ManiFiesta 2021 Speech by Peter Mertens, PTB President

Analysis
Author
Peter Mertens
ptb.be

Dear friends, dear comrades,
A friend in need is a friend indeed. That's what the popular wisdom says. This summer, there was a lot of need. And there were many friends. After the floods, there was an unprecedented wave of solidarity. From the very first day, thousands and thousands of volunteers went to Wallonia to help the people there. To empty the cellars. To distribute soup. To clean schools and shops.

Peter Mertens

I have seen dockers pumping out cellars, I have seen volunteers walking around with pancakes and bottles of water, I have seen refugees from a reception centre in Hainaut clearing a flooded house with volunteer firemen from East Flanders. This massive and spontaneous solidarity is comforting and very important. In the most difficult moments, it is the instinct to help each other that awakens in human beings, not selfishness.

We also went to help with our SolidariTeams. We are the party of people who take action. More than 2,000 volunteers are active in the SolidariTeams, three out of four of whom are from Flanders.

Our SolidariTeams emptied hundreds of cellars and distributed over 5,500 litres of soup in the most affected areas. Thanks to your donations, we have filled two trucks with washing machines, microwaves and fridges - because from the insurance companies you get at best half of a fridge. What are you going to do with that?

Our SolidariTeams are currently working with 25 industrial dehumidifiers to remove the moisture from the walls, house by house, so that people can at least have a roof over their heads again.

I was deeply moved by this impressive show of solidarity. A huge thank you to our SolidariTeams, to all the other volunteers and to all the organizations. Thank you for your commitment and solidarity. Give them a big hand!

After the flooding disaster, one big question remains unanswered: where was the government?
I saw with my own eyes how the people of the Civil Defence, as well as the firemen and the army, worked tirelessly with their boots deep in the mud. But there were far too few of them. Of the 1,200 civil protection officers we used to have, Minister Jan Jambon has eliminated 800. This is what the separatists are doing. Making sure nothing works, making sure the state fails.

The government has abandoned the flood victims to their fate.

It is not right that weeks after the floods there is still no coordination on the ground, because in this fragmented country politicians are more concerned with attacking each other than with helping the population. Everyone has jurisdiction, no one is responsible!

It is not right that volunteers have to organise food distribution, soup kitchens, clean-up teams and distribution centres, while politicians point fingers and hide in back rooms and cabinets.

It is not right that the government would rather make a deal with the big predators, the insurance companies, than fight to ensure that victims are properly compensated.

We want a federal commission of inquiry to thoroughly investigate this mess. Our country needs leaders who truly take responsibility.

We Are One

Dear friends and comrades,

In our country, almost everything is split up. The Royal Meteorological Institute (RMI) weatherperson couldn't warn of the July floods on TV. Because weather is federal, but flooding is a regional responsibility. "We can only say how much it will rain, but we can't say anything about the consequences," they explain at the RMI. This is totally absurd! A raindrop is federal until it hits the ground, then it becomes a Walloon or Flemish raindrop. Or one from Brussels.

Dear friends, the separatists have even split the raindrop. This is also the reason why flood warnings were not issued in time. Tell that to the people who lost a family member in the devastating waters, tell that to the 40,000 families whose homes were severely damaged. That we have lost precious time because in our country even the rain has been split.

We will never accept this senseless and stupid separatism. The RMI must be given back the opportunity to talk about floods and high water, and water policy must be made a federal responsibility again!

Meanwhile, N-VA President Bart De Wever wants Flanders to break away from Belgium, and then independent Flanders to merge with the Netherlands. First destroying the country, then sticking it to another country; only separatists can imagine such a thing. The split is the only option, says De Wever. Flemings and Walloons speak a different language, and we don't understand each other. Flemings and Walloons are like fire and water.

On what planet does De Wever live? Thousands of volunteers from all over Flanders spontaneously rushed to Wallonia to help, their trunks full of shovels, brooms and buckets. Never before have I seen such a wave of national solidarity.
What a contrast with the bitter nationalism of the N-VA! Tomorrow, Bart De Wever will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the N-VA in Plopsaland. Twenty years of separatism and right-wing extremism. Twenty years of propaganda to pit the Flemish, the people in Brussels and the Walloons against each other. And... twenty years of money down the drain. Because separatism will never conquer the hearts of Belgians. Even after 20 years of stirring up community disputes, two thirds of the population want less separatism and more Belgium.

