New vision for Europe wanted

James Turley argues that the bourgeoisie is incapable of uniting Europe on any secure basis

Ireland’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty is surely the last major hurdle it will face.

The Irish parliament still needs to formalise ratification, and the presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic have also yet to sign. The latter’s, Vaclav Klaus, is a noted Eurosceptic, who controversially intervened in the first Irish referendum last November while on a state visit. Yet he will no doubt relent now that the Czech parliament has voted to endorse it, and Poland will quickly follow suit. The treaty will pass into effect.

For many on the nationalist left and far right, this is a disaster. The Lisbon treaty, it is said, not without foundation, is simply a repackaged version of the abortive EU constitution, rejected by French and Dutch referenda in 2005 - repackaged in such a way that recalcitrant populations would not get to vote on it (Ireland being the sole exception by virtue of a constitutional clause).

When it comes into force, the fear is that the treaty will expropriate more power from ‘accountable sovereign governments’ to a faceless bureaucracy in Brussels. The nationalist far right fears ‘economic freedom’ being drowned in red tape and society buckling under hordes of migrant workers; the nationalist left also fears unrestricted migrant workers, but additionally worries about the market being enshrined as the natural order of things, along with a whole new raft of anti-worker legislation and even the formalisation of a new imperialist pole.

In reality, Lisbon is a quantitative development for the EU rather than a qualitative one. It logically flows from its expansion, especially the accession of 10 new member-states in 2004, mostly former Stalinist countries. The EU remains a confederation rather than a federation: crucially the vast bulk of police and armed forces - which, in the last instance, enforce constitutional arrangements - remain in the hands of member-states.

Yet Eurosceptics are correct when they point to the almost laughably undemocratic manner in which EU governments have effectively forced these new arrangements on their populations. That this is necessary, and other factors in the fraught gestation of the treaty, highlight the broader historical contradictions in the European project - and call for an entirely different approach from the left than is currently on offer.

The first proto-EU was an unassuming thing - the European Coal and Steel Community was proposed to ensure cooperation between the respective steel industries of France and the Federal Republic of Germany. Its significance went beyond simple economic agreements, however - the ECSC was floated in 1950, its proposed members still reconstructing after the devastation of World War II. In pooling key military resources, argued French foreign minister Robert Schuman, France and West Germany would “make war not only unthinkable, but materially impossible”. When the treaty was signed in 1951, the two core nations were joined by the Benelux countries and Italy, creating a free trade zone for the eponymous commodities.

Cooperation between the six countries was steadily extended throughout the 50s, most significantly with the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Economic Community customs union in 1957; this period also saw negotiations with other countries wishing to join, in particular Britain. Charles de Gaulle famously scuppered these moves with his use of the French veto, first in 1963 and then in 1967.

More significant than the memory of WWII, however, was the immediate context of the cold war. Stalin’s USSR acted quickly in the wake of the war to consolidate its new sphere of influence in eastern and central Europe, acquired during the long and bloody defeat of Nazi Germany on the eastern front. ‘Revolutions’ - in reality, for the most part, coups instigated by the Red Army alongside local ‘official communist’ parties - established authoritarian and Moscow-loyal regimes in all conquered territories. By 1948 the so-called communist bloc extended from the Soviet Union to East Germany.

Unsurprisingly, contemporaneous to the first economic treaties were parallel agreements over military cooperation. The North Atlantic Treaty, establishing the Nato military alliance, was supported by others which consolidated the ‘defence’ efforts of western Europe. Even the economic arrangements often had direct military applications - the ECSC, as we have noted, but also Euratom, which established cooperation in the development of nuclear power. Effective unity in the face of the ‘communist threat’ was paramount for European countries - in particular, given the still substantial colonial holdings of France and Britain, and the active involvement of Soviet-loyal communist parties in the wave of anti-colonial nationalism that threatened them.

Yet the reluctance of the likes of de Gaulle to countenance expansion is also understandable. Britain was seen as an American Trojan horse and military cooperation in Nato meant in reality subordination to the US. There was, and remains, no doubt as to who called the shots in Nato. De Gaulle - and the political trend bearing his name that shaped French politics in the post-war epoch - was keen to establish a degree of independence from this domineering ally, whose global interests frequently diverged from those of France, a country which still had grand imperial ambitions of its own.

