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A tale of two treaties

French magazine Politis asked two leading French progressive figures, Alain Lipietz (Green Party) and Jean-Luc Melenchon (Socialist Party) to debate their respective support for and opposition to the proposed EU constitution.

March 1, 2005
6 min read

Can you explain the main reasons that have led to your rejection/approval of the Constitution?

Alain Lipietz: Neoliberalism continues unconstrained because of the contradiction between the unified market economy in Europe which has developed since 1998 and nationally fragmented political power. Only a single, democratic political mandate can deal with the power of market forces.

Europe with its new member states is 90 per cent self-sufficient. A Europe-wide democratic political mandate could lead to a common social and environmental and expansionary economic framework. But this political framework does not exist. As each political treaty comes up, I ask myself if political unification is progressing at the same pace as economic unification. If not, I campaign against it, as I did against the Single Act, against the Maastricht Treaty, and against the Nice Treaty. But I will vote ‘yes’ for the treaty establishing a European constitution.

The constitutional treaty represents real progress in the creation of democratic and political power. This is true with regard to legislation in the European parliament, decision-making over the budget, majority voting in the council of ministers and co-decision-making between the parliament and the council becoming the rule. Decision by unanimity in the council is becoming the exception. This is progress. Another sign of progress is the possibility of a referendum if one is demanded by a petition with one million signatures.

Jean-Luc Melenchon: I share Alain’s left-wing starting point. In my analysis, the economic unification of Europe was simultaneous with the political one. Neoliberalism has created its own political environment based on the dismantling of regulation and elimination of contradictions between national legislation.

As a result, citizens have no involvement with or power over European economic institutions. This is the deficit that needs to be addressed. Advocates of a ‘yes’ vote think that the proposed constitution provides political regulation and popular sovereignty. We think the opposite.

Socially progressive legislation would be blocked because the proposed constitution would consolidate all previous treaties into a constitutional form. One article explicitly prohibits social harmonisation by legislation, another prohibits social transformation through negotiation between social partners. In the end, no matter what social partners might decide, the final decision would be taken by the council under the rule of unanimity.

Until now, the economic unification has not been accompanied by social harmonisation. Is this imbalance modified by the proposed constitution?

A.L. The only important gain in terms of social issues is on the question of public services. Today, the rules of competition are applied to public services as long as this does not stop them from meeting their obligations as public services. It is an obligation under the new constitution that public services be in a fit state, including financially, to fulfill their mission, ‘without prejudice to the competencies of states to supply them and to finance them.’ We have gone from an authorisation to an obligation. This is fundamental.

On the other hand, as far as the harmonisation of social systems is concerned, the gains are modest compared with the Nice Treaty, and this made me hesitate between voting ‘yes’ and boycotting.

Contrary to what Jean-Luc believes, I find it healthy that Europe is not directly harmonising the social laws of member states. The constitution suggests ‘harmonisation through progress’ and distinguishes eleven areas for legislation. Reform of social security systems and the fight against social exclusion remain strictly under national control, as is the case with wages. On the nine other areas, European law establishes minimum standards which are to be progressively increased to achieve harmonisation.

But … in four of these points decisions would still require unanimity in the Council. For instance, unanimity would be required to increase social protection and minimum unemployment benefit. On the other hand, rules on transnational social allowances for workers would be decided under majority rule. Not useless but modest. The more decisions on social issues that are taken on a majority basis, the better. As long as a state can veto improvements to common minimum rules, we are defending social dumping.

There is one extension of this right of national veto in the constitution about which the left in the Parliament is ‘rejoicing’ – negotiations on the General Agreement on the Trade in Services (GATS) and on intellectual property (TRIPs) at the WTO. The ‘cultural exception’ is maintained on health, education and social services. I think this is reasonable. It is normal that on these points, which are considered issues of national identity, we keep the law of unanimity.

J-L.M. For socialists, Europe is not an end in itself. It is the content of European integration that determines where we stand. What is unacceptable is putting neoliberal economic policies in the constitution.

The first principle that the text lays down is ‘free and undistorted’ competition in all fields. Social harmonisation is therefore impossible through legislative, regulatory or contractual means. This makes impossible, for instance, a policy of social convergence to be imposed on all states progressively in the way the economic convergence criteria of the stability pact are imposed. But levelling down and competition between national social systems are happening all by itself with the Bolkestein directive. Social Europe is without meaning. This is the situation of today. We are about to install an institutional system in which there is no space for a socialist political perspective. This, in my opinion, is a determining factor.

As far as social services are concerned, Alain and I don’t have the same interpretation of the constitution. It calls them ‘services of general commercial interest’. In every field, neoliberalism tries to transform what was, until yesterday, considered free: postal services, education, health.

The constitution prohibits subsidies for any kind of product and service. It is said that exceptions can be made, but it is up to the Commission to decide. Where a state is declared to be at fault, neither the Parliament nor the Council decides, but the Court of Justice. In social matters, as in every other issue, we are installing government by judges.

Translation: Vasilis Margaras, Loughborough University.

Read a longer version of this article in this month’s Red Pepper or in French at www.politis.fr/article1273.html Politis is a partner with Red Pepper in Eurotopia.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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