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05 June 2009

EuroElections 2009 : GUE/NGL

This series draws to an end by visiting a political bloc that represents another major philosophical current in Europe. The Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) is the Scientif Socialist reference at the European Parliament. Although composed at its core by state-level Communist parties, it also congregates some less Scientific parties that haven't yielded to Liberalism. More than sharing a philosophy, GUE-NGL members share a common reluctance towards the Europen Construction process, at least in its current form.

Apologies to all fellow citizens that already voted. Time is in short supply these days and this last entry is going live a few days behind schedule.h

It all started 150 years ago when a German textile tycoon sent is young soon to work at one of his factories in Manchester. During the two years spent there the young man became convinced that the Industrial Revolution was resulting in poorer, not better, living conditions for the majority of the population – the working class – which lead him to write a book on the subject – his name: Friedrich Engels. After two years in England Engels decided to go back to Germany, on the way stopping in Paris to meet another young thinker: Karl Marx; his journey ended there. Moving to Brussels the next year, they would spend three years writing “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”. The rest is History.

At least that's one of the ways of starting the story. What Marx and Engels brought about was the idea that social inequity had its root on the hold that certain individuals had on the Commons, and on the means of production in general. To deal with that imbalance the only proper remedy would be to simply eliminate any sort of private control on the Commons and deliver enterprise control to the working class.

A thorough account of what Communism achieved in Europe is way beyond these simple lines, a profoundly rich story that would have much to write about. Fast forward to the early 1980s with the second oil shock and Europe divided in East – surrendered to Communism – and West – surrendering to Liberalism. The collapse of oil prices in 1985 coupled to the peak of oil production in the USSR triggered the collapse of the Communist bloc, which eventually lead to an uniformization of Europe in political terms, with Communist parties relegated to the background in a Market Economy backed by rotating Democracies.

With the Globalisation process succeeding the implosion of the USSR, a slow process (that was already in march in many states) shifting the working class from blue collar to white collar jobs ensued. The Communist parties largely failed to appeal to this emerging working class and progressively lost their grip on the electorate, something quite visible in their Parliament results, going from over 10% of the seats in 1979 to just over 5% in 2004.

Communist parties in Europe today are not exactly the same of the XIX century. Fully integrated in the Democratic process, they do not advocate for Planed Economics, but for state control of key services in a market economy framework. Their biggest flag in recent years has been the fight for workers' rights, confronting the precariousness of labour contracts imposed by the Free Market. Modern Communist parties are sometimes compared to the Social Democrats of the early XX century, when Socialists of that time re-factored Socialism to integrate a multi-party democracy. As a foreigner reference, many of the concerns of European Communists are common to the Socialist Party of America, although the latter goes further left in many issues.

GUE-NGL is less of a party and more of an ideological platform, its parliament members retain almost full independence, especially on state matters. There isn't, for instance, a common Vision for Europe put forward. Of all the groups reviewed in this series GUE-NGL, is the less cohesive and farther from the traditional concept of a party.

GUE-NGL's website is sober but well organized, far from the mega-productions of the traditional parties. It has a great focus on the people, each parliament member is presented individually, as so each state-level delegation. There's even a section dedicated to the party's staff, with a small file presenting a picture and contact for each. GUE-NGL also doesn't present election specific content, something that seems exclusive of the big parties; possibly a consequence of budegt limitations. But the website contains a section entitled Policy that a lists a good number of areas for which the party tried to present structured but simple ideas. Clicking on Energy the reader is presented with two lonely paragraphs:


The GUE/NGL Group has contributed to adopting new legislation to enhance energy saving policies, to improve energy efficiency and to reinforce the use of renewable energies with the objective of respecting the commitments made by the European Union at the Kyoto Conference. We continue to press the case globally for renewable energies and we emphasise the role that research into energy efficient vehicles and investment in clean and ecological public transport systems could have on limiting pollution and protecting the future of the planet. The active development of renewable energy will go some way towards addressing the fossil fuel crisis and can lead to environmental improvements. It can also bring economic benefits through developing new technologies and creating new jobs.

"Contributing to meeting the energy challenges of the 21st century is a European responsibility, but it cannot be adapted to an unbridled race for profitability or competition. Preparing the post-oil era; progressing much further in the reduction of greenhouse gases; increasing the research effort to boost energy efficiency and diversity; transforming the organisation of transport; establishing the right to energy for all - these are the eminently political tasks that cannot, for risk of failing, be allowed to be kept in check by short-sighted market considerations." Francis Wurtz.

