There was an interesting piece in today’s Independent about France’s expected rejection of the new EU Constitution (“Why Workers in prosperous, Americanised France will vote “no””, p22). While Western leaders continue to talk about “security” in the “National” – i.e. defence/anti-terrorist – sense, the issue that affects most people’s day-to-day lives relates to a very different sort of security. Put simply, this is the security that comes from being able to go to bed at night knowing that the job you left this evening will still be there for you in the morning. The impression given is that of a people coming to grips with the reality represented by the two-tier European system. True, the EU has always been a trade agreement managed and controlled by the capitalist class – but now, with the accession to membership of countries with substantially lower standards of living and employment protections, the full inequity of this arrangement has a new, greater clarity.
The reporter talks to David, a Renault factory worker: “This is a constitution for breaking workers’ rights, what few we still have left. It is a constitution written by and for the bosses, so they can move work out of France to low-paid countries like Romania, or bring Romanian workers here on Romanian wages.” Jean-Cristophe, a former Peugeot car worker now working on a temporary contract for a transport company: “The days when Peugeot hired full-time workers on proper wages are dead. You go there now and all they have to offer is temporary contracts. At the end of three months, or five months, if car sales are down, boom, you’re gone.” This is what free market liberals will term “flexibility” – a necessity in a globally competitive economy, we are told. It is on account of this same need to remain “flexible” or “competitive” or “modern” (pick your own buzz word – the implications and inferences are so far detached from their dictionary meanings it hardly matters) that the French are being told they need to work longer hours.
It is on account of this need for “modernity” that so much twentieth century progress in industrial relations is being eroded – we are presently being told that we may have to work for years longer before retiring, and the idea of security of employment is dismissed as an antiquated notion, by the same neo-liberals who are arguing that we must privatise public services in the name of “modernity”. And yet there is nothing “modern” about any of these policies – they all pre-date the labour movement as we know it. And as such this is more about a return to Victorian or even pre-Victorian values than anything else – it is an issue of who controls industrial policy and in whose interests that control is exercised; at present the vagaries of the market are deemed more trustworthy than elected and accountable politicians.
What is needed in this context is a form of nationalism, not led by jingoistic or racial factors, but by respect for the right of peoples to economic self-determination. It is central to acknowledge that the EU project exploits the richer and poorer EU countries alike. For the industrial and economic needs of the respective countries are in each instance rendered secondary to the needs of unaccountable economic entities called companies. As such the reaction must be of an internationalist flavour, not steeped in the kind of xenophobic logic offered by the likes of UKIP or the right wing of the Conservative Party, who misunderstand or misrepresent what is at issue here. The discontent in France is a very positive sign that people are taking an anti-EU stance for progressive reasons – under Thatcher and Major the UK has already done such a good job of butchering its own manufacturing industry that it may be longer until resentment here reaches similar levels. But we have already had Longbridge, and only an unlikely reversal of the EU project will prevent a further decline.