A Europe that can say 'no'

(Praful Bidwai - Frontline, Volume 22 - Issue 12, 4 - 17 June 2005)

The current referenda on the European Union's Constitution will decide whether Europe goes the American way, or develops a capacity for resisting neoliberalism and militarism.

(Photo: Yves Hermans, Reuters)

Members of the European Parliament hold placards with the word "OUI", meaning yes in French, while a single person displays a hand-made placard reading "NO", during a plenary session in Brussels on May 26.

BY the time these lines appear in print, two of the founder-states of the European Union (E.U.), France and the Netherlands, will have voted in bitterly contested referenda on a critically important issue that has divided the E.U.'s 450 million people as never before: namely, a treaty for a new Constitution for the Union, which is fundamentally right-wing and deeply conservative.

If either France or the Netherlands votes `no', the Constitution will become a dead letter. Then, a whole new, democratic debate could open up about the nature and content of the European project, its principal aims and purposes, the role of the E.U. in the world, and the range of policies within which it must work. A `yes' vote in both will still not clinch the issue because other member-states are still to ratify the Constitution treaty, a process that is scheduled to go into 2006.

So, the `no' vote is all-important. As things stand, the `no' side has a distinct edge over the supporters of the Constitution. In France, its lead has improved from eight percentage points in a Paris-Match poll to 10 points in a Le Figaro forecast at the time of writing this article, just one day before the referendum. In Holland, the `no' vote is 60 to 64 per cent. Progressives everywhere, committed to democracy, peace and justice, must fervently hope that public opinion in the two countries will tilt even further against the Constitution and that it is consigned to the dustbin of history. Only thus can the idea of a E.U. based on democracy, citizens' rights and humane values be rescued and revived. If the Constitution goes through, that vision will be lost.

At the outset, it must be conceded that all those who are campaigning for a `no' vote are not progressives, radical democrats or leftists. They include sections of the extreme Right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, and xenophobic anti-immigration groups in Holland. Some of them are ultra-nationalists and oppose the E.U. itself. But this current accounts for up to 15 per cent of the likely `no' vote. But the bulk of the rest are the ballots of the Left, various Green groups, and a majority of civil society organisations which have been prominent in the global justice (or alter-globalisation) and peace movements.

In France, left-wing Socialists such as former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and the highly regarded former Minister Henri Emmanuelli have joined the rainbow coalition composed of the communists, the radical Left, anti-war groups, campaigners against neoliberal globalisation, and an assortment of activists from social movements centred on feminism, defence of human rights and environmental protection. Much of the Socialist Party is for a `yes' as are Chirac-style conservatives, government parties and pro-Atlantist liberals such as former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who headed the convention that drafted the Constitution.

In the Netherlands, the Left and activists' coalitions are solidly behind the `no' vote, but most Greens favour the Constitution, some of whose articles they read differently from the opposition. Here too, within the `no' campaign, there are divergent agendas. Some see the `no' ballot as a vote against the Balkenende government, whose popularity ratings are barely 20 per cent.

Some Dutch people, like French men and women, see a `no' vote as a means of keeping Turkey out of the E.U., or expressing resentment against undocumented immigrants. A minority in both countries thinks a `no' vote alone can protect their jobs from being snatched by "Piotr the Plumber", a faceless mythical Pole who has become a symbol of paranoia about the flooding of prosperous societies by poorer people from the E.U.'s eastern periphery, who are willing to work for low wages.

THE `no' vote is driven by a mix of motives, including economic self-interest, as well as universal values. But the corporate media in Europe, strongly neoliberal and pro-Constitution, trivialises and ridicules the `no' rationale, attributing it to general, unfocussed discontent with the state of the economy, political illiteracy, fear of change, or insecurity over the issue of identity - "the last kick of the dying French exception". Only a minority of major newspapers even report half-way intelligently on the contents of the Constitution. Few present the `no'-vote viewpoint with fairness and objectivity, leave alone empathy. Television and the business press are even worse.

Therefore, many liberals, and otherwise well-meaning people, are beguiled into thinking that the `no' vote is driven by anti-integration chauvinism and paranoid fears. Very few people have read the Constitution, which is an unwieldy 400-page-plus document. But as I discovered on May 20-22 during a meeting of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, devoted to Europe, the Left's arguments against the Constitution are cogent, sharp and persuasive.

These arguments are not even remotely chauvinistic, opposed to reform, or afraid of change and losing a national (or Western European) identity. Rather, they reaffirm a commitment to a "Social Europe", the original core-rationale of the Union founded on a commitment to the impossibility of war between member-states, to human rights, abolition of the death penalty and a caring-and-sharing society. As Laurent Fabius puts it: "It is important that the `no' vote be from the Left, a Socialist no, a socially-conscious no."

The Constitution was drafted in a top-down process by a convention comprising 105 individuals, all nominated, not elected. A majority had a strong "free market'' bias. Most members were representatives of governments, national parliaments, the European Commission and Parliament. The convention basically excluded civil society representatives and the intelligentsia.

At the E.U.'s Brussels summit in December 2003, Spain and Poland rejected the "consensus" reached by the convention. Their objection was that the statute would give even more power to the Big Four (France, Germany, Spain and Italy) than did the Treaty of Nice to the detriment of smaller countries. Their veto should have prevailed. But, they were overruled by the European Council in June 2004. This change came about largely because of the paranoia caused by the Madrid bombings of March.

The Constitution is also practically unamendable, because any change needs a "triple majority" based on unanimity at the level of governments, as well as higher bodies. Only one of its three major parts refers to rights. This is weak and contains many retrogressions. For instance, the right to work (explicitly recognised in many E.U. countries) is whittled down to the right to look for a job. The gains of the feminist movement are excluded. As Susan George says, this is a throwback to the 18th century.

