Netherlands: Repercussions of the “NO” vote against the European constitution

The clear class “NO” vote expressed increasing anger with one of the most unpopular governments in the whole of Europe. It is likely that new struggles will unfold in the autumn

Rejection of neo-liberal policies

The Dutch and the French voted against the European Constitution with a clear majority. This is a rejection of the march of capitalism. The goal of the European Constitution was to enable Europe to compete with the US and Japan, but also with China and India. Everybody knows what this means. Lower wages, longer working hours, less social security and the plunder of pensions. Privatisation of public utilities and therefore higher prices. People have to pay more for education and health care under pressure of ‘market forces’. This is the essence of the policy of the European Union and national governments.

International competition and national rivalries are key points in the propaganda for the ‘necessity of economic reforms’. In the campaign around the referendum the entire Dutch bourgeoisie spread this conviction: established political parties, the top of the trade unions, environmental organisations, all newspapers and TV-stations blurted out the gospel of the free market. Their programme does not mean progress. It means many steps backwards for the working class. Their programme is aimed at the destruction of the remains of the ‘welfare state’, the reforms that have been achieved through years of struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the reforms from the 1940s are under fire.

Welfare state under attack- a short history

When the first post-Second World War crisis broke out in 1973, a long period of cuts started. In the Netherlands the working class was able to defend many reforms successfully with actions and strikes. The automatic wage compensation for price rises was a good example. With the second world-wide recession in 1979 the trade union resistance was less successful mainly because of the betrayal of the trade union leaders. They signed away the automatic compensation for prices in 1982 in exchange for jobs that never came (the Wassenaar Agreement). The hopes of workers were directed towards the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) in 1986. But instead of aiming for a majority government of the Labour Party on a socialist programme and the roll back of all cuts the Labour Party aimed at a coalition with the bourgeois Christian Democrats. This coalition materialised in 1989 to the enormous disappointment of Labour Party supporters. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the seemingly total victory of capitalism in the 1990s the defence lines that the trade union leadership had half-heartedly raised, collapsed. After the recession of 2001 capitalism started an almost unhindered attack on the remains of the welfare state in order to destroy them.

The first wave of attack was an enormous quantity of propaganda. What followed were a flood of government measures. The propaganda spoke of the ‘responsibilities of the individual’. About how certain sectors and public enterprises had to ‘take care of themselves’. About the necessity of individual targets and the necessity of competition with others and the rest of the world. About the necessity of reorganisation in companies and government. About the necessity for older people, unemployed and sick to provide for themselves. The words ‘self’, ‘own’ and ‘individual responsibilities’ took on a whole new meaning. But not only for the social stragglers who have to fend for themselves. For the many new millionaires, the receivers of options, managers, the top people in society ‘taking care of yourself’ took on the meaning of shoving millions in your own direction. The world was verbally turned upside down in order to justify what it was all about: grab, catch and rake in and make the workers pay.

The government attack on early pensions and remains of social security like disability payments last year led to an enormous mobilisation of the working class on October 4th when 300,000 trade unionists assembled in Amsterdam. The government deserved no better than to be swept away by a 24 hour strike but unfortunately this did not materialise. The trade union leadership did not call for an all-out counterattack but decided to seek compensation and repair through collective labour agreements. The huge demonstration in Amsterdam, the first big trade union demonstration in 12 years, made clear that the working class was prepared to defend itself.

Who does the EU represent?

The EU has committed itself entirely to the same march of capitalism that national governments work for. The introduction of the Euro currency led to a fall in living standards. Many people felt that their income had been halved with prices remaining the same. The European Services Directive opened the service sector to competition for workers from lower wage countries. The EU squarely supported the policy of privatisation. All these policies have been given their own “NO”: the results of the referenda in France and the Netherlands. Like the newspapers wrote: the class struggle is back. In France and the Netherlands rich and most highly educated people voted in favour of the European Constitution. In the Netherlands the “Yes” voters were easy to find: they were all concentrated in the richer areas. Workers overwhelmingly voted against.

Perspectives for struggle

The class struggle is back in Europe. In the sense that a period has ended in which the bourgeoisie could wage the class struggle almost one-sidedly and was able to push the working class to the side especially because of the co-operation of the leaders of the former workers’ parties and the trade unions. Defence has proven effective. The elite has long enjoyed the support of groups in the middle who temporarily enjoyed the fruits of speculative economic growth. These have now also begun to resist and many rejected the European Constitution. It is true that part of the resistance came from a section of the bourgeoisie that sees a solution in nationalism and, in the Netherlands, Christianity sometimes. The real weight of the opposition however was the working class. That a successful defence on the political plane was conducted is of historical significance.

On the trade union front struggle has already proven persistent. We have had a 24 hour strike of municipal workers; it will certainly get a follow-up. We have the local doctors in action. The largest actions ever of the police have started. There is a week of action in child care where employers have lowered their contributions enormously. The actions of various groups should lead to what did not happen after October 2nd last year: a 24 hour general strike against this government. The “NO” to the European Constitution means that this government has lost its basis.

