Back on the agenda

The process of imposing a European Union constitution has resumed, writes Jim Moody

Tony Blair's refusal to hold a referendum on the revamped European Union constitution may be reversed by Gordon Brown, according to a kite flown by underling Geoff Hoon on June 17. In any event, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's version of the constitutional treaty was decisively thrown out by voters in his own country, France, and in the Netherlands in 2005, so the whole process has now to be started again. Part of this process is the balancing act that Brown will continue in order to square the rhetoric of Britain being in the heart of Europe and maintaining the far more important 'special relationship' with US superimperialism.

France and Germany are, as ever, the main countries trying to drive the EU project forward. What the new constitution is called matters not: because of the embarrassment of losing the one devised by Giscard d'Estaing, as well as subsequent pressure from the Netherlands and UK governments, the term 'treaty' is now more frequently used.

Gordon Brown is supposedly happy to accept a sitting president, a foreign policy top dog (definitely without the title 'minister') and a new voting system. But the British government still stands against losing its national veto on a raft of EU areas of policy; against the EU becoming a single legal entity; and any moves to extend the reach of the European Court of Justice, such as through a binding charter of European rights.

Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, stirred up controversy last year over what kind of constitutional document the EU ought to have. After meeting the pope, she summarised their conversation thus: "We spoke about the role of Europe and I emphasised the need for a constitution and that it should refer to our christian values" (The Guardian August 29 2006). Germany currently holds the EU presidency and so is able to exert more pressure toward such an outcome.

As far as both France and Germany are concerned, now that the EU has expanded to include 27 countries, it needs to be streamlined and hardened into an effective geo-political bloc. That or the whole project risks stagnation and becoming something like the Austro-Hungarian empire of the 19th century. However, close US allies such as the governments of the Czech Republic, Poland and the UK have constantly sought to slow things down and keep them loose. But the French and German pressure to advance has always been there and has increased, especially given the US-UK failure in Iraq. It is rightly seen as unmistakable evidence of relative US decline.

Germany has presented a timetable for action on the constitution to this week's summit of the European Council. The German government aims to achieve final adoption of a treaty/constitution by the summer of 2009. Indeed, beforehand it was certainly no secret that the German presidency of the EU wanted all political-institutional issues resolved during this summit.

Newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy is equally committed to a revamped constitution - in bare essentials the same as the one to which French voters gave the 'wrong' result two years ago. Last week, Sarkozy visited Poland's reactionary double act, twins Lech Kaczyà±ski (president) and Jaroslaw Kaczyà±ski (prime minister). Poland's government is concerned that reworking the voting system within the EU will reduce the country's role in European decision-making; its objections have been made plain leading up to this week's summit, bargaining for preferment before deciding whether it will back the France-Germany axis.

Poland wants to avoid in effect becoming a Franco-German neo-colony; how far it is able to avoid this fate, or not, will affect the future of such new EU members as Bulgaria and Romania too. The major EU powers - France, Germany, Italy and the UK - clearly have every interest in changing how the EU works. While Britain intends to retain its veto rights, it does not want smaller countries, especially the poorer ones in the east, stubbornly blocking legislation. With 'reform' would come a greater ability of the richer/bigger powers to dole out patronage and to bribe: this is what is on offer for the big four.

Poland's rulers, joined by those of the Czech Republic, oppose what is currently being proposed: a formula of double majority voting by which council decisions require approval by at least 55% of member-states, representing at least 65% of the population. Poland alleges discrimination against smaller countries and clearly does not want to be among the losers under the new system.

As far as the US is concerned, of course, it is in favour of expansion of the EU. It wanted to extend Nato to the borders of Russia. However, it does not want to create a rival. Therefore it relies on the UK and the new countries in the east to water down or hobble centralising moves or tendencies.

