Treaty of Lisbon and a workers' Europe

In the name of democracy and internationalism, Mike Macnair argues against calls for a referendum

The first Commons debate on ratification of the new European Union treaty took place on Monday January 21. The Tories, and some Labour MPs, are demanding a referendum. The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has followed suit (January 19). Where should communists and the rest of the workers’ movement stand on these issues?

The Treaty of Lisbon was signed on December 13 2007. A substantial amount of parliamentary time over the next few months will be devoted to its ratification. Similar proceedings will be going on in parliaments across Europe, except in Hungary, which ratified it on December 17. The Tories’ loud demands for a referendum are based on Blair’s commitment to call one on the defeated ‘constitutional treaty’. They claim - as do some European politicians - that the Lisbon treaty is just the ‘constitutional treaty’ repackaged.

The Liberal Democrats have proposed instead a referendum on British membership of the EU.1 The government is saying that, since the new treaty is “not a constitution”, no referendum is needed: parliamentary debate is sufficient.

More exactly, the time will be devoted to the European Union (Amendment) Bill, which was formally introduced (‘given its first reading’) on December 17. Gordon Brown signed the treaty on December 13 on behalf of the queen. It remains, technically, part of the royal prerogative to assent to treaties: they bind the UK if the queen agrees to them, without any sort of ratification. But this one needs an act of parliament, because under section 12 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act (EPEA) 2002 “no treaty which provides for any increase in the powers of the European parliament is to be ratified by the United Kingdom unless it has been approved by an act of parliament”. Besides providing for approval of the Treaty of Lisbon under EPEA 2002 section 12 (clause 4), the bill also extends the provisions of that section considerably.

In the first place, any future treaty amending the treaty of Maastricht 1992 (Treaty on the European Union) or Treaty of Rome 1957 (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon, will require parliamentary approval for ratification (clause 5). Secondly, by clause 6, British government ministers will be required to obtain prior approval by resolution of both houses of parliament before they vote in EU institutions for, or ‘support’, any of a long list of specified changes which would extend the use of ‘qualified majority voting’ in EU institutions.

Should the workers’ movement in Europe support or oppose ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon? Should we be demanding referendums? In Britain, should the workers’ movement support or oppose (or support amendments to) the EU (Amendment) Bill? Should we back the Tories’ demand for a referendum on the treaty, or the Lib Dems’ call for a referendum on the EU? Or should we ignore these goings-on as merely the internal affairs of the capitalist class, as the French organisation Lutte Ouvrière argued last time around?2

The constitutional treaty and what came of it

A little over three years ago I argued in these pages that the left across Europe should oppose the constitutional treaty and hence vote ‘no’, but not in favour of nationalism: instead we should fight for a European constituent assembly and within such an assembly - as Jack Conrad argued in detail at the same period in his book Remaking Europe (2004) - for a republican United States of Europe.3 Peter Manson at around the time of the French May 2005 referendum polemicised against the Lutte Ouvrière view.4 In contrast, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty said that the weight of the internationalists was so small that there was no way of proposing either a critical ‘yes’ or an internationalist ‘no’, and therefore called for an abstention.5

On May 29 2005 the French voted by a clear majority against the proposed constitution - 55% against to 45% for. On June 1 of that year the Dutch followed suit, by 61.5% against to 38.5% in favour. It was generally agreed that the constitution was dead. The French vote was generally hailed on the left - including in this paper - because it was understood to be a vote not against European unification, but against the neoliberal and monetarist political-economic commitments entrenched in the 2004 treaty.

Nonetheless, the AWL’s argument turned out to have an element of truth in it. Attempts to unify the ‘no’ camp of the left in France failed, and there was a complete absence of a united campaign in the presidential elections - even, perhaps, less common ground than might have been possible without the spurious unity of the ‘left no’ campaign and the spurious triumph of the ‘no’ vote. The reason was partly that part of the ‘no’ camp - the Socialist Party left and with them the Communist Party - was committed to unity with the ‘yes’ element of the Socialist Party. But behind this commitment to unity with the right wing of the workers’ movement lay a more fundamental issue. Is it the present, immediate job of the workers’ movement to fight for a government which will defend its interests through managing the capitalist state (partly) in the interests of the working class?

