Above: The European Parliament in debate. 18 May 2010, 15:01. Source:
078 Strasbourg. Author: jeffowenphotos. Licensing: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Original size of 2,000 × 1,333 pixels reduced here to 640 x 247 pixels. Obtained from Commons.Wikimedia.org
We have heard a great deal in recent years about the process of European integration. Invariably, we have been baffled by political rhetoric, bamboozled by esoteric terms and confronted by economic wrangling that replaces common sense with confusion.
Young people, spared the horrors of European civil war, apparently feel more inclined to accept a European identity. They are more willing to embrace our commonalities as Europeans than react to that which divides us.
We have not known a world in which the United Kingdom has existed outside an integrating Europe, be that in the form of the EEC or EU. Nevertheless, we remain uninspired and uninterested by the current focus of debate.
We need an ideal, something that puts this grand project on a human scale, something that shows how it can improve the human condition or produce a more just society. Discussions relating to legal and economic mechanism fail to motivate the energies of a new generation.
Europe seems to be more relevant to big business and a small elite than to the needs of the people who would constitute the citizens.
This is sad, because the power of Europe could be harnessed to help protect the rights of its people, as the forces of globalisation become more rampant.
Increasingly we are subjected to global forces apparently beyond our control. Once great powers now stand in line, heads bowed, begging multinationals for their patronage. But what is the price of this financial influx?
As we in Western Europe begin to compete with the non-unionised sweatshop economies of the Far East, wages are forced into a downward spiral, welfare states are deemed to be too expensive and individuals are ostracised if they fall upon hard times.
The very essence of democracy is put into question too. Countries which sign up to treaties that are geared to promote “far” trade become bound to the whims of corporations who use legal technicalities to prevent the formulation of legislations demanded by electorates.
In the absence of international regimes that establish rules to protect individuals and communities, as well as promoting the legitimate requirement for free trade, a social malaise results that impacts negatively on the lives of us all.
The position of Europe as one of the biggest markets in the world would be sufficient to put pressure on these transnational forces and impel them to operate more reasonably.
After all, it is states and not private companies where democratic legitimacy lies. It should therefore be states that have the upper hand when formulating “global rules of the game”.
A unified Europe, speaking with a united voice would thus be able to succeed where competing nation states have failed.
It could act to promote the establishment of such global norms. It could establish a “Fortress Europe”, making access to its market dependent upon countries operating according to European standards of welfare and wage levels.
This would act to create a level playing field, preventing our industries been undercut as a result of our Government’s benevolence in providing the welfare safety net.
We have seen quite recently how the global interests of leading international tycoons are put before basic rights and privileges enshrined in our constitution.
The case of Rupert Murdoch’s veto on the publication of Chris Pattern’s book on Hong Kong illustrates this perfectly.
Imagine a world where all publishers had interests in a country like China, and all refused to publish books that were deemed incompatible with their interests there.
The result could be a curtailment of the right of free speech equivalent to that experienced in any of the totalitarian police states of former communist Eastern Europe. Free market thinkers of the 1980s were all too keen to embark on a moral crusade against such bastions of tyranny. Where are those voices now?
Is it that private organisations and powerful moguls have the right to take away freedoms that were considered too precious to be withdrawn by mere governments?
The arguments in favour of this view are tainted with hypocrisy.
Europe could be big enough and powerful enough to stand up to such companies and individuals. It could shift the balance of power back in the direction of democratically elected governments.
In international forums such as GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), Europe would be able to present the case for its own, more socially responsible brand of capitalism.
It could offer a counter weight to American capitalism that seems to ride roughshod over communities across the world, setting people against each other and driving down the wages of the developed world.
Our generation has been the first truly European generation. However, simultaneous developments in the world economy have meant that we have also been the first one deeply affected and influenced by the process of globalisation.
This has meant that we have witnessed the dismemberment of great industries and seen the image that this has had on the communities in our own area.
We have had our own employment and prospects and choices of career changed and incorporated in to what has become euphemistically known as the flexible labour market.
In this respect, we have seen first hand the awesome powers that are at work in the international capitalist system.
The flexible labour market is likely to have continued influence. It may drive us from our communities to seek opportunities elsewhere in the country and in some cases the world. The real question however is flexibility for whom?
Increasingly it seems that it is the average person who pays the price, working longer hours, often for less pay, increased stress levels and reduced family contact and quality of life.
Society suffers too. Children are increasingly brought up not by their parents but by paid employees.
It seems that nuclear families are going the way of their extended predecessors, as they degenerate into dysfunctional chaos. Individuals look at how they can beat down their compatriots in order to get ahead.
Can Europe buck the trend? Can it take us forward into a new social order that sees us as individuals rather than mere units of production in the global economy.
My view is that it can, but only if it responds to their needs and aspirations, and only if it inspires our confidence.
A people’s Europe is one whose prime purpose is to improve the lot of the mass of the population, not just the chosen few.
It is also one, which reconciles the relationship between the multinational corporations on which we depend for employment opportunities and wealth generation, and the people and communities that help to generate this bounty.
Finally, it is one which captures the imagination of the generation who will one day act as the custodians of its future.
Maybe the Prime Minister can use his apparent genius for international affairs to help bring this about.
By Chris Knowles
Originally published in the REaction! the political magazine of Wakefield District Young Labour (Pilot Edition), ISSN 1464-8105, Mpril 1998.