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European life after the no votes

Most French and Dutch voters want a more social Europe not a free market union, argues Andrew Coates

“Earthquake”, “Historic Victory”, “Despair”, “Near Civil War”, “A Climate of Hate Without Precedent”, “Left Majority for the No”, “The Extremes Supplied the No’s Battalions”, “The Dream is Over”, “Chaotic Reaction”, “EU unravelling”.

Responses after French and Dutch electors rejected the European Constitutional Treaty were anything but lukewarm. From France’s 29th May Referendum, (54,87% Non) to the Netherlands’ Vote (61% Nee) four days later, the results have dominated the Continent’s political debate. The future of the EU, and the left’s role within it, has been thrown into the spotlight. For some it’s an opportunity to build a vast campaign to assert the popular will against the tides of neo-liberal economics and politics. By contrast Commissioner Peter Mandelson asserts that the time has come for “painful economic reform” on flexible pro-market lines, wrapped in “social justice” (Observer 5.6.05). To French Socialist leader, François Hollande, his country’s ballot boxes registered, above all, anger and exasperation against President Chirac and his government. Europe, he declared, must not be the “victim of France’s internal disorder” and should become again a source of progressive “Hope” (Parti Socialiste. 29.5.05).

Decisions on the broken prospects for the Treaty will profoundly affect both the EU and the place of the left within it. Will the left be able to impose a vision of an ‘other Europe’? With or without a completely revamped Constitution? Or will there be, in the wake of these two referendums in founding EU states, a halt to further political integration? Would this (as some of the left still believe) encourage a return to national sovereignty that socialists could capture? In either case the key issues were raised during the French and Dutch campaigns, illustrated by the forces mobilised by them, and underlined by the aftermath.

France underwent probably the most intense political debate over the Constitutional Treaty. It began to heat up in December when an internal Parti Socialiste (PS) vote gave 58,80% in favour. However the Number Two of the party, Laurent Fabius, was against. The former PM (1984-6), and one-time arch-moderniser stated that it eliminated the European social dimension, gave priority to fiscal control over growth and employment, and set in stone its objectives for the next forty years (Le Monde. 30.11.04). In reply Socialist leader, François Hollande, observed that the Treaty was neither socialist nor liberal, but a compromise within which full employment, people’s rights, and social protection were recognised. He asked if “there are inside the European left sufficiently strong forces to demand something better?” (Le Monde 1.12.04)

Plainly the left of the PS thought so. The largest tendency, Nouveau Monde, began, soon after their internal defeat, to co-operate publicly with the anti-Constitution Communist Party (PCF), dissident Greens (whose majority also backed a Yes), the far-left League Communiste Révolutionnaire, and the ‘altermondialiste’ (other globalisation) movement ATTAC. Their leaders Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Henri Emmanueilli appeared on No platforms despite pressure for party sanctions. A smaller PS left current, Nouveau Parti Socialiste, whose objective is Party renovation and a 6th Republic, backed the No but respected organisational discipline. In Holland it was largely the (ex-Marxist-Leninist) Socialistiche Partij, which has parliamentary representation, that led the most prominent left Nee campaign.

In an atmosphere of intense hostility charges of giving succour to the far-right ‘sovereigntists’ (the very visible Movement pour la France, and the Front National), who opposed the Treaty on nationalist grounds, were flung at left No activists. They countered by pointing to the support of the élite and Chirac’s party, (the UMP), for a Yes, the mobilisation of the media behind them, and the PS’s own record in government of economic liberalisation and privatisation. Despite strong emotions, a well-informed debate ensued over the treaty. Most notably about its institutional framework, the role of competition, the delocalisation (transfer to other countries) of jobs, Europe’s defence strategy, and the prospect of future amendments. On the last point it remained uncertain until the last minute as to whether, were there a rebuff, any Constitutional revision would be possible.

