Europe: european constitution, a bumpy road after the Spanish referendum

Those who form part of the European elite eager to built a European superpower capable of competing for markets and influence with the US and China will be forced to keep looking over their shoulder in the next 18 months.

The European Constitution, a treaty that reforms the rules that hold the European Union together on economic, foreign and common defence policy, will be put to the vote in 10 referendums across Europe in the next 18 months. A negative outcome in one of these referendums, particularly in France or Britain, could push the EU into a crisis.

When Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president heading the convention in charge of drafting the European Constitution, realised they had finalised a document acceptable for the European Commission he felt rays of historic achievement shining down upon his humble self and, of course, his most competent colleagues in the convention. Giscard d’Estaing, France’s president from 1974 to 1981 and known to have an almost comical obsession with social standing and a fondness for titles, predicted to the members of the convention that grateful citizens would one day "build statues of you on horseback in the villages you all come from". He also expressed the thought that this European constitution would last for at least 50 years.

Running the treaty past the European ‘citizens’

It did not take long before blazing rhetoric turned into murky reality. If the authors of the European constitution had imagined themselves, or statues of themselves, on horseback, the results of the first referendum brought them back to earth with a bang. The result of the Spanish vote on the constitution was not awe inspiring. Yes, 72% of those who came out to the polling boot voted in favour of the European Constitution treaty. But, only 42 percent of the voting public participated in what is probably the most pro-EU country in Europe. This was the lowest turnout in any vote since the death of Franco in 1975, and below the 45.9% in last year’s European parliament elections in Spain. Pollsters found that as many as 9 out of 10 people in Spain, which has benefited by £60 billon since it joined the then EC (European Community) in 1986, did not know what the European constitution was about.

European Union leaders had counted on a high turnout and an overwhelming yes vote in Spain to oil the wheels of future referendum campaigns in countries like France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Poland. The Spanish government has spent millions of euros promoting the constitution and getting people out to vote. They had ads in football stadiums, free copies of the constitution as a supplement to the Sunday papers and even the lottery tickets carried pro-European appeals. Still, the low turnout means that the EU leaders are in for a bumpy ride. If less than half of the population can be bothered to vote in a country whose economy has been transformed over the past 20 years there must be severe worries about what will happen in countries like Poland where the poll will be invalid unless 50% of the voters turnout.

What is the constitutional treaty about?

All of this does not necessarily show a rise in nationalism or a rejection of internationalism and solidarity between the peoples of Europe. What it does show is that the EU, with its merciless drive of neo-liberal policies, has alienated itself from the middle and working classes of Europe. In a recent poll by Eurobarometer, the EU polling organisation, people were asked what they wanted the EU to act on. The top three subjects coming out of this questionnaire were employment, pensions and education. The irony is that the European Union is acting upon these three fundamental aspects of life!!! It is pushing an agenda of deregulation of the labour market, it is very active promoting a higher degree of participation in the labour market from Europe’s citizens, especially the elderly i.e. pushing up the retirement age, last but not least the European Union is instrumental, through the Bologna agreement, in implementing the commercialisation and privatisation of higher education.

The focal points of the European constitution treaty for Europe’s elite are not the incorporation of the European Union’s Charter of Rights, which describes the rights and freedoms of every citizen of Europe, nor is it the passing reference to a "social Europe".

The European constitution lays down a framework for a common foreign policy and sets in stone the utter submission of its economic policies to neo-liberalism. Once this European constitution comes into effect it, will be "illegal" for member states to pursue economic policies that protect public services, nationalise industries or subsidise prices. If the social democratic policies which led to the creation of the welfare state in the aftermath of the Second World War in Europe were brought in after the approval of the constitution, they would be illegal and open to penalties from the EU and its member states. The EU constitution will be used as a weapon against any future radical governments in Europe who would try, even remain within the framework of capitalism, to introduce radical policies.

A United European Foreign Policy.

