“It’s about the Sustainability of This Continent”
A conversation with Martin Schirdewan, co-chair of The Left in the European Parliament
In a little under a year, from 6 to 9 June 2024, elections to the European Parliament will be held across all 27 European Union member-states. A lot is up for grabs.
The last five years have been turbulent ones in the EU, with the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic recession — coming only a decade after the last major economic crisis — compelling the European Commission to establish the Recovery and Resilience Facility, a 750-billion-euro fund to stimulate European recovery through grants and loans to “support reforms and investments”. Yet only one year after that was passed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent Europe into its next crisis, sending energy prices through the roof and questioning decades-old certainties about Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture.
The political fallout has been immense: in country after country, right-wing populists have capitalized on people’s anxiety and greatly increased their parliamentary representation. In many countries, they’re now in power. The European Left, by contrast, has struggled to turn the situation to its advantage, and has watched its returns decline In recent elections in Spain and Greece. Can the tide be turned?
Albert Scharenberg from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation sat down with Martin Schirdewan, co-chair of The Left in the European Parliament since 2019 and co-chair of Die Linke since 2022, to ask him about his parliamentary work and the future of the Left in the European Union.
Martin, the so-called European Parliament, which is in actuality an EU parliament, is a kind of black box even for political enthusiasts: you just don’t really know what’s going on inside. Can you give a brief explanation of what your work as an MEP and chair of the Left group entails?
Yes, gladly. The Left group has been in the European Parliament since 1994. With 38 MEPs, we’re currently its smallest group. Our MEPs come from 13 EU member states: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Cyprus.
It’s a very diverse group. Many parties, like Syriza and La France Iinsoumise, are political heavyweights in their own countries. Others, like Podemos, are currently part of national governments. However, the group also includes, for example, Irish delegates, Portuguese communists, and one representative from the Dutch animal welfare party Partij voor de Dieren. You can see there’s a lot of political diversity here. Together with the French co-chair of the group, Manon Aubry, I try to use this diversity to our advantage and work out shared political positions — often successfully, but sometimes not.
Although we are the smallest group in the EU Parliament, we’ve nonetheless been able to set some crucial processes in motion during this legislative session. For example, we were the first group to fight for the release of vaccine patents during the COVID crisis and to submit a motion to that effect. This motion enabled us to exert considerable pressure on the member states and the European Commission. At one point, we actually had a majority on our side.
We were also the first to call for an excess profit tax. Why? Because corporations saw their profits skyrocket during the crisis, and people justifiably felt this was unfair. We wanted the money to go where it’s needed: to those with smaller bank balances. We started the whole EU-wide debate about excess profit taxes, and now everyone knows what an excess profit tax is.
In addition, we were the first EU group to actively speak up for the rights of gig economy workers, like delivery riders, who are not covered by traditional workers’ rights protection laws because they work for digital or tech companies. Here as well, we were an essential part of a major legislative initiative. So, it’s easy to see that we play a vital role in parliament.
There have been a lot of extremely negative headlines about the European Parliament lately…
You mean the massive corruption scandal, right? It was completely blatant. Italian, Greek, and Belgian representatives from the Social Democratic group were involved in it. These politicians took bribes from the governments of Qatar, Morocco, and Mauritius, which were trying to buy political decisions. The whole thing sounds like a spy novel, but it was true.
It goes to show that we in Parliament need much more transparency and disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. For that to happen, there needs to be an independent ethics body that can review MEPs’ actions and push for compliance with transparency rules.
The so-called “revolving door effect” is really ubiquitous in the European Parliament and across all European politics: people from the world of business are funnelled directly into politics, and vice versa. This frequently causes extreme conflicts of interest, like what happened in 2019 with the election of French European Commissioner Thierry Breton. Breton was the CEO of Atos, one of the world’s leading IT companies, and one that is also important in the defence industry. From this position, he became the European Commissioner for Internal Market. Conflicts of interest like that should not be allowed.
What are the most important issues in European politics at the moment, both inside and outside Parliament?
The dominant theme for the past year has been Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the European Parliament in February. He gave a very emotional speech and expressed his gratitude for the support he’s been shown. I personally have been critical of German arms deliveries to Ukraine and my ideas about how to end the war are not the same as Zelensky’s. However, for me it was natural to shake hands with the democratically elected president of a country under attack.
In my opinion, and in relation to this war, we need to think about what the future architecture of European security might look like. That is the challenge this war of aggression presents us with in the long term. As the European Left, we will not be able to avoid having this discussion, and we need to provide a convincing response to the question of how collective European security can be organized.
