The SP, a party with an international orientation

17 January 2007

The SP, a party with an international orientation

The SP has been unjustly reproached as a party which turns its back on all that lies beyond the Netherlands, a charge which fails to do justice to its international involvement in the struggle for a better and fairer world. The charge appears to be based on rancour, ignorance and a misguided vision of international solidarity, argue party secretary Hans van Heijningen and Arjan Vliegenthart of the SP's research bureau.

According to Dick Pels in national daily Trouw (18 November 06), the SP promotes a “social nationalism that in some respects differs little from the much less social, Islamophobic nationalism of right wing groups such as EenNL.”(1) This is a charge which we have heard with increasing frequency in recent times from representatives of other parties, assorted (quasi-)intellectuals, newspaper columnists and cabaret performers. According to these people, the SP is in essence a nationalist, inward-looking party which at its best concerns itself with the old Netherlands welfare state, but considers everything that comes from outside our national borders to be strange and frightening. The arguments for such a view are based on the SP's critical attitude to the current European integration process, the successful anti-Constitution campaign of 2005, and the party's reservations when it comes to supporting purported peace-keeping missions abroad.

The SP would like to shut itself off from the rest of the world and has no answers to the questions and dilemmas which emanate from the processes of globalisation. This foreign policy is even said to provide an important obstacle to left cooperation. “If questions which transcend borders (for example military cooperation) remain unresolved, the struggle for a different Netherlands will quickly meet its own frontier,” as Green Left Euro-MP Joost Lagendijk put it in the daily De Volkskrant last summer. (7 July 06).

To some extent other parties and politicians can be forgiven for their various exaggerations and charges made during the heat of the election campaign. Yet the accusations have become so frequent and are made with such force that they threaten to take on a life of their own. It is therefore of interest to look at just what provides the basis for these expressions of disapproval. We are inclined to the view that criticism of the alleged nationalism of the SP stems from the feeling of powerlessness of those who make them. The SP has succeeded in developing into a broad party of the people, while other left parties with a rich history, a choice group of leaders and broad support amongst intellectuals, opinion-makers and newspaper columnists seem to have missed the boat. The SP has built itself from a federation of local branches which concerned themselves for the most part with promoting and defending local interests, into a modern, left, people's party, one which knows how to combine grassroots work with work inside the representative institutions of local, regional and national politics. For an increasing number of people the SP has become, for these reasons, an interesting option.

Other left parties which share our ideal of a broad and modern party of the people have taken decisions which have turned out less propitiously. The Labour Party (PvdA) under the leadership of Wim Kok shook off its own ideology, while the Green Left, originally a fusion of left parties, the two biggest of which were the Communists and the Pacifist Socialist Party, have moved ever further into a sort of leftish liberalism. As the leadership of these parties were jettisoning the old forms and old thought and under the influence of postmodernism paid little attention to the process of party-building, the enlightened middle classes flocked to them, while ordinary people turned their backs. In last year's referendum on the European Constitution a major section of support for Labour and Green Left took the opposite side from that advocated by the leaders of their parties. If it then also turns out that large groups within society who in the past did not feel themselves to be represented within politics are prepared to vote for the successful left “newcomer”, then this party cannot simply be written off as good for nothing. From this perspective foreign policy can be seen as a stick to beat the dog. This is confirmed by the fact that criticism of the alleged nationalism of the SP has not come from further left in the spectrum but from people and organisations who have at least one foot in the camp of the establishment.

The charges that the SP hides behind the country's famous dikes, wants to make the eating of Brussels sprouts compulsory and put the clocks back fifty years are amusing enough but don't hold much water. In this article we want to answer the accusation that we are exclusively national in our orientation in two ways. Firstly, it is factually incorrect: the SP is a party which feels very strongly about international solidarity. The statement of principles "Heel de Wereld" (The Whole World) adopted in 2005 and the 2006 election programme "Een beter Nederland, voor hetzelfde geld" (A better Netherlands... for the same money) demonstrate this, just as do our voting record in the national parliament and the comportment of our Members in the European Parliament. The charge is in addition based on what in our view is an incorrect idea of what constitutes international solidarity. Critics turn out all too often to confuse ends and means. International involvement should, we believe, lead to the development of a world which is a little fairer, a little more just, a little more “social”, while numerous instances of international cooperation work in precisely the opposite direction. Opposition to these can in fact be an effective form of international solidarity.

