'There’s still room for an honest left in Europe'

1 April 2012

'There’s still room for an honest left in Europe'

The Left is doing well again in Europe. One of its standard-bearers is Emile Roemer. The agreeable leader of the crimson-red Socialist Party outshines Premier Mark Rutte and PVV chief Geert Wilders as the Netherlands’ most popular politician van Nederland. Together with Flemish PVDA (Labour Party) president Peter Mertens, the Antwerp newspaper De Gazet van Antwerpen looked Roemer up.

Flemish PvdA (Labour Party) president Peter Mertens in conversation with SP leader Emile Roemer
Flemish PvdA (Labour Party) president Peter Mertens in conversation with SP leader Emile Roemer

After the right-wing phenomena of Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, the Netherlands has now a superstar of the left: Emile Roemer. To what does this apparently perfectly ordinary former teacher from North Brabant owe his success? Roemer appears to have found the magic formula needed to close the gulf between politicians and the public: just do it.

Friday afternoon, The Hague. The Dutch government of the centre-right liberals of the VVD and the Christian Democrats of the CDA, which rules with the toleration of PVV-leader Geert Wilders, is cracking. Will they succeed in reaching an agreement on a new round of spending cuts, or will the government fall, bringing new elections? In that case the SP could perhaps become the biggest party and its standard-bearer Emile Roemer the next Prime Minister.

Tuesday evening, the national Parliament, the ‘Binnenhof’. With a broad smile Emile Roemer enters his office just next to the Lower House’s meeting hall, and heartily shakes the hand of Flemish fellow spirit Peter Mertens. This was once the workroom of the legendary left-wing Labour Prime Minister Joop den Uyl. Other leading politicians such as Hans van Mierlo of the centrist D'66 and Roemer’s forerunner as SP leader Jan Marijnissen once made their home here. But Roemer does not wax lyrical about this. ”I’m a level-headed sort of person,” he says.

On a shelf in a cupboard stand the trophies for ‘Plain Language 2010’ and ‘Politician of the Year 2011', awarded by the television documentary news programme ‘EenVandaag’ (‘Today on One’). Since Roemer has led the SP, the party has had the wind in its sails. "In the latest poll Mark Rutte’s VVD had 31 seats and we had just one less,” he tells us. “But polls are just for fun; I don’t let myself get too excited by them.”

How do you explain your success?
Emile Roemer: The SP has lodged itself in the heart of the society. We bring the voice of the street into Parliament, we continually put questions which are critical of the established order and the hordes of lobbying factories, and in contrast to the individuals behind the drafting tables in The Hague, we know what life’s like down on the shop floor.

Aren’t you guilty of populism?
Roemer: If populism means that you know what life’s like amongst the people, then I don’t have any problem with that. We never reject or dismiss anything without formulating an alternative.

Will the government of the two centre-right parties, the VVD and the CDA, with the toleration of Geert Wilders, stay on its feet?
Roemer: Probably, but with a great deal of pain and difficulty. Mark Rutte accepts all of Wilders’ insults to stay in the driving seat. That’s what happened not long ago, with that mad plan of Wilders for a complaints service where you could report nuisance caused by eastern Europeans. Rutte didn’t dare to shoot it down. He’s continually walking on eggs. Now they’re involved in negotiations over a new package of spending cuts of between nine and sixteen billion euros within two years. It worries me.

Why do characters like Fortuyn and Wilders find it so easy to be successful in the Netherlands?
Roemer: Because the electorate wants to get rid of the establishment, after twenty years of neoliberal policies and moral crisis. Unfortunately this leads many voters towards the wrong individuals.

Peter Mertens: This aversion to the traditional parties is something we’ve also experienced in Flanders, though the story of Vlamms Belang is rather more complex. And now it’s Bart De Wever who’s attracting some of these ‘anti’ votes. I find this bizarre, because De Wever combines his fight against the establishment with a radically neoliberal establishment programme. Sooner or later he’ll have to choose between the two. At the same time in the Netherlands the SP has the good fortune to be winning back a lot of these ‘anti-politics’ votes. I’m full of admiration for this, because I know that for us too there are a lot of potential votes, but you have also to be able to cash in on this.

Roemer: In Belgium there is also room for a real socialist party, for an honest left. You’re seeing this same trend in France, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Cyprus ... But it has to grow from the base. When I became party leader two years ago, my first ambition was to expand from 120 to 200 local branches within the year. Politics is much more than interviews in the newspapers or talk shows on TV. We are now in the governing bodies of two provinces. That means that we have to reach compromises, we have to add water to our wine. But this wine has to remain drinkable. Governing is a means to an end. It must not be the end, otherwise you shouldn’t be starting on it. This is where we differ from the traditional parties.

Roemer and Mertens
Roemer and Mertens

Do you follow developments in Belgian politics?
Roemer: Not well enough to be able to pass expert judgements on it. But I am happy to see that parties to the left of the (Flemish social democratic party) sp.a are beginning to develop, such as the PVDA and Rood! That’s the best answer to the (far right) and the (right-wing Flemish separatist) N-VA.

