The current project of the neoliberal economic machine is approval of the European constitution: with the aim of solidifying the political ties that have made it easier for transnational corporations to control European economic affairs. Thus far, champions of the constitution have sloughed off the opposition as the extreme right and extreme left up to their old tricks: using nationalism and class antagonism to destroy the journey of liberal peace-making. However, this idea was dealt a blow on February 3 when France’s largest trade union, the Confédération Général du Travail (CGT), urged its membership to oppose the constitution. Despite the support thrown at the project by the Socialist Party (PS) and most mainstream leaders of the Left in France, there is growing fear that the rank-and-file will not be going along. To no one’s surprise, the major parties are completely in bed with the spread of neoliberal political economy, while real people and their communities have grave fears. Indeed, what’s brewing in Brussels ought to be opposed by anyone on the Left. The consolidation of a trans-European neoliberal economic model will have untold consequences for workers, independent shopkeepers, retirees, and families throughout the continent. The growing controversy over the treaty is just another sign of the increasing resentment through the world of the Washington consensus.
Without a doubt, Brussels is beginning to look a lot like Washington DC. More than just being the site of the EU’s bureaucratic functions, it’s also home to some 20,000-30,000 professional and full-time lobbyists: 70% pushing the needs of their corporations on to EU policy-making. In the United States the adverse effects of corporate lobbying are seen all the time: someone working for a corporation running out of California can go to Washington and win a few votes over from representatives in, say, North Carolina or Georgia, and this will have profound consequences for people living in Illinois. This is the ugly face of Federalism: by signing up, you are pulled into whatever agreements are made by your counterparts. In the EU, transnational corporations can lobby a Spanish representative or Italian representative for policy that ultimately hurts French working people, and, if successful, France must be dragged along. As such, Federalism is the political form most convenient for neoliberal economics and its need to spread beyond national boundaries. The logic of the market mantra is “what’s good for you, must be good for us,” and, of course, this has never proven to be the case.
As an example, let us inspect the continually vanishing French brasserie. Once a cultural focal point of French life and civilization, the brasserie is slowly going the way of the dinosaur, unable to compete with larger entities. The numbers are drastic: nearly 3/4ths of these independently owned Cafés and Bars have shut their doors over the last 20 years, giving way to the growing popularity of large discotheques and clubs, but also to the ever familiar transnational entities like McDonalds and Starbucks. The reason is simple: in France there exists a prohibitively high 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) on luxuries: eating and drinking out is included. While this tax is intended as an aide for workers at these establishments, its sheer inflexibility has had a drastic effect on small shopkeepers. Due to EU regulation, France cannot lower or temporarily halt the tax: this is a rule that was added after much lobbying by everything from transnational businesses, who stood to profit from driving independent shops out of business, to Spanish and Italian based travel entities, who hoped that an expensive France would result in increased travel to the south of Europe. Unfortunately, there have been no real winners, and the losers have been the small shopkeepers who have had to either close or labor intensively (often 16 hour days, 7 days a week) to maintain a profitable business. It goes without saying that in the case where doors are closed, the result has been bad for workers: unemployment having been an unceasing plague in Western Europe for the last couple decades.
Individual countries are, indeed, increasingly powerless to control the course of their economies. The New Statesmen reports that “half or more” of European legislation (depending on the country) begins in Brussels and not in their home capitals. While some of this loss of sovereignty is a welcome sign in a continent previously plagued by world war, extreme nationalist violence and racism, the creation of an economic superstructure does not help combat these problems. In fact, neoliberal economics has resulted in very little being done to open borders to trade, while quite a bit has been done in paving the way for single corporations to merely spread their influence across borders. The latter isn’t trade: just expansion, plain and simple. If anything, it is resentment over the predominance of foreign firms in European countries that has incited the recent growth of Nationalist parties from Le Pen’s Front National to the British National Party in Britain. Much like Nazism grew out of a nationalistic aspiration of a greater Germany in the light of American and British hegemony, the current nationalists are being faced with a continually consolidating oligopoly that is destroying their local sovereignty.
The issue here is the function of the EU constitution: is it codifying the peaceful political intent of the European Union, or merely aiding in the spread of the neoliberal monster? There is growing fear among populations throughout Europe that there exists a tense interface between the stated political objectives of transnational organizations like the EU and the economic program that they are married to. While the human rights regime inherent to the UN and EU charters are widely applauded as appropriate and necessary in the post-World War II era, the neoliberal model is increasingly seen as a threat to the peace and justice brought through the human rights discourse. CGT’s demands, in opposing the EU constitution, mirror this critique exactly: seeking an EU treaty that brings Europe closer together on issues of human rights, peace, and democratization, and not on the universality of a singular economic model. Since the latter trumps the former, we should hope that CGT’s bold move gains some steam.
Matt Reichel is an American expatriate and graduate student in Paris specializing in international relations theory. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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