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Review: The Lisbon treaty – The left search for the magic bullet

John McAnulty

1 May 2008

Reasons to VOTE NO to the Lisbon treaty. Kieran Allen, Bookmarks, Dublin €5-00
Lisbon treaty - VOTE NO Campaign against the European constitution (CAEUC) Dublin, €2-00

These two booklets represent a good deal of research and are well worth buying simply to share the fruits of that research.  There are differences in the quality of the writing (the SWP booklet is much more clearly written) and perspective (the SWP booklet is much more clearly reportage and an historical account of the development of the Lisbon treaty, the CAEUC booklet directed more towards a legal and textual analysis of treaty documents).

Despite these stylistic differences the booklets are, in terms of political perspective, clones of each other.  This political identity reflects the broad political consensus on the Irish left, a soggy liberalism that makes both publications, and the organisations behind them, shy away from the conclusions of their own research and plump for a strategy of opportunist electoralism and a programme based on a timid labourism.

Both booklets have the same starting point – a perceived democratic deficit that the Irish referendum will fill and an opportunity that Irish workers can seize upon.  A few moments reflection will tell us that this is quite a suspect argument.  It is of course good that the population of the 26 county state will have a vote on this issue, but would it be democratic for this population to decide the fate of Europe?  For 4.5 million to decide the fate of 450?  Clearly not.  There is no chance that an Irish No vote would lead to the leaders of European capital to shrug their shoulders wistfully and abandon the Lisbon treaty.  The Irish workers know this already, having being forced to vote again when they voted the ‘wrong’ way in the Nice referendum and with the example of the much more forceful rejection of the French and Dutch working class of the European constitution – a rejection that, as both booklets point out in detail, the Lisbon treaty is designed to overturn.

So, on the analysis presented, there is no possibility at all of an Irish vote being decisive. At most a No vote would represent a temporary barricade that would allow time to develop a more determined resistance across Europe.  The presentations thus begin with a mystery. They present a single strategy, a No vote, as a magic bullet that will bring down European capitalism and make no attempt to discuss the weaknesses of this strategy or the ways in which the campaign could develop and progress a more general resistance.

As is the way with the SWP, they no sooner present the mystery than they resolve it.  By the end of the introduction they have informed us that the No vote enables us to choose between two alternatives, presented by Kieran Allan as a series of choices. Do we want a Europe that acts for business or for the population? One that is for war or against war? One that is democratic or one that is undemocratic? (p 8)  These fatuous choices do not exist.  The Lisbon treaty is the treaty of capitalism.  No significant section of European capital opposes this programme, which deforms all of society in the interests of capitalism and is undemocratic and militarist.  Any global defeat of the treaty means the defeat of the capitalists and the resurgence of the working class.  The SWP leadership know this but are unwilling to say so, and this undermines the integrity of the booklet.

However it is as an account of the evolution of the Lisbon treaty that the SWP booklet comes into its own.  It outlines the formation of a capitalist policy group, the European Round Table, that set out to win the neoliberal agenda. (p 10) ‘Distortions’ to the market had to be removed – that is, regulations that protected workers rights. The market had to be ‘depoliticised’ by removing democratic controls and important way to do this would be to create supranational bodies that would be outside the remit of national democratic structures.  Ironically the booklet documents the role of the European Trade union leaderships in pushing this project forward in the name of social partnership in return for ‘social chapters’- legislation that turned out to be almost meaningless.  The SWP draw no lessons from this account about fighting the union bureaucracy on a local or national level.

They do however provide a damning analysis of the aims of European capital and the extent to which those aims have been put into effect.

