French and Dutch Freeze Global Capitalism
On May 29, in a binding national referendum, the people of France voted 55% to 45% to dump the proposed European Union constitution. On June 1st, in even more overwhelming numbers (62% to 38%), the Dutch likewise said, “no”, to the new European Union constitution.
Is this a big deal? You bet it is!
For the first time, citizens from two northern, “first world” nations, in democratic referenda, overwhelmingly rejected a “united” Europe based on corporate hegemony and the dominance of free markets in the European Union’s economic, political and social structures. The French and Dutch votes have not only killed the EU constitution, they also have killed the constitution in spite of near total endorsement of the EU constitution by major French and Dutch political groupings of the Right, Left and Center; Europe’s corporate elite; all major print and electronic media; many trade unions and other “progressive” organizations; and even governmentally subsidized “yes” campaigns in both countries.
The citizens of Holland and France were not however rejecting the idea of European unity and integration. What they were rejecting was a European Union designed in corporate and governmental backrooms in the interests of maximizing corporate penetration and a Europe-wide free market economy. Said Kartika Liotard, MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for the Dutch Socialist Party, “The Dutch NO was not a NO against Europe or European co-operation. On the contrary, stalling the constitutional process and slowing down the integration, the pace of the process, and the direction it was going, is the only way to guarantee a stable future for Europe.”
So, maybe this all begs the question of what the European Union constitution is about. After all, “the devil is in the details”, right?
The self-declared proponents of European union trace their legacy to the end of the Second World War and the notion that European unity was the solution to the mayhem of continental and global warfare. The reality however is that the guts of the European Union constitution goes back to the mid 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, most of the provisions of the EU constitution would have been politically impossible in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in the context of the division of Europe into either NATO or the Warsaw Pact.
Of course, the proposed EU constitution is not a constitution according to the usual understanding of the word. Instead, the constitution is roughly 500 pages of compiled trade agreements and treaties, shared agreements between governments regarding issues of national budgets and subsidizations; shared governmental agreements regarding international “free market” standards; and unilateral policy declared by the European Union out of its Brussels headquarters (For instance and of great importance, the Bolkestein Directive, which demands the elimination of any legislative or administrative barriers against corporate penetration from businesses of one country to another).
Roughly speaking, the EU constitution and unity efforts are based on three main concepts. First is a shared, Europe-wide currency. This is the Euro, and already implemented throughout most of Europe. Its aims are to create a common currency across Europe, and the ability to control the conditions of capitalist growth through monetary policy.
Second, EU constitution would implement bars against national governments and smaller entities’ abilities to legislate local standards. Practically speaking, these barriers would block local legislation regarding environmental standards, minimum wages, working conditions, product safety and liability, zoning limiting the rights of business; basically anything that would limit or regulate corporate and business behavior. In a nutshell, this is the Bolkestein Directive.
The third concept underlying the European Union is a shared agreement between governments regarding the elimination of national deficits, reductions in social expenditures, and most importantly, the curtailment of any governmental subsidization of any part of the national economy and the privatization of public owned enterprises and services.
Europe Tries Politics, American Style
Six months ago, the common wisdom was that the EU constitution would breeze through France and Holland, Germany would endorse, and from there, with a healthy approval rating, move to some of the more “troubling” nations like the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries.
Six months ago too, the vast majority of Europeans had no idea what the European Union Constitution actually said, and few cared. The European Union was far away from where most people identified their problems, and, after all, how can you not be for unity and cooperation? Except maybe the most rabid and die-hard nationalists…..
Six months ago too, Gerhard Schroeder and the German SPD/Green government were introducing a plan to cut German social and unemployment benefits to meet EU standards, and Jacques Chirac, the center-right French President, would stand with the leader of the opposition, French Socialist Party leader, Francois Hollande, with both unqualifiedly endorsing ratification of the EU constitution. The picture painted was that everybody is for unity and cooperation. Not ratifying the EU constitution was portrayed as beyond rational belief, because to not ratify was to turn Europe into a giant Yugoslavia-type continental mess. Even worse, if not ratified, Europe would sink into the mire of internal strife while US capitol expanded to world economic control…… Or so it was portrayed.