The other focal point for Europe’s bourgeoisie is that the constitution replaces the current rotating presidency of the European Council with a president who ‘serves’ a two and a half year term and, last but not least, the creation of an EU foreign minister, to represent the joint interests of the European ruling classes against their Asian and American competitors. In that sense the European constitution represents a legal framework for an imperialist EU block an an attempt to overcome the rivalry between the different European ruling classes in the pursuit of their specific interests on the world stage.

Arms wrestling with the US over China

That all is "not for the best in the best of worlds" was evident during the visit of American President George Bush in Europe and the ongoing wrangling about the lifting of the arms embargo on China. The European Union, headed in this case by France and Germany, want to end the embargo on selling arms to China (something the US opposes for fear of nurturing China’s growing imperialist ambitions around the world and in Asia in particular). The EU’s arms embargo, imposed after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, was mainly symbolic. Observers believe that at present, and in spite of the embargo, France and Germany are the third and fourth largest suppliers of armaments to China. The debate between the US and the EU has nothing to do with human rights in China or the encouragement of China as a world partner as they would like us to believe. The major powers in the EU want a piece of China’s annual 150 billion Euro military budget and a road into the non-military market.

Of late, the EU’s foreign policy has found a certain cohesion and momentum as they seem more capable of defending the interests of European capitalists against competing Imperialist nations, as the EU stands over China, Iran and the wider Middle East demonstrate. However, as is inevitable under capitalism based on the nation state, when the interests of the ruling class of different European countries do not coincide the European Union is paralysed and unable to overcome its contradictions.

All referendums are equal… but some more equal than others.

According to an EU official, quoted in the Financial Times, the EU is already drawing up unofficial contingency plans in case of a rejection of the treaty. "If we had a big member state – a founding member of the club – rejecting the treaty, we would have to start from scratch. The same could probably be said of the Netherlands, as another founding member…But if it were a smaller member state, particularly a new one, we all know what we would do."

What would happen is that if, for example, the Czech Republic rejects the treaty, the EU would ask to hold a new referendum until they said yes. There are precedents for the EU refusing to take no for an answer. In 1992, the Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty but were asked again in 1993 and voted ‘right’ the second time. In 2001, Ireland rejected the Nice treaty but voted yes a year later after the Irish establishment campaigned very hard indeed.

The biggest headaches for the EU leaders are the referendums in Britain and in France. A no vote in either of them would be a danger to the future success of the EU. Everyone agrees that a no vote in France would be the death of the European Constitution. Although a no vote in Britain would be very damaging to the European Union, it would not necessarily have the same effect as a no vote in France, some limited room to manoeuvre would remain, for example, going ahead with the EU without Britain.

"There would be a very serious problem, not to say a crisis inside the European Union,’ Jack Straw told the British parliament earlier this month.

Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, was forced into promising to hold a EU referendum when he was politically weak, faced with enormous opposition on the streets, and a little bit in parliament, to the war in Iraq and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction. Blair did not want to be seen, after taking Britain to war against the majority of public opinion, to go at it alone again and push the constitution through parliament without a referendum. According to the latest polls in Britain, only 20% of voters are in favour of the constitution. This leaves Blair hoping that another country of the EU will reject the treaty before the UK referendum in 2006.

According to Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, plans are ready to deal with a British No vote in a referendum next year. "Apparently France and Germany would announce their intention to build a closer union that would cover eight or nine policy areas" he wrote. They would form a core group together with Belgium and Luxembourg and invite other member states to join. He calls this the development of a "messy core" with different countries pushing ahead in different policy areas at different speeds.

The trouble with France.

In France, public opinion against the European constitution treaty is hardening. Since September support has been sliding from 69% for the constitution and 31% against to 57:43.

Both the centre-right and the centre-left parties are split over the European constitution. Former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius pushed the Parti Socialiste to hold an internal referendum about support for the constitution in December. The yes camp, headed by current leader François Hollande, won with 58 percent of the vote, while the no camp got 42 percent.

