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Heinz Bierbaum

The European Party Congress of DIE LINKE in Difficult Times

Left and progressive forces face the challenge to find a way out of the current defensive position and become an effective political alternative

The party congress of DIE LINKE on Europe and elections for European Parliament convened last weekend and fell in a time of significant upheavals not just in Europe but world-wide. The Munich Security Conference, which took place the weekend prior, showed clearly how high tensions and risks are on a global scale. Far from contributing to a peaceful development a new arms race is looming after the cancellation of the INF agreement, including the extension of the arsenal of nuclear weapons. U.S. Vice President Pence’ remarks on Iran and the request to European states to terminate the contract with Iran just as the U.S. increases that danger in an utterly irresponsible way. Solutions for the military conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen are nowhere in sight. Thus, the meeting resembled less a conference on collective security but rather a “war conference”, as honorary Chairman Hans Modrow expressed it in his report of the Council of Elders to the congress. In Latin America tensions rise as well, a possible military intervention of the US in Venezuela being the most evident expression thereof. The congress was presented with a motion of the party executive committee which clearly denounced any foreign intervention and demanded a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiations. This motion was nonetheless – as all other motions not related to Europe or the programme – not adopted but transferred to the executive committee for further decision-making.  The situation in Brazil with new president Bolsonaro intending to reverse any social or civil progress and existentially threatening all progressive forces, is especially worrying. This was addressed by Paulo Teixeira, MP of the Workers’ Party Brazil, in a clear and impressive way.

Europe, or rather the European Union still is in a deep crisis – economically, socially, and politically. Far from sustainable development, the situation in Europe is marked by high unemployment, especially among the youth, growing precariousness of working and living conditions and rising social inequality. Tendencies of desintegration increase. Brexit, as well as the incapability to reach viable solutions illustrate the tight situation. The whole political framework becomes growingly fragile. The traditional party system is put into question, new movements arise on the right as well as on the left. Most alarming is the ascent of extreme right-wing and fascist forces in Europe. This sets the task for the whole left to distinguish itself as an alternative political power opposite neoliberal politics which are the reason for the current developments as well as especially opposite the extreme right with its nationalism and racism.

Against this background it is understandable that the congress was met with large interest internationally. It was attended by representatives of left parties from Latin America, Asia, Africa and, of course, Europe. In several meetings mutual problems caused by the devastating consequences of neoliberal politics, the rise of right-wing and fascist forces and the endangered global peace were debated. The left and progressive forces are faced with the challenge to find a way out of their current defensive state and become an effective political alternative.

This basically was the central issue for the congress as well, namely, to meet the aspiration to present DIE LINKE as a strong political alternative on European level who  fights “for a solidary Europe of the millions, against a European Union of the millionaires”, as the title of the programme states. Thus, party chairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, President of the European Left, Gregor Gysi, and parliamentary group leader Dietmar Bartsch strove to say that DIE LINKE is a European force which nonetheless fights for another Europe, sharply contrasting the existing policies of the European Union. Fighting for the necessary change of the EU was the essential “declaraction of love for Europe” (Kipping). Yet, there were also clear differences. While Riexinger stressed the necessity of a strong left, “who declares war against the banks and corporations”, Gysi prioritised the necessary and possible reform of the EU by, among other things, referring to the European Pillar of Social Rights as an – albeit insufficient – step forward. Even though the differences in assessing the EU are rather obvious, the claim of political opponents and partly the media of DIE LINKE being EU adverse, lacks grounds.

This claim is mostly attached to the three adjectives “neoliberal”, “undemocratic”, and “militaristic” characterising the EU, which were part of the original draft but not of the final programme. This was preceeded by a controversial debate within the party and played a role at the congress as well. Considering the wider context of those catch phrases the controversy loses momentum anyway. There can be no denying of the EU pursuing neoliberal policies and having considerable democratic deficits. The term “militaristic” is debatable and can be seen as an exaggeration. Yet, military arm-up is a fact. Nonetheless, it can be stated that opinions about the capability for reform of the EU is varying greatly. While some party members consider reforms on the basis of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties impossible, others vehemently fight for those reforms. This becomes most obvious in the creation of a “European Republic”, a demand which seems somewhat absurd considering the current state of the EU. Even its advocates consider it a vision not feasible at the moment.  Both extreme positions did not get a majority. The differences, however, persist, so that the “new start of the EU” inscribed in the programme might be interpreted quite differently from each perspective.

DIE LINKE mirrors the same differences which can be found in the European left altogether. There are at least three different strategic approaches. Firstly, the Party of the European Left attempting to offer a broad platform for the left in Europe with its European elections programme. Varoufakis’ movement DiEM 25 running for elections with an alliance of smaller parties called “European Spring” and the proposal for a “New Deal”. And thirdly, “Maintenant le Peuple”, the movement initiated by Mélenchon calling for disobedience towards the European treaties. Here, quite different assessments of the EU find their expression. Considering political content and the programmatical key points, only few differences can be detected. The demands are: ending neoliberal austerity, an offensive investment programme adequate to social needs and the social-ecological transformation of the economy, more control over the financial markets including a change of the role of the European Central Bank, a fairer taxation policy, more democratisation and binding social rights. A militarisation of the EU is strictly dismissed. The long debated question of the Euro and the exit option connected to it do not currently play a dominant role in the political debate. Yet, the strategical orientation differs. The left in Europe – despite substantial political and programmatical accordances – does not find common ground.

The programme, which was approved by a great majority, now provides the party with a common platform for European elections. It contains a plethora of concrete demands pushing the political perspective somewhat in the background, particularly since they are written from a perspective of potential governance. The different assessments considering the further development of the EU are thus not off the table. Beyond all differences there is no doubt about the European orientation. Now it will come down to condensing the political orientation in the campaign and to distinguish DIE LINKE as a European force which reliably fights for another Europe – against neoliberal politics and, most of all, the nationalist and rascist right.

Heinz Bierbaum is head of the International Commission of DIE LINKE 

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