These were the real stakes in Britain’s troubled entry into the original European Communities. Britain was (and remains) America’s closest ally in Europe. A British veto over EU policy is virtually the same as an American veto. In the 1970s and 80s, during the economic convulsions that sounded the death knell of the post-war Keynesian consensus, it was the UK that followed most decisively the American pattern of reconstructing the economy around finance capital, decimating its own industrial base (and, along with it, the workers’ movement). France and, in particular, Germany maintained their manufacturing capacity, and contradictions between the core powers of continental Europe and the Atlantic ‘special relationship’ grew.

This formed the backdrop to shifts in Britain’s own political culture; Euroscepticism, always lurking on the fringes, became a major force and source of internal ructions in the Conservative Party. John Major’s attempts to negotiate the 1992 Maastricht treaty were frequently interrupted by the protests of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, whose opposition to the EU had surfaced towards the end of her reign. A fraught Commons vote almost caused the Tory government to collapse.

Today, the contradiction still surfaces frequently - see, for instance, the disputes over the economic crisis which have arrayed the French and German governments against their American and British counterparts. More fundamentally, it is expressed in differences over the direction the EU should take. It is in the interests of the US and Britain that the EU should expand to include more states, thus tying the core western European powers to a deadweight block of votes in the east that is largely pro-Washington.

A wider European Union is a less powerful competitor to US hegemony - as is one that does not consolidate power too centrally in transnational institutions. The French and German states, conversely, prefer a smaller but more tightly federated EU that can pursue a more independent course vis-à-vis the Americans.

This is the context in which debates on the left around the EU have to be placed. Marxists, as a rule of thumb, prefer the greatest possible unity between nations. Our cause is global - it transcends the artificial borders and barriers erected before us, which serve only capital. When Marx and Engels started their political careers, Germany was a nation but not a state - it was divided into squabbling princedoms, some tiny and some relatively powerful. They argued consistently for the ‘one and indivisible republic’, to unite the German states and with them the German masses. This was not out of any romantic, Volk nationalism, but in the interests ultimately of the unity of the workers across Europe.

In the EU, we are faced with a contradictory unity of disparate states - some (like Germany and Britain) relatively powerful, others weak. European unity is, on one level, being forced upon national populations who are often unsympathetic to it. On another level, however, the ruling class is pussyfooting. Unity can go only as far as it serves the interests of capital. Trade barriers can be scrapped, but individual member-states retain many powers of taxation, law-making and, of course, over their military machines. The interests of capital in general and the US in particular hold unity in Europe back.

The first political consequence for the left is that simple, unreconstructed opposition to the EU is a false, economistic position. It fails to acknowledge that the unity of nations is a progressive phenomenon that in the long run makes our tasks easier, and that we should seek to preserve and extend such unity where it is not travestied by national oppression.

The bourgeoisie is manifestly incapable of uniting Europe on any secure basis. Its lash-up treaties, agreed in conference rooms behind our backs, come with guaranteed unpopularity. The frequent declarations of intent on the part of British politicians to ‘make the case for Europe’ belie the fact that these people cannot make the case for Europe - that their vision of unity is not even really unity at all, but simply a rag-tag jumble of treaties in the service of capital.

Those who oppose this by counterposing ‘democratic’ national parliaments to EU administrators are also misconceived. It is simply not the case that an all-powerful Brussels bureaucracy is hoarding political power; the EU is run by the member-states for the member-states (some member-states being more equal than others). This fallacy reached a nadir of absurdity with the CPB-Bob Crow ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ platform in the June EU elections, which cited the malign influence of certain European court decisions on domestic workers’ struggles. The fact is that the strategy of the British state in Europe has been to zealously pull it in the direction of more brazen and ruthless bourgeois power.

Instead of retreating into nationalism, communists must outline our own vision for a united Europe - under the rule of the working class. Such an entity would provide a key bulwark against global imperialism and must be an essential element in any communist programme.