A critical juncture
The European Union is currently a major political issue, not just in European countries but across the world. The future of the EU has many implications in terms of living standards and working conditions. But there are also strong political forces on the right trying to gain traction amongst an increasingly disenchanted working population on the basis of their opposition to the EU. It is essential for Marxists and socialist activists to be principled and consistent in this volatile atmosphere. It would constitute a serious error to underestimate the economic and political damage inherent in the Brexit process.
Today 510 million people live within the EU: 6% of the world”s population, which is more than the combined populations of the United States of America and Japan. The EU stretches from Helsinki to Lisbon and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Together, the 28 countries of the EU represent the largest economy in the world, the biggest importer and exporter, the leading investor and recipient of foreign investment and the biggest aid donor. So the exit of Britain from the EU is no small question.
The EU is a product of political processes that span a period of more than sixty years. Article 2 of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 set about establishing “a common market… and a harmonious development of economic activities” among the six countries involved – France, Italy, Belgium, Germany (West), Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Article 3 called for “the abolition… of obstacles to freedom of movement of persons, services and capital“. An earlier treaty agreed in Paris in 1951 merged the management of the coal and steel industries of these six countries to create the European Coal and Steel Community. Britain”s application in 1963 to join the Common Market, as the EU was then known, was rejected as a result of a French veto.
A series of treaties modified and developed the EU since its foundation: the Single European Act in 1986, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2000 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. A Court of Justice was established to ensure that member states abided by commitments in the treaties.
It is noteworthy that today’s champions of Brexit used to proclaim that because the EU had drifted from its original purpose as a Common Market – which they supported – and towards the creation of a “super state”, Britain was imperilled. Yet they now vehemently denounce the two components of the common market i.e. the customs union and the single market”.
Brexit is a reactionary movement in all its aspects. The leadership of the Brexit project are a combination of dangerous right-wing zealots from a bygone age: public school toffs like Rees-Mogg and Gove, failed aspiring Tory leaders like Davis and Duncan Smith, exhibitionists like Johnson, power-hungry thugs like Farage: forlorn has-beens of the British right.
The changing balance within the EU
The balance of forces within the countries of the EU has been changing since its foundation. Spain, Greece and Portugal were admitted in the 1980s, having spent decades under dictatorial rule. The structural funds that were allocated to these countries assisted them in the growth of their GNP. When Ireland – a country that since the creation of the Free State in 1922 had stagnated through mass emigration and underdevelopment – joined in 1973, it experienced a collapse in a number of its industries. Yet through the European Common Agricultural Policy and the Regional Fund and a policy of encouraging foreign investment, it experienced a general raising of living standards. Smaller countries were attracted towards the EU because of their increasing isolation in the face of the growing, globalised economic power of the multinationals.
A significant change in the composition of the EU occurred after 2003, when individual accession treaties were signed with a number of countries emerging from the Stalinist bloc: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia. The ruling elites of many of these countries were anxious to align themselves with NATO and the United States, to the extent that during the invasion of Iraq Donald Rumsfeld fondly referred to them collectively as “new Europe”. The balance of forces has thus shifted rightward for a period.
The EU had decided earlier to incorporate the Western European Union, a close ally of NATO, as a step towards building its military capabilities. Under the rules of the EU individual countries can opt out of any military actions; Denmark is the only EU country to have done so. But that does not alter the chosen current alignment of the EU in terms of global political and military activity. Recent calls by the EU for increased military spending under PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence) have set a target of 2% of GDP being devoted to military spending.
It is not alone in the area of defence that Europe’s right-wing leaders have asserted their will. The Fiscal Stability Treaty of 2009 placed obstacles in the way of governments wishing to rely on Keynesian-style budgets and borrowing in order to stimulate domestic economic activity.
The various component bodies of the EU – the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council – reflect the political position of the governments of the member countries.
Many key EU policies are right-wing because a majority of EU states have elected right-wing governments. The problems of the EU are the problems of the member states. Decisions by the ruling bodies of the EU need to be challenged in the individual countries. The European Parliament is directly elected by its citizens. Rather than cower in the shadows moaning about the right-ward shift in EU policies in the recent period, socialist activists should bring all EU decisions to centre stage in the member states and make the various national representatives on the EU governing bodies accountable. The decision of the EU to humiliate Greece and its people in the negotiations with SYRIZA’s leaders was supported by the member states’ finance ministers.
The European Commission is composed of nominees of the various governments. The Commission has great power, as the executor of the EU budget and the originator of much legislation. But it is not a behemoth. It is in essence a type of civil service with a staff numbering something like that of a large local council in one of the member countries. In the often frenzied attack on the institutions of the EU, the Commission is sometimes singled out for particular opprobrium; yet it can be overthrown by a decision of the European Parliament. In 1999 the entire Commission was forced to resign following allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
The series of treaties that inform the corpus of EU law were agreed either by referendum or parliamentary decision within the member states. To that extent the EU is a site for conducting class struggle. In May 2005, the French people rejected an EU constitutional treaty. The following month the people of the Netherlands made a similar decision, and the treaty was dropped entirely. A referendum in Ireland in 2000 rejected the Nice treaty, which was then modified and subsequently adopted in a new referendum.
