The gathering storm over the new European Union treaty, focused on the growing demands for a referendum, raises deep issues about the nation-state and its place in the globalised market economy. At the heart of the proposed treaty is the further development of the EU as a regional bloc better able to compete in increasingly tough capitalist market conditions. This in any case is what the EU has been doing for some time, compelling member countries, for example, to open up industries and services to competition and ruling out hidden state subsidies. The British government, under both Tories and New Labour, has gone faster than the rest of EU in imposing what some call the neo-liberal agenda of free markets and a flexible labour force. Central to this is the continuing opt-out from the clauses which set out a minimum framework of social rights for employees. In fact, one of Blair’s last acts as prime minister was to ensure that this was carried over into the proposed new treaty and his successor is in full agreement with this approach.
So one strand of opposition to the new treaty comes from the trade unions, led by Bob Crow of the RMT rail workers and Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB. Crow says: “Whatever you call the EU Reform Treaty, it contains the same anti-democratic mix that was in the constitution supposedly killed off by French and Dutch votes in 2005. It is the back-door constitution which would still transform the EU into a state, and transfer power to an unelected EU government. For working people it would be a disaster, further institutionalising the mis-named economic ‘liberalisation’, forcing more privatisation of public services and abolishing vetoes over transport and a host of other areas.” Kenny says GMB “members are sick and tired of being treated as second class citizens in Europe. If these rights are good enough for French, German and Spanish workers then they should be good enough to apply to UK workers too”. Both unions have tabled resolutions against the treaty at next month’s TUC Congress.
Another strand of opposition comes from the Tory right-wing, led by the Daily Telegraph. This is a nationalist, anti-European trend that is based on days long gone when there was such a thing as “British capitalism” powerful enough to defend its own interests. The global point of view comes from the Financial Times, which yesterday declared: “Most generals avoid fighting the last war. The motley band calling for a referendum in Britain on the European Union’s constitutional treaty has failed to learn this.” The paper of global rather than national big business claimed that their ultimate goal was “either withdrawal or a do-nothing Union” and that neither “serves the national interest”.
The fact is that the British ruling elites have had to surrender large measure of political and economic sovereignty in the last 30 years, not just to the EU but to supra-national bodies like the World Trade Organisation. This is one of the main consequences of the corporate-driven globalisation process, which Gordon Brown in particular has embraced wholeheartedly and driven forward. The trade unions are right to oppose the new treaty and to join New Labour MPs demanding a referendum. But to distinguish themselves from Little Englanders, union leaders have to go further. Even a refomed British state – which itself is a highly unlikely prospect - would have little control over economic and financial processes that transcend borders and state bodies like central banks in their operation. In opposition to the corporate-dominated EU, unions have to adopt a perspective of a democratic alternative to the EU, based on shared common ownership of the region’s resources and new political structures that reflect the aspirations of the disenfranchised majority.
Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win