EU: Irish ‘No’ vote hits EU rulers

Growing crisis & revolt across Europe

Article from the July-August 2008 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (cwi England and Wales)

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Irish ‘No’ vote hits EU rulers

The vote in Ireland against the Lisbon treaty has stunned the EU rulers. Reeling in shock, establishment politicians and big-business are branding the electorate as ignorant and reactionary. The majority of Irish NO voters, however, consciously rejected their plans to press ahead with the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and attacks on workers’ rights and living standards.

“The countries that have said ‘no’ will have to ask themselves the question again”. (Jean-Claude Junker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, following the defeat of the French and Dutch referendums in 2005) “Despite the lip service paid to democracy, western societies are effectively run by moneyed oligarchies, who have as little time for their wage slaves as did the ruling elite of ancient Athens”. (Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson, The Gods that Failed) “‘The people have spoken, the bastards’. So said one Californian candidate when voters did not respond to his electoral charms in the way he desired”.

Similar sentiments towards the Irish people are now shared by the Irish capitalists and their counterparts in Europe following the stunning victory of the No vote in the referendum on the Lisbon treaty. They had the effrontery to defy the combined weight of ‘official’ Ireland and the EU institutions, nominally representing 500 million people. The vote is all the more astonishing in that all the hallowed institutions of the Irish capitalists – all the main parties apart from Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party – including the summits of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) were mobilised on the side of the Yes campaign.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. True to form, the European bourgeoisie as a whole has reacted with horror to this cheeky defiance of ‘one per cent’ of the EU population to its grand plans. They have urged with one voice – some screeching while others plead – that the Irish people repeat history and duly repudiate their latest vote in a new poll before March of next year. Yet the Irish referendum result is not exceptional. The Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and then on joining the single currency in 2000. A popular vote in 2003 saw the Swedes reject the euro, too. The French and the Dutch gave the political leaders a ‘collective bloody nose’ on the EU constitution in 2005.

Yet in a breathtaking demonstration of contempt for the ‘democratic will’ of the European masses, there is a chorus demanding that the result in Ireland should be unwound by hook or by crook. ‘How can 1% of the EU population hold the rest to ransom?’ is the bellicose cry of the recent summit of the EU. The truth is, however, that, given the same choice, many countries – perhaps even the majority – would reject the undemocratic, pro-neoliberal big-business charade of a ‘treaty’.

The novelist and critic Colm Tóibin, writing in The Guardian, poured scorn on the outcome of the referendum: “A godsend to every crank in Ireland – on the left or on the right”. Yet even he is compelled to admit: “It is likely that this treaty would have been defeated in many European countries had it been subjected to a referendum”. The treaty was, in any case, ‘a rose by any other name’. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who presided over the drafting of the original constitution, following its rejection in 2005 declared that the treaty “amounted to the same thing”.

The treaty is so dense – 269 pages weighing at least eleven pounds – that, during the Irish campaign, even the new prime minister Brian Cowen admitted that he “hadn’t read it”. Nevertheless, the mass of the Irish people – it is true, for a variety of reasons – were well aware of its implications and how it would seriously impact negatively on them. They were assisted in drawing this conclusion by the vigorous No campaign – in which the Socialist Party and, particularly, its main spokesperson, Joe Higgins, played a crucial role, as other articles in this issue illustrate.

The Lisbon treaty is a neo-liberal charter, the purpose of which is to further encroach on the rights, working conditions and living standards of the mass of the people in a further ‘race to the bottom’. The Irish result illustrates the deep-seated hatred that is now developing, not just in Ireland but on a European and world scale, to the ruling elites. It vividly demonstrates, in particular, a deep class divide. Even Garret Fitzgerald, a former Fine Gael (‘Family of the Irish’) prime minister and standing on the ‘liberal’ right, said that the No vote was strongest in working-class areas, while the Yes campaign did better in affluent constituencies. The result, he said, “was very class divided, which is disturbing in its own right”.

EU manoeuvres

An equally wide gulf has opened up between the pro-treaty leaders of the ICTU and the ranks of the unions, who were on the other side of the barricades in this campaign. The working class remained impervious to the threats emanating from Brussels that the roof would fall in if they voted No. Bernard Kouchner, an alleged socialist yet serving in the cabinet of right-wing French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, warned: “The billions of euros Ireland has received in EU funds will probably be choked off if they voted against the wishes of the EU tops”.

Yet during the campaign, posters urging a Yes vote were seen alongside ‘For sale’ boards in the rapidly declining housing market and the failing economy. Unemployment has climbed by nearly 50,000 people in a year to reach 5.4% and is expected to increase rapidly in the next twelve to 18 months.

