The European Union

An updated version of The European Union: A Critical Guide, by Steven McGiffen[1], was recently published by Pluto Press. Ed Lewis of UK Watch put some questions to him about it.


Lewis: Could you briefly describe the content of your book and your main reasons for writing it?

McGiffen: Some years ago one of my sons, who was at university at the time, told me that if students wanted to find out anything about how the European Union works, which increasing numbers of them across a range of disciplines do, they have to use text books written by Euro-federalists. This got me thinking – I really can’t stand that kind of attitude which leads people to believe that because the EU is so wicked we don’t need to know anything about it. On the contrary, I think it’s really important that people know about it because it’s hard to see how any reasonable person who doesn’t have a vested interest can avoid the conclusion that it’s a profoundly anti-democratic set of institutions whose main purpose is to make Europe into a paradise for big corporations. So as for the content, I describe the treaties on which the EU is based, its institutions and legislative procedures. I then look at what might be called the over-arching policy areas: the Common Foreign and Security Policy, “Citizenship, Justice and Security”, monetary policy, the internal market and external economic relations.

There are also chapters on the various areas in which the EU makes law: employment policy, the environment, agriculture and so on. I’ve tried to make this quite thorough without boring the reader to death, which isn’t always easy, I have to say. I do have an advantage over the Europhiles in having a distinctly irreverent attitude to all of this – the idea of ‘Europe’ as some sort of ideal and troops of freshly-scrubbed youths singing Song of Joy makes me giggle, or heave, depending on what mood I’m in. I think I’ve succeeded in making some pretty dry subject matter a bit more palatable. I’m not saying it rivals Groucho Marx but I hope it will raise a smile here and there and that this will, firstly, strike a blow against the ludicrous reverence for ‘Europe’ and, secondly, help people to recall the information in debate, or in the exam hall.


Lewis: One key criticism you make of the EU is that it is undemocratic. Supporters of the EU might argue that it is no less democratic than any national state: the elected representatives of the people decide what happens, and whilst it may be true that large swathes of people, maybe even whole nations, may oppose particular EU decisions, this is no different in principle to the opposition of groups of people to the laws passed by national governments. How would you react to this kind of argument?

McGiffen: I think you’d have to be tremendously naïve to believe that the elected representatives of the people decide what happens at either national or EU level. However, national parliaments do exert an influence on policy, as does the European Parliament.

There is a difference of degree here. For example, Britain’s political system is relatively undemocratic – the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch equivalent of the House of Commons, has much more power over government.

Moreover, it truly represents the Dutch people, because strict proportional representation means that 1/150 of the vote translates into one seat in the 150-seat chamber. I don’t know any other system as well, but none has a completely unelected House while the rule-by-decree which Blair can go in for is not possible anywhere else in northern Europe. So the European Parliament comes well down the scale, having arguably less influence on EU policy than even the weakest of national parliaments is capable of exerting over its government, though some of the assemblies in the new member states might rival it, and it is far from being a complete talking-shop. Things are rather more complicated than that, though as I said on one level we are simply talking about degrees of power and influence.

There is, however, a more fundamental difference between the European Parliament and these national bodies in parliamentary democracies: if I’m right, and the British parliament system is relatively undemocratic – and I have to say this is very uneven, it does have some democratic features – then the British people has it in its power to make it more representative, a power it has exerted on many occasions, resulting in an ever-widening franchise and fewer blatantly undemocratic aspects to the system.

The European people has no such power, quite simply because it does not exist. No-one has ever demonstrated in favour of having a European Parliament, or in favour of giving it more power.

Whether it is given more power or not is a purely technocratic question. It was a creation of government, and a parliament which is created by governments is an absurdity. All that can be said in its favour is that it is the EU institution most vulnerable to popular pressure – that doesn’t make it a parliament in the real sense of the term. I find the attitudes to which this question refers typical of the kind of thinking that goes on in a country whose parliament exists largely to flatter the government of the day, rather than keeping it in check. The real power in the EU lies in the Council, which consists of direct representatives of states, and the Commission, an unelected bureaucracy. To reproduce this system in Britain, say, you would have to have all laws proposed by Whitehall, then considered by a government which represented sectional regional interests and had a strong power to amend these proposals, and by a parliament which was directly elected but had only a weak and limited power to amend. Even though I don’t see Britain as very democratic, things aren’t quite that bad.


Lewis: Another fundamental criticism you make of the EU is expressed in the book’s conclusion thus: ‘Having spent 18 years working within one of [the EU’s] institutions (the European Parliament), I have seen nothing to disabuse me of the view that the integrationist project serves only one agenda – that of the multinational corporations (MNCs)’. Could you elaborate on this position and its relationship to questions of democracy?

