If you want to understand what the EU is, then look at its intervention today – teargas on the streets of French cities, argues Kevin Ovenden
There is a ferocious battle taking place in France to defend workers’ rights and wages against the new labour law. It pits working people and youth against the government. The government of Francois Hollande is implementing the new law, and the employers are demanding that the government goes even further. If you want to understand what the EU is, then look at its intervention today – with teargas on the streets of French cities and mass strikes planned for the rest of the week. It has published its Spring Reports and Recommendations for each of the 28 EU countries.
The one for France contains a call to cut the minimum wage and slash labour protections. It is not just a direct intervention backing the Hollande government against the unions, workers and students. It actually reads very similar to the bosses' "analyses" and list of demands which go further than what Hollande is pressing.
This is the role of the EU right now in Europe in the face of those struggling for against austerity and racism. Some people in the referendum debate in Britain have argued that the potentially explosive struggle in France has nothing to do with the EU because it is a French government passing an anti-worker law through the French Parliament. But the EU does have a major role. It is to provide additional political pressure to ensure that the French centre-left government does not back down to the trade union and youth resistance, but in fact acquiesces to the French bosses' demands.
And the pressure is backed by threats of economic measures should the French government not proceed and risk breaching the austerity targets for holding down spending which are set in stone in the EU's rules. The EU’s role, shown today, in enforcing cuts to workers’ rights and the minimum wage in France is important because the French government is in a weak position. It did not have a majority in parliament to pass the new law. So it relied on authoritarian methods of rule by presidential decree.
That has intensified the revolt. So the EU’s intervention is central. It is not only backing the government’s assault, it is also echoing in almost identical language the programme of the main right wing candidate to replace the centre left in the presidential election next year – Alain Juppe. It has today given him a boost in the French media. The EU is compounding Hollande’s interference with and abrogation of basic parliamentary democracy. This is exactly what the EU did in Greece. Only then, for the first seven months of last year, in order to promote the interests of big business – Greek and European – it had to directly clash with the Syriza government and break it by "crucifying" the Greek delegation to Brussels in July.
The EU country reports today show the same pattern across Europe - pressuring every country to remain on a path that suits European and their own national capitals. There is some variance in the nature of the EU Commission demands ("recommendations" which cannot be refused). But that is only because there is variation in the size and competitiveness of the different national economies.
Portugal has a centre-left government, supported by agreements with radical left parties in parliament. The EU roundly condemns the Portuguese government's plans to lift the minimum wage. In doing so it uses almost identical language to the Portuguese business association and the centre right who were kicked out at the last election.
The bosses' party was defeated in the Portuguese election. Membership of the EU means that Portuguese bosses have the European Commission to turn to in order to help stop any policies they don't like and make this government behave as if it was the one the bosses voted for.
It is not just in some hoped for future when a British left wing government led by Jeremy Corbyn clashes with the EU that workers are pitted against Brussels. It is not even when you have a radical left government like Syriza, which has been battered into submission. It is in France and Portugal (led by people little different from Gordon Brown) and in every country where there is any struggle against austerity.
And that is already happening now in Britain. British bosses are looking to EU and European political support to help win the result they want in the referendum but which a weakened Tory government risks failing to deliver. That is why it is wrong to think that the EU anywhere in Europe is an alternative to nasty national bosses and their governments. It is the additional enforcer for those elites.
The French appointee to the EU Commission is Pierre Moscovici. He is responsible also for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs. He was also central to securing the surrender of Alexis Tsipras in Brussels on the night of 12 July last year - turning up to the hotel room unannounced with half a dozen other, mainly French, officials and telling the Greek delegation they were on their own and would have to submit to the hard German line of the centre-right government of Angela Merkel. French-led European social democracy trussed up the Greek Paschal lamb to sacrifice on the altar of the Berlin-organised European centre-right.
Something else happened today. The force that is driving down on the Greek government and Greek people is called the Troika. One part of it is the IMF; the other two are bureaucracies of the EU.
Wolfgang Schaeuble, the right-wing German finance minister who pushes EU policy, told German media that he will flatly reject any easing up on austerity measures which are set to tip Greece into a true humanitarian catastrophe, if they are implemented. The IMF had called on Monday for some easing of debt repayments. The EU says no. The IMF’s austerity programmes in the Global South in the 1980s became a byword for famine and mass poverty across Africa, Asia and much of Latin America.
George Osborne’s friend, Schaeuble, and the EU have just said that the IMF is soft when it comes to screwing down pensioners and children in Greece, 40 percent of whom are below the poverty line in a European country where “Third World” diseases are reappearing. All due to eight years of vicious economic policies, enforced – as if in a mafia film – by men in sharp suits.
 For those who wish, here is Recommendation 10 of the Commission's report into France:
In the current context of high unemployment, there are risks that the cost of labour at the minimum wage hampers employment of low qualified people... Because of the minimum wage indexation mechanism, here are feedback loops between increases in average wages and changes in the minimum wage, which delay the necessary wage adjustment in response to a weak economic situation.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Greece: 100,000 teachers take on the government in national strike
- Germany’s election: shattering the illusion of stability
- Greece is on fire: capitalism, crisis and climate chaos
- Witchfinder Starmer must be stopped: this is a fight for all the left
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses