Refeudalising Europe

Alain Supiot

To encourage French voters to approve the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, President Chirac warned them against the risk of France becoming the ‘black sheep’ of Europe. But, as Einstein once wrote, ‘in order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, first of all, be a sheep.’ In the event, the French, whichever way they voted, did not behave like a flock of sheep.

It had been thought that to ratify the treaty by means of a referendum would be a formality. At an extraordinary joint session of congress held in February at Versailles, 81.7 per cent of parliamentary deputies approved the text submitted for ratification, and in an upsurge of what Perry Anderson (in the LRB of 23 September 2004) called the ‘union sucrée’, every commentator on radio and television, and almost all those in the press, campaigned strenuously for a ‘yes’ vote. Every major political party – Chirac’s UMP, the Socialists, the centrists – came out in favour. Only one of the big trade-union groups – the Confédération Générale du Travail, which is close to the Communist Party – declared its hostility, and that against the advice of its secretary-general. The parties of the far left and far right, along with a dissident faction of the Socialist Party, also called for a ‘no’ vote.

Then something strange and unexpected happened – though it could have been foreseen by anyone who remembered what happened at the 1992 referendum to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Instead of being content quietly to follow the advice lavished on them with near unanimity by the ‘elites’, French voters were gripped by a burning democratic fever. The text of the treaty became a bestseller; millions of copies were published and everyone plunged headlong into a text several hundred indigestible pages long. Its most important provisions were read and interpreted in every possible way a thousand times over. In families, at the office, in public places, every conversation ended inescapably in an impassioned debate about Europe, its future and how one should vote. Countless discussions started up on the internet. The more pedagogically inclined set up websites supplying the facts people couldn’t find in the media. One of these sites was so successful that its creator, a provincial schoolteacher, became an overnight celebrity.

The intensity and quality of this collective act of reflection took the political, economic and media elites by surprise, and they found themselves called on to explain why they were in favour of a ‘yes’ vote and to respond to the manifold objections raised. Their task was made difficult by the current situation in Europe, which kept on providing more grist for the other side’s mill: the Polish commissioner’s call on businesses to cut jobs in France and Germany in order to create them in Poland; the refusal of the European Central Bank to intervene to end the overvaluation of the euro against the dollar; the tabling of the so-called Bolkestein directive, calling for a competitive market in wages between Eastern and Western Europe.

Some of them tried to rise to these challenges, but they soon found themselves on the defensive. The main argument of those in favour was that the new document wasn’t as bad as the Nice Treaty which is currently in force. This is undoubtedly the case, thanks particularly to the inclusion, in Part Two of the new treaty, of a charter of fundamental rights. This is genuinely innovatory, especially for the priority it gives to the dignity of the individual and the extension of the notion of ‘solidarity’ into other domains. The charter breaks with a purely mercantile or technocratic vision of Europe and would have constituted a powerful argument in favour of the treaty had several provisions not subsequently been introduced which would mean the charter has no legal force and had a number of the principles it set out – such as the right to strike or to have access to public services – not been rendered meaningless by provisions found in Part Three.

More generally, Part Three deals with a disparate collection of trade, finance, transport and employment policies which have no place in a constitution. Highly debatable provisions, taken from earlier treaties, are accorded the status of constitutional norms. Thus the Central European Bank is still assigned the task of maintaining price stability (Article I-29); the American Federal Reserve, by contrast, is also responsible for supervising the level of employment. Article III-97 aims to adapt the workforce to the requirements of the market: ‘The Union and the Member States shall … work towards … promoting a skilled, trained and adaptable workforce and labour markets responsive to economic change.’

These provisions effectively reverse the priorities established by the international community as it emerged from World War Two, when the idea was that the economy and the world of finance should serve and not dominate humanity. The Philadelphia Declaration (which became an integral part of the constitution of the ILO) proclaims the right of all ‘to pursue both their material wellbeing and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity’, and contains this strong prescription: ‘All national and international policies and measures, in particular those of an economic and financial character, should be judged in this light and accepted only in so far as they may be held to promote and not to hinder the achievement of this fundamental objective.’

One searches the new treaty in vain for a provision that would oblige economic and monetary policy to be indexed to an improvement in people’s living and working conditions. Security is seen as all-important where money is concerned, but not where work is concerned. The ‘labour force’ must adapt itself to the needs of the economy, but the value of the currency is untouchable. It is no surprise that a majority of the young and the economically active voted ‘no’ in the referendum, since they are the ones who are paying the price for the monetary policy of the euro zone in terms of unemployment, insecurity and low wages.

Struggling to respond to these powerful arguments in favour of a ‘non de gauche’, the ‘yes’ camp appealed to the authority of a bunch of has-beens. Emerging from retirement, these political dinosaurs flew to the rescue of a document put together under the aegis of the very old, very arrogant and very unpopular Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Their voices merged with those of the showbiz celebrities and foreign heads of government who had also been mobilised to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote.

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