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Maastricht: a bullshit issue

Despite all the heat and thunder generated by the Maastricht treaty, the debate is not what it seems. Both for the British establishment and the British people, Maastricht is not the issue.

The Maastricht treaty has become the latest focus for the disputes inside the British establishment. The economic and political crises confronting the government are causing fissures in the Tory ranks on all sorts of issues. Maastricht has provided one more pretext for the government's critics to wash the Tories' dirty linen in public.

In itself, the debate about Maastricht is lacking in substance. Home secretary Kenneth Clarke's admission that he had not even read the treaty indicates that there is no great issue of principle involved. This is confirmed by the regularity with which so many politicians have changed their positions on this matter - from cabinet ministers to Tory rebels and members of the opposition.

In so far as the Maastricht debate holds any significance, it is a symbolic one. The real issue at stake for the British establishment in its relations with Europe is not this or that clause of the Maastricht treaty, but the decline of Britain as a leading international player. Yet this problem is not being fought out in the open, because the authorities cannot look it in the face. Instead, a manufactured debate is taking place about Maastricht.

Maastricht should also be a non-issue for ordinary people in Britain. The details of the treaty are the last thing keeping most of us awake at night. While ministers prattle on about
Maastricht, the really important issues are hardly being debated. It is redundancies, unemployment, wage freezes, spending cuts, mortgage payments, and housing repossessions that really make a difference to our lives.

Whatever happens to the Maastricht treaty, and regardless of what arrangement the British government has with Europe, these problems will still be with us. It is worth recalling that, when Britain joined the ERM in 1990, John Major said it would mean holding down wages and cutting public spending. Since Britain left the ERM in September, Major has emphasised that it will mean...holding down wages and cutting public spending further still. In or out of Europe, for or against Maastricht, the working class gets the short straw.

Asylum: a real one

Unlike the Maastricht treaty, the Asylum Bill is a real issue. Yet it has generated none of the sound and fury of the debate about Europe.

The Asylum Bill has been used by the government as a sweetener to try to make its critics fall into line behind Maastricht; the idea being to stress that the government will not be making any concessions on immigration at a time when Europe's borders are likely to become more porous. In this sense, it too has become a focus for settling disputes within the establishment.

Unlike Maastricht, however, the Asylum Bill is going to have serious consequences for all sorts of people. It will make it harder for asylum- seekers to come to Britain, and easier for the government to deport them. People detained by the authorities will have only two days to lodge an appeal. People who travel through other countries before reaching the UK will not be able to apply for asylum here in any circumstance. All those applying for asylum, and their children, will be fingerprinted on arrival. The law will also remove rights of appeal from all visitors and many students.

Some have suggested that the Asylum Bill will not make much difference, because the main laws controlling immigration to Britain have been in place for a long time. But any curtailment of the rights of immigrants and refugees to enter Britain is insupportable. Once we concede the state's right to impose even the most tinkering restriction, we have lost the argument.

More importantly, by initiating a debate about bogus refugees, the government is creating
aclimate in which immigrants are seen as a drain on resources at a time when resources are already stretched to the limit.

When government ministers attach the label of 'scrounger' to refugees and immigrants to Britain, it is hardly surprising that others draw the conclusion that they are fair game. Afghan refugee Ruhallah Aramesh, beaten to death with iron bars by a gang in Thornton Heath in the summer, was a victim of the racism which has been given an official stamp of approval by the anti-immigrant debate around the Asylum Bill (see 'In the shadow of the Asylum Bill', Living Marxism, November 1992). It is a matter of fact that every time the authorities introduce a new piece of anti-immigrant legislation in parliament, the number of attacks on black people rises.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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