The constitution and the Treaty

1 December 2008

The constitution and the Treaty

Speech on the European Treaty by Hans van Heijningen, SP general secretary, at the conference of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, Saturday 29th November in Dublin

Hans van HeijningenFirst of all I would like to thank you for the invitation to address you at this PANA-conference. International exchange, the sharing of views and experiences, has been and is important not only in our joint opposition to the European Constitution, now labelled the European Treaty but also to formulate our alternatives for a social, green and peaceful Europe.

In June, 2005, the French people voted to reject the proposed European Constitutional Treaty. This 'Constitution' was drawn up by an unelected, unrepresentative body under the chairmanship of Giscard d’Estaing a retired French politician of aristocratic background. The French voted No despite the fact that the whole establishment, including the President of the Republic, all three major political parties, almost all newspapers, most trade unions and the national business association supported the Yes campaign. Two days later, under much the same circumstances, the Dutch people did the same. The SP, which at the time had only eight MPs, was the biggest political party, and the only parliamentary party of the left, to oppose the treaty. The feelings of the Dutch people were made clear, moreover, not only by the overwhelming victory of the No campaign. The majority of voters who support our two rivals on the left of the political spectrum, the Labour Party and the Green Left, also voted No, against the advice of their party leadership. And in the next three elections – local, regional and national – we doubled and tripled our vote The 'No' campaign was not the only reason for this, but it certainly played a role in moving the SP from the edges of Dutch politics to its centre. We are now the biggest opposition party in parliament and with 50.000 members the third political force in the Netherlands.

The two No votes, as you know, were greeted by a ruse typical of a political establishment which seems to have come to regard democracy as an irritation. The Constitutional Treaty was withdrawn, albeit reluctantly and with a show of petulance worthy of the infants' school playground. It was then replaced, without this time bothering with the sham of a 'Constituent Assembly', by a virtually identical text. Despite this, the Dutch government, backed by a parliamentary majority, refused to put the new text to a vote (despite the promise of the Labour Party that it would not accept any other option than a new referendum). The same was true for every other member state government, with the exception of your own, which had no choice in the matter.

These are shameful events to occur in purported democracies. Paper-thin excuses and lies about changes in the text cannot hide the fact that the Dutch and French political establishment took this course of action because it knew that a second referendum would mean a second defeat. The British Labour Party reneged on its promise of a referendum for the same reason. They all say the changes are great enough to make a 'Constitution' into an ordinary treaty. The Spanish Prime Minister, curiously, uses exactly the opposite argument. In Spain, a low turn-out approved the Constitutional Treaty in a referendum. So whereas the Irish, Dutch, French and British people are told that changes mean that no referendum is necessary, the Spanish are told that the fact that the text is the same means that no referendum is necessary!

All of this would be very funny if it weren't for what it represents, which is the death by strangulation of the democracy and national sovereignty for which all of our mothers and fathers fought, made sacrifices, and even gave their lives. This is a country and a city which makes one reflect on the true cost of democracy, and yet it is also one where the government may be planning to sell a democratic decision for worthless coin.

Your task will clearly be to demand that whatever 'concessions' are offered to Ireland, the people must be given the chance to approve or disapprove them in a further referendum. In the Netherlands this course has been closed to us. As is the case in France and elsewhere, the No campaigners, and even some people who support the Lisbon Treaty, have explored every avenue to force our governments to do the honest, democratic thing and put the text to a popular vote. But honesty and democracy are rare commodities in Europe's capitals, and we will not get our referenda. The alternative strategy that we have adopted is to make next June's European Parliament elections into an opportunity for the Dutch people to express their opposition to the Lisbon Treaty, or simply their disgust at the undemocratic way in which it is being foisted on us. Our argument will be that while the government denies the voters the right to vote on the Treaty, it cannot deny us the right to vote to send opponents of the Treaty to Brussels and Strasbourg. By voting SP, they will be voting No to a Europe dominated by big business and military superpower ambitions.

