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Socialism Today 120 - July/August 2008

A privateers’ treaty

In the run-up to the referendum, the National Forum on Europe – a body established by the Irish government in 2001 to ‘promote a national debate’ on the EU – hosted a series of meetings to discuss aspects of the treaty. One such meeting was organised in Dublin Castle on 15 May under the heading, Ireland and Social Europe: The Implications of the Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, featuring a debate between Ruairi Quinn, a former leader of the Labour Party and chairman of the pro-Lisbon Irish Alliance for Europe, and Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party TD for Dublin West (1997-2007).

Ruairi Quinn opened the debate followed by Joe Higgins. The following is an edited transcript of Joe’s opening speech. The full debate is available on the forum’s website:

"I WELCOME THE fact that finally we can get down to a debate on very specific issues arising out of the Lisbon treaty. And I do hope that by the end of today’s debate we can have clarity on a number of the crucial issues that arise with regard to social Europe, particularly the future of our public services and, indeed, the implications of Lisbon for the rights of working people in Ireland and throughout Europe.

Obviously, good quality public services available to everybody would be fundamental to any concept of a Europe that was run in the interests of the big majority of its people, which is what I understand by a social Europe. So the question is: does the Lisbon treaty have implications for the organisation of public services in this state and in the European Union generally? And if so, what are those implications?

Now, I say that the provisions in the Lisbon treaty under the heading, the Common Commercial Policy, have very far-reaching implications, and the most important changes are contained in Article 188c. () It replaces the current Article 133 in outlining the rules which govern a market being created in a trade in public services.

Now, most people here will know the procedure which is contained in paragraph three, that the EU Commission is mandated to conduct negotiations with international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, and to propose agreements which will then, following a vote, be binding on member states. These proposed agreements can include provisions concerning trade in health services, education and social services. And paragraph four stipulates that, for the negotiation, the conclusion and, therefore, the implementation of agreements referred to in paragraph three, the council shall act by a qualified majority. That is a major change. It removes the protection afforded in the current Article 133 where it is very clear that the consent of each member state is required to open up a trade in cultural and audio visual services, in education, social and human health services.

Now, it is true that the qualified majority vote requirement is raised to unanimity and, therefore, retains a veto in a number of specific instances. In the field of trade in cultural and audio visual services, where these agreements risk prejudicing the EU’s cultural and linguistic diversity, and in the trade in social, education and health services, where these agreements risk seriously disturbing the national organisation of services, and prejudicing the responsibility of member states to deliver them.

On those cases I say, firstly, those are very high thresholds. And I say, secondly, that in disputes the EU Commission and the European Court of Justice cannot be relied upon by working people to protect their interests in these services. Those bodies are strongly biased towards neo-liberal economic policies and outlook. They believe in the privatisation of public services and they do not believe that the privatisation of public services in any way interferes with those services.

Treating people as potatoes

NOW, LET’S LEAVE aside for one minute whether the categorisation of our public services as commodities to be traded in the capitalist market place is good or bad. Leave aside whether it is good or bad that transnational corporations, American and European based, should have a right to be able to muscle in to our public services like health, social services and education. Can it at least be acknowledged that the effect of Article 188 does allow a qualified majority vote to impose an opening up of these services to encroachment from these private entities?

Now, if Article 188 does not mean that, then what does it mean? And don’t make an assertion about that, give me chapter and verse.

I know there is one organisation at least that agrees very strongly with me on this, no less than the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation where they said in a submission to this Forum On Europe in April: "A yes vote for the Lisbon treaty creates the potential for increased opportunities for Irish business particularly in areas subject to increasing liberalisation, such as health, education, transport, energy and the environment".

Now, if somebody believes that it is fine that our people’s health should be a commodity to be traded on the stock exchanges then they won’t be too worried about these particular changes. I believe that it would be disastrous, however, that the provision of our public services should be traded like sacks of spuds or bags of coffee on the international markets.

Now, it is true that we have a government – made up of Fianna Fáil, the PDs [Progressive Democrats] and the Green Party – that is pro-privatisation, that has already handed over crucial public enterprises to be sweated on the world’s stock exchanges with detrimental results for citizens, for services and for the workers in those enterprises. We have a government that is currently tearing the heart out of community hospitals, proposing the closure of acute wards and removing emergency services under the guise of having better services in larger regional centres. This, of course, is a deception because, while arguing this line and downsizing community public hospitals, the former Taoiseach and the current minister for health and other ministers have been busily turning the sods and opening small private hospitals in the very locations where the public hospitals are being wound down.

