Euro-elections reflect Britain's contradictory position

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The results of the Euro elections have been portrayed as a sign of the importance the 'British people' give to maintaining national independence and sovereignty against a European superstate. The fact that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) rose from obscurity to take 12 seats and 16% of the vote, slightly more than the Liberal Democrats, is presented as evidence. At the same time, both Labour and Tories suffered significant losses. But this would be to ignore the reality of the way these elections were widely used as a protest vote against government parties across Europe. It would also be to ignore the statistics that show almost nowhere was there a turnout of much over 40%, except where voting is compulsory, indicating that the electorate regards these elections as just as irrelevant to government policy as local council elections. In Britain the turnout was raised to almost 38% only by instituting postal ballots in several areas, despite the risk of fraud.

One argument put forward for Britain to remain aloof from Europe is the success of 'UK plc' relative to the rest of Europe. The 'sick man of Europe' in the 1960s and 1970s has become the success story of the 21st Century. But what none of the parties contesting the Euro elections will tell us is that this 'success' has been bought at a very high price paid by the working class in increased exploitation, or that it is largely built on a mountain of debt that can only temporarily disguise the real state of the economy. "In spite of the healthier growth rates and lower unemployment rates of the British economy in comparison with other European powers recently, Britain hasn't permanently arrested the long term decline of the former 'workshop of the world' in relation to its main competitors� In short, the British economy is, for the moment, getting richer overall compared with its major rivals, while its population is relatively poorer than those of these rivals, and purchasing power per head of population is weaker" (WR 275). Yet the consumer sector remains buoyant due to debt, because the bourgeoisie's "own austerity policies make growing indebtedness inevitable."

However many votes it may have taken this time, UKIP does not represent the future for British capitalism. Whatever their rhetoric, governments have remained in the EU for the 30 years since Britain joined. Sensible bourgeois commentators know this: "The European election results have shown how narrow the terrain is in which British politicians have to operate� The real debate is on the nature of our membership" (Peter Riddell, The Times 15.6.04). This has been borne out by Blair's negotiation of the constitution, with his 'red lines' on control of tax, social security and foreign policy. The promised referendum has been delayed and will only be needed if all the other 7 countries that want one accept the Treaty in its present form.

The reality of Britain's relations with Europe

On the economic level, the key sectors of the British economy have a vital interest in preserving their European markets, and the British economy as a whole needs the EU umbrella to defend itself against competition from the USA and Japan.

Nevertheless, Britain really does have a problem with its policy in relation to Europe, above all at the level of imperialist rivalries, which don't always coincide with immediate economic interests. The fact that both Labour and Conservative parties have a significant Euro-sceptic wing, with UKIP largely taking the votes of Tory sceptics, reflects the difficulty Britain has making its way as a declining, second rank power caught between the rock of the USA and the hard place of a resurgent Germany. Britain needs its close relationship with America to counter the threat of a German-dominated Europe. Remember Thatcher's seminar at Chequers after the collapse of the Russian bloc, fearing the danger that reunification would represent. At the time Nicholas Ridley was forced to resign for condemning European integration as "a German racket to take over the whole of Europe" (The Sunday Times 20.6.04) but his crime was one of spilling the beans: opposing German power in Europe still underpins British strategy. This is the real meaning of the policy of remaining 'at the heart of Europe', where it can play the different European states against each other and thus prevent any of them from getting too strong.

At the same time, if Britain gets too close to the USA - as it undoubtedly has over the Iraq war - it risks being seen as no more than America's agent in the EU, not to mention compromising its own independent interests in a 'special relationship' that is heavily weighted in favour of the US. The British bourgeoisie is well aware of this latter danger - witness the unprecedented public rebukes the government has received on the issue of the Iraq war, first from a letter by senior diplomats and more recently in a letter from the Anglican bishops. Its economic weakness in relation to Germany, and its military weakness in relation to the USA, puts British imperialism into the dilemma that is creating difficulties for the Blair government just as it did for John Major and Margaret Thatcher before. This, not some EU constitution or fictitious superstate, limits its policy choices.

Alex, 3.7.04.

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