In an interview by Alain Bloëdt, Editor-in-Chief of The Progressive Post, Paul Magnette outlines his four main topics for the European election campaign: the fight against global warming, the fight against tax fraud, European migration policy and the renewal of democracy. Four paths to follow for the European elections, exclusively for the Progressive Post.
Progressive Post: Why do you get involved in a European campaign when your daily life is at the local level and you are a seasoned politician at the national level in Belgium?
Paul Magnette: First of all, because I have always been passionate about European issues. I have the feeling that every European election is an important moment, but that the 2019 election is even more important because we are really in a crucial political configuration for the future of Europe. Our disenchantment with Europe is deeper than ever. We are witnessing the rise of various populisms and the left no longer knows very well where it stands… In addition, from my local level, I can measure the extremely positive impact of the cohesion funds, of which my city is a big beneficiary, and which allow us to invest tens of millions of euros in the renovation of buildings intended for training, education, innovation and research.
PP: You have made no secret of the fact that you will remain only mayor of Charleroi even if you are elected to the European Parliament. Do think that Social Democracy must be rebuilt at the local level to influence the national and European level?
PM: I believe that Social Democracy must be rebuilt at all levels, but the local level and the European level are today the most decisive.
PP: What will be your main lines of campaign, not only for talking to your citizens, but also for influencing the general debate?
PM: I think that four themes are particularly fundamental and meet the expectations of citizens, starting with the fight against global warming and the fight against tax fraud, which is linked to the first. Europe is, and has been, the world champion in this fight. It is Europe that brought all the momentum that led to the Paris Agreement in 2015. But today, it is clear that actions are not following, that the governments are not up to the commitments that have been made. Yet the population has high expectations. I see this in Belgium in particular, where more than 70,000 people demonstrate every Sunday, now picked up on Thursdays by secondary school students.
We cannot be credible on the international scene by claiming to fight tax havens and major tax fraud if competition and tax evasion remain possible even within the EU.
PP: What’s the link with tax fraud?
PM: If we want to finance the ecological transition, studies show that we need at least a thousand billion euros. It is not a huge amount: it is what we lose every year because of tax fraud and evasion. Large multinational groups transfer profits from one country to another in order to achieve tax optimisation and pay as little tax as possible, including within the European Union. This practice must be stopped by ensuring that there is an effective rate of at least 20% to 25% on corporate profits. The amount raised would be used to finance the climate transition.
PP: As well in the media as in the political discourse, social fraud is judged and treated in a much harsher way than tax fraud. How do you explain this?
PM: I believe that citizens are not really aware that the big tax fraud and tax evasion, organised by multinationals, and by means that are unfortunately legal, cost the public authorities hundreds of billions of euros every year and prevent them from financing this climate transition, which would nevertheless have a fundamental social dimension. If tomorrow, we could massively finance the insulation of public buildings and housing and grant interest-free loans for private buildings, we would greatly reduce the energy bill of households and provide a great service in terms of purchasing power. This would be a major step towards greater social and fiscal equity. The energy transition contains an important social dimension that needs to be given much more prominence.
PP: Is the European Parliament currently in a position to go against Member States that block this tax issue?
PM: No, but we must indeed continue to put pressure on them. I am prepared to go as far as a tax Article 7 (Editor’s note: Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union gives the EU the possibility of sanctioning a Member State that does not respect its founding values) which would provide that countries which do not play the game, that try to attract the profits of large multinationals by taxing them at very low rates, be sanctioned by forbidding them access to cohesion funds or to agricultural policy aid. We cannot think only of our own country’s interests on the one hand and call for European solidarity on the other.
If criticism of a new oligarchy becomes a lever for advancing tax and social reforms, I think the left has every interest in understanding what message lies behind this populist temptation.
PP: Could we imagine a Schengen area of taxation?
PM: We should start with a small number of countries, as was the case with the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance. We cannot be credible at international level by claiming to fight tax havens and major tax fraud, if competition and tax evasion remain possible within the European Union itself, to the detriment of the public interest.
PP: How do you see the rise of populism in Europe and its influence on the next campaign?
