PVDA-PTB lead candidates for the European Parliament: time to break away from the old Europe
Marc Botenga, the PVDA-PTB’s only MEP, and Sophie Lecron, a teacher and group chairwoman for the PTB in the Liège local council, make up the French-speaking pair heading the PTB's list for the European Parliament. Let's meet these two enthusiastic people who want to make a breakthrough at European level through the mobilization of workers across the continent.
Marc, in 2019, you entered the European Parliament as the PVDA-PTB's first MEP. Did you manage to mark a difference?
Marc Botenga. Well, I'm sure Mrs Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, will not forget us. And that wasn't easy, as I was the only PVDA-PTB deputy out of 705. Fortunately, we could count on our parliamentary group The Left, with left-wing parties from all over Europe.
But we certainly jostled the European bubble. During the Covid-19 crisis, we unmasked the secret contracts between the European Union and major pharmaceutical multinationals. During the energy crisis, our parliamentary group was at the forefront of the fight for a price cap.
The traditional MPs or European Commissioners didn't give a damn about this. Mrs Von der Leyen earns 30,000 euros a month. She doesn't know what it means not to be able to pay a bill. We took up the fight. The fact that the European Parliament was forced to debate a ceasefire in Gaza is because we brought popular mobilization to the Parliament.
Sophie, you're very active in Liège. You're a teacher, and you’re a member of the local city council... Why do you want to get involved at the European level as well?
Sophie Lecron. Many of the problems we see at a local level have their origins in European regulations. Take austerity, for example. European regulations are forcing countries to cut their social budgets and limit public investment. Technically, this austerity was suspended during the pandemic, but in reality there was a lot of austerity at all levels of power in Belgium.
The reality is that we have 20% unemployment, and it's even higher among young people. One child in four lives below the poverty line. There is a staggering increase in the number of homeless people, including children and families, and a serious crisis in housing and public services. People are struggling, if you walk around town for 15 minutes, you'll have noticed that. And now European ministers want to reinforce this austerity? No way.
Is this "new" European austerity one of the major issues for 2024?
Marc Botenga. Clearly. The European Union wants to strangle the states and their budgets. The aim is to offer everything to the multinationals, and to completely strip the government and public services. Let's be clear: the return of budgetary rules would mean cuts in education, hospitals, pensions... For Belgium, this could mean budget cuts of up to 5 billion euros a year. They will even attack our wage indexation again.
In other words, they are preparing a social bloodbath at the European level. And European socialists are in cahoots. It's going to be a drama. We need massive investment. Everyone experiences this on a daily basis. Delayed trains, no buses, waiting lists for nurseries and doctors. The European trade union protest in Brussels on December 12 sent out a clear signal: no to austerity 2.0.
In Liège we saw how Europe systematically pushes for privatization with the tramway project.
Sophie Lecron. Yes, this is another aspect of austerity. Ditching the public sector in favour of the private sector. The example of the Tram'Ardent consortium for the Liège tramway is revealing.
Europe has repeatedly rejected the regional and local authorities' proposal for a public-private partnership (PPP). The payment plan was rejected several times, before finally imposing a partnership that was heavily in favour of the private sector. Not only was the "partnership" imposed, but the one most favourable to the private sector won! The public ended up being blackmailed by the Tram'Ardent, because the moment the PPP was signed, we had nothing more to say.
The idea is to be more efficient, but in reality the project is way behind schedule and it's making life impossible for citizens and shopkeepers. Many of those shopkeepers have gone bankrupt because of the construction work. In the end the Region did manage to impose compensation for delays, but then the consortium started to put an insane amount of pressure on the workers, to work day and night, including weekends and to be as quick as possible so that they can pay as little compensation as possible. This is why, from the outset, the PTB rejected the PPP logic for this project.
Marc, your parliamentary speeches are often translated into multiple languages. You've been in the media all over Europe, from Finland to Italy. Is that important?
Marc Botenga. It just proves that the struggle of the working class is the same throughout Europe. There are differences, of course, but the destruction brought by European Union policies is comparable north to south.
When we denounce the European Union's criminal support for Israel, or when I unmask Von der Leyen's lies and anti-social rhetoric, I'm talking about what workers are experiencing here as much as in Portugal or Cyprus. I'm proud to be their voice. And it encourages the fight there as well.
If we succeed in getting our comrade Rudi Kennes, who heads our European list in Flanders, elected, this voice of the workers will be even stronger. To counter liberal policies, we need to unite our struggles.
One of the reasons we need to unite, is the worrying rise of the far right across Europe, which is trying to divide workers. How do we counter this?
Sophie Lecron. The far right didn't just come out of nowhere. European austerity creates the conditions for its emergence. There's never any money for new schools, new public housing, education, etc. So, far-right groups have no trouble explaining that the lack of housing is the fault of immigrants. Or that Muslims are responsible for unemployment.
The far right propels workers to fight each other, rather than going after millionaires and big multinationals. It does everything in its power to protect those truly responsible. For us, the Left, it's a question of identifying the real culprits. Those who make excessive profits on people's backs, those who destroy our living conditions. To stop the far right, we need to break away from neo-liberal policies. It's the policies of the traditional parties that strengthen the far right.
There's also a debate on the enlargement of the European Union. Could Ukraine become a member of the European Union?
Marc Botenga. That is what the European Commission and the majority of governments are calling for. I don't think that's a good idea.
First of all, Ukraine is a country at war. Let's stop the war before we talk about joining the European Union. For a year and a half, we were the only Belgian party and the only group in the European Parliament to propose a diplomatic way out to stop the war in Ukraine. The front line has been frozen for a year, and now is the time to launch negotiations and stop the massacres.
Secondly, Ukraine, where political parties are banned, trade unions are under pressure and there is an enormous amount of corruption, does not at all meet the formal criteria for joining the European Union.
Finally, let's not forget the risk of social dumping. The minimum wage in Ukraine is less than 200 euros. Can you imagine what Ukraine's membership would mean for wages across Europe?
Belgium will hold the presidency of the European Union for six months. Do you have any expectations?
Marc Botenga. The Belgian government isn't going to change its nature just because it puts on a European shirt. Instead of taking social steps, they are going to organize a "social summit". It will enforce liberal policies, with a sauce of social rhetoric. But let's be clear: in the European institutions, multinationals and lobbies have the power.
So if we want something to change, we need to change that balance of power. When workers put pressure on the system, we bring their voice to the institutions. That way we forced the European Commission to propose a directive aimed at improving the rights of platform workers, such as Uber, Deliveroo. The same with the directive to raise minimum wages. If we want to change anything, it will be through these mobilizations. In Parliament, we reinforce these struggles.
What is your outlook for the future of Europe?
Sophie Lecron. We really need to break away from the current system. From neo-liberal treaties and austerity. And I'm hopeful. When I look at the obscure and grey institutions of the European Union, I see another Europe emerging behind those walls. A Europe of social struggle, that is organized by and for the working class, on a European scale, against the multinationals. Remember the workers of Ryanair or Amazon? They mobilized in several European countries at the same time. That's how they won. And it's up to us to strengthen this force of opposition. The impressive struggle of the workers of Delhaize, for example. PVDA-PTB has also taken their struggle to the European Parliament. For a Europe of people, not money.