Portuguese Left Bloc Leader Catarina Martins: ‘Maastricht destroyed our democracy’


25 years of the Maastricht Treaty was no cause for celebration, in the view of the participants in the radical left Dutch Socialist Party’s (SP) conference to mark the occasion. This was more an opportunity for a debate about its contents, and what they have meant for Europe. The conference was held in the town where the same party protested, back in 1992, against Brussels’ power-grab, the town of Maastricht itself. Portuguese Left Bloc leader Catarina Martins was a guest speaker at the gathering.  She has for many years been an activist for the rights of workers on ‘flexible’ contracts and a member of the Left Bloc since 2010, being elected its leader two years later.  After the conference,  SP monthly Tribune interviewed Martins about developments in her country and her views on the European Union.


Tribune:  The turnaround in Portugal from EU-enthusiast to EU-critic is striking, because the usual story is that the southern countries have gained so many advantages from membership.


Martins: My country had great expectations of the Maastricht Treaty. And my generation believed that Europe would become our common home. I was a teenager when the treaty was signed twenty-five years ago. My country was a proud participant in European unification. What was foreseen was that we would move towards integration, towards cohesion, and that we would achieve as high living standards as the most prosperous northern European countries. We looked towards Europe and saw publically accessible schools and hospitals, workers’ rights and women’s rights and all sorts of fundamental rights and we thought, these are our rights, too.


What changed?


In our enthusiasm we made stupid choices. We burnt our fishing boats. It was said that our industry was too poorly qualified to be able to compete in Europe, and if northern Europe was so much better at this than we were, then why should we continue?  And so industries which were in state hands were sold off to private parties, because that was progress. And in the course of the years we had roads, and new schools, and new hospitals, and these were paid for out of European funds and with money borrowed from the banks. But then the privatised firms began to leave the country and unemployment  increased. And we had an economy which was dependent on Europe and which drifted into debt. Turned out it was an exchange whereby we swapped our sovereignty for some money for infrastructure. Now we can decide nothing for ourselves.


Portugal had a difficult time during the crisis. How was this handled?


We had a right-wing government, which did everything that the troika prescribed.  The troika intervened in Portugal because of the international financial crisis in 2007 and 2008. The countries with the most fragile economies – Portugal, Greece – were the target for speculators. The troika and the right-wing government wanted to cut pensions and wages – so that’s what happened. In a country where more than a million pensioners must get by on less than €250 per month, cutting pensions meant nothing less than condemning people to poverty. Wages were cut in a country where civil servants even after many years of service still earn less than what in the Netherlands would be the minimum wage. Almost all the strategic sectors of our economy have been privatised. We are not allowed to have any airports or electricity corporations. We are not allowed to have any public transport companies.  These companies have now been privatised and taken over - by state-owned companies from countries like Germany and France.


But now there’s a left government, supported by your party. Does this make a difference?


One in three children in Portugal is living in poverty and our educational level, which since our revolution in 1974 has shown a steady increase, is falling again. Over the last five years, for the first time the number of people going to university has also fallen. This isn’t because they don’t want to study, but because they can’t afford it. A year ago elections were held and the right-wing coalition headed the poll, but without being able to form a majority. So my party the Left Bloc, together with the Communist Party, concluded an agreement with the Socialist Party, which had finished second in the election. We agreed to raise pensions and wages, and to call a halt to privatisation. And that’s what we’re doing. This doesn’t solve the problem. We are struggling with long-term unemployment which we can’t lower without public investment. But there’s no money for that.


And the European Union?


The EU is working against us. Every time that we decide that we want to raise the minimum wage, the European Commission says that it presents a danger.  When we reversed the privatisation of public transport in two major cities, we were accused. The EU is constantly threatening us with sanctions. Do you know why? Because the right-wing government didn’t fulfil the norms for the deficit. Our left policies mean that the economy is performing better because people have more money to spend and we are going for the first time in years to meet the European norm.  We have produced the lowest deficit in forty-two years.  And now the EU is threatening us with sanctions because of the previous government’s deficits. Are you a big country and do you have a right wing government? Then deficits aren’t a problem. Do you want to conduct a different policy to that of the EU? Sanctions! And so we know that in Europe there are no rules. Only blackmail.


What is to be done?


The European Union as things stand is the greatest threat to people in Europe.  We must resist the idea that if you aren’t for the existing EU, you’re extreme right. You must evidently defend the status quo, otherwise you’re a so-called right populist. The message from people who say that is ‘there is no alternative’.  And that’s precisely what drives people into the arms of the right-wing populists. Therefore the left has to show that there is an alternative. Twenty-five years after the Maastricht Treaty and ten years after the Lisbon Treaty – yes, we too have a town where a bad treaty was signed! – it’s time to dismantle the EU so that we can begin to build a Europe of cooperation.


The interview was conducted by Daniel de Jongh and translated by Steve McGiffen.