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23 June 2005 Edition

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Left parties debate Europe's future

Sinn Féin European Department representative EOIN O BROIN attended last weekend's New European Left Forum in Stockholm, Sweden, last weekend. Here he explains what this alliance of left European parties is all about and why Irish republicans would do well do engage with it.

The New European Left Forum (NELF) was founded in 1991 to provide left-wing political parties from across the continent with a space to come together and share their political ideas and experience in an informal and constructive manor.

In part, the Forum was a response to the general crisis of the left following the rise of democratic movements in what was Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It represented a break from the existing international left organisations, established and controlled by the USSR.

Unlike its Soviet sponsored predecessors, NELF operates in a loose and open manner. Its function is to promote dialogue and discussion among the European left. It does not have a formal programme. It does not attempt to coordinate or control the activity or political position of its constituent members. Rather, it acts as a kind of clearing-house for ideas that its members believe will assist in the process of re-invigorating the European left.

In its present form, NELF meets twice a year for weekend conferences hosted in various European countries. Agendas deal with general social, economic and political issues relevant to domestic and international politics.

However, more immediate and practical discussions and proposed actions also feature prominently.

The Forum also has two working groups, one on the Middle East, which focuses mainly on the issue of Palestine, and one on the World Trade Organisation.

Membership ranges from some of Europe's largest left political parties, including AKEL from Cyprus, which represents 36% of the national electorate and is the largest party in that country's coalition government, to small radical organisations with no national parliamentary representation.

Nordic left parties feature prominently, including the Left Party from Sweden, which is currently supporting the Social Democratic government with a formal policy agreement but without taking Ministries; the Icelandic Left Green party, which is presently in government; the Finnish Left Alliance which forms part of that country's opposition; and the Norwegian Left Socialists, who are expected to play a role in the next national government if their coalition with the Social Democrats secures victory in this autumn's general election.

There are two Danish political parties in NELF, the Socialist People's Party, which is also tipped for a future role in a coalition government, and the smaller and more radical Red Green Alliance. Both parties have parliamentary representation.

Similar in many ways to the Nordic parties is the Dutch Socialist Party. At present it represents 9% of the national vote but opinion polls suggest that its parliamentary representation may double in the general election, due to be held in early 2006.

In addition to the northern European parties, NELF also includes the German PDS; the French Communist Party; two Italian communist parties — RCI and ICP; two Portuguese left parties — PCP and Left Bloc; and a number of Spanish, Catalan, Austrian and Greek parties. All of these parties have small national strength but in many cases — particularly with the French, Germans and Italians — they control large areas of regional or local government.

In recent years, there have also been attempts to involve the Campaign Group of British Labour Party MPs, the Scottish Socialist Party, and left parties from new EU members such as Estonia.

Between Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Fundamentalism

The most recent NELF conference took place in Stockholm from 10-12 June. The title for the event was Between Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Fundamentalism. Hosted by the Swedish Left Party it was the first such gathering attended by Sinn Féin.

The agenda was wide ranging, including discussion of topics such as the rights of migrant women workers; the undermining of civil rights under the guise of the 'war on terror'; the need for greater European-American left alliances; and the future development of the European trade union movement.

However, most of the informal discussion throughout the weekend focused on more practical issues such as the recent No votes on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands.

Lars Ohly, leader of the Swedish Left Party, formally welcomed delegates to the NELF conference. His opening address set the tone for the weekend when he said that "the referendums in France and the Netherlands are important victories for the left in Europe". He went on to outline a wide-ranging agenda for the radical reform of the EU. This agenda includes giving national parliaments more power, creating greater levels of transparency and democracy within the EU institutions, ending the neo-liberal thrust of economic policy, greater levels of environmental and consumer protection and a substantial reform of EU monetary policy and decision making.

Ohly also outlined the general political situation in Sweden ahead of the coming general elections. He stated that his party's main political priority is to prevent a right wing coalition forming the next government. The key issues for the left party include; the reduction in working time and support for a 30-hour week; a greater focus on energy independence and a move away from petrol and oil in favour of clean and renewable sources of energy; a greater focus on gender inequality, particularly in the workplace; and the need for a strong independent voice on the international stage opposing the ongoing war in Iraq and arguing for a democratic solution to the question of Palestine.

EU Constitution

The issue of the crisis in the EU Constitution process was the theme of a lengthy debate on Sunday. Representatives from the French Communist Party and Dutch Socialist Party gave delegates a first hand account of the campaigns and outcomes of their referenda.

Daniel Cirera from France described the outcome of the French referendum as "a great opportunity for France and Europe". In what was a very hard campaign, in which the result was uncertain until the end, Cirera rejected media claims that the French vote was 'nationalistic or xenophobic'; rather, "it was a reaction against neo-liberalism". He told delegates that "people want something different to the inequalities and consequences which come with globalisation and market forces".

