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Neo-liberal drift with constitution

EU Constitution would mean no anti-war vote and block a social Europe says Dutch MP Harry van Bommel.

Harry van Bommel has a message for the British left. "Vote no to the EU Constitution, and vote yes to democracy", he says. The Dutch Socialist MP was speaking at a meeting of the Centre for a Social Europe, the newly formed left-wing campaign for EU reform, as part of a tour of Europe's progressive movements on the issue. He sees the proposed Constitution as the starting point for a debate on the very future of Europe, the importance of which has yet to be realised among Europe's diverse and often divided left-wing movements.

His detailed understanding of the Constitution's text and his placing of it within the ideological direction the EU is taking is a stark contrast to the level of the debate so far in Britain, a point he acknowledges.

To many on the left it is simply a case of being for Europe not against it. "But this Europe is their Europe, not our Europe", counters van Bommel. "There are different visions of Europe - of public services or privatisation for example, and now we can have a democratic choice. This is an instrument to start a debate on the future of the EU - we can't leave it to the neo-liberals."

The neo-liberal drift of the European Constitution is a recurring theme - one that is influenced by a similar drift in Dutch politics, much of which will sound familiar to British readers.

"The privatisation of district nursing led to mile long waiting lists for people to get the care they were entitled to. In this case privatisation was made undone. After ratification of the European Constitution, this will be forbidden." It is a similar story with the national railway company, which like Britain's has been privatised, and likewise with once socially-provided dental care.

"After five years, you can tell what people earn by looking at their teeth. This neo-liberal model is enshrined in this Constitution. The foundations are being laid for a Europe in which the free market rules."

This goes to the heart of van Bommel's argument - that the so-called Constitution does not restrict itself to setting out the political structures and processes of the European Union but actually prescribes policy across many of the EU's competences. Its stated goal is 'an internal market within which competition is free and unhindered' and the monetarist economics of the euro are given constitutional status.

"This is not a constitution, it is a political programme," concludes van Bommel. And it is not only the neo-liberal economic policy it enforces that exercises him.

"Member states will be obliged to expand their military. That is unheard of in a document that calls itself constitution. European countries are forced to spend more money on the defence budget."

The EU Constitution contains an Article - largely ignored in the mainstream British media - on defence, setting up an EU Armaments Agency to drive up defence spending and compelling member states to 'progressively improve their military capabilities' so that EU countries pull their weight in NATO.

"The constitution clearly states this connection," warns van Bommel, "and thus the connection of the EU to the US. There will be no room for a neutral position outside NATO, like Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Cyprus and Malta have."

Under a Qualified Majority Voting system the EU would not have had a majority against the Iraq war and van Bommel dismisses any suggestion that the Constitution would somehow create an alternative global power to the US. The Constitution also explicitly gives the EU the right to intervene - with its newly created 'battlegroups' - outside the European sphere itself, even if it does not have a mandate from the United Nations to do so.

"As we have seen in Iraq, war does not provide security," reflects van Bommel, "militarisation does not help prevent terrorism. We need better joint intelligence working, not more military spending, but we can do that without a Constitution. We need to change the practice, not the rules."

The threat of terrorism is one that is very real to the Dutch MP, whose country has gone from being a byword for social liberalism and tolerance to one marred by social unrest and a right-wing backlash against immigration following the murder of film producer Theo van Gogh. "Two MPs are under 24-hour protection and the police are overwhelmed by security requirements. It wasn't like this even after Pim Fortuyn was assassinated - now there are churches, mosques, burning. I don't even know what will happen next week. "

This social tension forms a difficult backdrop to the EU debate for the left, with right-wing Liberal MP Geert Wilders resigning and forming his own party on a platform of opposing Turkish entry to the EU.

"Wilders has said that if Turkey joins, the Netherlands should leave. He has left the Liberal Party and now, as an independent MP, he gets more in the polls than the Liberals do." Van Bommel recognises the danger that the crisis could allow the right-wing government to paint opponents as extremists of the right and left.

