institutions. A great example of this was the debate about waiving the patents for COVID vaccines in the European Parliament. At first, we had very little support, but thanks to a European citizens’ initiative and a broad campaign called the People’s Vaccine Alliance, ultimately a majority of MEPs, including many liberals, voted for it. The European Commission, however, ignored it, and reassured representatives of the World Trade Organization that the EU would not support lifting patents.
These kinds of moments are crucial for raising awareness about the lack of democracy in the EU, because why is the Commission ignoring a majority vote? Because it represents the interests of big pharmaceutical companies. This is also how we build more democracy and strengthen our counter-power.
The patent waivers ultimately were also supported by the Greens and Social Democrats. Can the centre-left be partners in fighting for a different Europe?
It depends on the issue and on which Greens and which Social Democrats. Currently, none of them really wants a fundamental break with the market logic of EU treaties. At the European level, and I think Germany has been the leading force in this, we have witnessed a clear reorientation of the Greens towards the Liberals. The Social Democrats, of course, have strong historical links to the trade unions in many countries, and you will find allies on certain topics, but in the end, the outcome will depend on the pressure from outside. We have a joke in Belgium that you’ve got two Social Democratic parties: the one before the election and one after. They adopt a left-wing discourse, but after the election, it’s a different thing.
One issue where the Greens and Social Democrats are moving further away from the Left is the question of Europe’s so-called “strategic autonomy”. The Greens in particular seem to be perfectly fine with Europe becoming an extension of the US empire, making liberals like Emmanuel Macron almost sound left-wing in comparison. What do you think the European Left’s approach to geopolitics should be?
You’ve always had these two tendencies, a so-called Gaullist tendency advocating more European autonomy from the US, and a very Atlanticist position that says we need the US as our ally. I wouldn’t use the term strategic autonomy because I’m not sure what means. Today, the debate is framed entirely as strategic autonomy from China.
Macron came back from China and gave a speech about how Europe cannot be entirely dependent on the US, and sure, that’s true. But practically, if you look at the policy measures at the European level, they mostly target China. All of the analysis concerning strategic vulnerabilities or dependencies is focused on China, and a little bit on Russia.
From a left-wing perspective, I think the first thing to acknowledge is that the country with the most influence on European politics, the country we are most dependent on, is the US. You can see it in terms of technology and in terms of the military, with NATO demanding complementary military abilities and EU weapons programmes.
Now you can see it with energy, as Europe replaced a big part of Russian gas with US shale gas. US gas now represents over 40 percent of all liquefied natural gas imported into the EU. Germany is building new terminals to import this gas. But this gas is transported by boats that the US can redirect whenever they decide to sell their gas somewhere else. This gives the US even more leverage over EU policy. We need to acknowledge this fact and push for more independence from the US.
Fundamentally, however, I think the main left-wing position has to be: Europe has nothing to gain from a Cold War in which we would be incorporated in a US-led bloc against the Chinese or whoever else the United States doesn’t like — since it’s really only the US that is constructing a bloc to begin with. We should defend some kind of non-aligned Europe, which means having diverse trade relations and at the same time looking at what things we should produce in Europe ourselves.
Let’s talk a bit more about the economic implications of that position, since you’re also on the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. What would a left-wing industrial policy for Europe look like?
The dominant view on industrial policy in Europe is very much to strengthen our “champions”. They don’t use that particular word anymore, but the basic idea is we need to increase the competitiveness of European companies in order to dominate the world. That’s why they didn’t want to lift the vaccine patents — to make sure that “our” pharmaceutical companies dominate the world market.
If we want a non-aligned policy, then, of course, we would need public investment and would need to control certain strategic sectors by protecting them from private takeovers. It is not just about foreign or Chinese investment. I don’t have much trust in Chinese multinationals, but American multinationals certainly aren’t any better. Look at the entire debate on TikTok: sure, TikTok collects our data, but so do Facebook, Google, and YouTube. If you’re going to ban TikTok, will you then ban all social media?
