Crisis looming for Brussels bureaucracy

With a French 'no' looking ever more likely, the European Union's constitutional treaty is in trouble. Peter Manson looks at France's leftwing campaign for rejection and calls for the phrase 'a social Europe' to be given revolutionary democratic content

The result of the May 29 French referendum on the European Union constitution has for some time been too close to call. This is despite the huge sums (estimated at around €420 million) spent in one form or another by the French government on trying to win a 'yes'. A copy of the full constitution has been delivered to all homes - together with a helpful 'explanatory' leaflet which points out all the good things the constitution contains. 'Non' campaigners: Olivier Besancenot (LCR), Claire Villiers, José Bové, Jean-Luc Mélanchon (PS) and Marie-George Buffet (PCF) In addition all the main establishment newspapers are in favour of ratification and last week a survey found that 63% of time devoted to the referendum on state television had been aimed at winning a 'yes' vote. Yet still, as we go to press, the 'no' campaign is in front. This has caused French politicians and EU bureaucrats to go into panic mode. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said that a 'no' would trigger a crisis of confidence, which would be "very bad news for the economy". Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, for his part, warned of dire consequences if France rejected the constitution: "If there were a political crisis in Europe, we would have to endure long, long months of economic crisis." Other European figures mixed such warnings with flattering appeals to France's sense of leadership: voters should not forget France's rightful role "to be in the lead and not trail behind", in the words of Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, who currently holds the EU presidency. Within France big names such as singers Franà§oise Hardy and Johnny Hallyday and actor Gérard Depardieu have been wheeled out over the last few days in a desperate attempt to bolster the 'yes'. Why has there been such opposition in a country whose inhabitants have traditionally regarded themselves as European as well as French? Well, it has certainly been, by and large, of a completely different type from the kind of blatantly chauvinistic Euroscepticism so prevalent in Britain. Apart from the extreme right, not least Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, opposition to the constitution has not usually been accompanied by hostility to the EU itself or to closer European cooperation. Some commentators have pointed out that the unpopularity of Jacques Chirac's government has been a factor - unemployment stands at 10.2% and inflation has meant price rises running way ahead of wages for most workers. It is certainly true that the referendum is seen as an opportunity to give Chirac a bloody nose. This was demonstrated on May 16, when millions of workers ignored the government's 'day of solidarity' with the elderly. They were supposed to forego their Whitsun bank holiday so that the extra €2 billion in taxation raised could be diverted to 'the vulnerable and needy'. However, it is not some apolitical antipathy to Chirac and the establishment that is at the heart of the sentiment for rejection. This is most definitely a left-led campaign based on a more positive feeling for a different kind of Europe, however vaguely expressed, than the simple cobbling together of existing treaties, overwritten with neoliberalism, that the constitution represents. The Parti Communiste Franà§ais sums up this mood with its slogan for "another, social and democratic, Europe". The main 'no' campaign is that of the left - an alliance of the PCF and Socialist Party dissidents, together with the left pressure group Attac, the Fourth International's Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and a range of smaller leftwing groups. Also prominent are a variety of leftwing celebrities, including José Bové. The SP rejectionists are supposed to be bound by party discipline, imposed following a 60-40 internal vote committing the organisation to the 'yes' camp, but this has not stopped figures such as former prime minister Laurent Fabius accepting invitations to give his view at public meetings. Fabius said: "It is important that the 'no' vote is from the left - a socialist 'no', a socially conscious 'no'." What the French left objects to is not closer European integration itself, but one which enshrines professor Milton Friedman's free-market and hard-money policies. Article III-69 of the constitution commits the EU's economic policy to "be conducted in accordance with the principle of an open market economy with free competition". There is nothing new in this clause - something similar appeared in the Treaty of Rome - but the effect of the first chapter of part III, title III, on the internal market, will be to oblige member-states to privatise public services (those that are not already privatised, that is). The PCF complains that the constitutional treaty encapsulates the "general social regression" - high unemployment, loss of purchasing power, lengthening of the working week, destruction of public services and privatisation - all these policies, it says, are dictated, in the interest of big business, by the 'directives' put out by the institutions of the European Union: "it is as if Raffarin's policies were from now on enshrined in the constitution!" (February 10 statement). The statement does not dwell on the extent to which the PCF itself has contributed to this "general social regression" through its participation in the privatising, anti-working class 'pluralist left' administration which was booted out in 2002. Indeed PCF general secretary Marie-George Buffet seems to regard the split between her organisation and its former government partners as but a temporary rift: "We will take every initiative to bring the left back together, including those who will have voted 'no', to debate what the left should do if tomorrow it came back to power" (Paris rally, April 14). What indeed? And what also does the left propose in regard to the EU? What would the PCF's version of a "social Europe" look like? As you might expect, the party is rather short on hard details: "Across Europe, political, trade union, anti-globalisation, feminist, anti-racist and pacifist forces are putting forward proposals to make the European Union a Europe of work, of public services, of greater rights for all citizens - a Europe of