The continued protectionism of the US is another important concern for the EU. President Joe Biden has launched a huge investment programme aimed at making the US economy more sustainable and creating new jobs, including in the industry sector. It’s a huge programme, but a smart one that ties funding to social factors like good jobs with good wages, unionization, and apprenticeship opportunities. The programme also offers tax incentives, but they only apply to manufacturers who operate in the US. At first that sounds like an “America First” approach, but it’s supplemented with socially balanced funding in the form of minimum taxation for large corporations.
In my experience, one thing that’s unique about left-wing politics is that we really do raise systemic issues and therefore engage in conflict.
The problem for the EU is that by creating an incentive for large companies to move to the US and set up operations there, these tax breaks pose a direct threat to the industrial base and therefore to jobs in Europe. As of yet, there’s no similar minimal tax for large corporations in Europe, but we also face the same challenge here of creating sustainable industry and good new jobs.
The European Commission recently said that it will respond to this challenge, but I can’t help feeling that they didn’t hear the starting gun. It wants to finance the new programmes by restructuring other programmes, so it just wants to find the money somewhere else.
That’s the difference between the EU and the US government: the EU doesn’t generate additional tax revenue from big corporations or by closing tax loopholes. Instead, it just distributes existing revenue differently. That’s not enough for an ambitious programme. Moreover, there are no social conditions like those in Biden’s financing plan. That’s what bothers me at the moment, because it’s about the sustainability of this continent.
Historically, the many left-wing parties saw the EU as a “union of bosses” that regulates in the interests of corporations and undermines national standards. Recently, however, there has been movement in a different direction, such as the establishment of Europe-wide minimum standards. Do you see an opportunity for your group to make more out of this?
That’s an important point. It’s actually a major problem that the structure of the internal market has become the sacred cow of the EU integration process. No one wants to take it on, even though an overhaul is urgently needed, because the specific structure of the internal market puts a massive amount of pressure on public services in member states. There have been numerous privatizations, for example in the energy sector, but also in other sectors that actually should be public.
Serious mistakes were made in the past, and they now need to be corrected. Then the member states — not least of all Germany — need the opportunity to invest heavily in building social housing and regain public control of the energy sector, to name just two previously stated examples. In addition, state subsidy laws prohibit specific investment options. EU competition law has placed public services and private service providers on an equal footing to the greatest extent possible, and the Commission has explicitly recommended that member states privatize and deregulate services like health care. Then it states that EU member states are spending too much money on the healthcare of their populations. But a hospital’s job is to save lives, not to follow the Commission’s instructions and chase profits. From our perspective, healthcare isn’t a commodity and needs to be defined as a public sector responsibility instead.
As for the second part of your question, whether we on the Left can gain something from this movement, I’d say yes. The current enormous pressure to act is creating windows of opportunity to do things differently here and there. This applies, for example, to the discussion around redesigning debt regulations, in which state aid and competition laws are being challenged. Or if you look at what is coming up in debates around energy market regulation. The discussion about the excess profit taxes that I mentioned earlier and the national regulations that followed these debates are also relevant here.
In short, there are areas in European policy where the Left can score points by presenting a clear position in favour of strengthening the public sector, public investment, and fair taxation.
The EU is governed by a series of agreements and has a complex institutional structure. This seems to me to be one reason why engagement in European politics is limited, which is also suggested by the declining voter turnout. How can left-wing parties make European politics more tangible and accessible?
That’s a question I ask myself every day. A part of the answer lies in making policy tangible. And by that I don’t mean what institutions do, but what the Left can initiate at the European level — and how we can dovetail that with what the Left is doing here in Germany.
One example that I find useful is that we as a group can make EU policy more tangible through our campaigns. For example, we launched the Power to the People campaign, which focuses on the energy market. We made it clear that energy issues are linked to justice issues. We wanted to show that deregulating the European energy market 20 years ago is what caused the energy crisis in the first place. That was when the blueprint was created for the crisis we’re in now, with skyrocketing gas prices and unaffordable electricity.
This has to be made comprehensible, and in my opinion the best way to do that is by bringing things to a head through campaigns with clear political demands, like abolishing the so-called “merit order”, so that electricity prices would no longer be based on the last — and most expensive — stage of grid feed-in. We have to present the complex relationships of European politics in simple language and formulate clear political demands that are in turn intertwined with what people experience in their daily lives.