The facts don't support the charges

To begin with it is factually incorrect to say that the SP turns its back on the rest of the world. In the statement "The Whole World" it is stated, quite correctly, that during the last few years the need for 'an active posture in relation to international developments has only increased' and that 'The Netherlands is no island and socialists are internationalists.' On the basis of the principles of 'human dignity, equality and solidarity' the SP is attempting to make a contribution to the building of a fairer, more just and more peaceful world. We cannot create such a world from the outside (from the West) or from above (by dropping bombs). It must, on the contrary, be everywhere shaped locally. Solidarity is from this point of view above all support for organisations and people in other countries who are trying to give shape to their social and personal lives. We must with regard to this be alert to ethnocentrism. Many values which are important to us (equality for women before the law, equality for homosexuals, the rights of children, human rights in general) are of very recent provenance and even within our society are still far from being generally accepted. It smacks of arrogance and an exaggerated view of our own worth to believe that we should use violence to impose these values on people in other countries and other cultures.

From the perspective that not we but people, social organisations and governments in other countries should be making the first move, the SP offers support to processes and developments towards which we feel a positive connection. On this basis the SP has in recent years given its active support to a number of international missions directed towards the furtherance of sustainable security and development in a range of countries, voting in favour of missions in Liberia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Cyprus, Congo and southern Sudan. The charge that the SP does not support peacekeeping missions is simply false. Our position is determined by three principles: legitimacy (international law), effectiveness (do the means bring the goal closer?), and proportionality (is the extent of our involvement concomitant with the extent of the crisis?)

The SP has also developed initiatives in the area of international economic cooperation, initiatives intended to lead to a fairer distribution of prosperity on a world-wide level. Examples include the so-called Tobin Tax, a minuscule tariff on international currency transactions which, applied world-wide, could raise a great deal of revenue. The SP is also a supporter of the abolition of Third World debt, particularly when the repayment of such debt comes at the cost of the fight against poverty and of social policy in poorer countries (the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals). At the same time the party remains a supporter of far-reaching change within the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Developing countries should be given the chance to determine their own paths to development and should not be blackmailed by the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. Developing countries should in addition be accorded a privileged position in the conclusion of trade agreements. With these constructive initiatives the SP plays a central role in the movement for an alternative globalisation, which works towards alternatives to the current world neo-liberal system. This means that the party has also made an active contribution to the European- and World Social Fora (ESF & WSF). Each time we participate in such gatherings we meet representatives of Dutch development NGOs, human rights groups and other social organisations, but our critics are never anywhere to be seen.

In relation to international security the SP argues in favour of both a reform, and at the same time a strengthening, of the position of the United Nations. The UN is, despite its limitations, the only organisation which formally represents the international community. This is in contrast to, for example, NATO, which functions increasingly as an armed instrument of the United States and its transatlantic friends. On this level also the SP has repeatedly intervened, by, for example, acting both inside and outside parliament against the Netherlands' support for the occupation and war in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the demand for a parliamentary enquiry into the manner in which the Netherlands became embroiled in the war in Iraq, acting against the tainting of development cooperation and campaigning against the purchase of a new fighter plane, the JSF, from the United States.

A distorted concept of international solidarity

It is clear that the charge that the SP turns its back on the world, when looked at in the light of the actual facts, has no substance. This is, however, not enough to douse its flame. The SP's critics have a view of internationalism and international solidarity which in some cases does not match our own. In short, they believe that any involvement is by definition positive, irrespective of the aims pursued. People and parties which do not wish to participate are by definition nationalistic and inward-looking. Thus the critical attitude of the SP in relation to international organisations or moves which are primarily concerned to guarantee western supremacy in the world, such as the European Defence Bureau and the establishment of European intervention units, and the refusal to contribute to these, is in this view interpreted as navel-gazing.

There is a great deal to be said against this opinion. Cooperation is not an end in itself and should be judged according to its consequences. No, the SP was no supporter of the Srebenica mission, NATO's bombing of civilian targets in Serbia or the attack on Afghanistan. But should the SP be ashamed of this? In the book De Laatste Oorlog (The latest war), written by SP leader Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon, it was clearly revealed that in the case of the Balkans the humanitarian flag was hoisted in order to mask the straightforward western interests which really lay behind the intervention.

The involvement of the Netherlands in the fight against international terrorism also gives rise to differing visions of international solidarity. Because it opposed the sending of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, the SP was accused of backing out of its international responsibilities. The Netherlands must accept such responsibilities and actively place itself squarely behind great powers such as the United States and Great Britain, countries prepared to invest their money and send their soldiers to make the world safer. Whoever turned away from this – because they did not share the analysis behind it – was accused of being a friend of Saddam Hussein, a supporter of terrorism, and one who condemned Afghan women to wear the burka in the coming century.

