Give us our referendum now

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group calls for a democratic and socialist approach to the EU, its currency and its constitution

Tony Blair told the House of Commons that we would have our opportunity to vote on the constitution whatever the outcome of the referendum in France. Now he has changed his mind. For those such as Blair and his Labour cronies, who did not want a referendum in the first place, this is fine. But we should have a right to debate and vote on this matter and not depend on what serves the political interests of New Labour. The French and Dutch referendums have been a setback for the European ruling classes. A carefully constructed treaty designed for their interests has been seriously damaged. The merger of Europe into a more unified competitor to US imperialism seems to be derailed. Washington will no doubt be pleased. This setback has dented the confidence of the financial markets. The euro has fallen 2.8% against the dollar. Borrowing costs for weaker European economies have increased, as bond markets are questioning the future of the euro. The dynamics of enlargement have changed the politics of the European Union. Poland has adopted a flat-rate tax at 19%. Estonia does not tax reinvested profits and countries like Slovakia compete aggressively for foreign direct investment. In France the mythical 'Polish plumber' came to represent increasing competition for jobs from low-wage economies in eastern Europe. It is these new countries that have adopted the liberal market agenda promoted by Blair. For Dutch voters 'enlargement' has come to represent a loss of influence. It is as if their own child has grown up and moved away. In the referendum France divided three ways. The French ruling class secured 40% of the popular vote. The electorate took their advice from parties outside the ruling class. On the right French nationalism opposed the European project. This reflects the class position of the petty bourgeoisie. Small business and farmers feel threatened by further integration and more open competition. This section, led by the Le Pen's National Front and rightwing Gaullists, called for a 'no' vote. On the left the working class and their allies took a pro-European position, but with the emphasis on democracy and social protection. The new treaty of plunder did not fool the French working class or the progressive sections of the middle class. They backed a 'no' campaign led by the parties of the left. Hence the French ruling class suffered a setback because the anti-European right and pro-European left opposed their plans for quite different reasons. Many French voters recognised this constitution was not the genuine article. It was no more than another Euro-treaty, like the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. But the ideologues of the bourgeoisie could not resist dressing the whole thing up in grandiloquent phrases about "human dignity, liberty, democracy and equality". The less this "constitution" was about real democracy, the higher the volume of empty words and phrases. And of course lurking in the fine print were the plans to hand over the loot to the big capitalists. Daylight robbery goes under the names of 'reform' and 'modernisation' (see Peter Manson Weekly Worker May 26 for a more detailed analysis). In reality the French and Dutch voters have torpedoed the bullshit. The practical clauses designed to help capital will be resurrected in some form, or smuggled in via the back door. Former European commissioner Chris Patten made it clear that all is not lost: "We've made considerable progress in the last few years - not all those institutional changes require treaty change" (The Independent June 6). The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claimed there are some matters that everybody in Europe and the House of Commons can agree on. If this is cherry-picking the constitution, we know which class will be picking them all. A 'yes' vote would have maintained the momentum for liberal market reform. The 'no' will merely delay it. The results of both referendums opened out divisions amongst the ruling classes. Blair let it be known that he was "fired up", waiting to lead Europe out of its crisis. He was ready and willing to confront Jacques Chirac over the need to reform the European economy: "Blair will show no mercy to his old adversary," declared the headline in The Financial Times (June 2). Blair vowed to press on with the free market agenda, opening up EU services to low-cost competition, cutting 'red tape', cutting state subsidies to agriculture and industry and starting negotiations with Turkey. Meanwhile Chirac kept quiet and went to Germany. On one side Blair is supported by Italy, Poland, Austria, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and Slovakia. But Chirac looks to allies in Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. When two tribes go to war, a constitutional crisis portends a crisis for the currency. The euro fell and experts began to question whether it had a future. At the heart of this appears to be Blair's free market agenda. The aim is to dismantle social protection in the name of a flexible labour force and dilute the power of the Franco-German alliance by widening the EU to bring in new states in eastern Europe and Turkey. This is called the Anglo-Saxon model. On the eve of the referendum Chirac spoke to the French people and vowed to defend the French social model against the "Anglo-Saxon way". It is neither 'theories' nor 'models' of capitalism that explains these differences. It is the result of the class struggle. The French working class are the most revolutionary in Europe. This is not just a reference to the various revolutions in the 18th and 19th century which are embedded into French culture. As recently as 1968 the French working class came close to revolution. In more recent times we have been impressed with the militancy of French workers taking direct action. French farmers also display a propensity for militant direct action. The British working class is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. After World War II it gained