Resisting the hidden agenda

SO THE AGENDA here is quite clearly centralisation as a cover for privatisation. But the fact that the present government is trenchantly pushing a privatisation agenda does not mean that we should say ‘well, it does not matter what the Lisbon treaty says or does, it is happening anyway’. Because the Irish people can kick this government out – hopefully we might get an opportunity before four years – but certainly we have that opportunity.

But whichever government is in power, as long as we have a veto, the people in encountering a particularly obnoxious proposal coming from a trade agreement could at least mobilise massive pressure on such a government to invoke the veto and to protect a particular public service. Similar, in a way, to the 1990s when a mass mobilisation of ordinary people, the taxpayers, forced the government to abandon the domestic water tax, which the outgoing minister for education, Hannifan, said would be €700-800 per household had it been imposed. Quite a burden on working people – and undoubtedly increased pressures for the privatisation of our water supply would also have followed. We prevented that.

Now, a social Europe suggests a Europe that is run in the interests of ordinary working people and communities, a society where human and community solidarity takes precedence over the profit of private corporations. The reality of the actual European Union is that it is an economic unit that is dominated by powerful multinational corporations, those organised, for example, in the European Round Table of Industrialists bringing together 40 of the biggest multinational corporations within the EU; powerful organisations like Siemens, Nestlé and Heineken, household names which wield massive clout, and virtually have written the economic policy over the past period. That is a reality that the advocates of Lisbon do not like to bring out in public – who really is calling the shots.

And we also have this idea that the EU in its economic policy outside its own borders, particularly with poor countries, is a very benign organisation. Well I invite you to look at what has happened in many African countries in the last six months, from Senegal to Mali to Burkino Faso, where people in their tens of thousands have been out protesting trying to stop the imposition of horrific trade agreements by the EU, the effect of which in one country would be to make Nestlé’s powdered milk cheaper than the milk produced by the small producers locally.

Rights on paper

WE HAD, AS well, speculators, major developers, profiteering on the backs of young working people needing homes at the same time as the crass exploitation of migrant workers in particular was going on in the very sites where those profits were being made. I am not even referring to the horrific industrial-scale exploitation of Gama but the exploitation of workers through the accession states in particular. So how social is a Europe that allows that type of exploitation and what will Lisbon do, if anything, to halt what we call the race to the bottom?

Now, I welcome any fundamental right that we can possibly win, but the claims that are being made about the Charter of Fundamental Rights which is being incorporated into the Lisbon treaty are not sustainable. They are not rights that are so fundamental when it comes down to brass tacks. Many of them look good on paper but actually mean little in terms of being legally implementable. There is the right that we should have quality healthcare, for example, but according to conditions established by national laws and practices.

In Ireland, that right means that you may languish on a trolley for days as an old, infirm and sick person, but if you are rich you can have a quality health service.

And very importantly, people must look at Article 52, the scope of guaranteed rights… And the explanation that I have not time to read out, but which comes from the EU itself, that should be read in conjunction with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is very clear that restrictions may be imposed on the exercise of those rights, and that is exactly what has been done in the various court cases.

Now Ruairi rather dismissively referred to the recent court cases like Laval, Viking, etc… But we have had Laval, which I think everybody knows about, where the European Court of Justice did endorse the underpayment of migrant workers in Sweden. More recently, we have had, on April 3, the Rüffert case in Lower Saxony in Germany, where the European Court of Justice clearly backed a Polish subcontractor paying less than half of the going trade union rate and repudiated the attempts by the local authorities to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers. 

Now, a Yes advocate stated in a debate that I had, that the Laval judgment could not happen if the Lisbon treaty is passed. And the chairman of the Referendum Commission, judge Iarfhlaith O’Neill, seemed to imply the same when he spoke on RTE Radio on the News at One yesterday when it was put to him in relation to the Laval ruling regarding Swedish unions that they were told: ‘Yes, you have the right to strike, but you don’t have the right to stop foreign workers earning money at lower rates than your members are paid’. And the learned judge gave the impression there that the Lisbon treaty would have caused a different outcome in the Laval case, and in the Rüffert case also. That is quite wrong. That is absolutely wrong.

People should read the Laval judgment for themselves. Paragraph 91 is very clear: it takes into account and specifically mentions the Charter of Fundamental Rights. So, although the right to take collective action must be recognised as a fundamental right which forms an integral part of the general principles of community law, the exercise of that right may, nonetheless, be subject to certain restrictions and it mentions community laws and national law and practices.