By contrast, there is a substantial erosion of the right of national governments to veto European Council decisions, except in respect of defence, social policy, taxation and foreign policy - but all in the context of an emphasis on a Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Constitution makes immigration an E.U. subject and takes decision-making away from governments in respect of quotas and the rights of migrant workers - a prescription for "Fortress Europe".

There is some improvement in the transparency of European Council decisions, but substantial decision-making powers are vested in hundreds of committees, which remain opaque. The Constitution creates a separate presidency with a term of two-and-a-half years in place of the present six-months-long rotating presidency.

The Constitution, strangely, contains rigid prescriptions on economic policy, including a commitment to neoliberalism and creation of a common "economic space" dominated by corporations. The European Central Bank (ECB), as the supreme authority, is not subject to any supervision. Restrictions on deficit spending, and the Stability Pact prescribed by the so-called Maastricht criteria, are elevated to the status of Articles.

The word "competition", says Susan George, occurs 47 times in the crucial part of the Constitution, normally with an emphasis on "free" and "unhindered". "Market" occurs 78 times. But "social progress" is altogether missing. Social rights are subordinated to competitiveness. Commitments to free education, health and social welfare are minimised or scuttled.

The Constitution commits the E.U. to guaranteeing four "freedoms" of movement - of goods, services, people and capital. The last resembles a new avatar of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment proposed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was famously defeated by civil society movements six years ago. The Constitution creates a single judicial space, but is remarkably weak on the environment, corporate obligations and social justice. The emphasis is on a downward "harmonisation" of social rights - "a race to the bottom".

One of the worst aspects of the statute is that it encourages militarisation: each E.U. member shall "improve its military capabilities" and "preparedness". This means increased military spending, which in the E.U. is about half the level of the U.S. as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP). This must be seen in the context of the strategy document called "A Secure Europe in a Better World", prepared by former Secretary-General Javier Solana of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), now the E.U.'s "High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy".

This says: "With the new threats the first line of defence will often be abroad. A number of countries and regions risk becoming caught in a downward spiral of conflict, insecurity and poverty. We should be ready to act before a crisis occurs. A number of countries have placed themselves outside the bounds of international society. ... [O]thers persistently violate international norms of domestic governance or of international behaviour. It is desirable that such countries should rejoin the international community. Those who are unwilling to do so should understand that there is a price to be paid, including in their relationship with the E.U."

The Solana paper does not contain any reference to global disarmament. It prescribes "early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention anywhere in the world" as "preventative action", which is poorly demarcated from the Bush Administration's "preventive war". There is an obsessive preoccupation with raising the E.U.'s military preparedness. Although projects like the creation of a European Rapid Intervention Force (ERIF) by 2003 have been delayed thanks to the establishment of a NATO Rapid Reaction Force, and there is stress on the E.U.'s "obligations" to NATO (described as "irreplaceable"), there exists strong pressures to create a European Defence Force.

The military-industrial complex has fully exploited this pro-militarisation thrust. Top arms manufacturers dominate the E.U.'s defence working groups and task forces, especially through a lobby called the New Defence Agenda, which holds monthly meetings. In the convention's group on defence too, there were 13 "experts", all of them drawn from the arms industry or governments, with no civil society representation.

Corporations like European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), BAe Systems (formerly British Aerospace) and Italy's Finmeccanica dominate the E.U.'s military decision-making bodies. Their lobbyists (who are issued 150-200 passes for the European Parliament) have unfettered access to legislators and Commission officials. The E.U. aims to match the U.S. defence research capabilities and has already announced euro 1 billion as an initial sum, plus an additional euro 7.5 billion on space and security programmes to be spent over seven years. The Airbus Industrie-proposed A400-M military aircraft will be developed with E.U. funding.

The Constitution, then, is a highly conservative right-wing document, which commits the E.U. to neoliberalism, "market freedom", militarism, and a search for hegemony through power projection. This is not a Europe that can counter or contain the U.S. Rather it seeks to emulate the same model dominated by corporate power and the military-industrial complex.

This "Corporate-Military Europe" reverses the "Social Europe" model of 1957-1991, which sought to universalise and deepen people's rights based on a "social market economy" subject to state control, itself guided by lofty goals, including universal welfare, expansion of public services and defence of the public sector. The E.U.'s evolution after Maastricht, and particularly in the past few years, contrasts sharply with the original project of the Treaty of Rome that established the Common Market.

The E.U.'s external role has increasingly reflected that same change, especially in matters economic. Although most E.U. states take better positions than the U.S. on politics, the environment and human rights, on economic issues they can be as bad. The E.U. has been pushing the World Trade Organisation (WTO) "free trade" agenda, especially on General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) even harder than the U.S. The new Constitution commits itself to protect its agriculture with vast subsidies - which directly clash with Third World interests. The E.U. uses strong-arm methods to demand non-agricultural market access for its manufactures and services.

The E.U. applies pressure on southern countries both in multilateral forums and through bilateral Economic Partnership Agreements with individual states. Its internal documents pertaining to different regions of the world show a deep neo-colonial bias. Even on Eastern Europe, its agenda is worse than the U.S'. It treats the region solely as a source of raw materials and cheap labour.

The E.U. is the world's second greatest economic power, but it is increasingly becoming arrogant. It also seeks greater military clout. The rise of such a power cannot be in the interests of the world, indeed of Europe's own people whose rights and social gains it is eroding. That is why the Constitution, which sanctions and codifies this erosion, must be defeated. Its demise can open up a genuine democratic debate so that a radically reformed statute can emerge, which reflects humane values and universal urges. But for that to happen, Europe must first say `no' - if not in the French referendum, then in the Dutch one, if not then, well, certainly later.