Who benefits from the EU?
By Alex Callinicos
IT IS tempting to think of the European Union (EU) as a benevolent institution. For one thing, surely anything the Tories attack so hysterically can't be all bad.
Many people on the left look to the EU as a counter to unbridled capitalism. Thus former German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, in his book The Heart Beats on the Left, argues that European institutions can impose a degree of democratic control on the anarchic workings of global finance markets.
But Lafontaine's own exit from office shows this hope is illusory. After the German Red-Green coalition took office in October 1998 he pushed for a cut in European interest rates to stave off a recession.
The European Central Bank, unelected and unaccountable, rubbished Lafontaine's views, and waited till he had been driven from office by a concerted campaign on the part of German bosses before it cut rates. We see the same picture on other fronts as well. This is the first anniversary of the great protests that helped cause the collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in Seattle.
The WTO serves two main roles. First of all, like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, it serves as an instrument to open up the economies of the Third World and ex-Stalinist countries to Western multinationals. Secondly, it acts as a forum in which the conflicts among the leading trading blocs-the United States, Europe and Japan-can be fought out in a reasonably non-disruptive way.
Seattle was about launching a new round of trade talks. The aim was to dismantle national barriers to the operations of the multinationals in key areas. In particular, services including health and education were being eyed up lustfully by corporate lobbies like the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and the European Services Leaders' Group.
The protests in the streets of Seattle gave representatives of Third World governments the confidence to defy the pressure being put on them to sign up to a new round, especially by Charlene Barshevsky, the arrogant US trade representative.
Last week, however, Pascal Lamy, the European trade commissioner, gave a speech in Geneva where he reaffirmed the EU's support for launching a full round of trade negotiations. His speech revealed the extent to which the EU is committed to the same neo-liberal agenda as the US. At the top of his list of "magic elements" for a new trade round is "further liberalisation of markets for goods and services". In other words, just like the US, the EU wants to push back the boundaries that currently stop the multinationals from controlling every aspect of economic life.
It is all the more remarkable that Lamy is a member of the French Socialist Party appointed by prime minister Lionel Jospin. Jospin has made great play of his opposition to Tony Blair's and Bill Clinton's Third Way. Yet in practice he too is pressing ahead with neo-liberal policies.
The same is true of the EU as a whole. The Lisbon summit last spring embraced a package of proposals drafted by Gordon Brown calling for European labour markets to be made more "flexible".
The EU is thus not a bastion against neo-liberalism. The conflicts it has with the US concern narrow differences of economic interest. Both are united in imposing free market policies on the rest of the world, and the EU is busy dismantling barriers to these policies within its own borders. That is why anti-capitalists should be taking part in the protests at the EU summits in Nice on 6-7 December-not out of the narrow, xenophobic nationalism that motivates the Tory right, but to help build a world that is no longer in the stifling grip of global capitalism.