Dictatorship of no alternatives

Nicole was born in Brussels but feels like it is two different cities these days. ‘Only EU people eat in these fancy restaurants now,’ she says gesturing to a couple of eateries for the well-heeled on either corner from where we are standing. Even allowing for a bit of hyperbole, you can understand her point of view. She grew up in an army family with her dad a poorly paid corporal. They lived in what is now called ‘The Quarter’ – four square kilometres of some of the most expensive real estate in Europe which the European Union has called home since the 1980s. At that time Nicole recalls how her family was forced to move because the landlords, being landlords, sensed an opportunity to ‘make a buck’ and evicted existing tenants in order either to increase rents or to put housing stock under the wrecker’s ball and allow for lucrative development.

The relationship between the EU and Brussels and the usurped tenants of the old Quartier Leopold is, in its way, a metaphor for what is wrong with the EU as a whole – a worthy internationalist vision fallen amongst political wolves and corporate sharks. From its origins the EU, has been a top-down imposition with a minimum of democratic consultation. While it has achieved much that is worthwhile, it remains plagued by its autocratic origins and is used by those with power and wealth to obtain more.

The Quarter is a very odd place indeed. Its only life occurs during office hours and it’s pretty much a dead zone in the late evenings or at weekends. Some 85,000 to 90,000 people work here in the various institutions that make up the EU – the Council, the Commission, the various ministries or sub-directorates and a plethora of support institutions.

Here as well are those who want to be near the levers of power, over 15,000 lobbyists – 80 per cent from the corporate world – who try to ‘facilitate’ (ie shape) the EU’s decision-making process. All the big names are here, not only the big transnationals such as BP and Bouygues but the giants of public relations like Burston-Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton. There is a plethora of corporate lawyers, trade associations, forums and clubs where industry can rub shoulders with EU bureaucrats and Members of Parliament (MEPs). You might think the Forum for the Automobile and Society is about reining in the car industry? Guess again. This is the greatest gathering of lobbyists in the world and you know they wouldn’t be paying all those high Quarter rents if it weren’t worth their while.

Proximity is power

Proximity has its uses. Think of the office of the BASF chemical giant on the sixth floor, with the European Patent Office just downstairs on the ground floor. Or UNICE, the European Employers Federation’s, the main building of which is just across the street from the EU Director General for the Internal Market. ‘John, why don’t you nip across to the DG Market’s office and see if you can put some backbone into them over this silly trade union stubbornness on flexible labour standards’ – proximity is power.

The notion of happy-face Europe is propounded by the lavishly funded EU Public Affairs Office, form within the same building as Philip Morris, one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, hatches its schemes. Little wonder the PR folks prefer a smooth technocratic process, where the conflicting passions of politics are kept to a minimum. The Public Affairs Office is running a cheery contest to design a new logo for the EU’s birthday. It’s all squeaky clean and onwards and upwards in EU-speak. No mention here of corruption, alienation or lost referendums.

It didn’t have to be this way. When Europe staggered out of the Second World War the notions of nationalism, and indeed the nation-state, had fallen into disrepute. Little wonder people wanted to rethink government. And the EU has achieved lots of good stuff since then. Nicole refers to the ‘practical things’ – the right to travel freely, the reduction in busybody border guards, the right to work in other countries, a new European-wide health card. By the 1980s there was a social charter that laid down a core vision of basic economic and social security for all Europeans. This was certainly the vision of the French social democrat Jacques Delors and those around him responsible for the original architecture of the EU.

But this social vision was tied to the notion of a ‘free’ single market encompassing all of Europe. Compatibility between the market and society was simply assumed – a fatal error not just for the EU but in the entire approach of mainstream social democracy. Gradually the contradictions accumulated as those parts of the EU in charge of the single market worked to whittle away social rights to improve the investment climate. The social charter still exists, although it has been watered down by a lack of compliance and the introduction of provisions allowing some member states to opt out. This was the course taken in the 1980s to keep Britain, then under Margaret Thatcher, within the EU. A rebellious Britain was allowed to opt out of social provisions its Government did not like. This proved a fatal error as Britain, first under Thatcher and now under Blair, has been a stalking horse for US-style neoliberalism within the Union. It has consistently pushed market solutions and opposed any democratization of EU institutions. Blair’s New Labour championed the uncritical enlargement of the EU – a way of watering down what social provisions remain. British anti-EU opinion continues to be manipulated by a political class that bemoans the lack of EU accountability while actively promoting it by opposing a strengthened democratic mandate for the European Parliament.

Compatibility between the market and society was simply assumed – a fatal error...

The language of today’s EU – competitiveness, flexibility, national security, fiscal prudence, means-tested social programmes – reveals a mindset that is aiming to compete with the US merely by mimicking it. These days the corporate agenda is firmly in the saddle as national politicians from Bonn to Budapest use the EU as a mechanism to avoid responsibility for unpopular measures they in fact endorse. According to this ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’ it is essential to:
* Break up public control over service-provision of everything from water to parcel and post delivery.
* Stop all public subsidies for whatever purpose (employment, regional disparities, social exclusion) to create a ‘level playing field’ for corporate competition.
* Break down ‘special interests’ of labour unions in order to create a more flexible labour market: more wage competition, more part-time work, less job protection, a lower minimum wage, and an end to employment taxes.
* Cut red tape by either simplifying or reducing regulation for environmental and consumer protection.

But, as the following pages demonstrate, many Europeans aren’t taking this corporate design of their continent lying down. A new opposition does not want so much to abandon Europe as to recast it according to a renewed social vision. It is not so much against the idea of European-wide organization as against its capture by market ideologues and top-down institutions. This movement is the core of the opposition to current EU constitutional proposals and neoliberal initiatives such as the infamous Bolkerstein Amendment that would have enshrined investors’ rights at the expense of national standards such as environmental quality or labour legislation.

For this movement, Europe remains an important stage on which to extend democracy and build on what is good about a European way of life.

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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