‘No!’ – for the sake of Europe

9 May 2007

‘No!’ – for the sake of Europe

Contribution to the conference “Left Politics in Europe”, organized by Vasemmistofoorumi / Left Forum in Helsinki, Finland, Wednesday May 9th – by Hans van Heijningen, secretary-general of the SP

Hans van HeijningenMost Europeans take a positive attitude to European cooperation, which formed, after the Second World War, an important basis for the process of economic reconstruction and peaceful coexistence. People are, however, a great deal less enthusiastic over the extension of the European Union’s powers and areas of competence. This is the reason why, following the French example, two-thirds of the Dutch electorate also voted No in the referendum of June 2005 on the European Constitution. In the campaign for that ‘no’ vote, the Socialist Party played a central role. As well as taking a critical view of the unrestrained neoliberalism of its policies and the build-up of a European defence force – which includes the establishment of a European Armaments Institute and the formation of rapid response units – a great majority of the Dutch people took objection to the wholesale transfer of national policy competences to the European Union’s institutions, which they rightly associate with a top down approach, bureaucracy, financial waste and a lack of any real democratic control.

The rejection of the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands cannot be put down to an expression of nationalism, but was, on the contrary, primarily an expression of a widely shared critique of the political direction taken by the EU. In common with France, the Netherlands belongs to the six countries which fifty years ago concluded the Treaty of Rome, marking the real beginning of deep European cooperation. The people who in 2005 seized the opportunity to make their voices heard in those referenda come from countries which were present at the inception of a united Europe. In the last fifty years, Europe has, as this demonstrates, failed to find a place in people’s hearts. Instead of fixing their sights on forcing the European Constitution, or a watered down version of the European Constitution, on the people, whether or not they are willing to accept it, Europe’s friends would do better to put their efforts into winning the public’s confidence.

Distrust of Europe is in the first place fuelled by people’s feeling that they lack any involvement in European decision-making, even where the decisions involved may have far-reaching consequences for their daily lives. The euro, for example, was introduced in our country without the people having any chance whatsoever to express their views on the matter. And despite denials from established research institutes, the great mass of Dutch people are convinced that the introduction of the euro was linked to a significant increase in the cost of living. The European Constitution also threatened to be introduced without popular consultation. That changed, however, when national parliamentarians in France and the Netherlands successfully demanded a referendum. Supporters of the formation of a European state had believed that they could take a great leap forward without carrying the people along with them, but it was not to be.

National governments have also used Europe as a justification for unpopular measures. The privatisation or semi-privatisation of the national railways, bus companies and energy corporations was, at least in the Netherlands, forced through on the grounds that it was an obligation imposed by the European Union. The promise was that the public would profit indirectly from the move, because more ‘market-testing’ would in the end be good for economic growth. The reality is that a great majority of the population was disadvantaged by this policy as social security systems, working conditions, conditions of service, and wages came under pressure while the promised improvement to the quality of service provision failed to materialise. A good example of this is provided by our national railways. There is now run by an independent corporation which unfortunately makes more profit from the transport of goods than it does from the transport of people. As a consequence intercity trains are increasingly held up by slow-moving freight trains on the same lines. That the removal of state-controlled corporations from public ownership and their privatisation has turned out to be damaging to both personnel and passengers is no coincidence but a logical consequence of the process, as can be seen by anyone who studies the Lisbon agenda. Economic growth on the basis of cuts in social provision is wrapped up in the pretty packaging of technological renewal and the much-vaunted ‘knowledge economy’.

Another reason for the people’s lack of faith in a further development of the European Union is that critical voices are rarely given a place in the public debate and must constantly confront the stigma of the accusation that they are turning their backs on the global situation and looking nostalgically back towards the rather narrow-minded Netherlands of the 1950s, when the country was universally white-skinned, and allegedly inward-looking, anti-intellectual and traditionalist. During the constitution campaign of 2005 the ‘no’ side in the Netherlands was represented by only a tiny minority of members of parliament. Social democrats, liberals and greens turned out, when it came to the crunch, however, to be completely out of line with the feelings about Europe of those who voted them into office. This problem of representation was not only evident in the case of political parties, moreover, but also afflicted the leadership of trade unions, environmental groups, development NGOs and the media, all of which signed up in overwhelming majority for the ‘yes’ campaign. The ‘no’ camp was therefore dominated by my party, the SP, and left activists who worked alongside us, while the populist right, which is at the present time gaining strongly in support, played a totally subordinate role during the campaign. For many people from the media of other European countries, it was a complete revelation when they came into contact with ordinary people in the street and discovered that the no movement in the Netherlands was not some kind of petty-bourgeois assemblage consisting of xenophobes.

To win back this lost faith in the process of European integration – or at least to make a start in that direction – the voice of the people must be heard more forcefully in European politics. That can only be achieved via national democracy, because the people’s involvement with the European Parliament and the European Commission is minimal. Despite the significant stream of subsidies which the EU invests in public relations and building up public support, the chances of its success are nil. That it is not succeeding in reaching its goal of enjoying the loyalty of the people or convincing them of its legitimacy should – but this is by the way – make us optimistic.

