Speech of Raoul Hedebouw, president of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA) at ManiFiesta, the Solidarity Festival 2023

Raoul Hedebouw

Dear friends, dear comrades,
What a pleasure to meet again at this magnificent edition of ManiFiesta. The weather is superb, as is everyone around us. There are more than 15.000 people here today. I'd like to start by thanking all the volunteers who make this festival possible.

There are over 2,000 of them, from all over the country. They give their time and energy without counting the hours to set up, welcome guests, organize concerts and activities, or to serve at the bar. It's important. Some have been here for several days. No other festival relies so heavily on the commitment of volunteers. This commitment is the DNA of this festival, and we can be proud of it. Without them, there would simply be no ManiFiesta. So let's have a huge round of applause for all the ManiFiesta volunteers.

I'm really delighted to be with you today, with thousands of people who want to change the world. There will have to be a lot of us, dear friends, because up there at the Rue de la Loi [the seat of government], they seem to have a lot of trouble listening to people. I don't know why. Maybe Parliament's windows insulate them too well from the noise. It's true that they're in their ivory tower. And ivory insulates rather well, doesn't it?

But hey, they try to act like they're listening. On July 21, the eve of his departure on vacation, Prime Minister De Croo took out a full-page ad in all the newspapers to announce that he was "going to listen to the people". And Jan Jambon's Flemish government, which maintains that "what Flanders does itself, it does better", only has ears for overpriced consultancies. They didn't even know anymore what it had cost. A billion? 400 million ? 200 million ? No one had kept track.

No, dear friends and comrades, the fact that they don't listen is not due to a hearing problem. It's more of a class problem. In Belgium, our ministers only listen to the upper echelons of society, the wealthy elite and multinationals like Engie and Shell, who continue to make superprofits on our backs. They can afford to call ministers and their offices directly. And people are getting really fed up with it.

But you know this: the PTB-PVDA is not a party like the others. We don't spend fortunes on consultants, we don't go to employers' receptions to find out what we should do, and we don't buy newspaper ads. We're listening to you. We listen to the people. We're going to survey 100,000 people to find out what they think. And we're going to translate their responses into action. It's our way of doing politics.

That's why we launched "The Great Survey" this month. We want to talk to 100,000 people in neighbourhoods and workplaces in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. We want to discuss with them what we need to change in society. Talking about fair taxation, purchasing power, the housing crisis or the privileges of politicians... We want to hear everyone's views on the direction our society should take.

We launched this survey just two weeks ago, and have already received 10,000 responses. We'll be touring the whole of Belgium with our campaign bus. But, above all, we are taking on this incredible challenge with all our members and supporters.

We're counting on you to take the survey yourself, but also to help us ask the opinions of your siblings, in-laws, colleagues, neighbours and even your ex. It's only with your help that we'll be able to reach 100,000 people.

What are we going to do with these answers? We will use them to define our campaign priorities for the June 9 elections. Finally, I'm talking about priorities, but as you know, the PTB's priorities are actually fighting points. Within Parliament, where we need a strong PTB-PVDA, but also, and above all, outside Parliament. By fighting.

This is how we can put so many items on the political agenda in Belgium. Which party helped secure the White Coat Fund to urgently refinance the healthcare sector? The PTB. Exposing illegal pension supplements for politicians? The PTB. Lowering VAT on energy? The PTB. Taxing excess profits? The PTB. Increasing the minimum pension? The PTB. The fight against the anti-demonstration law, a threat to social resistance? The PTB. Together with trade unions and civil society, we have been able each time to put these issues on the political agenda and impose concrete changes.

Thierry Bodson [FGTB, the social-democratic trade union federation] and Fatiha Dahmani [CSC, the Christian-democratic trade union federation] have just spoken about the battle ahead. The fight against the austerity policies of the European Commission, for real wage increases and for our democratic rights. Here too, the PTB-PVDA will play its part.

Yes comrades, we're going to keep moving the lines. Because we dare to think outside the box. Because we believe in the power of people's battles in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. And that's why they're so scared up there.

In truth, dear friends, together we can force the change. The wave of resistance continues to grow. We're part of a growing movement.

The time has come to ride the wave that can change society. We'll need everyone's help. Young and old alike. Walloons, Bruxellois and Flemings. Workers, employees, self-employed, pensioners and unemployed. Men and women. Born in Belgium or elsewhere. We'll need everyone's help to change this society through struggle.

Let's talk about urgent change. If there's one thing our country needs to do something about, it's food prices. The price of fruit, pasta, rice and vegetables. We can't afford to pay more and more for these products, as we've been doing in Belgium for the past few years. Almost 15% increase in one year.

Elisa, from Merelbeke, went shopping last weekend. The big shopping trip at the beginning of the month for the whole family. She sent me her receipt: 189 euros. We all feel it when we go shopping: it's becoming unaffordable. Food prices are soaring, while the profits of agribusiness multinationals are soaring. And what does the government do ? Nothing. No price freeze. Nada. Quite the opposite. Look at the very last line of the ticket, in tiny print at the very end: 11 euros for VAT alone.

We need to take immediate action to lower the price of the shopping trolley. Let's reduce VAT on all food products, such as milk, meat, bread and pasta, to 0%. Here's the PTB's proposal to save 5, 10, 15 euros every time we do our shopping. And don't tell us there's no money to finance such a measure. Let's do away with the tax loopholes that allow the super-rich to line their pockets tax-free, and give people back their purchasing power.

