The defeat of the EU Constitution shakes up Europe

by Joseph Green
(CV #36, Sept. 2005).


. Below is a revised and expanded version of a presentation given at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of June 19, 2005.

A vote against neo-liberalism
Different standpoints
The end of European integration?
Lenin and European integration

. For a number of years European integration seems to have been barreling forward. It was only a few years ago that the new European currency, the Euro, was introduced to replace a number of the national currencies. The newest big step was supposed to be getting a Constitution for the European Union (EU). It required unanimous approval by all the EU member countries, and it was backed by the main European parties and the bulk of the Eurobureaucrats (officials in the EU, as opposed to national, institutions).

. And then on May 29, France voted "no" on the Euro-constitution. It wasn't even close -- 55% to 45%. A few days later, the Dutch turned it down by an even larger margin, with well over 60% of Dutch voters saying "nee". This was a glimpse of the gulf developing between the European masses and the bourgeoisie. Suddenly the pro-constitution politicians were talking about a major crisis. After the French vote, they had thought that the vote would go ahead in other countries, despite the fact the Constitution needed ratification by all EU members -- they figured they could have the French vote again and get it right. But after the Dutch turned the constitution down, the talk was of postponing any further votes. The Eurobureaucrats were afraid that the "no" vote would become a stampede.

. There was a good deal of talk about the EU falling apart, or various countries backing out of the Euro and restoring their local currency. But this was typical bourgeois hysteria to hide the real issues involved in the "no" vote. In fact, the bourgeois countries are indeed squabbling over the Euro, but they have been squabbling over economic coordination for years if not decades. The move toward further European integration may be slowed down, but it is unlikely that the demise of the proposed Constitution will kill it altogether. The no vote did, however, raise the question of whether there will have to be an adjustment in the economic and social policies being followed by the EU.

A vote against neo-liberalism

. The key issue involved in the "no" vote was that the voters were afraid that the EU Constitution would push forward neo-liberal principles and pave the way for wiping out, or at least forcing down to the lowest level, the many social programs and benefits that Western Europeans have become accustomed to. The Constitution is full of provisions to guarantee the free-market, and to subordinate all other economic and social aims to the free-market. It repeats the same words over and over, in one provision after another, that the EU will act "in conformity with respect for the principles of an open economic market where competition is free". And it comes on the heels of the infamous "Bolkestein Directive", which proposed to do away with the individual national regulations on service industry. This threatened to reduce the wages and working conditions of service workers, as well as other regulations on service industry, to the lowest common denominator which could be found in any EU member county.

. Although I'll say a bit more about the content of the proposed EU Constitution in a moment, the fear of galloping neo-liberalism is based on more than simply this or that provision. It is based on the general program of the European bourgeoisie to cut wages and social conditions in the name of economic competition with the US and the rest of the world. It stems from the constant refrain of the French, German, British and other bourgeoisies that the workers must be squeezed to make Europe competitive, and the various plans to cut wages, pensions, job security, and social programs. In this atmosphere, it's clear what Constitutional promises would be a dead letter, and what provisions would be regarded as iron law. The Constitution thus appears as an attempt to lock in the neo-liberal offensive for good -- to enshrine it in provisions that would require unanimous approval to rescind.

. This neo-liberal offensive is being carried out by the mainstream bourgeois parties of both the left and the right. Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in Britain opened the path that Reagan would follow in the US. But it's not just the right-wingers like Thatcher yesterday or President Chirac in France today that are carrying out this program. Today in Britain it is "New Labor" under Tony Blair which stands for privatization; it is carrying out its social-democratic sort of Thatcherism, privatization that supposedly is combined with some crumbs for the poor. In Germany, the same social-democratic government of Schroeder that won reelection due to its differences with Bush over the war in Iraq, has sought to cut back on social programs. Meanwhile the new Eastern European governments that have been brought into the EU have far less social programs than Western Europe.

. Over the years this has led to the growth of dissatisfaction among the workers of Europe. The French workers, for example, have slowed the pace of neo-liberalism with various mass strikes. Now it has given rise to the defeat of the Constitution.

