The End of Democracy


April 30, 2008 18:44 | by Steve McGiffen

Over the last few years the political role of the European Court of Justice has become increasingly evident. It has, at the same time, become far more overtly conservative, leaning towards an extreme 'free market' philosophy which favours privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. In favouring these policies, moreover, it has moved to weaken any opposition to them.

This is why the ECJ ruled recently that wages agreed under the tripartite system which prevails in much of the continent need not be respected by foreign firms. Under the system, known in the Netherlands as the Collective Labour Agreement and under similar names elsewhere, employers, unions and government meet once a year to agree rates for particular trades in particular sectors.

This system has its drawbacks, but it does prevent wage competition between workers and undercutting of one firm by another by means of wage reductions. It is part of the post-war settlement, a Cold War product designed to show that there were alternatives to Soviet-style socialism which could offer working people a decent life.

The system has stood more-or-less unchallenged, until now. Because, of course, if foreign firms may undercut their domestic rivals, and any firm may register in any member state - thus becoming a 'foreign firm' - then the days of the Collective Labour Agreement are numbered indeed. As for the kind of non-statutory wage agreements which characterise collective bargaining in Britain, these can be forgotten, at least as far as any legal protection goes.

As things stand, the minimum wage itself is not under immediate threat. Minimum rates for sectors and trades are now, however, enforceable, if at all, only by industrial muscle.

All of this would be bad enough if this attack on the rights of trade unionists, and of European Union member states, went no further than this particular issue, important though it is. In fact, however, the ECJ ruling forms part of a wider pattern of abuse which is affecting not only our rights as workers but every aspect of our lives.

This is the phenomenon which has been dubbed 'depoliticisation'.

The word may be newly-coined and hard to fit into a line of poetry, but its meaning is simple enough. Decisions which have traditionally been taken, in democracies, by institutions answerable to an electorate, are now taken by unelected bodies deliberately constructed to be impervious to political pressure.

Last week, two labour lawyers writing in a Swedish newspaper lamented the way in which "the political role of the ECJ in the development of EU law has become increasingly apparent" and that "through the back door, the judges have gained political power that in practice supersedes that of policy makers."

Here, the issue of concern was once again the rights of workers, and the institution involved was the ECJ.

It could easily, however, have been another area of concern - an environmental matter, say, or public ownership of essential services - and the ruling could have been one from the European Commission, or the World Trade Organisation - but the same phenomenon of depoliticisation would have been apparent.

Of course, 'depoliticisation' does not mean that these issues or these decisions have really been removed from politics. It is simply that this is what the ruling elite, through the ideas which they propagate through their media and by other means, would have us believe.

We cannot have essential service providers in secure public ownership, protected from market forces and under an obligation to provide a service to everyone, including those on low incomes. This is not because we voted for a right-wing government which does not favour such things, but because it would conflict with the freedom to establish a business, the obligation to tender out public procurement contracts, and so on, "freedoms" written into the EU treaty, into trade treaties and other agreements effectively beyond democartic control.

We cannot have an expansive monetary policy, not because we voted for a restrictive policy, but because the European Central Bank makes the rules, even for member states outside the euro-zone.

We cannot write to ask a government minister or our MEP to propose a particular change in European law unless there happens to be a relevant proposal before the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, because only the unelected European Commission has the right to propose new legislation.

We cannot refuse to have genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our country because an EU directive says that, except under extremely limited conditions, we have to have them.

And we cannot elect a government on the basis of manifesto commitments to defend public ownership, propose democratising changes in the way European laws are made or keep GMOs out of our farms and food shops, unless that government proposes to withdraw from the EU.

In fact, even that would not restore democracy, because this is not, in fact, a problem caused simply by EU membership.

The GMO example originates, in fact, in a ruling of the World Trade Organization, which put pressure on the EU to force member states to lift restrictions.

No doubt a truly politically independent Britain would suffer similar pressures.

Increasingly, the range of policies available to national governments, including elected national governments answerable to elected national parliaments, is restricted by their obligations under loan agreements, trade and investment treaties, and full-blown regional arrangements such as the EU or NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Swedish lawyers who complained of the ECJ's growing political power called for the Court to be made more accountable, and for the appointments of judges to be subject to scrutiny by the European Parliament.

I would not oppose such measures, but they seem to me to miss the most important point.

Elections were once about, amongst other things, determining the mix of social ownership and private economic activity within the economy.

Now, however, the 'market' is not to be questioned.

It has been redefined as the equivalent of a basic human right.

Just as the European Court of Human Rights defends the rights of citizens of the Council of Europe's member states not to be sentenced to death, not to be imprisoned without fair trial, and not to be discriminated against on grounds of their race or gender, so the EU's European Court of Justice defends the 'right' to trade, to establish a business or corporation, to undercut a non-profit public service by paying lower wages or avoiding universal provision obligations.

In this way, decisions which should be in all of our hands are removed from the realm of political debate and thus removed from democracy entirely.

Steve McGiffen is Spectrezine's editor.

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