Plan B for Europe Conference in Copenhagen - A new beginning for the European Left? by Dr Joseph Healy(Principal Speaker: Left Unity)
The Plan B for Europe conference I attended two weeks ago in Copenhagen was organised by the Danish Red-Green Alliance and the Swedish Left Party. Unsurprisingly most of the attendees were Scandinavians, although there were delegates from across Europe. I was initially surprised to find that for a conference discussing the future of Europe there were no speakers from the UK and no workshops on Brexit. Indeed, having failed to get a speaking slot, when I made an intervention from the floor during Sunday’s plenary session, I remarked that I thought that Brexit had already happened and that the UK event was organised in a small room down a corridor in the Danish parliament building where the conference was organised. The only other UK observers present were two members of Green Left who, like me, were left unimpressed by the approach to both Brexit and climate change - but more of that later.
The tone of the conference was set at the opening plenary on the Saturday, which did not have any opportunities from interventions from the floor. The panel consisted of representatives of the Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish Left parties along with a Slovenian speaker and Zoe Konstantopolou, former Syriza MP and Speaker of the Greek parliament. But the star on Saturday was Jean Luc Melenchon who guaranteed a large media presence. Melenchon gave a tub thumping speech about the neoliberal nature of the EU and referred to what seemed to have been a meeting with President Hollande about an EU treaty going to be presented in 2017 which would call for an EU military force. Melenchon claimed that Hollande told him that he knew nothing of the treaty and Melenchon promised that a resistance to war and a militarisation of Europe would be one of the main planks in his presidential campaign next year. The danger of the militarisation of Europe was one of the themes of the conference.
A Norwegian speaker began by saying that the Left party in Norway had always played a leading role in the campaign to keep Norway out of the EU. But he wanted Norway to go further and leave the European Economic Area because of the neoliberal rules forced on Norway by being in the EEA. This was just an example of how far removed the debate about the EU is situated in Scandinavia from the one in the UK. Two of his main reasons for blasting the EU were pointing out that Europe was weak on co-operation when it came to refugees or climate change but strong on economics.
Zoe Konstantopolou caused one of the main moments of controversy at the conference when she refused to speak of Syriza as comrades or friends but denounced them as “traitors”. She accused the EU of leading the witch hunt against those opposed to austerity. Plan B was a call to defend democracy. Greeks had been subjected to taxation and to a surrender to the creditors. She attacked the sell off of Greek banks and the refugee treaty with Turkey. Things were now so bad in Greece that there were organised attacks on all those associated with resistance and government officials were granted legal immunity and there was interference with the judicial system.
But a young Slovenian speaker cautioned about Plan B calling for the end of the EU and likened the situation with that in the former Yugoslavia in the 80s. In Slovenia nobody wanted independence in 1985 but wanted a reformed Yugoslavia, by 1990 all wanted it and Serbs were attacked as lazy, arrogant etc. The argument that the former states of Yugoslavia were better off with independence had been disproved - the GDP of Croatia was now less than it had been in 1980. He called instead for a move against protectionism and social dumping and forcing trade blocks to increased standards, including minimum wage standards across Europe and a European Green Deal. This speech was later denounced in one of the workshops by Eric Toussaint as being “Varoufakism”.
I attended two workshops - one on debt and the second on social dumping. At this point it must be said that the conference was suffused with the Lexit narrative, which I did my best to oppose. A young British man now living in Sweden claimed at one of the workshops that the British people had “voted against globalisation”. The workshop on social dumping was particularly interesting with a Polish speaker from the Razem party, a Danish Red-Green Alliance MP and an Irish trade unionist. The Danish MP just repeated a litany of the neoliberal sins of the EU whereas the other two speakers were much more interesting.
The Polish speaker described how immigrant labour, such as Poles, were doing most of the unwanted work across Europe. She gave the example of the German Post Office, Deutsche Post, who had just recorded a huge profit, but who had their Polish employees sleeping in the postal vans! She cautioned against a total rejection of the EU and the resultant anti-migrant feeling and xenophobia which would result. She later told me that she was glad that I made the interventions I did as she had wanted to say the same thing. The Irish trade unionist spoke of social dumping and the driving down of terms and conditions for Irish workers, where the EU offered no support to the unions or Irish workers. When he told the mainly Scandinavian audience that trade union membership in the private sector was only 16%, there were audible gasps! Again this demonstrates the difference between the Scandinavian experience and that in the UK & Ireland and also Eastern Europe.
When I challenged some of the assumptions about leaving the EU etc and pointed out that Brexit had led to an increase in xenophobia and racism as well as the threat to set fire to workers’ rights the Danish MP angrily retorted: “Well there must have been something good about Brexit as the British people voted for it!” Against such unerring logic what could I say! The Irish trade unionist agreed with me that much of the progressive legislation on workers’ rights had emanated from Brussels and not from Dublin or London.