How will we pay ? I'll tell you. Today, if companies owned by the super-rich sell shares and make a capital gain, they pay 0 euros in tax. Nothing ! Nothing ! Nothing at all. Pittance ? Even less than that. 0.00 euros. Did you know that last year, several billionaires made capital gains of hundreds of millions of euros without working, and paid zero euros ? Can you imagine that ?

So every time you go through the checkout with your shopping trolley, you pay VAT. But billionaires who make hundreds of millions in capital gains pay nothing at all. Even in Luxembourg, this tax privilege does not exist. It's a unique Belgian specialty ! How can you justify that ?

Do you know how much this tax bracket costs the State ? 4 billion a year. And then you hear the right-wing parties saying there's no money for tax reform. These are the same people who will probably explain that 0% VAT is impossible. The reality is that Belgium is a tax hell for workers, and a tax haven for the super-rich. That has to change. It's time we paid less tax for our shopping trolley than the billionaire does when he makes a capital gain.

We also hear the left-wing parties in government echoing our rhetoric on tax justice. But they forget to mention that the exemption for capital gains on shares is a tax niche that was decided in 1991 by a government with the socialist parties, PS and Vooruit, with the Christian-democratic parties, CD&V and Engagés. They forget to mention that they have been in government almost uninterruptedly for 30 years. We hear them complaining a lot about ultimatums from the right, but the question is: where are their own ultimatums ? Where are their own red lines ? Why is it that in Belgium, it's always the right-wing ultimatums that get through ? Why is it that one right-wing party seems to be able to block everything, but four so-called left-wing parties can't impose anything serious ? All we hear are excuses. That's why, over the last 30 years, we've seen such social regression in Belgium, and such tax hell for workers. I say it here today: enough is enough. Tax The Rich !

We also need to put an end to profiteering in politics, and this applies to all parties. You've heard that, thanks to the PTB's revelations about illegal pension supplements for members of parliament, they've all promised to change the rules and put a stop to it. But there are those who continue to oppose it. Some out loud, like Siegfried Bracke, the former president of the Chamber of Deputies, who said this summer that he didn't want to pay anything back and would keep all the benefits. But many do so quietly. By putting the brakes on all the changes we propose.

I'm deliberately saying that this culture of political profiteering concerns "all" parties. So does the far-right Vlaams Belang party. What did Vlaams Belang do when the decision was taken to grant pension supplements to politicians? They simply approved, ladies and gentlemen ! How do Vlaams Belang politicians feel about earning 6,000 euros a month? No problem. They simply pocket the money. If you earn 6,000 euros a month, as in the traditional parties, and if you find the super-pensions and large severance bonuses of members of parliament normal, you'll also be able to drive around in a 100,000 euro Maserati, like the fascist Filip Dewinter… Their slogan should not be "our people first", but "our wallet first".

Talk to your colleagues, friends or family. Vlaams Belang is not against the system, it's part of it. They themselves are profiteers. Their aim is above all to divide the people. To defend their own elite, they also want to divide the country. To vote for Vlaams Belang is to vote for the division of the country. It's voting to divide our Social Security, pensions and health care. We're not going to let that happen in 2024, dear friends. We are for the unity of our class, the working class. Look at all of us here at ManiFiesta. There's so much diversity. So many beautiful differences, and different accents. But at the same time, we feel the strength of unity. We have a message for all the parties that want a split, the N-VA [Flemish right-nationalist] and Vlaams Belang, here in Ostend: " Wij zijn één, nous sommes un, We Are One !"

This unity is needed at Belgian and national level. But also at the international level. We're building this unity here at ManiFiesta, with people from all over Europe and the world. It's through unity and battle that we're going to change the world. Hope is born of resistance. Of the struggle of workers here and elsewhere in Europe. The struggle of the peoples of the South. The struggle of the youth.

And it's young people in particular that I'd like to address today. Don't believe those who tell you that fighting is pointless, that it's unrealistic, that it's utopian to dream of another world.

Yes, we dream of another world. Yes, we are right to be indignant in the face of injustice and inequality. Yes, we're right to be outraged when we see families, mothers and children dying in African deserts because they dream of a different life. We are right to be outraged when we see human beings drowning in the Mediterranean. We all live on the same planet. The climate crisis will drive even more millions to flee their homeland. Imperialist wars are multiplying around the world. And for just one reason: because the dominant economic model, capitalism, revolves around one thing: money, money and more money.

But we also have reason to hope. And to fight.

You've just heard from Chris Smalls, who, with his comrades, built the first union in the United States in one of the world's largest multinationals: Amazon. For over two years, he and his colleagues fought together against this giant. Together, they took on the world's second-richest man, Jeff Bezos, who wouldn't hear of a union under any circumstances. In the face of pressure and repression, he kept his spirits up: "Wrestling is a marathon, not a sprint ". Until, last year, they finally won ! "They didn't know it was impossible, so they did it," writer Mark Twain once said.

As Che Guevara said: "Above all, always be able to feel deep down any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. That's the best quality of a revolutionary."

We're reaching out to young people. Together, we're building hope for a better world, here at ManiFiesta, and beyond. Take your place in our broad movement. Take your place in our party.  This year will be crucial for the future of our country and our social movement. Join the wave of resistance.

Thank you all, ManiFiesta !

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