Democracy, Ireland And The EU

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

Author: Andy Storey

The Problem with Europe

The core problem with the European Union (EU) is not that it takes power away from the national level and transfers it to Brussels. The core problem is the way in which that power is then exercised: for the advancement of neo-liberal economic policies that are prejudicial to the public good and antithetical to democracy. Neo-liberal policies (such as the promotion of privatisation) erode democracy by transferring decision-making away from state structures that are subject to potential democratic influence or control and into the hands of unelected and unaccountable corporate agents. The EU, in particular, has helped institutionalise what Stephen Gill has dubbed ‘disciplinary neo-liberalism’. Neo-liberal economic policies are locked politically, and often legally, into the present structure of the EU. Examples of such policies are as follows:

  • An activist competition policy at EU level acts against exclusive state provision of certain goods and services, and limits state aid that would distort the ‘level playing field’ of competition.
  • In certain sectors (such as telecommunications, high-speed trains, and the services sector as a whole) the EU has actively and directly promoted processes of liberalisation, especially through the issuing of legal directives to national authorities.
  • Monetary policy is administered by an ‘independent’ (from electoral pressure) European Central Bank (ECB) with an anti-inflationary mandate, but with little or no concern for issues of growth and employment. This deflationary bias retards European economic growth and depresses employment, as is especially evident at present when a strategy of raising interest rates compounds the downturn caused by the global credit crisis.
  • Fiscal monitoring by the EU Commission through the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) seeks to limit (to 3 per cent of national income) states’ capacities to run fiscal deficits, even when these would be justified by the need to lift an economy out of recession.
  • The negotiation of international agreements by EU authorities, such as through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), binds European countries into the global liberalisation of trade in goods and services. The EU also seeks to bind other countries into such liberalisation; for example, through the negotiation of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with poor countries in Africa and elsewhere. (To add weight to its global aspirations, the EU is seeking to develop ever greater opportunities and resources for military action overseas).

Of course, the EU may sometimes be used as a convenient fig-leaf for governments wishing to implement neo-liberal policies but preferring to be seen as only doing so in response to ‘external’ (in this case, EU) pressure. National governments and other international actors also play their parts, and significant national differences persist in certain policy areas. But, the EU is one channel through which neo-liberalism is promoted and a significant one in many respects.

Part of its significance lies simply in its scale. Most starkly, having a regional rather than a national currency ensures that currency devaluation is off most national agendas. The structure of European regionalism tries to ensure that no one state can go ‘soft’ and make concessions to its own working class during a downturn (e.g. by devaluation or deficit spending beyond a certain level). Instead, adjustment costs must be borne through adjustments in wages and in the ‘social wage’ of the welfare state.

(Partial) Resistance to Neo-liberalism

This does not mean that regional governance in Europe has to be neo-liberal in character. The present transfer of power from national to regional level has facilitated the imposition of a neo-liberal model, but it could equally have facilitated alternative sets of policies and practices. Indeed, the scale of the European project could itself have been used as a bulwark to protect Europe’s existing social entitlements: the size of the EU makes it potentially better able then any individual national state to defend social gains under globalisation. That the EU has not developed in such a direction represents not an inevitable feature of European integration, but, instead, a failure of progressive politics.

However, progressive politics are not dead. There is emerging evidence of reaction against the EU’s neo-liberal project. This was evident in the mass mobilisation against the so-called Bolkenstein Directive to fully liberalise the EU’s internal market in services, and was also seen by some observers to have played a large role in the defeat of the EU Constitution in 2005’s referenda in France and the Netherlands and in Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. The extent to which the ‘no’ votes in the Netherlands and France can be interpreted as left-wing is debatable, though left-wing sentiment certainly played a role, more so in France than in the Netherlands.

In Ireland in 2008, as with the 2005 votes in the Netherlands and France, voting was heavily class-correlated, with the self-employed, professionals, and senior managers disproportionately represented on the ‘yes’ side. Mirroring the experience of the French Socialist Party in 2005, a large majority of Irish Labour Party supporters voted against the Treaty despite the party leadership’s support for it. A number of left-wing groups campaigned actively against the Treaty (as, for very different reasons, did some prominent businessmen and a range of social conservatives).

According to a Eurobarometer survey, the main Irish reasons for voting ‘no’ to Lisbon were a lack of information (cited by 22 per cent of those voting ‘no’) and a desire to protect Irish identity (cited by 12 per cent). Concerns about Irish entanglement in European military arrangements played a part in the ‘no’ vote, as also did more general concerns about democratic accountability – these can be at least partially interpreted as left-wing concerns, though they are not necessarily exclusively so. However, specifically right-wing concerns (such as perceived EU threats to Ireland’s ban on abortion and its low rate of corporation profits tax) equally played some part in the outcome.

