Komende evenementen

Interview with Marc Botenga, member of the European Parliament for the radical left Belgian PTB party


6 June 2024 


At the 2019 European elections, Marc Botenga was the first one to be elected on a radical left list in Belgium, the Parti du Travail Belge, PTB. In the bilingual country (or in fact trilingual as there is a small German speaking community), the PTB is present also in the Flemish (Dutch speaking) region where it is called PVDA. Today Marc Botenga is a candidate again at the European elections, and it is expected that PTB will win a second seat. There is also a good chance that the PVDA-list, headed by a well known trade unionist, will have its first representative as well in the left group of the European Parliament.

Herman Michiel of  Ander Europa (‘Another Europe’) interviewed Marc Botenga about his experiences and his future expectations for the left in Europe. This is the English translation of the interview originally in Dutch.


  1. Marc, you have now completed five years as a ‘MEP’. Did that go more or less as you expected? What did surprise you, pleasantly or unpleasantly ?

Let’s start on a positive note: the pleasant surprise was the solidarity and support I got and still get from people on the streets, in demonstrations, in trams. That is really heartwarming. It is often said that Europe is a far-off show. And indeed, the establishment does everything to keep people away from European politics, but the climate mobilisations, the demonstrations against austerity or against European support for Israel show that people are throwing their voice and their weight around. You really feel that physically.

Within the institutions themselves, the “surprises” were rather negative. The omnipresent lobbies of the multinationals, which really have a say. Of course, particularly unpleasant was also the complete unworldliness of many parliamentarians. Or rather, the disinterest of many of them in the plight of ordinary working people. You expect that to some extent, but it was all much worse than I thought. That, for instance, during the energy crisis, the various European institutions passed the hot potato to each other summit after summit, meeting after meeting, for a year without taking effective action on people’s bills was truly jarring. Liberalising the entire energy market, guaranteeing excess profits to a few big energy multinationals, the Union could do that, but helping people with their bills, ho.


  1. What conclusions do you draw from ‘Qatargate’ ? Is it a case of fraud that can happen in any organisation or institution, or does it point to deeper flaws within the European institutions?
Marc Botenga

Of course, we have to wait for the legal settlement, but we do know that there is a problem with the money culture in the European Parliament. In addition to a generous salary of €7,853 net per month, MEPs receive €4,950 a month for office expenses. And every day (!) MEPs are present, they receive €350 travel allowance and hotel expenses. Added to that are all sorts of other perks. All those privileges, you wouldn’t think it possible. That makes MEPs unworldly, which is why I myself decided, in line with our party principles, to continue living on an average employee’s salary.

Those high incomes also offer no guarantee against corruption. That is why we systematically proposed, every year, to reduce the salaries of MEPs. That proposal was rejected every time by all the traditional parties. What’s more, our proposal to ban well-paid sideline jobs in, say, a board of directors for MEPs was adopted by Parliament under pressure, but never implemented. The new measures that are now supposed to ensure more transparency actually miss the point.


  1. How are contacts with members of the S&D social democratic group? In name, the European Left and S&D are both socialist-inspired, but in reality the European People’s Party, S&D and the European Liberals are the actual decision-makers in the EU, so the social democrats are partly responsible for anti-social and increasingly militaristic policies. Surely there are critical forces within that social democratic whole with which useful contacts can be made?

Of course you have people within social democracy with whom you can work better or less well. However, the Social Democratic group rules with Ursula Von der Leyen. In its large majority, it even supported the new budget rules, or rather the new austerity rules, even though they just go completely against people’s needs both socially and ecologically.

What can really make the difference here is: what pressure is there to push this or that measure through. We as the authentic left put items on the agenda, from addressing the excess profits of the pharmaceutical multinationals during Covid-19 to the need for a ceasefire in Gaza. And thanks to mobilisation, outside pressure, we can also make things happen. The lifting of patents on Covid-19 vaccines was supported by a majority of the European Parliament after a year of campaigning. It was also, thanks to mobilisation, an amendment tabled by me and my group that made Parliament call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It is this pressure that makes the difference, also around the position of social democracy.


  1. And with the Green group? If progressive positions are ever supported by a group other than the Left, it is often the Greens rather than the Social Democrats. A recent example is the opposition to restarting European austerity; on the other hand, the Greens are fierce Atlanticists and advocates of a European army. Surely you have privileged contacts with Green group members?

