France - On the referendum over the European Constitution

May-June 2005

In the early days of the election campaign, Blair pledged that if he was re-elected he would organise a referendum over the draft European Constitution. This came as a relative surprise as, up to that point, Blair had always argued that there was no point in organising a referendum, since the draft did not affect the existing constitutional arrangements in Britain, and that the decision should be left to Parliament.
This change of mind was obviously dictated by the objective to pull the rug from under the Tories' feet, by depriving them of one of their favourite propaganda weapons in the election campaign. At a time when Blair needed all the support he could get, he was certainly not going to allow the Tories' anti-European demagogy to deter voters from voting Labour.
Some have argued, on the basis of ambiguous statements made by Foreign Minister Jack Straw at the end of the election campaign, that there may have been another reason for this - namely the belief that if the draft Constitution is rejected in the referendum which is to be held in France on 29 May, as the opinion polls seem to show, the draft may be shelved altogether and there would be no need for a referendum anyway.
Whatever may be the case, there have already been heated arguments in Britain about this Constitution and its consequences, with a whole section of the revolutionary left finding itself on the same side as the Tories, arguing that it represented a "threat" for the British working class.
In France the comrades of our sister organisation, "Lutte Ouvrière", are calling for a "no" vote in the coming referendum. But their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with those put forward by most of the British left.
The article we reproduce below, in which they develop their position on this issue, is translated from their journal "Lutte de Classe" (#88 - April-May 2005). The explanatory notes were added by Class Struggle".

No to their draft Constitution

Never mind the political reasoning which has led Chirac to submit the draft European Constitution to a referendum, rather than satisfying himself, more cautiously, with the approval of a Parliament over which he has total control. It must be said that at the time when he made this choice, opinion polls pointed to a 2/3 "yes" majority and he may have hoped to be able to draw a political advantage from winning such a referendum.

Now that opinion polls are indicating a "no" majority, Chirac is posing, quite logically, as a politician who did not choose the easy way and submitted this issue to the entire electorate for purely democratic reasons.

In any case, the fact is that voters will be asked to endorse this draft Constitution.

Working class voters have no reason to so any such thing.

As far as we are concerned, the simple fact that this Constitution is based entirely on the defence of private property, capitalism, the market economy and the search for profit, would be enough to refuse to endorse it. From this point of view, the draft is similar to all the existing Constitutions, in the countries where there is one. In so far as society is dominated everywhere by the capitalist class, constitutional documents enshrine this domination everywhere and most laws are designed to regulate the capitalist economy from a legal point of view.

We will not draw here a list of all the provisions of this boring document which reflect its class nature - we would have to quote all of them! Although it does include the European Bill of Human Rights, the general statements which constitute it feature in every Constitution, with the result (or lack of it) that we all know. The fact that, for instance, the French Constitution provides for gender equality is not enough to enforce it in the real world.

Are there, at least, some rights and freedoms in this Constitution which would mark some progress for the populations concerned, if only in the countries in which existing national laws and practices are particularly backward?

The Constitution provides hypocritically for the right to marry, but it stops short of providing for the right to divorce.

It does not mention the right to contraception, let alone to abortion. It does not even provide that in the countries where abortion is legal, doctors should have a legal obligation not to put any obstacles in the way of its practice.

There is no mention of a minimum wage.

This Constitution does not impose a maximum for weekly working hours, which would be compatible with workers' health. In the discussions which are taking place in the run-up to the present referendum, the figures which are being mentioned are 48, 56 or even 65 hours a week [It should be recalled that the legal working week in France is still 35h for most workers, although this has been somewhat undermined by provisions introduced over the past three years, allowing the bosses to impose a significant amount of overtime spread out over the year - CS] !

The Constitution recognises the right to look for a job - which is the least it can do - but it does not provide workers with a guarantee that they will find one. In other words, it contains no provisions for the unemployment, not even by defining a common level of unemployment benefit across Europe.

On all the issues that are of direct concern to the populations, this Constitution says nothing and leaves it to national institutions, including the most reactionary, to make their own decisions.

From this point of view, therefore, the draft Constitution adds nothing to the European Union as it stands today. It does not offer more freedoms than the previous European treaties.

The only objective of this Constitution is to define the arbitration procedures which are to be applied, should an economic conflict of interests arise between the governments that rule Europe, and above all, to allow the most industrialised countries of Western Europe to have the upper hand over the other member countries.