The EU is a construct of the capitalist system; how could it be otherwise? It was founded following agreement between capitalist states and encouraged by the USA. A number of European-American organisations came into being following World War Two, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and NATO. The European Economic Community emerged in that context. It is dominated by the interests of the banks and big business.
In order to facilitate free movement in commodities, services, labour and capital, and to prevent as far as possible any one capitalist enterprise from seeking unfair advantage over others, a series of international treaties was agreed. Over time the EU member states voluntarily surrendered aspects of their sovereignty in areas such as environmental protection, food safety, working conditions, agriculture, animal husbandry, consumer rights and health. EU laws in these areas have the same force as national laws in individual states. For example, the prohibition on discrimination, as set out in various EU directives, takes precedence over conflicting national law.
In addition, regional and structural funds were established to assist in such projects as vocational training and road and rail construction, particularly in the lesser developed countries.
Balance of class forces
The predominance of right-wing governments across Europe does not mean that all progressive measures at EU level are blocked off at source.
A Charter of Fundamental Rights was incorporated into the Treaty of Nice in 2000. A series of regulations, directives and decisions has been enacted by the EU – some beneficial to and others opposed to employees’ interests. That is no different from what happens in individual states. These questions are decided by the balance of forces in society, not by any legal or moral imperative.
Trade union pressure has led to the EU Commission taking action against “wage dumping”, which largely affects workers from Eastern Europe who are employed in areas such as construction and harvesting. In the past, these workers had been entitled only to the minimum wage in the host country, but now they are to be given the right to the same bonuses and allowances as “national” workers. This follows changes to the “posting of workers” directive. Fifty working-time related cases have been ruled on by the Court of Justice of the European Union since the Working Time Directive was adopted in 1993. Maximum weekly working time must not exceed forty eight hours on average, according to a directive in 2003. The directives also provide for rest breaks and rest periods. A directive in 1997 established equal rights for part-time workers, and in 2008 equal treatment for temporary workers became the law. The Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that emergency workers fall within the scope of protection of the working-time directive. Equal treatment for men and women in employment became the law within in the EEC in 1976. Clearly, the European Union is a site for the contestation of class issues.
Although the EU is not designed to serve the interests of working people or the “ordinary consumer”, nevertheless, political pressure in 2016 led to the European Commission imposing a fine of nearly €3 billion on a lorry cartel involving Daimler, IVECO and VOLVO. Action is currently underway in the European Court of Justice against Apple Corporation over its failure to pay €13 billion owed in taxes. The giant multinational Volkswagen recently had to pay around $24bn in penalties and compensation over its manipulation of figures for diesel emissions following action taken by the European Union.
The Euro was introduced following agreement on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. When it was established, there were no accompanying central funds that could be drawn upon to assist members. The banking systems remained national. There were no bail-out rules. Both Germany and France in 2003 broke the budget deficit rules that had been set by the Stability and Growth Pact, but neither country faced any sanction. The economic crisis of 2008 brought to the fore many of the contradictions of the capitalist system that had been building up. A bail-out fund was established, with the support of the International Monetary Fund and the so-called European Stability Mechanism. Bail-out measures involving austerity budgets and cuts in public sector spending were forced upon Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus. The approach of the leading bodies of the EU was to defend the assets of the big banks and finance houses at the expense of working families’ living standards.
Prior to the introduction of the Euro the EU had made a number of attempts to create currency stability, such as the Snake, the European Monetary System and the Exchange Rate Mechanism. For a variety of reasons, none fully succeeded. The Bretton Woods international monetary system had broken up in 1972. In a continuing endeavour to underpin the Single European Market and the free movement of capital, people, goods and services, the Euro was launched in 1999 and became fully operational in 2002. Despite the difficulties inherent in its structural base, the Euro remains the world’s second most-used currency and accounts for one quarter of the world’s foreign currency reserves. 340 million Europeans in nineteen member states use it on a daily basis. Clearly the use of the Euro greatly facilitates travel and trade.
The serious forces that are now arraigned against the EU and calling for exit are of the far-right. Understandably, there is continuing criticism of EU policies coming from the left. But the drive for exit constitutes a uniformly reactionary, right-wing process. In Britain there is an attempt to regenerate a right-wing Tory party around xenophobia, racism and illusory imperial grandeur using Brexit as the rallying call. The Labour Party should take every opportunity to highlight the essential nature of this right-wing movement and to build up opposition around an internationalist alternative to Brexit and English nationalism.
