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“You Have to Get Out of Parliament and Speak to Workers”

Marc Botenga

Last May, Marc Botenga was elected as the Belgian Workers’ Party’s first member of the European Parliament. In an interview he spoke of the elite echo chamber he found there — and how he’s trying to finally make labor’s voice heard within its walls.

Marc Botenga, October 22, 2019. GUE-NGL / Wikimedia

Interview by
Jonathan Lefèvre

The first thing that strikes the visitor to the European Parliament is the number of checks they have to go through in order to enter. The second thing is the gloominess of the corridors. It’s almost as if the grey tones of the sky outside are permeating through to the interior. Luckily, colorful posters announce the proximity of the office of the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) representing the “Left that stings the Europe of money” — Marc Botenga.

Botenga is a prominent member of the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB), a Marxist party which is now one of the fastest-growing forces on the European left. It is notable both for its strong focus on labor issues and its rooted form of voter engagement, based on regular neighborhood activism. In May 2019’s federal and regional elections, the PTB secured its best ever result, electing 10 of its activists to Belgium’s 150-member Chamber of Representatives; the same day, Marc Botenga became its first member of the European Parliament, also located in Brussels.

Six months after Botenga became an MEP, Solidaire’s Jonathan Lefèvre spoke to him about his impressions of the parliament — and the possibility of making any difference in an institution widely considered aloof from ordinary citizens. They discussed the lack of democratic scrutiny in the European Union’s structures, how corporate interests impose themselves over its agenda, and how a MEP can bring the voice of the labor and climate movements into an otherwise lifeless parliament.


JL

What are the things that have surprised you the most since you took up your seat?

MB

The privileges. First, there is the very generous salary. I receive €6,800 net per month, and I get €4,500 per month for office expenses. That is without counting the communication budgets, etc.

And, for each day that I come to work here, I receive €320 for my transport costs and hotel accommodation. Obviously, as I live in Brussels, my transport costs are limited to a good pair of shoes, and I don’t need a hotel. Moreover, we get free travel on public transport, and even cars with drivers are available. If I didn’t continue to live on an average worker’s salary, my head would be spinning.

Next, the total isolation of the building with regard to the outside world is also striking to me. We have everything inside here: a dry cleaner, a fitness center, a bank, a library, and soon a supermarket, a small post office. In short, a true bubble.

Moreover, there are many people who tell me: “You are the first Belgian I’ve met.” Other MEPs and their staff know nothing about the city, this country, its inhabitants. They stay amongst themselves, even when they’re outside of this building.

When there is a trade union demonstration or a climate strike, for example, people here only know about it via a collective email from the Parliament Security Service, that reads: “Be careful when you leave because there is a demonstration outside.”

Something else that astonished me is that in the debates, for example in Committee, arguments don’t matter at all. Only discussions in the corridors matter. They see each other at the exit of the meeting room and say: “We, the Socialists, will vote for your Commissioner. But in return, you, the right wing, must give us this strategic post.” That’s how, even after rejecting a French Commissioner suspected of a conflict of interests, Sylvie Goulard, we find ourselves with a Commissioner, Thierry Breton, who is ten times more involved in conflicts of interests. It’s completely absurd.

JL

From the outside, we sometimes get the impression that this place is filled with specialists, technocrats, experts who discuss amongst themselves things that are too complicated for us. Is this the case?

MB

The language is of a manufactured complexity, created so that people don’t understand anything. This is not a necessity, it’s a political will. It’s a bit like with these windows (he shows the window behind him). From in here, you can see outside. But from the street, you can’t see anything inside, it’s opaque.

There is a fake transparency at the level of texts and debates. Everything is made to be very complex so that the people don’t understand and continue to be fooled. Someone will say, “We’re going to prohibit social dumping.” But then they’ll add discretely, “As soon as possible.” The result: social dumping never gets prohibited.

JL

Let’s move on to the new Commission which was just installed. You’re the only Belgian MEP from the Left who voted against it. Why?

MB

We have a crisis in the European Union, a climate and social emergency. A social emergency for 113 million Europeans. More than in five one European citizens risks poverty although we are a rich continent. Countries in Eastern Europe have lost up to 25 percent of their population — that is, 20 million people have had to leave their country because they had no work and no social rights.

But the new Commission wants to prioritize support for the big multinationals, which they call “European champions.” Stronger multinationals in Europe means workers will have to work harder for lower salaries to make sure that the multinationals reap as much profit as their American, Chinese, etc. competitors. With this competitive logic, the big European employers will be glad when European workers have the same salary as workers in Bangladesh.

When the Commission says, “our multinationals must dominate,” you also enter into a military logic: when one country or bloc, decides that their multinational has to be able to be active in a place, then another country or bloc will be angry because it wants one of its own multinationals to win in that market. The European Commission wants, above all, a stronger European state to defend the interests of European multinationals in the world.

Ursula von der Leyen (new President of the Commission) will spend a lot more money on the military industry and for security. We’ve got the war for oil in Iraq on our mind, but the European Union wants to be able to do the same thing as the United States. To plunder the resources of other countries. It’s what we’ve seen happen in Africa. The multinationals need cheap raw materials to produce high-tech batteries and make profits.