The aim of the European round table is to remove 'distortion' - that is, any restriction on capital. Mechanisms for doing that are placed within the Lisbon treaty. 'Services of general interest' (in practice the police and army) are exempted from the rules of the market. 'Services of general economic interest' such as health, education and water services are to subject to privatisation without restriction, with the EU leadership given the power to override national opposition. (p 25) All restrictions on the movement of capital are prohibited but an outcome such as mass unemployment may be taken into account (it doesn't have to be). A key plank of the treaty is an 'independent' central bank, free of all controls. (p32)

The removal of restrictions on capital extends to new powers to make war. The pretence of Irish neutrality is to be swept away by a common security and defence policy. 'Battle groups', a concept developed by Bush aide Donald Rumsfeld, are to be put in place with the task of peace making - that is, waging war. The treaty requires governments to increase spending on war and to fund private research into new weapons aimed mainly at civilian insurgency. The new proposals, and links with NATO, breach Irish neutrality. The Dail has responded with a new law allowing the army to be deployed 'near' a war zone. (p39)

The existing structure of the EU is fairly well known. The parliament controls nothing. The commission enforces. The council of the national governments rules. In practice the 
major powers and capital itself rules. The Lisbon treaty extends the power of capital in line with the round table recommendations that capital be freed from any appearance of restriction by democracy.

The treaty creates a new President, standing above democratic structures, creates a foreign minister, also above democratic structures, and whole new diplomatic corps.  The EU will become a legal entity, able to represent itself as superstate on the world stage.  Many European intellectuals have begun to describe the EU as a 'post democratic society’. A number of these intellectuals approve! (p 54)

The SWP booklet provides a devastating description of a merciless attack on the working class which is to be sealed by the adoption of the European constitution in the form of the Lisbon treaty. It lacks any analysis and, partly because of this, it collapses when it attempts to propose an alternative.

This is most evident when the document sets out to refute arguments for the Yes camp. By far the strongest argument is put forward, not by the capitalists, but by the trade union bureaucracy and Labour parties, both locally and across Europe. That argument hinges around social partnership and the 'social chapters' built into the various treaties that claim to protect the worker and provide the cover for union and labour party support for the various treaties and the constitution. (p 68)

The SWP booklet demolishes that argument.  The European court, adjudicating in a Swedish case, found that the social chapters did indeed give the right to take industrial action, but that this right did not extend to harming the competitiveness of the target firm! In other words, the 'rights' granted by the social chapter are figments! (p 70)

It is at this point that the booklet descends into incoherence.  Having put in a great deal of research to demonstrate the global nature of the capitalist offensive contained in the Lisbon treaty, it goes on to establish that the leading organisations claiming to represent the working class are complicit in the attack but then passes over this to propose a campaign not aimed at the working class and including many forces themselves complicit in the offensive.

So the fight against the treaty will come from the left - defined in the booklet as Sinn Fein, Labour youth, the SWP and Socialist party. The SWP's People Before profit alliance is given a vicarious life of its own and the list would have included the Green party if they had not joined government and endorsed a yes vote. (p 63)

This list, and the idea of campaigning it rests on, is so far removed from the tasks the socialists need to address as to be almost unanswerable.  Sinn Fein is a party of the right, seeking an opportunity to refurbish a radical image after exposing itself in the last election. Socialists should be trying to expose them, not help them on board. Labour youth should be asked to break from a labour party that supports Lisbon.  Instead the left asks Greens like Patricia McKenna to climb on board, even though they declare loyalty to a leadership in the government leading the offensive!

The explanation is to be found in the booklet’s analysis of the French vote.  “The French vote terrified the rulers across Europe”, it claims. (p73)  This analysis is supported by the assertion that there is a history of French workers defeating attacks on wages and attempts to cut social services by mass mobilisation and industrial action and that left unity made possible the no vote against the European constitution – a vote that was of the left in the sense that that it did not assert national sovereignty and an alliance with the right, rejected attacks on migrants and called for a social Europe as opposed to a neo-liberal Europe.  The task posed is to replicate the French experience in Ireland and achieve an identical outcome in a no vote.  The mechanism is left unity, explaining the somewhat bizarre alliance proposed by the SWP and operated in practice by the Irish socialist movement.