Yes, with the Greens pretty much the same applies. As with social democracy, you naturally find each other in the European Parliament on a number of issues versus, for example, the hard right. Fortunately. But of course we have always had our differences of opinion, back then already around the liberalisation of the energy market. And for a movement that after all stems partly from the peace movement, their conversion to a very pro-American and aggressive foreign policy is remarkable.

On the Green Deal, too, we see things differently. Many European directives are full of plague taxes on the working class. The home insulation directive threatens people with penalties and fines if they don’t renovate fast enough. So if you don’t have enough money for renovation, you risk a fine? The new carbon tax on heating and fuel will fall on working people. The Air Quality Directive wants kilometre charges. Who will pay those? The worker who has to start his shift on time in the morning, because without a car he simply won’t get there. The Green Group ultimately supported all that. However, we see how those measures undermine social support for climate policy. Then you see how some right-wing parties try to capitalise on this with an anti-climate discourse. Hence our opposition to that climate elitism that makes people pay, but still helps the big polluting multinationals.


  1. For several years, initiatives under the name Progressive European Forum or Progressive Caucus, aimed at the Green and Social Democrat groups, had been taken by the Left (formerly referred to as GUE/NGL). The intention was officially to have an open debate between progressive forces. This year too, there will be a “European Forum of Left, Green and Progressive forces” in Budapest in November. Do you think that is a meaningful attempt to advance the left’s cause? Are there any prospects in that direction, now that it is clear how great the differences of opinion are, e.g. on the militarisation of the EU?

We should dare to discuss what a leftist policy means and how we get there. Dialogue can help. But we have to come up with a strong authentic story ourselves and put it on the agenda. Positive. Optimistic. Look at the millionaire’s tax. For ten years, we stood alone with our call to get the money where it is. Today we see that the lines are moving. Meanwhile, the Socialists and Greens have each worked out their own proposals.

The left can bring victories and hope, provided we are willing to break with the liberal framework imposed on us and a strong social movement develops. It is now up to the Socialists and Greens not to get on the wrong train, not to drop their leftist principles that they put forward in campaign time, and to get off the liberal train, to make the choice to break with clear points that are not just nice talk, but that remain battle points even after 9 June. So working together please, but to come up with clear alternatives.


  1. With Rudi Kennes as list leader of the Flemish list for the European elections, the PVDA is betting on a trade unionist with European experience. How do you view the ‘social partner ideology’ of the European Trade Union Confederation, which actually contributes little to combative European trade union strength?

I really wouldn’t put it that way. The various European trade union federations play an important role. Do not forget that for decades the patronage, European big business, has been united in all kinds of groups, from the European Round Table of Industrialists to BusinessEurope, which have set and are setting the strategic direction of the European Union. The challenge is to build a counterforce against them. We really need this at European level, because the real power is not in the European Parliament, but on the streets. And the working class and their trade unions play a crucial role in that.

In countries with stronger trade union counter-power, workers on average have fewer accidents at work, higher wages, more training and education and more days off. Hence also the desire throughout Europe by the establishment to weaken trade unions, to criminalise union action. That really is a dangerous evolution that we are going to have to fight against in the coming years. That’s another reason why we really want to send a trade unionist and worker to the European Parliament with Rudi.


  1. Left-wing analyses often cite PVDA/PTB as one of the few hopeful radical left organisations in Europe, given the declining, even disintegrating parties such as Die Linke, Podemos, PCF, Syriza and an unclear future for La France Insoumise. What do you think is the reason for the debacle of the radical left at a time when it seems a great indictment of capitalist domination in the world?

Every country has its own situation, and evolutions with ups and downs, so I would not make any big general statements about left-wing parties in different European countries. I would rather talk about reconfiguration based on indeed sometimes intense debates. But that is not new, if you look at the beginning of the First or Second International, you also had those kinds of debates, with successes and setbacks.

As Peter Mertens, our secretary-general, recently put it, we do need to get rid of the lack of self-confidence among the left in Europe. As if the world is dying and there is nothing we can do about it because we are too small. The left needs to give people optimism, hope and perspective, instil class consciousness and a collective fighting spirit. Fighting spirit and class pride, Peter called it.


