Steve McGiffen has been associated in various capacities with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands since 1999, and though he now lives in France, continues to work as a translator for the party. He is a former official of the United European Left Group in the European Parliament, and edits Spectrezine. He spoke to NLP’s Ed Lewis about the European Union.
Do you see the EU as above all an institution that promotes the interests of big business at the expense of the rest of its citizens?
Yes. Its response to the global economic crisis surely demonstrates this. Since the passage of the Single European Act in 1987, the European project’s principle function, which is to remove decision-making from democratically-elected politicians and place it into the hands of technocrats representing the interests of corporate capital, has become clearer with each new treaty. The Maastricht Treaty was based on a text written by the European Round Table of Industrialists. Capital’s umbrella lobby group. They are actually following Milton Friedman’s prescription to make capitalism impervious to democracy, and to use international governmental institutions to do so. The international relations theorist Stephen Gill calls this the ‘New Constitutionalism’. What he means by that is that you create a mesh of international treaties and organisations which narrow the choices available to national governments. Whether or not those national governments are elected becomes irrelevant. These institutions include the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, but neither of these enjoys the EU’s power. Another way to look at this is that it involves a process of ‘depoliticisation’. So the decision to make Greece’s workers pay the bills run up by the tax-dodging rich and their allies in Wall Street ceases to be seen as a vicious attack on the working class and comes to be defined as an unavoidable policy based on technical details beyond the understanding of mortal man or woman.
What is the significance of the enormous corporate lobby in Europe? Does the lobby have genuine power to change policy, or does its presence merely reflect the already pro-corporate nature of the political establishment in Brussels?
This is a good question, in the sense that it’s pretty difficult to answer. On the other hand it’s a bad question in the sense that I’m tempted to say ‘who cares?’ In general I don’t buy into the ‘weak state’ view of modern global politics. With rare exceptions, modern states exist to represent the interests of capital, though other interests are usually influential on them. Those readers familiar with Gramsci’s concept of a historic bloc will know this kind of analysis, one aspect of which is that a hegemony is established in part by the dominant class accepting that it must make concessions to other social forces. So the NGOs in Brussels, for example, for the most part act as parts of a complex state – or, as the EU isn’t quite a state as such as yet, an IGO with certain state-like features. They enable the EU to respond to social pressures which might otherwise find no legitimate expression and thus be forced to adopt extra-parliamentary tactics. So the enormous lobby in Brussels is not entirely corporate and though the political establishment there is pro-corporate, it is able to incorporate other impulses from other social forces. But we mustn’t exaggerate: the corporate lobby is bigger by far than all of the non-corporate lobby put together. If corporations did not fund a huge lobby they would not be able to advise the Commission – the really important decision-making organ in Brussels – as to what they could and could not live with. This was clear in environmental policy, which was the area I worked on from 1999 to 2005 as an advisor to the United Left in the European Parliament. In addition, the corporate lobby aids the process of technocracy. The Commission could not write laws in keeping with the needs of corporate capital without their help. Having said that, there’s an impressive cultural unity, just as there is in the British ruling class, except it’s multilingual and therefore able to bullshit in any number of languages. All these buggers come from the same families, eat at the same tables of overindulgence, sleep with each others spouses and conduct their disgusting social lives in each others’ company. There is no clear dividing line, and in fact a revolving door joins the worlds of corporate and political elites.
Could the EU be reformed to make it (a) more amenable to progressive influences, and (b) a genuinely democratic institution?