So far - meaning for nearly half-a-century, which is quite a long time - European construction has taken place without the need for a Constitution. The operation of the Common Market, followed by the slow development of the European institutions, the eurozone, etc... were regulated by international treaties. This shows, in passing, that this process had nothing to do with the kind of federalism that exists in the USA, nor that of Switzerland. It was an association between independent states, in which each participant was determined to retain its prerogatives. The EU is not a political entity with a centralised state machinery, a government, etc.. but a conglomerate of states.

In fact, now that the "no" vote is rising in opinion polls, the advocates of the "yes" vote reply to those arguing that, once it is adopted, it will be practically impossible to change this Constitution, by using increasingly the phrase "constitutional treaty" instead of "Constitution".

However, this subtle linguistic shift is rather hypocritical. It is motivated by an electoral purpose - to sweet talk the "souverainistes" [People who are against Europe in the name of national sovereignty and protectionism, with various nuances. They include currents originating from the Socialist Party and Communist milieu, but mostly currents which are more or less close to the far-right - CS], who are mostly on the right, but also all those who believe that the national state is a protection for them. But the truth is that all the European capitalist classes got involved in the unification process reluctantly, because they were forced to do so by economic constraints which were far more important than the "souverainism" of their political leaders. For a long time, this unification process was exclusively confined to the economy - if not to the issue of custom duties - whereas the political unification, which only started very late, still remains very limited.

For more than a century, at least, the division of Europe into national states - some of which are tiny - has been an anachronism against the backdrop of the growing internationalisation of economic relations. It is a handicap for the European imperialist powers and one of the reasons for the gap between the US and Europe, which was constantly growing during the 20th century.

To some extent, Britain and France could use their colonial empires to make up for the limitations of their national markets. German imperialism, which had no colonies, was more aggressive, driven as it was by the vital need to enlarge the sphere of operation of German big business.

Imperialist rivalries in Europe drew the planet into two world wars. It took WWII and the failure of Hitler to unify Europe under the yoke of German imperialism, for the political leaders of the European imperialist powers to draw the conclusion that it was impossible for any of them to unify Europe by force, for its sole benefit.

Subsequently, it took more than half-a-century of horse-trading for Germany, France and Britain to overcome their rivalries and succeed in establishing today's EU, together with the other Western European imperialist countries, on the basis of a minimal form of unification.

For Britain and France, the decolonisation period resulted in the loss of their colonial empires - and even more so for the weaker Italian, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese imperialisms. This turned the setting up of a European-wide market into a matter of life or death for all European imperialisms.

For more than a century, nation states have been remnants of the past. Only countries the size of a continent, like the USA, Russia and, tomorrow, possibly, China or India, are, or will be in a position to play a political role on the international scene.

Even today, despite the progress hailed by the supporters of the present unification process, their 25-member Europe is far from being an entity comparable to the 5O-state American union. Many European states are ridiculously small compared to the states which constitute the USA. Even enlarged to 25 members, the EU still leaves out 14 European state, including the largest of all, both from the point of view of its size and its population, Russia.

Above all, despite the uneasy progress made in terms of the political unification of Europe, the EU remains a conglomerate of states, which remain rivals, while being forced by the constraints of the world market to come to some sort of agreement against far more powerful external rivals. A long time ago, Trotsky used an adequate description, "gangsters who are chained together with the same chains".

The idea to set up a Common Market on a European scale, free of custom barriers, came to be seen by all Western European capitalist classes as a necessity (the Eastern European states, which were under the control of the Soviet bureaucracy, were not in a position to make such decisions). It is no coincidence if the construction of Europe began via the establishment of a Common Market. It should be recalled that the USA itself was a strong supporter of the idea of a Common Market in Europe and this, for a very simple reason: some of its big companies were operating on European soil (the car giants Ford and General Motors, for instance) and the abolition of custom barriers offered them the possibility of producing on a large scale in one European country, while selling their production across Europe, without having to deal with custom duties.

The USA was more reluctant - to say the least - about Europe's political unification. The development of a single market was one thing - and it was in the interests of US companies - but the development of an imperialist power as large as Europe was threatening the US with a powerful rival on the international arena.

For the time being, however, the USA is not risking very much, despite the fledgling political unification of the European Union. This is graphically illustrated by the diverging positions taken by European countries on the war in Iraq. But there are many other similar illustrations, including in the economic field, which is supposed to be the foundation stone of Europe's unification, thereby showing the intricate intertwining between the political and economic fields. One such illustration is the issue of the common currency, which is one of the major achievements that this capitalist Europe can boast about, but has still to be adopted by Britain and quite a few other European countries.