Politically the “NO” is a huge landslide. On the European level it is most fortunate that both France and the Netherlands have said no. The signal of a majority of the population in two countries is much stronger than the signal from one country even though it would not have made much of a difference for the fate of the Constitution. Britain has taken up the presidency of the European Union since July 1st. The government of Britain (Blair) is a staunch believer in neo-liberalism. It has a strong capitalist agenda which is supported by the leaders of some of the new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe. But this agenda has just been rejected by France and the Netherlands. In Germany parliament has said yes to the Constitution but this country is in a difficult position with the upcoming elections. Blair hopes to engage Germany to the neo-liberal agenda on the basis of an election victory of the Christian Democrats in September. But this is far from assured and even with the help of Germany the combined agenda of neo-liberal reforms, financial perspectives for the EU and the accession of countries like Turkey (which the German Christian Democrats oppose) will prove to much even for a politician like Tony Blair.

The clear “NO” in France and the Netherlands is a stimulus to workers in other countries to stir resistance. Whatever the results of further referenda in other countries: the dream of a united capitalist Europe that swoops down on the world market has been shattered. There will be no capitalist tiger coming from Europe. En more importantly: the dream that European workers will accept the necessary drop in living standards is dead.

Political repercussions for the Netherlands

The consequences for the Netherlands are enormous. The Socialist Party has come forward with a clear “NO” as the only one of the ‘left’ parties and it waged a successful campaign. Not all the elements of the campaign were positive. Party members complained about the slogan: “You should know what you approve”. Passers-by often said to people who were putting up posters: “But we are against!” Some elements of the campaign were nationalistic in the eyes of “OFFENSIEF”. It was a mistake to state that the Netherlands would be wiped off the map. But the fact remains that the SP put in a strong and successful campaign that was justly rewarded by an enormous increase in public support.

It must be said that members of the government generously contributed to the “NO” campaign by threatening the outbreak of war, economic recession and by saying: “Stay at home if you don’t know which way to vote”. The problems of the bourgeoisie have increased hugely because of the “NO” vote. The strategy of the Dutch bourgeoisie is to make the Netherlands ready for the world market through neo-liberal reforms that “will hurt in the beginning”. They expected that an economic boom in 2006 would pull the Netherlands and Europe out of stagnation through larger exports and increasing internal consumption. Then in May 2007 the ruling coalition would reap a rich reward in the form of an election victory and it will continue its policies to the benefit of all. This scenario is now shattered. The “NO” vote will continue to haunt the cabinet. There will be no economic boom to speak of. The bourgeoisie knows that the elections in 2007 will be a punitive expedition. The Liberal Party tries to commit the Christian Democrats to its side. The government tries to stoke fears of a combination of the Labour Party, the Green Left and maybe the Socialist Party in order to keep the voters on the right path. For the Christian Democrats a day of reckoning is inevitable. The Prime Minister is unpopular and he will remain so. The Christian Democrats could opt for a more “social” policy and enter into a coalition with the Labour Party. Such a combination would simply continue the neo-liberal policy of the present government. Apart from appearances there will be nothing “social” about it; all parties apart from the SP supported the EU Constitution.

Tasks for the socialist and labour movement

For the labour movement the main question is how its political interests are best served after the “NO” vote. Here is an enormous opportunity for the Socialist Party in the future. The SP will play an important role on the basis of its years of action and its “NO” campaign. A large part of the supporters of the Labour Party has moved to the Socialist Party on that basis. It would be an enormous blunder of the SP leadership to squander the present support for the party by moving towards a Labour Party/Green Left coalition. We must continue to reject the policies of these parties.

The attitude of the trade union leadership towards the European Constitution has shown that the FNV trade union federation is by no means the combative union organisation that it should be. The process of the rebuilding of the unions has not sufficiently progressed in that direction. But the present struggle around collective labour agreements will show the necessity of rebuilding the unions time and time again. Improvements and reforms won’t come about easily like in the times of boom in the 1960s. In order to fight off attacks and in order to put minor improvements into effect workers will have to fight hard not only in the Netherlands. International co-operation is necessary. Trade unionists and activists from all over Europe should come together and draw up a programme of demands, like for a minimum wage in Europe, a European 35 hour working week and the nationalisation under workers’ democratic control of major companies. The SP also faces the necessity to establish European centres to co-ordinate the future struggle against neo-liberalism.

Socialists enter into struggle for the defence of the rights of all working people and participate in the struggle of reforms in favour of the working class. But they also continue to point to the failure of capitalism to develop society. Socialists and workers should reject all attempts to confirm and justify the European Union. The EU is a project of large corporations and the rich.

The EU cannot be democratised. Certainly not by a Constitution or a Constituent Assembly. Only by tearing down the complete buildings of the neo-liberal union can we make a beginning with the construction of a society based on solidarity between the workers and with the poor in Europe. Solidarity and unity will be based on voluntary co-operation between the peoples of Europe. It will be directed towards the establishment of a society in which the key sectors of the economy are taken out of the hands of the bankers, business people and shareholders. A society with a planned economy, administered and controlled by the working class, a socialist society.

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