What has Europe ever done for us?

Submitted by Matthew on 27 May, 2010 - 2:39 Author: Vicki Morris

The revolutionary socialist left is avowedly internationalist. We base our actions on ideas such as these in the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx:

“The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.

“The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

“National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

“The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action of the leading civilized countries at least is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

“In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”

In a three-part series Vicki Morris asks how well the far-left is living up to its self-definition, through an overview of how it relates to the bourgeois project of European integration, in particular, the European Union (EU). The first article is an overview of the “European question”.

In 2005, a tidying up measure called the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (European Constitution Treaty/Treaty) was proposed. It would consolidate existing agreements between the participating member states of the EU into one document.

It was presented as an attempt to confer some more democratic legitimacy to the EU project. The new Treaty was drafted after proposals from a Convention on the Future of Europe. What was their intention?

This body had a little representation on it beyond the usual governmental representatives, but was nonetheless far from being a widely inclusive body enabling a large-scale debate on Europe’s future. In spite of its grandiose title, its remit, really, was to tidy up what had already been agreed and to increase the capacity of the EU to take decisions by majority rather than unanimously. Decision-making was becoming difficult in the enlarged EU — 10 new countries, including many of the eastern European countries formerly in the Soviet bloc, joined the EU15 in May 2004.

The Treaty would also add some citizen-friendly bells and whistles by giving legal force to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which enshrines certain political, social, and economic rights for EU citizens and residents, and increasing the powers of the directly elected European Parliament.

In 2005, the right-wing French and Netherlands governments opted to put the proposed Treaty to a referendum vote. They campaigned for a “yes” to the Treaty, but were defeated, on 29 May in France by 55% to 45% against (69% participation); on 1 June in the Netherlands by 62% to 38% against (63% participation).

The vote against the Treaty in France — with Germany, one of the supposed “engine” states of the European integration project — had a massive impact, and probably boosted the Netherlands “no” vote.

Very important to the result in France was the vigorous campaigning of the forces that made up the so-called “‘non’ de gauche” (“left-wing ‘no’”) — this included most of the far-left:

• Trotskyist groups Lutte ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR)

• social justice movement Attac France

• French Communist Party

• significant personalities in the Socialist Party (PS): deputy leader Laurent Fabius (by no means on the left of the party), Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Henri Emmanuelli, although the Socialist Party’s official position was to vote “yes”.

With the exception of LO, which stood somewhat aloof, these forces collaborated in a more or less united campaign for a “no” vote.

French president Chirac had called the referendum partly as a vote of confidence in his presidency, expecting to win. Defeat was a blow to his prestige.

Why did the votes go against the Treaty? The reasons were legion, and included a mixture of right-wing and left-wing reasons. The BBC reported on the scenes in the Netherlands when the result was announced:

"The No Constitution Rap, theme tune of the 'No' campaign, blasted out and the Socialists danced. The gist of the song is this: 'If you want a social Europe, and a Europe for the people, not for business and money, then say "No" to the constitution.'

"Some voters evidently did want a social Europe, and voted 'No' for that reason, but many others said 'No' for quite different reasons. The television screens looming above the party-goers were showing a live programme from Hilversum. Right-wing 'No' campaigners periodically appeared — the maverick MP Geert Wilders, for example, whose main theme during the campaign was opposition to immigration and Turkish membership of the EU.

"On the streets of Amsterdam, people were giving varied arguments both for and against the constitution. One person talks about the euro, the next about domination by bigger EU states. Another will talk about Brussels bureaucracy, or the threat to Dutch liberal values, or loss of sovereignty and national identity, or the motor of European integration speeding out of control. …A common complaint is that Brussels does not listen...."

From France, three days earlier, the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt had reported:

"[One woman said]: 'I hope this will be the start of a new project for a more social Europe.'

"Others here insisted this was not a vote against Europe.

"'It was a pro-European no,' said one young man. 'We are not against Europe— we just want a different kind of Europe...'

"Yet this result was as much a rejection of President Chirac and the French political elite as a rejection of the treaty itself.

"There is anger in France over 10% unemployment and a stagnant economy, while many worry that Europe is simply too big and no longer built in France’s image.

"The 'No' campaigners’ message convinced many that the treaty would enshrine an 'ultra-liberal' economic approach which would bring about far harsher competition between EU nations, with French jobs migrating to cheaper eastern European workers.

"Likewise, fears over Turkish entry to the EU… became enmeshed in the passionate debate about the treaty."

On the surface, more than in the Netherlands, French rejection of the Treaty did seem to have a left-wing impulse. However, there can be a significant cross-over between rejecting the supposed “neo-liberal” direction of the EU project and simply wishing to keep one’s own job, even at the expense of, for example, the “Polish plumber”, a character popularised in the campaign, supposedly arriving in hordes to put French plumbers out of work. Concerns about “offshoring” — companies exporting jobs to eastern European member states where labour was cheaper — could also be “left”, “right”, or a mixture. There is nothing automatically internationalist about rejecting “neo-liberal” Europe.

