Can votes derail European imperialist integration?

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are spearheading European imperialist integration.

Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman
In two separate referenda on May 29 and June 1, French and Dutch voters rejected a proposed constitution for the 25-member European Union. The votes were seen as a major defeat for the European ruling classes’ efforts to more closely integrate the continent’s political and economic systems.

In order for the constitution to be approved, it needs to be ratified by all 25 of the member states. The “No” votes in France and the Netherlands raise the prospect that the constitution may fail altogether.

The “No” votes were a gain for the working class in Europe. Communists, socialists and most of the main trade union federations all played important roles in organizing against the constitution.

But whether the votes can derail the German and French ruling classes’ efforts to strengthen their position relative to U.S. imperialism is far from certain. While the future of the proposed constitution—an effort to further unify the European countries’ political structures—has been put into doubt, the ruling classes of those countries continue to take significant steps toward economic and military integration.

The purpose of the proposed constitution is twofold. On the one hand, it is designed as a step toward creating a unified political voice for Europe. On the other, it is meant to accommodate the 10 new member states, mostly from Eastern Europe, that were incorporated into the European Union in 2004.

To achieve these goals, the proposed European Union constitution aims to further centralize political power with a strengthened presidency and a new EU Foreign Minister. It requires member states to “conduct their economic policies in order to contribute to the Union’s objectives” on the basis of “the principle of an open market economy with free competition.” It provides for a formalized and common military policy and commits members to “progressively improve their military capabilities.”

Shifting role of the EU

The European Union can be traced back to the 1952 Treaty of Paris, an economic agreement that formalized the European Coal and Steel Community. The agreement included France, West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. This group increased their level of economic cooperation through the 1980s, becoming an essential component of the struggle against the socialist camp in Eastern Europe. It provided an economic planning framework for the U.S.-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization—the military alliance directed against the Soviet Union.

After the downfall of the socialist camp from 1989-91, the subordinate role of the European imperialist powers within NATO began to give way to an increasingly independent economic and political orientation. At the same time, the capitalists in all of Western Europe began to view the social benefits granted to workers—put into place because of militant union struggles and as a way to counter the influence of the socialist camp—as unnecessary obstacles in their competition with U.S. and Japanese rivals. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty formally inaugurated the European Union.

The most significant development since that time has been the introduction of the euro as a common currency for the EU countries. Based on the combined economies of the EU member states, the euro presupposes a level of economic and financial planning between the member countries similar to the role filled by the Federal Reserve in the United States.

The combined EU economy is the largest economy in the world, with a Gross Domestic Product of over $11 trillion in 2004. It accounts for over 20 percent of the world’s production.

The EU has become increasingly able to rival the United States for economic markets. It is the largest exporter in the world, with over $1.1 trillion worth of goods sold outside the EU market in 2003. That’s over one-third more than the U.S. exported in 2004.

Economic competition with U.S. imperialism has not come just through financial and economic cooperation among member states. A key goal of the European Union—and an essential component of the proposed constitution—is the increased exploitation of the European working class. German and French corporate owners are increasingly looking to the “U.S. model” or “British model” of longer workweeks, fewer vacations, less social welfare and pensions and greater job insecurity to increase profitability and “competitiveness.”

In France, for example, a number of large banks and corporations have been privatized. In March, the government rolled back the workweek from 35 hours to 39 hours. The current government is aiming to eliminate many of the social gains enjoyed by workers like pensions and job security. Similar moves are being proposed in Germany, the EU’s economic center of gravity.

Throughout Europe, this restructuring is seen as a key goal of the EU. It is the view expressed by Martin Kettle, writing in the liberal British newspaper The Guardian: “The great challenge for our part of the world is to make the transition from the national and European protectionism of the 20th century to achieve competitiveness in the Asian and American-dominated global economy of the 21st [century].”

French maritime workers shut down the port of Marseille to protest laws weakening job security, April 18, 2005.

Photo: Phillipe Laurenson
A class vote

The push towards U.S.-style free-market capitalism provoked the “No” campaigns in both France and the Netherlands. In France, mass opposition to the constitution “is the direct result of political choices made by EU governments and the European Commission, [which put] competitiveness and the market ahead of any other considerations, such as cooperation, solidarity and social justice,” according to Jacques Nikonoff of the activist group Attac-France.

