Ian H. Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Curtis McNally


More than just a bore

(June 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 66, June 1984, pp. 17–19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The response of the average Socialist Review reader to any discussion to the Common Market, and especially of this month’s European elections, is certainly one of total boredom. In this, at least, we are at one with the masses, as Curtis McNally explains.

* * *

Only thirty percent of the electorate bothered to vote in the 1979 European elections. Even the Economist, a dedicated advocate of the EEC if ever there was one, has said that the European election ‘threatens to be the bore of the year’.

Yet behind the boredom one fact remains: the ruling class and its representatives take the EEC very seriously indeed. At the time of the parliamentary debates on British membership of the Common Market in 1971, or again at the time of the referendum in 1975, the main political parties in Britain were split down the middle. MPs who normally trooped through the lobbies like zombies in mindless loyalty to the party line saw the EEC as the supreme issue of ‘conscience’. As ardent a place-seeker as Shirley Williams threatened to give up her political career if Britain withdrew from the EEC. If they take the Market so seriously, we can’t afford to wholly ignore it.

The Common Market is a product of the contradictions of capitalism. The particular contradiction in this case is that a modern capitalist state can be neither consistently nationalist nor consistently internationalist.

Modern capitalism is a highly integrated international system. Production is organised across national boundaries, trade and finance operate on a world scale, and the arms race gives a unifying dynamic to the world economy. No single unit of capitalist society can jump outside of this system.

Contrary to the Utopian dreams of some on the extreme right and the reformist left, there is no way that Britain can simply put up the shutters and pursue its own economic destiny within its own frontiers. The only state in recent years that has seriously tried to put up the shutters in this way was Cambodia after 1975. The results were scarcely encouraging.

Thus the capitalist ruling class are compelled to think in terms of international cooperation and even planning. Hence the various ‘economic summits’ and similar charades. Indeed, many national states are now too small to function adequately in terms of the needs and pressures of modern capitalism.

In terms of pure logic it would make good sense for them to merge. Nothing could be more rational than the various nation states of Western Europe should merge into a single political and economic unit able to stand on a level with Russia and the USA.

But capitalism does not operate by logic and rationality, and such a merger remains in practical terms impossible. In the last two hundred years in Europe there has been no significant merger or division of national states without violent upheaval.

The unification of Germany and Italy, the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the redivision of Germany – all resulted from war. The fact that Europe is still full of such anomalous enclaves as Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, the Channel Islands or the Vatican shows just how difficult it is to adjust national frontiers.

The reason is obvious. The modern state is a powerful and weighty piece of machinery. It employs hundreds of thousands of people, and is closely intertwined with the economic mechanisms of society.


The political legitimacy of the ruling class – especially its ability to suck out millions of pounds in taxation to pay for ‘national defence’ – is tightly bound up with the preservation of the national state and national boundaries. Only a very powerful military or revolutionary upheaval could break the grip of such national states.

Certainly the EEC today is not in any sense a potential substitute for the existing national state machines. For every hundred thousand citizens of the EEC countries, there are 4,200 national government officials, but only seven ‘Eurocrats’ or functionaries employed directly by the institutions of the European Community. To shift that balance a very substantial war would be needed – and at the end of it there would be very little left to merge.

It is against the background of this contradiction that the emergence of the EEC must be seen. The second world war was a disastrous internal conflict between European powers. The post-war economy was smashed and devastated. Industrial output in 1947 was only 27 percent of the pre-war total in Germany, 66 percent in Austria, Italy and Greece, and below pre-war levels in France and the Netherlands.

The various European ruling classes recognised that to get back on their feet they needed a greater degree of co-operation. The United States, concerned at the ‘Communist threat’ (around 20 percent of votes in France and Italy were going to the CPs) was thinking on similar lines. By the end of the 40s the various European states introduced a series of measures to facilitate trade between them. Tariffs were cut, quota restrictions reduced and the beginnings of a multilateral trade system built up.

As early as 1946 Winston Churchill had declared:

‘We must build a kind of United States of Europe ... The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany ... the first practical step is to form a Council of Europe ...’

A flood of similar nonsense about the ‘European spirit’ issued from the mouths of European politicians of various ideological hues during the next decade. By the end of the fifties the Treaty of Rome had been signed and the original Common Market of six (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) was set up.