The Limits to Change

A vital question is whether these French, Dutch, and Irish votes helped advance the left-wing projects to which the voters (even if only partially) subscribed. They may not do so if ‘no’ voters are only seeking to protest against European threats to national rights and protections. This is an essentially defensive strategy, which does not necessarily seek to undermine and transform the (Europe-wide) source of these threats. Opposition to existing EU policies and structures, of course, makes perfect sense from a left-wing perspective, but, insofar as the opposition remains defensive, it offers little hope of transforming those policies and structures. The most critical drawback of this approach is that it leaves the overarching EU framework in place: regional governance remains predominantly neo-liberal.

Much of the opposition, including in Ireland, wishes to retreat from the damaging effects of the EU, rather than to engage with and change the EU itself, or to help construct alternative Europe-wide governance modalities that would not be neo-liberal in character. How sustainable this essentially reactive strategy can be is a moot point, especially as the forces committed to neo-liberalism (the Commission, the ECB, corporate interests, etc.) remain determinedly intent on pushing through neo-liberal policies at the EU level. Are there then European-level forces with a prospect of forcing significant movement to the Left?

The trade unions have a decidedly mixed record of engaging with EU-level politics, as writers such as Andreas Bieler and Roland Erne have documented. And what engagement there has been has tended towards the containment of the unions within corporatist structures, rather than a serious challenging of neo-liberal policies. The Maastricht Treaty established frameworks for the ‘social partners’, including the unions, to be consulted on some issues, a process that generated subsequent agreements on parental leave and part-time employment. A Works Council Directive facilitated a degree of employee consultation in some companies, though with minimal results. In return for these meagre gains, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and most of its affiliates have made their accommodations with neo-liberalism, promoting ‘social partnership’ and labour market flexibility. (In similar vein, the support of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for the Lisbon Treaty rested on spurious claims that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would significantly enhance workers’ rights, while ignoring the unambiguously neo-liberal thrust of the Treaty as a whole).

The same is largely true of the traditional Left political parties, including the Irish Labour Party. The claimed social democratic gains of integration largely consist of promises and vague commitments, not substantive achievements. The French socialists, for example, ensured an employment chapter was added to the Amsterdam Treaty, but this does not translate into any influence over the Stability and Growth Pact or the ECB, whilst attempts to ensure a more substantial EU social policy to compensate for the SGP’s national-level fiscal constraints failed. While the social democratic parties have ‘sold’ participation in the EU to their constituencies as a means of achieving social democracy at the regional level, the practice has been of retrenchment of social democracy’s aims and achievements at both national and European level.

And yet, most of the mainstream ‘Left’ continues to slavishly endorse EU integration of a mainly neo-liberal nature rather than posit an alternative at the European level. There may be increasing electoral prices to be paid for this approach. But, in most cases, where will the votes lost by the traditional Left parties, where such losses occur, go? There is no guarantee that anti-integrationist voters may not drift towards the extreme Right, which could well end up the principal beneficiary of anti-EU sentiment.

There is a fundamental disconnection here: those such as the ETUC and the traditional Social Democratic parties who engage with the European project do not do so critically enough; those who are critical, such as many Dutch, French, and Irish voters, do not necessarily wish to engage. Meanwhile, the forces of the EU state and corporate power are able to drive the neo-liberal project forward.

Part of the power of this project has lain in its ability to close itself off from democratic influence and accountability, to render its decisions and practices non-transparent and immune from mass pressure. A natural reaction, then, is for people to turn away from a project that appears set on a certain course regardless of what electorates have to say on the matter. Irish and Danish voters were asked to vote again when they registered the ‘wrong’ outcomes in EU Treaty referenda. Dutch and French voters are entitled to believe that their ‘no’ votes on the Constitution had no impact on the course of European politics given that the Lisbon Treaty was essentially a rehash of the defeated Constitution. If commentators such as Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins have their way, the Irish Lisbon vote will likewise be disregarded and the Treaty ratified without recourse to even a second referendum! It is not surprising that large swathes of the European population react by turning away in disgust from this elitist and undemocratic charade. Unfortunately, turning away does not derail the project.

Improving the Prospects for Change: Taking the Battle to Europe

There are, however, as previously mentioned, signs of how that derailing could be brought about. French workers in their millions have successfully protested against proposed new anti-labour (or labour market ‘flexibility’) legislation. The opposition of powerful public service workers in France and many German unions to the expenditure cut-backs mandated by the SGP criteria has meant that leading European governments have been unable to keep their budget deficits within the terms set by the SGP, and those terms have consequently had to be loosened somewhat. This reflects the failure to persuade the populations of those countries that they must accept the dictates of European ‘disciplinary neo-liberalism’. The goal – to put in place regional institutions to ensure that national states cannot make their own compromises to class conflict – has not been fully realised. Hope, as Peter Gowan puts it, lies in the fact that ‘continental European labour, above all in France, has increasingly grasped what the new EU project is all about’. Inevitably, this growing awareness is placing pressure on trade union movements to adopt a more oppositional stance towards EU neo-liberalism.

