Last year, the EU Constitution was defeated in referendums in France and the Netherlands. Europe’s governments quickly got together and rewrote the constitution as an incredibly complicated list of amendments to existing treaties. Together these amendments make up the “Treaty of Lisbon.” Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the president of the Convention on the Future of Europe which did much of the ground work in drafting the constitution, has concluded that “the difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content”.
By redrafting the constitution as amendments to existing treaties, most of Europe’s governments were able to avoid holding referendums and instead rely upon the formality of parliamentary approval. Now, the only country to hold a referendum will be Ireland.
The Lisbon treaty will give the EU the right to set policy in a broad range of new areas. It will also redistribute voting and appointment rights among the participating governments in a way that is more closely aligned to each country’s population, effectively reducing the Irish government’s voice. It will further remove each country’s veto over a range of policy areas.
By centralising more functions, and introducing slightly more balanced and efficient decision making, the Lisbon Treaty represents another small step towards a European Super-State. A large number of groups have expressed opposition to the Lisbon treaty on the grounds that the emerging European state erodes Ireland’s national sovereignty. While the treaty undoubtedly erodes the Irish government’s sovereignty, it is a sovereignty freely surrendered. Not only every government, but every single mainstream political party in the country has supported every single European treaty.
Even those who began as fringe opponents of European integration, such as the Green Party, became supporters as soon as they got a sniff of power. Similarly, throughout Europe, governments of all stripes have repeatedly signed treaties surrendering some of their sovereignty to the EU. If Europe’s governments really represent the people, then European integration has their sovereign backing.
Europe’s democratic deficit does not lie between the sovereign governments and the super-state; it lies between the people and their governments. The EU is an arrangement between Europe’s business and political elite. They negotiate treaties to their mutual satisfaction and nothing trifling like the people’s opinions will be allowed get in their way.
When constitutional hindrances force them to have a referendum in some country or other, and they somehow manage to lose, they simply repeat it until they get the right answer, as happened in Ireland when the Treaty of Nice was rejected, or else they redraft the agreements to avoid the vote altogether – as is now the case with the Lisbon Treaty.
EU treaties, especially Lisbon, are long and complex, and popular knowledge of the intricate workings of EU institutions is almost non-existent. Public debate on the treaties has been singularly bad at informing the public about the realities of the EU – with political leaders choosing to focus on emotive appeals to high-minded ideals rather than the plans for the deregulation of public services or any of the actual contents of treaties.
In such a context, the idea that Europe’s governments are expressing the democratic will of their people becomes meaningless. In reality, from its inception, the EU has been driven by Europe’s industrialists and their desire for a large tariff-free “common market” for their products.
The Lisbon treaty shows their continuing imprint, with dozens of amendments calling for further ‘liberalisation’ of markets in goods and services. This is not to say that the European treaties are entirely devoid of social content. The struggles and campaigns of workers throughout Europe have, over the years, compelled Europe’s leaders to include a social component in their treaties.
Some of these social elements, such as health and safety and rights-based legislation, have been helpful in workers’ campaigns for decent conditions in backward regions such as Ireland. However, in general, the clauses about social matters in EU treaties tend to be assertions of basic rights, at such a level of abstraction that they have little beyond rhetorical value.
The EU treaties are still primarily a rulebook dictating how Europe’s capitalists should act in their dealings with one another. The Workers Solidarity Movement will be campaigning for a No vote in the Lisbon referendum. However, we do not object to the loss of sovereignty that the treaty entails nor do we worry about the Irish government having less voting rights.
We oppose the idea that Europe should be shaped by an unaccountable elite. We reject the idea that Europe should be built as a hyper-competitive capitalist market place. We oppose the attacks on public services implicit in the treaty’s calls for liberalisation.
Most of all, we reject the arrogance and contempt that Europe’s ruling class shows for the masses, in claiming popular support for their alliances through referenda which serve only as sad caricatures of democratic decision making. However, while a big No vote might indicate that a large number of people are opposed to the arrogance of our political elite, by itself it means little.
The Irish government and EU will figure out a way to get around it. In the long run, in order to oppose the power of Europe’s capitalist elite, Europe’s people need to organise themselves internationally, through trade unions, political groups and other voluntary organisations. We must provide alternative visions of Europe’s future. At the same time as opposing our current leaders, we must try to build a new Europe from below – a genuinely democratic Europe based on socialism, mutual aid and international solidarity.