Change Europe! A Report from the 4th Party Congress of the European Left

15. joulukuuta 2013

“The resistance of the population and the growing strength of left parties in several European countries are a cause for hope.” This inspiring claim can be found in the Leaflet of the 4th Party Congress of the European Left (EL), held in Madrid, Spain, from 13-15 December 2013. The EL, founded in May 2004, has 26 member and 7 observer parties representing various left-democratic and green-left ideologies.

The good news first: the Madrid Congress involved several hundred people across Europe and a few visitors also outside of Europe. Discussions were lively. The Congress successfully adopted a new Political Document and a large number of motions. It also elected Pierre Laurent as the chair and nominated Aléxis Tsípras as the European Left candidate for the President of the European Commission.

In a number of speeches and interventions, it was stressed that the Left provides the only alternative to the currently prevailing austerity policies in Europe. The Political Document adopted by the Congress explains that “the path that the EU is headed down is that of a tragic deadlock. This path is dragging the entire continent into recession and causing the European Union to enter into an existential crisis.” Indeed, in many countries the debate about exit-options is intensifying. Several social scientists are now assessing the likelihood of the disintegration of the Union.

A key element in this process is the rise of what many call ‘populist right wing parties’ (the problem with the term ‘populism’ is that it is often used pejoratively by political parties and politicians against their opponents, which can also lead to misunderstandings and undermine the principles of dialogue). Tatu Ahponen from the Left Alliance asserted that “we must expose the empty rhetoric of the right wing populist parties”. Once in government, he elaborated, these parties tend to follow the same structural adjustment policies as their predecessors. It seems that the main difference is that they would like to implement those policies nationally rather than on a European or global scale. In practice, the difference is often negligible. 

So far so good. Marisa Matías, Vicepresident of EL, who was in charge of introducing the Political Document, clarified: “We must put forward specific proposals to close this Congress successfully”. These proposals must aim at “challenging this Europe that is working as a servant of the financial markets and also at placing economic policies at the service of society”. This was in line with the important point made by the Vice-President of Bolivia, Álvaro García, emphasising that it is not enough to denounce those processes, policies and actors that we dislike, or may consider to be our opponents, or perhaps even our “enemies” (an expression that as a peace researcher I find highly problematical, HP). The main point of the European Left must be to provide credible and working alternatives.

“We have to rebuild Europe!” This message came up time and again during the Madrid Congress, in countless speeches and interventions, often with great passion. In my own intervention, I therefore noted that while most of us agree wholeheartedly with the basic idea, about the need to take a very different ethical and political direction in Europe, the bulk of the nearly 9,000 words long Political Document is dedicated to defining the problems we are facing and characterising our opponents, rather than developing viable solutions. The haphazard way of organising committee work and the consensual decision-making system make it difficult to forge a sufficiently ambitious and coherent programme – or to adopt any specific proposals. 

Section IV of the Political Document mentions, and also briefly discusses, several proposals, but the bulk of its 1,500 words is again spent more on defining the problems than expounding better policies and institutions. For understandable reasons, the proposals mentioned in section IV tend to remain underdeveloped and in some cases vague. The almost full list of these proposals comprises eight entries:

  • political measures to ensure the equal redistribution of all kinds of paid and unpaid work
  • minimum wages in Europe
  • good, public, and free education, accessible to all
  • public re-appropriation of strategic sectors
  • new global regulation of financial markets
  • European convention on public debt
  • new role, status and tasks for the European Central Bank (ECB)
  • democratisation of the ECB

These are all very good aims. They are nonetheless left unspecified and, in some important ethical and political regards, also ambiguous. Political measures to ensure equal distribution is merely a thing “we must develop”. The applicability or level of minimum wages is not specified, neither are the sectors that should be “re-appropriated”. Should these proposals be implemented by national states or by the EU? Should the term ‘all’ denote also non-European people, i.e. world citizens?

Similarly, the ideas about new regulation of finance, convention on public debt and the future of the ECB are somewhat elusive. Regulated in what way? Given what new roles and tasks? Democratised, yes, but in what way? The direction was made a bit clearer in a couple of interventions made by the participants. In his candidacy speech, Aléxis Tsípras in particular took some of the proposals further: the ECB should serve as a lender-of-last-resort not so much to banks but to member states; an equivalent of the Glass-Steagall Act is needed in Europe (clearly separating speculative investments from the basic banking activities); London 1953 could serve as a model for debt restructuration; and a New Deal is required, involving redistribution solidarity at least on a European scale, and thus probably also implying European taxation.

The 3rd day procedure consisting of a short debate for or against a motion or amendment, followed by a vote, was working rather well, in spite of the shortage of time and minor technical problems with the new electronic voting system. This was by far the most informative and democratic moment of the Congress. Rather than reinforcing any Left-version of group thinking, the aim of this kind of gathering should be to develop and debate ideas, proposals and strategies. These would have to be imaginative, ambitious and concrete, in order to make green-left parties a credible alternative also in the eyes of European citizens, also in the coming EP elections.

This work continues of course. The European Left Executive Board decided to adopt the proposal for a global Green-Left conference on the future of the European Union, to be held from 28-29 March 2014 in Helsinki. The Left Forum in Finland and civil society organisations, such as Attac, in co-operation with various bodies and organisations, are taking the main responsibility for organising the conference.

The progressive forces in Europe require an ambitious, appealing and widely shared vision about the required novel institutional design for the Union, in the wider context of global political economy. There can be no real politics without the will and ability to imagine alternative institutions and communicate such concrete utopias. The basic aim of the March 2014 Helsinki Conference, “Alter-EU: Beyond the Social Dimension of the EMU”, is nothing less than to contribute to the formation of a counter-hegemonic alliance on both European and global scales, while also shaping public discourse in Finland just prior to the European elections.

Heikki Patomäki

Delegate of the Left Alliance, Finland
Candidate for the European Parliament