A six-member, or even a ten-member Europe could bargain over every decision and reach a common position. But it is far more difficult for a 25-member Europe. The draft produced by the convention held under Giscard [Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a former right-wing president of France - CS] was pompously branded as a "Constitution". But the magic of word cannot make up for the absence of a unified state. Law, even constitution law, comes down to nothing without the power of a state to enforce it. The main European powers - Germany, Britain, France and to a lesser extent Italy and Spain - will go on deciding between themselves about the future of the EU, on the basis of the existing balance of forces. There is no "supranational" state able to impose anything on any of the main European powers against its will. France and Germany have just provided an illustration of this by deliberately ignoring their own famous "Maastricht criteria" concerning budget deficits.

But there are other countries, mainly among the newcomers, for whom the word "Constitution" rings like a non negotiable, superior law.

Europe's enlargement from 15 to 25 members has included countries, which were poorer and were not imperialist - particularly the former People's Democracies, which, after Moscow lost control of them, returned to their past semi-colonial status, dominated by Western European capital. Two other countries are in the process of joining - Romania and Bulgaria. And there may be others later, some of them by-products of the fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the USSR, not to mention Turkey. For these countries, it will be "take it or leave it" and the word "Constitution" will carry in practice a political meaning consistent with its pomposity.

In the discussion of the draft Constitution, there was always a general agreement between member states on the many articles dealing with free competition, the free circulation of goods and capital, the freedom to invest and, more generally, with the operation of the capitalist economy. In fact, whether these articles are enshrined in a Constitution or not, this does not change anything.

Nor was there any disagreement over the "major values" that Chirac boasted so much about in his attempt to sell the "yes" vote to the youth on television.

Those who participated in these discussions were representatives of their respective capitalist classes and they knew that words such as "freedom" and "equality" are empty words designed to fool the populations.

The only thing that really mattered in these discussions was that the rules introduced by the Constitution to regulate the relationship between member states should not help the small states to protect themselves, in the slightest way, against the big companies of the big players. Using its own resources, none of the small states would have been able to do that, anyway. But the problem was to prevent a bloc of poor countries from having more weight in any decision than their combined economic weight.

So, in fact, the only real discussions and the only ones that came near to breaking point, dealt with the issue of qualified voting and the number of votes granted to each country in the European Council, European Commission and, to a lesser extent, the European Parliament. Indeed the Constitution is designed so that as long as the three main European powers find agreement and win the support of one or two other countries, they can impose their decisions and stop any decisions they do not like.

So, this Constitution will translate into political terms, the existing economic domination of the Western European countries.

Some advocates of a "yes" vote over-dramatise the potential consequences of a rejection of the draft, which, according to them, would lead to a catastrophe both for Europe and for France's position in Europe. Symmetrically, some supporters of the "no" vote, encourage expectations that a rejection will lead to major changes. However, regardless of the result, this referendum does not deserve to be given so much importance.

Fabius [Fabius is a Socialist Party dignitary and a former prime minister, who has called for a "no" vote - CS] is a former prime minister and a politician, who is far too respectful of the interests of the capitalist class to advocate the "no" vote if he thought this could go against these interests.

If the Constitution is rejected, it will be a bad blow for Chirac, who initiated it. But unlike De Gaulle in 1969, Chirac has already announced that he has no intention of resigning in case of a rejection. A rejection would also be, of course, a bad blow for Hollande [the general secretary of the Socialist Party and an advocate of the "yes" vote - CS], who would probably lose his chance to be chosen as the SP candidate in the 2007 presidential election. There will be no reason to shed tears over the fate of either of them, but their political careers are not a major concern for the capitalist class either.

Rumour has it, that Europe's top functionaries are already working on an alternative plan in case the draft is rejected in France or in other countries. This could involve, for instance, implementing the rules contained in the Constitution one by one, starting with those which are least controversial. Some of the most contentious articles, which they do not actually care about, might be withdrawn in the process. But they would try to implement what they consider to be essential - for instance the regulations concerning qualified voting. Likewise they would try to safeguard what can give the EU a semblance of political unity and stability - a stable presidency for the European Council and a foreign ministry representing the EU. And they would try to avoid having to backtrack on the decision to scrap unanimous voting in certain fields, as provided in the Constitution.

Then they would add the Bill of Human Rights to top it all, because they can be sure this will keep everyone happy without representing any real commitment.

If the EU authorities chose to drop the word "Constitution" for the time being, this would be portrayed by the more "federalist" among the supporters of the EU as a step backward on the road to the setting up of political institutions which are capable of representing Europe. But political unification, in the sense of the setting up of a federal European state similar to the USA, is faced with many other obstacles than the outcome of this referendum. In the present state of things, there is not one capitalist class among the European imperialist states which supports this idea - even if some political forces advocate it - and some, including the British, regularly expresses its hostility to this idea.