We were the first group during the energy crisis to say that the energy market isn’t working anymore. We knew it before then, but the energy companies were kind enough to prove us right once again. And because of this, the Commission was compelled to present a proposal to European Parliament that will at the very least result in some slight revisions to energy laws.
Where do you see specifically left-wing perspectives on the EU? Are there characteristics that set left-wing European policy apart?
Yes. In my experience, one thing that’s unique about left-wing politics is that we really do raise systemic issues and therefore engage in conflict: on the one hand, with some agreements or components of European agreements, and on the other hand, time and again, over property relations.
These agreements aren’t God-given, they are written by people and should be questioned constantly. It’s okay to say, “Something’s not working here, let’s think again.” When, for example, inequality in society becomes a prominent issue as it is today, then it’s only natural to think about the redistribution of resources and the development of appropriate tools to do that.
However, it’s clear that this also brings up issues of ownership and forces us into discussions with large corporations and the super-rich. This is in the interest of the population at large. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, these people are so rich because the rest of the population is so poor. So, there’s a connection, and we urgently need a massive redistribution of wealth.
We also need a new ownership structure, especially in the public sector, to provide public services for necessities, such as health care, energy, and housing. Public interest must dominate, not private interest. it’s up to us to make that happen, because there’s no other political group that advocates from this position.
What potential do you see for a Europe-wide mobilization on these specific issues?
For me, this is the question of the future of the energy sector. In my opinion, the issue of social housing, meaning affordable housing, is an issue that can mobilize people across Europe, because rapidly rising rents are a problem not just in Germany. In connection with that, there’s also the debate over short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, Booking.com, and other similar platforms, which is very important to me.
I published a study on the topic that analyses their business models and proves that these short-term rentals effectively deplete housing stock because Airbnb and other providers make long-term housing available to tourists and no longer affordable for the people who live in the city. As a result, rents in popular areas with central locations or lively cultural scenes are skyrocketing. This is a huge problem because it drives up prices and puts additional pressure on already expensive rental markets in Berlin, Hamburg, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and other popular places to live. This is definitely an issue that can be mobilized against across Europe.
It’s not like any left-wing group is exactly exploding right now because of the continued crises in the member states. We all have the same problems and the same tasks ahead of us.
I’m not sure it’s the same with the food crisis, but it’s worth a try. In Germany, there are now around 2 million people who use food banks every month, in part because food prices have risen by around 20 percent over the past year. The average price increase was lower across Europe, but still, food poverty is massively increasing across Europe. There’s the overall problem that in many places people can no longer afford to buy enough food. I find it unbelievable that hunger exists in Germany and the EU. It would actually be easy to provide the 450 million people who live in the EU with enough healthy food.
Yes, that’s true, and it raises the systemic issues that you described earlier, that instead of focusing on profits, we should be focusing on people and their needs. As you explained at the start, you work together with many other left-wing parties from Europe. Could you give an example of when the Left has been particularly successful?
Yes, I would say in Spain, where there is a centre-left government. Podemos, whose members of the European Parliament belong to our group, is also part of that government. Podemos has appointed a Minister of Labour and a Minister of Social Affairs to protect people from the consequences of the crisis.
This centre-left government adopted some reforms during the crisis that compare favourably with the crisis policies of the German government. For example, it levied an excess profits tax, and used the proceeds to make local public transport free. This both helps working people and addresses the climate crisis. It was the first European government to introduce price caps for gas and electricity, and it raised minimum wages and pensions. In other words, to help people through the crisis, the government didn’t waste time on half-measures, they went all in.
These social policies were much more effective than the so-called relief packages provided by the German government, which, of course, was the result of a left-wing governing party exerting massive pressure.
To what extent are these issues, which play an important role in Spain, reflected in the work of The Left in the European Parliament?
Quite simply, we are the force that makes policy for workers in parliament and does not shy away from conflict with “the bosses”. In addition, we are the group that stands up for people who find themselves in very difficult economic situations and who say that they do not have enough money in their bank account.
The poverty rate in the EU is far too high, we can’t state that clearly enough. So, we are primarily making policy for workers and for people affected by poverty. We want to represent the interests of these people, who otherwise have no one representing their interests, in parliament. We see that as our role, and it cuts across all political fields.
This automatically puts us at odds with the European Commission, given that EC proposals generally aren’t made with these people’s concerns in mind. And we oppose the so-called “Ursula coalition” that has formed in the European Parliament. Green, Social Democratic, liberal, and conservative groups generally support this Commission.
We are also a parliamentary group that is committed to climate conservation. While our group includes left-green parties from Scandinavia, climate protection policy is also enormously important to our French, Spanish, and German comrades. Feminism also plays an important role for us as a cross-cutting issue.