McGiffen: Well, what I’ve spoken about above is the formal side of democracy. There is of course another side. Corporations are not directly elected within democratic systems, but clearly they exert varying degrees of power and influence. So as for its relationship to questions of democracy, I would argue that corporations, which are huge concentrations of power with vast resources at their disposal, consistently subvert democratic decision-making.

Corporations maintain an army of lobbyists in Brussels with which no other organised group can hope to compete. The Commission’s door is always open to them The Treaty of Maastricht was based on a document written by the European Round Table of Industrialists, the most powerful of all corporate lobbies. And of course the Commission and top industrialists share a culture, often come from the same families, eat at the same restaurants, ski at the same resorts. The result of the fact that the EU’s top decision-makers in the private and public spheres are interchangeable is the integrationist project and its orientation towards big business. I’m not saying this project has no minor, spin-off benefits for the rest of us. I campaigned hard against the euro, but I’m happy that I don’t have to change my money every time I want to pop back to Belgium, where I lived for twelve years, or the Netherlands, where most of my paid work (as a translator of Dutch) originates. If you’re young and fit it’s great to be able to go to work abroad with relatively few hassles, and I have young relations and friends taking full advantage of this. But these are just that – spin offs. The single European market was created to benefit big corporations, who are best placed to take advantage of it. It is being used to force member states to compete to attract corporate business through tax breaks, weakening environmental law, undermining worker protection or the welfare state. These are not unfortunate and unintended consequences – they are the very reason why the EU exists. It’s funny that no-one on the left argues with a similar view of the WTO – yet the EU has much more power than does the WTO and uses it to precisely the same ends, the creation of a neoliberal playground for capital.


Lewis: You link the enthusiasm shown by political elites throughout much of Europe for European integration to the political power of MNCs. In this context, how do you explain the hostility expressed within the ranks of the generally very business-friendly British Conservative Party? Also, what do you say to British EU-critical leftists who are uncomfortable with the idea of being in the same boat as right-wing anti-EU elements?

McGiffen: The Labour Party under Blair has simply taken over the Conservatives’ role as the party of core capital. There are Tories who are trying to win this position back, and they’re Europhiles like Ken Clarke. I also think it’s important to distinguish our critique of the EU from the nationalist ravings of the backwoodsmen. There can occasionally be an overlap between us and the non-rabid right, on the question of defending certain rights, for example. Tactically I always think one should consider working with anyone who isn’t a more-or-less open racist. I’d have problems appearing on a platform with a right-wing Tory myself. I have a visceral hatred for them which I can’t just put to one side. Last time I was in England I was pleased to see someone – in Manchester it was – wearing a tee-shirt which said “I still hate Thatcher”. As for being on the ‘same side’ as such people, however, how do pro-EU types feel about being on the same side as a murderous nutter like Blair?


Lewis: I want to address a couple of more specific issues. First, attempts have been made – notably by the British government – to link the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with poverty in the ‘developing world’, on the basis that the protections offered EU agriculture restrict the market access of poor producers in developing countries. Thus, neoliberal policy is offered as a means of improving the lot of the world’s poorest. The left, by contrast, has tended to identify neoliberalism as a contribution to world poverty. Could you shed some light on this issue?

McGifffen: I am somewhat baffled by the idea that European farmers must see their incomes slashed or be driven from the land if farmers in developing countries are to make progress. The British government, of course, is made up of liars and hypocrites, but some quite well-meaning, honest people also seem to believe this. If you live in the French countryside, as I do, you see agriculture in a very different light from the way you might view it if your idea of rural folks is conditioned by the sight of vermin like the Countryside Alliance parading through the streets of your capital city. The idea that abolishing subsidies on European agriculture would be progressive is something which only someone who knows nothing about the issues involved could possibly take seriously. Subsidies could indeed be lower, but the main problem is that they go to the wrong people and support the wrong things. The result is that taxpayers’ money is poured into the coffers of rich corporations. Some commodities, for example sugar, suffer from overproduction. This could be addressed by restructuring subsidies. Export subsidies, which tend to make it impossible for farmers in the importing countries to compete, should indeed be phased out.

Subsidies should in general be reorientated towards support for people who need it, forms of agriculture which benefit us all in a variety of ways, and environmental protection in general.

However, when the EU removes or reduces subsidies, as it is doing now with sugar and as it has done in the past with other commodities, it only partly compensates farmers for loss of income and does little or nothing to encourage sustainable agriculture or the social and environmental reconstruction of farming areas. The smallest family farms are the first to go.