To begin with Britain, still obsessed with its disintegrating Empire and its ‘special relationship’ with the United States, stayed aloof from developments in Europe. When the European Steel and Coal Community (a trial run for the Common Market) was established in the early fifties, Harold MacMillan (a future Tory Prime Minister) declared: ‘One thing is certain, and we may as well face it. Our people will not hand over to any supernational authority the right to close down our pits or our steelworks.’ The brave words sound ironic today, in the light of the achievements of subsequent Tory – and Labour – administrations in doing the job all by themselves.

During the sixties British capitalism had to think again. First MacMillan, then Harold Wilson made bids to join the EEC, but were thwarted by the opposition of French nationalism.

It was only in the early seventies that Edward Heath was able to implement a policy that had been ‘logical’ for British capitalism since the fifties. Britain, together with Ireland, Denmark, and later Greece, became members of the new augmented Community.

The EEC, then, represents an uneasy compromise between nationalism and internationalism. This compromise is reflected in the political institutions of the EEC – the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament.

The Council is made up of representatives of the governments of the member states. All ten member states send one or more representatives – usually, though not necessarily, the minister or secretary of state responsible for the matters under consideration, such as the minister for foreign affairs, agriculture, transport etc. Each member state assumes the presidency of the Council in turn for a period of six months.


EEC bureaucrat mountain

The Commission consists of a number of Commissioners who work full-time on EEC business. They are appointed by ‘common accord’ of the governments of member states. At present there are fourteen Commissioners, with at least one from each of the ten member states. Larger states like Britain normally have two Commissioners. Each Commissioner has responsibility for coordinating work in a particular field, but the Commission can only act collectively.

What emerges clearly from the constitutional complexities of the EEC is that the Commission is subordinate to the Council. The Commission submits proposals and drafts for Community rules to the Council, obeys Council instructions and is subject to a Council veto. In other words, the ‘European bureaucracy’ is firmly subordinated to the will of the component national states.

According to the rules of the Community, voting in the Council should take place on the basis of what is called a ‘qualified majority’, that is, the larger states have more votes than the smaller ones. Britain, France, Germany and Italy have ten votes apiece, the other states between two and five.

In fact, since 1965 – that is for two-thirds of the time the EEC has existed – this system has not worked. Following a French boycott of Council meetings, it has been accepted in practice that all decisions on significant matters must be unanimous. The will of national states prevails over the ‘will’ of the Community. In February of this year the European Parliament introduced a measure to restore majority voting. This will, however, take ten years to phase in, and may never amount to anything.

To sum up, it is scarcely possible to better the description given by an editorial in International Socialism in 1975:

‘The EEC is a customs union plus a dear-food agricultural protection scheme plus a super-national bureaucracy with considerable formal regulatory powers but no guns.’

The European Parliament is icing on this not very well baked cake. Initially the Parliament consisted of members of national parliaments nominated to serve in Strasbourg. But since 1979 an attempt has been made to enhance the tattered prestige of the Parliament – and of the EEC – by instituting direct elections.

In fact the Parliament is largely a meaningless charade. The normal role of a Parliament is to ratify or overthrow a government. But the EEC does not have a government in the normal sense. The Council, which as we have seen, is the supreme body, is not answerable to the Parliament, but only to the national states that compose it. The Commission does have to report to the parliament, and technically the Parliament can make the Commission resign. This would, however, be a futile gesture as it has no control over the composition of the Commission, and the member states could appoint the same old Commission all over again. The only area where the Parliament has even minimal teeth is in the establishment of the budget, and even here it can do little when there is a head-on clash between national interests.

A symptom of the Parliament’s insignificance is the bizarre voting arrangements. Four quite distinct voting methods (simple plurality, single transferable vote, proportional representation with national or with regional lists) are used in the ten countries. No body claiming a serious representative legitimacy could allow such an anomaly.


The list of candidates for the European elections shows just how seriously the Parliament is taken by British politicians. Those aiming to go to Strasbourg are generally either young aspirants who haven’t managed to get a Westminster seat, or political has-beens, who have been bounced out of Westminster and prefer Strasbourg to working for a living. There is no evidence that anyone who could get a Westminster seal would actually prefer to serve the ‘European ideal’.

