Euro elections: what are we voting for?
Tuesday 20th May 2014
The EU is not democratic, argues VICTOR GROSSMAN – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote
Will rightwingers, racists and other rabble gain new strength with the elections to the European Union? And does it matter if they do? The answer to the first question appears likely to be Yes, although we will know for sure in a few days.
The second raises a tangle of new questions hotly debated in left-wing circles all around Europe.
The European Union is viewed by its advocates, sometimes dreamily, as a way towards a United States of Europe, forever ending the long, bitter history of rivalries and wars on this complicated continent.
Others, on the right and on the left, pour cold water on the dreamers, reject support for the EU and urge its dissolution — for totally different reasons.
Two men are generally honoured as EU founders. The conservative Robert Schuman, briefly a minister in Marshall Petain’s fascist government in 1940, spent most of the war in a monastery, perhaps praying but also hatching plans for Europe.
In 1950, as French foreign minister, he made a famous speech which set the unifying machinery in motion. Jean Monnet, a leading French advocate of European unity, probably wrote it.
Rarely noted are two other key players — Winston Churchill, hoping to smother any left leanings of the Labour government which replaced him and still eager to play a major role in the world, and West Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, seeking respectability for the new republic and ending the enmity between Germany and the western European nations it had waged war against and occupied until 1945.
But, delving deeper, one finds the American Committee on a United Europe (ACUE), organised in 1948 by William Donovan, boss of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, and by cold-war strategist Allen Dulles, soon to head its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency.
Presidents Truman and Eisenhower believed that European unification would help overcome post-war anti-German feelings, especially in France, easing acceptance of West Germany as a political, economic and military base for overcoming leftist influence in western Europe and weakening the position of the USSR.
Via the ACUE, the US government secretly contributed millions of dollars to support the Schuman Plan, integrating French and German coal and steel industries and forming the base of the European Union.
The Rockefeller and Ford foundations were also financially very generous. Churchill, the vital link between ACUE and Europeans, saw this “unofficial counterpart” of the Marshall Plan as a hammer for the “liberation of the nations behind the Iron Curtain” and a path to “our aim and ideal, nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole.”
The goal was never abandoned. Key remnants of the former Warsaw Pact and the USSR have been partly or fully integrated into the EU or Nato — Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
US crusaders lead their European junior partners in a charge to win the potentially wealthy, strategically crucial Ukraine, almost closing the ring in their steady advance eastward — with the final goal at the Moskva River.
But the EU also plays a questionable role in other ways. Angela Merkel’s “austerity” policy, in line with the big banks and a rigid euro, has brought frightening economic disaster to much of southern Europe.
EU policies on keeping asylum-seekers and the economically desperate from European shores, backed by the European Council’s naval-military Frontex units, causes countless deaths in stormy Mediterranean waters.
EU and US businesses are secretly engaged in bridging the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which will, if signed, permit an unhindered dictatiorship of capital and another layer of restrictions on the ability of EU states to regulate or interfere in markets.
Finally, the EU is building up a military force which, with Nato, spreads its will to all continents.
With such a background and such policies, why should any left group have anything to do with it or its elections? Indeed, some reply sharply: “It shouldn’t!”
But the matter is complicated — like the structure of the EU, which consists of six different bodies.
Its judicial section is in Luxembourg, its central bank in Frankfurt and most governing bodies in Brussels, including a sort of upper house and the European Council, where heads of states meet four times a year.
For its executive body the European Commission, each of the 28 member states nominates one commissioner, who is assigned a different ministry and portfolio.
These write a host of binding rules and regulations — on subsidies for aiding depressed areas, pushing or discouraging certain crops, on smog, genetically manipulated foods, consumer standards, human rights and much more.
Currently being elected is the European Parliament, which commutes between Brussels and its main home in French Strasbourg, across the Rhine from Germany.
It is, since 1979, the only EU body elected by nearly 500 million Europeans.
The 751 members, seated for five years, are apportioned more or less by population.
Germans can vote for 96 delegates, France gets 74, Italy and Britain 73. A minimum of six each is allotted to little Malta, Luxembourg, Estonia and Cyprus.
Since they make speeches in their own languages, a giant, expensive translator team is needed.
Does it matter?
The European Parliament, once hardly more than an appendix, has gradually gained weight and influence.
Here is where political battles are fought, with members dividing not by nation but usually by political caucus, from left to right.
Over the years the parliament has won the right to disapprove of commissioners — though not individually but on an “all or none” basis.
It did succeed in barring a nastily homophobic Italian politician from a commission, forcing a reshuffle. And while the parliament cannot initiate legislation, it can make proposals and must grant its approval to EU law.
Despite its many conservative members there have been some good decisions, partly because public pressure on this parliament is at least possible.
They have included regulation of consumer goods standards and the length of the working week.
The parliament discussed a citizens’ petition demanding that water be held in public ownership and access to it defined as a human right — though the commission nipped this in the bud.
The parliament also pushed the commissioners into acting against foodstuff speculation, especially with baby foods.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being pushed by the EU and US is also debated in the parliament, allowing some of its secretive clauses to see the light of day.
In many investigations on human rights it has taken varied positions, not always what leftwingers would want but sometimes vigorous in criticising violations.
This included a “denunciation of criminal conduct” by both sides in Syria, a sharp review on the denial of human rights in Bahrain and a demand that Israel end its mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners, especially women and children. Such resolutions, though not binding, can be very useful in winning Europe-wide publicity.
This means that even though the European Parliament is not in control of the EU it is not irrelevant either. A strong showing for the left in this week’s elections can offer resistance to the dominant neoliberal forces in the alliance.
But the economic crisis of 2007-8, still causing havoc, has also opened the way for a growing danger that this week’s elections could see the far-right advance in Europe instead.