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Fighting the Lisbon Treaty

A modest proposal

John McAnulty

17 February 2008

If there is one thing which is more or less beyond dispute about the Lisbon Treaty it is that it the European Constitution under another name.  Now and again someone like Gordon Brown, the British PM, will declare solemnly that it is not identical, but the response, even from his supporters, is the horselaugh.  Like the European Constitution it is a hymn to capitalism, privatisation and deregulation. Like the European Constitution it is a full – blown attack on democracy, an attack aimed at putting the needs of capital beyond dispute, appeal or opposition.

The one substantial difference between Lisbon and the constitution is that Lisbon is a double-barrelled attack on democracy, designed to simultaneously usher in all the anti-democratic provisions of the charter and at the same time negate the democratic vote of the French and Dutch working class, who in 2005 decisively rejected the provisions of the constitution – not to mention earlier votes such as the Irish vote against Nice in 2001.  Labelling the constitution as a treaty has enabled the capitalists to avoid referenda everywhere but in Ireland, so the vote here is of some significance.

A no vote in Ireland would significantly hurt the charter, but it would clearly not be decisive.  The next issue on the agenda would be a new vote to reverse the no vote and, because Irish workers have been through this before with the Nice Treaty, they are unlikely to put themselves to the trouble of having to vote twice and get the answer right unless presented with a much more detailed political policy and strategy that would allow an ongoing opposition to capitalist Europe and map out an alternative society.

So what is behind the thinly disguised constitution?  It is driven by inter-imperialist rivalry.  The European powers, led by France and Germany, want to carve out a stronger section of the world economy and prevent themselves from being crushed by US economic and military might.  The individual nation-states are no longer enough to do this so the powers act in concert and construct a supernational structure, freed from many of the remaining democratic constraints in each individual nation and more directly responsive to capital.  In recent years the demands of capital have become more pressing and the need to implement the programme and ensure that there is no effective opposition has become more acute.  The needs were spelt out in a strategic plan, ironically known as the Lisbon Agenda.  This became the framework of the constitution and, when that fell, was re-invented as the Lisbon Treaty

Adopted as a strategic programme by the European Union (EU) in March 2000, the Lisbon Agenda had as its declared objective the transformation of the single European market into the most competitive market in the world by 2010. It has determined the social and economic programme of the governments of the member states, becoming the only possible political framework whatever the nature of the government in power. It demands the maximum privatisation and deregulation of each economy, a sharp contraction in public service and demands that public expenditure be directed towards private firms through forced tendering of services.  The Irish government have used the terms of this charter to force through the privatisation or Aer Lingus, to force through water charges and to insist on the co-location strategy designed to demolish the existing health service.

In addition the bosses in Europe want an alternative foreign policy that will protect their interests against those of the US and the beginnings of a rapid reaction force that will give them the military capacity to enforce that policy.  In the process smaller countries like Ireland will be expected to provide cannon-fodder for imperialist adventure.

The enlargement of the EU posed the possibility of a more democratic structure.  That is to be countered with qualified majority voting that decisively boosts the role of the big powers. This dominance over the new middle and eastern European countries also makes it possible to savagely curtail the rights of migrant workers and attempt to split the working class while driving down wages.

Finally we should consider the central role of the trade unions and the embracing of social partnership by the European unions.  As in Ireland, their role has been to police the working class and smother opposition.  In return they are co-opted unto the capitalist offensive and each new deal includes a new ‘social chapter’ guaranteed to protect workers rights.  In reality rights, conditions and wage rates have been falling through the floor across Europe.

So what sort of strategy should apply to a fightback? 

This should be a working-class campaign, firmly aimed at building working class action.  It should not be an electoralist campaign aimed simply at securing a no vote, nor should it be aimed at forces outside the working class. The temptation to bulk up platforms with celebrities, capitalist dissidents and trade union bureaucrats should be firmly resisted.  It is not a strategy that can deal with the class nature of the attack.  The entire capitalist class is behind this offensive, with the exception of a few isolated far-right forces.  The petty-bourgeois forces who will mobilise around an electoralist campaign are small, isolated and will melt away after the vote.  On the other hand the workers will still face the capitalist offensive no matter what the outcome of the vote.  It is true that the working class is demoralised and fragmented, but for that very reason even small mobilisations will represent a real step forward that we can build on.  The relationship between a working-class campaign and an all-class campaign is a matter of tactics, but the one thing that is certain is that socialists should not be building a campaign that does not put the demands and the interests of the working class first.