In the flooded cellars of Verviers, in the waters of the Vesdre, I saw the real Belgium, the Belgium from below. When we help each other, everyone speaks the same language. The language of the bucket that passes from hand to hand, and says without words what everyone knows: This is solidarity, this is our country.

Dear friends and comrades, we will stop separatism, we will turn the tide. All together. For we are one. Wij zijn één. We Are One.

Pensions

Dear friends, dear comrades,

It is not right that we still have the lowest pensions in Europe. It is not right for this government to say that we must work until the age of 67.

This government does not keep its promises.

What promises did the Parti Socialiste make, what promises did Vooruit make, before the election? "We will not join the government if the retirement age remains at 67." What did the Greens say? "Increase pensions, not the pension age." That's what they said. But the pension age remains at 67, and the PS and the Vooruit joined the government, as did Ecolo and Groen, and all of them reneged on their election promises.

But what is going on here in our country? All the traditional parties want to make people work longer, while people say: it is impossible, our bodies are worn out. Just ask around: nine out of ten people do not want to hear about having to work until the age of 67. Three out of four people even think that 65 is too long. Therefore, the retirement age must be lowered. Because when you are 67, all jobs are too hard.

Dear comrades,

In the past, people carrying out a hard job could retire early at 56 or 58. But that's gone now. It's a thing of the past. Minister Lalieux's new retirement plan makes people work longer. Almost all systems that allow for early retirement are restricted or blocked. The minister now says that people should be able to retire at 60 "if they have worked for 42 years". But almost nobody has worked 42 years by the age of 60. You must have started at 18, so you must not have studied, not have repeated a year, not have worked part-time and not have taken breaks for the children or to care for an elderly parent. So that doesn't happen.

This week I received a message from Martine, who is 46 years old. Martine started working as a nurse at the age of 24. "Flexibility, speed, the ever-increasing administrative burden, new technologies, all of this weighs on people," she says. "And above all, the team shifts are really difficult. There are many colleagues who suffer from sleep disorders, and there are many burnouts in the sector." With the new regulations, Martine will have to work until age 66 anyway. "I don't see how that's possible, Peter," she said. "I really don't. I have a rheumatic condition, I don't know how I can do it. It will be a disaster. And even if I work until 67, I won't have a full career, so I won't have a full pension."

Workers are the ones who are missing from the retirement debate. There is a lot of talk about "them", but people like Martine hardly ever get a say.

They have worked hard all their lives, they make society work, they were applauded during the coronavirus crisis, but now they are getting the bill. The government promised to regulate heavy- duty jobs, and now that promise has been completely forgotten.

We say: stop!
People must be given the right to rest and enjoy freedom in the autumn of their lives. We want a fair pension system.

We read in the press: "The PTB weighs in on the pensions debate". And luckily we do. Fortunately, there is one voice that says we cannot go on like this. Fortunately, there is one voice that says the retirement age should be lowered. Fortunately, there is one voice that speaks up against the right- wing prophets of ageing, who claim that it is impossible to pay good pensions, but who themselves are leaving with a pension of 6 000 euros and more per month.

"We can't pay this", exclaims Bart De Wever. But these words, "can't pay," were not in his vocabulary when it came to the tax-shift, which took billions from the Social Security coffers and gave them to big business.

We must shout out loud: They empty and weaken the social security system, and then they claim that the pensions cannot be financed and that people have to work longer. Fund social security properly and fairly. Denmark, Sweden, Austria, France and Portugal invest 25 to 50% more of their wealth in pensions than we do. If they can do it, why can't we? It's a matter of choice. It's a matter of choice.

Of course, the PTB is weighing in on the debate on pensions. In December, the government wants to come back with a new plan. We have three months to get things moving. We have three months to push for fair pension reform, and we will.

We say:
Let's lower the retirement age to 65.
Let us give people who need it the right to an early retirement at the age of 60, after 35 years of service.
Let's give access to end-of-career jobs from the age of 55, without loss of pension rights.
That is a fair retirement policy.

Afghanistan

Dear friends, dear comrades,

Today is September 11, twenty years after the attack on the World Trade Center, and twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

At the time, everyone was in favour of this war: the MR and the N-VA, but also the PS and the sp.a, as well as Groen and Ecolo. We were the only ones protesting, saying, "The invasion of Afghanistan will only make the situation worse." Vlaams Belang was also in favour of the war. I can still see Filip De Winter holding a banner: "Bush is right".

