“First of all, I want to say fighting the far-right is a moral and a cultural obligation. And there can be no compromises with the agenda of hatred, of antisemitism, of scapegoating the migrants. In this regard, we feel in line with many forces in the European spectrum of politics,” said Walter Baier.

The 70-year-old Austrian was nominated last month by the Party of the European Left (PEL) as its candidate to head the next European Commission. Baier has been PEL president since December 2022 and helped found the “transform!europe” network of alternative thinking and political dialogue.

The Party of the European Left is the larger of two leftist formations in the European Parliament – along with Now the People. Both are part of the 37-strong group of lawmakers called The Left in the EU parliament – where polls point to a surge by far-right movements in the upcoming elections across the 27-nation bloc in June. 

According to the Austrian politician, fighting the European far-right requires strong social politics, respect for the social interests of employees, liberation of young people from the danger of insecurity and guaranteeing access to decent housing.

“We drew up an electoral manifesto of which the specificity is that it is written from the perspective of the working class and young people,” said the former head of Austria’s communist party.

”It cannot be that large parts of our societies are worried about heating their homes during the winter or that they are afraid of the necessary ecological transformation,” Baier added.

The main issues the far left plans to target ahead of the June European Parliament elections are therefore “the social, economic and ecological interests of the European people”. 

According to Baier, it is essential to pay attention to the ”social interests of the working classes” in order to combat the extreme right in Europe. 

Climate change must also not be forgotten in the fight for social justice. “Ecological reorganisation must go hand in hand with the reduction of social inequalities,” Baier said.

With these priorities for his campaign, Baier rules out for the time being that the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will gain the support of the Left group in the European Parliament because “she is not the right person” to implement them.

Von der Leyen is seeking a second term as president of the European Commission after the election in the summer, for which she also needs a majority in the European Parliament.

Enshrining the right to decent and affordable housing, tackling Airbnb-type platforms

“In our manifesto, we have several demands regarding the housing crisis, starting with enshrining the right to decent and affordable housing” so that “adequate housing becomes a fundamental right in the primary law of the European Union”, argues Baier, revealing that he will be travelling to around ten EU member states to campaign.

According to the candidate, the measures also include imposing limits on rents and creating a European fund to help municipalities and cooperatives create housing.

“We would like the European Union to invest in the housing sector and we are in favour of strict and rigid regulation of [the activities of] Airbnb-type platforms,” he says.

With regard to rents, the party proposes the creation of an EU directive “that obliges member states to introduce legal limits on rents and to ban fixed-term tenancies and forced evictions from primary residences” and also the exemption of “public housing financing from the rules of the internal market and competition”, so that countries can provide more aid to the sector.

Time to “negotiate” in Russia-Ukraine war, backing Pope Francis’ call

The head of the EU’s main leftist political grouping has said it is time to “negotiate” an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, rallying behind a controversial call by Pope Francis for Kyiv to raise the “white flag”

“I believe helping the Ukrainian people means now making attempts to end the war,” said Walter Baier. 

Baier underlined that his party – whose 26 full members include Germany’s Die Linke, France’s Communists and Greece’s Syriza – had “absolutely condemned the Russian aggression” in its manifesto for June’s European elections. But in a joint interview with the European Newsroom on Monday, he said the conflict’s “frozen” fronts required a new approach.

“I would wish from the European Union… to take diplomatic efforts to start negotiations to achieve a ceasefire and to achieve the withdrawal of the Russian troops,” Baier said.

“In this regard, I fully support what Pope Francis was saying. Now it’s the time to end the war, and now it’s the time to negotiate and stop killing,” said the Austrian politician.

In an interview broadcast earlier this month, the Argentine pontiff urged Kyiv, which has been fighting invading Russian forces for more than two years, to “raise the white flag and negotiate”.

The Ukrainian government reacted with fury, even while the Vatican insisted the words “white flag” were intended to mean a cessation of hostilities, not a surrender.

Analysts see no immediate prospect of negotiations to find a breakthrough in the Ukraine war, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin emboldened by the erosion of Western support for Kyiv – while Ukraine is determined to keep fighting to recapture territory.

Video: FENA, Language: English

On Western Balkans and EU Enlargement 

When asked about the Austrian government’s opposition to expanding the Schengen Area to include Romania and Bulgaria, Walter Baier found clear words. 

“Allow me to answer now as an Austrian. I find the position of the Austrian government shameful. It’s unjust, it’s unfair and it’s ineffective,” Walter Baier said about his home country’s opposition to expanding the Schengen Area to include Romania and Bulgaria.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP, centre-right) has consistently maintained, including at the March 6-7 congress of the European People’s Party in Bucharest, that Vienna does not agree with the expansion of the Schengen Area as long as it is not functional in his government’s opinion.

According to a decision made at the end of 2023, Romania and Bulgaria will enter the Schengen Area from March 31 with air and sea borders. Bucharest authorities have stated that in 2024 they will continue the steps for Romania’s full integration – also with land borders – into the European area of free movement.

Earlier this month, the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU announced that it would continue to work for a full accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area, in line with the recommendations of the European Commission.

In the interview with the European Newsroom, Baier pointed out that the European Left can play a constructive role in fulfilling the criteria of the countries of the Western Balkans for joining the European Union.

Baier recalled the Copenhagen criteria, which were set in 1993 as basic conditions for EU accession, emphasising the importance of respect for human rights and the rule of law.

“I would also add respect for trade union rights and labour rights. I think that the European Left Party, which is in contact with left forces in different countries of the Western Balkans, can play a constructive role in creating these conditions, which are laid down in the Copenhagen criteria,” Baier pointed out.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.