If our immediate aim has to be a ‘left’ or ‘non-neoliberal’ government, the task facing the movement is to assemble a coalition of all those opposed to the neoliberal right which is capable of winning a majority. Hence the orientation to the SP right. But in addition, if the nation-state is to be the instrument of reform, we will want the nation-state to have wider powers and not to be constrained by EU law. Hence we should oppose extension of the powers of the EU on nationalist grounds. Communists would then have real common ground with Le Pen and anti-constitution Gaullists. This was, in fact, the basis of the mainstream campaign for a ‘no’ vote in 1975 in Britain: unity on the basis of national sovereignty of the anti-Europe Labour left and the ‘official’ Communist Party with the hard right of the Tory party.

In fact, in France in 2005, as in Britain in 1975, the effect of such a united campaign is to reinforce nationalism and hence the right - including the neoliberal right. The 1975 Europe referendum was not a decisive factor in the victory of Thatcher, but it did reinforce the nationalism of the Labour left and hence its inability to offer an alternative to either the arguments of Wilson and Callaghan for ‘national unity’ or Thatcher’s 1978-79 ‘Britain isn’t working’ campaign. In France, the process has been quicker: Sarkozy’s campaign for the presidency was transparently about restoring French national pride and French ‘competitiveness’.

In other words, ‘no’ because the capitalists wanted ‘yes’ led nowhere. It is a dead end to argue against any strengthening of the EU merely because an important section of the capitalist class and capitalist states wants it to happen. The result of this sort of ‘unity round no’ was merely to reinforce left nationalism and thereby to reinforce right nationalism: providing another means by which the capitalists can pursue their interests.

That does not imply that it was wrong to call for a ‘no’ vote. If it did, it would imply that in every case where the left nationalists argue for something, communists should argue the opposite in order to ‘look different’, even if we would end up arguing for something obviously wrong. The AWL’s reliance on this method has led it to obvious sectarianism and to arguing social-imperialist garbage ‘justified’ by manifestly false claims.

Rather we have to start from a different place. The first element has to be the objective contradictory dynamics involved in the issue. The second is the strategic, long-term, interest of the working class. The third is the precise openings which the objective dynamics give us to pursue the interest of the working class. As of now, left nationalism and class-collaborationism (whether in ‘Labourite´ or ‘official communist’ forms) is dominant in the workers’ movement. That means that what can practically be done to promote the interest of the working class is almost entirely a matter of trying to spread ideas.

Objective dynamics

The international unity of the capitalist class as against the working class is not expressed and organised by the EU. It is, rather, expressed and organised by the role of the world-hegemon state (now the US; before 1914 the UK) and its armed forces and covert military operations, its financial institutions, the treaty structures it promotes, its covert political operations and NGOs.

The ‘European project’ was created early in the cold war. It expressed a convergence of interests. On the one side was the interest of a section of European capitals, of the core continental western European states, and of some European political parties, in avoiding a repetition of 1914-18 and 1939-45. On the other was the interest of the US world hegemon in solidifying ‘western’ Europe against communism as part of the cold war ‘containment’ structure.

This task involved both clear pro-capitalist commitments and a framework in which a broadly social democratic reform policy would be possible. The latter was conceived in terms of ‘containment’ - by making ‘western Europe’ look like a better place to live than ‘eastern Europe’. It was also conceived, for the Europeans, as avoiding the disastrous results of the pre-war order: loss of capitalist legitimacy and rise of anti-liberal nationalism, leading to wars utterly disastrous for European capitals and states.

With the neoliberal and financialising turn, and all the more with the fall of the USSR, the US wholly lost any material interest in this policy or willingness to support it. Since Thatcher, therefore, the US’s British side-kick regime pressed as hard as possible for (a) expansion of the EU, to paralyse the common action of the EU core countries, and (b) the transformation of the EU into a pure free-trade area. This policy so far as it succeeded would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in social policy, state spending, tax, etc through the free movement of capital.

There are two problems with this policy from the point of view of European capitals. The first is that its logical endpoint would be to convert Europe into something like Latin America: a number of disconnected and impotent states, with weak domestic financial institutions and substantial outflows of surplus value to stronger states and financial centres elsewhere.

The tariff-protected, highly-regulated and Keynesian-managed character of the US economy is hidden by the ideologists from the working classes and middle classes. But to competing capitals and the more intelligent state actors it is obvious. In pressing for an ‘open’ EU, the US is not offering to ‘open’ its own economy. It is using its military-financial hegemony to try to withdraw concessions which were made to European capitals as well as to European workers in the cold war period.

