Speech of Barbara Spinelli, shadow rapporteur of GUE/NGL, during the group meeting
Strasbourg, 18 January 2016
It is already a long time that we are discussing, in the European Parliament, on what the Union should do when facing with clear violations of fundamental rights in Member States. We already raised this issue with regard to Hungary, and we are now considering it again talking of the new Polish government. We ask ourselves if the Union will be able to deal with this situation, considering that it did not get much in the past; if the rule of law mechanism, triggered in these days by the Commission, will really work; if article 7 needs to be revised, since the procedures provided therein are complex and unlikely the Member States will unanimously apply it against one of them. New mechanisms for the protection of the rule of law are currently under discussion.
This analysis is undoubtedly appropriate and necessary but, in this context, I would like now to focus on something different that goes beyond the procedures and their content i.e. the roots of those phenomena and the rising of far-rights movements. The absence of a strong left-wing representation is equally a matter to understand. Having often frequented eastern European countries during the communist period and the transition, I will try to expose some ideas on this issue.
First of all, what is happening in Poland is neither an isolated incident nor an unwelcome surprise falling from heaven. The economic crisis, together with the refugees’ crisis, has uncovered a reality which the European élite wanted to hide for long time. The entire eastern European area seems on the verge of collapsing from the point of view of the principle of democracy founded on human rights and separation of powers (including the fourth power i.e. the independence of the media): I am thinking of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the ethnic and russophobic closures in the Baltic countries, and of Poland, where the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing won for two times in 2005 and today with Jarosław Kaczyński – the brother of Lech, who was President and died in the plane crash in 2010.
Why the system is collapsing in this way? In my view it is happening because the transition from communism to constitutional democracy did not work, the enlargement was misconceived and the Polish liberal élites ruled the country without considering what their society demanded or suffered. Some speak of misunderstanding: the old Member States and the European Institutions did not clarify, during the accession negotiations, that the European project is not a merely neoliberal economic project based on an unbridled market. In reality, rather than misunderstanding we should speak about a deliberate strategy, carried out on the basis of a conscience which believes to be correct but, on the contrary, does not perceive its own limitations and deficiencies: a false consciousness, quoting Karl Marx. Europe, in the last thirty years and more, has intentionally reshaped the idea of Union as a neoliberal single market, with the result that the transition moved from the communism to the market democracy – as Clinton named it in 1992-93 – rather than from communism to the rule of law and a constitutional and inclusive democracy. Some argued that a victory against communism had produced an End of History, which means: the social issue belonged already to the past two centuries, the class struggle too; the rage of those left apart could be ignored.
The reality was and is completely different. The economic policies adopted by the Polish liberal élites, abiding by the Union’s central doctrine, still produce social anger. The class struggle is far from being dead – after all it is intrinsic to capitalism and not to communism. If denied – and especially deprived of its social-economic nature – the class struggle tends to appear in any case, following however spoiled and destructive dividing lines. It will express itself along nationalistic or religious or even moralistic dividing lines, as well described by the sociologist David Ost. As long as social inequalities produced by neoliberalism increase, the anger falls in the arms of the far-right, which converts it into hatred towards the different, into research of a scapegoat: hatred for the ethnic, racial, religious, moral “Other” (for instance, think about the unemployed described as “morally lazy”). This is what happened in the “Eastern front”. But it is also what is happening for decades in the Western part of the Union. We cannot hide this.
How to explain the absence of a strong left-wing, capable of representing the interests of workers and of those who have paid a high price as a result of the choc therapy (the so-called Balcerowicz Plan) adopted in Warsaw after the ’89? The answer is that there was a basic agreement between the leadership of Solidarnosc and the Communist Party to move towards a “market democracy”. Additionally, the heirs of the Communist Party were occupying entirely the left area of the Parliament and were completely in favour of the “choc therapy”. There was no place for another left wing.
Long before 1989, the leadership of Solidarnosc – I refer particularly to Adam Michnik and Lech Walesa – was convinced that the country needed ultra-liberal economic reforms. For them, the greatest danger was represented by the class struggle and an independent and demanding trade union. I would like to quote what Walesa said in ’89: “We will not catch up to Europe if we build a strong trade union (…) We cannot have a strong trade union until we have a strong economy”. 