“Post-oil era”. Words that are not that common in the political discourse these days (with the proper exception made for Commissioner Piebalgs). These lines attempt simply at a Mission and Vision, not at a real Policy. Some keys areas of action are identified but it is not that clear if the party really aknowledges the emergency of the moment. And at the closing stages “the right to energy for all” ends up somewhat dislocated from the rest of text, no matter what good intentions are behind that sentence. Before the right to energy comes the access to, or production of it.

Such meager lines prompt a bit more of research through the website's sections. There are a few loose articles on the matter without bringing an integrated perspective. Worth reproducing is a two year old note by Francis Wurtz, the party's President, on Liberalisation proposals by the Commission:

Statement by Francis WURTZ, President of the GUE-NGL Group in the European Parliament
Following the Commission's proposals on energy

Brussels, 19/09/07

As it had announced, the Commission has just proposed a new legislative "package" in the field of energy.

More than ten years after the adoption of the first liberalisation directives, the assessment is gloomy: in terms of prices, security of supply and of environmental performance.

Prices are escalating: electricity charges increased by 9% in the EU in 2006, the Union is not immune to the serious crises that are believed to be the preserve of other continents, such as the massive blackout of November 2006 which left millions of Europeans without electricity. As for the sustainable energy challenge, it is still worth noting that coal and gas account for 48% of the electricity production of the EU.

The official report is therefore sufficiently alarming so that one wonders about the justification of the method followed up to now. Instead of that, the Commission is pushing ahead, and now proposes a pure and simple separation between the production means and the distribution network - in other words the dismantling of major companies trusted by all for the quality of their service. It brings to mind the drunkard from St-Exupéry's tale who, having drank too much, drinks without further ado to forget… that he drinks.

My group defends a radically different vision for the European energy domain. Energy is a strategic asset, essential to the economy as well as to society. It is a common asset to which any and everybody has to have access. The service of general interest that entails the production, transportation and distribution of energy has to be defined democratically and entrusted to public operators equipped with the necessary industrial means, and all the more accountable thanks to an irreproachable method of governance, with respect to their employees, with respect to consumers and the entire company. They must absolutely be preserved and put in a position to contribute to a genuine European public energy service.

My group will therefore fight with the employees, with consumers and with the advocates of public service, against the dangerous draft that the Commission has just submitted.

There's life beyond Liberalisation. By nature, Communism and unbundling/deregulation don't exactly match, but it is good to know that at least someone at parliament understands that these tactics will not provide Energy Security.

This peering into GUE-NGL's Energy Policy ends up being a major disappointment. There's no clear policy to show, it isn't even clear if this is a priority area of intervention or not; too few information, no committing stances are taken. Being traditionally an opposition party and with a declining electoral base, GUE-NGL is one of those groups that can afford, and actually profit from, bringing to the debate those issues that aren't comfortable for bigger parties. That's more or less the Greens' strategy, but unfortunately, such isn't case with the Communists. If Peak Oil isn't a disruptive event capable of triggering social change, then what will?

Final notes

Taking the extra space haplessly provided by the GUE-NGL, these final paragraphs reflect on this series as a whole.

The first point to make is that Energy is not a determining area to choose between any of these parties, none of them provides a serious, congruent programme to deal with fossil fuel scarcity. Apart from the Greens-EFA, all the parties leave Energy in second plane, without much or none priority. The Greens go at a good deal of commitment, especially in the Transport sector, scoring points in the Efficiency front, but don't really grasp the urgency of the moment and compromise their stance with an unrealistic outlook on Nuclear.

To all these parties Growth is an acquired fact, an immutable constant, a goal pursuable and to pursue above everything else.

Before leaving, it is perhaps good to stress that although encompassing all the major parties and political currents in Europe, this series left much uncovered. There are more political parties at Parliament and many more are those at state-level that do not have seats at the moment. An informed voting decision should properly look into those parties as well. To assist on that there's a handy electronic tool that informs the citizen which parties are closer to his/hers philosophical profile:

EU Profiler

May the 2009-2014 term be the one Europe overcomes Fossil Fuels.

02 June 2009

EuroElections 2009 : Greens-EFA

This round through the European political landscape now leaves the parties more used to power and starts dealing with those found more often in the opposition. The Greens – European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) is the fifth largest political block at Parliament, with little over 5% of the seats. Greens-EFA is a coalition largely composed by state-level Green Parties plus a small number of Regionalist deputies. After an all-time high close to 10% in 1999 the party had what can be called a disappointing result in 2004. Embarking on a worldwide effort to promote its ideologies by the midst of the current term, it is quite possible that the Greens-EFA may reach a relevant stake at Parliament this time.

