The Red Locomotive in Brussels? Interview with the Workers’ Party of Belgium
by Denis Rogatyuk
18 June 2019
On 27 May, Europe woke up to what seemed like a new stage in the resurgence of the far-right and reactionary forces and a major retreat for left in the elections to the European parliament. But the story looked different in Belgium, which saw a political earthquake as the far-left Workers’ party (PTB/PVDA) won big across regional, federal and European elections and firmly established itself as the left alternative to both the socialist and green parties across the country.
More than doubling its vote share in the federal elections, the Workers’ party also scored major victories across the regions of Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. Furthermore, the election of Marc Botenga as an MEP for the country’s French-speaking region signalled another breakthrough, marking the first time in Belgium’s history that a member of a Marxist party was elected the European political stage. The party obtained almost 20% of the vote across both Dutch and French-speaking regions, with 14.5% of the vote in the francophone region catapulting the 38-year-old political advisor to one of Belgium’s 21 allocated seats in the EU parliament.
On the night of the election, Botenga proclaimed the result as a victory of a “genuine [and] ‘spicy’ left that is appearing in neighbourhoods everywhere”, adding that the party now had a “left locomotive that [would be able] to offer an alternative to the far right and to the policies of [Emmanuel] Macron or [Angela] Merkel, who opened the door to the far right with their Europe of competition, austerity and money.”
Speaking to Denis Rogatyuk for Novara Media, Botenga explained some of the key factors behind the success of the Workers’ party campaign and its vision for working within the EU.
Novara Media: A genuine left-wing party entering the EU parliament seems almost unheard of given Belgium’s political polarisation and ethnic and linguistic division. What do you think the main factors were that in propelling the party to this position?
Marc Botenga: It’s a long history. It’s not something that started recently. The overall renewal of the party following its 2009 Congress allowed us to emerge as a credible alternative to the mainstream parties without abandoning our principles, offering both a social and ecological narrative and very practical solutions as well as sending a message that we want to change society, and we’re very clear that the proposals we make go in the direction of rupturing the current political framework.
We have the historic example of the 80s and 90s when the Flemish Socialist party lost a lot of votes and many of their voters went to the far right. At the time we were too small to be credible: we were a well-implemented, well-structured and well-established party, but we were small and our rhetoric was perceived as outlandish – sometimes rightly so. The renewal of the party allowed us to grow quite quickly, from a few thousand members to over 15,000 now in the space of 10-15 years.
I think this allowed us to achieve a breakthrough in the 2012 local elections and then we got our first parliamentarians at the national level and regional levels in Brussels and Wallonia in 2014. This gave us a real head start, with the two federal politicians really bringing the voice of working people to parliament. We confronted the government and traditional parties on the emptiness of their rhetoric, the reform of the pension system being one. When we intervene in parliamentary debates, we don’t speak to our fellow MPs, we speak to the people. We want to bring what happens in parliament out into the streets because we think the real difference will be made there.
We’ve tabled proposals of our own, we’ve proposed laws and amendments and whatever, but of course they don’t get through. But the proposals we table, such as a millionaire tax, we then take back to the streets, to the people, to the movement and say: this is who we are. If we can strengthen these movements then we can succeed in imposing some change. People see that we’re not part of the establishment, but rather a real social alternative.
NM: PTB/PVDA has a long history of organising and campaigning in an atmosphere dominated by conservative nationalist discourse and policies targeting immigrants and refugees, particularly in the region of Flanders. What lessons and experiences do you hope to bring to the EU parliament’s European United Left-Nordic Green Left faction in fighting the far right on an EU-wide scale?
MB: There is no magical solution to fighting the far right. During the 1980s and 90s, our main tactics consisted of organising anti-racist mobilisations, petitions, pickets with unions and other kinds of mobilisation, yet we didn’t succeed in convincing many of those beyond our existing political orbit to not vote for or support the far right.
The decline of the Flemish Socialist party and its voters’ shift in support towards [populist nationalist party] Flemish Interest did not signify that they suddenly became racists or fascists. They no longer felt like identifying with the Socialist party following its embrace of a liberal and neoliberal discourse and economic programme. For its part, the far right has focused on the tactic of creating a discourse surrounding nationalism, immigration and refugees and setting the terms of the debate around that, thus establishing itself as a pseudo anti-establishment right-wing alternative over time, waging a cultural battle and morphing into different forms over time – such as the civic nationalism of the New Flemish Alliance and the ethnonationalism and fascism of Flemish Interest.
