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Lessons of the Nice Referendum
The Nice referendum result surprised the media and the establishment both in terms of the turnout and the size of the no vote. There were of course those on the left who had been predicting a victory with the regular monotonous chant of ‘victory is around the corner’ that is the slogan of every intervention they make in any campaign. For once they seem to have been right. But what was the nature of the vote against Nice? And what does it mean for the left?
By all accounts the groups responsible for getting out a no vote were the Greens, Sinn Fein and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA). Equally responsible for getting out a no vote was the No To Nice Campaign led by sectarian far right Catholic groups campaigning primarily on the issue of abortion and the nonsensical notion of a conspiracy by European governments to foist on Ireland legislation which these same governments are attacking and attempting to roll back in their own countries. There can be no doubt that the far right Catholic vote did mobilise to a degree, particularly in rural areas. Of more interest to the left in the aftermath of the vote are those working class constituencies which gave the highest no vote. In these areas Sinn Fein had been particularly active tapping into widespread discontent. However, it is also significant for the left that even in these areas the themes of the no campaign were the general themes of the national campaign. Whilst many may have voted because they feel uneasy about the general direction of the EU, nobody raised the substantive issues behind the Nice Treaty.
Since Maastricht the EU has been on a course of greater integration and cooperation between member states, not as part of some conspiracy to trick the Irish electorate into agreeing to join a military alliance. Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice are the foundations of the reorganising of European capital. Written into these treaties are the broad sweeps of economic policy which commit governments to privatisation of state assets and the running down of public services through the tendering out of contracts to the private sector to run what were previously considered public services such as the bin charges. The military alliance that the EU wants us to join flows from the reorganisation of European capital, it is not separate from it. You cannot logically be in favour of the economic and social aspects of these treaties and at the same time be against the military alliance. One requires the other. EU capitalists require military clout to keep new members in order and to protect their external interests.
This line of argument did not form part of the debate. The Socialist Alliance had produced good leaflets which dealt with these questions but it was an argument which was absent from most comments in the media. The vote against Nice did have a progressive element to it though, around anti-militarism and it is important for the left to try and raise these issues in the debate that is now taking place in the country. A second referendum will take place. PANA and the Greens have already indicated that they can be bought off, the question for the EU is not whether but at how low a price. Sinn Fein in the north around the peace process and in the south around issues such as the bin charges has shown itself to be for sale to the highest and sometimes the lowest bidder (In Dublin their councillors didn’t turn up for the vote and in Sligo they not only turned up they voted to increase the bin charge). The left needs to fight for the leadership of the new campaign if there is to be any consistent input from a working-class perspective.
From media comment, letters to the press and radio phone in shows it is clear that the arrogance and contempt shown the vote has backfired somewhat on the government, creating the possibility that they might even lose a second referendum. People have seen the EU in action, it doesn’t matter what way you vote “We are going ahead with this”. The Irish government has also rode in behind this showing utter contempt for the electorate. However, it is not some mere moral issue of whether the Irish electorate should be listened to. The southern government committed itself to the reorganisation of European capital a long time ago and they realise what is at stake. They also realise that given the undemocratic nature of the European neoliberal project it is very difficult for them to step back and refuse to go any further.
The coming months are not the time for the left to be running around like headless chickens parroting the received wisdom of the Greens and PANA. It is the time for advancing its own aims and arguments. The day after Nice despite the rhetoric of “We can win this one” not one single issue in relation to the Nice treaty went away. Privatisation, liberalisation and other attacks on the working class did not cease, and no sector of the Irish working class was more politicised or better organised after Nice to be able to successfully fight back. Win, lose or draw the next time the situation will be the same unless the left seeks to build and organise the sections of the working class that are in conflict with the aims of the EU. No orientation was made by the Socialist alliance to ASTI teachers and ILDA train drivers to name but two groups that have recently fought against liberalisation. To do so would have been unpopular with PANA and the Greens and Sinn Fein. It would have required a real debate on the issues and may have even cost votes. But that is not important. The southern government has already made it clear that it is willing to ignore the popular vote if they can get away with it. What should be important for the left is raising people’s consciousness and organising the working class. That can only happen if we take advantage of the next few months to raise the real issues and orientate towards those already in struggle with the aim of building something credible that can advance the needs of the working class. Euphoria around what may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory is no substitute for organising and debating the real issues.