There is an idea abroad in North America that the European Union (EU) represents a progressive alternative to U.S.-sponsored neoliberalism. You can find this argument in books such as Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream and in numerous articles in left-leaning journals. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
At the behest of the European Commission, the EU’s powerful unelected executive, member state governments are busy dismantling welfare states, enhancing their military forces, enacting illiberal political measures and neoliberal economic policies, and expressing undisguised contempt for anyone who disagrees with them. The dissenters include the peoples of France, the Netherlands, and Ireland, all of whom have had the nerve to vote against the neoliberal version of European integration.
The Irish, given a second chance to get the answer right in a referendum scheduled for October 2, are currently being subjected to a tidal wave of pro-Lisbon Treaty propaganda financed from their own taxes. Not a word of the treaty has been changed as a result of their rejection of it. According to the EU’s own rules, this refusal to amend the original should have killed the proposal. But the Commission has merely appended a number of non-legally binding interpretative declarations. The protocol containing these declarations openly states that these declarations “will clarify but not change either the content or the application of the Treaty of Lisbon.” The people of France and the Netherlands have been given no second chance, though the Lisbon Treaty is almost identical to the European Constitutional Treaty they rejected at the ballot box, in the Dutch case by a landslide.
The EU’s much-vaunted successes are open to question, to say the least. Europe has indeed gone more than six decades without a major war, but whether or not this is a result of the European Union is impossible to say. A degree of economic integration, beginning in the 1950s with the European Coal and Steel Community, can almost certainly claim some of the credit. But building on the back of this integration a permanent, unquestionable, constitutionally established neoliberal economy is another matter. Like so many aspects of EU-style integration, the institutionalization of the misleadingly-named free market takes advantage of people’s natural desire for peace and prosperity to build what is rapidly becoming a capitalist dystopia.
Undermining Social Ownership
The 2005 Directive on Services in the Internal Market, for example, has exposed almost all services to market-based competition. Despite assurances to the contrary, the EU is applying the directive across the board, making it increasingly difficult for local or national public authorities to provide services designed for people, rather than profit. Covering everything except transportation, financial services, certain services provided free of charge by the state, and those already covered by other directives, the Services Directive forbids member states from blocking operators if they’ve been authorized in any other member states. Despite claims from social democrats in the European Parliament, the Country of Origin Principle (COP) introduced by the Services Directive remains, in all its essentials, intact. The COP means that a company may register in one member state, operate in another, and follow the labor and environmental protection laws prevailing in its state of registration. A series of European Court of Justice rulings have declared that the right to establish or operate a business takes precedence over the rights of labor unions or national governments to negotiate or fix rates of pay per trade, for example. In addition to undermining workers’ rights, the Services Directive makes it illegal for governmental authorities at any level to favor local businesses, which makes any effective regional development plan impossible.
In the last decade the EU has used competition policy to undermine social ownership in sector after sector. Fully aware of the extent of public opposition to privatization of essential services, the European Commission claims neutrality on ownership structures yet passes measure after measure forcing socially-owned enterprises to compete in the capitalist market. This enables private corporations to cherry-pick profitable elements of sectors such as postal services, water, energy, and health care. The shareholders of these corporations then pick up the profits, while the taxpayer picks up the tab for essential but unprofitable services.
The EU’s malign policies are not limited to undermining both individual and social wages. The Common Agricultural Policy has ravaged Europe’s countryside and handed agriculture en masse to corporate farmers. The Common Fisheries Policy has emptied the seas of fish, throwing families that in many cases have relied on the sea’s bounty for generations of employment out of work. Trade and development policies have benefited EU-based corporations, with no thought given to the social, economic, and environmental consequences for developing countries.
Irish voters are also particularly concerned by the Lisbon Treaty’s threat to the country’s neutrality since the treaty effectively would bring Ireland into a military alliance. EU defence policy, the institutional and constitutional basis of which will be hugely enhanced by the Lisbon Treaty, is based not on the real security needs of Europe’s peoples, but on the interests of the biggest, most powerful member states and their corporations. The treaty will boost defense spending by all 27 member countries and will encourage the consolidation of European arms manufacturers so that they become more powerful and competitive global actors.
Not Popular, Not International
There has never been a single popular demonstration in favor of European integration. In what Gramsci called a “passive revolution,” an elite, lacking popular support, is using legalistic devices to enforce its will. The “Lisbon Strategy,” with its absurd ambition to make the EU’s economy the most competitive in the world by 2010, comes closest to admitting this. In this case, competitiveness equals efficiency, which equals profitability, with the final element serving as a justification for all manner of ills.
The EU is not an internationalist project at all. Internationalism is, as the name suggests, about cooperation among nations and peoples. The EU is, instead, a universalist project which seeks to impose universal values and universalized structures on a large group of countries with very different economies, histories, traditions, and constitutions. The values that underlie this instance of universalism are those of a hegemonic elite, an elite that has decided that the misnamed free market is a cornerstone of democracy, undermining the latter by transferring powers from elected to unelected institutions and drastically narrowing the policy space available to parliaments and national governments.
The Lisbon Treaty represents a further deepening of this corporate project. It would massively increase the voting power of big member states, more than doubling Germany’s to 17% while halving Ireland’s to below one percent. It would give the EU the power, for the first time, to harmonize indirect taxes. It would remove the Irish government’s right to propose and approve an EU commissioner. It would underline and enhance the precedence of EU law over national legislation, including national constitutions. It would abolish the national veto in 32 new policy areas and thus all but eliminate the power of national parliaments and any possibility of popular influence on decision-making. It would permit heads of state and government to add to the list of areas where policies can be adopted without unanimous approval, with no need for a new treaty. It would create a powerful new office of EU President, an office over which the electorates of the 27 member states would have no influence. And it would require member states, including neutral Ireland, “progressively to improve their military capabilities” and to aid and assist other member states experiencing armed attack “by all the means in their power.”
If the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty a second time, they will not be rejecting cooperation between European nations, but rather a specific vision of Europe’s future that is tilted in favor of military and corporate power.