If, however, we take a look back at the stated goal, namely the reconstruction of Afghanistan as a contribution to bringing about a safer world, the first question to be put is surely how best the Netherlands can contribute to this. And at that point what strikes you is that the present mission is not contributing to the reconstruction of the country and in fact offers to terrorism an ideal battlefield. If, rather than involvement per se, the results of such involvement and its costs for both the Netherlands and the local population become the yardstick of success and failure, the balance-sheet comes out completely differently from what our progressive 'friends of intervention' would have us believe. Only for those who believe with blind faith in NATO's press releases is it possible to continue to hold to the idea that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is going speedily ahead and that our boys in Uruzgan are winning the hearts and minds of the people through the installation of wells and the building of schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worse still, development NGOs are streaming out of Afghanistan because their work is being disturbed by the internationalism of American, British and Dutch troops. Journalists who seek to avoid supervision by the Ministry of Defence – and here we choose our words carefully – don't have an easy time of it.

In Afghanistan as well as Iraq, Western intervention has been responsible for utter chaos, a mess for which ordinary people in those countries are having to pay the price. The lesson is that to do nothing, even if your hands itch with frustration, is better than doing something stupid – all the more because it is people over there who will be stuck with sorting things out when it all goes wrong. The SP's view is that we should lend support to local organisations striving to bring peace and development to their own countries. In the case of Iraq, an SP delegation visited the Kurdish region of the country in 2004 and invited representatives of Kurd and Iraqi parties to come to the Netherlands the following year. SP Senator Anja Meulenbelt has for years devoted herself to the establishment of and support for humanitarian projects in the Gaza Strip. From the media's point of view, establishing and encouraging long-term processes is perhaps less 'sexy' than the sight of paratroopers dropping from the sky, but over time it is much more effective. We work on international solidarity, then, without pretending that we can do and know everything that there is to be done or known.

A similar confusion of means and ends is evident in relation to European integration. Here, the most immediately striking set of problems concerns the liberalisation of the European labour market. Before we go any further into that subject, we would like to get one thing clear: neoliberal globalisation, a world without economic borders, has more good things to offer people with money and a high level of education than it does to people who do the heavy and dirty work, those who are poorly-paid and poorly-educated. The SP's standpoint is that the economy – and thus the labour market – must come under political direction. What this means is that workers in the Netherlands must enjoy pay and conditions which accord with the country's collective labour agreements (CAOs) and with Dutch labour law. From this it is concluded that we are opposed to allowing eastern European workers access to the Dutch labour market. In this instance too, not only other left parties but parties of the neoliberal right and employers' organisations feel free to judge the SP's international solidarity credentials. The SP would, they claim, pursue an 'own workers first' policy lacking solidarity with less fortunate people in Europe.

Yet here once again the charge is way off beam. The opening of the borders to an influx of Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians (amongst them no cabaret stars, columnists or career politicians but instead bus- and truck drivers, asparagus- and tomato-pickers) will lead not to a fairer division of European prosperity but instead to an across-the-board driving down of wages and a deterioration of working conditions. At the same time a brain drain threatens to afflict these eastern European countries, as well-educated young people leave in order to work in western Europe. The SP has, together with other left organisations in Europe (including Polish groups!) for some years participated in actions against the liberalisation of labour market policy (in the form of the so-called Bolkestein Directive, as well as the Port Services Directive and the Working Time Directive). We have taken part in mass actions and demonstrations (including a rally of 80,000 people in Brussels in 2005) and have been able to weaken and delay liberalising measures.

Liberalisation of the European labour market is not in the interests of the weakest and least developed regions, who in the guise of prosperity and the free market are forced to go through the mill of 'more of the market, less for the people.' It would show some international solidarity if we were to make a better job of aiding development in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria themselves rather than luring away the workforce that they desperately need in order to have it compete with Dutch and other western European workers. Through support for sustainable development in these new member states, those countries with strong social policies and those whose social policies are weak would all eventually be better off. This could be achieved in a concrete fashion by using the European structural funds in those European regions which are in reality underdeveloped, rather than for, for example, Dutch regions which, with a bit of fancy statistical footwork can be labelled as 'lagging behind'. The SP has for many years used its position in the European Parliament to argue strongly for such a reform.

In short, the SP is committed to international cooperation and solidarity, a fact demonstrated by the party's work on a range of issues. In this, the long-term interests of people in developing countries occupies a central position. Only by supporting them in their struggles for a better life will sustainable development in the end become possible. This can mean that on any given day only a small step towards a better, more just world, is taken. To us that doesn't seem all that strange, because both solidarity itself and the struggle to achieve solidarity are long-term processes. Many of our critics have still not understood that, but a growing number of voters understands it all too well.

(1) Composed of former followers of the murdered right-wing populist leader Pim Fortuyn, EenNL (One NL) failed to win any seats in last November's election.

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