significant social protection. Large numbers of working class soldiers, experienced in war and trained in the use of weapons, swelled the ranks of working class voters and brought a massive Labour victory. Instead of class confrontation a new social contract was established. Britain developed its own 'social model' which we in the Revolutionary Democratic Group call the 'social monarchy' or the Elizabethan welfare state. This 'contract' came under pressure from the economic crisis of capitalism in the mid-1970s. In 1984-85 the miners' strike ended with a strategic defeat for the working class. It opened the way for Thatcher's privatisation, the shackling of the trade unions through the anti-union laws and the undermining of the welfare state. Blair has continued and extended Thatcher's anti-working class policies. The new freedom for business has produced fabulous profits, fat-cat salaries, share options, tax cuts and massive pensions for the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile the flexible labour market reduced social protection, increased redundancies and produced an economy of low wages and long hours. This so-called 'Anglo-Saxon model' is the outcome of past defeats which have destroyed the social monarchy and left the royal family bereft of anything to symbolise. French and German capitalists can only dream of such a system. They know this cannot be achieved without a major confrontation and defeat for the working class. The French ruling class are thus 'persuaded' that this is the best guarantee of social peace. By incorporating the working class it is possible to maintain a certain level of social cohesion. This ambiguity is at the heart of Chirac's attitude. Ernest-Antoine Seillère, president of the Medef employers' federation, criticises Chirac's ability "to pronounce himself in favour of reform and the status quo at the same time. The French social model is always the same thing with the president - he points the way ahead, yet at the same time he makes what exists already sacrosanct" (The Financial Times June 2). This difference is shown clearly on the question of working hours. In 1992 the European working class worked more hours than American workers. But this was reversed by the mid-1990s. The French working class is still defending a 35-hour week. The British ruling class wants no limits on working time. Long hours and low pay compensate for the lower productivity of British workers. The employers have an opt-out from the working time directive. The French capitalists are not happy about this and prefer a more level playing field with a maximum 48 hours set across Europe. The British government is determined to keep their long hours opt-out. Labour minister and former Communication Workers Union leader Alan Johnson is now the enthusiastic mouthpiece of business, speaking like a liberal nationalist. He is proud that "Britain" is standing up for workers' 'right' to work long hours on low pay. As Alan Watkins puts it so pointedly, "Mr Johnson's arguments are reminiscent of those employed by extreme economic liberals in the 19th century. Not only does stopping small boys from being sent up chimneys deprive them of their freedom. More: they actively enjoy being sent up chimneys as a consequence of their playful boyish nature" (The Independent June 15). At a recent meeting of top EU officials, British diplomats secured the necessary backing to continue their opt-out. They were supported by a coalition which included Poland and Slovakia. British business had lobbied hard to prevent a compromise from the European Commission which would end the opt-out from 2012. The Confederation of Polish Employers in a joint report with the British Institute of Directors argued that both countries need to keep their "flexible" labour markets: "We simply cannot afford to relax our competitive advantage in any way" (The Financial Times June 2). Of course, they argued that cheap workers are necessary to compete with even cheaper workers from emerging economies such as China and India. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the toothless TUC, lobbied to end the opt-out. He argued that long hours would damage competition because Britain risked a "vicious circle of long hours working, low skills and low productivity". But this did not cut much ice. British capitalists are determined to remain in a vicious circle of fat profits. It is not good arguments that win. French workers have shown that ending the long hours and low-pay culture depends on organisation and action by the working class. This does not simply mean trade union action, as syndicalists imagine. The big problem is the lack of a credible working class party that can lead opposition to New Labour and their flexible business friends. Socialists do not support the 'model' of either camp of the European bourgeoisie. Neither are we in favour of supporting imperialist rivalry between the US and the EU. On the contrary the future of humanity depends on getting rid of the whole world imperialist system. There has to be an international socialist revolution which envelops the major centres of global capital in America, Europe, Japan and China. It is the revolutionary struggle for democracy that is the key to progress. It is a struggle which only the working class is capable of leading and winning. The integration of Europe is for us not about building an economic rival to challenge US imperialism. Instead it presents an opportunity for the working class to unite across Europe and extend, widen and deepen the battle for democracy. This is the only road that can bring the working class to power in Europe. The European capitalists, their politicians and parties cannot bring about a democratic Europe. A more democratic Europe would imply much greater real influence by the working class. Real democracy would require far greater workers' participation and control in the workplace. This is something capital will not voluntarily concede. In the current bureaucratic Europe, business can lobby or bribe the bureaucrats. But this system is neither popular nor seen as legitimate. The European parliament serves as a not very effective fig