There are left-wing parties in smaller countries that, even with very good voting results, have almost no chance of entering parliament because they need a very high share of the vote to be elected. Are these parties, or let’s say the Left from these countries, represented in any way by the group that you chair?
We have something like a mapping process, in which we look at where other left-wing parties are active, but have not yet made it into the European Parliament, either because of high electoral thresholds or because of temporary weaknesses in the parties. Of course, we also collaborate with them.
All democrats are called upon to distance themselves from the Right, to leave this barrier standing and not to tear it down. That is the only way we can stop the far-right upsurge.
For example, we retain staff members from parties that used to be represented in our group, but were not re-elected, so we can organize a constant exchange between these parties and our faction. We also invite party representatives who are expected to enter the next parliament in 2024 and have good prospects in their party system to meet with us. There are other parties that are extremely unlikely to make it because they are from small countries with only a few MEPs, but we’re still interested in working with them.
And then, in addition to our group, there is also the Party of the European Left (EL), which is something like an umbrella organization for European left-wing parties. At present, more than two dozen parties belong to the EL, including those from small countries like Luxembourg, which basically have no chance of sending a representative to the European Parliament. The EL also includes parties from countries that are not part of the EU, such as Switzerland and Turkey. That’s why the EL is the best place to broadly discuss different positions and work out joint statements.
One of the greatest — if not the greatest — challenges facing the European Union is the increasing popularity of radical right-wing parties, which are now either in power, for example in Hungary, Poland, and now also in Italy, or indirectly participating in governments that tolerate them, which has occurred from time to time in Scandinavia and is currently occurring in Sweden. What can we do and what can you do in Parliament to take the wind from their sails?
I believe that their way of gaining strength is based on creating division amongst the working classes. In other words, in the current social crisis, they are making promises that are directed at parts of the working class, but only at specific segments instead of for everyone, and they do this not by confronting the upper class, but as a rule by defaming stigmatized or marginalized working-class people. The right wing try to divide the working class by campaigning against refugees or against diversity because these groups do not conform to their traditional views on society.
The only answer to this is that we do not allow ourselves to be divided. We must argue inclusively and bring together all those who actually have a common social interest —namely that they can finally live the good life too, instead of a few continuing to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.
This would also protect democracy. We must prevent the radical Right from growing stronger, from continuing to pit groups of people against each other, and from growing stronger by causing division. To be honest, that’s a pretty difficult task given the variety of crises and the numerous points of attack that crises provide the right with.
And if we’re honest, it’s not like any left-wing group is exactly exploding right now because of the continued crises in the member states. We all have the same problems and the same tasks ahead of us. It is the right-wingers who are benefiting more from the current political situation. Even if we can understand the crisis both theoretically and politically, we on the Left have not yet given a popular answer to the question of how to really bring these interests together. But that’s the task of all of us: to become a popular Left that brings people together through clear messaging and political demands. That’s something we all have to work on.
What role does the extreme Right play in the European Parliament?
Unfortunately, quite a large one. The extreme Right is divided into two groups, each with 64 MEPs: the Identity and Democracy group, which includes the Alternative für Deutschland, the Austrian Freedom Party, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Lega from Italy, Vlaams Belang from Belgium, and others, and the European Conservatives and Reformists group, which includes Poland’s PiS, the Sweden Democrats, Spain’s Vox, and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.
The latter group in particular plays an important role. This has to do with the fact that Fratelli d’Italia won the last election and Georgia Meloni has been Italian prime minister since October 2022. More importantly, however, the centre-right parties like the European People’s Party, the EPP, cooperate with radical right-wing groups again and again.
The EPP and, to some extent, the liberals have found their closest allies in these right wingers. This is evident — including in Parliament — when it comes to opposing, for example, gender equality or climate protection where there is a great deal of overlap between liberals and right-wing radicals in terms of content.
Above all, of course, there are many examples when it comes to migration policy. The fact that the centre-right parties keep normalizing the possible inclusion of right-wing extremists at this point naturally strengthens extreme right-wing positions. And that’s why, unfortunately, they play a much more important role than I would like. All democrats are called upon to distance themselves from the Right, to leave this barrier standing and not to tear it down. That is the only way we can stop the far-right upsurge that we are currently seeing in many European countries. That is the most important short-term task for all MEPs and also for the European Left.
Martin Schirdewan is co-chair of Die Linke and the The Left in the European Parliament.
Translated by Eve Richens and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.