The class character of the referenda was visible in the election results. Overall, the French voted 55 percent to 45 percent against the constitution, while the Dutch voted 62 percent to 38 percent against. But in working class neighborhoods in both countries, opposition ran closer to 80 percent.

Some big business media tried to portray the results as signs of chauvinism, pointing to the far right National Front’s opposition to the constitution on a xenophobic basis and the images of the “Polish plumber” as a symbol of low-paying jobs. But the main forces who mobilized against the constitution made every effort to show that their struggle was a class struggle, and a victory would be a victory for the whole European working class.

Capitalist leaders search for way forward

European ruling class politicians found themselves on the defensive after they were unable to sell their constitution to French and Dutch workers. Big business media reported the outcome as a big surprise, even though polls had projected for weeks that the constitution would be defeated.

Prior to the referenda, political leaders had threatened doom and gloom if it did not pass. The week before the vote, the current EU president, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, predicted “a catastrophe for France, for [French President] Chirac and for the entire world.” (AP, May 25)

So the same leaders who were predicting disaster were forced to do political damage control after the twin “No” votes. “We are aware of the difficulties, but we have confidence that once again we will find the means to move the European Union forward,” Juncker wrote in a joint statement with two other heads of EU bodies. (Xinhua, May 30)

Many speculate that the government will conduct a re-vote, possibly after more countries have ratified the document. Pro-constitution forces may want to conduct the re-votes within parliament, where the Constitution has broad establishment backing—although it would risk widening further the gulf between the political establishment and the masses of working people.

One thing is clear: the drive for an integrated Europe is far from over. In the words of the May 30 Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper opposed to the constitution, “Mere democracy won’t stop the EU machine.”

That’s because the logic of imperialist competition with the United States and Japan—not just the political whims of this or that party or interest group—dictates the drive for European integration.

The U.S. government has reacted cautiously toward the EU constitution. In his February trip to Europe, George Bush advocated integration, saying that the United States “supports a strong Europe because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world.”

But a May 25 UPI report pointed to a Daily Telegraph account of conservative opposition to the EU Constitution within the Bush administration. These forces fear that a strengthened Europe would emerge as a counterpoint to U.S. world hegemony.

Looming class struggles

What will be the impact of the referenda from the point of view of the working class movement?

Buoyed by their success, many sectors in the working class movement are discussing broader cooperation. They are looking for ways to turn the defensive social struggles of the past ten years into a working class offensive. The Workers Party of Belgium (PTB), in a June 1 statement, noted that the results “could unleash a movement to stop the anti-social policies of the European Union.”

Attac-France, in a June 5 declaration, called for a “democratic refoundation of Europe.” Other forces, including the reformist French Communist Party, emphasized the need for “another Europe” or a “social Europe,” where social benefits and workers’ rights are respected. Some leave open the possibility of renegotiating a more just or humane constitution.

Others argue that the struggle against the constitution must challenge the imperialist foundations of the European Union. “The EU is not transformable because of the domination of monopolies over each state and over the EU and the domination of private property in the means of production,” the secretariat of the Union of Revolutionary Communists of France wrote on May 30.

Organizations like the PTB have tried to link the struggle against the constitution with the struggle against imperialist war and conquest. They point out that Article 41 of the proposed constitution calls for member states to “agree to improve their military capabilities.”

“If capitalist Europe wants to keep its place in ‘a changing world,’ as [conservative Belgian politician and EU Parliament member Jean-Luc] Dehaene says, it has to do what it takes,” the PTB states in a June 2 statement. Highlighting the dangers posed by the rivalry between European capitalists and their counterparts in the U.S. and Japan, the PTB warns, “It has to fight its U.S. and Japanese competitors with their own weapons: competitiveness gained by the destruction of social rights, workforce flexibility, and driving down workers’ incomes. If necessary, it must resort to arms.”

U.S. workers can gain confidence from the French and Dutch workers’ ability to mobilize in defense of their social gains. The coming struggles in Europe can be important lessons of class struggle, combining anti-imperialism with the defense of workers’ rights, and class-wide solidarity against racism and anti-immigrant hysteria.

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