European left divided over EU membership
Delegates to the 20th Congress of the PCP in Almada, Portugal. | Portuguese Communist Party

ALMADA, Portugal – It was clear at the 20th Congress of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) here this weekend that all of the left parties in Europe have major disagreements with the European Union but not all of them say the solution is for their countries to leave.

The reason for the differences often has to do with the effects of EU policies on the individual economies but sometimes have to do with political assessments made by the left parties themselves.

In Portugal, for example, the PCP and most of the unions seek withdrawal from the alliance. Since the country joined the EU (but particularly during the four-year period ending last year with the collapse of the right-wing government and its replacement by a socialist one supported, albeit critically, by the communists and greens), living conditions for the majority here seriously worsened.

Nine of the largest publicly-owned companies, including TAP (the Portuguese airline), public railways, power companies, health care institutions, nationally-owned agricultural operations, cooperatives, and others were sold off to private investors at bargain basement prices. This was done in order to meet EU demands and required contributions to the NATO budget.

Hundreds of thousands of people were excluded from access to health care, health care fees for everyone were increased, and free transportation of patients to health facilities was ended. There was a concerted attack on the public school system with hundreds of schools shut down and 25,000 teachers fired. Social security, unemployment benefits, and pension payments were cut.

Stay or go?

Jerónimo de Sousa, the general secretary of the PCP, sees even more basic contradictions in remaining in the EU. He says there is a contradiction between the aim of fighting the rise of the right wing, xenophobia, and racism on the one hand but staying in the alliance on the other.

“Many are those who correctly warn about the dangers of xenophobia and of the far-right, and they correctly make speeches about the neo-fascism of Trump in the USA. But some of them are the same,” he said, “who hide the socio-economic and political causes of the rise of the far right.

“The economic, social, and political instability in Europe has deep causes, and these come from the dominant system and its instruments, such as the European Union.”

Sousa added, “We can’t fight the far right and simultaneously support policies and orientations that are increasingly turning the political systems more reactionary.”

For the British left, things are not as clear-cut. The vote to leave the EU, Brexit, as it was called, was a shot heard around the world.

“The British Labor Party is divided,” said Liz Payne, the chair of the Communist Party of Britain. “Some say the EU has problems but better to stay in and work them out. They say we can’t ally ourselves with the extreme right, which supported leaving the EU.”

Others, including Payne’s party, do not want to support the extreme right. “We support lexit, a left exit from the EU,” she said.

“We believe that leaving affords an opportunity to move forward. What is wrong with the EU can’t really be fixed. We need a new framework for mutually beneficial cooperation with other countries and a pro-working-class approach to problems at home. We have to stop the privatizations, the social service cuts, the job reductions, and everything else that went along with the EU.”

Belgium, on he other hand, is a country where the left has a different take on membership in the EU.

“We oppose the austerity measures the EU forces on poorer countries and even on more developed countries like ours,” Benjamin Pestieu, a member of the National Council of the Workers Party of Belgium, said. “We oppose militarism and the war-mongering done by NATO, but we cannot align ourselves with the far right and take the xenophobic, go-it alone approach they push. We cannot align ourselves with those people.”

The EU’s constitution has written into it certain progressive planks whose stated purpose is to protect the rights of labor and democratic practices in member countries. Unions and many progressives and supporters of labor movements in various countries say they fear leaving the union and going it alone in case the right wing should ever take over.

Anne Sabourin, a member of the Executive Committee of the French Communist Party, cheered and applauded whenever the speakers at the PCP congress here attacked EU austerity policies. She told People’s World, however, “The French Communists do not support leaving the EU. It is not just that we don’t want to ally ourselves with the far right,” she said, “but that the economy of our country is closely tied to that of Germany – so our approach is to fight for reforms in the EU and to oppose any dangerous NATO expansion.”

Patrick Kobele, the chair of the German Communist Party, echoed that sentiment. “Germany is the most powerful country in the EU,” he said. “If we took up the issue of leaving the EU we would be saying we have to leave ourselves – an impossibility.”


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.