Europe deserves much better than the Lisbon Treaty


May 22, 2008 12:55 | by Susan George

European history provides a showcase of human beings at their worst. Constant conflict, the two bloodiest wars ever waged, famine, brutal industrialisation, oppression of workers and women, religious strife, colonialism, fascism, communism - all these stain our past. But Europe also represents the best humankind has accomplished, giving the world the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, a constant struggle for emancipation, democracy and the separation of powers, the welfare state - not to mention universally recognised cultural contributions from Greek drama to Finnegans Wake , from the symphony orchestra to Irish folksong.

Born in the United States and a citizen of France, I am a fervent European. At this point in history, I believe only Europe can provide all its citizens with democratic government, dignified living standards, greater social equality, public services, universal healthcare and education. This small continent, with just 15 per cent of the world's people, can lead the way towards ecological sanity and a liveable planet and prove nations can overcome even the most tenacious hatreds and live together in peace. Europe can be a counter-model to the myriad brutalities, affinity for war and stupendous inequalities on display elsewhere.

For these and other reasons, I voted no to the deeply flawed, undemocratic European constitution in May 2005. Had the French government not confiscated the people's right to another referendum, I would have voted no again to the Lisbon ("Reform") Treaty - a clone of the rejected constitution, except for "cosmetic changes" making it "easier to swallow", as Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, principal author of the constitution, said. No flag, no Beethoven hymn, but the rest is there as Angela Merkel, José Manuel Barroso, Bertie Ahern and other relieved European notables all agreed.

The treaty contains no substantive changes. It's just much harder to understand, worse even than the immensely complex constitution. Now we must deal with two European treaties (Rome, 1957, and Maastricht, 1992, with their subsequent revisions) to which Lisbon adds 145 pages of amendments plus 132 more pages of 12 protocols and 51 declarations, all legally binding, all superseding every law of the 27 member states.

There is no single text - you must cut, paste and collate the hundreds of pages for yourself. The very least one should require of a treaty that will dictate at least 80 per cent of all future legislation throughout Europe is that it be comprehensible. But complexity can be an effective weapon against democracy. Let us recall what commission vice-president Gunter Verheugen said after the French and Dutch No votes: "We must not give in to blackmail." So much for universal suffrage and popular sovereignty.

There are a few beneficial changes to the defunct constitution. The new treaty gives the European Parliament, the only elected body, marginally more power to co-decide on legislation, although it still cannot initiate legislation.

However, the unelected European Commission remains all-powerful, particularly in crucial areas such as trade. A new article specifies the European goal of "integration of all countries into the world economy through the suppression of barriers to international trade". Already trade commissioner Peter Mandelson is pushing for European corporate penetration in even the poorest countries, defining "barriers" as any government measure regulating foreign investment, public procurement, environmental or consumer protection.

The European Central Bank gets an even more iron-clad statute of independence from political supervision; its mandate remains control of inflation with no mention of full employment. The "market" (63 mentions in the text) remains the supreme good and "competition" (25 mentions) the overarching rule. Public services are specifically subjected to competition: government subsidies or other forms of support will become more precarious. European-wide social policies will require unanimous approval - this is a euphemism for a race to the bottom. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is inferior to most existing European constitutions.

Common security and defence policy places Europe firmly under the tutelage of Nato "which remains the foundation of the collective defence of its members". We are signing on blindfolded for whatever Nato's future policies may be - we only know for sure the US will remain in command. The treaty also obliges members to "progressively increase their military capacities".

This Lisbon Treaty is a model of failed neo-liberal economic nostrums and misplaced confidence in the market and competition as universal panaceas. Europeans deserve better, beginning with an elected convention for drafting a constitution, time for full debate and a popular ratification process.

Europe has now surpassed the US as the wealthiest political entity. We can afford to retain and perfect the European social model, provide a decent livelihood for all and undertake a swift conversion to an ecological economy; we can afford to embody the ideal of the common good. Not to demand all this and more is a betrayal of whatever is best in our history. This may be Europe's last chance.

Susan George is a Fellow and Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute, on the website of which this first appeared. Her latest books are La Pensée enchaînée: Comment les droites laïque et religieuse se sont emparées de l'Amérique [Fayard, 2007], to be published in English as: Hijacking America: How the Religious and Secular Right Changed What Americans Think [Forthcoming, Polity Press 2008], and We the peoples of Europe [Pluto Press, 2008].

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