The campaign should take up the issues.  We should be calling for a no vote in order to bolster working class campaigns, rather than approaching campaigns to build the vote.  Every small group built, every worker convinced of the need to organise, is worth 1000 votes.

Co-location is an immediate issue.  The long history of bleeding the health service dry and the drive to build a totally private sector and finally collapse the public health service has faced very significant opposition both from patients groups and from health service workers.  The justification offered for it is European regulation demanding the limiting of public expenditure and the privatisation of public services.  A workers’ no campaign can make that link and aim to build action groups and unite the opposition in demanding a public health service that serves the needs of workers.

Another issue is water charges.  Schools, in the last election promised a doubling of budget, now face crippling cuts forced by the need to pay water charges. Yet again the government excuse is that European regulation demands this charge and their hands are tied, both against removing the charge and also against subsidising the schools to pay the charge.  Parents and teachers are outraged by the new financial pressures.  A campaign offers an opportunity to encourage them to organise against the water charges and the future push for water privatisation.

If one issue above all represents the new Europe already in action it is the issue of Aer Lingus.  Forced out of the public sector, the jewel in the crown of social partnership, we have seen the private company tear up all its agreements, disregard all the supposedly binding elements of the partnership deal and lead the ‘race to the bottom’ in beating down the rights of workers – arguing that Belfast is in a foreign country to drive down wages and then unilaterally enforcing a further 20 million euro cut across the board.  The Aer Lingus issue is especially important in that it is so closely tied to social partnership.  The main union, SIPTU, in the final days of negotiation recommended a vote for privatisation. The leadership volunteered to find the 20 million in cuts demanded by the bosses.  Their social partners in the government reserve a golden share in the company to protect the public interest – then announce that it cannot be used where commercial interests are at stake – that is, never!  In the background David Beggs, the national secretary of the trade union movement, joins the board of the privatised airline.  A campaign could lead the call for rank and file structures independent of bureaucratic collaboration. 

The anti-war movement against US and European military aggression has fallen away.  In the meantime Europe and the US have mended fences and all European governments, with the Irish government to the fore, have co-operated in rendition and torture. War against Iran and the final obliteration of Palestinian rights are both on the agenda.  A campaign could help revitalise principled political opposition to the war drive. 

A workers’ campaign on the EU referendum represents a real opportunity to raise these issues and call for rank and file organisation.  In contrast an electoralist campaign would not just be a wasted opportunity – it would do real damage to the workers movement.  For example, the most vulnerable element of the bosses’ campaign is the Green Party. If the campaign could make the Greens pay the ultimate price for their treachery it would remove an obstacle to the self-organisation of workers. Yet at the moment most platforms host Patricia McKenna, a member of the Green Party, who combines personal opposition to the Lisbon Treaty with unswerving loyalty to the party leadership.  This arrangement, rather than weakening the Greens, represents a way of holding unto part of its base while it betrays that base.  Similarly members of the SIPTU bureaucracy appear on platforms while the bureaucracy as a whole capitulate to Aer Lingus. 

The most striking example of this process is Sinn Fein.  Sinn Fein have come out against the Lisbon Treaty but by no stretch of the imagination could be said to be endorsing a workers opposition.  Their policy is to oppose the treaty while supporting capitalist Europe.  A non-political campaign offers them an opportunity to stabilise their base with a display of fake radicalism after exposing their far right economic policies in the last election. Again any regroupment of Sinn Fein would represent an obstacle to the growth of a working class opposition.

Finally a workers campaign does not reduce to a simple opposition to the individual attacks they are facing.  There needs to be a global alternative, a vision of a society organised in the interests of workers. Such an alternative can by summed up by the call for a united socialist states of Europe. Perhaps the most valuable work of the campaign could be to demonstrate that vision in action, by inviting representatives of the Polish miners fighting globalisation, the leaders of the French resistance to the European Constitution, and many of the other embryo forces across Europe who can tell workers that the nucleus of resistance is already in place and that they too can organise and be part of it. 


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