peace, solidarity, ecology and cooperation" (February 10 statement). This list of platitudes, combined with the PCF's own record in government, does not exactly inspire confidence - especially when the constitution itself is full of its own fine-sounding phrases. For example, Article I-2 says: "The union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member-states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail." It is clauses like these that 'yes' proponents from across the political spectrum are pushing hard. Clearly they can be given a left or right gloss, according to who is putting them forward. In fact SP leftwing 'yes' campaigners insist that the constitutional treaty can be used as a weapon to protect Europe against the excesses of the market and rampant privatisation. For example, former SP minister Jack Lang claims: "To refuse this treaty would be to let France succumb to the destructive wind of liberalism and savage capitalism." Lang would have us believe that a "social Europe" is already on offer - vote 'yes' if you want it. Those on the right also use the term 'social' - but in the context of the EU's "market social economy". Comments such as those of Lang bear testament to the strength of the 'no' campaign. Advocates of the treaty are forced to pretend that they are the best defenders of social values against the encroachments of the unbridled market and that acceptance of the constitution would be the best safeguard against some unfettered Anglo-American version of capitalism. It remains to be seen how many French voters will buy into this. After all, you can quote against the likes of Lang the words of Philip Gordon, a leading US policy intellectual based at the Brookings Institution in Washington: ""¦ a French 'no' "¦ would be a significant victory for the anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation activists who form a core part of the rejectionist camp" (The Financial Times May 17). Demonstrating the accuracy of Gordon's comments, the PCF warns grimly that the constitution would ensure that the EU's defence policy was "tied to Nato and therefore the United States". A 'no' vote, by contrast, is an (anti-US) "vote for Europe" (February 10 statement). But the PCF is at pains to rebuff Raffarin's claims that a 'no' would do anything to damage the stability of capitalist France or capitalist Europe: a rejection would not "plunge Europe into chaos", asserts the policy document. According to the PCF, there is no need to panic about a 'no' vote. It would simply say: "This treaty is not good. We need to work out another one." To sum up the PCF's position, what its "social Europe" amounts to is a slightly more leftwing version of the current situation - no doubt it believed it was helping to build a 'social France' when its ministers loyally participated in Lionel Jospin's 1997-2002 administration. As I say, coming from the PCF, a 'no' vote based on diehard opposition to privatisation and a defence of public services is not entirely persuasive. But what is lacking from the PCF completely are any constitutional proposals that would give real meaning to its phrases about democracy. The position of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire is equally inadaquate. The LCR correctly states that a 'yes' victory would "give the green light to ruling classes and governments for new attacks against the working class and the people". A 'no', on the other hand, would provide an "enormous moral victory" and might also produce great change in Europe. It might allow the peoples of Europe to bring about a "democratic and social eruption, to put a stop to neoliberalism "¦, to open up a 'constituent process' for a new Europe in the service of the peoples and of the workers." This would put on the agenda "a plan of urgent social and democratic measures to break with neoliberal capitalism" (statement, May 16). The LCR puts forward some essential points that it proposes such a plan would contain: "an end to redundancies and the guarantee of stable work"; the "harmonisation of social and democratic rights upwards - building on the best that has been won in each country"; the "reversal of all privatisations "¦ and the relaunch of public services within the framework of Europe"; and a "redistribution of wealth, attacking the logic of capitalist profit to satisfy social needs" (ibid). All these demands are, of course, correct and supportable in themselves. But what about demands that go beyond trade union and economic questions? What would the LCR like to see a "'constituent process' for a new Europe" come up with? How about something along the lines of what we in the CPGB propose? - "Abolish the council of ministers and sack the unelected commissioners. For a single-chamber, executive and legislative, continental congress of the peoples of Europe, elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation" (J Conrad Remaking Europe London 2004, p105). The LCR might also like to consider "workers' control over big business and the overall direction of the economy" and a "popular, democratic militia, equipped with the most advanced and destructive weaponry". And, of course, right at the top of our agenda should be the question of working class unity. We need "EU-wide industrial unions" and "a democratic and effective EU Trade Union Congress". Most of all, necessity demands "a single, centralised, revolutionary party: ie, the Communist Party of the European Union" (ibid). However, compared to the ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière, the LCR is a paragon of political virtue. LO seems to have reluctantly been drawn into the 'no' campaign against its better judgement - and against some internal opposition. But it has declined to join up with the PCF, LCR and Attac, preferring to launch its own, largely abstract, propaganda tirades. Certainly LO has noticed the neoliberal content of the treaty. But, at the end of the day, what have capitalist constitutions got to do with the working class? Now that they have asked us, we may as well say 'no' - that is the LO position. Its 2002 presidential candidate and most well known spokesperson, Arlette Laguiller, explains: "Nobody should expect something from a 'no' victory that it cannot deliver. The anti-worker offensive waged by big business across Europe, irrespective of the government, has nothing to do with the constitution, nor with Brussels. It is not the European institutions or even governments that direct the economy, but big business" (Lutte Ouvrière March 29). How wrong can you be? LO is living