Le jour de gloire

(Or “the glorious day”, for any lurking Citizen Smith nostalgics. Has Robert Lindsay ever done better work?)

I’ve known John Palmer, slightly, for some time – we were both involved in the Socialist Society in the early 1990s – and respected him for rather longer. Still, I can’t endorse his take on the European constitution.

There are six main points – which is to say, there are three main aspects to the constitution itself and three significant supplementary arguments. Very briefly: the new elements of the constitutional treaty can be grouped under the headings of economic liberalisation, democratisation and institutional consolidation. Moves to entrench the dominance and extend the scope of free-market capitalism in the EU would be, I think John would agree, a Bad Thing, which the Left would be well advised to oppose. However, John’s response to this aspect of the treaty consists of denying its existence:

If the constitutional treaty is killed, all the free-market provisions that the no side objects to will still be in force. This is because they are part and parcel of all the other EU treaties that will remain in force.

Really? Does the treaty do nothing to entrench the neo-liberal model or extend its scope, nothing to promote privatisation or assist European corporations? This has not, to say the least, been my impression. (Nor is it Victor’s, and he’s got references.)

Secondly, democratisation – of which, I think we can agree once again, the EU currently stands in crying need. John again:

What the new treaty does – for the first time in clear terms – is to balance the imperatives of economic growth and competitiveness with a commitment to a wide range of human rights and social values and standards, and to greater powers for the elected European parliament. This opens the way to the emergence of a democratic European polity where voters will be able to choose between rival European party programmes and candidates for election as president of the commission.

This strikes me, again, as a distinctly partial summary. Wouldn’t meaningful democratisation start by giving the elected European parliament power over the unelected Commission, not by giving the Commission a fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy? To whom would an elected EU president be accountable, and how? What John describes here sounds less like democratisation, more like a continuation of the long-term project of building a new Europe by stealth (“a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing”, in the words of one of the pieces I quoted here).

The third aspect of the treaty – and of the Yes campaign – John barely touches on, but I think it’s central. I’m talking about the provisions which make the EU look a bit more like a state, for example by giving it a President and a Foreign Minister. Some commentators are quite excited about the idea of a United (Capitalist) States of Europe emerging to challenge the global hegemony of the USA; a vision something like this is lurking in Habermas’s comments and, perhaps, in John’s peroration:

[rejection of the treaty] will also obstruct the urgent task of creating a genuinely common European foreign, security and defence policy. No wonder the neocons in Washington gloat as they prepare to celebrate.

For me this in itself counts neither for nor against the treaty. By which I mean that, in the current situation, it counts very strongly against. Were we talking about a reasonably democratic EU – let alone a social-democratic or socialist EU – institutional consolidation would be much to be desired. Since we’re not, I can’t see any justification for giving the governing elite even more power, or even more swollen heads, than they have already.

Those, I think, are the important questions – the first and second in particular. I’m not saying I’ve got a final answer to any of them. If (as John says) the treaty genuinely democratises the EU while doing nothing to tilt the balance in favour of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting for. If, on the other hand, it does little or nothing to bring genuine democracy while extending the reach of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting against. I’m leaning towards the second of these positions, but that’s not particularly important; the point is that these are the terms in which the treaty should be judged. That much should be reasonably clear.

If it’s not clear – and it certainly hasn’t been up till now – part of the blame lies with two supplementary arguments, both advanced in John’s piece. Firstly, John points out that we can’t choose our allies:

Perhaps the biggest self-delusion of the anti-treaty left is that it can ignore the link between hostility to the EU and hostility to immigrants and to the further enlargement of the European Union. These links are at the heart of the no campaign in the Netherlands.

This, though, is an appallingly bad argument. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a coherent Left case to be made against the treaty – or even against the EU – the fact that racists and xenophobes are also campaigning against the treaty can’t discourage us. If anything, it should make us work harder, precisely to demonstrate that not all critics of the treaty are racists – and, perhaps, win over some disgruntled democrats who have ended up on the Right because only the Right was prepared to criticise the EU. If there is a coherent Left case against the treaty, we can’t afford to leave the field to Kilroy. (Victor, again, is very good on this. Shut up, Victor – I stayed up late to write this post and everything…)

Secondly, John argues that the French Left should support the treaty on tactical grounds:

Rejection of the treaty – including its provisions to extend democracy and social rights – will only strengthen the determination of the majority of centre-right and conservative EU governments to weaken its democratic and social content further in any new negotiation.

If there’s a Left “No” and a Right “No”, in other words, it’s only the Right “No” that will be heard. We have been here before, and not very long ago – less than a month, as I write. We were told that we should hold our noses and vote Labour, since any swing away from Labour would only benefit the Tories; we – hundreds of thousands of us – went ahead and voted against Labour, mostly not for the Tories but for the Lib Dems or the Greens or Respect; the swing away from Labour was massive, the swing towards the Tories tiny. Blair reacted exactly as if there had been a major swing to the Tories. He’s deaf to appeals to move to the Left, but he can hear appeals to move Right loud and clear – even if they aren’t actually there.

Well, so much the worse. The vote was what it was: all those Labour MPs (and ex-MPs) whose vote crashed know that, even if Blair doesn’t. The vote is our means of communicating with our representatives: to vote according to our judgment of how they’ll react is to compromise ourselves and corrupt the vote. In any case, if it’s hard to tell between a Left “No” and a Right “No”, it’s even harder to identify a Left “Yes”. The referendum is a request for popular endorsement; to vote Yes is to endorse the treaty. C’est tout.

There’s a third supplementary argument, which John doesn’t touch on. It’s this:

This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted – in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined. … A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we’re being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Zoe Margarinos-Rey, quoted from Le Monde. The level of discussion of the constitution in Britain, even among its advocates, has been abysmal: it’s generally assumed that this is simply one more obligatory step in the journey towards European integration, whereupon the discussion moves on to the more interesting meta-topics (“will Blair secure the backing of his party?”) and meta-meta-topics (“if Blair fails, how will the Tories exploit it?”). If I were voting in today’s referendum, I’d vote No on this principle alone: if this treaty is as important as it’s cracked up to be, it deserves a period of consultation so prolonged and intensive as to give every citizen the means and the opportunity to express an informed opinion – and have it heard. Anything less, in matters of this importance, really is taking us for idiots.


  1. Clare
    Posted 31 May 2005 at 11:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, apols if I’ve just not looked hard enough, but I can’t find an mail address for you.

    Here are your “Me-Me” qus, and sorry about the delay:

    1. What role does music play in your life?

    2. What role does politics play in your life? For instance, does it influence your personal relationships?

    3. Have you ever written / would you ever write a novel?

    4. What time do you get up in the mornings?

    5. In the last twelve months, what (if any) activities have put money in your pocket? If none, what activities have emptied it? ;o)

  2. Anonymous
    Posted 31 May 2005 at 19:34 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, the answer is ‘yes’. Then again, the explanation for the ‘yes’ is ‘Nighthawks’.

    Chris ‘freedom for Tooting’ Williams

  3. Phil
    Posted 31 May 2005 at 20:34 | Permalink | Reply

    Chris – that’ll be Nightingales. Which I saw once, mid-series, and somehow never saw again – it was ridiculously underpublicised, it was tucked away at a weird time of night for a sitcom and it was, well, odd. (Or, if you prefer, it was well odd.) Sorry I missed it now – I remember thinking it had workplace humour off pat.

    Clare – thanks. And wow. At first reading I thought you’d asked some very brief & straightforward questions, but I can see that answering them is going to be anything but. I particularly like 2…

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