De Wever, Fortuyn, Wilders ...Is politics increasingly revolving around charismatic characters, or is this just a temporary phenomenon?
Roemer: No, I don’t think so. Look at the US: during a campaign over there all the tricks of a personality cult have been dragged out of the woodwork for much longer. It’s principally down to the development of the media. Politicians’ charisma is becoming ever more important. They can do whatever they like; I’ll still try to promote the contents of our programme. And they can go digging around in my past as much as they want, the most that they’ll discover is that I’ve ridden on a bike with no tail-light (laughs).

Mertens: My mother always used to say ‘whatever happens, keep your feet on the ground’. Become great, but all the same stay ordinary: that’s Emile’s Roemer’s strength. He radiates at one and the same time integrity and tenderness. Tenderness in the sense that Jacques Brel gave to it: empathy as the most powerful form of solidarity. Roemer will never become a parliamentary big shot. In that he is different from many other politicians.

Roemer: I recently went on a working visit to a major hospital. After the tour an attendant asked me ‘where has your chauffeur parked the car’? So I said, ‘at the bus stop, when I got off the bus, but the bus is coming in just over ten minutes.’ You should never think of yourself as more important because you’re involved in politics. You’re not in politics for yourself, either, but for the people who’ve put their trust in you.

But meanwhile you could perhaps indeed become the next prime minister of the Netherlands.
Roemer: I have no personal ambitions, only political ambitions. My party should just put me wherever it thinks I can do best. If needs be I can go and fold our party magazine De Tribune (laughs).

How is it that the Netherlands is doing worse economically than Belgium, despite the huge spending cuts of recent years?
Roemer: Because the cuts have been misplaced. The entire public sector is being broken up. And still more cuts will shrink the economy even further, provoking major unrest throughout society. Belgium may be doing better with a deficit of 2.8 per cent, but is this prognosis of yours truly realistic?

Mertens: (angrily) In my view the situation in Belgium doesn’t justify any kind of positive response. We have just tried to find savings of 11 billion, and with 100,000 unemployed people below the poverty line we’re on our way to a German model, in which people need a second and third job in order to escape from poverty. Meanwhile the European Commission interferes with our sovereign powers, for instance the automatic linkage of wages to purchasing power, via the index. The commission’s policy is directed against the European peoples. In Greece they are going to be told which hospitals, schools and docks must be privatised. And all this while the image of the ‘lazy Greek’ simply doesn’t hold up. The Greeks work longer hours and get their pensions later than we do.

Roemer: I’ve been to take a look at Greece for myself. Poverty there is enormous and there are hardly any social provisions left. The money that supposedly goes to Greece makes at most a quick turn round the Acropolis and then flows back into European banks. And now the Dutch government wants to take the same route.

What’s the solution: get rid of the euro and the EU?
Roemer: The euro should never have been introduced. We were already saying that back in 1999. But getting rid of it now would cause chaos. What we should do is set ourselves against Europe’s neoliberal policies, policies from which only the banks benefit. And it’s not ruled out that some southern European countries could decide for themselves to leave the eurozone.

What would socialism prescribe for the 21st century?
Roemer: We must democratise the economy, because as things stand even our elected representatives can do little against the dictatorship of the financial sector. Essential services are being privatised, shareholders of major corporations go for short-term profits instead of continuity. Here in the Netherlands 12,000 postal workers have been sacked and replaced via the back door by students and housewives. Directors of housing associations lose money through risky investments and receive as a consequence a princely golden handshake, as has happened in Rotterdam.

Mertens: According to a report from Crédit Suisse 0.5 per cent of the world’s population has in its hands 38 per cent of the wealth of the earth. Economists say that this has never before happened in the history of the world. And the gulf is growing ever greater.

Roemer: In Italy and Greece governments have been created by the financial sector. We should be making much more of a scandal of this and the street should be fighting for what we have achieved, such as the right to strike

Are we living in a pre-revolutionary climate?
Roemer: (gives this some thought) We are living through the last convulsions of neoliberal policy. I think that people understand that things must become more humane and more social.

Mertens: The poet Pablo Neruda wrote: ‘They can cut down all the flowers, but they cannot resist the coming of the spring.’ That sums it up beautifully. I believe in the budding of a left European spring. Let’s hope for this, because the alternatives are tragic: either the dictatorship of an unelected European power, or the return of a narrow European nationalism.

Mr Roemer, on your wall hangs a photo of Martin Luther King. Is he your example?
Roemer: King fought a heroic struggle against exploitation and discrimination, despite knowing very well the risks. I hope that I might have a little bit of him within me. Have you got someone like that, Peter?

Mertens: For me let’s just say Tijl Uilenspiegel, the little rebel with so much humour who fought against the Spanish occupier. He could be on my wall.
Roemer: Have you got a photo of him then? (laughs – Uilenspiegel is a figure – probably mythical – from the late middle ages)

Mertens: To come back to King: ‘I have a dream’ remains an important lesson. We need people with ideals and morality, who can teach us anew that society doesn’t only include competition, but also cooperation and empathy.

Roemer: Recently in Parliament I asked Mark Rutte what the society actually meant for him. He went no further than to cite trade, the economy and the earning of money. I said, ‘that’s what I was afraid of.' For me a society doesn’t revolve around individuals, but around people living together. That is the choice which the Dutch people must make at the next election: do they want the society of Mark Rutte, or that of Emile Roemer?

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