PM: I believe that stigmatising populism is useless. It is even counterproductive. It also means exonerating oneself from one’s own responsibilities. If a large proportion of citizens now support populist movements, we need to understand the causes of this. These citizens say they have the feeling that the elite lives cut-off from the rest of the population, and that they promote their interests and those of the major multinational and financial groups. There are fundamental truths here: even if it is less blunt than in the United States, it is true that today in Europe there is a seizure of power by a number of very large and very well protected interests and that there is still excessive and unacceptable lobbying when it prevents, for example, stopping the use of the dangerous herbicide glyphosate. This rebellion of the citizens is therefore ultimately just and healthy. The problem lies in the path it is taking. If it only leads to accusations against the foreigner, the other, the one who does not share the dominant religious convictions, it only pits citizens against each other. On the other hand, if this criticism of a new oligarchy becomes a lever for advancing tax and social reforms, I think that the left has every interest in understanding what message lies behind this populist temptation.
PP: Migration policy is also one of your campaign areas. Has anyone tried to discourage you from taking up this theme?
PM: It’s a very complicated subject, but I think it’s never a good idea to avoid the fundamental issues. Today, contrary to what is often said, there is no ‘migration crisis’, even if some countries are more exposed than others, but there is a political crisis around the issue of migration. Europe is a continent of immigration and emigration par excellence. The Italian or Greek diaspora in the world is larger than the population of Greece or Italy today. Europe has therefore made a significant contribution to the migratory movement throughout the world while welcoming at the same time populations from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions that are now an integral part of the European people. This fact must be reaffirmed with serenity to all the fantasies around these questions. To pretend that the debate does not exist, not to dare to face it, is to let fantasies spread, to the detriment of our own values and commitments.
PP: What is your fourth campaign area?
PM: The in-depth renewal of our democratic forms. Abstention, protest movements, spontaneous demonstrations – all these movements reflect a form of exhaustion of the forms of representative democracy, particularly on the European level. The low turnout in the European elections also shows a lack of interest on the part of citizens in this level of power, although it will profoundly determine the policies of the EU for the next five years and sometimes for much longer. There is therefore a real need to fundamentally renew the way we do politics, how we involve as many citizens as possible in decision-making. We must think about increasing controls on lobbying at European level. All other forms of participation must also be boosted. We created the Citizens’ Initiative, which is a very beautiful institution, but which is governed by a set of rules that prevent it from operating in practice.
PP: In 2009, your book Le Bel Avenir du socialisme (The beautiful future of socialism) was published. What perspective can we give to socialism today?
PM: Let us not be under any illusions: Socialism in Europe today is not doing well. When we see the electoral results of the Socialist parties in most European countries and the virtual disappearance of some Socialist parties – in the Netherlands, Greece and even France, which are extremely important historical strongholds of the Social Democratic left – these are facts that cannot be disputed and it is very worrying. At the same time, I believe that the widespread denunciations in the social body of the seizure of power by a small elite, of social injustice, of taxation that is ineffective, of multinationals that escape the common rule, are dissatisfactions that fully meet the ambitions and values of Socialism. In other parts of the world, which we thought were somehow “immune” to Socialism, particularly in the United States, where the word “socialism” was still practically banned a few years ago, we see that on the left of the political spectrum we have candidates who are elected as Socialists, who bring messages of Socialist inspiration in American democratic institutions in terms of taxation, the environment, gender equality and the fight against discrimination, and who are enjoying ever greater success. If Socialism is returning to fashion in the United States, which is a country where it has never been extremely strong, let’s bet that if we bring our values with strength and manage to show that they remain perfectly current and that they meet the aspirations of our fellow citizens, we ought to be able to reincarnate hope again very quickly.
PP: Do you have the impression that the space occupied by the Socialists is now occupied by its opponents?
PM: We have allowed a series of political groups to be built that are our competitors. Even though the social democrats and socialists created the turning point in sustainable development in the 1980s, which is a concept we invented and which reconciled entrepreneurial spirit, social justice and ecology, it did not prevent a whole fringe of the civic body from feeling that this message was not sufficiently brought and environmental parties settling into the landscape all over Europe. Basically, the messages they bring are very close to ours, or even almost identical. Today, we can also see that in a number of European countries, a left that calls itself radical, that challenges in a much more virulent way the democratic functioning and the failures of social justice , is also meeting with great success. I think that this must constantly lead us to question ourselves, to see that part of the traditional left-wing electorate has swung to the right or even to the extreme right because it feels that it is no longer being heard. All these failures must be heard, listened to, and we must ask ourselves: what march have we missed? What part of the population no longer recognised themselves in our messages and why? This self-critical examination should lead our message to regain its universality.