Even if the draft Constitution has to be shelved, at least for the time being, economic Europe will remain, if only in the form of the Single Market together with the various treaties which will remain in force - Maastricht, which brought the euro, Nice, etc.,

It may make it harder for decisions to be made on a European scale. But the strongest will just carry on imposing their will, as they always have. In particular, as far as the relationship between the industrialised Western European countries and the poor Estern European countries are concerned, Western imperialist companies will carry on dominating the economy of these latter countries, as they have done so far without a Constitution, and as they started doing even before these countries joined the EU.

The big industrial and financial companies are well aware of the fact that they do not need their grip over the economy to be "written in stone" in a Constitution. This grip is based on foundations which are far more solid that the paper of a Constitution, no matter how many hundreds of pages it may have. They also know that there is no need for a Constitution for the European governments to implement these "ultra-liberal" policies that everyone claims to oppose, including Chirac himself, all the more willingly as no-one knows exactly what they entail. However, if these policies involve attacking workers, cutting pension and health provisions, privatisation, cuts for hospitals and schools and austerity measures for the majority of the population in order to increase the profits of the capitalist minority - in short, the policies of Chirac-Raffarin - then the European governments do not need a Constitution to do that, because this is exactly what they are all doing, including so-called "socialists" like Blair and Shroeder today, and Jospin yesterday.

So, if the "no" vote wins, there will be grounds to rejoice, just because this draft will have been rejected and those in high places will know, at least, that they cannot get voters to endorse just anything they want. And many voters will draw from this rejection the satisfaction of having caused some trouble for Chirac, Raffarin, etc.., all those who have been implementing reactionary policies over the past three years.

The fact that Hollande, Strauss-Kahn, Lang [Socialist Party leaders - CS] etc.. chose to line up with Chirac, will give an additional satisfaction to many voters. No-one will be able to claim that the Socialist Party leaders are necessarily forgiven by the SP electorate for aligning themselves behind Chirac, Raffarin and Sarkozy [This is a reference to the SP's call to vote for Chirac in the second round of the 2002 presidential election - CS]. For once, the SP leaders will foot the bill for having portrayed as "left-wing" a policy which is exactly identical to that of the right-wing.

Of course, if the "no" vote is victorious, Raffarin will probably lose his position, unless he is sidelined even before that, as a preventive measure. But, of course, this victory will not stop one employer from cutting a single job, nor will it bring the bosses to increase wages! And whoever takes over from Raffarin will certainly not repeal the reactionary measures taken by his predecessor.

There is nothing to expect from the result of the referendum on the issues concerning the working class. The ballot box has never replaced the class struggle. But this is another problem, whose importance is far more vital than the politicking surrounding this referendum.

Beyond the Constitution, or whatever other forms it may take, beyond even the issue of the European construction which is carried out today according to the interests of the capitalist class, Europe is the future.

The future of the proletariat of this country and, more generally, of the rich part of the continent, cannot be to try to shield itself against the proletariat of the poorer European countries. The future cannot lie in any form of protectionism, whereby workers would withdraw behind some kind of national protection. Any such policy can only divide the ranks of the European working classes and put each working class in the tow of its own capitalists.

On the contrary, the future can only be based on the consciousness that the European working classes constitute one single working class, with the same interests, regardless of its composition in each country and regardless of the existing national borders.

Long before the European capitalist classes began to raise the question of European unity, the working class had already done so. Its political leaders, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, had raised it, because they considered that the social transformation of society could not be achieved within a national framework. But this issue was also raised by the large revolutionary wave, which mobilised tens of millions of workers in 1917-18, on a European scale. This revolutionary wave ignored the national borders set up by the capitalist class, it found a way to cut across the barbed wire which kept Russian and German soldiers apart, not only in their heads but also in practice, on the battle front, since this was in the middle of WWI.

There are many more reasons today, for things to develop in this direction tomorrow. It is inconceivable that a large-scale strike, bringing into action very large numbers of workers - like for instance during the 1936 strike in France - should be stopped by national borders. The decisive battles of the working class will be on a European scale, at least, and they will probably reach out much further afield. In truth, today, with the total interdependence of the various economies on a world scale, with the formidable development of the means of transportation and communication, even continent-wide entities have become obsolete.

The rule of the capitalist class represents the past, including in this field. It is precisely because it represents the future that the proletariat is the only force which can and must embody internationalism, consistently and without any reservation.*