Ireland's Lisbon result is not a defeat for the left

Submitted by martin on 6 October, 2009 - 2:40 Author: Editorial

For workers' unity across Europe

On 23 September thousands of GM workers from Germany joined Belgian carworkers to demonstrate in Antwerp against threatened job losses.

With capitalism more and more international, that sort of workers' unity across borders is more and more necessary. Yet Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, the main union representing GM (Vauxhall) workers in Britain, has made it his chief complaint that current plans are more favourable to German than to British GM workers: "Unite's concerns over Magna's plans are growing as it becomes clear that the cuts will not be shared fairly across GM's EU plants. Some 50% of the UK workforce would lose their jobs, while only 16% in Germany would go..."

That approach - where each national group of workers is called on first to worry about whether another national group is getting a less bad deal - can only divide workers and help bosses.

A sizeable part of the British trade-union movement, including the RMT rail union and the Unison public services union, still has a knee-jerk hostility to the European Union. The hostility is often expressed in talk about the European Union being capitalist, neo-liberal, and pro-privatisation. Since Britain is more uninhibitedly capitalist, neo-liberal, and privatising than any other major state in Europe, and would not be any less so if it were outside the EU, that can only be "the good reason".

Turn and twist as you like, support for getting Britain out of the EU, or reversing or stalling EU integration is not a reworded form of opposition to privatisation. It is what it is: support for higher barriers between nations. It is nationalist.

Ireland's vote on 3 October for the Lisbon Treaty confirms the conclusion. Did it mean that the Irish electorate had moved sharply to the right? Not at all.

The Irish government's cuts and plans to bail out the bankers are as unpopular as ever. Polls show just 11% happy with the Fianna Fail/ Green coalition government, and 85% dissatisfied.

Fianna Fail, the party which has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s, now ranks in the opinion polls with a lower core vote than the traditionally weak Irish Labour Party.

British politics shows us that opposition to the Lisbon Treaty is not a left-wing cause. The main anti-Lisbon party in Britain is the Tories.

The Lisbon Treaty is a scaled-down version of the draft European Union constitution which was dropped after a referendum in France rejected it in May 2005. Essentially it streamlines EU decision-making to make it manageable with the EU's expansion to 27 member states, and a little less opaque.

Socialists have good reason to prefer a democratic EU constitution to the Lisbon Treaty - a constitution decided by a democratic constituent assembly, giving sovereignty over EU decisions to an elected assembly, and levelling up workers', democratic, and social rights across Europe. We have no reason to prefer the status quo to the Lisbon Treaty.

Like almost all EU documents, the Lisbon Treaty restates the EU governments' joint commitment to what they all pursue separately - market capitalism and privatisation. That does not make a vote against the Lisbon Treaty any sort of blow against privatisation or market-oriented policies.

Yet in June 2008, when in a first referendum the Irish electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty, Socialist Worker wrote: "Irish voters have dealt a decisive blow to attempts to create a corporate, militarised European Union (EU) superstate". (So... we'll just have separate and competing corporate, militarised European states! Why would that be better?)

Socialist Worker and The Socialist used to be open about demanding British withdrawal from the European Union. Over the years, quietly, they have dropped that demand, but its ghost still haunts them, making them read every setback for EU integration as a triumph for the working class.

Describing the 2008 drive for a "no" vote as "the left campaign", Socialist Worker claimed that "the real faultline in the campaign was between those who favour a neo-liberal pro-business model and those who want to fight to achieve a more social, just and peaceful Europe".

The Socialist also saw Ireland's June 2008 "no" vote as "an important setback for the big business interests and the political elite who control the EU", centred on "issues of privatisation and workers' rights".

Likewise, when France rejected the original draft EU constitution (of which the Lisbon Treaty continues the essentials) in a referendum in May 2005, Socialist Worker hailed "a decisive defeat for this attempt by the ruling classes of the continent to hard-wire free market policies into European society"; and The Socialist, "a massive blow to the pro-big business politicians in France and Europe".

If all that was right, then the 3 October vote meant the people of Ireland decisively submitting to militarism, neo-liberalism, privatisation, and denial of workers' rights. Fortunately no such defeatist conclusions are justified. And the triumphalist conclusions about May 2005 and June 2008 were equally wrong.

The labour movement should reject such confusion and focus clearly on building workers' unity across the European Union.

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