But Bush was not right. Afghanistan is a disaster.

Instead of peace, Afghanistan has entered a deadly spiral of unending violence, with 46,000 civilian deaths.
Instead of democracy, Afghanistan got a corrupt and rotten regime.
Instead of prosperity and progress, Afghanistan has seen years of misery.

Bush was not right.

The truth is that more than half of Afghans today live in terrible poverty. Even today, seven out of ten women cannot read or write.
The truth is that the United States, with its occupation policy, has only strengthened the Taliban. Not by supporting them directly, militarily and financially, as in the 1980s, but by causing many civilian casualties, bombed by US drones.

The truth is that the United States has not brought democracy and prosperity to Afghanistan at all. The 2 000 billion dollar that the United States has pumped into the conflict has not reached ordinary Afghans, but has ended up in the pockets of a corrupt regime, local militias and multinational arms companies.
The truth is that the United States has built nothing in Afghanistan, and even a house of cards would stand longer. The truth is that the Afghan regime collapsed at the first breeze, and the army left everything behind, so that today the Taliban are not fighting with second-hand weapons from the 1970s, but with ultra-modern and sophisticated US weaponry.

That is the truth. Afghanistan illustrates the failure of the imperialist policy of military occupation and political interference. Again and again. In Iraq, military intervention has given birth to the horror of the IS. In Libya, bombing has led to slavery and civil war. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are back.

We must learn from this. It is time for the government of our country to opt for an active peace policy, instead of systematically following US imperialism in every military intervention.
We are in favour of the emancipation of peoples by the peoples themselves, and not by a policy of military occupation.

We opt for diplomatic solutions to regional conflicts.
We want an active peace policy, not a war for the benefit of big business.

Climate

A story does not unfold in a linear fashion, in one straight line. The world is changing, sometimes in sudden leaps, sometimes at moments of rupture. The mess in Afghanistan is one of those defining moments, as is drastic climate change.

It was global warming that unleashed all the weather phenomena this summer. Look at the floods in Belgium, but also in Germany and Austria. In Greece, Italy, Turkey and California, the opposite happened: forest fires affected thousands and thousands of people. Even Siberia was ravaged by a heat wave and forest fires.

The climate issue is also a class issue. In Verviers and Pepinster, it is the ordinary workers who live in flood-prone areas, who are poorly insured and who have now been abandoned by the politicians. They do not bear the greatest responsibility for global warming, but they are the ones who get the bill.

To combat global warming, the Vivaldi government is now considering imposing a carbon tax, a climate tax, on the population. At the same time, however, the real culprits, the polluting multinationals, receive 7.3 billion euros in gifts. We will not save the climate with this kind of anti- social climate policy.

It is high time for a social climate revolution. No lectures. No green taxes. But a real social climate policy. As a society, as public authorities, we must invest in green energy, in green public transport and in sustainable industries. The climate is far too important to be left to the logic of free market profit.

This voice will be heard on 10 October at the big climate demonstration in Brussels, and in November at the international climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where our student movement Comac will go with 200 young climate activists.
That is what we need. A strong climate movement from below for a social climate revolution.

Conclusion

Dear friends, dear comrades,

Today we celebrate the eleventh edition of ManiFiesta. The first edition took place in 2010, in Bredene. Those who were there at the time will never forget it. A heavy summer storm had knocked down almost all our tents. The festival was then rebuilt in the middle of the night, so that it could still take place. We are persistent, no matter what storms come our way.

It was also at this very first event, in 2010, where we launched the "we are one" campaign, to protest against the political class, which was desperate to win the gold medal for the longest government negotiations, as well as the world record for community hate speech. Our answer was: we will not be divided; together we are stronger.

Dear friends, look where we are today, in Ostend, at the eleventh edition of this unique festival of solidarity. At a ManiFiesta bubbling with commitment and optimism. With a party of 23,000 members, present throughout the country. With a party that weighs in on politics. With a socialist ideal as a response to the shocks of capitalism.

Dear friends and comrades. We will make things happen. Together we are turning the wheel of history. Not backwards, towards splitting, hatred and division. But forward, towards unity, struggle and solidarity.

Thank you all for your commitment.
Thank you for being here in such large numbers again today. Thank you ManiFiesta!

Wij Zijn Één. Wir Sind Ein. We Are One. We. Are. One.

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