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The left needs to confront its illusions about the EU

How can we voice opposition to the EU without sounding like Nigel Farage?

Sticker decrying the EU's lack of democracy Flickr/Aesthetics of crisis. Some rights reserved.

“We don’t change our policy according to elections” – Jyrki Katainen, Vice President of the European Commission, 29 January 2015.

Katainen was responding to the election of the radical left coalition Syriza in Greece last month. But his words could form the motto not just for the unelected European Commission but for the European Union itself.

Any discussion of the EU has been difficult for those of us on the left. For a long time any debate was centred on keeping pounds and ounces, our beloved pound and other symbols of fading greatness. Today, of course, it’s dominated by UKIP and toxic hatred of migrants.

The EU’s track record

Yet we should not respond by keeping quiet about the appalling lack of democracy within the EU and its equally appalling neo-liberal track record. This is summed up by the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiated in secret between the European Commission and the USA. The European Parliament will have no say in this. If the TTIP is signed EU member states will not be able to amend it – they can only accept or reject it.

It’s a deal being negotiated by the elites and which will be rubber stamped by the elites. But that is very much what the EU has become, a club where business is conducted by and in the interests of the European elite.

The often complex institutional structure of the EU is largely unaccountable to the views of the public. The European Council is made up of leading government ministers of member states, and has the power of final decision, while the European Commission enforces EU directives and regulations, with the European Parliament permitted to amend but not initiate those directives.

The European Parliament is itself highly undemocratic being virtually unaccountable to those who elect it and free from any meaningful media reportage. It is dominated by a cartel of the main centre-right and centre-left blocs, which support the neo-liberal programme and whose leaders get together to decide parliamentary business and to carve out positions on the various committees which carry out the real work. They operate closely with the European Commission, in truth under its direction, because the cartel needs to win acceptance of any amendments it proposes or risk being ignored.

The Euro Parliament is extremely good at co-opting those elected from the far right or radical left. One key instrument is the lavish funding made available to them if they join the set-up, being encouraged to create cross-EU groups of the-like minded to gain extra funds.

So far this process of co-option has worked well. A case in point is UKIP, which, despite its fundamental opposition to the EU, plays the Brussels game and causes little or no trouble.

Pushing the neo-liberal agenda

Yet of all these bodies it is another unelected institution which has become the most powerful: the European Central Bank. Based as it is in Frankfurt it currently works in close alliance with the German government of Angela Merkel.

Germany is now exerting itself as the key player in Europe, based on the single fact that it is the biggest European economy. That is a break with Germany’s traditional preference to work in tandem with France.

And the simple fact is that since the 2008 financial crisis a German-led EU working in alliance with the International Monetary Fund where necessary, has seized the chance to push the neo-liberal agenda further down the road.

The European Semester system introduced in 2010 obliges each member state to have their national budgets approved by the European Commission before they are voted on in their national parliament. May 2010 also saw the creation of the European Financial Stability Facility, which made the bail out loans available to Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal conditional on the implementation of savage austerity measures dictated by the European Commission, ECB and IMF.

A year later the Euro Plus Pact committed each member state to raise productivity and to reduce labour costs. Twelve months on the Fiscal Compact was aimed at enforcing budgetary discipline on member states by limiting the size of budget deficits and debts. Finally, further EU legislation – the 2011 Six Pack and the 2013 Two Pack – gave further surveillance and control powers over national budgets to the European Commission and Council of Ministers.

Notwithstanding the current stand-off between the new Syriza government in Athens and the European Commission, European Central Bank and the Merkel administration, it’s not difficult to see how these measures would be used to prohibit increases in the Greek minimum wage or welfare spending.

Added to all this we saw in 2011 the imposition in both Italy and Greece of unelected “technocratic” governments, committed to enforcing austerity measures and free market “reforms.” This was the extreme end of a process which has seen a drift towards coalition governments of the centre-right and centre-left across Europe.

In total the various measures put in place since the 2008 crash act as an effective break on any national government which wanders away from the neo-liberal path. The contempt expressed by Jyrki Katainen for electoral democracy sums it up.

Further, there is no obvious way of reforming the EU from within, given the limits on the European Parliament’s role, and its lack of democratic legitimacy in the eyes of many European voters.

The illusions of the left

In my native Scotland there is, within the broad alliance which backed a Yes vote in last September’s referendum, general support for the European Union. It’s based, firstly, on a shallow belief that anything UKIP and the Tory “Eurosceptics” hate must be ok, and, secondly the hope that in any future UK referendum on EU membership, if England votes to quit and Scotland votes to stay it will trigger independence.

Such illusions remind me of an episode in the late 1980s when the EU briefly seemed to offer an alternative to full blooded free market policies, only to flatter and deceive.

In 1988 the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, addressed the British Trades Union Congress, putting the case for a social Europe. His speech enraged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Delors told the TUC that the new European Single Market would not “diminish the level of social protection already achieved in the member states”, adding that the new single market would “improve workers’ living and working conditions, and... provide better protection for their health and safety at work.”

Finally, realising a high proportion of his audience were trade union full-timers he promised “measures to be taken will concern the area of collective bargaining and legislation.”

In an instant traditional hostility towards the European Union within the British trade union movement, and within the Labour Party vanished. Thatcher’s livid reaction to the promise of a “social Europe” seemed to promise the imminent arrival of the 7th Cavalry to rescue the British working class.

The trouble was that Delors’ promises were not worth the paper they were written on. Instead the Single Market and the subsequent Maastricht Treaty opened up a major fast forwarding of the neo-liberal project across Europe. Susan Watkins argues:

“In democratic terms, Maastricht brought a decisive widening of the gap between rulers and ruled. The architecture of the euro system was deliberately designed to be immune from electoral pressures. With the general shift to neo-liberalism, the Maastricht era also saw the obliteration of any real policies for a ‘social Europe’; levelling down replaced the levelling up... just as structural unemployment began to rise. Privatisations and shrinking social entitlements widened the gulf between ‘above’ and ‘below’. Free­ market competition was inscribed as a foundational principle in the 2004 Constitutional Treaty, one of the main reasons for its rejection in the 2005 referendums. The emergence of popular majorities against the post-Maastricht direction of the EU in founder countries like France and the Netherlands signalled a new stage in this deterioration. They were brushed aside by Europe’s rulers... The Treaty, minus its preamble, was reaffirmed at Lisbon.”

Support for the European Union today means backing an even more aggressive neo-liberal programme.

If the left is quiet, the right will prosper

But how can we voice opposition to the EU without sounding like Nigel Farage? Well the obvious answer is not to stay silent about the EU’s lack of democracy because to do so is to hand the whole issue over to the right who, as we see across Europe, will profit from that.

Secondly the left should have a lot to say about what sort of Europe we want – one based on equality, a pro-welfare agenda and peace. That inevitably means confronting the rulers of the existing EU. A start can be made by mobilising in support of Syriza.

Lastly, we should be proud to be Europeans but not proud of a Europe where the bodies of refugees lap up on its southern shores and where the people of Greece are treated as guinea pigs in some nightmare free market adventure.


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