Socialist Worker

Treaty of Rome anniversary: a European union for neoliberals

It is 50 years since the formation of the European Union. Chris Bambery looks at what the institution means for the working class today

Issue No. 2043

Europe has seen resistance to neoliberal attacks, such as last year’s succesful struggle in France against the CPE employment law (Pic: Picture: Jess Hurd/ http://www.reportdigital.co.uk

Europe has seen resistance to neoliberal attacks, such as last year’s succesful struggle in France against the CPE employment law (Pic: Picture: Jess Hurd/ reportdigital.


There will be no street parties or popping of champagne corks in Britain to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The best that this country could manage was a half-hearted friendly football match between a Manchester United team and a motley collection of European footballers.

The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 between six European states, creating what has become today’s European Union (EU).

France and Germany were at the centre of it. Britain, clinging to its imperial pretensions and its belief in a “special relationship” with the US initially stayed aloof. It joined in 1973.

Discussion of the EU in Britain is dominated by stories of Brussels bureaucrats persecuting the small men and women who dare to sell fruit and veg in pounds and ounces, and on the threat to the “pound in our pocket”.

Both Gordon Brown, prime minister in waiting, and the Conservative leader David Cameron are deeply Eurosceptic. Brown has made clear his frustration with the EU’s failure to push through complete deregulation, freeing the market even more.

Some in the trade unions and the left, appalled at this right wing Euroscepticism, are tempted to hold up the EU as an alternative to the unbridled free market policies championed by New Labour and the Tories.

Trapped

Yet if you are worried about your pension, retirement age, rights at work and an increased tax burden for the poor for the benefit of the rich, you should be concerned about the EU – very concerned.

Britain has not adopted the euro or signed up to monetary union. But it is still trapped into economic competition with other EU member states over who has the lowest pensions, the highest retirement age and the lowest rate of corporation tax. The EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner.

The EU is in turn trapped into competition with the US and China. Average incomes in Europe are 30 percent lower than the US, but European workers work far fewer hours, and have higher rates of productivity than their US counterparts.

The pressure is on across the EU to compete by increasing hours, boosting productivity still further and holding down wages. The European Commission recently put forward a discussion paper on “modernising labour law”. This centres on eroding existing employment protection.

In Italy there has been a mushrooming of individual and non-standard contracts that escape the legal protection won by unions.

This has meant a surge in “precarious” employment, often of young workers. They have no permanent contract or pension provision, earn less and have little or no holiday entitlement – which makes it difficult to access bank loans or to buy a house.

The Czech Republic has adopted a new labour code that allows for more overtime and gives employers a freer hand to hire and fire. Once one EU state introduces such measures, all the others rush to follow – this is the “race to the bottom”.

Each EU state competes to offer big business the best conditions to make profits. The attack on pension rights in Britain is part of a sustained drive by European governments to erode our security in old age.

Britain may have gone further down the privatisation road, but its European rivals are also out to bring the market into health, education and other services. The EU is a union constructed for the benefit of the market.

Attempts to portray the EU as somehow shielding European citizens from the worst ravages of globalisation and Anglo-Saxon free market capitalism mask the fact that the EU is one of the driving forces in the creation of a neoliberal new world order.

It is the multinational corporations that profit from the creation of a Europe-wide market in which they look for member states to provide the lowest costs and the highest profits. Those at the bottom of society pay the price.

Across Europe the gap between rich and poor has grown wider. Workers have been told to accept lower wages, worsening labour conditions and the dismantling of the welfare states won across Europe in the wake of the Second World War.

Despite stories of French peasants and Greek olive growers pocketing millions from the Common Agricultural Policy, small rural producers are being squeezed out by the multinationals that increasingly dominate them.

And across the EU the gap between male and female earnings remains at 15 percent, reaching 33 percent in some member states.

The other victims of this are the migrant workers crucial to the European economy yet subject to tighter and tighter immigration laws.

