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From The Socialist newspaper, 4 October 2007

Give us the right to reject...

EU's anti-working class 'reforms'

BITTER DIVISIONS over the European Union (EU) continue to gnaw at the mainstream political parties. And Gordon Brown is facing mounting demands for a referendum on the EU 'reform treaty', the replacement for the constitution thrown out by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005.

Manny Thain

It is a tricky decision for Brown as he tries to convince people of his commitment to 'open' and 'inclusive' politics. After all, New Labour promised at the 2005 general election that there would be a referendum. That manifesto pledge was part of a desperate attempt by Tony Blair to regain some popularity in freefall after the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, and faced with opposition to the onslaught on public services.

In the event, Blair's government was let off the hook. The 'no' votes in the French and Dutch referenda meant that the constitution was unceremoniously dumped, making a referendum in Britain no longer necessary. EU officials and government ministers then cobbled together a 'reform treaty'.

Brown now opposes a referendum. This is not a point of principle but is based entirely on political expediency. Brown faces both ways at once. He says that this is a treaty tweaking current rules, not a substantial constitution. Therefore, a referendum is not needed (and the election promise has not been broken).

Yet he also says that the opt-outs won by Blair make the treaty/constitution safe for Britain, implying that it is indeed a far-reaching treaty. The upshot of it is that Brown intends to push it through parliament, which has no power to amend the treaty/constitution.

Brown opposes a referendum because he fears the treaty would be defeated the most likely outcome. Indeed, most pro-referendum people are opposed to the treaty. Tory leader, David Cameron, by arguing for a referendum, is hoping to provoke divisions within New Labour, which he can exploit to raise his own pathetic poll ratings.

On the other hand, Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem leader, confused everyone, including his own party, by agreeing with Brown that a referendum was not needed on the treaty, then proposing a referendum on whether Britain should be in or out of the EU instead.

Big business club

WITH CUSTOMARY timidity, the TUC conference in September passed a resolution backing a referendum, while rejecting a resolution from the RMT (rail, maritime and transport) union which called for a 'no' vote in a referendum.

The TUC's opposition is to Blair's famous 'red lines'. At the last EU summit, Blair ensured that a 'UK specific protocol' was inserted, allowing the British government to opt out of some clauses. In terms of legislation, this treaty is a further step back for workers in Europe, even in the context of the pro-big business EU programme.

In the UK, the situation would be worse still, as with Blair and Brown's opt-outs, the chapter on social rights in the treaty will have no legal force in British courts. The treaty pushes the neo-liberal march ever onwards.

In reality, legislation and international treaties are never enough to safeguard workers' wages and conditions. Reforms and progressive laws need to be fought for and defended. But, ultimately, working-class people can rely only on their own independent industrial and political strength, collective organisation and action to fight for their interests.

The Netherlands government has just decided not to hold another referendum. The Dutch people will not be allowed to 'get it wrong' again. Although the coalition government of Christian Democrats and the Labour Party should get this through, it could pay a heavy price in lost voter support.

In the 2005 referendum, 85% of Dutch MPs were in favour of the treaty, but 62% of the electorate voted against. The polls continue to show consistently low support for the EU, and just how out of touch the politicians are.

Referenda have great limitations in 'letting the people have their say'. Campaigns are dominated by the mass media and the establishment political machines. There is little room for the voice of the working class.

Nevertheless, people should not be denied the opportunity to reject the proposed treaty in a referendum. With all the talk being about whether Brown will call an early general election, such a referendum is not on the agenda immediately. It could, however, be a factor during an election campaign.

This latest proposed EU treaty is a continuation of the neo-liberal, anti-working class project which is at the heart of the EU: a continental big-business club. It pushes privatisation and cuts in social services. In the event of a referendum it would be in workers' interests to vote 'no'.

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In The Socialist 4 October 2007:

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Socialist Party news and analysis

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