leaf for Euro-bureaucracy. The answer to European capitalist integration is a democratic revolution led by the working class. This means mobilising the working class across Europe around democratic demands, including agitation for a constituent assembly. A democratic Europe would inevitably be a social Europe. Far from privatising business, a democratic social Europe would need to take the "commanding heights" into social ownership. This would need to become the beginning of an international socialist revolution and a new world order. Any tactical view we take on the EU constitution must be consistent with this strategic position, which is democratic and internationalist. The first question we should deal with is whether the referendum should go ahead. Any referendum, like any election, is not carried out under terms and conditions that favour the working class. The timing, the issues and the questions put are structured by those in power. Despite fixing everything possible for the advantage of the capitalist class, our rulers cannot rely on elections and referendums to deliver the answer they want. Of course, the high priests of bourgeois democracy will do their best to convince us that even a bad result is not what it seems. They do not just make the rules - they influence how we see the outcome. The moral argument that we should boycott or abstain in referendums because they are set up to favour the ruling class is an anarchist, not a Marxist, argument. It is from the same ideological stable as abstaining from politics in general so as not to be contaminated or morally corrupted. For us arguments about boycotts and abstention votes are always about tactical considerations of the best way to raise workers' democratic consciousness, fighting ability and class organisation. We should defend the idea that all countries' electorates should have the right and opportunity to debate and vote on the treaty. In Britain treaties do not require parliamentary approval. They can be ratified under the royal prerogative. But in 1978 the Labour government passed a law which required parliamentary approval for European treaties. Blair turned this into a referendum not because of any democratic principles, but to ensure that the Tories could not make an election issue out of it. Our referendum was the product of a political manoeuvre. It is now a political manoeuvre to remove it. It suited Blair to promise a referendum and it suits him to take it away again. From a democratic point of view there should have been a European-wide referendum with the same question on the same day. These votes should be aggregated so that we can see if there is a European majority. Instead voting was to take place nationally, in some cases through parliaments, and is being held on different days and months. Each electorate was thus encouraged to think in national terms about its national advantages. The purpose of holding votes on different dates was to help ensure a 'yes' vote which the ruling classes wanted. A pro-European country like Spain would vote early. A Eurosceptic country like the UK could stand at the end of the queue. As the pro-treaty votes piled up, this would give the 'yes' campaigns in sceptic countries more chance of victory. This plan to manipulate European public opinion fell flat on its face as a result of the French and Dutch results. There is no reason why the dodgy conditions imposed by the ruling classes should influence our thinking. The fact that Blair, the other capitalist parties and the Eurosceptic media have been quick to pronounce the death of the treaty should not influence us. There is no democratic reason why we should lose our right to vote on this matter. The ruling class imposed the condition that every single country must vote in favour. As The Economist points out, "with 11 countries putting the result to a popular vote, it was always likely that at least one would say 'no'. And, because it required the approval from all 25 EU members, that made it unlikely that the constitution would ever enter into force" (June 4). The ruling class have fixed up a process which gives any one of the 25 a veto not only over the treaty, but apparently over our democratic right to vote on it. Surely a democratic decision should be based on the majority of European voters. If one or two countries vote against, they should have the right to self-determination by opting out. This way everybody's rights are provided for. So far 10 countries have voted in favour and two against. This represents 225 million voters in favour, currently standing at 49% of the electorate. So, whilst socialists may be against the treaty, it is important that the working class defends the democratic method and does not simply accept, as a given, the dodgy rules agreed by the ruling classes. The claim that the treaty is "dead" only makes sense if you accept the bent rules which give any national minority a veto. Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Ireland are ready to continue the process. We should demand the same. The decision to halt the referendum in Britain is not the result of 'common sense' or even, as Jack Straw claimed, a deeply felt deference to the will of the French and Dutch people - "we must respect the results of the referendums and we will". Government ministers and the Tory press were quick to say the constitution was dead. This was a huge relief to Blair. Europe, which fatally damaged Thatcher and Major, was not going to sink him too. With almost indecent haste the whole matter was laid to rest, despite Blair having told parliament that we would have a referendum whatever France did. It is not difficult to see why Blair was relieved when presented with an opportunity to kill off the British referendum. He was facing a hiding to nothing. If he was defeated it would hasten his departure. His premiership would go down as ending in failure. Without a referendum Blair's position is stronger. As leader of the free-market wing of Euro-capital he is undefeated by popular rebellion in his own country. The French referendum will still appear as a defeat for the Franco-German hegemony and the 'social model'. He can pass