in its own world of 'pure' capitalism, where bourgeois political leaders and their institutions have mere bit parts - all the big decisions are taken in the boardroom and stock exchange, not in the cabinet or "European institutions". Nor does it occur to comrade Laguiller that the referendum gives us the opportunity to fight for what workers need in the here and now. Rather she and her comrades insist that what matters are the 'real working class questions' of better wages, pensions, opposition to sackings, etc, etc. The fight for a completely different order is somehow detached from these daily trade union struggles and in fact belongs to the indeterminate future: "Europe itself is not in question. If one day a real Europe came into existence, the disappearance of borders which divide the continent "¦ would be a good thing" (my emphasis Lutte Ouvrière April 11). Not surprisingly perhaps, in view of all this, an LO minority thinks the leadership should, to be consistent, have simply ignored the referendum. Convergences Révolutionnaires, which enjoys a weekly factional column in Lutte Ouvrière, states that the poll is being used to divert anti-capitalist struggles "into an impasse. A reason quite sufficient to denounce the whole operation rather than participating in it, from near or far." It concludes: "The proximity of May 29 is certainly not keeping either the French or European bosses awake at night. One cannot see why they should feel threatened in their ability to sack workers or hold down wages by a 'no' victory (which would do no more than leave the situation as it is) - a victory, what is more, that would be shared by the Front National "¦, the PCF and the extreme left!" (Lutte Ouvrière April 15). A 'no' would "leave the situation as it is"! Just listen to what the Euro bureaucrats and bourgeois politicians are saying. Rejection by France (not to mention the Netherlands, which votes on June 1) would cause our rulers the greatest of difficulties. Eleven countries have so far ratified the constitution, but, like all EU treaties, it requires the agreement of every member-state. Negotiations following a 'no' would be neither simple nor straightforward. A 'no' would most certainly have repercussions for Britain too, as many have pointed out, especially as the UK is taking over the EU presidency on July 1. The ball would be back in Tony Blair's court. Should he abandon or delay the proposed British referendum while some concession (or bribe) is dreamt up to try and buy off the opposition in France and elsewhere? In an attempt at bravado, the British government went ahead with the publication of its EU Constitution Bill on May 24 as if indeed the "situation" after the dreaded French 'no' would be "as it is". It is difficult to know which has the worse position - the Lutte Ouvrière ultra-economists or the tiny minority of PCF extreme social chauvinists around the journals Initiative Communiste, the monthly of the Communist Renaissance Pole in France, and Intervention Communiste, the bimonthly of the Union of Revolutionary Communists of France. These comrades, who constitute the 'nostalgics' in and around the PCF, yearn for the good old, bad old days of patriotic communism and Soviet prestige. Initiative Communiste calls for the bringing together of "the 'no' in all its dimensions (patriotic and anti-imperialist, working class and republican) to reject any European constitution". It wants to "give maximum strength to the 'no' by uniting the red flag with the tricolour in the tradition of the popular front, the resistance and the great PCF of Thorez, Franchon and Duclos". It concludes: "Let us not be afraid of "¦ breaking with the EU that is humiliating our class and killing our country" (April). Intervention Communiste, for its part, likewise calls for "the withdrawal of France from the EU and Nato". It poses its own version of what it calls "an internationalist and anti-imperialist 'no'" in opposition to that of the PCF leadership and its allies: "Once more capital is making use of new weapons: Euroconstructivism (PCF, Trotskyists), which opposes this draft constitution, but calls for a 'social' Europe within the framework of the EU" (December 2004-January 2005). It is difficult to put into words how ridiculous these groups appear in France. Yet on this side of the English Channel the notion of combining opposition to the EU constitution with the upholding of British sovereignty is hardly a rarity. Not only do the PCF's co-thinkers, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, demand withdrawal from the union - so too do the LCR's Fourth International comrades of the International Socialist Group (not to mention Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party). Other groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, will steer clear of the CPB's left nationalism, but will oppose the constitution from a purely defensive, economistic perspective. It is well known that the SWP's Chris Nineham thinks the whole question is "boring" - we should just say 'no' and then forget about it. There are, however, some in France who have something approaching a good position on the question of Europe. A number of small groups, including the Club Liaisons Socialisme Révolution Démocratie and Le Militant, have come together to give a rather better content to the phrase, "a social Europe". Their short statement declares in part: "Democracy demands a true constitution that does not codify in advance the policies to be followed and rests on popular sovereignty. It is for the European people to decide. It is for them to impose their will! Our perspective is for unity in action and common discussion so that a 'no' victory opens up the road to the fall of Chirac, to the development of strikes, to the achievement, through the overthrow of the present regime, of popular sovereignty" (La Lettre de Liaisons May 16). We fight for democracy at every level: European, national, regional and local, and for a constitution which at each of these levels subordinates the bureaucracy to the elected representatives and the elected representatives to their electors. This is the reverse, the negation, of the constitutional treaty, the EU constitution. Revolutionary socialists and communists across Europe must unite in a common struggle against this treaty. We demand not another intergovernmental conference, not another 'convention' of the sort which drew up the treaty: we demand a directly elected constituent assembly for Europe, in which we can fight for the sort of constitution we need.