The plenary on the Sunday consisted of a panel with Finnish, Danish, Portuguese and Italian MPs and an MEP from Podemos, a Norwegian trade unionist and an anti-globalisation activist from France. It soon became clear that all of the Left parties want to leave the Eurozone but are divided on the issue of leaving the EU. Generally speaking the Eastern and Southern European parties do not want to leave whereas those in Northern Europe are much keener. However, the Finnish MP said that her party was opposed to exiting and a Swedish MP told me also that there was no push from the Left in Sweden to leave and that no referenda were foreseen.
The Italian MP, who is a former minister, invited the attendees to come to the next Plan B conference in Rome in March to meet at the same venue where the original Treaty of Rome setting up the EU was first signed. The Norwegian trade unionist saw the Left across Europe as being in crisis, this was reflected in the rise of the Far Right. There was a need for the Left to analyse why it fails when it is in government and suffers afterwards. Unsurprisingly he saw no hope whatsoever of the EU being reformed. He asked what had happened to Left governments in the EU who had disobeyed such as Greece. The two major problems for him were that the Left needed to be far more involved in the trade union movement and also needed to learn how to fight.
The Podemos speaker gave a fiery speech where he stressed the need of involving the social movements and criticised the conference for not including those movements. He said the Rome conference would have to be much larger and including those forces. 100 town mayors were meeting the following week in Oviedo to plan resistance and there needed to be more municipal resistance centres built up. He outlined the terrible results of austerity in Spain and called on Leftists across Europe to show solidarity to survive. He gave positive examples of solidarity such as Barcelona where a new distribution plant for natural energy was being built.
The Danish MP for once showed an understanding of the different political situations which countries in Europe find themselves in. He called for working together both inside and outside the EU. We needed to have a pan European Left perspective and not surrender to the Far Right or the neoliberals. He agreed that there was no future for the EU monetary policy but thought that the EU itself had symbolic value both positive and negative.
The floor was then thrown open to interventions. It was at this point that Susan George the famous environmentalist and anti-globalisation campaigner criticised the lack of mention of climate change in any of the speeches. Many of the speakers then rushed to rectify this in their responses. But it has to be said that apart from Podemos and the Portuguese speaker there had been almost no reference to it.
I intervened at this point to criticise the fact that there had been no session on Brexit despite every speaker mentioning it at the conference. I also criticised the tendency to “retreat into a Scandinavian paradise” and the dangers of various European countries pulling up the drawbridge and retreating into isolation. The Alice in Wonderland character of many of the foreign delegates’ views of Brexit was emphasised when the Finnish MP attacked Left Unity for having campaigned alongside Social Democrats and neoliberals in the referendum campaign stating that this had left the way open for the Far Right to adopt the populist mantle. I also found people at the conference who took the Lexit view that the new UK government was less Rightwing than Cameron’s. When I pointed out that this was not the case, I often got the response that they may be more reactionary socially (migration etc) but less so economically. Again I pointed out that the austerity agenda continues unabated.
The conference was a good opportunity to gauge thinking on the Left across Europe. I remain concerned about those, especially in Scandinavia, who are rushing to dismantle the EU without heeding the cautionary words of those like Varoufakis about what may replace it. All at the conference feared the rise of the Far Right and all are committed to fighting neoliberalism, which they now regard as a doomed economic and political model. The argument is how best to go about those twin battles. The ghost of Hamlet seemed to haunt the corridors of the Danish parliament asking the question: “To leave or not to leave”.
A bubble of hygge assumptions and two glaring omissions.
by P.Murry (Secretary: Green Left)
I recently attended a conference in Copenhagen, entitled a “pan-European Plan B conference” its aim was to “serve as a space for an open debate on alternatives and strategies for the left-wing in relation to authoritarian austerity and the European economic and democratic crisis.” It was hosted by the Enhedslisten – The Red‐Green Alliance, Denmark, and Vänsterpartiet (The Left Party) in the Danish parliament on November 19&20 2016. The European United Left/Nordic Green Left/ European Parliamentary Group was also credited as an organising or sponsoring organisation for the event.
I was attending the event as Secretary of Green Left with Malcolm Bailey, Deputy Chair of Green Left. Independently of GL, Joseph Healy, Principal Speaker of Left Unity also attended. We were the only participants from British political organisations, There were delegates from most EU nations and from Turkey, but the majority were from the Scandinavian nations. The list of participants indicates that most were from explicitly socialist or left organisations.