A powerful message

SO JUDGE O’NEILL and the Referendum Commission are quite wrong to imply that the passing of Lisbon would fundamentally alter the situation. I think the Referendum Commission should be very careful that they do not become involved on one side of the argument on the Lisbon treaty. And on this side I am sorry to say that the judge did stray over the line on this particular occasion, and strayed badly over the line, in my view, and that needs to be clarified and it needs to be corrected.

And lest it might arise later, I should state an interest here but it does not determine the criticism I am making of the learned judge; he did send me to Mountjoy jail for a month a few years back, but that is purely coincidental. ()

The fact is that the Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees in Ireland €8.65 an hour in terms of wages or whatever the registered agreement in the construction industry provides and nothing more. Now, I would like clarity on that and, if people challenge that, please show me where I am wrong and where you are right.

And by the way, Ruairi, I am sure you have read it or you should have done, the European Trade Union Confederation’s criticism of these judgments. I haven’t time to read the quotes, but I am sure you wouldn’t dismiss that body, if I may say so, as arrogantly as you do maybe the likes of myself with regard to what the implications of those particular judgments are. It is coruscating in what it says and it says that it compromises the attempt to protect migrant workers.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights in the hands of the European institutions, the Commission and the European Court of Justice, puts the interests of business and profit quite clearly before the rights of workers. That is manifestly clear from the judgments that have been given. Working people in Europe cannot rely on those institutions, neither can they rely on the promises now being made about the Charter of Fundamental Rights within the Lisbon treaty.

They can rely only on their own organisations’ strength and mobilisation and a No to Lisbon by the Irish people will send a powerful message that our public services are not commodities to be traded, or handed over to profit-seeking corporations for their shareholders’ profits rather than for the benefit of our people. And what we want instead is a truly democratic, a truly social – which, in my view, means a socialist – society, where those services and workers’ rights are determined by the wishes of ordinary working people, not by the massive profit-driven corporations that dominate so many activities of the European Union at the present time".

Challenging Merkel over Lisbon

JOE HIGGINS also used another Forum meeting on 14 April to challenge the guest speaker, German chancellor, Angela Merkel:

"Chancellor Merkel, may I first express the hope that the Fine Gael party, your host this weekend and ideological soul mates, I suppose, have received you with due respect and courtesy. And I say that because recently in our national parliament their leader, Mr Kenny, said that undoubtedly during the Lisbon treaty campaign, quote, ‘every head banger in Europe will come to Ireland’. I would like to clarify that he meant to insult only those of us who are opposed to the treaty.

Now, I want to ask four brief questions, chancellor.

First, we are told that the Lisbon treaty gives a legal basis to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We are told that the Laval judgment of the European Court of Justice, which endorses a low wage economy and legitimises what we call the race to the bottom, could not happen if Lisbon is passed. Chancellor, what is your understanding? And I ask you this because your government is opposed to a national minimum wage for German workers and you support the German employers in that. I ask you because a colleague of mine in Berlin, Lucy Redler of Sozialistische Alternative – you might have heard of her – directed me to a report from the trade union Ver.di, which finds that quite legally in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Berlin, where a suite costs €3,000 per night, house cleaners legally get 60 cents per room to clean a room, an incredible €2.80 per hour. Now, chancellor, will the Charter of Fundamental Rights take that worker in Germany from those slave wage conditions or indeed must German workers rely on their own mobilisation, as your train drivers did in their recent strike?

Two, 71% of the German people oppose the privatisation of German railways, but your government insists that it will happen. Why should we, working people of Europe, give any further help with the privatisation of public services, which is clearly pushed and envisaged in the Lisbon treaty, when governments like your own disregard the views of the majority of your own people and again take the employers’ side?

Three, the Lisbon treaty demands more expenditure on the armaments industry and intensifies the militarisation of the European Union. Now, chancellor, two-thirds of the German people oppose the presence of German troops in Afghanistan. You yourself, like the Irish government, supported the criminal invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain, which is an utter disaster for the Iraqi people, and you support the so-called war on terror, which involves the savagery of Guantánamo, the extraordinary rendition. But a big majority of German people are opposed to those policies. Why should we vote for Lisbon when it gives a militarised foreign policy a further impetus which could interfere in other countries in the future, just as the United States did?

And lastly, chancellor, last October 76% of the German people in an opinion poll demanded a referendum in Germany on the Lisbon treaty. Now, you made many references in your address today about democracy and democratic rights. Why do you not give the German people the democratic right to vote on the Lisbon treaty?"


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