From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Labour and the “left” avoiding the central political question

One of the less-publicised passages in the statement issued by the National Executive Council of SIPTU calling for a Yes vote in the second Lisbon referendum last year made a claim and proposed a political way forward, both of which expose many of the weaknesses of “left” politics today.
     “Until 2004,” claimed the SIPTU leaders, “our experience since Ireland became a member of the EEC (as it was then known) in 1973 was almost universally positive . . . However, the picture has not been so universally positive since. Many of the difficulties are actually due to the policies pursued by the Government here.” Their solution: “These issues can be addressed by electing an alternative Government with a strong Labour/Left component here next time.”
     What political stance that Government would take on Ireland’s position within the European Union is not spelled out. But we can guess.
     So, in the world of the SIPTU leadership, everything in the European garden was rosy until, “over the past few years, there has been a drift towards strident free marketeerism . . . reflected in a number of initiatives at the level of the EU Commission and judgements issued by the European Court of Justice on matters affecting workers’ rights.”
     So what about the “universally positive” experience from 1973? In that year the Republic joined the then EEC, along with Britain and Denmark. During its first decade of membership almost half the country’s indigenous manufacturing was wiped out and was replaced with more capital-intensive foreign-owned and export-oriented industry that was attracted to the country by a low rate of corporation tax and other investment incentives.
     But the unemployment rate remained high.
     During the 1980s, net emigration exceeded 200,000, which was equivalent to one-sixth of the then employed labour force of 1,200,000. The rate of domestic unemployment at the time was 16 per cent, another sixth.
     Simultaneously, the Government ran high public deficits, taxed and borrowed heavily, and ran up a public debt equivalent to 110 per cent of GDP. Output and exports expanded, because of high rates of investment in manufacturing, but there was little effect on unemployment or emigration.
     Then came the period when Mary McAleese and Bertie Ahern were able to travel throughout eastern Europe doing propaganda for the European Union, extolling the “Celtic Tiger” economy as proof of how well small states can do in the EU. The governments of the eastern European states then told their local populations, “Join the EU and we can have a boom like Ireland’s.”
     Now that the boom has disappeared, leaving SIPTU members and other workers with an Irish economy in ruins, having suffered a decline of nearly one-tenth in its output in 2009, with a budget deficit equivalent to 12 per cent of GDP and an unemployment rate of some 14 per cent of its labour force, and net emigration, what exactly could “an alternative Government with a strong Labour/Left component” actually do?
     First of all, the SIPTU leadership and the leaders of most of the other unions, along with the leaders of the Labour Party, who urged their members and supporters to vote for Lisbon, thereby voted to make it easier for Germany, France and the Brussels Commission to impose the draconian deficit reduction regime that is being created through McCarthy, the budget, the cuts, etc.
     A Government with the “strong Labour/Left component”—which in the real world would be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition—would soon discover the political folly of their uncritical acceptance of such measures as the euro zone’s “excessive deficit procedure,” which allows for the imposition of limitless fines on euro zone member-states that do not bring down their deficits.
     Well over twenty years ago now, the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors—the person most closely linked with the “social Europe” so beloved of trade union officials and Labour politicians—boasted that by 2000 the European Union would be making 80 per cent of the economic laws for its member-states.
     In other words, the EU, not their own national parliaments, would be making most of the laws for the member-states. This is in effect what has happened.
     Lisbon and the other treaties have set up institutions and procedures that rule us and make laws we must obey. They are in effect a constitution drawn up by large capital in the interests of EU big business, without any democratic element. Economically they provide ideal terrain for the profit-making activities of European transnational corporations. Politically they provide a framework within which Europe’s old imperial powers could assert themselves collectively on the world stage in the period after the Second World War, when individually they could no longer do so.
     Inside the EU the peoples of the former imperial countries, such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, which in the past ruled vast colonial territories, are discovering the drawbacks of losing their national democracy and having their laws made mostly by people they do not elect and who they cannot control. They are learning that their loss of sovereignty makes it more difficult for them to deal with the great crunch in the international economy.
     The European Union thus turns the question that frightens trade union leaders and Labour politicians, the issue of national democracy, independence, and self-determination, into the central political question of our era. The Government with the “strong Labour/Left component” would soon discover this essential reality of our age.

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