  1. Within the political organisation of the European radical left, there is apparently a reshuffling going on, evidenced, for example, by the Now The People! initiative that emerged from La France Insoumise, and points to a discontent with the Party of the European Left, which has hitherto been leading within the European radical left. Does the PVDA/PTB have a position on that? You yourself spoke at the meeting of the Party of the European Left, Europe for the People on 4 April in Brussels. Should that be seen as a preference between these two movements?

No We have our principles around austerity policies, around peace and so on, but I don’t think we have anything to gain from dividing each other into antagonistic camps or blocs. We stand for broad unity within the authentic left. By the way, the party of the European Left was just one of the organisers of the ‘Europe for the people’ meeting. It was much broader, you could see that in the speakers list.

Don’t underestimate what is coming at us. Europe is in a complex period of polycrisis, war and conflict. The broad left in Europe has a responsibility to respond to these challenges with optimistic and ambitious alternatives.


  1. I think there is much truth in British left-wing political scientist Vladimir Bortun’s analysis For the European radical left, international solidarity is more rhetoric than reality in which he claims that leftist parties use their European representation mainly as support for their national operation, but do not strive to build a European counter-front with combined forces. What do you think about this?

This strikes me as one-sided to say the least. Of course, the national political arena is still central in a lot of areas. This is not only the case for left-wing parties. Without strong parties nationally, you can’t prepare anything at European level either.

On the other hand, there are concrete European exchanges and cooperation on a lot of issues, demonstrations, etc. Think of the exchanges between European left-wing parties and African or Latin American movements, or the mobilisations for and with the Palestinian people supported by many left-wing parties throughout Europe.


  1. The PVDA/PTB itself conducts its electoral campaign, and its communication with the public in general, around themes that would have been the programme points of the social democratic parties had they not converted to market thinking: decent wages and working conditions, dignified pensions, public services, fair taxes, etc., all demands that must be defended quite rightly. But as a Marxist party, one would also expect the PVDA/PTB to make internationalism an integral part of its operation. One notices in your interventions and in party positions and programmes that you have good analyses and criticisms (about NATO, the militarisation of the EU, the Fortress Europe policy, etc.) but these are hardly part of your outward appearance. Is there any particular vision behind this as to how a small leftist party, demonised by media and politics, can win the trust of ordinary people?

Internationalism plays an important role in our day-to-day work. We don’t hide that. Look at the actions and demonstrations around Palestine. No party has more actively and clearly carried solidarity with the Palestinian people during this period of genocide than the PVDA/PTB.

Some of my most shared and watched interventions in the European Parliament are about our solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, but also with the Congolese people or against neo-colonial statements by Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy.

Of course, we also always make the link to what is happening here in concrete terms. Militarisation has an impact on our daily lives. Money that goes to militarisation does not go to social needs. The escalation of the war in Ukraine into a nuclear conflict, for example, would be a tragedy for everyone,


  1. It looks like the far-right will score well in the upcoming European elections. What is your analysis of the success of these parties? What can the European left do about it?

This is really not a fatality. Look at the Netherlands. Years of neoliberal policies by the Rutte governments offered nice gifts to the multinationals, but meant social barrenness for the people. In 2008, Dutch food banks had just 6,000 clients. Fourteen years later, it was 120,000. Imagine. Public services were stripped out or became havens for private equity. The Dutch labour market became the most flexible in the entire European Union. Then people look for an alternative. They are not going to find that with the traditional parties. In March 2023, that discontent went in the direction of the Citizens’ Movement. Later, the far right used social demagogy to take advantage of that too. But you can now see in the new Dutch government agreement how anti-social the extreme right is: higher retirement age, lower minimum wages, and so on.

There are lessons to be learned from this. For the left, the priority should be to tackle the social breeding ground on which the far-right thrives. By putting forward real left-wing breaking points, such as, say, the retirement age at 65, a millionaire’s tax and higher wages. Only if we can force a real social alternative together with the unions and civil society will the anti-social false alternative of the extreme right lose its appeal.




Laat een reactie achter

Geef een reactie

Het e-mailadres wordt niet gepubliceerd. Vereiste velden zijn gemarkeerd met *