European Union: Conference on draft constitution begins: another fiasco for the establishment?

After the No victory in Sweden, will the governments of the EU dare to hold referendums over the new constitution?

The European heads of government assembled for a summit in Rome on 4 October as the start of the Inter-governmental Conference to discuss a proposed European constitution. Outside, two mass protest demonstrations, numbering up to 200,000, made their way through the streets of the Italian capital.

One called by the European Trade Union Confederation had contingents from France, Germany, Belgium, Spain and even Finland. There were large and colourful contingents from the three major trade union federations in Italy and speeches from their leaders and those of left and opposition parties. The other demonstration was organised by the anti-globalisation movement in Italy and drew in contingents of students, anti-war activists and ’unions of the base’ like COBAS etc. plus large numbers of Communist Refoundation youth and party members. Both marches were organised in protest at the anti-working class policies of the governments of Europe – especially on the explosive issue of pensions. The ’No global’ demonstration concentrated on saying ’No’ to a Europe of war and markets!’ The special carabinieri police force had a heavy presence at the Palace of Congresses and clashes broke out with some of the demonstrators.

In Italy, Sunday’s marches are being seen as the opening shots in what promises to be a stormy autumn of struggle against the proposals of the Berlusconi government on this issue. Last week, right across Italy, workers downed tools and walked out of their workplaces to express their anger at the brutal announcement by the prime minister of a drastic pension ’reform’. The three major trade union confederations – Cgil, Uil and Cisl – have announced a four hour general strike for 24 October against the proposals which spell longer working lives and lower pensions for all workers. This is the context in which the IGC began. In the following article, written for Offensiv – the paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (cwi Sweden), Per-Åke Westerlund, examines some of the issues under discussion at this conference and some of the underlying contradictions in capitalist Europe today.

Also attached is the text of the leaflet in Italian distributed on Sunday’s demonstration by Lotta per il socialismo (cwi Italy).

cwi online.

Conference on draft constitution begins: another fiasco for the establishment?

We should expect sharp debates between the politicians of the EU states at the inter-governmental conference (IGC) which is starting in Rome from 4 October. The final result is quite likely to be another fiasco for the EU.

In June, the former French president Giscard d’Estaing and 105 politicians from the EU countries presented the draft constitution to be implemented in 2009. The constitution’s aim is to reshuffle power in the new enlarged EU and replace all previous treaties.

“Economic and social cohesion” is a key concept in the draft. “Its potential implications go far beyond those of Maastricht and the Single European Act”, the Financial Times commented on 20 June. The target is a more ‘efficient’ and coordinated EU, regarding economic policies, laws, immigration etc. Economic policy will be headed by a “Mr. Euro” – a finance minister for the EU.

It is already clear that tough debates and rotten compromises will be features of the IGC that is just beginning. One controversy will be over the length of the IGC itself. The governments of the big countries want the whole draft to be accepted, fast. Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, wants the IGC over before 31 December, while he still holds the presidency of the EU. But for example in Sweden the issue will not even be discussed in parliament until November.

Lack of democracy

Much further removed from the decisions are the workers of the EU and all its other inhabitants. This is the case, in spite of the fact that the constitution is being produced precisely to redress the EU’s ‘lack of democratic legitimacy’. Only every third citizen in the EU countries knew that the convention for drawing up the constitution even existed. In Spain, Giscard d’Estaing and the ‘105 Dalmatians’ were totally unknown to 90 per cent of the population, and only 1 per cent knew that the meeting was about a constitution.

What if the constitution was more well known? The "Yes" politicians in Sweden, after their defeat in the euro referendum of 14 September, claim that EU issues should have a more prominent role in Swedish politics. They do not realise that the EU will not become more popular once people understand the connection between unpopular national policies and the EU. This goes for the constitution as well. It serves the politicians and capitalists best if it is decided in closed meetings and then can be used as a cover for unpopular decisions.

The draft constitution increases the power of the European parliament over law making. The parliament is said to represent the people. This just shows further lack of contact with reality. The elections to the European parliament have an even lower turnout than national elections, and the MEPs are best known for their huge privileges.