What allowed us to weaken the discourse of the far right during the months preceding the election were the mass mobilisations of the different social movements across the country, particularly the climate action movement and the general strikes in February. This shifted the discourse towards social and economic issues and created a form of social polarisation, one which the far right was effectively unprepared for. It is a known fact that they accept austerity and neoliberal policies, effectively wanting workers to fight over the last places in the public and social services. Providing straight answers as to why the country’s schools and hospitals were under strain, such as the multinationals not paying their taxes, played an extremely important role in shifting the discourse and bringing new terms to the debate.
NM: The Belgian far right have attempted to dominate not only the national question in Flanders, but also the eurosceptic political space. Would you say that PTB/PVDA is the counterweight to that and what kind of strategy do you see it employing in opposing the EU neoliberal project?
MB: I think it’s important to make a fundamental difference between what the far right is proposing and what they call euroscepticism and what PTB/PVDA is proposing.
There are two main strains within right-wing euroscepticism, both inside Belgium and across the continent as a whole. The first is pursued by the more radical sections, advocating for an exit from the Euro and a return to national capitalism and the old narratives of competition, with German and French capitalism effectively replacing the austerity imposed by the EU and austerity imposed directly by the Belgian capitalist class for the sake of ‘national competitiveness’.
The second is the euroscepticism pursued by the Austrian and the French far right, as well as the figures like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who do not seek to undermine the system as a whole, but rather use it as vehicle to achieve some of their own ends, such as a ‘fortress Christian Europe’, while openly allowing the austerity of the European multinationals to be imposed upon workers in their own country. The slave labour law brought in by Orbán’s government at the behest of the German capital is the best example of that.
Our eurocriticism aims at breaking the logic of neoliberalism, austerity and competition brought through the treaties of the EU and the imposition of its four core ‘freedoms’ – the freedom of goods, labour, services and capital. Examples include the destruction of the public services throughout the continent to favour the freedom of capital, prohibiting the implementation of a continent-wide minimum wage for truck drivers for impeding the freedom of services, and the imposition of social dumping in the case of postal workers in Belgium as a benefit of freedom of movement. In the latter case, posted workers from other EU nations are forced to pay social security contributions in their home country, resulting in much lower gross salaries, while imposing a downward spiral for the Belgian social security system.
Breaking with the treaties and their logic requires a combination of mass worker mobilisations on both a national and European scale, as well as the courage and political capacity of the parliamentary forces. Some of the best examples of this resistance that we’ve seen have come from the trade unions and Europe-wide industrial actions such as the dock workers’ strikes of 2006 or the fight of the Ryanair workers in recent years. In the case of the former, the European Commission tried and failed to liberalise their social protection, because the simultaneous resistance across the continent was so ferocious.
NM: There is also the question of Brexit as part of the overall debate on the membership of the European Union and how the left-wing political movements should relate to it…
MB: I wouldn’t presume to tell Jeremy Corbyn or the comrades in the trade union movement or the Labour party what their policy on Brexit should be. But it’s not like there were these terrible neoliberal policies of [Margaret] Thatcher and [Tony] Blair and then the European Union offered a good alternative. Furthermore, the argument that the result of Brexit referendum should not be respected because there were lies and inaccuracies – on both sides, I should say – is incorrect. Exactly the same happens during national elections as well, so should these elections be abolished all together?
Looking across the European Union, we can see a clear pattern of referendums and popular votes not being respected or ignored when the results do not favour the European Commission. The clearest example is the  Greek referendum, as well as the referendums in France and Holland which refused the 2005 Constitutional treaty, or the first Irish referendum against the Lisbon treaty.
We are witnessing the issue of a second referendum being pushed by the pro-Remain parties and political elements within the Labour and Conservative parties. In my opinion, this could be quite disastrous because because it follows and perhaps strengthens this anti-democratic habit within the European Union of not respecting the popular democratic vote. But of course this is for the people in Britain to decide.
This article was amended on 24 June 2019. Previously it had mistakenly referred to postal workers instead of posted workers and to PTB/PVDA’s euroscepticism rather than its eurocriticism. Botenga also contacted Novara Media to clarify his comments on Brexit.