European Labor: Political and Ideological Crisis

… in an Increasingly More Authoritarian European Union – Published on ZNet (first on Monthly Review), by Asbjørn Wahl, January 21, 2014.

Where social democracy has been in power in EU countries in recent years, its leaders have been loyal executioners of brutal austerity policies, overseeing massive attacks on the welfare state and trade unions. In turn this has, among other things, led to dramatically reduced support for social democrats; with few exceptions, today they are hardly represented in European governments. The social democrats have painted themselves into a corner and are increasingly squeezed between growing social rebellion and their loyalty to the neoliberal European Union … //

… The Historical Role of Social Democracy: … //

… Massive Attacks on Public Services, Wages, and Pensions: … //

… Michael Hudson, a former Wall Street economist and now professor at the University of Missouri, notes that there is a massive fight against workers taking place:

  • The EC [European Community] is using the mortgage banking crisis—and the needless prohibition against central banks monetizing public budget deficits—as an opportunity to fine governments and even drive them bankrupt if they do not agree [to] roll back salaries…. “Join the fight against labour, or we will destroy you,” the EC is telling governments. This requires dictatorship, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has taken over this power from elected governments. Its “independence” from political control is celebrated as the “hallmark of democracy” by today’s new financial oligarchy … Europe is ushering in an era of totalitarian neoliberal rule.5

Towards an Authoritarian Europe:

  • The European Union’s role has been crucial for what is now taking place in Europe. In addition to the democratic deficit that is embedded in EU institutions, these institutions have been formed and shaped during the neoliberal era. They are dominated by the interests of capital to an extraordinarily high degree. The crisis has been used to wage a massive battle from the heights of the European Union’s governance institutions to further transform Europe in the image of capital.
  • More and more political power is being transferred to the unelected EU institutions in Brussels. The European Union’s only elected body, the European Parliament, has been sidelined from much of the process. The European Union therefore now moves in the direction of further de-democratisation, at a speed and in a manner with frightening possibilities.

Currently this development is carried out through a number of political innovations:

  • The European semester, which means that national governments each year will have to submit their proposals for state budgets and structural changes to Brussels for “approval.”
  • The Euro Plus Pact, a deregulation and austerity pact that includes all Euro countries and other EU nations that have decided to join (the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Sweden have remained outside of it). Attacks on working hours, wages, and pensions are part of the pact.
  • New economic governance, with six new laws, also called the “six-pack.” The package is intended to provide the legal basis for the implementation of the dramatic austerity policies, including enforcement rules.
  • The Fiscal Pact, which, according to the German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, should be irreversible, and which will centralize and further de-democratize the economic power of the European Union, through (among other things) the introduction of financial and other sanctions against member states that do not comply with the requirements. It is an intergovernmental agreement, and therefore formally not a part of the EU institutional framework.
  • Several of these pacts and agreements overlap, but with an increasing degree of centralization and authoritarian top-down policy instruments, including the transfer of power from nation states to Brussels, and from the European Parliament to the Commission. At the same time, we see a more and more open division between some core countries, centered around Germany and France, and a periphery of weaker states, particularly in the east and south of Europe.

The most crisis-ridden countries, like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, have more or less been put under the administration of bodies still further away from democratic legitimacy: the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission. The European employers’ association, the Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), and the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) exult over the new economic governance model for the European Union.

The ongoing de-democratisation of the economic politics, as well as the attacks on the trade-union movement undertaken in order to prepare the ground for the anti-social, austerity policies, represent developments that we have hardly seen since fascism was defeated in Europe. Four previous judgments (see below) of the European Court of Justice have all contributed to the restriction of trade-union rights in the European Union, including the legal right to take industrial action. Add to this that the political authorities in at least ten EU member states already have implemented pay cuts in the public sector by setting aside collective agreements without negotiating with the unions, and the gravity of the situation becomes clear. An increasingly authoritarian Europe is emerging.

