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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 May 2004

European Union Constitution - What's It All About?

Why has Tony Blair promised a referendum on the constitution?

'What part of "no" don't you understand?' was the answer that Blair's official spokesman, Tom Kelly, gave a month ago when asked whether there would be a national referendum on the European constitution.

Days later Blair did a complete turnaround and announced that a referendum on the European constitution would take place at some point in the future.

Chris Patten, a leading pro-Euro Tory, summed up the reasons for Blair's change of heart saying: "Why does Mr Blair offer a referendum now for some time after the next election? Because he doesn't want Europe discussed in the election campaign."

In the wake of the Iraq war Blair is in a much weakened position, his personal popularity rating now stands at a record low of minus 20! New Labour as a whole is deeply unpopular and the Tories, while still in a weak position, are beginning to sneak up behind New Labour in the polls. Michael Howard, leader of the Tories, had made a big issue of a referendum on the constitution as had The Sun (who mentioned the issue 67 times in the last year!) Blair has chosen to try and undercut any electoral gain the Tories could make from the issue by promising a referendum.

What is the European constitution?

The European Union (EU) now has 25 members, but is still working with a hotchpotch of rules built on the framework first established when the EU had six members.

The constitution would replace all earlier EU treaties with a single document saying what the EU can and cannot do. Exactly what would be in the constitution is still being debated.

Talks collapsed last year over the proposal that decisions would be made if they have the support of countries with three-fifths of the European population.

Effectively this would mean that any three of the four 'big countries' - Germany, Britain, France and Italy - could force through a decision. It now seems that some of the other countries, including Spain, may be willing to compromise on this.

However, there is no doubt that the continuing debates will include a lot of tough talk and not a few rotten compromises, and there is still doubt over whether they will have a successful outcome.

Blair claims he can make the constitution popular - is he right?

Blair claims that it is ignorance which is responsible for public opposition to the EU constitution. It is true that most people know virtually nothing about it. But if workers in Britain find out more it will only increase its unpopularity.

No EU constitution introduced on the basis of capitalism will further the interests of working people. This one is no different. The last inter-governmental conference on the constitution was surrounded by 200,000 demonstrators protesting against the neo-liberal attacks being faced by workers across Europe.

The EU's target is to make Europe into the "most competitive region in the world" by 2010. By this they mean Europe that is good for big business - where markets are liberalised, services privatised and workers' rights to decent pensions and benefits cut to the bone.

The recent expansion of the EU has the same agenda - its aim was never to improve living standards for workers in Eastern Europe but was to increase the 'prestige' and profits of the EU ruling classes. To be allowed to join the EU, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have had to 'open up' their economies to Western multinationals and slash public spending on social security and benefits.

The new constitution will be another means to force through this programme of vicious cuts for both western and eastern Europe.

Blair will claim that the new constitution would be more democratic because it would increase the power of the European parliament over decision making. But this shows how out of touch New Labour is with reality. The European parliament is best known for the huge salaries and perks its members receive, it is rightly seen as far removed from ordinary people. It is unlikely that more than 20% of people will vote in the June European elections.

Will the constitution be introduced?

It is impossible to say. Even if agreement is reached amongst the heads of state this does not mean the constitution will be introduced. Blair's decision to hold a referendum has added to the pressure on other countries to call referendums. If others vote no Blair could even escape having to hold a referendum!

Technically one country voting 'no' is enough to wreck the constitution. But one option for a government that was defeated in a referendum would be to follow the 'Irish' road and hold another referendum - hoping to get the 'right' answer second time around.

Blair even briefly suggested that this is what he would do. He quickly retracted when he realised he had undermined any electoral gain he might have made by promising a referendum in the first place!

Alternatively, the EU leaders may choose to go ahead and leave one or two countries that vote 'no' behind. The architect of the EU constitution, Valery Giscard D'Estaing, has already indicated this is what should happen if Britain were to vote 'no'.

Even if the constitution is scrapped, it will not prevent further attempts at increased integration by the capitalist classes of Europe, in order to attempt to maximise their profits against competition from US and Asian imperialism.

