• The Future and the Constitution

  • By Erik Meijer | 13 Dec 12 | Posted under: Netherlands , European Union
  • The Left was always internationalist. We wish to end the threat of war and the subordination of poor and weak states to the rich and powerful ones. We accept neither social and humanitarian inequality, nor the numerous unsolved international problems in the area of the environment, labour, transport and consumer protection. To struggle against all this we need, among other things, a kind of inter-state cooperation, something that was completely lacking in pre-war Europe. But what kind of European cooperation do we want, in the last analysis? How far-reaching do we want it to be? To what end? And how does it relate to other parts of the world?

    How can we best organise as a workers’ movement that can win? Can we reach our goals from above, by way of a large state, or from below, from within business firms, city districts, schools and in communities? What positive or negative role can membership in the European Union play in this? Can the left assume that a large multinational state will contribute to the kind of social change that we have not achieved at the level of the individual state on a smaller scale? The thesis of my party, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP) is that we cannot, because of unequal power relations. The lobbies of the large corporations have much more influence than the labour movement, and its actions carry more weight than strikes, demonstrations, trade union and environmental movements. And this mainly, because political decisions are made far away from the people.

    Differences in Public Perception of the EU

    Regarding the EU, there are, as we know, different opinions, even within the left. This is in part determined geographically and economically. Does one live in the former periphery of the EU or in its centre? Does one live in a small or in a big state? Does one live in a highly developed industrial and service economy or in a region depending on the export of cheap agricultural products or of mining? All this will determine different attitudes toward the EU.

    In Sweden, Denmark, and Great Britain, public opinion – also on the left – has no great need of far-reaching European cooperation. In Norway, for this reason, membership was twice rejected in a popular referendum. In the rich and thinly settled states of the Northwestern marginal areas of Europe, with few neighbouring states and therefore limited cross-border problems, the EU is needed least of all, and so “Euro scepticism” has developed in that region.

    By contrast, EU membership in centrally located countries – such as Germany and the Netherlands – is almost uncontested. And the same holds for the economically backward new members states in the South and East. There, the frequent criticism of the EU’s practice is far different from British and Scandinavian “Euro-scepticism”. In the South and the East nobody wants to leave the EU, but this certainly does not mean that they consider the EU to be sacred.

    The EU is an ambiguous project. On the one hand, the precursor of the EU is considered a peace project, a peaceful answer to the three terrible wars between Germany and France (1870, 1914, and 1939). The left supports this peace project.

    On the other hand, this peace project was also that of US-American Europe, a part of the US-American zone of influence along the coasts of Europe and Asia facing the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. This Europe was militarily and economically linked to a great extent to the power of the USA and its corporations. The privilege accorded to economic growth, free competition and large international corporations, which is to say current neoliberal policy, is a lasting feature of this EU. It is precisely of this aspect of the European project that the Left has always been critical. That holds true up to the present day. It is, for instance President Bush who dictates when, how and why Turkey should join the EU. He does not see this membership as linked to democracy and human rights, but exclusively as a reward for NATO loyalty, and in relation to the military and economic significance of Turkey as a large low-wage country.

    The Example of the Netherlands

    After these remarks on the general dilemma of the left with regard to the EU, I will now concentrate on the developments in the Netherlands. The example of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP) can illustrate the relationship between the left and the EU. At first, disinterest led to an extremely uncritical public opinion in the Netherlands, but in the end, the Dutch rejected the EU constitution.

    The Netherlands is a country without widespread “Euro-scepticism” but with a left political majority. However, a left campaign has brought about a “No” vote on the EU Constitutional Treaty. The Netherlands have no tradition of popular votes. There had been no country-wide referenda after 1797, that is for more than two centuries. The referendum on the EU Constitution was only held in the Netherlands, because it was considered certain from the outset that a large majority of voters would support the project. The Netherlands is one of the founding states of the EU, and public opinion for a long time has been extremely pro-EU. The EU enabled this small and densely populated country to become important. Our national economy has profited hugely from EU membership. Also, we were, for a long time, net recipients rather than the net donors we have become today.

    It was clear that 85 percent of parliamentary deputies would support the constitutional project. And even though the government at that time was against a referendum, the parliament considered it important and approved it. It wanted demonstratively to prove that this project was a big step ahead and that a large majority of electors would agree. This expectation of the ruling politicians was shattered by the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.

    In the beginning, we did not have any definite position pro or contra a possible EU constitution, even though we feared that the word “constitution” would serve as an invitation to more extensive EU centralisation, to the development of a super state, where more and more important decisions would be made in Brussels or in Strasbourg. Nor was the idea of a constitution at first very controversial in the surveys. Most people thought that a Europe with constitution would probably be better than a Europe without one, because the purpose of a constitution is always to secure citizens’ rights and democracy.

    During our campaign, we said: “In the event Europe needs a constitution, its text should be quite different from the one proposed without neoliberal and military elements of constraint and without centralizing decision-making at the top level. And the small improvements that this constitutional text contains, such as the extension of the control of the European Parliament over agricultural finances or the transparency of Council sessions, could be introduced today without the constitution. For that purpose, there is no need to tolerate a constitution in which good elements exist alongside bad ones.