Mass opposition to the Bolkenstein Directive, aimed at liberalising trade in services within the EU, was a positive example of EU-wide mobilisation, even if it did not prove wholly successful. The fate of attempts to liberalise EU port services in 2006-the so-called Port Directive – is another very promising development. Dock workers’ strikes were organised across Europe a week before a critical EU Parliament vote, while public protests were held in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Belgium. On the day the Directive was being debated in Strasbourg, between 6,000 and 10,000 protesters took to the streets of that city in protests that, despite a media focus on violence, were largely peaceful and effective. MEPs rejected the Directive by an overwhelming majority. This was an example of Europe-wide action to kill off a liberalising assault at its source, rather than react against it at the national level after the fact of its implementation.

A revitalised European trade union movement willing to follow such an approach could tap into the constituency of ‘new social movements’, which also have a contestatory relationship with the existing European project. The (uneven but real) degree of cooperation evident between (some) trade unions and the social movements organised within various European Social Forums (ESFs) provides a possible model here, especially in their shared prioritisation of resistance to privatisation or otherwise allowing public services to be transformed into new realms of capital accumulation. Assessments of the ESFs emphasise the extent to which participants, despite their differences, remain broadly unified around rejection of neo-liberal globalisation. The European Federation of Public Service Unions has shown particular promise in its efforts to link up with other social movements in order to resist neo-liberal restructuring of the public sector.

But, and this is the part that some opponents of actually existing European integration, including in Ireland, may find hardest to swallow, a radical policy for social Europe needs to be European. The emergent Left opposition to neo-liberal Europe needs, perhaps paradoxically, to engage with Europe as never before. Of course, the struggle may often have to take a national character, such as opposition to the transposition of a particular EU-initiated policy into the national arena, or opposition to the ratification of a neo-liberal constitution or treaty (such as the Lisbon Treaty). But rejection of existing policies, as partially occurred in the French and Dutch rejections of the EU Constitution and Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, is of limited value if it seeks only to fill the moat and pull up the drawbridges against integration. The national castle will remain under siege from neo-liberalising forces at the EU level while being undermined from within by those national forces sympathetic to the existing European project. The battle, while attentive to national circumstances and priorities, needs to be taken to Europe – to the EU itself and also to alternative Europe-wide networks, such as those represented in the ESFs. This has to include the articulation of an alternative European project, a different way of organising how Europe is governed.

Some of the elements of this alternative project are fairly evident. They include:

  • an expansionary monetary policy;
  • a facility for deficit spending over and above SGP criteria (including increased social spending by the EU itself, perhaps facilitated by an EU-wide taxation system);
  • the harmonisation upwards of workers’ rights and standards of environmental protection;
  • an insistence on the value of public ownership and provision (at national or regional level) of public services;
  • the re-regulation of financial markets, a position likely to be become ever more popular as global financial crises reveal the growing dangers of not supervising these markets;
  • a development-friendly external policy that would prioritise global poverty reduction over the interest of European corporations;
  • the reversal of trends towards European militarisation and a commitment to non-violent conflict resolution.

In many of these demands, Left forces would expect to draw support from centrist and liberal commentators, increasingly disillusioned with the current governance project. Even that most enthusiastic advocate of EU integration, Jurgen Habermas, has recently felt obliged to call for the European project to be ‘reprogrammed according to a different, more citizen-based, mode of politics [that does not] close off alternatives to the market liberalism that has prevailed up to this point’. The Left can adopt such a programme as an interim objective in a longer-term ‘war of position’, aimed at ultimately securing more fundamental degrees of economic democracy.

Conclusion: Towards Post-National Politics?

Is there support in Ireland for the attempt to construct such a programme? There may be. Eighty per cent of Irish ‘no’ voters to Lisbon expressed support for Ireland’s membership of the EU; in fact, one post-referendum survey found that over 40 per cent of ‘no’ voters claimed to favour closer EU integration over protection of Irish independence from the EU. These findings indicate at least potential Irish support for opposition to neo-liberal Europe that is at the same time willing to engage with Europe; as this article has argued, this is essential if the neo-liberal project is to be countered and reversed.

And who knows where such engagement could lead? As Roland Erne comments, ‘People start recognising that they belong to the same polity as soon as they begin to act together, even if they might contest its policies’. Identities are forged through struggle. It could well be that the struggle to democratise and socialise Europe will create the very sense of European identity-even a European polis – commonly claimed to be lacking at present. The struggle may (indeed it must) ultimately move well beyond the confines of national democracy and become one concerned with regional and, ultimately, global justice, citizenship, and rights.

This article is a revised and shortened version of ‘The Ambiguity of Resistance: Opposition to Neo-liberalism in Europe’, Capital and Class, No. 96, Autumn 2008.

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2008