The net result of the referendum is confusion, bordering on pandemonium, within the EU institutions. Before the result, the EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, declared: “There is no plan B in case it is No”. In fact, the treaty is plan B, as the rejected constitution of 2005 was plan A. The attempt to repeat the example of the Nice treaty, when the Irish voted Yes only in a second referendum, faces formidable obstacles. The No camp’s margin of 53.4% to 46.6% on a turnout of 53%, higher than in both the Irish votes on the Nice treaty in 2001 and 2002, makes this difficult.

Moreover, the Irish No vote will undoubtedly encourage opposition in other countries to the implementation of the treaty. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the president Vaclav Klaus has flatly declared that the Irish No means that Lisbon is finished. It seems he has little formal power but, nevertheless, it falls to him to officially approve the treaty and the Czech Republic assumes the EU presidency for six months on 1 January 2009 – the day that Lisbon is due to take effect. As the Financial Times commented, the Czechs have a “somewhat muted enthusiasm for the EU, evident since it joined in May 2004 [and] may produce confusion just when the bloc is trying to dig itself out of its crisis”.

Moreover, the attempt of Gordon Brown to rush ratification of the treaty through the British parliament indicates, to say the least, contempt for the British people’s views. David Cameron, the Tory leader, has stated that ‘Lisbon is dead’ and, should they win power in the next election, probably in 2010, they will seek to “renegotiate a fresh deal for Britain”. But as Berthold Brecht declared after the East German government expressed its ‘disappointment in the people’ after the East Berlin uprising of 1953, “would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

So desperate is the European bourgeoisie that all kinds of fallback positions are being discussed. The idea of a ‘two-speed’ Europe – with Ireland and other similarly ‘non-conformist’ nations relegated to the slow lane – is once again being floated. There is still ferocious pressure to force the Irish to think again. The little concealed arrogance and impatience of capitalist commentators was summed up by Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times: “The No vote leaves the country with exactly two alternatives. One is a humiliating u-turn, consisting of a Yes vote in a second referendum without a material change in circumstances. The other is that Ireland could lose its full membership if the second referendum produces a second No victory. Ireland’s citizens would send the country back to the economic dark ages, from whence it emerged only a few decades ago”. The German foreign minister has even suggested that Ireland should “withdraw temporarily from the process of European integration”.

Obstacles to capitalist unity

The implication is that later, when the Irish have ‘got it right’, they could rejoin. But others, such as the French, have talked about a ‘legal arrangement’, which is legalese for forcing Ireland to leave the EU. If this was done, it is not ruled out that this could create a No domino effect, involving the Czechs, Swedes and, not least, the British. This would shatter the impression of ‘European unity’, the cherished goal of the European bourgeoisie for decades. Against the economic might of the US, and the growing powers of Chinese and Asian capitalism, the European capitalists have sought to overcome the divisions of the continent in order to establish an economic, military and diplomatic counterweight to these rival capitalist blocs.

But, as Marxists have argued, and as Socialism Today has underlined in a series of articles, the major obstacle to unifying the productive forces – the organisation of labour, science and technique – is the ownership of private property by a handful of billionaires and the national state. At the same time, the enormous expansion of the monopolies has completely outgrown the narrow confines of the national state.

Such is the modern scale of production, technique, investment and management that the multinationals and transnationals which dominate world trade as never before plan their operations not on a national but a continental, and now a world, scale. This would be the starting point for a democratic socialist plan, which would liberate the productive forces from the stultifying limits of capitalism. Starting from the national sphere, with full democratic workers’ control and management, it would be entirely possible to organise a European plan linked to a world plan of production.

In a period of economic upswing, it has been entirely possible for many of the obstacles to economic collaboration to be overcome, or at least considerably reduced. But the establishment of a unified European bourgeoisie – as the US ruling class is unified – is utterly impossible within the framework of capitalism.

Much has been conceded by the different national states to the institution of the EU. Indeed, one British commentator, the right-wing economist Samuel Brittan, argues that EU powers have extended “to the Brussels level decisions that are left to the state level in the US”. But the EU has not fully integrated the productive forces on a continental scale as is the case with the US, at the present time. Hence, the numerous ‘opt-outs’ on crucial questions for different national governments. For instance, the British opt-out on the 48-hour week. The EU institutions, moreover, particularly the European Council (the body on which government leaders sit) envisaged by the Lisbon treaty, would not be elected. These ‘figures’ would be selected by heads of government who are themselves elected for other reasons. No-one knows whether the commissioners are a legislative or an executive body.