But there are reasons for doubting all this.  If the French referendum struck terror into the heart of European capital why are they about to calmly reverse the vote in the Lisbon treaty with very little fuss?  If the French vote was so significant were where the mass demonstrations when the French parliament ratified the Lisbon treaty?

It is true that attempts to cut the wage rate for young people and change welfare rates were defeated though mass mobilisation.  This indicates the high level of combativity within the working class in France.  This combativity is not accompanied by a high level of class consciousness.  The left were not able to benefit from this combativity in the general elections that followed – elections that saw the victory of Sarkosy and a programme to press ahead with attacks on the workers. A general strike against the Sarkosy programme was defeated through the collaboration of the union bureaucracy – Sarkosy openly offered them a form of social partnership if they would capitulate, as they promptly did.  The level of consciousness was so low that they we able to do this without protest not only from the workers, but also from the socialists!

In fact the French events are much more easily understood as a collapse of the left.  They became facilitators of the bureaucracy instead of its critics and endorsed the existing consciousness of the workers instead of seeking to expand that consciousness.   They largely abandoned the call for independent class organisation and action and focused on an electoral opportunism.  Anything familiar to remind us of the Irish experience?

The weakness of the left is shown most clearly in the French no campaign.  They boast that this is a left campaign, but it had no socialist demands nor calls for workers to organise independently.  The call for unity was made by an ‘anti-neoliberal’ think tank, Foundation Copernic, not by a socialist movement.  The unity programme, for a social Europe, was not a demand for socialism but a demand for a better form of capitalism, a demand adopted uncritically by the left. The outcome was an electoral triumph which evaporated like snow on the ditch, leaving not even the nucleus of workers self-organisation.

This is the fatal flaw at the heart of the document.  It opposed a neo-liberal Europe only to counterpose – a nicer Europe!  This does not require the self-organisation of the working class and this is not proposed.  Instead we have a proposal that the EU use its new authority (a new authority that it would only achieve through the passing of the Lisbon treaty) to force national governments to offer pensions, childcare, health care and holidays. The campaign is to call on this nicer Europe to produce “a charter that gives real social rights” – presumably nothing at all like the plethora of social chapters that the unions and social democracy have already established. This nonsense is presumably put forward on the grounds that a call for working class power is unrealistic but that a call for a kinder capitalism is hard-headed realism! 

This programmatic pipe-dream is to be brought into being by a rag tag and bobtail alliance that focuses only on an electoral fight – grounds on which the workers will make no advance but where forces like the Greens and Sinn Fein can grow and block a working class advance.

Of course, even this is the stuff of dreams.  There is in Ireland nothing like the large liberal milieu on which so many NGOs are based and that provided the ground for the No campaign.  What we have in Ireland is a tiny left making kiss-kiss noises at each other and proclaiming unity around a liberal programme while in reality all running separate campaigns that they hope will give them an electoral base and eventually propel them into the Dail.  The vote on Lisbon will be Yes or it will be No. All we can be sure of is that it will have nothing to do with the machinations of this imaginary alliance. 

This review has concentrated on the SWP booklet. It is well written and well researched, let down by its failure to make socialism the alternative for the working class.  Little has been said about the CEAUC booklet.  As I argue in the introduction, it is a political clone of the SWP booklet, not as well written.  It has one strength – its research into the legal evolution of the book and a massive weakness – a legalist approach that descends into legalism with the argument that, once the constitution becomes law, we will be unable to defeat it.   “we need to be very careful what powers we transfer and what policies go into EU treaties – we won’t be able to change them later” (CAEUC, p5). This passive legalist defeatism, which permeates the booklet, is especially annoying as the document is full of examples of Irish capitalism circumventing its own laws and constitution with impunity.  In the world of legalism the paralysis of the working class may well be a fact.  In the world of class struggle the working class have the power to do what it wishes – including nullifying the Lisbon treaty, breaking up capitalist Europe, indeed, breaking up capitalism itself!

Calling on workers to take up these tasks is what socialism is all about, and what is most striking about these booklets, overwhelming their strengths, is their failure to make that call.


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