Referendum Poses the Wrong Question

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As jingoistic anti-EU rhetoric abounds, Andrew Stone looks for the real arguments.

Barely a week after elections to the European Parliament delivered a stinging rebuke to government parties - with the largest parties in 23 out of the 25 EU member countries suffering a drop in their share of the vote - ministers from these parties agreed the text of a 330-page EU constitution. It provoked the right wing press into apoplectic jingoism, which Tony Blair countered by wrapping himself in the Union Jack and boasting of 'red line' British issues defended from the continentals.

The EU-wide turnout reached a nadir of 45 percent. This exaggerated the vote of the much-hyped UK Independence Party, which did its utmost to exacerbate the Little Englanderism of the debate about the constitution. But appeals to preserve 'national sovereignty' are a distraction from the real dangers posed to workers' rights and public services if the document is ratified and comes into force.

The draft constitution commits Europe to 'a single market where competition is free and undistorted'. Public services, pensions, and labour and environmental regulations are examples of such 'distortions' of the market to be exposed to competition and erosion. The EU is not the only vehicle for such neoliberalism, and a law is only as effective as an institution's ability to enforce it, but the fact remains that behind the pretence of a 'social dimension' to the EU lies an attempt by European big business to entrench and extend its profitability.

For instance, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt is currently planning how to implement an EU employment directive to raise the national retirement age to 70. Predictably this neoliberal 'reform' is touted as a victory for personal choice - the choice being to work until you drop or live out your days in poverty. Pensions minister Malcolm Wicks exposed the relish with which the Blairites envisage undermining pension provision by telling People Management magazine that the compulsory retirement age should be thrown into 'the dustbin of social history'.

The debate about who to appoint as the head of the unelected European Commission reinforces this point. While each major power was jockeying to get its choice in, the character of the applicants - Tory Chris Patten, Christian Democrat Jean-Luc Dehaene, former World Trade Organisation boss Peter Sutherland - is uniformly pro-business. The commission will continue to have more power than the largely cosmetic expenses sponge that is the European Parliament.

But even greater influence will be deposited in the European Central Bank (which the constitution gives absolute control over monetary policy), the appointed EU foreign minister and the nascent European army. Factor in the coordination of anti-asylum policy through Europol and a Charter of Fundamental Rights which Tony Blair insists doesn't create any new employment rights, and it becomes clear why a host of corporate lobby groups and Digby Jones, the director general of the bosses' CBI, welcomed the document.

Britain is exceptional in that a significant and vocal part of the ruling class (with a stronghold in the media) sees its interests primarily in North American investments that might be threatened by the political and economic fallout of EU 'harmonisation'. Thus Tony Blair, reeling from the effects of the Iraq war, conceded a referendum on the constitution to appease the Murdoch press.

The constitution must be ratified by the end of 2006, so this referendum is likely at the start of that year after an early general election in 2005. Europe thus promises to be a major political issue over the next two years. There is too much at stake to allow the right to make the running.

So what attitude should socialists take to the referendum? Elsewhere in Europe the answer would seem more obvious. Just as the ruling class is near unanimous in its support of the EU project, so the common sense among progressives in Europe is to oppose it. Since the huge public sector strikes in France raised the slogan 'For a social Europe, not a bosses' Europe', the right nationalist agenda has been marginal to resistance to the EU.

Likewise the left in Britain does not have to fall behind Rupert Murdoch, Robert Kilroy-Silk and the rest. There is a principled internationalist position that rejects Fortress Europe, and welcomes workers' solidarity and environmental cooperation. There are many Greens and Labour supporters, as well as anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-racist activists, who socialists can encourage to join such a campaign.

The European Social Forum (ESF) to be held in London this October offers an excellent opportunity to forge such links. The ESF in Florence in 2002 included a 1 million strong demonstration 'against a Europe of capital and war'. Last year in Paris there were many debates about the kind of alternative Europe to propose. Elements of the movement wanted to redress the injustices of corporate rule by proposing piecemeal reform to legislators and encouraging 'public education' of the issues.

The left of the movement, while recognising the role of such campaigns, stressed the centrality of building and deepening a mass movement that would be both educative and effective. It also maintained that however hawkish US imperialism became, encouraging the growth of the EU as a contending military power was no solution.

As Chris Nineham from Globalise Resistance says, 'The London ESF should be a massive and very visible display of European rejection of the western powers - the EU and the Project for a New American century. There are different approaches to the EU on the left, and we need to debate them out, but most importantly, we need to launch action at the ESF against the neoliberal attacks from Brussels.'

The Electoral Commission is unlikely to recognise that there can be a campaign to vote 'no' to the EU constitution that is qualitatively different from that run by Tories and Business for Sterling, who look set to receive £600,000 of public money from the Commission (with a spending limit of £5 million), like their corporate 'yes' mirror images. It therefore appears that the left will have to forego the state subsidies given to the warring brothers of the ruling class and fund ourselves. At least our money will be earned.