The power of initiative for European decision-making should lie far less with the European Commission and much more with the member states. The task of Members of the European Parliament should not be to represent Europe within their own countries, but to allow the voices of their citizens to be heard in Europe. Democracy and popular involvement cannot be laid down from on high, but are matters which must be developed from the ground upwards in a dynamic manner and a dynamic context.

The ‘no’ to the Constitution was not solely a criticism in response to the lack of European democracy, but certainly in addition a protest against the political direction which the architects of European unification have taken. The establishment of the European Economic Community in 1957 was at the time supported not only by conservatives and liberals, but also by social democrats. But the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991 and monetary union, of which the introduction of the euro was the pinnacle, took the European Union unequivocally and directly into the territory of the free market. Alongside this came the break with the so-called Rhineland model, under which state, employers and workers’ organisations did their best to arrive at a sort of mutual harmonisation of interests. The development of the European free market had in time far-reaching political consequences. Since the 1990s more and more public services, which until then had been provided by the national authorities, were transferred to the market as the European Union began to dictate the policies of its member states.

I can give you a fitting example of the EU’s political one-sidedness. At the instigation of a British hedgefund one of ‘our’ biggest banks, ABN-AMRO, is being taken over by a foreign interest. The British Barclays Bank and a consortium consisting of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Belgo-Dutch bank Fortis and Spain’s Santander are in the race to perform the takeover of ABN-AMRO. The shareholders go for option two (the more lucrative), while the management and unions prefer option one, which will guarantee that the bank will not be sliced up. The bank’s personnel and ordinary clients have formally speaking no vote and no say in the matter, and the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes warned all concerned that the market – in other words the money – and nothing else must determine the course of the takeover. Such an attitude, I can assure you, contributes nothing to giving the EU a more positive image in the eyes of the Dutch people.

Last weekend I attended a congress of the Red Green Alliance in Denmark at which the Swedish Waxholm case was debated. A Swedish trade union will soon be charged by the European Court of Justice for effectively preventing a Lithuanian company from executing a school renovation project in the Swedish town of Waxholm at Lithuanian rates of pay and under Lithuanian working conditions. The Irish EU commissioner for free competion thought this procedure an appropriate move to guarantee the free circulation of capital and labour between EU countries. Trade Unions not only in Sweden but also in other Scandinavian countries have already announced that they would take industrial action and launch anti-EU campaigns if the European Court were to decide in favour of undermining their welfare state, or what’s left of it after many years of neoliberal policies. Even the right wing government of Sweden is pressuring the EU not to condemn the trade union in question because this might have negative consequences for the relationship between Sweden and the EU.

It is an historic mistake to allow the European project to be led along so overwhelmingly by neoliberal convictions. The principle of more market and less state was even laid down in the European Constitution, degrading it to the status of a political document. Europe’s politicians can only win people’s trust if public discussion takes place over the political direction and purpose of European unification. Most Europeans want the national authorities to retain sufficient power and sufficient competences to enable them to carry out public responsibilities and implement the kind of social policies for which the electorate has voted.

The first thing which must happen in relation to this is that the protagonists of the European Union must learn to show more humility. The European bureaucracy’s strategy of taking ever more power and control to itself is strengthening people’s resistance. It is a good thing for countries within Europe to cooperate, in order, for example, to combat environmental pollution or tackle terrorism in a way which respects and reinforces human rights. It is not a good thing, however, if the European Commission exploits this cooperation to make inroads into our national democracies. A great majority of the Dutch people have no time for the formation of a European superstate.

There is little point in proposing to the Dutch people for a second time a European Constitution, or a variant of such a constitution. European unification is not a matter of marketing or of better explaining what Europe does, as we have been told. More cooperation will come only when the peoples of the member states are persuaded that it would bring advantages. Fifty years after the Treaty of Rome we stand at an important dividing of the ways, where we must decide which path to take: should we go further with this Europe of the market, or should we decide instead in favour of a Europe of the people?

Before I conclude, I want to say a word or two in criticism of those who want to leap ahead by working on a ‘better’ European Constitution. We must be wary of the politics of illusion and delusion and continue to draw a clear distinction between our strategic goals (a social, democratic and peaceful Europe) and today’s reality (which remains dominated by neoliberals). Instead of putting our energies into a splendid paper reality, we would do better to work within our different European countries to strengthen the opposition to neoliberal policies. Only when we, together with the trade unions, succeed in winning the majority of people to a different set of economic policies, one in which politics sets the boundaries of economics rather than the other way round, will we be capable of putting our stamp on the process of European integration. The idea that weak in one country and weak in another country can produce strength is an expression of the politics of illusion. That the people of France and of the Netherlands succeeded in throwing a spanner into the works of the EU’s neoliberal architects does not mean that we, as socialists, at this very moment would be capable of generating sufficient support for a progressive constitution in which the omnipotence of the market would be put under restraint.

In this Europe matters such as education, health care, social policy, public transport and social housing should be primarily national responsibilities. European cooperation should not be inflicted by the European Commission, but should take place on the initiative of the member states. The European internal market could offer economic advantages to all citizens, provided only that it is not used as a pretext for the rundown of social provisions for which people have fought and electorates have voted. That is why my party says no to the European Constitution, for Europe’s sake.

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