To (a) I’d say yes and no, which is to say that the modern state will always be open to stealing the left’s clothes. They’re all feminists and environmentalists and anti-racists, at least in public - just don’t mention class. In Britain, look at the reaction to Gordon Brown’s mild jibe about the playing fields of Eton. This isn’t just hypocrisy. There are bourgeois thinkers who know damned well that excluding half of your potential workforce from various occupations and layers of decision-making due to their lack of penises is bloody silly and inefficient, ditto excluding people from anything at all because their skin isn’t white. And if you’re an educated woman or an educated person of colour this is not to be sneered at. I would even accept that it’s progressive. What it isn’t is socialist. And there is no way that the EU can be open to socialist influences, because its constitution, the Treaty of Rome as amended, most recently by the Lisbon Treaty, makes social democracy, let alone socialism in any sense which goes beyond that, illegal. This is what puzzles me about the pro-EU ‘left’. Haven’t they read the Treaty? Are they too thick to understand it? Do they have some entirely new definition of socialism which does not rely on social ownership of important sectors of the economy? Or are they just bloody liars? As for (b) - becoming a genuinely democratic institution, well, here I’d say that genuine democracy at such a level, i.e. Europe-wide, could only be based on a highly-devolved system, where the interpretation of what’s known in the jargon as ‘the principle of subsidiarity’ would be very different indeed. The European Commission’s definition of this term is that “EU decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In other words, the Union does not take action (except on matters for which it alone is responsible) unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.” So this would have to be reinterpreted and then respected. What’s actually happened is that with each new treaty things have gone in entirely the opposite direction to this, becoming more and more centralised. Corporate influence has increased concomitantly. It’s not hard to understand why.
Should the left advocate withdrawal from the EU? Is there no room for a truly leftist form of European federalism?
To be honest I find the question of the UK withdrawing from the EU a bit tiresome. It isn’t going to happen, and advocating it simply takes the political conversation in the wrong direction. I’d like to see it happen, certainly, though largely because of the complete chaos into which the international capitalist system would be plunged by a British withdrawal. The trouble with campaigning for withdrawal is that you end up in the same camp as scum like UKIP. For me this is all about class, and I don’t see Britain as some sort of oppressed nation where classes can legitimately unite for national liberation. So what’s important is that people keep hammering away at the issues: the way in which the EU undermines democracy, is used as an instrument to attack workers’ rights and living standards, and the way that it undermines internationalism by making real cooperation – ours, not theirs – much more difficult. Withdrawal I would view opportunistically, which is to say, if the opportunity arises and it does not do so as a result of a rising tide of xenophobia, go for it. I’m fighting a class war, though as I’m 56 next week I’d prefer a job with the general staff, if you don’t mind! Whatever brings us closer to socialism I’ll go with. I can’t see any ‘leftist’ – gods, what a bloody awful word! - form of federalism under current circumstances, no.
What is the significance of the Lisbon Treaty?
The incorporation of market capitalism into a Treaty which can be changed only by the unanimous consent of the member states locks us into a neoliberal economic system some distance ‘to the right’ of the post-World War Two socio-economic accord on which the welfare states of western Europe were based. By doing so the Lisbon Treaty seeks to eliminate what social democracy created, which was a state transformed from a classical Leninist construct, a simple instrument of bourgeois dictatorship, into a terrain of class struggle. Social democrats, and (in practice) all European parties to the left of social democracy of any size or significance, have long behaved as if they believed that the state could be won for the cause of social progress without a ‘Leninist’ revolution being necessary. If revolutionary change is taken to mean root-and-branch transformation of the constitution of a state, whether by violent or non-violent means, then revolution has been the only route to a post-capitalist society in Europe since the adoption of the Treaty on European Union (aka the Maastricht Treaty). However, Lisbon closes any remaining loopholes, any avenues for compromise, any legal route whatsoever to socialism, as well as creating the possibility of a military force. The only question remaining to us is what form such a revolution can possibly take in a world where power is so diffuse, the forces of repression are so well-organised and so heavily-armed, while what should be the forces of progress arse about on the fringes, concentrating their attention on solidarity movements and identity politics while ignoring their own working class. I am not optimistic.
What do you foresee on the horizon regarding the European project? What key developments are likely to take place?
Despite having described the current crisis of the euro in some detail a decade ago, I’m not really much of a Nostrodamus. All I can say is that the imbalance of a well-organised and desperate European elite and a disorganised - especially on the international level - and confused working class is not something to inspire optimism. Even on that happy day – and it could happen – when the whole Euro-shebang drops to bits, it’s hard to see anything good replacing it. The vanguard party is clearly, to anyone with more than half a brain, an inappropriate instrument for organising working people and their allies in 2010. Something has to replace it, but no-one seems really to be considering what that should be, or doing much about it.