However, capitalism is still based on the nation state and is incapable of fully overcoming it. So while the different capitalist classes of the EU club together to maximise their markets, they continue to fight amongst themselves to try and make sure that their national interests come before those of other EU powers.

What is the socialist alternative?

The Socialist Party would campaign for a 'no' vote in a referendum on the EU constitution. But not from a nationalistic point of view. We stand in solidarity with working people across Europe. Workers across Europe are currently facing major attacks on their living standards, particularly on their pension rights. In response there have been massive movements, including widespread strike action. The neo-liberal cuts that workers in France, Germany and other countries are currently attempting to derail are very similar to the attacks that Thatcher and now Blair inflicted on workers here. Their victory can only help us in our struggle against cuts and privatisation.

At the same time we fight for a democratic, socialist Europe where the needs of working people come before the ruthless drive for profits by the multinational corporations. An international movement of working-class people could ensure that a continent could be built free from wage slavery, racism and discrimination - a socialist Europe based on human solidarity.

EU enlargement:

Workers Lose But Big Business Wins

ON 1 May the European Union (EU) expanded from 15 countries to 25. The ten new members, eight of which are former Stalinist states in Eastern and Central Europe, bring 75 million people into the EU, making it the world's biggest single market in population terms. But workers, east or west, do not stand to gain from an enlarged EU.

Karl Debbaut

For European big business this enlargement comes on the cheap. To be able to join the EU, countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have had to 'open up' their economies to Western multinationals, introduce new labour legislation to make hiring and firing easier and slash public spending on social security and benefits.

Working class people were told that this was necessary to attract foreign investment to create jobs and wealth. They were promised a higher living standard once the accession to the EU was assured; that they too would benefit from EU subsidies and that they would be granted the right to travel and work in existing EU member states.

Now enlargement has happened the reality is very dissapointing. The countries of Eastern Europe have attracted foreign investment as these countries offer a highly skilled workforce on very low wages.

Slovakia, for example, has become the centre of European car manufacturing. But this has not resulted in increasing the average monthly wage of e250 nor has it lead to a drop in unemployment which stands at 16%.

Instead, the multinationals, which now provide half of the manufacturing jobs in central Europe, are jumping ahead to countries like Romania, a candidate for EU membership in 2007, where the average wage is about e130.

Nor will the European Union take it upon itself to invest in these countries. The 2.7 million Polish farmers joining the European Union will only get a quarter of what French or British farmers receive in agricultural subsidies from the European Union.

The apocalyptic picture, as painted by the right-wing tabloids, of millions of 'benefit tourists' coming to Britain has not materialised and probably never will.

But, bowing to pressure, Britain, along with most other European members states, has imposed restrictions on the rights of people seeking access to the British labour market.

Cheap labour

At the same time, the capitalists are looking to use Eastern European workers as cheap labour, increasing the divisions and tensions between workers coming from different countries to lower wages and drive down working conditions even further.

All workers, regardless of their country of origin, should receive a decent living wage. Workers in Britain, through their trade unions and community campaigns, will need to actively campaign around the issues of pay and conditions. A campaign of working class unity could reach out and recruit new workers and block attempts to undermine our conditions.

This attitude is the opposite to that of Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC.

In an article in the Financial Times (30 April) he expressed support for the European Union, expansion and the freeing of the labour market as a way forward for European workers.

He claimed that EU legislation "is mostly about protecting workers' rights" and that the British government "has done the right thing in freeing the labour market". He wrote that, in the long run, free movement means higher productivity, fewer skills shortages and greater prosperity. This 'leader' would accept every dictat of the free market in our name.

We have to fight for working class solidarity across Europe; against a bosses' European Union of privatisation and job losses and for a socialist Europe with a future of job security, higher wages and living standards.

For more on EU enlargement and a socialist programme see

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 8 May 2004:

And They Call This Liberation

Socialist Party election campaign

New Labour's Education Crisis

Socialist Councillors: There Aren't Enough Of Them!

Fighting For Decent Homes

Socialist Party campaigns

Campaigning Against Low Pay In The Civil Service

Fighting Victimisation

FBU conference: Time To Break The Link With New Labour

The Winter of Discontent: When Workers Could Take No More

International socialist news and analysis

Strikes in Italy: Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

European Union Constitution - What's It All About?


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