Politics American Style? Why not! The Proponents of “Yes” to the EU constitution, the governmental elites and the corporations working together in their back rooms, had created a climate where the needs of European capital were buried under the rubric of European unity, and “unity” itself was portrayed as the only rational choice if Europe was not to be reduced to a squabbling, global sideshow. On the “Yes” side of the argument, nobody was talking about what the EU constitution really did, how it worked, what Europeans could expect to give up if ratified. Few were really keen to dive into the 500 pages of morass that the constitutional document was. And this was fine with the “yes” camp, who would continue to play on the politics of 15 second sound-bites and appealing to visceral values and fears.
How much more American can you get? Corporate needs identified as the only rational political choice, with the message constantly reinforced with over-exaggerated platitudes in sound-bite mode, all taking the place of any real dialogue!
Europe Rejects The New World Order
The victory of the “No” campaign is very much a victory of the usually marginalized left perspectives in both France and Holland. France’s major social-democratic opposition party, the Socialist Party, had formally endorsed the EU constitution, based on an internal Party referendum held in the early spring of this year. Holland’s major social democratic opposition party, the Labor Party, had also formally endorsed the UE constitution, as had many of the Dutch labor unions.
On the other hand, the French Communist Party, various other smaller left groupings in France, and the Socialist Party in Holland, all actively opposed the EU constitution. Key too, was the organization, ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), an anti capitalist and free trade activists’ organization. ATTAC has a presence in most European countries, and played a direct role in leading the “No” campaign in both France and Holland.
Even more so, the “No” campaign was a victory of the people and a victory for real democracy. Unlike the “Yes” campaign, and unlike “politics as usual” as most of us know it, the secret of the “No” victory was very simply to educate on the basis of what the UE constitutional mechanisms and structures really are, what they do, and why.
Likewise, the process of the “No” campaign was directed at a grassroots dialogue with people about the UE constitution. Thus, instead of media ads, three line endorsements, and slick public relations, the “No” campaign worked to form neighborhood and block study groups around the UE constitution. “No” campaign militants took that same dialogue into union meetings, meetings and groupings in the universities, made contact with most every kind of grassroots organization one can imagine, ecological, feminist, GLBT groups, indeed, most anyplace where a dialogue was possible about the EU constitution.
The grassroots dialogue conducted by the “No” campaign became so effective that the easy win anticipated months earlier by the European “powers that be” morphed into a last-minute panic. Such last-minute panic however was not productive to the “Yes” campaign. For instance, the Dutch Christian Democratic government did a national mailing in support of a “Yes” vote for the EU constitution. This last-minute panic move however, was countered by the Dutch Socialist Party, which mounted a “send the government propaganda back, C.O.D.” A highly effective counter tactic!
Of course, such last-minute panic moves only increased the growing level of mistrust between ordinary citizens and the governmental elites. A mistrust based on a growing sense of being lied to and manipulated.
Thus, the EU vote created a schism, a schism between governmental, political and corporate institutions, and citizens. This schism also created a widening gulf between institutions usually associated with the left, such as the labor unions and broadly left major “opposition” parties, and their rank and file members. Practically, what this amounted to was a clear trend. While the Dutch PvdA (Labor Party) endorsed the EU constitution, the majority of party members voted against the EU constitution. The same goes for the Dutch Labor unions. In France, while the Socialist Party endorsed the EU constitution, rank and file members of the Socialist Party not only voted against the constitution, but often took militant and active roles in the “No” campaign. Indeed, some major Socialist Party leaders took an active role in the “No” campaign, and were threatened with expulsion as a result.
On the other hand, 90% of the Dutch Socialist Party’s 44,000 members voted against the EU constitution, with the vast majority of Party members playing an active role in the “No” campaign. Likewise, the French Communist Party’s 70,000 members also took an active role in the “No” campaign, and have found a new relevancy in French politics as a result.
Social Democrats, You Have Learned Nothing
A comparison between recent EU events in France and Holland on one hand, and the role played by the SPD/Green government (SPD equals Social Democratic Party of Germany) in Germany’s ratification of the EU constitution points to an increasingly meaningful contradiction in the array of European political forces.
Unlike France and Holland, where referenda were held regarding the EU constitution, Germany adopted and endorsed the EU constitution entirely through parliamentary means. This endorsement also included legislation greatly paring back Germany’s unemployment and pension benefits, all in the interests of getting in line with the EU free-market model.
The SPD is a social democratic party. The SPD’s constituency is thus, heavily based on the industrial workforce, labor unions, poor and unemployed. Nonetheless, believing nothing else is possible, the SPD and Green coalition government rammed through the EU constitution and benefits reductions over the loud protests of its constituency, including the still somewhat powerful German labor movement and its rank and file members.
