Speech by Gregor Gysi, President of the European Left, held at the Federal Party Congress in Leipzig, 9 June 2018, on the dispute on refugees and migration.
We live in increasingly challenging times. What direction is the world going to take? Are we going to grow even more accustomed to wars than we already are today? How will the trade war between the US and Europe play out? How will it impact employees in Europe and the US? Will capitalism continue on its neoliberal course, expanding the low-wage sector, increasing the number of precarious jobs and exacerbating social divides? Will large corporations and banks continue to be deregulated? Can we still prevent catastrophic climate change? And what about our efforts to help the millions of people across the world exposed to hunger, suffering and poverty? And how successfully can we overcome poverty in Germany, Europe and the world?
We can easily offer negative and pessimistic responses to these questions, but they would only plunge us into a depression, leaving us impotent to act. Or we can believe that any attempt to bring about significant change is worth the struggle.
As President of the European Left and a member of our party, I have noticed that both among the Left in Europe and within our party, there are deeply conflicting views regarding these issues. I am well aware that there are matters that can only be solved locally, some that require national responses, and others that call for international action. But this is not the issue. We have institutions at all levels, and the Left has to be willing and able to take action across all of these. The moment we begin to reject certain levels internally is the moment we undermine our impact in and before these bodies, including the bodies at those levels that we believe we can limit our initiatives to. Across the Left in Europe and Germany, there are those who focus on national responses, and those who seek and develop internationalist responses.
First of all, we need to come to terms with the reality of the 21st century, both in Germany and across Europe. We have a global economy, we have European corporations, we are facing environmental challenges and other issues that threaten our societies’ sustainability, and the only way to solve them is at the international, and not the national level. We are also once more facing crucial social issues. Corporations and large banks have workers, service facilities and production plants on all five continents. The social question has always had an international dimension, even if responses were predominantly national. But the large corporations and banks have now inevitably given the social question a universal, global dimension. They have made it possible for us to compare living standards – through their employees, mobile phones, the internet, in short: through globalisation. And the sole response of governments so far has been isolationism. If the Left wants to offer people a viable perspective, it will have to come up with a different response, one that incorporates all humankind.
The first reason was, and still is, the question of war and peace. I know there have been exceptions in the history of the Left, but essentially, it has always been a peace movement.
The second reason was, and is, its demand for social justice. But I have never equated justice with equality for all. Justice accepts differences based on responsibility, hard work, skill and other criteria. But the demand for social justice aims to combat poverty just as much as it aims to rule out the accumulation of infinite wealth, which inevitably causes poverty.
The third reason was, and is, the Left’s struggle for equal opportunities. People are sometimes born into vastly different circumstances. The question that nations and societies invariably have to answer is: which opportunities are they willing to give those who struggle more than others? There are structures that are more supportive in this respect, and others that make life much more difficult than it already is. Germany is an extremely poor example when it comes to social mobility. Equal opportunity depends on gender equality. Each and every individual ought to have equal opportunity, irrespective of their nationality, religion (or absence thereof), their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. We also have to ensure the broadest possible inclusion of those with disabilities. And we need to provide equal opportunity, above all in terms of access to education, art and culture.
My fourth and final reason was, and is, the Left’s internationalism – an issue that I consider essential. Am I determined to fight poverty only in my own society or throughout the world? Am I determined to fight for equal opportunities only in my own society or throughout the world? Can we even speak of social justice if its scope is limited to our borders? Can we even speak of equal opportunities if they are endorsed only in a single country? Isn’t internationalism an essential pillar in our fight for peace, social justice and equal opportunities? Let me tell you: even right-wing movements can fight for social justice and equal opportunities within a nation. But they will never do so beyond their national borders, which is why internationalism is a central issue for the Left movement.
The idea of branding a political demand as wrong simply because it cannot be conveyed is senseless. After all, one of the core tasks of political communication is to convey ideas, even to people who are initially critical of them.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels closes with a rallying cry: “Workers of the world, unite!” It encapsulates their rejection of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. They called on these social classes to recognise and fight for their common interests, and not let the ruling class incite them to turn on each other. The ruling class had at least two reasons to want the latter. They wanted to conquer other countries and exploit further resources, and they wanted to avoid being overthrown by the lower classes. Whenever the Russian Tsar ran into trouble, he would blame the state of the country on the Jews. He wanted the people to butcher each other. German and French farmers had no reason to slaughter one another, but they were incited to turn against each other. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stood against this with their ideas: they believed that their common social predicament would spark a sense of solidarity, which would then evolve to become the backbone of their movement.
Today, environmental sustainability and its relation to the social question has become a fifth reason for me to endorse the politics of the Left.