Different standpoints

. Of course different people voted for different reasons. And the news accounts made a lot of this. For example, there were undoubtedly ultra-nationalists who voted "no" out of hatred of foreigners. More generally, the mainstream parties in France all wanted a "yes" vote, and it was the smaller parties of the right and left, which campaigned among the dissatisfied masses, that called for a "no" vote. The far right tried to divert the mass discontent into reactionary channels. But nevertheless the main drift of the "no" vote was dissatisfaction with the economic program being pushed down the people's throats, and the defeat of the Constitution was a major victory for the left.

. A major issue in the no vote was skepticism about the Eurobureaucrats. The EU apparatus is made up of a plethora of overlapping institutions, each with its own layer of officials. This system helps stifle the voice of the masses and makes a mockery of democracy. The dislike for this Eurobureaucracy is widespread. Nationalist agitation presents this simply as an issue of supranational bureaucrats trampling on national interests, and seeks to ignore that the Eurobureaucrats are taking the heat for the measures sought, in broad outline, by the local bourgeoisies. Moreover, the disdain for the Eurobureaucrats among the workers can represent a certain class sentiment against bourgeois officialdom. This bureaucracy over the heads of the masses is a feature of modern bourgeois rule, and it occurs both in the EU apparatus and in the various member countries.

. The Constitution would have further estranged the EU apparatus from the people. It was not a document that simply regulates how decisions are made and the basic structure of the EU. Instead it has hundreds of overlapping provisions and is extremely complex. The same economic provision or promise would be affected by a number of different clauses and qualifications. What it would mean in practice isn't necessarily a matter of what these provisions might actually say, but how they will be interpreted by the Eurobureaucracy.

. A good part of the reformist left supported the Constitution. It argued that the Constitution had broad guarantees for a variety of social security benefits and social services and even the right to strike. But a look at the actual provisions of the Constitution suggests that the reformists have allowed themselves to be fooled by a shiny veneer. Every time that the Constitution appears to give a guarantee for some right of the people, such as "access to preventive health care", or "the right to social and and housing assistance", or the right to strike, it immediately adds "in accordance with the rules laid down by Union law and national laws and practices" (to say nothing of the rules of competition). There are thus no real guarantees, but simply the pious assurance that the various laws and practices are already in accordance with the alleged ideals. For example, the British Foreign Office website assured British bourgeois that the EU Constitution

"will not create a right to strike in the UK. The Treaty is clear: a right to strike only exists 'in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices' (Article II-88). The corresponding explanation reinforces that point: 'The modalities and limits for the exercise of collective action, including strike action, come under national laws and practices'." (See the page on "The EU Constitution Treaty" at, emphasis as in the original.)

. Moreover, the Constitution's references to social rights are qualified by the emphasis that just about everything is to be done through free competition. Provision after provision is designed to protect the free market. Typically, in discussing the aid that a country might give certain regions, it worries about any aid that "distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods", and seeks to limit any such "distortions" to an explicit list of exceptions.

. No doubt Western Europe still has more and better social programs than the US, which is a world leader in the neo-liberal devastation of the conditions of the working class. But this isn't due to the promises of EU documents, but to the pressure of European working people. The EU Constitution, while reiterating various promises, also lays down a framework in which the Eurobureaucracy could declare various social programs a violation of EU law, indeed a violation of a basic law which can only be revised by unanimous agreement.

. Some on the reformist left said that the neo-liberal phrases about the free market in the Constitution were nothing to be worried about, as such phrases have always been in EU treaties and agreements. This may perhaps be so. But that doesn't mean that their presence in the Constitution was harmless. It is significant that these phrases were still there, and how they would be applied has to be judged in light of the present policies of the European governments.

. The bourgeoisie (here and in Europe) claims that the European economy is stagnating due to the lack of economic liberalization. Actually, the restrictive national budgeting policies enshrined by the EU's "Growth and Stability Pact" is probably one of the main reasons why European growth has been slower than the US in the last few years. American commentators often point the finger elsewhere and gloat that American productivity is higher than European. Actually, European productivity per hour in some of the countries with the most social programs, including France, is as high or higher than in the US. Productivity per person is lower in Europe because Europeans work less hours per year than American workers; they take longer vacations and have more time to spend with their families than worn-out, harried American workers. Such statistics have not been lost on the European bourgeoisie, which seems envious of the American way of exploiting one's employees.

The end of European integration?