"But this is not just about left and right. This is about the elite against the people - the centre supports the Constitution because they are the political elite, the establishment. We must have a proper public debate on this now - about what direction Europe goes in, about whether we have more privatisation and higher defence spending or have a more democratic Europe and protect public services."

Raising the level of the debate is a constant theme of van Bommel's position. He cites the recent example of the political crisis over the European Commission.

The Dutch nominee, Neelie Kroes, is in van Bommel's words, "a powerful advocate of privatisation" and he predicts that "more of the family silver will be sold off." She led privatisations such as that of the Dutch postal service and more recently has sat on the Boards of numerous multi-national companies, a conflict of interest that did not prevent her appointment as Competition Commissioner.

"When she got an important post the reaction was like we had won the Eurovision song contest - when actually it was a sad day for the Netherlands. She will work for private enterprise, not for the good of the people in the Netherlands. It was the same with Bolkestein."

Frits Bolkestein, Kroes' predecessor as Competition Commissioner and also a Dutch Liberal, has drafted the Directive on Services, a measure with enormous implications for public services and workers' rights if it is agreed by the Commission. And Van Bommel sees little hope of a progressive stance from this Commission. With only six of the twenty five Commissioners from centre-left parties it is the most right wing Commission in the history of the Union. And one of those six is Peter Mandelson, a name that draws a wry smile from van Bommel

"I know about Mandelson, though he is not really known by the public in the Netherlands. The right-wing drift of the Commission has escaped scrutiny, despite our efforts to highlight it. When I write an article in the Financial Times on the Iraq war or Palestine, I get hate mail, fan mail, in response. When I write on Europe I get nothing."

The lack of public debate is clearly as big a challenge for van Bommel's Socialist Party as it is for his left-wing counterparts in Britain but it is something he intends to change.

"Our campaign will move the debate away from the political elites to the people. We must inform people or they will vote in ignorance. And we must not let the campaign be hijacked by the right-wing - that is why we have taken the lead." As in most continental countries, the left is the natural home for those sceptical of the direction the EU has taken and van Bommel is building up a grassroots movement to make that case.

"The Lisbon Agenda will affect peoples' daily lives - worse pensions, working rights, budget cuts…we are seeing these things in the Netherlands and we can show that the Government's right-wing policies are related to those of Europe, that they are the same political programme. And that political programme is enshrined in this Constitution. That is why the European project has gone sour when it was traditionally popular."

Van Bommel recognises this traditional support for the European project amongst many on the social democratic left in Europe but he dismisses the arguments often put in favour of unthinking support for EU proposals and institutions.

"By opposing the euro and now the Constitution, we are not opposing the EU. We are against this Constitution because it is not a good one. It is a neo-liberal manifesto, not a proper constitution. There will be a constitution one day but this is our only instrument to start a debate on the future of the EU, and it is a debate and a future that cannot be left to the neo-liberals."

Indeed, the very name of van Bommel's movement - A Different Europe - emphasises how the Dutch left view the debate.

He has no time for those who argue that a No vote will force Britain out of the Union. "The suggestion that countries which fail to ratify the proposed text will be forced to leave the EU is as senseless as it is undemocratic. If you won't take no for an answer, then why ask the question in the first place?"

Van Bommel also brings a message of solidarity to the British left, and an implicit answer to those who see a No campaign as isolationist. "We are not alone, we must remember that. We need to work together for a common agenda in Europe or the neo-liberals will dominate and there will be no coherent socialist alternative."

Preventing that outcome is clearly something that animates the Dutch Socialist MP. "We are in for an exciting phase, one which will give the EU's neo-liberal propagandists plenty to chew on. A 'no' in this referendum will mean the EU elite will finally have to listen to us. And it's about time that happened."

Harry van Bommel was talking to Nick Parrott.

For more info on the Centre for a Social Europe go to www.social-europe.org.uk