On the centre-right, figures like the former interior minister Charles Pasqua have made very forceful statements arguing that the rejection of the constitution would be a "salutary shock" for Europe.

"This [the treaty] is the founding act of the ‘New Europe’ dear to Donald Rumsfeld, subordinate to the financial markets, shaped in the Atlanticist mould with which Turkey’s accession conforms exactly, and integrated de facto into the ‘New World Order’ he wrote.

Probably the biggest shock for the French establishment came earlier this month when the CGT, the second biggest trade union confederation, voted in its leading body to appeal for a no-vote to the constitution, making the referendum a social issue and one of the themes central to the working class mobilisation against the Raffarin government. The leader of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, suffered an embarrassing defeat after calling for the union not to take a position on "political issues" like the European referendum. He wanted to steer the trade union federation away from a confrontation with the Parti Socialiste and well away from the debate on the need for a new workers’ party.

When on 5 February more than 500,000 public and private sector workers took part in the demonstrations against the attacks on the 35-hour week many of them carried placards and banners against the European constitution. The policies favoured by the French establishment and carried out by the Raffarin government are in tune with the "Lisbon Agenda", the European Union programme of deregulation and privatisation. The French government is now planning to invest 1.4 billon euros in an attempt to create a low wage sector in the economy. At the same time, official unemployment has broken the 10% barrier, the highest figure since February 2000.

It is therefore likely that the French referendum on the European constitution will be a rallying point for those who want to punish the Raffarin government and protest against the neo-liberal policies of both the French government and the European Union.

Trade Unions

The position of the CGT against the Lisbon agenda, the European Constitution and neo-liberalism stands in sharp contrast to the attitude that the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) and some of the national trade union confederations take towards Europe. In its call for an all-European demonstration in Brussels on 19 March, the ETUC expresses its implicit support for the Lisbon strategy and begs the European leaders to defend social rights. In Britain, different trade unions hope that the EU will provide them with ready-made laws protecting workers’ rights and improving workers’ conditions so that they themselves will not have to organise any real fight.

In general, European trade union leaders are fooling themselves if they still think the EU is going to deliver them a social Europe on a silver platter. This demand, and the implicit delusion that a capitalist Europe can deliver for workers what their capitalist home countries has not, has been the central demand of the ETUC bureaucracy for over a decade. While the ETUC begs at the doors of EU summits and councils the European Commission has steamrolled ahead with its neo-liberal agenda. The report of the High Level Group (HLG), headed by former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, and trusted with speeding up the implementation of the Lisbon strategy, was applauded by the ETUC (for more details see "Europe: speed up "Lisbon agenda", cwi website, 10 December 2004).

A Socialist Europe

The debate about the European Constitution is presented to us by the media as a very dull and boring round of exchanges between pro-Europeans and not so pro-Europeans, between those who want Europe to evolve over time towards a United Capitalist States of Europe and those who want to cling on to national sovereignty. The overall majority of reformist leaders at the top of the trade unions are selling the power of the working class to the pro-European wing of the bourgeoisie. In failing to take a class position, in failing to mobilise and fight in defence of workers’ rights against the European institutions as well as against the national governments, they invite more neo-liberal reforms and hardship upon workers, pensioners, immigrants, women and youth in Europe. An EU constitution can never represent these groups.

Socialists and workers must oppose all attempts to secure and legitimise the EU project of big business and the rich. The EU cannot be democratised, either by a constitution or by a constituent assembly. Only when the whole edifice of this neo-liberal union is broken down can we begin to rebuild the real solidarity between the workers and poor of Europe. This solidarity and unity will be based upon the voluntary cooperation between the peoples of Europe, upon the construction of a society in which the key sectors of the economy are taken out of the hands of the bankers, tycoons and majority shareholders. A society in which the economy is planned, managed and controlled by the working class, a socialist society.

Against this constitution and the jostling for power of the ruling classes, we put forward a workers’ alternative, a socialist federation of Europe.

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March 2005