The SP is an internationalist party and our reasons for opposing the Lisbon Treaty are both democratic and internationalist. They have nothing to do with nationalism as it is usually understood. We do, however, believe in what the EU calls 'subsidiarity', a principle which it routinely ignores. This principle states that decisions should be taken as close to home as possible. What can be decided by the individual should be left to the individual, what can be decided locally should be left to local councils to decide, and so on up to those matters for which Europe-wide or global cooperation is essential. We also note that whereas the Dutch state, after 150 years of popular struggle, has relatively robust democratic institutions, the EU is run by an unelected Commission, a Council which continues to hold most of its meetings behind closed doors, and a Parliament which has only limited power.

We do believe that there are many things that unite people not only across Europe but across the world. We liked the slogan of the Norwegian campaign against EU entry: 'Europe is too small for us'. We oppose this European Union, then, firstly because it removes power further from the people. Secondly, because it is based on neoliberal principles. The policies of the EU will represent a deepening of the neoliberal structures which have exposed Europe to the ravages of casino capitalism. And don’t accuse us of conspiracy thinking. I’ve read the Lisbon Agenda, which promoted the liberalization of labour markets – causing wage cuts, badly paid flexlabour, lack of social security – which promoted the liberalisation and privatisation of services – the threat that access to health and education will depend on your ability to pay – which promoted tax competition among member states – making working class people pay higher taxes while the rich pay less.

Recession and mass unemployment will be the inevitable results of the deregulation of financial institutions and markets, a game in which the EU has been an enthusiastic player, whatever noises its leaders may now be making about the need for greater surveillance. The SP and others on the left have been urging such a course of action for decades, though I have yet to hear the assorted conservatives, liberals and so-called social democrats who run the politics of this Union and its member states apologise and admit that we were right all along. In truth, the EU has done nothing to address a financial crisis for which it was partly responsible, leaving effective action as has been taken to its member states.

The EU's neoliberalism is not confined to creating a free-for-all for transnational capital. In a succession of legislative measures and European Court of Justice decisions it has shown that in a straight fight between the rights of capital and those of working people it will always take the side of the rich, the powerful, the corporate. ECJ decisions such as those in the Lavall and Viking cases threaten to turn the clock back to a time – a century ago or more in most of our countries – when although trade unions were technically legal, restrictive laws made them ineffective.

In addition to reinforcing its neoliberalism, the Lisbon Treaty will further the militaristic dreams of Europe's elites. The world's impending liberation from the Bush administration surely represents an opportunity for Europe to take the initiative and propose global disarmament negotiations. We should be pursuing a scaling down of the military machines of each of the global powers; ceasing to sell arms to repressive regimes; and reinforcing structures which offer peaceful means of resolving international conflicts.

This would not only make the world a safer place, but would release huge resources. These resources could combat the coming waves of recession and create employment. They could be put at the service of humanity's truly urgent battles. These battles not with each other, but against climate change, to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and halt the degradation of the world's environment.

Instead, the EU pursues a policy which threatens, along with the US rocket shield in eastern Europe, to provoke a new Cold War, or worse. Defence policy is based not on the real security needs of Europe's peoples, which surely lie in reinforcing friendly relations with neighbours, including Russia. Instead, it is the interests of the biggest, most powerful member states and the biggest, most powerful European corporations which are served by a policy which pursues two related goals: the first, to see an enormous and ongoing increase in defence spending by all of the 27; and the second, to encourage consolidation of European arms manufacturers so that they become more powerful and competitive global actors. This policy is not part of a solution to the problem of security, it is part of the problem, which is that undesirable and dangerous concentrations of power are put into the hands of people, governments and corporations who would have us believe that peace can be achieved through bigger and better weapons.

European cooperation whose goals are a reining in of the unrestrained power of the casino capitalists, a furtherance of the rights and wellbeing of working people, a bolstering of the welfare state and of social provision, an effective approach to urgent environmental problems, has our wholehearted support. We believe that such cooperation will come only from a European unity which grows from the grass roots upwards and in which the interests of the majority, of 'ordinary' men and women, are the priority. Let’s use this new momentum – due to a profound crisis whose implications include serious threats and doom scenarios – to create a new Europe where markets are regulated, where public services function as they should function – economically efficient and effectively – where wellbeing is more important than profits. May this conference generate a modest contribution to these goals. Thanks you very much.

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