Europe: Final days to EU constitution referendums in France and Netherlands

Days before the referendum in France and the Netherlands on the proposed EU constitution, the ‘No’ camp leads.

With only a week to go in the referendums campaigns over whether to adopt the European constitution, many people are left wondering what kind of future, if any, this document has beyond the outcome of the polls in France and in the Netherlands.

Pro-EU politicians in France entered the frantic week just as the sixth consecutive poll put the no camp ahead.

Among those who have made up their minds on how to vote, the poll put the no camp on 52%, against 48% for the yes camp. Indicative of the sharp polarisation and the politicising effects of the debate in France, only 8% of those polled declare themselves undecided.

Unpopular government, unpopular president

The French government, like its Dutch counterpart, is so unpopular that campaigners for the European constitution have publicly asked Prime Minister Raffarin to keep quiet, fearing that his intervention in favour of the EU constitution might win the argument for those campaigning against. François Hollande, leader of the social democratic Socialist Party, said the best service Raffarin could render to Europe is to stop speaking.

The support for the Raffarin government stands at 24%, the lowest level since its election in 2002. There is not so much lack of support for the Raffarin government as outright anger against it. The percentage of voters who are "fairly or very dissatisfied" with the French Prime Minister stands at 74%, a figure that reflects the number of people who have been involved in demonstrations and actions against the neo-liberal policies of the Raffarin government.

As far as popularity goes, Jacques Chirac, the French President, is not doing any better. His personal approval ratings slipped to 40%, the lowest in 8 years.

Punishing the governments

Most commentators fall over each other as they try to convince the French and Dutch public not to use the referendums on the constitution as a means to punish their government. But why shouldn’t they? Isn’t it the government, together with the European Union, that puts into practice the neo-liberal policies of privatisation and deregulation? Are not these the policies responsible for growing poverty in France, the largest programme of austerity measures since WW2 in the Netherlands, and, in both countries, a social security system that is crumbling under the weight of counter reforms? At the same time, multinationals and large companies are making their largest ever profits.

The French public was stunned when leading French companies published their profits for 2004. Total, the oil company, published profits that were up by 24%, to a blistering 9.04 billion euro. L’Oreal, the cosmetic group, managed a rise in profits of 143%, and made 3,351 billion euro. ‘Société Générale acquired a 25.4% hike in profits and made a total of 3,125 billion.

Yet during the 2003 summer heat wave in France 15,000 people died because hospitals, lacking money, could not cope with the extra demand. The government then used this to scrap a national holiday and make Whitsun a working day. The plan was to ask workers to work for free and to contribute to a national ‘solidarity’ fund for the vulnerable. It did not work. French workers correctly saw through this new attack on their rights and refused to be made to pay for health costs that the government should make. Such is the confidence of the working class after the big protests at the beginning of this year, and the fear of the government of facing defeat in the upcoming referendum, that Prime Minister Raffarin and his ministers decide not to interfere with striking workers on Whitsun.

Defeating the constitution

The European constitution is part of the strategy of the EU ruling classes to tighten and streamline the rules and functioning of EU institutions. It enshrines more neo-liberal measures and makes any economic policy that tries to regulate market forces ‘illegal’. The European elite dream of turning Europe into the most competitive economy in the world and beating the US on the world market. At the core of this dream is the Lisbon agenda of deregulation, privatisation, and a war on workers’ social protection. The European constitution was intended as a ornamental cape; a respectable cover for the Lisbon agenda

The defeat of the European constitution would be a huge blow to the confidence of the ruling classes in Europe and would create an atmosphere of panic and crisis in the European Union. Some parties in the No camp, and, in particular, those in the PS, but also in the French Communist Party (PCF) and the left LCR, to a certain extent, like to think that a defeat of the European constitution is a first step towards a more ‘social’ Europe. They think a ‘kinder’ capitalism would emerge from the ashes of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ EU.

The pro-constitution parties have started to mirror that argument, saying that a defeat of the constitution would destroy the political power of France in the European Union and would, therefore, be a guarantee of a more Anglo-Saxon EU.

Both arguments are wrong. The defeat of the European constitution, while marking an important blow against the establishment, particularly in France, and a confidence boost for the working class, would not alter the fundamental orientation of capitalism in Europe.

A social Europe of a socialist Europe

While the political parties argue about the European constitution, and over what ‘sort’ of Europe is needed, they avoid speaking about the proverbial elephant sitting in the middle of the room – the system of capitalism, whether American or European ‘models’, is in crisis and cannot develop the forces of production in a harmonious and productive way for the majority of the population. The crisis of capitalism is on economic, social and political levels. It needs to be replaced with socialism, based on the public ownership of the heights of the economy, under democratic workers’ management and control. But this ‘sort’ of Europe, of course, remains unmentioned by the main political parties in the referendum campaign.

The CWI says:

  • Vote No in the EU Constitution referendums
  • Reject the bosses’ EU and neo-liberal attacks
  • For mass protests across Europe, including strikes and general strikes, to defend workers’ rights and conditions
  • For a socialist confederation of European states, on an equal and voluntary basis
  • For a European-wide planned economy, under the democratic control and management of working people – people not profits!

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May 2005