By Seumas Milne (THE GUARDIAN, 12/06/08):
Fear is stalking Europe’s chancelleries and boardrooms. There is bewilderment in Brussels and dismay in Dublin. Against all protocol and best practice, the people of Ireland have been given a free vote today on whether to accept a further centralisation of power and entrenchment of corporate privilege in the European Union. There are few things that make the blood of EU officials run as cold as the prospect of a referendum. But not only do the Republic of Ireland’s three million voters have a chance to do what has been denied to the rest of the union’s 490 million people and have their say on the laboriously constructed Lisbon treaty, alias the European constitution: the signs are that they might even throw it out – and sink the entire package for Europe as a whole.
Naturally, the Irish establishment has closed ranks and threatened the most dire consequences if Ireland dares to vote no. The new Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, backed by all the main political parties and business barons, warned it would put the country’s economic future at risk; the former Irish EU commissioner Peter Sutherland, who now chairs BP and Goldman Sachs International, said the consequences of a no vote would be “devastating”; the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, declared that the Irish would be the “first victims” if they voted the wrong way. And as the first poll to show the no campaign in the lead was released last week, the bullying and scaremongering was ratcheted sharply upwards.
The fact is that Europe’s political and business elite avoids giving voters a direct say wherever possible – because it knows it is likely to be turned over by a public that regards EU institutions as remote and unaccountable, whatever it feels about European integration in principle. The long-established practice has therefore been that whenever a referendum becomes absolutely unavoidable and the voters get the answer wrong, they are made to go back and vote again until they get it right. That was what happened to Denmark over the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and Ireland when it rejected the Nice treaty in 2001.
Alternatively, Europe’s rulers find a cunning way round whatever the voters have decided. That is what they thought they had done with the European constitution after France and the Netherlands voted it down three years ago. The name was changed, its provisions were turned into a series of opaque amendments to existing treaties, but in almost all other respects, the rejected constitution became the Lisbon treaty intact. The British government was miraculously released from its unwinnable referendum commitment and, as the constitution’s main author and former French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, happily predicted: “Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly.”
The transparent subterfuge was, in the words of Green MEP Caroline Lucas, a “demonstration of breathtaking arrogance”. But it now risks coming apart at the hands of a hotchpotch coalition of trade unionists, nationalists, Catholics, farmers and the obligatory maverick businessman – opposed to everything from a loss of influence for small states, social dumping and privatisation, common corporate tax rates and the militarisation of Europe. Meanwhile, the Irish government is trying hard to avoid debating the issues, which it seems to regard as no business of the voters. As Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said in Dublin this week, Cowen’s administration had been “unable to explain how the loss of vetoes, opening of health and education to competition and undermining of workers’ pay and conditions could be a good thing”.
No wonder it’s been struggling. But given the way debate about Europe has been framed in Britain over the past couple of decades, such issues have barely registered in London either. Criticism of the EU has been almost entirely dominated by a chauvinistic Euroscepticism that portrays all European politics through the absurd prism of outraged national identity and anticompetitive regulation. In reality, far from defending national or democratic sovereignty, the phoney patriots of the Tory right and the Murdoch press are determined to see the country further subordinated to the US and the City of London.
The terms of that debate will have to change if the creeping loss of democratic control and entrenchment of neoliberal orthodoxy in the Lisbon treaty is to be reversed. Not only does the treaty concentrate power still further in the commission and council, it effectively makes the liberalisation and privatisation of public services a constitutional goal, opens up transport and energy to enforced private competition, requires member states to boost their “military capabilities”, and sharply increases the powers of the European court of justice.
What that is likely to mean in practice can be seen from an extraordinary series of recent court decisions, which have effectively outlawed the right to strike where unions are trying to win equal pay for migrant workers and banned public bodies from requiring foreign contractors to pay such workers local rates. By doing so, the court has ruled that market freedoms are superior to the “fundamental rights” used to sell the Lisbon treaty to supporters of a social Europe. The impact has already been felt in Britain, where the pilots’ union was forced to abandon a strike at British Airways last month after its legality was challenged under EU law.
Naturally, neither Britain’s rightwing Eurosceptics – nor the government, for that matter – are bothered about the loss of these basic rights or the breakup of public services being driven from Brussels. On the contrary, Britain’s perennial role in resisting the kind of modest employment protection that has come out of Europe – along with the hope that Europe might eventually become a counterweight to the US – has convinced many progressive-minded people to cling to the Brussels agenda.
But subordination to the US or an undemocratic neoliberal superstate is no choice at all. Instead, political alliances need to be constructed for a different kind of Europe. If Irish voters are intimidated into backing the treaty today, public alienation from the EU will continue to grow, along with rightwing nationalism. But if they manage to boot it out, they could help kickstart the essential process of change and give a voice to millions across the continent.