European Union: not so cordiale

Last year Prime Minister Blair and President Chirac celebrated the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, an agreement settling disputes over colonial possessions and paving the way to Franco-British co-operation in the lead-up to the First World War. A year on and the celebrations are for Britain’s triumphs at Trafalgar (1805), Waterloo (1815) and, to cap it all, Singapore (2005), where London triumphed over Paris for the 2012 Olympics. It was all too much for President Chirac to stomach; he sneered at English cooking, insulted the haggis and remarked that the Olympic committee could ‘trust France’, implying that Perfidious Albion was untrustworthy. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

This descent into national stereotyping might be mildly amusing if it were not for the very unfunny ruling classes that it serves. With European capitalism in crisis its ruling classes are tempted to retreat from pan-European collaboration to national chauvinism. In the context of rivalry with the dominant US ruling class this is unsustainable.

The French voted No to the European Union constitutional treaty on 29 May, followed by the Dutch No on 1 June. The British government then said it would defer a referendum. Chirac had campaigned for a Yes vote. The Labour government breathed a sigh of relief at the No votes, pleased at not having to choose between a consolidated EU and a less integrated alliance favoured by the US. Blair was happy not to campaign for a Yes vote which he would most likely lose.

Blair and Chirac then clashed on Britain’s EU rebate at the Brussels EU summit. France and 23 of the now 25 EU countries demanded an end to the rebate, a repayment from Britain’s EU budget contributions, originally negotiated by Mrs Thatcher. Blair refused to surrender the rebate and insisted that the Common Agricultural Programme (CAP) be reformed. Behind these manoeuvres are different factions of the European bourgeoisie contending for power in Europe, seeking to assert their own versions of European imperialism in the context of an accumulation crisis.

Since 2000 the EU’s annual economic growth rate has been about 1.5%, less than half that proposed at the 2000 Lisbon summit. Unemployment in the 15 older EU member states has risen from 7.4% in 2001 to 8.1% in 2004. French unemployment is 10.2%, German 11.7%, Dutch 6.6% and Britain’s official unemployment rate is 4.7%. Average unemployment in the ten new member states is 14.4%. Part- time workers constitute 15% of the French workforce, 20% of Germany’s, 35% of Dutch workers and almost a quarter of Britain’s workforce. Women form over three-quarters of part-time workers in each of these countries. The share of wages in the EU’s gross domestic product has fallen from 73.4% in 1962 to 68% in 2004. Profits have correspondingly risen as a proportion of incomes from under 25% to almost 33%. Nevertheless, EU investment has grown only 0.5% a year for 2000-04, while in the 12 euro-zone countries it fell by 0.2% a year. (John Grahl, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2005). This is the real EU crisis and cause of ruling class divisions.

In Socialist Review (July/August 2005), Alex Callinicos describes the French No vote as rebellion against EU elites, ‘The astonishing achievement of the campaign for a left No – a coalition of Socialist Party dissidents, the Communist Party, altermondialistes [anti-globalisation campaigners] and the revolutionary left – was that they made neo-liberalism the central issue of the referendum...One French Marxist told me it was the first real victory for the left in more than 20 years.’ The proposed constitution certainly placed the rights of money above those of labour and deserved to be defeated. However, the stand against neo-liberalism became a defence of the ‘French social model’ that has pushed millions of workers into unemployment and increased racial oppression. Defence of national sovereignty mingled with anti-US chauvinism, anti-globalisation merged with calls for protectionism against Chinese imports, talk of Polish plumbers taking French jobs and the need to stop Turkey joining the EU to stop worse happening. 42% of French No voters said ‘there are too many foreigners in France’ compared to 21% of Yes voters. 80% of French blue-collar workers and 60% of white-collar workers voted No. They rejected what they correctly saw as an attack upon them, but it is a tainted victory for the French working class to be allied with the chauvinism that propelled the National Front No vote.

The popular Mr Blair
On 1 July Britain took over the EU presidency for six months. Pointing to Britain’s relatively lower unemployment rate the Labour government will champion the interests of multinational corporations and banks across the EU. Methods of calculating British unemployment have been repeatedly adjusted to produce figures with little resemblance to reality. Regardless of this and regardless of the fact that unemployment in Britain is increasing, the British government will promote Britain as a model for others to follow. This means the removal of rights that offer protection for workers in the wealthiest EU countries and preventing the transfer of such rights to the new EU member countries.

Blair was praised by Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of French employers’ group Medef: ‘I can’t hide the fact that from the business side, we see a strong leader in Tony Blair.’ Seilliere sees Blair building on Thatcher’s legacy and lamented the French No vote, ‘15 million people worked in French private companies, but some went to the café after work and said “Down with capitalism”’ (Financial Times, 29 June 2005). Britain has more and bigger multinationals than any other EU country, with more overseas assets, and the City dwarfs other European financial centres. Consequently, sections of the European ruling classes will seek alliances with the British bourgeoisie to promote their own interests. A priority is to make central and eastern Europe a source of cheap labour and an export market for capital, services and goods. They must also attack their own domestic working classes.

The British Labour government calls for reform of the CAP. Total developed OECD countries’ subsidies to agricultural producers in 2004 were $380 billion, of which the EU’s were $133 billion. They amounted to 33% of EU farm incomes. Such European subsidies were originally introduced after the Second World War to buy loyalty from social classes regarded as unreliable and potentially pro-communist. Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown criticised these subsidies for their impact on underdeveloped countries’ economies; preventing sugar exports for example. However, the Labour government is most selective in what and when it chooses to target. It acts not out of altruism but out of self-interest.

In 2002 the British government blocked an EU proposal limiting the amount of subsidies to approximately £200,000 a year per farm. Last year sugar multinational Tate and Lyle received a £120 million subsidy and, according to Oxfam, the Dukes of Bedford, Westminster and Marlborough received a combined £120 an hour. This year the Labour government refused to allow any contributions to the new east European member countries’ agriculture and called for a free market in farm produce. 40% of Poland’s 40 million people live in the countryside. Exposing central and eastern European farming to a so-called free market is a recipe for chaos and poverty, but this is what the clamour for profit demands.

British capitalism, with Blair as its figurehead, is fighting to assert its position among the European bourgeoisie and stand as an independent imperialist power, depending on the global role of the City to elevate its status. At the same time it seeks to maintain the alliance with US imperialism. Rivalry between the US ruling class and those of France and Germany will push the British ruling class to choose between them and when it does the City’s role will diminish. For the European left we can have no siding with any version of capitalism, French, British or whatever. All are based on imperialism and as such are necessarily racist and oppress other nations.

FRFI 186 August / September 2005


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