The results of this move have been disastrous for the SPD. In regional elections held in the spring, the SPD suffered major losses in key industrial SPD strongholds. SPD losses have been so significant, a parliamentary vote of confidence in the SPD failed, with the SPD calling for a no-confidence vote in itself. While the free trade, capitalist Christian Democrats are expected to win in the upcoming September national elections, the German left is also going through a realignment; the result of the SPD’s abandonment of its constituency.
Thus, a new party is born, the Work and Social Justice Party (WASG), led by Oskar Lafontaine, ex-chair of the SPD, who left the SPD, and his position as Finance Minister, over substantive disagreements with the Schroeder SPD/Green government. At this time, LaFontaine and the WASG are offering an alliance with the East German-based Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). While the PDS is a major party in eastern Germany, routinely receiving around 25% of the vote and growing, it has never been able to establish roots in western Germany. The hope and intent with a PDS/WASG alliance is to build a national left alternative to the rather compromised SPD.
“Bourgeoisie, You Have Learned Nothing!”
The success of the “No” campaign was a victory for a substantive politics based on analysis, dialogue, and action. Through thoughtful, careful and persistent discussion, the “No” campaign was able to “strip the veneer” off the EU constitution. With the veneer gone, citizens became increasingly aware that European Union offered them nothing but sacrifice and insecurity, all in the interests of building a leaner and more competitive European free-market economy.
Erik Meijer, Dutch Socialist MEP, put the effects of the capitalist neo-liberal restructuring of the European transportation industry to the European Parliament’s Transportation Commission, as follows:
“Drivers of the new member states (read eastern Europe; author) are worse paid, receive nothing like the same amount in expenses for overnight stays and lack time allowance for stops to use the showers or toilets or to eat. They haven’t joined the European Union at all”.
The effects, in a further SP analysis, are such that….. “The free movement of persons and the increasing liberalization of the European market is leading to the displacement of Dutch lorry drivers and exploitation of their colleagues from other countries.”
All of this, of course, begs a question. The key question being; how can such parties as the British Labour Party, the Socialist Party of France, the German Social Democratic Party, for that matter, the Spanish and Portuguese Socialist Parties and leftist parties of eastern Europe, with working class and poor constituencies, endorse such a plan as the EU constitution?
To this author’s mind, the answer is simple. All of these parties are major parties; sometimes in opposition, but always looking to be in power. Simply put, these are long standing parties, run by career politicians and bureaucrats. As such, these parties are tied to the conventional wisdoms of Europe’s ruling institutions as they are now. In a nutshell, these parties, in the interests of their own perceived electoral success, cannot move outside the current political and economic framework.
Given the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and even more, the incredible growth in the global power of U.S. capital over the last 25 years, these onetime mass left-wing parties have lost the ability to see beyond the current capitalist neo-liberal paradigm. With no willingness to move outside the paradigm, these parties have implicitly and explicitly (for instance, Tony Blair’s “New Labour”) accepted the capitalist paradigm, seeing their role as moderating some of the more negative effects of global capitalist growth while championing capitalist growth at the same time. As such, for these parties’ leaderships, European unity based on the EU constitution seems to be an inevitable reality without alternative.
European citizens, primarily working class, middle class, and less fortunate citizens, are not quite so fatalistic. Thus, while their traditional parties have “thrown in the towel”, their rank and file constituencies have not. Unlike their American cousins, these European constituencies don’t see the neo-liberal paradigm as inevitable as the weather and natural disasters. Thus, the educational role of the “No” campaign did not lead to a sense of fatalistic loss. Instead, it led anger, mistrust, betrayal, and a demand for something else outside of a capitalist “give away”.
The Socialist Left Calls for Real Democracy
The common denominator in the opposition to the European Union constitution has been the willingness of the leadership of the “No” campaign to suggest alternatives to European unity outside of a neo-liberal capitalist paradigm. The reverse side of this willingness to look outside of the capitalist paradigm is based on the analysis that in the long run, capitalism can never afford the well-being of its workers and citizens.