In the face of the sugar reform, there will be a particular problem, because this was the last really profitable commodity. Income subsidies should benefit the environment by decoupling income from production of unneeded amounts of particular crops, but if farmers’ incomes fall, steeply and drastically, the environment will suffer. Farmers will be driven off the land, land will be abandoned, more speculative building will become economically viable, and the average size of such farms as are left will increase.

The real winners will be the multinationals in processing and other food industry sectors and in the retail trade. They are the driving force behind the drive blindly to cut subsidies, because they want simply to be able to buy in raw materials from throughout the world and to take over market sectors still to some extent held by small suppliers.

Then there is the question of access to the EU’s markets. Abolishing import restrictions would be of little real benefit to the poor of the Third World, and might indeed indirectly harm many poor farmers, the vast majority of whom produce only for their own local and national markets. What they need is protection for these markets, not access to others far away. Yet it is precisely this kind of market protection which the liberalisers of the WTO threaten to have dismantled.

A great deal more could be said about this issue. I have tried to give the broad outlines of an explanation of why it is misguided simply to call for an end to EU subsidies – though I would certainly call for their repatriation, that’s to say for them to be controlled by the member states’ authorities. I recommend an article by Guus Geurts

( which appeared not long ago on the website I edit, if you want to look at these arguments in more detail.


Lewis: Secondly, the EU Directive on Services in the Internal Market – commonly known as the ‘Bolkestein Directive’ – was adopted in modified form by the European Parliament recently. Could you tell us a bit about this highly controversial directive, the opposition to it, and what the implications of it are?

McGifffen: I said in a recent article for the Morning Star that this measure represents “the greatest assault on the rights of working men and women since the Thatcher government systematically dismantled the legal framework which enabled trade unions to defend the rights of their members.” Of course, it also represents a threat to the rights of workers in other EU member states, some of which have far stronger codes of labour law than does the UK. The UK fares rather badly in comparison to other northern European countries when it comes to worker protection and most aspects of the welfare state and social or public provision, though my impression is that it remains relatively strong when it comes to health and safety issues. In all of these areas the directive represents an enormous threat. The sell-out deal done by the social democrats (the term, like ‘centre-left’, let alone ‘socialist’, is increasingly becoming laughably

inaccurate) in the European Parliament with the centre-right ‘European People’s Party’, which enabled the directive to be passed at first reading, changed the language but not the meaning of the text. As I said in the Star: “Cosmetic changes were all that was on offer, and the Bolkestein Directive, as it is known throughout Europe, remains what it always was, a declaration of war on working people. Only now it is a declaration of war co-signed by the Labour Party, by every other centre-left party in the EU with the exception of the French Parti Socialiste, and by John Monks, General Secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation, now starkly revealed as being little more than a branch of the European Commission whose job is to lead workers up a cul-de-sac called ‘social Europe’.”

They will tell you that the directive’s most controversial innovation, the ‘country of origin principle’ has been dropped. This is, to put it kindly, a misunderstanding. However, as only a sizeable minority of social democrats in the European Parliament are genuinely too thick to understand what they have put their names too, it would be more accurate to call it a bare-faced lie. The words have gone, but the effects will be just as destructive without them. The directive will mean that a company registered in any EU member state will be able to provide services in any other member state, under the conditions which exist in the state in which it is registered, rather than the one in which it is trading. You will be able to run buses in London or Cardiff, register your firm in Poland and follow Polish law on working conditions, terms of employment, environmental protection and so on. A box number in Bratislava will enable you to to offer cleaning services for office blocks in Glasgow or Manchester, using products that conform to Slovakian standards and employing workers under Slovakian conditions. Oh, you’ll have to pay them the UK minimum wage, except that no-one in the UK will have the power to inspect your business to make sure that you are doing so. And in any case, if other cleaning firms pay any of their workers more than the minimum wage, you will be able to undercut them. The directive has no truck with ‘going rates’ or anything so old-fashioned as that.

Cleaners are generally poorly paid in any case – skilled workers, however, will also find themselves undercut by people trained to do the same job who are ‘willing’ to do it for the minimum wage. It might well turn out to be the case that firms from eastern Europe will simply bring workers with them, no doubt exacerbating the sort of xenophobic tensions already whipped up by the gutter press and the far right.

The removal of the words ‘country of origin’ means little or nothing. Because no explicit statement was added to the effect that companies must follow the laws and practices of the countries in which they are operating, where the text is unclear it will end up in the European Court of Justice, which can be guaranteed to rule in favour of the neoliberal single market.

