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You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out the meaning of the UK Presidency of the EU. Just read the Wall Street Journal of 16 October 2003, where Gordon Brown explains New Labour’s agenda for Europe: ‘economic reform should be embraced with even greater speed. The right response to global competitive pressure is to liberalise, deregulate, and remove the old state aid subsides, agree an open competition policy, and remove barriers that hamper companies crossing borders. … Europe must embrace labour market flexibility… we should recognize that a strong transatlantic economic partnership – and a pro-European, pro-Atlantic consensus – is critical to long term prosperity.’ In addition to making it clear that New Labour, like Mrs Thatcher, has no time for the idea of a ‘Social Europe,’ this statement by Tony Blair’s heir apparent clears away any illusions that Brown is in reality any more ‘left wing’ than Blair.
20 months and two dramatic rejections of ‘Anglo-American’ economics later, Britain’s agenda for Europe is still the same. Indeed, it has turned from an agenda to a mission. Blair talked recently of his ‘struggle’ for the opt-out from social regulations on working time. Brown responded to the ‘no’ votes of France and the Netherlands by announcing that the British government will ‘stand together with business to put the case for economic reform in Europe.’
New Labour is very relieved that it can avoid a referendum on the constitution. It would almost certainly have faced a strong, and not very progressive, ‘no.’ The British government is unlikely to use the EU presidency to revive the idea of a constitution. But it will not take ‘no’ for an answer in its mission to dismantle what remains of social Europe. New Labour and the British diplomatic service are past masters at achieving things through the back door that have been turned back by democratic pressure at the front.
They will use the clout of the Presidency to try to push through the neo-liberal Bolkestein directive on public services, and take further steps to dismantle labour legislation and create the conditions for ‘flexibility’ (precarity). The neo-liberal constitution would have made this easy by streamlining central decision-making. Britain might now have to negotiate the vetoes of France and Germany. But most decisively, it will face a European citizenry spurred on by the French campaign, and more alert than ever to the manoeuvres of its ministers and officials in the corridors of Brussels. After the exposures of the French campaign, including of the secret Bolkestein deal itself, Ministers and officials will no longer be able to hide behind ‘the Commission’.
I would like to be able to say that the European character of the French ‘no’ campaign will filter through to dissident Labour MPs, who have real strategic leverage with Blair’s reduced majority. But the British parliament has very weak mechanisms for making ministers accountable for their negotiations in Brussels, and at present there is no sign that left MPs will stand together to change this. There is a shift in the trade unions, however, which could mount a strong European stand against New Labour’s crusade to convert the continent to an Anglo-American model. Only a continuation of the process of cross border organising, begun through the European Social Forum, will make sure that this mission is stopped at home as well as in the rest of Europe.