The alternative to this approach would be to accept that we have certain strategic sectors that are too important to be left to the market, and to say that we want democratic checks and balances and public control over them. These sectors, beginning with energy, would have to be placed in public hands.
But again, wouldn’t that run up against the restrictions of European law?
Like I said earlier, I agree that the treaties are incompatible with most left-wing policy. There’s no question about that. At the same time, we’ve seen that whenever the pressure is high enough and the balance of forces shifts, these rules are pushed aside very quickly.
Yes, public monopolies would probably be a violation of internal market rules. But does that mean it can’t be done? No, it doesn’t. If the EU can suspend its entire economic governance for three years now, then we can do all the rest. Don’t tell me that we can’t have a public energy sector, don’t tell me that we can’t avoid the privatization of health care. Of course we can.
I remember the debates in the run-up to the 2019 elections, when the Left said we need to get rid of the Stability and Growth Pact, and all of the other politicians — socialists, conservatives, whatever — said yes, of course it’s not the kind of economic governance we’d like, but it’s difficult to change now. Less than a year later, the thing was suspended. Thus, I don’t think we should be paralyzed by or feel fatalistic about European treaties and laws. It’s a matter of the balance of forces.
The European elections are less than a year away, and in Belgium they will be held parallel to national elections. Your party, the PTB, is set to do quite well — you’re polling at 10 percent nationally and more than twice that in some areas. Elsewhere in Europe, the parties of the Left have suffered some major electoral setbacks. Do you think there are any general lessons that can be drawn from your experience in terms of building and consolidating a left-wing, working-class party?
It’s difficult to draw general lessons, as national elections are obviously defined by national contexts. What happened in Greece with Syriza, for example, is difficult to compare to what happened with Unidas Podemos in Spain. The situation is different. But we know, of course, that Belgium is not an island, and we cannot fight our battles alone. We need strong left-wing parties and strong movements across Europe. The balance of forces today is not necessarily what we would like it to be, but there’s a lot of positive work going on as well. I was just in Graz, Austria, a city with a Communist mayor in a country I know very little about, and it was encouraging to see that things are moving forward for the Left.
The specific history of the PTB is not something that you can copy and paste somewhere else, but I would say that what helped us was moving from a party that spoke to the people without listening to a party that speaks with them. We were in the workers’ struggle, but we also gave them excessively long and complex Marxist leaflets. We adapted our communication and got much better at social media, but that’s just one element of it.
We’re very close to the people. A journalist once wrote that you can’t go to a picket line in Belgium without meeting someone from the PTB. We have 12 MPs now, and of those 12, four of them are workers. This is a choice on our part, because those MPs are not just talking about the working class, they live and feel it. In fact, we’ve succeeded in bringing words like “working class” back into the debate, which changes the way people perceive reality and in turn has effects on reality.
We are also very much a campaign party — not only as a tool of communication, but to win. When we launched a campaign for a minimum pension of 1,500 euro, that was not just to collect petitions. We brought the issue into the political debate, and it was ultimately passed. The Left needs victories, and we can get those victories by mobilizing. By doing that, it becomes not just our victory, but the people’s victory.
Lastly, I think party building is absolutely central. We’ve gone from 800 to 25,000 members in 15 years, and that is mostly thanks to building the organization. Elections come and go — you can have a great election, you can have an even a better election, and then you can have a bad one. But if you take seriously what I said about the balance of forces being constructed outside of parliament, and you know that your opponent is very well organized, then you need to focus on party building. Signing a petition is not enough, raising awareness is not enough, we need to be building our organizations. Of course, this creates many new challenges.
It’s like with a trade union — workers might go on strike spontaneously, but afterwards, they establish a union to be better prepared for the next conflict. Likewise, on the level of society, we a need a strong, well-organized party with a vision for fundamental change.