‘Plan B’ Controversies in Copenhagen

For the third time the European left discussed alternatives to the Europe of austerity.

‘We are here to translate justified anger and frustration into an international movement for real change. People in Europe need an alternative to the EU’s neoliberalism.’ With these words Pernille Skipper, spokesperson and deputy in Denmark’s parliament for the Red-Green Alliance, opened last weekend’s conference ‘For a Plan B in Europe!’. More than 200 interested individuals from many European countries came to Copenhagen in response to the invitation from the Danish and Swedish socialists and the GUE/NGL, the left group in the European Parliament; 21 left parties were represented.

After the previous conferences in Paris and Madrid, this was the third ‘Plan B’ conference. The European left’s need for a Plan B was made drastically clear especially by the experiences of Greece’s Syriza government. The lesson was that a left government at the national level cannot carry out a radical political change as long as it is can be blackmailed by the European Central Bank, which can simply cut off its money supply.

The discussion of a Plan B, however, is related not just to the question of whether it is possible or necessary to exit the European Monetary Union in order to enlarge the room for manoeuvre at the national level. There is also the question of how the left can stick to the idea of the European Union at all. Does the left want a European federated state or a loosening of integration? Can the EU be socially and democratically reformed from within? Or is a break called for not only with the currency union but with the EU as a whole before any new solidary forms of international cooperation in Europe can be developed?

According to the Norwegian trade-unionist Asbjørn Wahl, the left is in a deep ideological and political crisis; the crisis of the left is reflected in the rise of the right. Wahl called for a systematic discussion in the left on the causes of its crisis. As long as there is no clear analysis, he said, any attempt to create unity of action among the left will reach an impasse.

As an example of the left’s problems, Wahl cited, alongside its unclear relationship to the EU, the apparent incapacity to learn from the many negative experiences of coalition governments with the social democrats. His position that the left should not leave criticism of the EU to the right was generally shared. The conference participants all agreed that both the currency union and the EU with its present institutional structure is designed to wage a permanent class struggle from above against wage workers.

While there is far-reaching agreement within the European left in its criticism of the EU’s neoliberal and undemocratic policy, ideas on alternatives diverge widely. Li Andersson, the chair of Finland’s Left Alliance, put in a nutshell the generally shared assessment that there are only two possibilities – either the currency union has to be completed by a common fiscal and social policy or it will fall apart due to the unequal development in the Euro Zone. She personally saw no future for the currency union and was not alone in this view.

The conference participants overwhelmingly rejected any further transfer of authority to the EU along with the goal of a European federated state. ‘I do not want any further centralisation of power – I simply do not trust it’, was how Malin Björk, Member of the European Parliament for Sweden’s Left Party, put it. Catarina Martins, chair of Portugal’s Left Bloc, argued that democratic federalism in the EU is impossible because of the power relations between the Member States.

Whether the left should offensively advocate an exit from the EU was a controversial point. One participant from England warned against the illusion that Brexit could lead to a ‘socialist reawakening’ and indicated that the opposite is true, that is, the rights in force within the EU will now be taken away from Great Britain’s wage workers.

Luca Mesec, deputy for the Initative for Democratic Socialism in Slovenia’s parliament, compared the situation in the EU with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, where nationalism got out of control and ended in mass murder. The republics of the former Yugoslavia are now worse off than under Tito. There is also a nationalist element within a Plan B, Mesec pointed out; and one has to be aware of the dangers. He nevertheless supported the initiative for a Plan B because it would be the only way to set in motion a progressive change in the EU.

Joanna Bronowicka of the national leadership of the new Polish left party RAZEM stressed that in Poland ‘Europe’ is still seen as a promise of modernity and that the demand for exit would therefore be almost impossible to put forward. In Portugal entry into the European Community is closely associated with the end of the military dictatorship and is, in this sense, seen positively, according to Caterina Martins; the left is therefore not directly advocating exit from the EU but is trying to make it clear where and why broadly shared demands, such as those for higher wages, better social welfare benefits, and better public services, collide with EU institutions.

Attac co-founder Peter Wahl made the case for a more flexible integration in Europe, a ‘variable geometry’. The left, he said, should orient itself to the idea that states in the EU need not all do the same things; in the future, he insisted, countries need to seek to form ‘coalitions of the willing’ for projects such as exit from coal-fired power generation or the introduction of a financial-transaction tax. Jeanne Chevalier, from France’s Parti de Gauche, presented various concepts for an alternative currency union. It became clear during the conference that the discussions on alternatives to the European Monetary Union were significantly broader and more nuanced than in Germany.

The left in Germany should take discussions occurring in other European countries more strongly into account. Already after the Brexit referendum French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon said that the thinking in France is that we either change Europe or we leave it. If there is any chance of progressive changes in the EU they will at all events not be feasible for the time being without Mélenchon’s threat of a Plan B and his victory in the presidential elections in the coming year. According to opinion polls he is now the candidate of the divided left who can attract the most votes and is probably the only leftist who still could have some chance of making it to the runoff ballot with Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the right-wing extremist Front National. Those in the German left who reject a Plan B and want to stick with the EU and the currency union should become clear about this.

translated by Eric Canepa

Originally published in Neues Deutschland, 21 November 2016: https://www.neues-deutschland.de/artikel/1032895.plan-b-kontroversen-in-kopenhagen.html