The IGC will most likely be marked by sharp tensions. This year has already seen some of the deepest splits in the history of the EU. In the period before the military attack on Iraq, all illusions of a common foreign policy of the EU disappeared. The traditionally leading countries, Germany and France, allied themselves with Russia in the criticism of the military plans of the US, while Britain, Spain, Italy and most of the candidate countries sided with Bush. All over Europe, there were mass demonstrations against the war, the biggest in countries with warmongering governments.

At the same time the struggle over the euro erupted and its so called Stability Pact. Germany and France, again, have broken the pact’s limit for budget deficits – 3% of GDP. Italy as well wants more ‘flexible’ rules, while the Dutch and the Austrian governments have demanded punishment of particularly the French. These tensions have not been overcome and can be increased by the IGC itself.

Power within the EU

The draft constitution attempts to share out the power in an enlarged union. Ten new member countries joining in April 2004 will be represented in the IGC.

This draft of Giscard d’Estaing is in line with the trend from recent years, that more power is concentrated in the European Council (the summit meetings of presidents and prime ministers). Within the Council, the influence of the big countries has increased.

According to the draft, to get a majority it is necessary to have the support of countries with three-fifths of the EU population. Three of the four ‘big ones’ – Germany, Britain, France, Italy – will be enough. “The bigger countries, particularly France, Germany and Italy, are really happy with this and want the draft to get through the conference quickly and without any changes.” (Sweden’s biggest morning paper, Dagens Nyheter 29 September). Spain and Portugal in particular will lose voting power under the new proposal, compared to the compromise that came out of the summit in Nice in the year 2000.

The European Council will also get a president and a foreign minister, as spokespeople for the EU. They will undoubtedly be under huge pressure from the governments of the bigger countries. If they act more independently, and if the splits over foreign policy continue, they can become lame ducks.

Every government will still have the right of veto over foreign policy. In other areas like immigration, the veto right is abolished. Unilateral decisions can abolish the veto in other fields.

Generally, the draft underlines that EU laws are superior to national laws. “If we follow the draft, article 10 means that we give away the superiority of our constitution. In a conflict between for example the free press laws and federal (EU) decisions, the court would decide”, is what a Swedish professor, Sverker Gustavsson, wrote in a critical article.

The leaders of the bigger member countries have, over recent weeks, tried to coordinate their position for the IGC, as, for instance, at the summit of Chirac, Schröder and Blair in Berlin. Also Belgium and the Netherlands – founder states of the EU – are supporting the full draft.

The governments of the smaller states are most upset over the proposal that the EU Commission should have 15 Commissioners for 25 countries. At a meeting in Prague in the summer, they agreed on a counter proposal, that all member countries will have a commissioner – the way it is now.

Referendums?

It is not likely that Berlusconi can reach a compromise before 31 December, even if it cannot be ruled out. The governments will then do everything to avoid a total break-down during the spring. The informal target will be to have a text ready before the EU elections on 13 June next year. But, having achieved that, the problems are far from over. The politicians, at least in some countries, have to convince the voters. In a time of general strikes and mass struggle, that will be very difficult. Many politicians are asking whether they can win referendums at all.

“The Swedish experience revealed the problems of securing a Yes even when the entire political and business establishment supports the cause. Ireland’s political and business elite also failed to mobilise the Irish to vote Yes to the EU’s Nice treaty in 2001”, the Financial Times noted anxiously on 17 September.

Several governments have promised referendums over the constitution. Denmark and Ireland have a tradition of holding referendums for every new EU treaty, and cannot avoid it this time. But also the governments of France, Spain and Italy have promised referendums.

It is not true that referendums always end with a No victory. Referendums came about as a way for Bonapartist regimes (dictatorships) to claim public support. For example Napoleon III held a referendum following his coup d’etat in December 1851, in which people had no choice but to vote Yes.

An important first No victory was the Norwegian one over the fore-runner of the EU in 1973. In the 1990s, referendums have been lost in Denmark, Ireland and now Sweden. In Denmark, the No vote won over Maastricht 1992 and against the euro in 2000.