The European Union as a Barrier:

  • Can this development be stopped? Is it possible to save Social Europe from the ongoing massive attacks on welfare and workers’ rights? Is it possible to mobilize social forces across Europe which can curb the massive attacks of capitalist forces and their political servants, with the aim of shifting power relations, and eventually creating the basis for a social offensive?
  • To say something concrete about this, we will have to look more closely at the challenges and barriers facing trade unions in the social struggle. What is it that restrains them from moving in a strong and coordinated manner into the fight to at least defend the social achievements that were won through the welfare state? It is necessary then to look at some important external barriers, as well as at weaknesses, within the movement itself.
  • There is a growing realization that the European Union itself creates a number of impediments, not only for economic and social development in Europe, but also for the social struggle.

We will consider six such barriers:

Democratic Deficit:

  • The first barrier is the democratic deficit, which has been there from the very beginning but has increased in recent years. Officially, the message from the European Union and its member states’ governments, with the support of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and other parts of the European trade-union movement, is the opposite. They claim that the Lisbon Treaty of 2007 took an important step towards increasing democracy in that the elected European Parliament had its authority widened in a number of areas.
  • In the opposite direction, however, some member states were more or less put under administration of the European Central Bank and the European Commission, with support from the IMF, in the wake of the financial crisis. Furthermore, the Parliament has been sidelined in much of the process to develop the new pacts and institutions described above. Finally, the new authority granted to the Commission to impose economic sanctions on member states that do not follow the strict (and financially and politically damaging) stability criteria will transfer power from democratically elected parliaments at the national level to the non-elected Commission, and thus further de-democratize the decision-making process in Europe.

Constitutionalized Neoliberalism:

  • Second, neoliberalism has been constitutionalized as the economic system of the European Union through the Treaty of Lisbon and former treaties. Capital’s freedom of movement and right of establishment are carved in stone, and all other considerations are subordinated to this principle, which we clearly have seen in the labor market (see below). Free competition is another basic principle in the EU treaties. In recent years this has also increasingly been applied to the services market, which differs from the commodity market in the way that trade in services mainly deals with the buying and selling of mobile labor power.
  • It has long been a common saying on the European political left that socialism is prohibited by the EU treaties. With the stability criteria, and the new sanction regime to force member states’ structural budget deficit below 0.5 percent and government debt below 60 percent of GDP, we can conclude that traditional Keynesianism, or what we may call traditional social-democratic economic policy of the post-war period, is not allowed. This represents a dramatic curtailment of democracy in the EU member states and represents a major step towards a more authoritarian, neoliberal European Union.

Irreversible Legislation:

  • Third, the European Union decision-making process makes the above principles and decisions virtually irreversible. While all member states have some institutionalised protection for their own constitutions—for example by requiring qualified majority (either two-thirds or three-fourths) to change the constitution—in the European Union it has to be full agreement (e.g., 100 percent of the twenty-eight member states) to change it. This means the possibility of changing any of the EU treaties in a progressive direction through ordinary political processes is virtually nonexistent. One right-wing government in one member state can prevent this.

The Euro as an Economic Straitjacket:

  • Fourth, the existence of the euro, currently in seventeen of the twenty-eight member states, puts many of the countries into an economic straitjacket. As long as the economy and productivity develop differently in member states in the Euro Zone, and there is no large common budget to reduce economic inequalities, countries will need quite different monetary policies. Today it is Germany, Europe’s “economic locomotive,” which benefits most from this, with its strategy of exporting its way out of the crisis; meanwhile the most crisis- and debt-ridden countries—such as Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus—are the losers. The latter have no domestic currency to devalue and thereby make their exports cheaper and imports more expensive. Those countries with higher domestic consumption and weaker competitiveness are forced to conduct a so-called internal devaluation, that is, to increase competitiveness through wage cuts and cuts in public expenditure. This is certainly in line with the EU neoliberal project, but it is devastating to the countries’ economic and social development. This economic straitjacket can also contribute to the development of contradictions between workers in countries in need of very different policies.