Kartika Loitard MEP from the Netherlands outlined the public concern over the absence of "adequate protections for social, economic and environmental rights". She described the Treaty as dead and urged people to make the remainder of the ratification process "about alternatives to the EU".

A broad ranging debate followed, with contributions from almost every country. Most delegates called for the ratification process to stop. They expressed concerns that any attempt to continue with the process would be used by pro-Constitution politicians to pressurise the French and Dutch voters to rerun their referenda. Delegates also explored ways to generate a real and democratic debate about the future of the EU. Some called for an EU-wide process of consultation similar to that initiated by ATTAC France in recent days. Cirera informed those present that a major conference would take place in Paris on 24 and 25 June to begin this debate.

The debate was closed by both speakers. Cirera said that the French Communist Party wanted a new Treaty that they could support and that the right could not support. He asked all present to consider "how we can use this opportunity at a national and EU level" to campaign for a more democratic and just EU. Loytard stressed that the Treaty "can't continue" and urged political elites to "listen to the people".

Services Directive

On Saturday, a brief but important debate took place on an EU Directive dealing with the services industry. The Services Directive, as it has become known, is currently making its way through the European Parliament and is expected to come before plenary session in October of this year. Drafted under the previous European Commission, the directive is now under the control of Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevey, and is one of the most controversial proposals in many years.

Kartika Loitard MEP, who sits on a number of the EU Committees dealing with the issue, gave delegates an overview of the proposals. 70% of the European labour force works in the services sector. The aim of the directive is to complete the internal market in services within the EU by removing all remaining barriers and impediments to the 'free movement of services'. The directive covers the construction industry, tourism, catering, and carers among others, and depending on the outcome of the debate in Parliament and the subsequent decision at Commission and Council, could include aspects of health and education.

For Loitard, there are two key problems with the directive. The first is the absence of any attention to social or environmental protections. By placing an exclusive focus on making the European services industry more competitive, the EU, argued Loitard, is actively undermining the social and economic protections which existed in many countries. The result would be a "race to the bottom" as European firms, competing with those in other regions, would be forced to reduce costs in order to compete.

In addition, the 'country of origin principle' contained within the directive would have significant consequences, as companies would no longer have to abide by the health, safety or social protection standards of the country they are operating in. Rather, they would only need to operate on the basis of the legal framework of their head office. Thus, companies based in countries with low levels of worker and environmental protection could operate these standards in member states even if those countries had higher standards of protection. This principle would reinforce the "race to the bottom" and encourage non-European firms to locate in highly liberalised EU member states and undercut high quality service provision throughout the region.

Loitard called for EU-wide action, as she believes that the general public in many member states are not aware of the full implications of the directive.

Delegates outlined the different levels of knowledge and campaigning, if any, that exists in their home countries. The possibility of EU wide days of action was discussed and received widespread support. The focus of such action would be to convince MEPs and national governments to oppose the directive when it reaches Parliament and Council. What was clear is that much work is needed if the issue of the Services Directive is to become a live public debate and a major political issue at home.

Political Updates

Each NELF conference allows for a number of political updates from the member parties, particularly when something important is taking place. Last weekend was given over to the PDS in Germany and the Left Socialists in Norway.

Goril Tennes Krogh from Norway updated delegates on the 12 September elections. At present, her party has 23 MPs in the parliament, but on current poll showings they are hoping to almost double that number and take 40 seats They are also hoping for a significant breakthrough in preferences from the Social Democrats for the first time. The campaign slogan for the party has been 'Different People — Same Opportunities' and has centred around the defence and improvement of the welfare state. The Left Socialists are hopeful that for the first time they will be able to form a left coalition with the Social Democrats.

Karin Kulow, from the PDS in Germany also informed delegates about the upcoming elections, due to be held in the autumn. However her report focused more on a significant development in German left politics. Since German reunification, the PDS has been the main left party, with substantial support in the former Eastern sections of the country, but almost no support in the West. As this is where the bulk of the population lives, the PDS - which controls large sections of regional government - was consigned to a very minor role in the national parliament. Now, following a historic decision by the PDS national executive, they are working towards the creation of a new political formation which would include senior dissidents from the Social Democratic Party - currently in government with the Greens - and other left forces operating within what was West Germany. This new alliance, Democratic Left-PDS, has the potential to allow the left to break through the 5% threshold at national level and assist them in playing a more central role.

Delegates welcomed the news from both Norway and Germany as positive, not just nationally, but for the European left as a whole.

Conclusion

The end of the conference focused on the more formal aspects of business.

Delegates agreed a number of proposals from the Middle East Working Group.

These mainly dealt with sending a delegation to Palestine and making the Palestinian issue the main agenda item at the next NELF conference in Athens. Delegates also agreed to consider holding the following NELF conference in either Denmark or the Netherlands.

NELF is a valuable and productive network which Irish republicans would do well to engage with. It provides an important formal and informal space for sharing ideas and experiences, getting first hand knowledge of situations in different countries, and promoting out own political project.

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