This weekend the heads of government of the EU’s member states are to gather in Berlin to mark the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

As current president of the EU, Germany’s right wing prime minister Angela Merkel is presenting a declaration endorsing the “missions and values” underlying a new treaty. She hopes this will replace the European Constitution rejected so decisively by voters in the French and Dutch referendums two years ago.

Replacing a constitution with a treaty removes the necessity of putting the matter to a popular vote.

In Britain, the French and Dutch votes were presented simply as a rejection of Europe. Across the Channel there was widespread agreement that they represented a popular rejection of the neoliberal model championed by the draft constitution.

Defeated

The European Constitution promised an “internal market where competition is free and unrestricted”. The constitution may have been defeated but new members to the EU, Bulgaria and Romania, still had to demonstrate they had “functioning market economies” before being allowed to join.

And in the absence of the constitution, the further construction of free market Europe continues apace.

The EU has also taken the lead in “freeing” the global market at the expense of the Global South and for the benefit of European multinationals.

Last week EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson told 78 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries – the majority of them former European colonies – that he was ending agreements granting their mainly agricultural imports advantageous access to Europe by the end of this year.

Access to the European market will only be granted if those countries lift restrictions on EU imports and privatise services, allowing European firms to take them over.

Such a deal would devastate local industries and agriculture, and reduce further education and health provision in some of the world’s poorest nations.

Meanwhile “Fortress Europe” has increasingly militarised its border with the Global South, deploying naval vessels to patrol the Mediterranean and opening a detention centre in Libya.

The aim is not to keep out migrant labour on which sections of European big business depends, but to ensure they are allowed in effectively as non-citizens, enjoying fewer rights.

Colonialism

In contrast, the EU commission president has announced a plan to offer high-flying African students instant European citizenship.

South African MP Kadar Asmal has denounced this saying, “It is not a brain drain, but the destruction of the intellectual capacity of the South,” adding that it is “discreet colonialism”.

The EU is a key driving force in creating a neoliberal world. It is also highly undemocratic.

The crucial decisions are taken in secret by the European Council, an assembly of government leaders from each of the 27 member states.

The European parliament we elect has very limited powers to veto the council’s decisions. Far greater power lies with the business and financial elites who employ some 15,000 “lobbyists” in Brussels.

The European Central Bank is free of any democratic controls. The bank’s only mandate is to control inflation by raising or lowering interest rates. It has presided over an unemployment rate of 10 percent across the euro zone.

Within the euro zone there are common limits set on government spending. If any state breaches those rules, it can be expelled from the monetary union.

The ability of European capital to construct a neoliberal EU has relied on the relative lack of resistance. That in part reflects the defeats inflicted on the European labour movement during the 1980s.

Matters went further in Britain, but the victories Margaret Thatcher achieved over the miners and other groups blazed a trail for other governments to follow.

But more important was the allegiance that trade unions and social movements have retained to social democratic parties that have swallowed the full neoliberal package.

This form of masochism has reached its heights in Britain, but it’s part of a wider pattern.

Across Europe we have seen higher levels of resistance to neoliberalism than in Britain. But that has largely been limited to one-day strikes and protests, whose leaders rush to grab the first concessions cast their way.

As socialists we have to forge resistance in our own country and across Europe. That also centres on creating a new, radical left which is uncompromisingly anti-neoliberal, internationalist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist.

Socialists in this country should oppose Britain’s EU membership because it is a club for the rich. But we also reject the “race to the bottom” and argue for the extension of the best levels of social provision available within the EU to citizens of each member state.

In other words, we want the best pension rights, the highest minimum wage, shortest working hours, the right to free education and the most stringent controls on pollution applied in each EU state.

That’s a vision of Europe not shared by Brown, Cameron, Merkel or either of the candidates likely to succeed Jacques Chirac as president of France.


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Features
Sat 24 Mar 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2043
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