But, as I already mentioned, I’ve noticed a growing trend both among the European Left and its German counterpart to scale down the scope of certain questions to the national level. Let me make this perfectly clear: there are no racists and nationalists here, but there are some whose intellectual and emotional attachments are focused on the nation, and who want to see it protected against incoming poverty from other countries. Again, let me be clear: we must never allow solutions to international challenges that leave our country’s poor and middle classes worse off. On the contrary: we are fighting to improve the situation of the poorer and the middle classes in Germany. But we must make these classes aware that the challenges they face will not be solved through isolationism or by mistreating people from other countries. We need to offer them social guarantees. Unemployment benefits weren’t higher before the refugees arrived in Germany, and they haven’t been cut since. A majority in the German parliament is forcing the poorest to survive on just the bare minimum, irrespective of how many are affected and how many refugees we are taking in. We must fight this, and do it on behalf of all those who are affected. Our struggle must not focus on preventing competition in the low-wage sector by limiting the number of economic migrants, but on increasing wages for everyone. In addition, we need to relieve the pressure on the German middle class, who are overburdened purely because politicians are too afraid to face up to corporations, large banks and those whose wealth was acquired unfairly. Protecting their wealth is not what the Left is about.
So yes, I’m worried about the state of the Left in Europe and in Germany. We must not abandon the basic values of internationalism. If this were to happen, it would mean losing one of my main reasons for joining the Left.
Don’t we want to let people decide for themselves how and where they want to live? Of course, you can think differently and oppose labour migration. But why stop there? Why not go on to break up our federal states? Couldn’t a member of the Bavarian Left push for Bavaria to leave the Federal Republic and prevent workers from Saxony from seeking employment there because they take jobs away from Bavarians and threaten local wage levels? In 2016, 60 per cent of migrants that came to Germany were Europeans – so why not limit the EU-wide movement of workers? Surely this isn’t the way we want to tackle these issues, is it?
Of course, we have to recognise, and fight, the causes of migration, especially at the local level in those countries in which many people are being forced to abandon their homes. But for that, we need an internationalist approach, and this is not a reason for us to stop taking in refugees. Across the world, 65 million refugees are currently on the move. Of these, some 3.2 million have entered the EU’s 28 member states since 2015. Considerably less well-off nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, have been taking in a much larger share of refugees. Instead of complaining about the status quo, Europe ought to offer them its support. If this doesn’t happen, the refugees will have to find a different route.
This means that now, and in the future, our primary interest must be to change the situation globally – as well as our domestic policy – in such a way that people are no longer forced to flee their homes. But it would be disastrous if we tried to compensate for our meagre successes in the past by indirectly or directly denying refugees the right to build a future for themselves and their families elsewhere, including in our country. Our first move in the fight to tame the power of neoliberal global corporations, and their political pawns embedded in our governments, shouldn’t be to put up walls to keep out their poorest victims: this will not annul these people’s basic rights, and integrating them will in fact help enrich, not impoverish, our society.
But in order to ensure their successful integration, we should consider endorsing a suggestion outlined by Gesine Schwan: a European fund for local councils that not only covers the cost of taking in and integrating refugees, but offers an equal sum to finance infrastructural investments, especially in housing, education and culture. This type of social initiative would have an impact across the country and benefit everyone. It might even serve as an incentive for local communities to take in refugees.
Integration involves teaching the German language, preventing ghettoisation, helping refugees find vocational training and employment, and communicating our basic values and rights, formulated in articles 1 to 20 of our Basic Law. Every refugee needs to know that in Germany men and women have equal rights. Full stop. Of course, we still need to keep pushing for equality in general. No refugee has the right to restrict our culture, the arts and our way of life here in Germany, but every refugee has the right to contribute to our culture, the arts and our way of life.
Another reason why internationalism has become so significant is because we are currently witnessing the resurgence of right-wing populism and a shift to the far right, both in the US and in Europe. Leaders such as Donald Trump are fuelling national egotism. But these attempts to cushion nations against the impacts of neoliberal globalisation without questioning its basic principles will do nothing to slow this trend – and, ultimately, it’s not what they want.
Their sole aim is to ensure that their countries alone reap the expected and very real rewards of capital investment; to reduce, for their own populations, to a tolerable minimum the severest impacts of low-price competition and permanent resource availability; and to keep the social, economic and environmental havoc that is destabilising the rest of the world away from their borders.
By turning refugees into scapegoats, the Right has laid out for itself a seemingly simple solution. But it is nothing more than pure racism and inhumanity – and, as it happens, a fundamental attack on our Basic Law. It would be wrong to allow the Right to impose its anti-migration discourse upon the Left. Instead, the Left has to become the opposing force to this shift to the right. This is our mission; this is what we stand for. Even the centrists will then have to concede that without us they wouldn’t have been able to stop this shift from happening. Of course, we also have to try to win over voters from the Right – not by engaging in a discourse that we reject, but by convincing them of the opposite point of view. This may be more challenging, but it is our mission.
The individual nation states must stop allowing themselves to be played off against each other by corporations and banks. Countries such as Ireland must no longer be allowed to attract investors by cutting their taxes and lowering social and environmental standards. We’ll be able to do next to nothing to prevent such imbalances if we continue to oppose each other as nation states – which is why we need to embrace European integration. By themselves, individual nation states will never be able to effectively respond to a trade war with the US. Here, we need to see a united response from the European Union. Of course, I am aware of the sad state that some parts of this European Union are in. But the European economy, the environmental challenges faced by Europe, the prevention of war on this continent, and ultimately, the social question and young people in particular, who are increasingly embracing a European identity – they all call for European integration, and not its opposite.