The May 13‒15 conference of Denmark’s radical left Red-Green Alliance (RGA), held in a cavernous sports hall in outer Copenhagen, came at a tumultuous time in European, Danish and internal RGA politics.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, four issues commanded the attention of the 9000-strong party and its 316 conference delegates:
First, the differences within the RGA over how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s war; second, the proposal to station United States troops in Denmark as part of a bilateral defence agreement; third, what vote to recommend in a June 1 “opt-out” referendum on ending Denmark’s special status as non-participant in European Union (EU) military affairs, and fourth, the impact of Sweden’s and Finland’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Moreover, even if Putin’s invasion had never occurred, the conference could still have been difficult. Pre-conference discussion around whether and how the RGA should abandon its support for an unconditional Danish withdrawal from the EU — had been revolving, often publicly, around four different positions.
In addition, due to the RGA’s victory in the November elections for Copenhagen Council, the conference attracted unprecedented scrutiny from the Danish political and media establishment. Since that win, political rivals and the big business media have treated the RGA as a threat whose weaknesses are to be probed relentlessly.
Confirmation was the massive media presence at the gathering, with one TV channel providing live coverage.
Ukraine: right to self-defence
Paradoxically, the conference registered greatest consensus on the issue that produced the greatest pre-conference media furore — what position should the RGA take towards Putin’s February 24 Ukraine invasion?
Beyond the calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops and support for refugees, the critical issue had been whether the RGA should support Denmark sending weapons to Ukraine.
After three days of meetings, the organisation’s Executive Committee supported that option by a narrow majority, on February 27, saying “we have a duty to help the Ukrainians in their resistance”.
Those who voted against were subject to media insinuations of sympathy for Russia, leading them to issue a statement explaining their motives and stating that “we believe that there are other and better ways to stop Putin’s war”.
The split decision followed a week of tension, with leading RGA members and the Executive Committee disowning a rally that involved protests outside both the US and Russian embassies, even though the RGA’s international committee had endorsed it.
RGA spokesperson Mai Villadsen also publicly rebuked high-profile RGA MP Christian Juhl, who has a past in the Communist Party of Denmark.
Juhl had told the conservative Jutland Post — suddenly showing curiosity about RGA’s internal life — that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine “started” with the Ukrainian government pursuing an “inappropriate policy” on the status of the Russian language.
International committee convenor and Russian affairs expert Mikael Hertoft generally agreed with Juhl’s analysis but voted to support the sending of arms.
Three months later, the RGA’s position had consolidated, helped by the participation of MP Søren Søndergaard in a May 4‒8 delegation of European left and trade union representatives to Ukraine (Søndergaard’s English-language address to his Ukrainian audience can be seen here).
Further consolidation came at the conference itself, which featured greetings from a delegation of Ukraine’s left force Social Movement and a solidarity fund appeal for the organisation.
End of ‘Danexit’
In the 33 years since foundation, support for an unconditional Danish withdrawal from the EU has been part of the RGA’s DNA.
Brexit, however, had a disturbing impact as the evidence sank in that its main result was not the “liberation from Brussels” that many Danes aspired to, but increased social reaction and economic disorganisation.
In addition, the RGA has increasingly found itself torn between its commitment to withdrawal and its work in the European Parliament, involving the EU-wide struggle for reforms.
For example, Nikolai Villumsen, RGA Member of the European Parliament (MEP), was responsible for the adoption of EU-wide standards of asbestos removal after a consultation process with building workers and unions in many EU member states.
This contradiction also provided incitement for a hostile media to pester RGA representatives about when their organisation would have Denmark leave the EU — irrespective of the issue on which its press conferences were called.
Those experiences made clarification of the terms on which the RGA would still propose “Danexit” unavoidable.
In a first for the organisation, the conference debate was introduced by a panel discussion between spokespersons for the four competing positions. Each gave their assessment of the space for progressive politics within the EU and the conditions under which “Danexit” should take place.
These positions were presented by: the outgoing Executive Committee; the RGA’s EU Network; “The world is bigger than the EU” grouping; and a group comprising leading RGA figures Pelle Dragsted, Pernille Skipper and MEP Nikolai Villumsen.
The outgoing Executive Committee maintained the perspective of Danish withdrawal from an undemocratic EU but stressed that “Danexit” was not an end in itself. It presented three scenarios that would require a withdrawal referendum: EU institutions blocking a progressive government program; the EU assuming powers presently belonging to member states; and the existence of broad popular support for withdrawal.
The RGA’s EU Network argued that “Danexit” should be taken off the agenda and called for “a showdown at EU level, which today is the decisive framework for both Danish and European capitalism”. In its view, the EU is “the seed of a Euro-nationalist empire” but also of “a multinational and cross-border democracy”.
“The world is bigger than the EU” grouping argued that the EU is an unreformable project based on a “single market to promote the centralisation and concentration of capital”. In its view, the EU is anti-democratic and provides no defence against right-wing nationalism in member states. “Danexit”, if necessary, should be done democratically, but the main struggle is international — “for a different Europe, without the EU”.
Pelle Dragsted, former party spokesperson Pernille Skipper and MEP Nikolai Villumsen spoke for their “middle way” proposal, which they said arose out of dissatisfaction with those of the Executive Committee (“too simplistic and unbalanced in relation to the possibilities that actually exist in the EU”) and of the EU Network (“goes too far in abandoning the requirement for withdrawal … a progressive development in Denmark … will necessarily lead to a debate on whether to accept the obstacles or work for a Danish withdrawal”).
After discussion in which 60 delegates spoke, the EU Network’s position was voted out, followed by that of “the world is bigger than the EU” grouping.
The delegates next decided on 102 amendments to the two remaining texts. Eighteen were adopted, producing convergence between these documents, as bits of each were presented as amendments to the other.
The final vote favoured the amended “middle way” text, 157 votes to 155, but a broad majority, 187 to 107 with 10 abstentions, endorsed this result as the RGA’s new position.
Alternative to NATO — a work in progress
There was no time for a similar debate on any other issue, with motions on domestic matters all set aside to allow treatment of three motions dealing with the remaining conference hot potato — its position on NATO.
The RGA had already decided at the conference to oppose the stationing of US troops in Denmark and in the June 1 referendum to recommend no change to the country’s EU military exemption. Should it, however, continue to demand immediate withdrawal of Denmark from NATO?
The answer was to adopt the three resolutions, each with different nuances. The RGA will continue to fight against rearmament and for an end to Danish NATO membership, but not until an alternative “security architecture” exists. This will be developed in time for next year’s conference in cooperation with parties of the European left.
The implicit headline of the Danish mainstream media’s conference coverage was “RGA membership revolt fails to materialise”. That response betrayed incapacity to grasp the strength of the RGA’s internal democracy: no side in an often-passionate debate could complain after a rigorous process whose procedures were always in the hands of the conference itself.
That is not to say that all underlying differences and internal tensions were overcome. However, all the delegates this observer spoke to were relieved at the outcome, which better equips the RGA for operations in the new political universe created by Putin’s Ukraine invasion.
[Dick Nichols, European correspondent of Green Left and Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal, attended the RGA conference as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A more detailed analysis will appear on Links.]