Socialist Worker

How the British left can take up Europe

The no votes against the European constitution in the Netherlands and France offer an opportunity for us, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya

Issue No. 1955

Posters in Paris campaign for a left vote against the European constitution (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Posters in Paris campaign for a left vote against the European constitution (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The no votes in the French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty have sent shockwaves through mainstream parties across the European Union (EU). France’s ruling conservative coalition and the centre left Socialist Party are in turmoil following the result.

Some 60 percent of Socialist Party voters rejected the constitution, despite the party officially backing the treaty.

The party has responded by turning on the left. Laurent Fabius, a leading member who joined the no campaign, has been kicked off the party’s ruling executive.

The French conservatives are similarly split. Traditionalist “patrician” politicians such as president Jacques Chirac and his newly appointed prime minister Dominique de Villepin want to bolster French protectionism and play to nationalist sentiment.

But a younger breed of Tory politicians, led by the interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to steer even further to the right. Sarkozy plans to use Chirac’s humiliation over the referendum to launch a presidential bid in 2007.

In Britain Tony Blair is looking to wriggle out of a promised referendum on the European constitution, as he will almost certainly lose it.

But Chirac and Germany’s chancellor Gerhard Schröder are furious with Blair. They blame him for pushing the idea of referendums, and are insisting that countries continue with the formal process of ratifying the treaty.

By angering France and Germany, Blair may well end up losing Britain’s EU budget rebate. This would maul his political reputation at home and strengthen the demands on him to go.

But while Europe’s ruling class is turning in on itself, the prospects for the radical left across Europe are the brightest for decades. The no campaigns in both France and the Netherlands were led by united coalitions of left forces.

The radical left in Britain now needs to forge links with the “left no” campaigns in France and the Netherlands and learn from their experience.

Although Blair is likely to kick any referendum into the long grass, the collapse of the constitutional treaty doesn’t mean the issue of Europe will go away.

Larry Elliot, the Guardian’s economics editor, argues that the crisis is likely to spread into other areas of the EU’s neo-liberal project, including the single currency.

That means we need to articulate the left wing case against the euro and other neo-liberal aspects of the European project.

We should do this not by making appeals to “defending the British way of life”, but by saying “a better Europe is possible” — one based on genuine internationalism from below and a rejection of privatisation and free market economics.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail workers’ union, says,“The hostility to the constitution demonstrated in France and the Netherlands reflects the majority opinion of working people in Britain. The choice is quite clear — do you want member states to hand over power to Brussels and even more of their public services to privateers, or not?”

Many on the left have been sceptical over whether a “left no” campaign is feasible in Britain. The French and Dutch results should banish those doubts.

They have shown that it is possible to run vibrant campaigns against a “bosses’ Europe” without making concessions to nationalism or racism.

We need to confidently build a similar “left no” in Britain. If we succeed, we could pull the carpet out from under the feet of both the mainstream parties and the “Eurosceptic” fringe right.

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