In times of stability such a ramshackle constitution can hold together. But a period of crisis means an intensification of competition and subjects the EEC structures to intolerable strains. At the end of last year, Gaston Thorn, president of the EEC Commission, declared:

‘We are agreed that Europe is in a state of crisis and that the Community has been seriously weakened. Paralysed by its internal contradictions and by its inability to make decisions, the Community no longer seems to be the expression of Europe’s shared aspirations.’

Symptoms of the crisis are not hard to find. The EEC now has thirteen million out of work. The lorry drivers’ blockades earlier this year drew attention to the fact that a so-called ‘customs union’ still has well-developed and inefficient – customs. In March, while the EEC discussed Spain’s application to join, a French naval patrol opened fire on Spanish trawlers ‘poaching’ in French fishing waters. Next year is supposed to see the phasing out of national passports in favour of EEC passports, but France has just withdrawn the right of British day-trippers to visit Channel ports without passports.

But the crisis appears most visibly in the disputes about the EEC budget. The problem is obvious from the division of funds in the 1984 budget. Sixty-five percent of the total goes to the Common Agricultural Policy, 5.7 percent to the regional fund, 6.4 percent to the social fund, and 6.8 percent to research and industry. A planned reform of the CAP will cut support prices and impose quotas on milk production. But the reform is timid and will not save money for at least two years.


The complex regulations of the CAP make it an easy prey to rule-bending and open fraud. Indeed, the whole system preserves agricultural inefficiency, Common Market farmers get £365 a tonne for sugar, while the world market price is £110 (meanwhile a Third World country like Jamaica has to close half its state-owned sugar mills because it cannot compete). And last year Eton College profited to the sum of £10,000 by getting cheap surplus EEC butter due to its status as a ‘charity’.

The dispute over British contributions to the EEC budget fits into this context. Thatcher, arguing that Britain is subsidising agricultural inefficiency, wants Britain’s contribution cut by three-quarters, from £1200 million to £300 million. Mitterrand, on the other hand, knows that any sharp cut in the agricultural part of the budget would provoke the anger of French peasants and lead to yet more loss of votes for the Socialist Party. The problem is compounded by the fact that agricultural spending this year will probably be well over £ 1000 million in excess of the maximum fixed in the budget.

The EEC may simply run out of money altogether by about the middle of November. The whole dispute has simply been shelved until the elections are over. In fact some compromise will probably be dredged up; the British Tories have already backtracked on threats to simply hold back Britain’s contributions.

Given the ramshackle state of the Market – and the total irrelevance of the European Parliament – it is hard to understand the importance given to the European elections by the Labour Party and especially the Labour Left. In February the Labour Coordinating Committee held a conference called ‘Fighting the European Elections’, and in March Tribune carried a piece by Michael Barratt Brown, Ken Coates and Tony Topham called This is the way to fight the Euro-Elections, which describes the 14 June vote as a ‘general election’ and calls for ‘an enthusiastic search for a new internationalism.’

Now it is true that a good performance for Labour in the Euro-elections would be a setback for Thatcher. But it is also clear that a victory for the miners would be a ten thousand times greater blow against Thatcher than the biggest Labour landslide. For the Labour movement to put energy into Euro-elections at this time is more than a diversion, it is a betrayal.

Socialists should undoubtedly wish for the demise of the Common Market. It is a fraudulent abuse of the name of internationalism, a desperate alliance of ruling classes striving to preserve their own squalid privileges. But we must be clear as to how such a demise might be achieved.

To campaign for British withdrawal – as even sections of the Labour Left are now recognising – is a nonsense. Opinion polls may show 55 percent of the British population in favour of British withdrawal – but few of those are likely to take to the streets on this issue. And the reformist left have no viable alternative for the British economy.

It will be quite a different matter if the Common Market collapses as a by-product of working class struggle. German engineering workers are fighting for the thirty-five hour week, French steel workers and British miners are fighting to save jobs. If they can win, they lessen their own ruling classes’ margins for manoeuvre. National states will be driven into more and more intense competition and will be less and less able to make concessions in order to help Europe hold together.

Such a situation could start to rekindle the flames of true working class internationalism, and commit the shabby rhetoric of the European ideal to the scrapheap of history.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 October 2019