At the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in October, Asian governments should not take any lessons on democracy or economics from the European Union. We have to make common cause between Asian and European social movements, because we are all losing out from current policies.
Susan George shared these reflections in the run-up to the Asia-Europe People’s Forum. Find out more on how to get involved
What kind of Europe is Asia meeting with in October?
Asia will be meeting with the most neoliberal and undemocratic Europe in history. The European Union (EU) has just forced through a constitution, under the name of the Lisbon Treaty, which has the same elements that were rejected by the French, the Dutch and later the Irish. In the words, of the architect of the constitution, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the European Commission “has made cosmetic changes so it will be easier to swallow.”
The European Union is not a democratic entity. We have to vote how they want us to vote or it doesn’t count. EU commissioner Gunter Verheugen captured their attitude after the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes, saying “We must not give in to blackmail.” This is extraordinarily disturbing. It is a rejection of enlightenment thought, the rightful capacity of people to intervene in how they are governed. Anti-democratic values are taking hold. We have become stakeholders instead of citizens, consumers instead of sovereign people, we are offered consultation rather than real participation. I don’t accept this.
Asians should therefore not take any lessons about democracy from the Europeans. Clearly there are several Asian countries that are not democracies, but that is not my main concern as I am not Asian. My concern as a European is that we are going backwards and that makes me very angry.
Now that the Lisbon Treaty has been forced through, what are your remaining key points of concern?
Apart from the clear democratic deficit – indeed the contempt for democracy- my main concern is that the Lisbon Treaty puts Europe under the umbrella of NATO, and therefore under the military control of the US, and hence the Commanding Chief of the US army. The Treaty says specifically that “for the countries which are members [of NATO]”, which is the vast majority of the EU- 27, the NATO commitment is the "the foundation of their collective defense and the forum for its implementation." Obama might be a better Commander in Chief than Bush but it means we are still under thumb of whoever is in charge of the US.
The treaty also confirmed a further push towards the privatization of public services. The Treaty affirms Europe’s commitment to “undistorted competition” and opens up all “services of general economic interest” to competition. Since nearly all public services have an economic interest, this will enable the handover of public services to the private sector (apart from a few deliberately excluded like the judiciary, police, army etc). What they have achieved with telecommunications, they now want to extend to health care, water and education.
And the European Union will also clearly use any way it can to advance these objectives. A typical example is the Bolkestein Directive, which is another long and complex text but included an attempt to make European workers subject to the labor laws and conditions from their “country of origin.” For example a Lithuanian worker taken to work in Scandinavia would still be subject to Lithuanian labor laws. Labor unions pointed out that this would put Lithuanian workers in competition with Scandinavian workers, undercutting them with lower standards.
The Directive was defeated in some aspects politically but immediately after this apparent victory, the European Court of Justice came up with four decisions that legalized different elements of the Bolkestein Directive such as the “country of origin” rule. What they don’t get one way, they will do another way.
This creates a very unfair and unbalanced battle for non-governmental organizations like TNI or ATTAC. It is difficult enough to follow all the developments in the EU, and even harder to confront proposals as corporations want all of these things and have far more means to lobby and pressure for them.
How do you see the economic state of Europe in the aftermath of the Euro crisis and the recent shift to austerity budgets?
I think what we are seeing is a disaster comparable with the Herbert Hoover period of 1930-1931, where US elites believed that doing nothing would bring salvation and tightening up spending would take out the country out of depression. Before Franklin Roosevelt was elected, Republicans were practicing the same policies Europe is practicing now, but Europe is going further, with draconian structural adjustment policies like those forced upon southern countries by the IMF from 1980 onwards. These austerity budgets won’t create an impulse for jobs or industry; they will lead to stagnation. However, they will once more enrich the elites at the expense of ordinary people.
We desperately need Keynesian policies. We must reject the idea that are there are fixed laws on things like deficits. The Germans say 3% but these are artificial numbers. The most important thing to grasp is that even if you are creating deficits, you must do this an investment in the future by investing in education, research, supporting small and medium-scale businesses with environmental and social ends. We need to start by socializing the banks we bailed out and then forcing them to lend to innovative enterprises.
We also need to put the European Central Bank back under public control. Did you know that the ECB lends to private banks at 1% and they lend to states like Spain, Ireland and Greece at whatever markets will bear? It is completely perverse but states cant get credit from ECB directly. This is mindboggling but is like that because the financial sector want it that way.
Meanwhile the European economy has lost 4 million jobs in last 2 years since the crisis was formally recognized. This growth in unemployment will continue while EU governments are allowed to practice austerity. This is a moral crisis, I am sorry to say, where the innocent – workers, retired people – are punished while the guilty – the financial sector – are rewarded.
What kind of relationship do you think the EU is looking to forge with Asia?
Unfortunately, I think they are approaching the talks with a narrow market vision incapable of seeing beyond horizon of three months ahead. We used to be a centre for a social vision, demonstrating that this was possible for a whole world. That it was possible to share the benefits of growth so everyone profits and provide education at a high level, healthcare, retirement benefits, unemployment benefits. This gave people protection but also allowed people to innovate because they were not afraid that they would lose everything if they made a bad decision.
Instead we have chosen exactly the opposite course, trying to compete in market terms with people prepared to work for ten, twenty, thirty times less. That is a losing game. We have become subject to the British Conservative Party’s vision of Europe which has no social vision, but sees Europe only in market terms.
Meanwhile Europe is pursuing an agenda of trying to exploit weaker partners through so-called ‘Economic Partnership Agreements’ (EPAs), which force developing countries to abandon any investment rules or anything that blocks the freedom of European transnational companies. Many governments succumb to these agreements particularly countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific because they fear losing aid or trade preferences. So they end up handing over their sovereignty. It is a kind of neocolonialism.
What kind of relationship should we be looking to forge as social movements?
The best thing we can do is show we can have successful workers movements and demonstrate that by giving workers maximum protection that we can create a culture in which one can innovate and take risks. That is the way to be “competitive” today—not by forcing down wages and benefits to rock bottom.
Trade Unions have to get together with ecologists, women, development organisations and others. We have to seize every opportunity to forge alliances of this kind, something TNI is very good at.
We have to make common cause between Asian movements and our own, because we are all losing out from current policies. Governments and transnational companies are very effective at forming cross border alliances to defend their own interests, so it is absolutely crucial that we do this effectively as social movements.
Susan George is TNI fellow, President of the Board of TNI and honorary president of ATTAC-France [Association for Taxation of Financial Transaction to Aid Citizens].