Examination of the No scores in France and Holland has given a profile of those who voted Non or Nee. Socially, in both countries the bulk of workers and unemployed backed a No (79% and 71% in France). Geographically, the No votes were predominant in most places, with the exception of areas such as wealthy Parisian districts intra muros, and prosperous Amsterdam, and were correspondingly higher in less favoured locations. However the more ordinary middle-classes also voted No – over 60% in France. Politically left supporters and trade unionists in both countries rejected the Treaty (including 56% of French PS voters). In France only amongst the base of the rightwing UDF and UMP, the wealthy, and to a lesser extent, the highly educated, and the elderly, was a Yes predominant. Similar tendencies were present in the Netherlands. It should still be noted that 20% of those who voted Non in the Hexagon were sympathisers of the far-right, a not inconsiderable contribution. Or that a xenophobic campaign against the Treaty was prominent in the Netherlands.

These tendencies indicate a deep popular groundswell against the Constitution in its present form. The electorate’s reasons behind the No are harder to unpack. Being “fed-up”, worried about unemployment (10% in France), a “desire to renegotiate” a “too liberal” accord, “threats” against national identity, as French opinion polls indicated, show very diverse motivations.

The effect on the left is ambiguous. On one side there are attempts to sustain a mobilisation for ‘another Europe’, or (in Holland) a national assembly to consider the land’s future. France’s Communists have only just over a score of deputies in the National Assembly, the far-left lost its Euro deputies last year and their social movement allies are divided over their long-term political objectives. There are calls for a reformed EU, upgrading its social legislation, investing and socialising, bringing finance and capital under control. Few specific means are advanced to achieve these goals. On the other there is the fall-out inside the arena where divisions over Europe are at their most intense: inside the PS. The 4th June exclusion of Fabius and his supporters from the Bureau National (and not from the Party’s Conseil National) aroused strong feelings (Le Monde 7.6.05). Just before this decision an opinion survey found that 71% of PS sympathisers were opposed to such sanctions (Liberation 6.6.05). The Party’s radical wing, aware of the ex-Number 2’s past as the gravedigger of the ambitious Projet Socialiste, denounced his relegation but remain uncertain about his role as a potential alternative Socialist leader. Only opposition to the new de Villepin government’s decree to weaken labour laws to reduce unemployment unites the PS and the rest of the left.

French politics crystallise the tensions that have been developing across the Continent for many years. The French Maastricht Treaty referendum in 1992 was won only by a sliver of votes. Hostility to the Constitution is not a simple matter of the masses rising up against the domestic élite (Fabius is one of the most élitist French politicians). There is a continuing legacy of dislike for the European financial and technocratic institutions Maastricht set in train. Deregulation and the perception of pending competition in public services, a general race to the lowest standards, have inspired left-of-centre hostility to the EU. Loud criticism of an over-regulated ‘old Europe’ in need of more liberal reform, through either a watering-down of pooled sovereignty or sweeping free-market measures appeals only to a minority. French economic liberals are largely content to pursue quietly their objectives through the EU, and by influence on likely MP Presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The most plausible conclusion is the simplest: the electorates of France and the Netherlands have decided that they did not support the Constitutional Treaty because they did not approve of its contents. 64% of French electors want a New Constitution, not the dissolution of the EU. Large sections do so on left-wing, socialist, grounds, as do their Dutch counterparts. Others have a variety of reasons, including a part of the left still nostalgic for national roads to socialism or patriotic republicanism.

From the far-right No there is an ingrained dislike of foreigners in general, Eastern Europeans and Turks in particular, and a desire to revive national glory. These reflect continent-wide divisions, with echoes in Britain and in every other country in the EU. The greatest difficulty for the European No left that stands for a ‘social Europe’ after the two referendums is that they have little purchase on political power. Nor do they have a clear strategy of how to influence, reform or replace the existing EU institutions. A formal examination of the Constitutional Treaty (which highlights its obvious flaws) is an incomplete method in the politics of the real world.

An alternative programme always needs a means to realise it. Without a plan to establish methods of organising greater political and popular control over the Union, represented in however a limited way by this Treaty, the left is stuck in a negative protesting. The pro-Constitution left also faces an impasse.

As it is, existing agreements still stand. That is: free-market Nice, the competition bolstering Lisbon Agenda, now reinforced by the zeal of Tony Blair’s EU Presidency. Leading a popular campaign in a referendum is one thing. But how will European and global capital, the motors assaulting a social Europe, be voted out?