    In the beginning, a low voter participation had been expected, because it was thought that only those would go to the polls, who favoured a powerful multi-national state on the basis of neoliberal politics and military might. In that case, the results of the popular referendum in Spain, where there had not been a significant public debate, would have been repeated in the Nertherlands. In Spain, only those people took part in the vote who highly appreciated arguments appealing to “citizens’ duty” and “gratitude for the financial transfers from the EU”. The result was, as we know, low voter turnout, but a large majority for the constitutional text.

    In the Netherlands, the SP’s campaign was aimed at increasing voter participation in order to permit strata of the population beyond the political elites to express their opinion. In that way, those who regarded the continued development of the EU more critically were also to be mobilised to vote in the referendum.

    The different forces behind the “No” vote were not united by a common campaign. The SP not only focused its campaign on the neoliberal and militaristic policy of the EU, but also addressed “small-scale effects”, selfdetermination, and democracy.

    The other smaller political forces had different arguments. The Christian Union, a sort of Bible-based fundamentalist party that has now been in government for some weeks only, emphasised its own historical roots and the independence of the Netherlands. The right-wing populist Freedom Party, which just split from the right-wing liberal governmental party, emphasised resistance to Turkey’s possible EU membership.

    On the other hand, the defenders of the constitution had very different arguments. Social democrats and Greens defended the project based on the wish to improve Europe. Christian-Democrats and right-wing liberals argued for maintaining the existing politics and structures of the past 50 years of European unity. In this campaign, I often pointed out that the defenders were talking on the basis of two very different interpretations of this project and were not at all united.

    During the last weeks of the campaign, an unexpectedly intense interest developed among the voters. Every evening, everywhere in the country, there was high attendance at assemblies where the pros and cons were debated. The more information was distributed, the more voter participation and the share of the “No” vote rose in the surveys. In the end, there were Christian Democratic politicians, among them the former foreign minister and a former prime minister, who declared that the voters could vote “yes” without any qualms because this document was not a constitution in any case.

    On June 1, 2005, the “No” obtained more than 62 % with a voter turnout of 61 % that accordingly was 20 percentage points higher than that of the European elections. It is also remarkable that the majority of social democratic voters and of the members of the trade unions and almost half of the green voters followed the SP and voted “No”.

    Shortly afterwards, the majority of the parliament supported the SP motion for a “broad social debate” on the future of the EU. The debate, however, never took place due to a quarrel between government and parliament. As a result it is not clear what kind of Europe and what kind of constitution the Dutch actually wanted. However, it is perfectly clear that for public opinion in the Netherlands, this particular constitutional project is history, something that will not return. In current surveys, far more than 62 percent of people say that they would vote “No” in a possible repetition of the popular referendum.

    What Has Changed?

    First of all, the Dutch people have not become “Euro-sceptical”. An EU that solves cross-border problems better than the individual member states could on their own, can still count on broad support. On the other hand, an EU that reduces public services, that restricts social security and democracy, is particularly unpopular.

    Secondly, “small-scale effects” are increasingly bringing about a new quality of life. Ever larger communities, bigger schools and more gigantic hospitals are increasingly rejected and with them a Europe that from a great distance enforces unitary solutions that are very different from what people actually want. We do not want to be part of a multinational state, because multinational states are only kept together by military power and bureaucracy and lead to inequality among the people who live in it.

    Thirdly, in contrast to our past traditions, we distrust the ruling politicians. Just as we no longer believe in ever larger schools and ever smaller communities, we do not believe in an ever larger stratum of bureaucrats necessary to make these “large-scale effects” possible. The people want self-determination; they do not want decisions from outside, but from inside. They do not want decisions that they cannot influence. They demand democracy instead of bureaucracy.

    On the basis of the elections held at the end of 2006, there is now in the Netherlands a governmental coalition composed of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats a few Bible-fundamentalists, and the Christian Union, which is rather left in terms of social policy. Only the Christian Democrats still have a “yes” position, but they know that this puts them in a minority. Today, the social democrats, the majority of whose voters supported our position of refusal, in part support the position of the SP. The third governmental party, the Christian Union, participated in 2005, together with the SP in the “No” campaign.

    Although the SP, despite its electoral results of almost 17 %, has been excluded from the governmental coalition, the governmental programme with regard to the EU is no less radically formulated than it would be with the participation of the SP. The new government not only rejected the designation “constitution”, but also important parts of its content. Among other things, it says in the government declaration: “What we seek is a change and an eventual fusion of the existing treaties of the EU, where subsidiarity and democratic control are ensured and whose contents, volume and name contrasts convincingly with the rejected ‘Constitutional Treaty’”.


    Within Europe, there is today a right-wing, rather than a left-wing majority. This right-wing majority has made the European project more and more disreputable. We cannot change that in the short run. Under today’s conditions, there are no pre-conditions for an EU constitution that instead of being neoliberal, militaristic, and centralist would be social, environmentally sound, peaceful and grounded in grassroots democracy, as we would like it. Neither are we presently in a position to mobilise the masses to that end and to thus organise a majority in the parliamentary bodies or the state administrations. We can only try to strike parts of the existing treaties or drafts. The old constitutional draft has become a symbol for the wrong direction for Europe. The left won’t be given the opportunity to put forward an alternative constitution. The most we can hope for is the defence of the freedom to carry out a better policy at the level of the member countries, in the regions, and in the communities than that which is possible today in Europe as a whole.

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