28th July, 2004
Business as usual
Steve McGiffen surveys the scene at the European Parliament now that a new batch of MEPs is preparing to carry forward the business-led EU project.
Although elections for the European Parliament were held six weeks ago, newly elected MEPs did not take their seats until last Tuesday. The dust is therefore only now beginning to settle, but as it does so, it is becoming clear that, for the itinerant and unloved Brussels-Strasbourg assembly, it is going to be business as usual.
Despite the admission of ten new member states and a high turnover of MEPs from "old Europe," the parliament will continue to be controlled by the two major groups, the centre-right European People's Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) and the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES). With 268 and 200 members respectively, the two command between them over 60 per cent of the parliament's membership.
The public meetings at which the parliament's president and other office-holders are elected are pure theatre. Real decisions are taken behind closed doors, with EPP and PES carving up the spoils - a "socialist," Josep Borrell Fontelles from Spain, will thus take the presidency for the first two-and-a-half years of the parliament's five-year term, with EPP group leader, German Christian Democrat Hans-Gert Poettering, taking over at the end of 2006.
In order to expose the lack of democracy in all this, both the 88-strong Liberal group, which had a surprisingly good election, and the 41 members of the United European Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE), decided to stand candidates. Reflecting the rightward stampede of the Greens under Daniel Cohn-Bendit, his group opted to support the Liberal rather than the GUE candidate, French Communist Francis Wurtz. This was too much for some Greens, 10 of whom voted for Wurtz, among them Paul van Buitenen, the whistleblower who, in 1999, brought down the EU commission with his exposure of corruption, and the British Green Caroline Lucas.
The political groups in the parliament are more or less unchanged. In addition to those mentioned above are the right-wing UEN and the equally right-wing but eurosceptic Independent Democrats, which is now dominated by the UK Independence Party.
Fortunately, rumours that the extreme-right were set to form a group have not as yet materialised.
The left internationally largely maintained its vote, losing seats only as a result of a catastrophic decline in support in Spain, the regionalisation of France's electoral system and the defection to the Greens of the rightward-drifting Danish Socialist People's Party. This was offset, however, by the affiliation of Sinn Fein's two members. From the new member states, left MEPs came from only Cyprus and the Czech Republic.
Details of electoral performance have already been picked to the bone by pundits of left and right, yet the most important conclusion to be drawn is rarely voiced. Whatever the results and their aftermath, they will have little or no effect on the EU agenda, which will continue to be dominated by neoliberal economics backed up by totally illiberal attacks on fundamental rights.
Brussels will continue to exert pressure on member states to deregulate their economies, privatise essential services and follow the dictates of the unelected and constitutionally "independent" European Central Bank. Under the leadership of Portuguese rightist Durao Barroso, the EU will continue to undermine hard-fought democratic rights in the name of a bogus "war on terrorism."
It will continue to promote policies which use fears of crime as a pretext to erode civil liberties, a racist approach to immigration and asylum and a general prioritisation of the "rights" of the powerful over the rights of the citizen or of desperate people driven from their homes by war, poverty and oppression.
In the face of this, the centre-left parties have no answer but to go along with almost the whole agenda. Germany's misleadingly named "red-green" coalition is typical, busily dismantling the welfare state, reducing taxes on capital and high incomes and thus redistributing wealth upwards. Though in Belgium, France, Sweden and elsewhere, centre-left parties maintain a progressive rhetoric and appear less enthusiastic about giving away public property, practice is often another matter.
Yet only here and there - in Germany itself, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, for example - have parties to the left of social democracy been able to take advantage of the resulting disillusionment of progressive voters.
Traditionally, the left in the European parliament has been divided between pro and anti-EU forces. As the EU has become more nakedly an instrument for furthering the corporate agenda, however, these contradictions have become less sharp. The MEPs organised in the GUE and the forces that they represent are still divided by tradition, style and political detail, but they are united against the militarisation of the EU, against the neoliberal hegemony evident in its economic policies and, beyond the question of "Europe" itself, against the US-led occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
If nothing else, the Euro elections proved that there is widespread disaffection from the EU and from policies which put the profitability of European multinationals before all other considerations. It is now up to the left to exploit this and to prevent it from becoming ever more a source of support for the far-right by further developing a radical critique of the EU and its policies and a programme which, while emphasising and respecting national sovereignty, allows us to co-operate across borders against the common enemy.
There can be no better opportunity to further this goal than in the coming battles over the constitution.
Steve McGiffen works for the United Left Group and edits Spectrezine. This editorial first appeared as an opinion piece in last Saturday's Morning Star.