. Does the defeat of the EU Constitution mean the end of European integration? This is unlikely. The EU will probably adjust, as it has adjusted to many strains. Moreover, European integration has been proceeding through a variety of forms, and this too is likely to continue. While one generally thinks of the EU when one talks of European integration, in fact the different forms of integration -- monetary union, dropping of internal barriers to travel, military cooperation -- involve slightly different groups of nations. In any one type of cooperation, some EU members don't take part, and sometimes some non-EU members do take part.

. What should the attitude of the working class be to this gradual development of European integration?

. Some reformist or even would-be communist parties want to defend national sovereignty as if neo-liberalism was just the program of the other European bourgeoisies, and not also the program of their local bourgeoisie. On the other hand, some other reformists, like Antonio Negri, one of the authors of Empire, back European integration in the hope that the European imperialism will become an international bulwark against American imperialism. Such a stand betrays the European workers as well as advising workers elsewhere to place hopes in one imperialism against another.

. The attitude of class-conscious workers, however, should be to organize themselves as an independent force for struggle against both the local and the general European bourgeoisie. Like workers elsewhere, they are faced with the task of developing an independent movement. The large European trade unions and supposedly pro-worker parties obscure the reality that the workers' movement in Europe faces the same disorganization as workers elsewhere do. Activist workers should take every occasion to raise the class issues and to expose the reality behind the veneer of promises about a "social Europe", and they should make use of whatever European integration takes place in order to help develop a united struggle with other workers.

. The formation of various common institutions, of which the EU is the most elaborate, has shown a tendency towards integration in Europe. This has been a gradual drawing together. The development of common European institutions has not been an issue of either overcoming the national oppression of some country, nor of putting member countries under a foreign yoke. It has instead expressed a gradual economic gravitation among the various European countries.

. This growing closeness hasn't replaced the class struggle, but it has reproduced it on a broader scale. The various austerity programs and market reforms that the local bourgeoisies have been trying to inflict on the working class are reproduced in general European agreements, such as the "Growth and Stability Pact" and the attempt to carve neo-liberalism in stone in the EU Constitution. But the extension of the struggle across national borders, the greater canvas on which it occurs, opens the possibility that working class resistance may itself also start to be coordinated across national borders, and raises the need for proletarian internationalism as a pressing issue. And this wider and broader class struggle helps create the conditions for the revival of not just class resistance, but of revolutionary struggle.

. However, the relatively slow pace of European integration, and the fact that it is not proceeding through national oppression, means that any particular step of European integration may lead to differences of opinion among the workers -- both between workers of different countries and inside particular countries. The EU Constitution, because of its blatant neo-liberalism and its extension of Eurobureaucracy, unified many workers against it. But there are other questions of integration that are not so clear. It is not clear how far the various European countries will meld together, nor which countries can be stably involved in this process.

. However workers may differ among themselves on such issues, the important thing for the working class is to organize itself as a fighting class against the bourgeoisie. It must not fall prey to the blandishments of either the local or the general European bourgeoisie. It must utilize whatever real European integration takes place to create closer contacts between the workers of different countries, and the different nationalities and ethnic groups within the working class of each country. It must bring to the fore the class issues that the European bourgeoisie wants to bury in tons of fancy words about rights in general, or about efficiency.

. The activist workers may, without betraying socialist convictions, have different opinions about certain steps of European integration. But it is important for activist workers to always put the development of internationalist contact between the workers to the fore. Thus, for example, the search for ways to coordinate struggles with the workers in other countries, the defense of immigrants and workers of ethnic minorities, and opposition to the imperialism of the European bourgeoisie as well as that of the US and other imperialist powers are crucial tasks for European workers.

Lenin and European integration

. Over the decades, some writings of Lenin have been repeatedly cited with respect to the issue of European integration. And justly so. They still bear study. They bring forward two aspects of the situation -- both that the exploitative nature of a united Europe under the bourgeoisie, and the advantages to the working class of greater integration.

. Lenin's famous remarks on whether the revolutionary movement should fight under the slogan of the United States of Europe point to the one aspect of the situation:

. "A United States of Europe under capitalism is tantamount to an agreement on the partition of colonies. Under capitalism, however, no other basis and no other principle of division are possible except force. .  .  .
. "Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capitalists .  .  . but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America, . . ."