As they trumpeted their victory, the left ought to have acknowledged the confusion of people’s motivations, but they didn’t. Pro-Treaty press and politicians sought to portray the “no” vote as inward-looking, nationalist and chauvinist. But, actually, it is only good sense for socialists to want to be sure about what is actually going on.

Opinions on actual nitty-gritty EU questions tend to play a small part in people’s political choices in such things as European Parliamentary election campaigns. These tend to play out as referenda on national political issues.

It is reasonable to see Chirac’s referendum defeat in the context not just of people’s views on the Treaty in question (scarcely anyone who voted on it knew what it said) but also against the backdrop of recent social battles.

For much of the far-left, the referendum offered an apparently irresistible opportunity to defeat Chirac. The left worked hard for its victory, and enjoyed its moment of giving Chirac a bloody nose. But had it done the right thing? Was this campaign a distraction from more important political questions?

There were people on the left who voted “yes”, with whom unity had to be rebuilt when the referendum was over: were false battle lines drawn in the working class movement?

And what were the lasting gains of the “no” votes?

The pro-EU ruling classes of Europe scratched their collective heads for several years over what to do next, and the votes around the Lisbon Treaty, the successor to the failed Treaty for a European Constitution, gave the left more chances to organise “no” campaigns, in Ireland in two referenda, one in 2008 (which the “no” campaign won) and one in 2009 (which the “no” campaign lost). But was this a good use of the left’s time? Could it have been doing something else to bring its goal of “Another Europe” closer?

In the run-up to these Treaty referenda, the AWL advocated an “active abstention”. If there had been a referendum in the UK — and those who wanted one had a right to it — we would have advocated an abstention campaign that involved a public debate on the issues raised, and that argued positively for the workers’ movement to use the contradictions within the EU project in order to promote our own alternative to “bosses’ Europe” — “workers’ Europe”.

In 2005, the AWL argued the “No Campaign will not lead to a better Europe”. Martin Thomas wrote in Solidarity 3/74 (2 June 2005):

"Let us stand back and take a longer view. Since the 1960s the AWL and our forerunners have had to respond to several rows in mainstream politics over Europe...

"In every case, governments have asked us: either these (their) terms for European integration, or block integration? Which do you want?

"The proper working-class response, we believe, is to counterpose European-wide workers’ solidarity and democracy to both bourgeois alternatives. …

"The EU is European unity 'in an incomplete and deformed way'! We want European unity 'through the fight for socialism and democracy' — but if we are not strong enough to win it that way, and we are not, then history does not stop. Capitalism makes its own sort of progress, in its own class-divided, destructive way. The job of Marxists is not to try to halt capitalist development — but to fight capitalism within its development, to push through that development towards socialism."

Different sectors of the bourgeoisie support more or less European integration. They take different views, for reasons that might relate to their immediate economic interests, strategic calculations, or sometimes just plain sentiment. When the far-left says that the EU is just a bosses’ Europe, they downplay the fact that Euroscepticism can equally be bosses’ Euroscepticism.

How much more powerful a rejection of the bourgeois political class as a whole it would be if the labour movement and socialists were to refuse to choose between the choices they present us with: neither big transnational bourgeoisie nor insular, nationally minded capitalists, but workers’ Europe!

We should pose a positive alternative, such as the programme for European workers (see below), which the AWL advocated around the time of the debate on the European Constitution Treaty.

Can there be such a thing as a “left-wing ‘no’” to EU integration? In principle, it might be possible, but it is a question to answer concretely.

If it is possible to build and shape a left-wing “no” in France, that is clearly distinguishable from the right-wing “no” campaign — Is it possible? And is that what happened in 2005? — it does not necessarily follow that it is possible to build a left-wing “no” campaign in the UK. If the socialists and far-left cannot acknowledge that the question might be answered differently in different countries, that this is an issue to be taken into consideration, it perhaps shows the limits of their internationalism.

Is a vicarious left-wing “no” possible? On the day after the French referendum vote in 2005, on the European Social Forum email lists, socialists and “alternative globalisation” activists lined up to congratulate the French comrades on their victory.

This experience was repeated when the first Irish referendum rejected the Lisbon Treaty. We were all “French”, then we were all “Irish”. None of us ever wanted, apparently, to be Luxembourgeois or Spanish — both countries that approved the European Constitutional Treaty in referenda.

Whatever else we think about the result of the referenda in France or the Netherlands in 2005, or in Ireland in 2008, it is hard on a very simple level to understand how a vote that rejects deeper EU integration cannot be understood as, in the first place, a rejection of European integration as such.