Thus, the European Union prepares an African strategy to take the control and empty this continent of its resources. This means that we enter into an economic warlike logic, rather than cooperation on an international level. Josep Borrell, the head of European diplomacy, recently stated that North Africa is Europe’s “backyard” and that we need to “resolve the problems” there via a “common military force.” This war between blocs is in the logic behind the “Green Deal” that the new Commission presented with a lot of fanfare.

JL

This Green Deal — is it a simple PR operation or is there a real concern for the climate?

MB

First of all, let’s be clear that this Green Deal came from mobilization in the streets. Before the youth movement appeared, there was very little talk about the climate at the European Parliament. Leaders have certainly been aware of the problem since the 1980s. But today, thanks to the mobilizations, they have to take a position.

The proposed Green Deal is rather vague for the moment, and Greenpeace has already pointed out that it will be “insufficient” and puts at risk the Paris agreement [on reducing greenhouse gas emissions]. Personally, I’m also very worried because the Commission plans to make workers pay for this Deal. They want to, for example, review the European law on carbon tax on fuels, and they talk about a mileage tax.

JL

We hear you speak a lot about social dumping. Why do you put so much energy into this subject?

MB

What is social dumping? It’s dumping, that’s to say, a downward spiral for salaries, for working conditions, etc. that is organized by employers who take advantage of the differences in salaries and social rights within the European Union.

It’s a competition based in particular on the gross salary. Social dumpling applies to the deferred wage share (the gross, which serves to finance social security, etc.). When a company temporarily sends an employee to another European state, it doesn’t have to pay the social contributions of the country to which it sends the employee. This means that the company will benefit from the fact that the gross salary in Romania, for example, is a lot lower than in Belgium. It will thus send or “post” an employee to Belgium under a Romanian contract in order to only have to pay the lower Romanian social contributions.

This has become a real business for employers. Companies profit from the system, sometimes by setting up fictional letterbox companies. For example, 100,000 construction workers have been posted from Slovenia, but this country counts only 55,000 workers in the construction industry! This is all profit for the employers, but it creates pressure to lower the social contributions that companies in Belgium pay, thus weakening the rights of workers and the social security.

This has to stop immediately. And it is entirely possible. I’m working on a regulation on this subject at European level. Companies could be required to pay social contributions according to the tariffs of the country where the employee works. But there is enormous resistance to this, because the preference of the traditional parties is to leave the priority to the market, with the free movement of services. They say that this sort of regulation will discourage certain companies. Which is true. But which companies? Those that don’t want to respect the rights of the workers.

JL

How can we act to oppose this new Commission?

MB

The Maastricht Treaty and all the institutions of the European Union were developed by big employer lobbies, such as the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT). They have built their unity through these institutions. We have to create our own unity.

If we really want to change things in Europe, we need to short-circuit the institutional system. The dock workers succeeded in stopping the liberalization of their status. How? Not by just mobilizing on a European level, not by just mobilizing on a national level. They did national mobilizations, European mobilizations, national strikes, European strikes.

That short-circuits the European system: MEPs were under pressure back home and here in Brussels, in the Council where the states are represented, all governments were under pressure because of a strike in their country. The Commission itself was under pressure, with demonstrations organized in front of its offices.

That’s what workers’ organizations are trying to do: to build unity among European workers. It’s the only solution to create a balance of power strong enough to stand up to the European institutions. It’s possible.

JL

So, are there reasons to be optimistic?

MB

Yes. Once there is a movement in different countries, the political and economic leaders tremble. It’s a bit as if we’re on a football field. Facing us, there are eleven players who follow the manager’s tactics. If you get on the field without knowing each other, without agreeing on which tactics you’ll use, you get beaten 5–0. But if you agree on a strategy in the dressing room in advance and you walk onto the field with the intention to play as a team, our opponent doesn’t last till half-time.

Things are on the move. People are fed up with having to pay for everything. I went to the demonstrations for pensions in France and in Spain. There were so many people from different sectors. Trade union members from the private and the public sector, the gilets jaunes, pensioners, farmers … found each other in the street to say “Stop.” While our rights are being eaten away, big companies have never before made so much profit, shareholders have never before reaped so much dividend. The fight for our pensions is a class struggle. As are all other issues.

And we inspire workers from other countries. In France and in Spain, demonstrators came to see the PTB delegations to ask the details on how we had succeeded in blocking the point pension system in our country. This victory shows that it is possible to win. We have to spread optimism.

JL

You are the first Member of the European Parliament from the PTB. What’s the purpose of a MEP from the Left that “stings”?

MB

First of all, this goes beyond the Parliament. We’re not here just to push a button. As an MEP, you have to get out of this parliamentary enclosure, to go out and have conversations not just with workers in Belgium but also elsewhere in Europe. Even if you have to take parliamentary work seriously. And that has an impact. We see that the Belgian Socialist Party found things to say during the vote for the new Commission. Usually, we didn’t hear from them a lot.

MEPs who call themselves “left-wing” or “progressive” feel a certain pressure when it’s time to vote. Something that they almost didn’t have before. We’re really bringing something. We really do sting. We unveil things, such as the commissioners’ scandals and their conflicts of interests. But above all, we are active in the streets. And during the demonstrations in France and in Spain, I didn’t see a single other Belgian MEP.