. And Lenin went on on to denounce a possible US of Europe for being "an organization of reaction to retard America's more rapid development." ("On the Slogan for a United States of Europe", Collected Works, vol. 21, pp. 341-2, emphasis as in the original. )

. Today there are few old-style colonies left, and -- even if the US GDP has been growing faster than Europe's recently -- it is debatable whether one can identify the US with a more rapid development of capitalism. But the basic idea Lenin is putting forth remains valid -- that the European capitalists want unity to enhance their exploitation of other areas of the world and to form a powerful bloc which can stand up to the other capitalist powers.

. So Lenin's warning remains valid today. Indeed, one of the purposes of the new EU constitution is to facilitate increasing European military force, and the Constitution also seeks to strengthen integration with NATO. And aside from military imperialism, the EU is heavily involved in economic imperialism. One example among many: it has been putting pressure on the less-developed countries for water privatization in the hope that European companies will be able to seize upon this profitable field of exploitation. And of course European capitalism, aside from exploiting the less developed countries, is also seeking to compete with the US.

. A united capitalist Europe represents the unity of the European exploiters and the building of a European imperialist bloc. But the time will come when not only all Europe, but the entire world is united together. When there are no longer exploiters and exploited, when the economy is run for the benefit of all, this unity will really be for the common interests of everyone. But under capitalism, a larger united area means a larger bourgeoisie.

. But this is only one side of the issue. Lenin also pointed out that, everything else being equal, greater integration is preferable for the working class. The larger territory facilitates a more powerful class struggle and a greater unity between the workers of different countries. Thus he wrote:

. ".  .  . Other conditions being equal, the class-conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger state. It will always fight against medieval particularism, and will always welcome the closest possible economic amalgamation of large territories in which the proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie can develop on a broad basis.
. "Capitalism's broad and rapid development of the productive forces calls for large, politically compact and united territories, since only here can the bourgeois class--together with its inevitable antipode, the proletarian class--unite and sweep away all the old, medieval, caste, parochial, petty-national, religious and other barriers.
. "The right of nations to self-determination [which Lenin vehemently supported--JG], i. e. , the right to secede and form independent national states, will be dealt with elsewhere. But while, and insofar as, different nations constitute a single state, Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralization. The great centralized state is a tremendous historical step forward from medieval disunity to the future socialist unity of the whole world .  .  .
. "It would, however, be inexcusable to forget that in advocating centralism we advocate exclusively democratic centralism. .  .  .
. "Far from precluding local self-government, with autonomy for regions having special economic and social conditions, a distinct national composition of the population, and so forth, democratic centralism necessarily demands both. In Russia centralism is constantly confused with tyranny and bureaucracy. This confusion has naturally arisen from the history of Russia, but even so it is quite inexcusable for a Marxist to yield to it." (Section 6."Centralization and Autonomy" from Critical Remarks on the National Question, Collected Works, vol. 20, pp. 45-6, emphasis as in the original.)

. Now, everything isn't always equal. Lenin emphasized that he advocated only democratic unity. He opposed the "unity" that is obtained by forcibly retaining nations within the boundaries of another country, thus making them oppressed nations He showed the importance for the working class to recognize the right of self-determination of oppressed nations if there is to be democratic unity. Moreover, he saw regional autonomy and other democratic rights as compatible with, indeed required by, the type of centralism he supported. Many today might think that opposing the federal principle meant opposing autonomy, but that was not Lenin's view.

. While Lenin probably didn't have a general European integration in mind when he wrote, his underlying idea is relevant to the present situation. Insofar as various European nations associate on the basis of their economic gravitation, and of the natural tendency towards amalgamation of their peoples, this is a positive step. It encourages the unity of the proletariat. But forcing countries together arbitrarily, against the will of the peoples, actually drives the populations apart. It may not always be immediately obvious, in the case of gradual association such as the case of the EU, which countries are being brought into the EU from natural gravitation, and which are being arbitrarily grouped there. To judge this, one must pay close attention, among other things, to the will of the mass of the European population. But Lenin's views of the two aspects of European integration provides a general framework for the working class response to the various measures of European integration. They help clarify that the vote on the EU Constitution wasn't a vote for or against unity in general or unity in the abstract, but a vote on the type of Europe that was being built. And they provide a framework for fighting for working class interests in a proletarian internationalist way. <

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October 15, 2005.