While it is important to understand these embryonic imperialist rivalries, the left must not fall into the trap of appearing to side with its 'own' bourgeoisie in order to get the best deal for a particular national working class. Yet, unfortunately, the attitude of most of the left in Britain towards the EU and its constitution is one of, at the very least, accommodating to nationalism. The Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain laud the British road to socialism, which dreams of a national socialism being introduced through a British parliament. No wonder they demand withdrawal from the EU.

The Socialist Workers Party and International Socialist Group are little better. While the SWP may not be able to stomach the crassest of the anti-EU slogans, it is quite happy to shout, 'We don't want the Euro super-state' and 'Against the Brussels bureaucracy'. But this begs a very important question. Are they then 'For the UK bureaucracy' like the Little Englanders of the right?

As for the ISG, its leader, Alan Thornett, perhaps speaks for the majority of the left in Britain when he blunderingly calls for two disengaged and entirely opposed outcomes: on the one side "the dissolution of the EU or Britain's withdrawal from it", and on the other side "a socialist Britain in a socialist Europe" (A Thornett et al Even more unemployment p11).

Comrade Thornett's co-Fourth Internationalists in France, the comrades of the Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire, have a rather more sensible view. Far from demanding a French "withdrawal", they call for the working class to take the lead in the fight for a social Europe in the here and now. This approach does not mean acceptance of the EU constitution - which in both its 2005 form and 2007 reappearance represents a direct attack on the working class - it is a neoliberal privatiser's charter.

We certainly do not want to rerun the modern-day equivalents of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell sharing the same platform, whether politically or physically, jointly to oppose the EU. Three decades ago politicians of the right and left (including the 'official communists' of the Morning Star) jointly campaigned for a 'no' in the June 1975 referendum on Britain's membership of the 'Common Market'. And not only was the spectacle abhorrent: so too are the politics that lead leftwingers to side with the most reactionary elements of the class enemy, overlapping with their politics.

Some of this lack of independent working class backbone was apparent during the days of the Socialist Alliance. At an SA conference in October 2002 the CPGB proposed a campaign for an active boycott of what then seemed an imminent referendum on adopting the euro currency. After all, the SA's general election manifesto for June 2001, People before profit, contained the correct slogan, 'Neither advocate the euro nor defend the pound'. However, this line was opposed by the decisive SWP majority, backed up by the ISG, who argued for a straight 'no' in any referendum on the euro.

Our view was: ""¦ European integration and the euro objectively unites the working class on a larger scale and across a huge territory and thus prepares the 'struggle which will itself eventuate the emancipation of the proletariats' [Marx's phrase]. In this revolutionary sense alone, we should be in favour of the euro and the EU" (For a democratic and federal Europe (www.cpgb.org.uk/resources/for%20dem%20&%20fed% 20europe.pdf).

Having previously gone along with the 'neither the euro nor the pound' slogan, the SWP changed its position - to one that was virtually indistinguishable from the ISG's. "There are very good reasons for workers to be wholly against the European project," declared Charlie Kimber (Socialist Worker August 24 2002). Of course, the SWP and ISG insisted that their 'no' campaign would be leftwing - they would not be prepared to share platforms with just "anyone against Europe". The xenophobic right were to be excluded, but this prohibition would not have extended to the CPB national socialists, whose defence of 'British sovereignty' merges into the chauvinism of the right.

However, as Jack Conrad comments in his 2004 book, Remaking Europe, the SWP, "in the form of its antecedent, the International Socialists, once possessed a rather more principled and far-sighted attitude towards European unity". In 1961, the IS lambasted the left nationalism of the Labour left and noted that European integration could serve to intensify the class struggle.

International Socialism declared that if Europeanisation "hastens this process as it surely will, cartel Europe will have laid, as surely, the basis for a United States of Socialist Europe. For revolutionary socialists in Britain there is no greater aim. We should be the first to clasp hands across La Manche." The editorial concluded: "For us the move to Europe extends the scope of the class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure" (autumn 1961).

It is around such a perspective for Europe that Marxists should unite.