Member states will not be permitted to require companies providing services within their territories to register there, to obtain authorisation from them, or even to have a representative in the country. The lack of such powers will mean that the statement in the compromise to the effect that it must not be allowed to undermine social conditions or collective labour agreements – which are in any case not contained in the legally-enforceable body of the text – are pious declarations which will mean nothing when they come before the ECJ. Although certain services are excluded from the directive’s scope, but for the most part these are so vaguely defined that this protection will in reality amount to very little. They include social housing, pharmacies, child-care services, “education and cultural services pursuing social objectives”, health and audiovisual services, but not public transport, water or energy supply, or sewage treatment. The directive still has some way to go. It has to be approved by a weighted majority of member states and again by the European Parliament, this time with a stronger majority. Although the two biggest political groups supported it, the French Socialists, facing an imminent election, knew they would lose support if they did so, though to be fair many do really oppose such extreme neoliberalism on principle.


Lewis: What hopeful developments have you seen in relation to European politics in recent years? What do you hope to see in the future?

McGiffen: We have twice defeated attempts to liberalise European ports through the Port Services Directive, and in a way which should provide a model for successful struggle. On the one hand, in the streets, on the docks themselves, in huge demonstrations and great public meetings, strikes and other forms of industrial action, tens of thousands of dockers and their supporters made it clear that they would regard the passage of the measure as a declaration of class war. On the other, inside the European Parliament, national parliaments and anywhere ministers could be lobbied, men and women worked hard to convince politicians across the spectrum that the proposed directive – which would have deregulated many jobs which currently require certificated training, allowing, for example, poorly-paid seamen to perform dockside jobs involving the loading and unloading of all sorts of cargo – would cost jobs, endanger lives and in fact reduce the efficiency of Europe’s ports.

The irony is that Europe’s ports are already demonstrably ‘competitive’! So we won the arguments as well as putting up a show of strength which made some shipowners and owners of the port services in question think twice. This is what we have to do whenever we are faced with these viciously anti-working class measures, and we have to do it across borders in a way which is well-coordinated and effective.

A second answer is that young people, at least here in France, are staging an almighty rebellion to demand their right to a future. Asked whether this was “1968 all over again”. one young woman said something like (I’m speaking from memory of something I heard in

French) “Not really – that was about ideals. It’s not that we have no ideals. But in ‘68 you could decide you had had enough of demonstrating and go out and get a decent job instead. We don’t have that option. So we are fighting for our right to any kind of decent life.”

Also, although I now live in France, as their main English-language translator I am in almost daily contact with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, and this is also very encouraging. This really is, despite its name, a socialist party! It began life in the 1970s as just one more far left grouplet – or so it seemed. But right from the start it was in fact different, putting the emphasis on finding out what working people felt strongly about and working with them to achieve things. Its practical militancy and colourful campaigning style has made inroads into the PvdA (Labour Party) vote and enabled it to overtake the middle class progressives of the Green Left. Early this month it doubled its local representation and if it repeats its percentage performance in the parliamentaries nest year it will go up from 9 to 17 MPs. It’s great to be involved with a fast-growing militant left party that describes itself as ‘modern’

but doesn’t redefine this to mean ‘swivelly-eyed Blairite’. And the SP has been a highly visible presence on all fronts in the fight against the present government’s viciously anti-working class policies, its attempts to dismantle the welfare state and public services, and its campaign in favour of the EU constitution.

All over the world, people are developing new forms of struggle as well as refining and adapting ones that are as old as capitalism itself, or much older. The choice facing us remains simple: fight back or lie back – socialism or barbarism. If your response to an attack on your living standards, your rights, the things you value, is to stand up and fight back, you may not win straight away but you will learn, you will become a stronger person, you will get more from your life as an individual and as a member of your society.

If your response is to say, “oh, look what the bastards are doing now”, reach for your remote and change the channel, you deserve all you get: the trouble is, the rest of us get it too.

Of course, life can be wearying and there are times when you have to switch off, relax, do something else.

I am not a person who eats and breathes politics 24 hours a day. In fact, I think such people are part of the problem. But I want to live in a world based on equality, solidarity and dignity, one in which respect is due to every child, woman and man, indeed to all that lives. I want this badly enough to work for it, to take risks for it, and not to take no for an answer.


1 Steven McGiffen edits the website Spectrezine, ‘a radical journal of the European Left, with a global perspective’. Another of his recent books is

Biotechnology: Corporate Power versus the Public Interest, also published by Pluto Press. Until recently he worked for the United Left Group in the European Parliament and the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.

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