The second problem is that the old EEC, now the EU, was from the outset not merely a free-trade area with state-to-state treaty arrangements, but also a common field of law, with a court of justice accessible to particular capitals, and - in the council of ministers - a legislature. In these fields, the contradictions between capitals in relation to state aids and ‘dumping’ (sale of goods at an undervalue) find expression. But so, necessarily, do concerns about indirect state aids and ‘social dumping’ in the form of national legal rules which allow capital in one country to operate at lower costs than capital in another country, and the concerns of states about ‘tax dumping’ (where state A attracts capitals by offering lower tax rates than state B, leading to a ‘beggar my neighbour’ approach which will ultimately worsen the tax income of both states).

The result of these logics is that in spite of the general neoliberal turn, the EU institutions - like the internal political and judicial institutions of the US - partially and contradictorily express resistance of capitals, as well as of the workers’ movement, to the neoliberal logic of the ‘race to the bottom’. European capitalists want to reduce wages, worsen working conditions and reduce the ‘social wage’ and taxation in order to make their capitals more competitive. But they want to do so on their own terms, not on the terms of a free-trade area dictated from the US through its British mouthpiece. They want to be able to take collective decisions through the EU institutions about how far to go, when and how, and so on.

This counter-logic has had since the 1990s the effect of pressure within the EU - from capitals as well as from state actors and a section of the political elite - for increasing the decision-making power of the EU institutions: both by increasing the range of topics on which they can decide, and by facilitating some form of majority voting. The object is to free European capitals - French and German capitals in particular - from the shackles imposed by enlargement in the interests of the US and its British guard dog.

But this contradiction still functions within the framework of European political-military subordination to the US. In addition, a European-wide turn to protectionism, soft money and military Keynesianism would not have the economic effects that this turn has had in the US and Britain. In the US it has produced financial inflows and bubble effects which counter the relative decline of US productive industry. Britain has been allowed an ‘offshore’ role in this process as a US client. But these effects have been possible because other countries have not been allowed to follow the same path. To copy the US in Europe as a whole would merely produce ‘stagflation’ in the style of the 1970s.

Hence, both US-British pressure and their own concerns about a return to the 70s have led European states to agree at Maastricht and Nice to entrench hard-money and free-market commitments in treaties. This, in turn, has had the effect that the EU is now widely seen among the masses as the immediate source of the neoliberal offensive. The result was the failure of the 2004 constitution project: without a break with neoliberalism, a new constitution for Europe did not appear to broad masses as offering anything positive in exchange for loss of ‘national sovereignty’.

The failure of the constitution project, however, could not be a simple victory for the British (and some eastern European) advocates of a pure free-trade area. The objective dynamics which drive European capitals and states to try to find effective common decision-making mechanisms, against US-British wishes, remain in place. Hence the Treaty of Lisbon, which makes most of the technical changes to the structure of the EU without presenting itself as a ‘constitution’ or allowing anyone a vote on the neoliberal commitments of Maastricht and Nice. If this project fails, there will be another.

The underlying reality is that in spite of its continuing absolute dominance, the US is in relative decline. Hence it is putting on pressure to increase the tribute paid to US finance capital not only by the broad masses, but also by other capitals. This means that other states and capitals which have hitherto accepted a basically subordinate position in exchange for a share in the spoils are forced to attempt a higher level of organisation for their own defence. The US’s relative decline means that it cannot be expected forever to be able to block this development. Capitalist Europe will continue to enlarge its common decision-making capacity.

Working class interests

If the working class does not take political power, the decline of the US will drag the world down until counter-powers emerge to fight it. Wages and working and living conditions will continue (with ups and downs) to decline towards global averages. Hence local, national and international political antagonisms over the share of a diminishing cake will continue to intensify. Liberalism and reformism will continue to lose political legitimacy to the benefit of outright nationalism, clericalism and Bonapartism.

These developments in turn will lead in due course to full-scale warfare among the major capitalist powers. Such a war may result in the emergence of a new world capitalist hegemon to replace the US, but it may equally result in a general nuclear exchange and the end of human civilisation. Even if the best outcome is achieved, it will be as destructive as the war in Iraq: ie, more destructive than 1939-45.

For this purpose it makes absolutely no difference whether capitalist Europe unites or not. If capitalist Europe unites, it is likely at some stage to become a party to a general war; if it does not, it will still become a theatre of a general war, a battlefield fought over between proxies for the US and whoever emerges as military challenger to the US. The idea that European capitalist unity worsens the risk of war, argued by some Socialist Workers Party authors, is nonsense.

The working class therefore plainly needs to take power to avert this outcome. The problem is how the working class can take power.