Similarly in France, Marine Le Pen’s mobilisation of reactionary forces almost brought her and her Front National (now Rassemblement National) to the steps of the Elysee Palace. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands have a similar perspective. In Hungary the right is mobilising around an anti-EU campaign, as is the Alternativ fur Deutschland in Germany and the FPÖ of Austria. And Trump, along with Steve Bannon”s Breitbart and other racist and right-wing organisations within the US, have all openly opposed the EU.
The labour movement must do battle with these right-wing forces on the EU question. The outcome of the issue is not neutral. However, its approach has to be critical and based on class issues and demands. It is not the case that, just because it involves co-operation between a number of countries, the EU is in essence any more progressive than the countries considered separately. Politics is concrete. In football parlance, you play the team that faces you and not some imagined alternative. Nor is the EU just a trade agreement like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
The EU provides an opportunity for pursuing alternative socialist policies on an international scale. Trade unions and political parties within the EU operate in joint organisations across national boundaries. The primary requirement is to link policies that are being pursued within the EU with what is happening in the member countries. The EU will not be transformed into a socialist federation. But that does not mean that socialists should not pursue within the structures of the EU policies that serve the interests of workers and their families.
Disillusion with the EU is growing, and this facilitates the growth of right-wing forces. The failure of the trade union and socialist leaders to seriously confront austerity policies has significantly contributed to this process. Since the first direct election to the European Parliament in 1979, turnout has consistently fallen, so that in the last elections in 2014 only 42.6% of potential voters cast a ballot. Political disenchantment is always a token of danger.
The European Peoples’ Party, which brings together Merkel’s CDU, Hungary’s Fidesz, Spain’s Partido Popular and other conservative parties, is the largest political bloc in the European parliament. This was not always the case. For a long period the mass parties of the labour movement had a majority. Parties on the left must unite now around a programme of demands that represent the interests of working people. The self-styled Socialists and Democrats need to wake up from their long torpor and recognise their responsibility to their electors. Right-wing forces have to be confronted not just in the European Parliament but in national parliaments and in a European-wide movement on the streets also.
Trade unions throughout the EU should present a common programme and mobilise around that programme. The European Trade Union Confederation brings together trade unions from across the EU. The big employers are multinational and exploit divisions amongst workers along national lines. But just as the capitalists are united across national boundaries, so too should workers’ organisations be united. Anything that weakens that unity should be resisted. Demands must be advanced for improvements in pay and working conditions, better health and safety provision, environmental protection, improved public services without cost at point of delivery, nationalisation of the banks and finance houses and publicly-owned industries run efficiently under workers’ control and management, and defence of migrant workers and minorities. Universal rates of pay and living standards for all workers in the EU should be fought for, and in particular a minimum living wage for all. Such an approach could combat the forced economic migration of workers who have to leave their own countries and families in order to secure a decent standard of living. This should form part of a Europe-wide campaign against the capitalist system, with the institutions of the EU the target as much as individual governments. Countries outside the EU should also be part of this campaign. There are 48 countries in Europe, 28 of which are in the EU (Britain has not yet left).
In addition to this action programme, the trade union and labour movement across Europe should also initiate a campaign to examine all the treaties of the EU with a view to creating conditions for a new treaty that would protect public services, expand public ownership of key industries and service provision, facilitate public control of banking and finance and expand educational and cultural provision on an equal basis for all. There is no legal provision within the EU that cannot be reversed. No European Treaty is set in stone. An international conference of the organisations of the European labour movement should be convened to examine this issue.
Instead of moaning and wailing about the evils of the EU, the left across Europe needs to unite in combat against the right-wing and conservative forces that dominate European institutions at the present time. The British labour movement cannot just wait passively to see what the Tories will throw up in terms of Brexit over the coming twelve months. The referendum of June 23rd 2016 resolved nothing. No vote is permanent. People change their minds when new information becomes available.
When the Tories present the final result of their negotiations, there must be a full public debate and a vote in Parliament and amongst the British people as to whether or not their package is acceptable. The response to Brexit has to be serious and creative, internationalist and socialist; it must be clearly infused with a class understanding of all the political issues involved, and present a clear socialist alternative programme before the British people, unlike the farcical plebiscite of two years ago.
The question is not whether the EU can be transformed into an organisation that represents workers’ interests. Clearly that is not possible, for the same reasons that the capitalist state cannot be transformed in that way. Nor can the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system be resolved through international cooperation between capitalist countries. This is an old debate that goes back over a hundred years. The issue of the European Union today presents an arena where the right-wing has to be confronted and defeated. Campaigns against the EU are led by the right; they foster nationalism and divisions amongst workers. Those left groups that also oppose the EU are largely unnoticed in the general melee.
In this critical climate, where jobs are being destroyed and living standards undermined, and where racism and xenophobia are securing roots, the organised labour movement has an opportunity to present an internationalist alternative: a Socialist Federation of Socialist States in Europe.