The Green ideology is possibly the most complex political philosophy in Europe today, a sort of definition can be attempted at, but with the due reserves. The roots of the Green movement can be traced back to the late XIX century when Naturist Anarchism emerged in France, Spain and Portugal. Among other things it advocated for an ecological relation of Man with Nature, reducing or even annulling the impact of the former on the latter. It was a rather individualist philosophy, underpinned on self-sufficiency. Throughout the XX century these ideas evolved into modern Green Anarchism, that embraced community with the development of the eco-village concept (units of no more than a few hundred folk living from subsistence agriculture). It brought about the idea that modern realizations of primitive social structures would allow a way of life in harmony with Nature, repudiating larger power hierarchies. With the debate about limits to growth and the oil crisis unfolding in the 1970s the Green ideology made it into larger sections of the political landscape, with movements emerging aiming to push those ideas through the established Democratic process.

By 1979 the German Green Party developed the Four Pillars of the Green Party: Ecological wisdom, Social justice, Grassroots democracy and Nonviolence. These are still today the main guidelines followed by most Green parties around the world. In Europe, Green Parties started reaching parliamentary representation during the 1980s and from that time, the most important legacy they left was the halting of further developments to the European Nuclear Programme (facilitated by the tragic events at Chernobyl in 1986). Early on, Green Parties were composed by activists that could be identified both with the traditional right and the left and for some time this created internal tensions and some splits. To their aid came the establishment of Liberalism and the revival of pure Monetarism in Europe, especially from the second half of the 1980s onwards. Appealing to individualism, Liberalism wasn't that far from the Greens' roots and the merging of these two philosophies happened rather naturally. With the approach of Socialists and Conservatives to Liberalism, a fertile political landscape was set for the Greens to flourish, not by alternative social policies, but by presenting the differentiating element of Environmentalism. This allowed the German Green Party to reach a government backing coalition in 2002. In other states, albeit their increasing popularity, Green parties have remained in the opposition invariably with single digit electoral results.

As happens with Liberal parties, the Greens haven't so far been able to fully capitalize on the electorate closer to the traditional parties. Nonetheless, their activism have been having a crucial role in shaping politics in Europe, especially in the field of Energy.

The party's website, although simple and low budget, is quite straightforward and presents the visitor with plenty of information on its activities and ideas. In the Who we are section comes a synthesised political presentation:

Our project is to :

  • build a society respectful of fundamental human rights and environmental justice: the rights to self‑determination, to shelter, to good health, to education, to culture, and to a high quality of life;

  • increase freedom within the world of work, not only by tackling unemployment but also by widening people's choices, releasing human creative potential ;

  • deepen democracy by decentralisation and direct participation of people in decision‑making that concerns them, and by enhancing openness of government in Council and Commission, and making the Commission fullv answerable to Parliament.

  • build a European Union of free peoples based on the principle of subsidiarity who believe in solidarity with each other and all the peoples of the world.

  • re‑orientate the European Union, which currently over‑emphasises its economic conception at the expense of social, cultural and ecological values

And then comes a section headed with “The Greens/European Free Alliance is working for:” that includes the incredible statement:

[...] economic and social reforms to make development sustainable for both human beings and the natural world;

Just to remind the inattentive reader that the Greens-EFA is a party like any other, with growth at the front of its concerns.

Like in the case of the liberals, Greens-EFA doesn't have any election specific content summarizing the party's policy proposals for the next term. Moving around the website a thorough Energy Policy stance is no where to be found. In the Documents subsection there is a long list of essays and news that can be organized thematically, being possible to access a list of those tagged with Energy; this is a long list of articles going back to 2001, that present a sort of recent history of the party's vision on this field. These articles are almost exclusively dedicated to dismiss Nuclear Energy, with the occasional promotion of Natural Gas.

But there's more to the website. Another section is called Campaigns where the party lists special policy programmes, each one with its own website. Two of these are worth a closer look: E-Polis and TEN-T. The first is dedicated to Urban Planing, the second to Transport.

E-Polis is not a real political programme or a formal policy, it is more of communication and experience-sharing platform:

E-Polis - European Sustainable Cities Network
E-Polis was founded by 4 Green Members of the European Parliament in 2006: Gisela Kallenbach, Monica Frassoni, David Hammerstein-Mintz and Michael Cramer - all driven by the need to involve citizens in local decision-making and to promote sustainability in urban development.

E-Polis supports and inspires local initiatives and NGOs whose purpose is to promote sustainable development and participation of civil society in urban development processes. E-Polis aims to create and establish a European-wide network of such local initiatives/NGOs in order to share experiences and find partners for joint activities.

E-Polis launched with selected local initiatives/NGOs from different European countries. The activities stimulated by E-Polis cover a broad range of issues, although there is particular focus on activities raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens in local decision-making processes.