The format of the event was predominantly top-down in character, mostly consisting of panels of high status speakers, sometimes followed by limited opportunities for questions and discussion, the two so-called workshop sessions followed this format too, albeit with fewer speakers ; This gave ample opportunity for political grandstanding, academic obfuscation and general windbaggery which minimised real discussion, but then this was a gathering composed of professional politicians who love the sound of their own voices and then are surprised by events like Brexit and Trump.
This type of political bubble is often created by what is not mentioned as much as by what is and two glaring omissions, in my opinion, were the lack of any British speaker to give some balance to the sketchy discussion of Brexit and the lack of consideration of climate change.
Brexit was supposed to on the agenda, according to the prepublicity: “Brexit changes the EU. How will the left influence the new Europe that is emerging?” But right up until questions and discussion after the final plenary, Brexit seemed only accorded passing mention, in remarks about not making the same mistakes as the British Labour party had done.
Brexit potentially posed a problem for the main consensus opinion of this gathering, that unless a socialist reorganisation of the EU could be enacted, an exit on socialist principles, (Lexit), should take place. This is because Brexit was opposed by the Labour Party, the Green Party of England and Wales, the TUC and many rank and file socialists and trades unionists: and contrary to some assertions, the Brexit victory could not have been achieved solely by a ‘disillusioned’ working class vote.
With no speaker invited to represent the majority ‘remain’ view of the British Labour movement, or explain why the majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not want to leave the EU; the Plan B conference was able to proceed, unperturbed by such evidence, to elaborate on the Lexit project.
On 19/11 the plenary sessions went, at length and in detail through theories, strategies and permutations of Lexit: eg should it involve leaving the Euro? Could the threat of Lexit be used as a bargaining counter to secure an EU which would not inflict neo-liberal austerity policies on its own members, in the way it had done to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Eire and others? Didn’t the example of the co-operation of the Scandinavian nations show the possibility of international co-operation without the inflexible, overblown and anti-democratic bureaucracies of the EU? Was leaving the EU the only feasible way to cope with ’social’ dumping’ and the increasing casualization of work reported by many delegates?
These were not the sole topics discussed, a motion of solidarity with those political groups in Turkey currently being persecuted was passed unanimously and delegates from the HDP were accorded a standing ovation.( the text of the Statement on Turkey is appended below).
There were also some notes of dissent, a Slovenian representative sounded less enthusiastic for Lexit than most, recalling that the break-up of another federation, Yugoslavia, had unleashed xenophobic communalism with horrific consequences.
I also counted three mentions of climate change during the sessions that I attended. Usually, dealing with the major current threat to our planet came quite a way down some of the speakers’ lists of the concerns which could be addressed in a post- Lexit context. Most did not feel it was worth a mention.
On the second day of the conference the Scandi- Lexit steamroller seemed to be rumbling on relentlessly with another Plenary of speakers who continued the previous day’s themes.
That is until after the speakers had made their initial presentations, Susan George, from Attac France asked the panel why there had been so little said about climate change. It would be inappropriate to say I saw a row of lightbulbs appear above the panellists’ heads, so it must have been halos which lit up above them, or most of them, as they all avowed that climate change was indeed one of the major concerns which would be addressed in a post Lexit Europe.
Some suggested that dealing with climate change might involve some job losses so there would be a need to ensure that new jobs were created in new industries that were not as environmentally damaging as those that had brought about climate change. In a conference that didn’t invite a British speaker to inform it about Brexit, it was not surprising that no panellist appeared to know that the British TUC advocates a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy, which would entail job and wage protection or that at least 8 major British Trade Unions have supported the production of the “1 Million Climate jobs” publication by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union group which sets out a detailed, credibly researched, argument detailing how a ‘just transition’ could be brought about.
When at last, almost at the end of the conference, Joseph Healy was able to inform the conference that Brexit had not been supported by the majority of the British Labour movement, that it had led to a rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate crime, and that it put many migrant workers in the UK into a state of fear and uncertainty: it was probably too little and too late to have much impact.
It’s possible that climate change might be addressed at the next Plan B conference in Rome in March, but, on the basis of this event, I doubt if the actual experience of Brexit, will change many minds associated with The European United Left/Nordic Green Left/ about the desirability of Lexit.
To some extent the self-confirmatory aspects of the Plan B conference in Copenhagen, are a consequence of the division of EU politicians into blocks, which meant that the Labour Party may not have been invited to send a speaker as its MEP’s are in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists And Democrats, and GPEW is in The Greens/European Free Alliance. Complaining about that could be like criticising one party for not asking speakers from a rival organisation to its conference, but as this could be precisely the kind of development which might take off in British politics in an attempt to break Tory political hegemony, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest something similar in Europe. It might not change politicians’ minds but it might make some of them better informed.