There were three great illusions of the 20th century left. The first was the belief that the working class could take power in a series of single countries, adding to its initial base in entirely separate national revolutions. Isolated revolutions in the face of the international unity of capital have ended either in quickly being starved out or in long degeneration. After 1989-91 and the evolution of the Chinese regime into the sweatshop of the world it should be clear that ‘national roads to socialism’ are merely long detours on the road to capitalism.

The second was the belief that the working class could take power through an equal alliance between itself and either a ‘national’ bourgeoisie or the smallholding peasantry. The third - deeply connected with the second - was the belief that the working class could hold power without political democracy. This was false. It was false if the working class was to ‘rule’ through ‘parliamentary democracy’, as some social democrats claimed. ‘Parliamentary democracy’ in reality means the subordination of political democracy to rule-of-law constitutionalism, which is the political form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It was equally false if the working class was to rule through bureaucratic centralism, as ‘official communists’ proposed in reality. Bureaucratic centralism is a form of Bonapartism which expresses the common interests of the labour bureaucracy and other sections of the class of petty proprietors, like peasants, managers, etc, against the working class.

These judgments on the 20th century left go along with three positive strategic coordinates. First: the workers’ movement needs to aim for working class rule, not for any form of cross-class alliance. Second: the workers’ movement needs to develop the maximum possible practical international coordination of its own efforts under capitalism, not to defer proletarian internationalism purely to solidarity with national revolutions when they happen, nor to displace it into liberal and moralising ‘anti-imperialism’ without a class perspective. Third: the workers’ movement needs to take every opportunity to fight for real, radical, extreme democracy - against both rule-of-law constitutionalism, monarchism, presidentialism and so on in the existing capitalist states, and against the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the trade unions, workers’ parties, and so on.

The contradictory, stop-start process of European capitalist unification offers the workers’ movement both opportunities and immediate needs to pursue two of these goals: practical proletarian internationalism and the struggle for extreme democracy.

The first is posed for the simple and obvious reason that a great deal of law affecting working class people’s immediate lives, and the direct class struggle, is now ‘made in Europe’. The institutions through which European capitalists coordinate their efforts and which make EU law, are less open to the workers’ movement using them as a focus to coordinate its own struggles than national parliaments. But they can be used in this way and limited attempts have been made to do so. The British left has been exceptionally weak in contributing to this process, because it tails the Labour left, who tail Tory nationalism and ‘Euroscepticism’, which ultimately serves merely US imperialism.

The second is posed because European capitalists and states seek to coordinate their own decision-making, while conceding as little political democracy as possible. No surprise there: universal suffrage, and so on, have been won by the struggles of the working class, not because the capitalists or the state conceded the vote out of pure goodwill. But this is a contradiction for the process of European unification - the ‘democratic deficit’ which helps to make the EU institutions less politically legitimate than the nation-states. This contradiction resurfaces with every attempt to strengthen European decision-making. If the European workers’ movement acts together, we can put political democracy on the European agenda - and in doing so put political democracy on the agenda against the rule-of-law bureaucratic-coercive state in every country.

The workers’ movement needs to act together on a European scale. We need to fight for “another Europe”: a Europe of radical democracy Europe-wide, and one which serves working people’s needs, not capitalist profits. Jack Conrad’s Remaking Europe argues the case in detail.


The process of drafting the 2004 constitutional treaty, and the attempt to get this treaty ratified, provided an opening in which the workers’ movement could have posed the question of “another Europe”. The powers that be in Europe were attempting to obtain a degree of democratic legitimacy through the idea of a constitution, the ‘drafting convention’ under Giscard d’Estaing, and the symbolic aspects of the treaty. In this process, they were unavoidably posing the question: what sort of Europe? It was a challenge the European left could have taken up.

In fact, the left threw the opportunity away. It did so because it clung to the nationalist and class-collaborationist illusions of the 20th century. This was in fact what was going on even when groups cited Lenin’s 1914-18 polemics against socialists demanding European unification; or asserted that the EU was simply or primarily an ‘imperialist club’; or internationalists justified their capitulation to the nationalist left in terms of ‘the united front’. The question, ‘What sort of Europe?’, inevitably posed the issue: what alternative to European capitalist unification? In this context, if the left was not prepared to propose working class and democratic European unification, the actual alternative it proposed was: national roads to socialism and class-collaboration with anti-EU nationalists.