Neo-liberal agenda falters

The European bourgeoisie is itself divided over what route the EU should take in the next period. The decisive sections – the banks, the aristocracy of finance in general, as well as the big industrialists, employers and employers’ organisations like the CBI in Britain – are in favour of a more integrated EU. They see the EU treaty – with its pronounced neo-liberal bent, with opposition not just to nationalisation but of state subsidies to ailing industries – as a guarantor of the untrammelled play of the ’free market’, the hallmark of European and world capitalism over the last three decades. In this, they display what Karl Marx called “parliamentary cretinism” (‘constitutional cretinism’, in this case), a treaty fetishism. They believe the treaty would guarantee the permanence of the economic counter-revolution against the rights and conditions of the working class which went with this period.

The EU sought to pressurise the Brown government against nationalising Northern Rock. But the internal pressure in Britain compelled the government to brush EU objections aside. Similar threats from the EU have been made to Poland to prevent government subsidies to ailing shipyards. Against a serious economic and social crisis, the EU treaty will be seen for what it is: a scrap of paper.

The same applies to the euro, whose tenth anniversary was recently ‘celebrated’. There is no guarantee that it will see its 20th birthday, maybe not its eleventh or twelfth. The launch of this currency coincided with the seemingly unstoppable progress of neo-liberal, turbocharged capitalism in Europe and the world. However, the onset of the present economic crisis – still in its early stages – combined with the crippling rise in the value of the euro in relation to the dollar, and the consequently devastating effect this has on European industry, has seen the re-emergence of all the fissiparous tendencies of the past. There could be defections from the eurozone, particularly of Italy, because the high price of the euro is having a devastating effect on the competitive position of the country, which is already on its knees.

Growing crisis & revolt

A growing social crisis on the heels of the economic fall-out will compel national governments, often against their will, to introduce ‘emergency’ measures to ameliorate the situation in the teeth of mass pressure. Northern Rock is just one example of this. Brown’s New Labour government earned the ire of the European Commission for taking this measure, one that Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had to be dragged kicking and screaming to ratify. Needless to say, they have promised to restore Northern Rock back to the private sector once the state – through the taxes paid largely by working- and middle-class people – has paid for its renovation.

The Irish No vote, therefore, could signify a new stage in developments in the EU. Rather than it being a ‘hiccup’ along the way to a more integrated capitalist Europe, it could signify the beginning of many revolts against the European capitalists and their anti-working class, anti-democratic policies. What is striking about the EU referendum in Ireland – which is mirrored in every country in Europe – is the total disconnection between the official establishment and the mass of the people.

Part of this establishment is now the rotten tops of the trade union movement in Ireland, but also in Britain and most countries in Western Europe. The British trade union leaders, particularly the TUC, utterly incapable of defending the present standards of the working class through industrial action, never mind making further conquests, look towards Europe, particularly a ‘social Europe’, for salvation. Via this route, they reason, cuts in hours and greater trade union rights in the workplace can be achieved, which are presently barred to British workers by the existence of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws – perpetuated in Britain by Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown.

But the capitalists, via the Brown government, have successfully lobbied their European counterparts against lifting the British opt-out of the 48-hour week. Yet in the first quarter of this year, 300,000 extra workers were working 48 hours or more, adding to the total of over three million who already work these hours. Only combative trade union action can begin to change this situation – not special pleading through the so-called ‘progressive’ EU project.

Contrast the huge effect of the Socialist Party in Ireland and its best-known representative, Joe Higgins, with that of the shameful posture of the official trade unions in the Irish referendum. The role played by Joe was absolutely critical in taking on and exposing the arguments of the senior political and business representatives of the establishment. This was generally recognised. In the Dublin ‘Evening Herald’ newspaper, media analyst and consultant, Terry Prone, cited Joe among her ten reasons why Lisbon was defeated. (see ‘Lisbon Treaty No Vote Delivers Major Shock for Political and Big-Business Establishment’, Kevin McLoughlin, Socialist Party, CWI Ireland, 14 June, Imagine if the labour movement’s leadership was heavily populated by the likes of Joe Higgins. Then, not just this treaty could be defeated but the whole continent-wide conspiracy of capitalism could be turned back.

Our opposition to the EU is not one of narrow nationalism. We participated in Ireland alongside many opposed to the treaty – some not for progressive reasons. But we made absolutely clear our differences with them and our approach to European unity. We oppose narrow nationalism. We stand for the unification of Europe which, we repeat, is not possible on a capitalist basis. Only a socialist Europe, a united socialist federation of Europe, organised by the working class, can take the peoples of the continent out of the blind alley into which it is heading – a crisis-ridden economy, an ever-growing gap between rich and poor, and continuing attacks on the living standards of working-class people. This is the future of Europe, not the moth-eaten, tawdry remnants of the EU treaty, which represents the past.

Socialism Today

This article is from Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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