On 24/11/16 I received by email a “Statement for a Standing Plan B in Europe” (see below). I don’t recall this statement being discussed or voted on at the conference. It does seem to outline an anti-austerity position with a pretty clear suggestion of Lexit if this could not be won.
It is worth noting that representatives of some nations do not yet appear in the signatories: unsurprisingly, the UK and Scotland, but there are others such as Eire, Slovenia, Belgium and the Netherlands but this could simply be because the reps haven’t had time to sign yet.
It is not only irrelevant to Britain, in my view, because of Brexit, but also because the British government seems no longer to be pursuing austerity in the same way as the unlamented Cameron governments did. Britain now looks like it’s having a mutant form of Keynesianism inflicted on it. This could combine continued severe austerity for the old, the sick and the poor, and casualised labour conditions for much of the working population with an attempt to promote economic growth with infrastructure projects , (eg: HS2, Hinckley Point, airport expansion). As these examples illustrate, these are not the kind of infrastructure projects needed to create a low carbon economy as the British government, like the Plan B conference and its statement, seems determined to ignore the urgency of doing something effective about climate change.
As I attended the conference as representing Green Left, I will sign the Plan B statement if GL requires me to do so, but only under protest, as personally, I disagree with it.
Materials from the conference is now also available on the conference websites.
Video of the full program Saturday the 19th:
Statement for a Standing Plan B in Europe
We, the undersigned, elected representatives, academics, trade unionists, social movements, party organisations, commit ourselves to a standing Plan B for Europe as a force of opposition and alternative to the European institutions. We refuse a Europe of permanent austerity, attacks on social and labour rights and devaluation of labour. We deplore the erosion of financial stability on our continent. We contest the shift from public to private which redirects common resources and public finances to service debt owned by banks.
The steamrolling of the Greek left wing experiment in 2015 has shown the need for a platform that specifically addresses the blackmail and the attempt to impose neoliberal policies via the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). An alternative is needed urgently, as the EMU is set to become even more dangerous in the coming years.
By imposing austerity, the political and financial oligarchy has created insecurity and mistrust throughout Europe, and thereby paved the way for the rise of right wing nationalism, which seeks to create hatred and disunity between people of Europe.
Plan B shall pave the way for a fully democratic and inclusive cooperation in Europe and beyond, between peoples and nations, which seeks to solve the multiple crises of today, and which goes far beyond the stifling confinements of the European Union (EU). Whereas eurocentrism, fear and exploitation of people and nature continues to be the cornerstones of Europe’s relation to the rest of the world, the European institutions are unfit to handle the global challenges of today.
At the Plan B summit in Copenhagen, we have presented credible and ambitious solutions to solve the local and global challenges of today. These solutions are not possible within the current framework of the EU and its reactionary treaties: We have to break free from those treaties. We pledge to fight for European cooperation on completely different terms, a Europe of social justice, solidarity, sustainability and democracy.
Therefore, we are committed to continue and deepen cooperation within the plan B framework, including by supporting an annual plan B event and improving coordination within that framework. We envision a growing coalition that will develop alternatives to the current neoliberal EU in a cooperation between parties and social movements, and that will serve as a place to strengthen common struggles and refine our strategies.
After Copenhagen, which took significant steps in that direction, we strongly encourage progressive forces across Europe to get involved in the , as a counter-summit to the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. With elections in France and Germany and ratification of CETA – which could end up being rejected if just one national parliament says no – 2017 will be an important year for Europe.
· Pernille Skipper, MP and Political spokesperson, Enhedslisten – The Red-Green Alliance, Denmark
· Jonas Sjöstedt, MP and Chairperson, Vänsterpartiet – Left Party, Sweden
· Jean-Luc Mélenchon, MEP and co-founder, Parti de Gauche, France
· Miguel Urbán Crespo, MEP, Podemos, Spain
· Stefano Fassina, MP and former Italian deputy minister finance, Sinistra Italiana, Italy
· Fabio De Masi, MEP, Die Linke, Germany
· Catarina Martins, MP and Coordinator, Bloco de Esquerda, Portugal
European left wing supports imprisoned MPs in Turkey
After the failed coup this summer, president Erdogan has intensified the process towards a more authoritarian leadership in Turkey, constraining the opposition and limiting freedom of speech.
The recent arrests of HDP parliamentarians and other members of the party marks the culmination of an extremely worrisome development in Turkey where human rights are limited and violated on a daily basis.
We strongly condemn the arrests of HDP parliamentarians and other party members as well as trade unionists, judges and academics. We demand that they are released and that the Turkish government starts respecting fundamental human rights.
The EU must react to the oppression in Turkey and we call on the EU to cancel the accord on refuges with Turkey. We also call on the EU to freeze the Turkish negotiations for EU membership until democracy is restored.
Joint statement from the Plan B konference in Copenhagen, November 19, 2016