Nonetheless, in the referendums the EU establishment was asking voters: do you support our sort of Europe, complete with the layering of authority to prevent answerability of the government to an elected parliament, and with entrenched commitments to neoliberalism and monetarism inherited from the Maastricht and Nice treaties. Hence, even as late as the ratification referendums, it was possible to say, ‘No to this Europe! For another, workers’ and democratic, Europe!’ Hence the fact that to call for ‘no’ was right and the AWL and Lutte Ouvrière were wrong. There was a small chance of posing an internationalist and democratic alternative. To deny that chance was to throw it away as much as the mainstream left’s policy of ‘united front’ with the anti-EU nationalists threw it away.

The Treaty of Lisbon is differently posed. The EU establishment has stopped trying to obtain democratic legitimacy through the idea of a constitution. Instead, it is concerned merely to force through changes which will allow European capitals and states to make common decisions more effectively. The commitments to the market and neoliberalism made in the existing treaties, and the mechanisms for intervention against states which break the rules provided in the existing treaties, are simply assumed - and amended. All that is put forward is a mass of means for extending and simplifying common decision-making, together with a mass of ‘safeguards for national interests’ demanded by particular countries (particularly the British and the Poles).

Indeed, even though they are hedged around with ‘safeguards’, legal rules and bureaucratic structures, the Lisbon decision-making mechanisms are slightly more democratic than the existing EU decision-making mechanisms. ‘Qualified majority voting’ is slightly more democratic than the country veto. There is a slight increase in the role of the elected EU parliament.

In these circumstances, there is not even the small possibility that existed in 2004-05 that to call for a ‘no’ vote could mean ‘No to their Europe. Yes to ours’. We cannot support the Treaty of Lisbon: its concessions to democracy are too limited and too hedged around, and there is too much inherited garbage in the existing treaties. But to oppose Lisbon can only be to oppose limited concessions to democracy in the name of nationalism.

Fake democracy

Both the Brown government and its ‘official left’ opponents set up fake democracy as a cover for their nationalist opposition to Lisbon.

Brown’s version is in clauses 5 and 6 of the European Union (Amendment) Bill. Further amendments are to require parliamentary ratification. By clause 6, British ministers may not support any extension of qualified majority voting into a whole list of fields without prior parliamentary consent. The requirement of prior parliamentary consent looks democratic. But since qualified majority voting is, in fact, more democratic than the alternative - the government veto - all that is really being done is to give British governments a negotiating instrument to assist in defending US interests in the EU, and to assert the government’s ‘defence of British sovereignty’ for the consumption of the Eurosceptic media. If the proletarian-internationalist left were represented in parliament - it is not - its representatives would move to strike this clause out of the bill.

The ‘official left’s alternative is to go along with the Tories’ demand for a referendum. Surely it is more democratic to give the people a vote?

The answer is, no, it is not. A referendum allows the voters to give a yes/no answer to a question whose terms are posed by the referendum-setters. No option exists for ‘Not this treaty, but another Europe’; no option exists to amend anything. Referendums are banned in the German constitution. They are banned for an excellent reason: the memory of the plebiscite (referendum) used by Hitler to give ‘democratic’ colour to his overthrow of the Weimar constitution and concentration of all power in the hands of the fuhrer. A referendum inherently narrows the choice the voters can make. It allows the maximum possible media manipulation. It supposes that the voters are to be the menu peuple, the ‘led people’ in the cynical phrase of 18th century politicians.

In the present case, a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be merely an opportunity to promote Eurosceptic British nationalism - without any opportunity to promote an internationalist and democratic alternative.

The workers’ movement should not oppose the Lisbon Treaty, though we cannot support it. We should not join the Gadarene swine of the nationalist left in demanding a referendum. We should oppose Brown’s ‘safeguards’ for British sovereignty, which are code for safeguards for capital and in particular for Atlanticism and US interests.

In the longer run, we need the positive strategic perspective of fighting for a workers’ and democratic Europe, and within the Europe that exists, fighting for closer practical coordination of the workers’ movement. Another Europe is possible. But it is possible on condition that we break from the nationalist, class-collaborationist and anti-democratic illusions of the 20th century left l


1. www.epolitix.com/EN/News/200711/88b41159-52f6-4e9e-92ff-02282c30ef3b.htm.
2. See Peter Manson, 'Crisis looming for Brussels bureaucracy' Weekly Worker May 28 2005.
3. 'Against the constitutional treaty' Weekly Worker October 14 2004.
4. See note 3 and ‘Build on French success’ Weekly Worker June 2 2005.
5. The AWL has a useful web page of its 2005 debate with several interlocutors in France and elsewhere: www.workersliberty.org/euroconstitution.