PP: Isn’t it time for this self-criticism to stop and to move on to the next step?
PM: I am not sure that the entire great Social Democratic family has really done this analysis. It is not about self-criticism for pleasure, self-flagellation, but an open analysis of the mistakes we have made, the abandonment, the desertion. If we want to win back the hearts of European citizens, if we want Socialism to once again become a political message with universal reach, affecting students as well as job seekers, workers, the unemployed, pensioners, workers, employees and civil servants, we must regain the universality of the Socialist message. For that, fundamental work must be done on what we have lost in defending a certain number of causes, on what we may no longer have had the courage to do or say, on our compromises. All this must be the subject of a big critical examination in order to avoid making these mistakes again. I don’t think we can say we have done this. Unfortunately, within the Social Democratic family, there is still too much leniency with regard to certain conflicts of interest, too much ambiguity with regard to certain issues such as immigration, and a feebleness in the reminder that the fight against poverty should be at the heart of the left’s fight. There are still Social Democratic or Socialist parties which, by their attitude, are too close to what must be called corruption. Unfortunately, all this is still present. Until we have done our self-examination – a term preferable to self-criticism – I do not think we will be able to regain the credibility that will allow us to bounce back.
PP: Do you feel that citizens and voters are receptive to this discourse of authenticity?
PM: It is not just a discourse of authenticity that consists of saying that we have made mistakes, that we recognise it and that we must therefore come back to ourselves. The purpose of this self-examination is to fundamentally correct a number of elements of our message. It is not right for a former German Social Democratic Prime Minister to work for a large company in the energy sector. That shouldn’t happen. And to prevent this from happening, we need to establish a number of internal control rules that are much stricter than those that exist today in our parties and in all our political organisations. It is not normal for a section of the population in a precarious situation, or ready to topple into it, to feel that it is no longer the Socialists who defend and represent them. It means that in our message, we have missed something. It is not right that some people, who basically aspire to fight against privileges and inequalities, and are therefore at the heart of Socialism, should feel that they need to vote on the extreme right. There too we have missed something. I believe that it is all these examinations of conscience that need to be done to correct our message. Perhaps it is simply a matter of bringing it back, in a kind of return to its roots, to the strength of its origins. I don’t think we can say that this work is done. Similarly, it is not normal for the personal interests of some to be privileged to the detriment of the collective interest and the message we want to convey. I think that if we do not hear all these messages, we will not be able to regain real political momentum.
PP: You are proposing a rejuvenation cure.
PM: Yes, sometimes it is better to take two or three years in political time to think about who we are, what we have been, what we have achieved and what we have not achieved so well, to carry out a real update in the strongest sense of the word, than to want a headlong rush that only precipitates this erosion.
PP: So you need to turn to the opposition for a while to rebuild a real identity before you win back your electorate?
PM: Choosing participation in government or opposition is never a simple choice. Each configuration is unique. I do not want to make general and simplistic judgments, but if we take a number of cases, we can think that sometimes, undoubtedly, it would have been healthier for the socialists to deliver a constructive, intelligent opposition, which aims to force the majority to be more virtuous, than to be in power for the sake of power while giving the impression of being the conservatives’ crutch, of not really making a difference, and of being diluted into a sort of very vague consensus that only benefits those who bring a much more radical and much stronger message.
PP: Is this radicalism specific to our time or has it always been present but less noticed than today?
PM: I don’t think it’s specific to our time. Perhaps we Social Democrats and Socialists have simply lost this radicalisme. When we reread the great political speeches of France, Italy and Spain, no matter the nationality, from the 1970s, 1980s and even 2000s, we find at many times a criticism of the state of society that is extremely strong and a horizon of extremely powerful hope. Sometimes we have the impression that all this has been eroded and that we have become very managerial parties, no longer completely protesting, and no longer really turning towards a breath of hope. That can’t get us anywhere.