Undeniably, however, some people think that it is possible to oppose every measure aiming at greater European integration through the EU, and yet be "pro-Europe". To an extent we have to take people’s motivations and beliefs at face value. How do they understand their actions; what do their actions mean to them? We can question whether objectively they are bringing about the thing they want, whether their means actually serve their ends. That is another question.

Yet it is legitimate to ask why, if it is possible to make a choice between the ruling class options offered to us, and at the same time pose the alternative of a workers’ Europe, does the far-left never choose the option of the bourgeoisie's European integration project? Is it a case of better the devil you know?

While there is much to criticise in each new step on the road of EU integration, there is an awful lot to be said against the alternative: a Europe of national states and rivalries, with closed borders; in the worst times, tariff wars and real wars. A Europe of passports and visas. Of redundant national notes and coinages that must be changed every time someone wants to buy something from a foreign country or go on a trip...

In March 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which founded the Common Market, the Independent newspaper compiled a list of benefits of European integration.

Not all are “good” from the point of view of socialists, and all are open to qualifiations, but you will search in vain to find many people on the far-left, in Europe generally but particularly in the UK, who will even acknowledge that the EU project entails any positive benefits from the point of view of the working class. All of the following deserve to be factored into the left’s discussions about its attitude to the EU:

So, what has Europe ever done for us? Apart from...

• The end of war between European nations

• Democracy is flourishing in 27 countries

• The creation of the world’s largest internal trading market

• Laws which make it easier for British people to buy property in Europe

• Four weeks statutory paid holiday a year for workers in Europe

• Europe is helping to save the planet with regulatory cuts in CO2

• One currency from Bantry to Berlin (but not Britain)

• Free medical help for tourists

• Study programmes and cheap travel means greater mobility for Europe’s youth

• End of the road for border crossings (apart from in the UK)

• Compensation for air delays

• European driving licences recognised

• Britons now feel a lot less insular

• Strong economic growth…

Of course, for all of the above arguments, counter arguments can be made highlighting a negative side — against the idea that it has helped to prevent war, critics will charge that the EU is just a project to make the European countries stronger against the emerging powers of China and India, and, long term, makes bigger wars more likely; that at the beginning it was a Cold War project pursued by the USA against the Soviet bloc. There is some truth in all of these arguments, but there is also some truth in the case made by the Independent.

On the far-left, however, it is extremely rare to find anyone who will talk about the EU as what it is, not a monolith — even in its institutions, there are different views on the direction it should take — but a contradictory creation.

Yes, the EU is overwhelmingly a neo-liberal, free market trading bloc, but then its member states are overwhelmingly capitalist states representing the interests of national bourgeoisies. Why should we prefer the one to the other? The fact that the EU has become more of a neo-liberal, free market trading bloc over time reflects the trend in the politics at the national level of the Member States.

We should engage with this contradictory creation, and we can and should use those aspects of it that we can use in pursuit of our goals, e.g., we should use the European parliament which provides democratic checks on EU legislation and a forum for debate about the future of European integration.

A programme for European workers

• For a Republican United States of Europe! Scrap the existing bureaucratic structures and replace them with a sovereign elected European Parliament with full control over all EU affairs.

• Fight to level up working class living standards and conditions. For a common campaign for a legal 35 hour week.

• Fight for a guaranteed decent European minimum wage.

• For a Europe-wise emergency programme of public works to tackle unemployment and social exclusion. Workers’ control of the big multinationals, to steer production toward need and to guarantee every worker the right to a decent job.

• For Europe-wide public ownership of all the big banks, and democratic control of credit and monetary policy.

• For the replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy with a plan worked out by workers’ and small farmers’ organisations, based on the public ownership of land. Food production should be geared to the needs of the world’s hungry people.

• For the abolition of VAT and the financing of public services by direct taxation.

• Stop all the state hand-outs to big business — subsidies, tax concessions, reductions in employers’ contributions for social security — and use the money to create jobs in public services.

• Prioritise rebuilding good public services, halt all privatisation plans.

• For free abortion facilities, freely available, everywhere.

• For a Europe which respects the environment, putting controls on industries which pollute, phasing out nuclear power.

• For a Europe open to the world! Free movement of people into the EU; free access for Third World exports to EU markets; a big EU aid programme without strings to the Third World.

• For the right to vote of all residents of EU countries.

• Scrap the proposed Europe defence force. For the replacement of all the EU states’ existing military hierarchies by people’s militia. For a Europe free of nuclear weapons!

• For a united working class. For Europe-wide shop stewards’ committee in all the big multinationals and all the major industries!

• Fight to rebuild a European international socialist movement.

• For a Workers’ United States of Europe.


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