The main networking tool is this e-polis website with a forum and a NGO data base, allowing to get in touch with persons and organisations that share the same idea: a better city is possible.

It is time to network!

It is always awkward to read the oxymoron “sustainable development” in a text supposedly inspired by Environmentalism. Nowhere in the website is it made clear what the Greens understand by “sustainability in urban development”, so the E-Polis campaign can be actually promoting practices that increase energy use. Notwithstanding, the Greens seem to be concerned with a matter that is unfortunately missing from the big parties' scope.

TEN-T is originally an European programme dedicated to develop an trans-European transport network, that the Greens-EFA regard as being a failure at the moment. The website the party dedicates to it is a reformulation of this plan, a serious attempt at a Transport Policy capable of changing Europe's direction on the matter. While energy is not at the root of this campaign, this is one of the areas were emissions reduction and Energy easily overlap:

Transport in Europe is unsustainable at the moment. Although there are huge investments in infrastructure like the TEN-T program, it is quite evident that especially for the environmental harmful modes of transport such as road and air borne transport are constantly increasing. We want to propose some solutions in order to make transport more sustainable and to allow for the climate effects of transport

This Policy is laid down in three stages: Ad-hoc measures, Medium-term measures and Long-term measures. Below is a synthetic list of the tactics proposed in each scope. For each one the website goes into great detail, with much information worthy of a closer look, especially for those working and/or researching in the field.

Ad-hoc measures

These measures comprise some ideas and practical advice that could be easily and immediately implemented without changing the legal basis at the European level. Due to reluctance from the member states these opportunities are not utilised on a broad scale.

  • Additional inspections - controlling of compliance with social and employment standards for truck drivers and the compliance with general rules;

  • Cross financing for rail - due to the new directive on the "Eurovignette" (Directive 2006/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council) each member state is allowed to levy tolls and user charges for vehicles over 3.5 t (from 2012 onwards) for the use of certain infrastructure.

Medium-term measures

These measures are intended to change transport policy in the medium term. In order to tackle the problems of climate change, as well as other environmental problems, changes in the legal and policy basis are nescesa

  • Internalisation of external costs - will help to abolish distortion of competition between rail and road;

  • Climate change - shift money from prestigious projects to upgrading on a large scale within the period 2007 - 2013 especially in the context of climate change;

  • Intelligence for rail - improving cross-border rail transport through Europe-wide technological and regulatory harmonisation under the flagship ERTMS/ETCS;

  • Funding preferences - shifting funds from huge infrastructure projects to efficient multimodal nodes - new funding programme (amendment to TEN-T);

  • Alpine crossing exchange - recognizing transport opportunities as a limited good especially in areas with geographical constraints like the Alps, the trading of transit rights could bring a solution: "The Alpine Crossing Exchange";

  • Transport Subsidies - cut transport subsidies for environmentally harmful modes in order to facilitate the shift towards rail;

  • Kerosene tax - introduction of a European tax on kerosene in order to support the realisation of the TEN-T rail links;

Long-term measures

These measures are intended to sustainably change the direction of European transport policy over the long-term. New strategic approaches, as well as reconsidering existing programmes, could help to make transport greener in the future.

  • Strategy for intermodal logistics - development and implementation of a European strategy for intermodal logistics, enlarging combined traffic etc;

  • Big projects - realisation of huge infrastructure projects that are proven to have a long-term economic viability and that are indispensable;

  • Inland Waterways - the use of inland waterways could help to make freight transport more sustainable but only if strong environmental concerns are respected and resolved: fit the ships to the rivers and not the other way round!

Much could be discussion on each of these tactics, but the most important thing to note is that the programme is congruent with itself and throughout compliant with the vision of an infrastructure shift away from fossil fuels towards electricity. Where a shift to electricity isn't immediately a goal there are proposals for taxing fossil fuels or to use more efficient modes of transport. All that is left to say is how that shift will be accomplished in the short/medium term with the decommissioning of the Nuclear Park taking place simultaneously.

One thing is certain, Greens-EFA is so far in this round up the party dedicating more resources to Energy related issues and the one willing to go more deeply in its proposed polices. Unfortunately, that is not happening by the acknowledgment of impeding Fossil Fuel shortages, which leads to an incoherent message. Although not openly proposing one, the Energy Policy emerging for the party's websites' is the most ambiguous of those reviewed so far. Greens-EFA should try to bring about a thorough and integrated realization of such policy and seriously reflect on the consequences of deactivating the European Nuclear Programme at this stage, or at least provide a realistic and comprehensive road map to achieve such goal.