The conclusions of the Swedish political elite after their 14 September defeat were very clear. “No more referendums”, was the headline used by Niklas Ekdal, political editor of Dagens Nyheter. In Sweden’s case, the constitution will be voted on by the Riksdag, in silence and at the last minute. They will hope that no-one will notice it.

“Sweden is uncritically and loyally obeying a EU process which means that power and decision rights are secured only for the four biggest EU countries”, is how Sverker Gustavsson summed up his critique of the Swedish government.

Gustavsson and other critical voices, however, miss out that the ‘Big Four’ represent the major companies and capitalists in these countries. Workers and poor people in Germany or France are not winners. The support of the Swedish government for the draft is because they fundamentally have the same policies as Chirac and Schröder. All leading EU politicians support variants of neo-liberalism.

A two pace EU

The new constitution demands a consensus Yes from all member countries. So, technically, No from one country is enough to wreck it. No votes in Denmark and/or Ireland are very likely again this time. After the Irish No in 2001, the EU leaders just ignored it, but that will be more difficult in this case. The present political crisis of the EU, underlined by the No victory in Sweden, will then become even clearer.

At the same time, the No victories, not least in Sweden, show that referendums are no solution. They can raise the confidence of workers, but have to be followed by real struggle to mean a real change. No victories signify the weakness of the rulers, but does not change their political course.

The EU leaders are preparing for this development. Instead of “ever greater integration”, even on taxes etc, stated in the constitution, they will go for integration of smaller groups of countries. There are several examples. After the entrance of 10 new countries in April next year, only 12 out of 25 member states are part of the eurozone. The euro countries will still set the pattern for economic policy in the whole of the EU. Sweden’s economic policy is a typical example, in line with the EMU on privatisation and cuts of welfare.

The military projects of the EU can have a similar development. The British government, which has resisted any attempt to challenge the US, at the summit in Berlin for the first time said it was open for military cooperation of a smaller group of countries. Belgium, Germany and France are the leading governments in this field.

The division into A-, B- and C-teams is the most likely development. But deeper crises and contradictions can cause further shake-ups. An economic slump, combined with increased mass struggle, can wreck the whole EMU/euro project. A crisis over the constitution, which in comparison is minor, could for a temporary period make the EU into some kind of mini UN, without real power. The economic needs of the transnational corporations will, however, produce new proposals and grand plans for integration.

Alternative to the EU

Behind the EU project is the competition between the European capitalists and the even bigger companies in the US and elsewhere. The single market and coordinated neo-liberal economic policies are supposed to give them a better position. The capitalist politicians have strengthened this through the ‘Lisbon process’ which is about deregulating and privatising big parts of the economy, including energy, post, telecomms and air traffic.

In the WTO negotiations the EU was represented by one chief negotiator. This was possible because of common interests of the EU countries versus both the US and the third world countries. The economic contradictions within the EU, such as on the CAP (agricultural) subsidies, has been postponed for some years, after a French-German compromise of limited reductions.

Many pro-EU newspapers refer to an opinion poll in which 75 per cent of people in the EU countries were in favour of a common foreign policy. But they were not asked which policy. The anti-war movement showed that a big majority said no to the war of US imperialism and its European allies.

Chirac and Schröder of course have no alternative. Their ‘opposition’ to war was based on their own struggle for power, not on opposition to imperialism and exploitation. Both governments are now leading the attacks on workers and France is sharply increasing its military costs. It has already been demonstrated both that the EU cannot be a ‘progressive’ alternative to US imperialism and also that the different wings of the EU are united against the workers. That is a lesson now in relation to the IGC.

What is needed instead is a struggle for an alternative to the EU of the bosses and the capitalist politicians. The beginning of such an alternative is present in the workers’ struggle and the mass protests against the governments and their EMU policies. Workers all over Europe have a common interest in fighting against right wing policies and capitalism. New mass workers’ parties and the transformation of the trade unions into fighting and democratic organisations are necessary to achieve a real alternative – a democratic and socialist Europe.

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