According to some analysts, including David Ost, the “round table” negotiations with the Communist Party in ’88-’89 was possible precisely for these reasons: Solidarnosc had preliminarily decided to commit suicide, abandoning its nature of trade union. I remember some conversation I had with representatives of Solidarnosc just before the ’89: many of them did not hesitate to sing the praises of the economic policy of Pinochet. That seemed to be the model. During the same period, I heard similar arguments concerning the “Chilean transition” in Hungary and in the Baltic countries. The Polish liberal élite is a child of Solidarnosc, albeit one thing must be said: Solidarnosc has many children, including the Kaczyński brothers.
I would like now to provide you with some data regarding the socio-economic situation in Poland.
Today, Poland is characterised – even in a period of economic growth – by a very high rate of inequality, widespread poverty and a serious lack of social protection. Less than a half of the working population has a stable employment, 27 per cent of the workforce is temporary (ten years ago the percentage was 15). 9 per cent of the young population under 18 lives in absolute poverty. 19 per cent of the active population works for paying, through its own income, social insurances, and only 16 per cent of them receive unemployment benefits. In the private sector, only 2 per cent of the working population is member of a trade union. The State has abandoned and practically liquidated key sectors (welfare, rail system, health care, postal services). What strikes me with regard to some Eastern European countries is the opinion that liberal élites have about trade union’s actions. These actions are from their point of view something to fear and hide, and never essential ingredients of an inclusive social system that need to be listened and integrated.
In this case too, the Union does not give any support: the welfare state is experiencing, even in the rest of Europe, the same process of dismantlement, and trade-union representatives are equally perceived as a hindrance. With regard to those States which joined Europe after the transition, the truth is that they acceded almost without any welfare system. In this context, far-right movements have been able to catalyse the anger caused by the austerity policies promoted from the beginning of the ’90, and to present themselves as the spokespersons of the most oppressed citizens.
The European Union appears to be concerned by this involution but – in my view – has actively contributed to the demolition and distortion of the social conflict, even favouring such distortion. The Union was itself the primary promoter of an idea of democracy bent exclusively to the free market, and the main conditions that the Union has created for the accession of new States were based, substantially, on neoliberal features. On one side it is true that Europe has demanded the respect of some rule of law’s criteria – the so-called Copenhagen criteria – in the process of accession but, on the other side, its concept of democracy was minimalistic, i.e. merely procedural.
All of this applies to some Eastern European countries which have been considered excellent pupils for implementing austerity policies.
Now, both the Commission and the President of the European Parliaments seem outraged by these developments, but they have done little to safeguard a European project including the social question and even the social conflict ad an essential ingredient of the project. Nor did they make the effort to abandon the false consciousness of an “ended history”. In other words, the victory of the far right in Poland and Hungary should not be considered an anomaly: “it is rather rooted in the practice and ideology that have dominated over the past quarter of a century”.
The Union made also another mistake i.e. leaving the issue of peace and war in the hands – both from a conceptual perspective and partially in its management – of its front-line States, namely the Eastern and Baltic countries (the same happened during the Cold War with regard to the Federal Republic of Germany: it represented the bulwark of the West). Consequently, Hungary has chosen to strengthen the partnership with Russia while all other States have decided to place their trust more on the United States and NATO than on the European Union.
The above fragmentation originated from the continuous unwillingness of the Union to develop a real and coherent policy with regard to Russia; a policy aiming to become independent from the strategies adopted by the United Stated and NATO. This failure led to the revival, in the Eastern part of the new enlarged Union, of the “bulwark mentality” – in an anti-Russian perspective – which characterised the borderlands of the ancient Community during the Cold War period.
The recent request of the Polish government of establishing a permanent NATO and US troops’ presence in it’s own territory, to ward off security threats coming from Moscow, represents just the latest example in that sense.
I would like to conclude by recalling that in Poland there are left-wing forces which strongly oppose the policies adopted so far and criticise the far-right as well as the liberal élites who ruled the country in the last years. I am referring particularly to the Razem (“Together”) movement, which is inspired by Podemos. It is a small force, not even represented in the Parliament. It could be suitable to invite its representatives to a Group meeting, in order to give them the possibility to explain their positions and the situation in the country, and to support them if we consider this appropriate.
. David Ost, Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, Cornell University Press, 2006.
 Ibid. pp. 37, 53.