They blamed the Danes. But behind the row about that referendum, says
Helen Simons, there is something rotten in all the other states of Europe
The rejection of the Maastricht treaty in a Danish referendum in May seemed
to plunge the whole of the European Community into a state of chaos. The
treaty, signed by all the EC governments in December, was supposed to pave
the way towards European political and monetary union. At that time it was
acclaimed as the way forward into the next century. Almost overnight, the
refusal of the Danes to ratify the treaty seemed to throw the entire project
of closer European integration into doubt.
Only 50 000
How could this have come about? It is hard to believe that the actions of
a small nation like Denmark alone could wreak political havoc across the
continent - and harder still when you realise that voters in the Danish referendum
rejected Maastricht by a slim majority of around 50 000. Ordinarily, the
opinions of 50 000 Danes would not be sufficient to cause such political
ructions in Bonn, Paris, London and the other capitals of the EC nations.
There was clearly something more involved.
The Danish referendum result was not the cause of the crisis, but the catalyst,
bringing to the surface many of the underlying tensions in European society
At Maastricht, John Major's British government stood out as the lone critical
voice of opposition in the treaty negotiations. Today, other European states
have come out as sceptics. The voices of doubt and dissent can now be heard
in the once unswervingly pro-European capitals of Dublin, Rome, Paris and
In all of these countries, the debate about Europe has turned into a convenient
focus for other national controversies. Hostility to closer EC integration
has become entangled with the wider political and economic crises of Europe.
In a sense, it is naive even to ask the question as to how the air of triumph
which surrounded the Maastricht deal could have disappeared so quickly.
Readers of Living Marxism will know that the euphoria about Maastricht
was always pretty shallow. The notion of a smooth and harmonious passage
towards unity was never a plausible vision of Europe's future.
The drive towards closer European integration has been spurred by two main
economic impulses: the fear of competitive pressure from outside Europe,
and the belief in the capacity of Germany to act as a powerhouse pulling
Europe along. But there have also been strong impulses acting against European
Friends or foes?
Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the rest are not only European partners.
They are also rival capitalist nations, which must compete with one another
in the world marketplace. However craftily it is put together, an agreement
such as Maastricht on European integration cannot remove the tensions between
the capitalist elites of the different European powers. For example, while
the other EC members have been happy to hitch a ride with the dynamic German
economy, there has also been a sense that closer European integration will
mean greater German domination of Europe - a fear expressed in the continuing
rows about high German interest rates.
Ambiguity about Euro-unity has long been a feature of the politics of EC
member states. As new concerns have entered into the calculation, closer
integration now seems a less attractive option to many. Three factors in
particular have come together to expose the idea of genuine European unity
as a remote dream.
First, the economic slump has undermined talk of European unity by highlighting
the divergent interests of different capitalist nations. One of the early
signs of the retreat from the Maastricht summit came when European Commission
president Jacques Delors put a price tag on the agreement. Delors demanded
an increase in budgetary contributions of 31 per cent - a figure which would
turn a country like Italy from a net recipient of EC funds to a net contributor.
Even the German government responded with Margaret Thatcher-style protests,
and the EC finance ministers threw out the proposals.
The recession has not only made governments less willing to pay the price
of new Euro-measures, it has also upset existing economic arrangements.
The European Monetary System (EMS), and particularly the Exchange Rate Mechanism
within it, has come under considerable strain in recent months. While fear
of inflation has led the Bundesbank to raise German interest rates, the
rest of recession-hit Europe is crying out for rates to be cut. Since no
European nation can buck the German trend within the EMS, talk of abandoning
the system has become more widespread.
The second factor acting against integration this year has been the crisis
of legitimacy facing the major parties and national institutions across
Europe, as discussed elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism. The
fracturing of traditional allegiances, and the emergence of new parties
and right-wing splinter groups, has done much to derail the 'European express'
which six months ago was said to be unstoppable. The Danish referendum result
was a prime example of how opposing further European integration has become
a focus for general dissatisfaction with the existing political set-up.
Similar trends are at work elsewhere in Europe.
Now the French
In France, the right has sought to use the Euro-debate as a means of mobilising
support, by playing up fears of German domination and tapping anti-foreign
feeling (for example by protesting that the EC could give other Europeans
the right to vote in France). The right's attempt to use the European issue
to exploit the crisis facing the Socialist government has helped to turn
Europe into an issue of French domestic politics. The day after the Danish
polls closed, president Mitterrand conceded to pressure for a French referendum
In Italy, the rise of regionalist sentiments and the crisis of the national
political system has served to undermine the integrationist spirit. And
in Ireland, the ratification of the Maastricht treaty became a major issue
when it got caught up in the renewed controversy about the state's constitution.
Many of those urging a 'no' vote in Ireland's June referendum on Maastricht
were not talking about Europe at all. Their case was that the treaty's stipulations
on the free movement of EC citizens would undermine the Republic's constitutional
ban on abortion, by making it easier for Irish women to travel to Britain
to terminate a pregnancy.
The final factor which has recently tipped the balance against wholehearted
support for integration is the role of the new Germany in Europe. Other
EC members have long liked to think of Germany as a slumbering giant which
would pick up the tab but not cause trouble for its neighbours. This year,
however, Germany's European partners have been shocked to find that the
giant has awoken. Right at the start of the year, Germany went out on a
limb in recognising Croatian independence, and forced the EC to follow its
lead. Such boldness was a clear statement of German intent to be the senior
partner in European political affairs. As Germany's assertiveness increases,
so does anti-German sentiment elsewhere.
As time has elapsed since Maastricht, it has also become evident that Germany
will no longer pick up the tab for the EC. The cost of German reunification
and the creation of a new sphere of influence in Eastern Europe have made
German politicians more circumspect about the benefits of West European
union, as one Christian Democrat official explained:
'For decades we saw the EC as a solution to our troubles. Now with everyone
in Eastern Europe hanging around our necks there is a tendency to see the
community as adding to our problems - another burden.' (Independent on
Sunday, 23 February 1992)
According to recent polls, only 10 per cent of Germans say they want European
integration accelerated. And there are growing complaints about the wisdom
of a planned monetary union which would hitch the powerful Deutschmark to
weak European currencies.
Despite the panic which followed the Danish result, the recent trends working
against European integration are not decisive. The EC is not about to break
up, and closer economic cooperation remains a pressing necessity for all
member states. The most hardened Euro-sceptic in the Tory Party long ago
abandoned any serious idea that Britain could 'go it alone'.
However, after the catalytic effect of the Danish referendum in bringing
divisions to the fore, the European pipe-dreamers have also had to sober
up. It is now clear that there can be no peaceful road to the Euro-unity
of rival capitalist states. And there is no popular enthusiasm for any deal
done among the discredited governments of Europe. The irony of it all is
that, after the excesses of the Maastricht party in December, it is party
pooper John Major who, as the new president of the European Community, is
responsible for sorting out the mess.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992