the blame on to Chirac and then emerge as the champion of economic reform as the only way forward. According to James Blitz it was "only cunning political timing by Downing Street and the foreign office that ensured that the collapse of the constitution engulfed Jacques Chirac's presidency, not Tony Blair's premiership "¦ the Blair government always wanted to be the last in Europe to hold it [a referendum on the constitution], believing it would be rejected by another nation's voters first. The gamble paid off" (The Financial Times June 2). This infuriated the French and Germans. The speed with which Blair pulled the British referendum was seen as another example of perfidious Albion playing double games. Whilst claiming to support the project, Blair put the boot in at the critical moment. From Blair's interview with The Financial Times it is clear that he has done a U-turn. The war between Blair and Chirac threatens business confidence and the value the euro. That is big bucks down the drain. Perhaps the 'men in grey suits' have been phoning Blair to remind him that politics costs money. Now he tells the FT: "I don't believe Europe should relinquish a social model. We should have a strong social model" (June 7). It turns out that our referendum is only "suspended". Liam Fox, the shadow foreign secretary, made the Tory position clear. He called on the government to completely abandon plans to hold a referendum and "declare the constitution dead". Iain Duncan Smith argued the case conditionally. Only if the constitution was not dead should the British people be allowed to kill it off. This is not a principled defence of the people's right to decide. The Tories want electors to be wheeled out only if necessary to help them. Otherwise their general rule is that the big decisions should be left to the ruling class and their politicians. A pronouncement that the referendum is either "dead" or merely "suspended" is not in the interests of the working class. We, as socialists, should not give Blair's dodgy dealing any credence. Neither should we wait until the European ruling classes decide what to do at their summit. We want to defend the right of workers to vote on this constitution. We will happily take the opportunity to give Blair and his free market malarkey a good thrashing. What position should we take in the unlikely event that they allow us to vote? In a referendum on the euro we should be in favour of active abstention. From an economic point of view the euro is about the further development of capitalism. It facilitates the further economic integration of the working class. British workers will have to measure their terms, conditions and living standards alongside those of French and German workers. The economic fate of the working class will be more transparently interconnected. The need for European trade union and political organisation becomes ever more obvious - not just to Marxists, but to millions of working class people. We should have nothing to do with the superstitious reverence for the pound as a symbol of national ego. Pathetic little currencies like the pound belong in the dustbin of history. If this sounds suspiciously like a case for voting 'yes, it is not. The fact is that the capitalists are introducing the euro for their benefit, not ours. If we were to vote 'yes' we would certainly be turkeys voting for Christmas. They are determined to make the working class pay. This will mean price increases, more taxes, cuts in services and lost jobs. But the idea that a 'no' vote could stop development of capitalism is nonsense. What we can do is organise to make the capitalists pay for the euro. Only working class action can do that. A 'no' vote is an illusion either in petty, backward capitalism or in the notion that voting rather than organising action can save the working class. Therefore only an abstain 'vote' gives us the platform from which to build an independent working class position. Abstention is not about staying at home. It is about building a campaign in the working class movement and building the kind of consciousness and organisation that can oppose every attempt to make workers pay for the euro. However, if this argument is correct, it does not follow that we should approach the constitutional referendum with the same tactical line. It is a sham constitution and its pretence of democracy is combined with an invitation to attack the working class. Our case against the pseudo-constitution is democratic, social and internationalist. That case is best made by saying 'no'. We need not worry about whether voting 'no' sets us against European capital. It does. There is no doubt that a 'no' vote will damage Blair and hasten his departure from the scene, with much jeering and cheering from socialists ringing in his ears. The only argument against 'no' is that we might be associated with the rightwing nationalists, based on the middle class, small businesses, as represented by the UK Independence Party, and the small business wing of the Tories. Apart from those on the left who dabble in nationalist ideology, such as the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, it would not be difficult to differentiate ourselves from a British nationalist 'no' despite all its money. We have a secret weapon in the French working class. Our campaign would be for a democratic Europe, in favour of direct elections to a constituent assembly and for the best European social demands on hours of work, wages and pensions. We can point to the 'no' campaign of the French working class. Nothing would be better than bringing French workers (and, of course, Polish plumbers) to the UK to explain their campaign and the issues it threw up to workers here. We can have no illusion that a 'no' vote will halt the European gravy train. Whatever the vote, all the measures that benefit capital will be implemented in some form, by whatever political means and timing is feasible. It is class action, not votes, that is decisive. What is overthrown is high-blown phrases and bourgeois declarations of democratic good intentions. Bullshit bites the dust. That can only help to clarify what real choices workers face.