Spanish, French left: How to stop Putin without boosting NATO, EU?

Issue 
Anti-tank guided missile
The PSOE-led government in Spain is sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine, overriding opposition from its junior partner, Unidas Podemos. Image: Skitterpro/Pexels

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, it becomes clearer that it has delivered many political presents to forces supporting the status quo of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

There’s a life-support machine for NATO itself, which French President Emmanuel Macron described in 2019 as “becoming brain-dead” due to former United States President Donald Trump’s resentment at the cost of the Atlantic alliance.

There’s fancy-dress to disguise the authoritarian racist leaders of Poland, Hungary and Slovenia as democrats.

There’s superglue for hardening the borders of the EU “club of states” against the right to self-determination of its stateless peoples.

There’s also a spotlight for catching far rightists in Putin’s company. This is especially useful in France with the campaign for the April 10 first round of the presidential elections underway, and racists Marine Le Pen (National Confluence, RN) and Eric Zemmour (Reconquest!) lauding Putin as a model of charismatic national leadership.

Le Pen has not only had personal meetings with Putin; in 2014 her party received a €9.4 million Russian loan.

Islamophobe Zemmour has described Putin as “the last resister against the politically correct hurricane which, beginning in America, destroys all traditional structures, family, religion, fatherland”.

Targeting the left

However, EU-NATO supporters have found that the best gift in their new treasure chest is a “lose-lose” trap to be set for the parties to the left of social democracy.

If these parties don’t back increased defence budgets and a military role for the EU they must be “Putin’s objective allies”: If they do, their difference from social democracy fades.

The only way to avoid this trap is to separate the issue of arming embattled Ukraine from the left’s opposition to NATO and the present EU — a distinction some are struggling to make.

The trap is most lethal in those countries where social democracy is in government and has a more radical force as junior partner, as with the coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Unidas Podemos (UP) alliance in Spain.

In France, the trap has been laid with special care for leading left presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose France Unbowed (FI) campaign is drawing support away from the Socialist Party and Greens.

Most French mainstream media lump Mélenchon with the two extreme rightists because of his history of denouncing NATO’s eastward expansion and calling for understanding of how this is seen in Russia.

Hypocrites and warmongers

The hypocrisy and exultant militarism of the EU-NATO cheer squads were on show in the March 1 session of the French National Assembly and March 2 session of the Spanish Congress of Deputies.

In Spain, PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told Congress that Putin’s actions “constitute a direct threat to the freedom of peoples to decide their future”.

Only a fortnight earlier, responding to the demand for a referendum to allow Catalans to decide their future, Sánchez had responded that “independentism is a political theory of the 19th or 20th century” and that “referendums only divide”.

The day before, French MPs heard Jean-Christophe Lagarde, spokesperson for the “liberal” Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) proclaim: “The Romans used to say ‘Si vis pacem, prepara bellum’ ['If you want peace, prepare for war']. That is what Europe must learn. That’s where the weakness of Ukraine resides, which over the recent months and years has led Russia and its dictator to think that it could easily invade Ukraine and expand its empire, to distract attention from the country’s domestic difficulties.

“[W]e must re-arm France rapidly, strongly and in depth. The same goes for our continent.”

Resolution for all tastes

These obscenities followed the March 1 session of the European Parliament, which adopted a resolution that produced disunity within the Left group after its key amendments had been defeated. These rejected a new arms race, prioritised conflict resolution and disarmament, opposed immediate Ukrainian accession to the EU as a provocation of Russia, and called for an end to inflammatory war rhetoric.

The resolution called on “Member States to accelerate the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine in response to clearly identified needs and in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows for individual and collective self-defence”.

These words could be interpreted according to taste, with the slippery term “defensive weapons” allowing the supply of practically any sort of military hardware in any quantity. The text also “reiterated that NATO is the foundation of collective defence for the Member States who are NATO allies”.

Miguel Urbán Crespo, member of the Spanish Anticapitalists and a Podemos Member of the European Parliament (MEP) voted against: “The official version is that this is a resolution that condemns the Russian invasion and is in support of the Ukrainian people, but that is not true. [It] is an excuse for accelerating European remilitarisation and reinforcing NATO’s role as world cop.”

Principle reconciled to position

The European Parliament resolution legitimised a change of line from the Sánchez government on March 2. Spain would now send lethal weaponry to Ukraine, overriding the UP's opposition.

UP spokesperson Pablo Echenique objected: “We think that sending arms, whether from Spain or any other country, is a mistake. And we think that it is a mistake because it isn’t effective in ending the conflict. Many soldiers have told us in private that arming the civil population against a professional army is not going to change the correlation of forces.”

Sánchez replied: “[UP] are wrong because Ukraine as a country suffering aggression has the right to defend itself, because Ukraine and the Ukrainians are fighting the invading power on completely unequal terms, and because 'No to War' doesn’t just apply to the Iraq War but to Putin’s war.”

Tensions surged when social rights minister Ione Belarra, a UP minister from Podemos, commented that when people demand answers to Russia’s aggression, “the war parties obviously say to you ‘very good, we’ll send arms’”.

Equality minister Irene Montero, the other Podemos minister in UP, counterposed “precision diplomacy” as an alternative to supplying weaponry. Enrique Santiago, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) said sending arms “makes a diplomatic solution harder”.

However, UP’s three other ministers — labour minister and third deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz, consumer affairs minister Alberto Garzón (United Left and PCE), and minister for universities Joan Subirats (close to Catalonia’s Together We Can) — all backed Sánchez.

Podemos then climbed down, with spokesperson Isa Serra saying: “The question is whether we called the PSOE a ‘war party’ and the answer is ‘No’. We are going through very difficult times and Sánchez knows he can count on our support.”

Within three days, MPs from the main parties to the left of the PSOE had supported, opposed and then resigned themselves to their senior partner’s new position.

Yet, given anti-war sentiment in Spain, the choice of position wasn’t easy — even for left forces free from pressure to preserve cabinet portfolios.

Prominent in everyone’s mind was the strangulation of the 1931–39 Spanish Republic by General Francisco Franco, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

In the words of Gabriel Rufián, spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC): “If the international community had supported those antifascist republicans, Franco would today be a coup-monger forgotten by history.”

The ERC and the Valencian regionalist force Commitment did not oppose Spain’s sending arms to Ukraine, while the Basque left-independentist EH Bildu, the Galician National Bloc and Catalonia’s People’s Unity List did.

In France

A similar abrupt shift took place in FI's line on March 1 in France's National Assembly, when Mélenchon attacked the position the FI MPs had voted for in the European parliament: “I regret that the EU has decided to ‘supply the arms needed in a war’, according to commissioner Josep Borrell, in charge of foreign relations. That decision makes us parties to war!”

Mélenchon called for “going to the heart of the problem”, by calling an extraordinary session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to guarantee Ukrainian neutrality, the removal of missiles targeted at Russia and the beginning of nuclear disarmament.

At a March 6, 15,000-strong rally in Lyon, he rebaptised himself as “the peace candidate” and re-committed to withdraw France from NATO and become non-aligned.

[Dick Nichols is European correspondent of Green Left, based in Barcelona.]