The after-effects of the May 29 French vote, and the June 1st Dutch vote has been effectively, to throw the wrench in the wheels of European capitalism. While Jacques Chirac has been willing to concede that “the people have spoken”, others, such as Dutch Finance Minister, Neelie Kroes, have suggested that the French and Dutch votes be ignored, and that Europe should move forward with the EU constitution. Yet, at the same time, Tony Blair has cancelled the British EU referendum set for later this year, and the Danish and Swedish votes have been cancelled indefinitely.
Further, a June 17th meeting of the European Union led only to open disagreement and acrimony between the various EU partners, including a nice little spat between the French and British over various national rebate questions.
Yet Europe is not at the point of revolution. What exists at this point is a “breach” according to French Communist MEP, Francis Wurtz. Wurtz, President of the GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green and Left) caucus in the European Parliament, has described the current situation along the following lines:
“Since the 29th, the majority of European leaders appear unable to translate the voters' message into action. They continue to talk in terms of possible different interpretations of its meaning, when the demand for the neoliberal drift to be called into question is completely dominant, and not just in France but well beyond. In Germany, for example, the voters have just punished the government in the regional elections for policies which are directly connected to Europe's political orientation.
To change Europe is a struggle, and no-one could imagine that the representatives of current governments would comply with a vote telling them that they must change their policies. But they are on the defensive. The shock wave following the French referendum, and then the Dutch referendum, is impressive. The fact that these leaders, having provided for these referenda, recognise both the effect of the contagion and the fact that the French and Dutch refusals were just as strong as predicted represent an admission of the highest importance. In fact, these leaders recognise that present European policies and the treaty's plans to perpetuate them have been rejected, even if they are trying in an almost surrealistic fashion to defy the impact of the votes”.
At this stage of the game, events in Europe are happening quite quickly. For instance, between this author’s yesterday and today, he has learned that the PDS/WASG alliance in Germany has been agreed to. Gerhard Schroeder, SPD Chancellor of Germany, has already ruled out any kind of cooperation between the SPD and PDS/WASG. Instead, Schroeder has made clear he is more interested in a coalition with the center-right Christian Democrats. At the same time, with the PDS/WASG alliance, Germans will have a left, non neo-liberal, alternative in both the western and eastern German states.
Meanwhile, in France and Holland, the demand of the “No” campaign is uniform and clear. French and Dutch left parties are not calling for socialism; they are calling for democracy. Thus, the left is calling for a social dialogue, open and transparent, regarding the further nature of European integration and cooperation. Putting their trust in the people, these parties and organizations of the French and Dutch left are banking on the belief that if the people are put in charge of European unity, European union, whatever form it might take, will be fundamentally sane, stable, and non-exploitive.
As Francis Wurtz said, the task is “widen the breach” between the people and the corporate/governmental establishment. To widen this breach means to widen the discussion, to make the discussion more transparent; to follow through on the consequences of various policies, programmes and legislation.
“Socialism or Barbarism?”
Most of us on the left, whether in Europe, North America, or the Third World, have in the back of their minds Rosa Luxemburg’s famous choice, “socialism or barbarism?” Globally, we are at a crisis point, not a catastrophic point in the usual sense, but more, an historical crossroads where humanity will need to decide its future. The choice being whether to go down a global road of maximum corporate penetration, making sure the “ other guy” slides to the bottom first. Or, we can opt for a cooperative society where the “full development of the individual is the condition for the development of all”, thus, basing European Unity what’s best for its people across the full social, economic and political spectrum.
Thus, to “widen the breach” is to make the ramifications of policy and legislation clear and transparent. Here, most of us on the left, given that open discussion is fact, are willing to place our trust in the peoples’ sanity; that indeed, socialist and cooperative approaches to European Unity are a hell of a lot better option than market-mayhem barbarism.
Of Europe and North America
If the European left can teach us anything, those of us on the left in the United States, it is this: It’s not about grand plans, an organizational sense of having all the answers and then waiting for the people to come around to our genius. What it is about is opening and sustaining a dialogue with our natural constituency; that is workers, the poor, and the unemployed. Our natural constituency being those without capital and capital control, who otherwise, are reduced to capital’s instrumental objects to be used without the acknowledgement of their humanity.
The dialogue, if conducted honestly, will make the choices open and clear for all. The European true left has been moving this dialogue for the past 20 years, slowly and steadily. The fruits of that discussion are only ripening now, but they seem to be ripening in a big way.
Here in the U.S., we are behind and faced with obstacles that are specific to our national culture and politics. Nonetheless, without the discussion, we are only talking to ourselves.