Lack of Simultaneousness in the Decision-Making and Implementation Processes:

  • Fifth, the lack of simultaneousness in the decision-making process between the EU member states constitutes a barrier to developing cross-national mobilizations of trade union and social movements against many of the neoliberal and reactionary policies. Although much of the policy within the European Union is adopted by EU institutions, it is carried out in such a way that implementation is made at different times in different member states. The attacks and weakening of the pension systems, for instance, occurred over time and in different forms from country to country, based on recommendations from the European Union, but not through direct legislation. This makes it impossible to create a single European mobilization against these attacks.
  • The same applies to much of the European Union’s privatization policy. The European Union seldom makes decisions on direct privatization; it decides to liberalize, or to apply its competition rules to ever more areas of society. One of the effects is privatization, as we have seen in energy, transport, and telecommunications. Further, the implementation of these policies takes place at different times and ways in different states, thus making it difficult to mobilize coordinated resistance across Europe.
  • The very special legislation process constitutes further problems. Directives are not applied in the member states directly; rather, the content of the directives has to be transposed into the laws of each member state. As if this is not enough, EU legislation is written in an almost impenetrable bureaucratic language. This reality is often exploited by national governments and politicians, who play down the effects of various legal proposals, which later turn out to have widespread negative effects.

The Extended Role of the European Court of Justice:

  • Sixth, the European Court of Justice has recently taken on a more extensive role in reinterpreting and effectively expanding the scope of some EU treaties and legislation, particularly regarding trade in services, that is, trade in mobile labor power. In this context, it is important to understand the application of the four judgments that were made between December 2007 and the summer 2008—the Viking, Laval, Rüffert, and Luxemburg cases—all of which contributed to limiting trade-union rights, including the right to strike.
  • Before these judgments, the dominant view was that labor laws and regulations lay outside the EU domain. They belonged to the jurisdiction of the nation states. Through the four judgments, the opposite has clearly been established: labor market regulations are subordinate to EU competition law and to capital’s free movement and right of establishment. The judgments have also had the effect of transforming the so-called Posting of Workers Directive from a minimum to a maximum directive regarding the wages and working conditions that will apply to workers in companies established in one member state while they carry out work in another.
  • This directive prescribes that wages and working conditions of the host country should apply. However, according to the above mentioned judgments, this has now changed to include only some of the minimum conditions regarding wages and working conditions, thus contributing to social dumping in Western Europe—undermining both wage levels and labor protection laws which have been achieved through trade union struggle over many decades. This has first and foremost been the case in the construction industry as well as in service sectors such as hotels, restaurants, and transport.
  • The enormous wage gap between countries in a now single European labor market is what really spurs this development—to a considerable degree protected by EU legislation. ILO Convention 94, which intends to secure wages and working conditions in similar cases, was simply ignored by the European Court of Justice. Add to this the high level of unemployment and the extreme exploitation that many individual workers from Eastern Europe are exposed to in Western Europe, both legally and illegally, and we can easily understand how trade unions are being weakened and social regression has become the order of the day in ever more European countries.

The European Union Is Threatening the Unity of Europe:

Taken all together, we now see an extremely dramatic and serious situation in Europe. While the establishment of the European Union’s predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, were based partly on the desire for peace in Europe in the wake of the two world wars, the EU project of the European elites today is bringing about a formidable economic, social, and political polarization. The so-called European Social Model is breaking down. We are thus faced with the paradoxical situation that the “peace project EU” is currently the greatest threat to Europe’s unity, not on a national, but on a social, basis. However, we cannot ignore the possibility that, in certain situations, the result will be rising national antagonisms. Given the history of Europe, the European economic and political elites are playing with fire.

With all the barriers summarized above, it is also an open question whether or not it is realistic to believe that the European Union as a whole can be changed from within through a broad pan-European mobilization. Maybe it will be necessary for individual countries to leave not only the euro but the European Union itself in order to save their economies and their people’s welfare. If so, it will be essential that trade unions and popular forces massively mobilize for a Europe based on democracy, unity, solidarity, and cohesion, and thereby counteract the possibility of total European disintegration.

Internal Political-Ideological Barriers: … //

… Increased Resistance: … //

… What Has to be Done? … //

… (full long long text and notes).

Links:

NSA’s Secret Toolbox: Unit Offers Spy Gadgets for Every Need, on Spiegel Online International, by JACOB APPELBAUM, JUDITH HORCHERT, OLE REISSMANN, MARCEL ROSENBACH, JÖRG SCHINDLER AND CHRISTIAN STÖCKER – WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANDY MÜLLER-MAGUHN, December 30, 2013;

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