29 June 2006 Edition
• This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
Counting the Cost of EU Enlargement
BY STEVE McGIFFEN
Poland and its neighbours may be beginning to suffer critical labour shortages as a result of the outflow of mostly young, educated and often skilled workers to unskilled but better-paid jobs in Britain and western Europe.
The European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), the European Parliament's most progressive political formation, met in Prague recently to discuss the effects of last year's enlargement of the European Union. The GUE/NGL is, to some extent, a marriage of convenience, bringing together 41 MEPs from 16 political parties in 13 different countries and a number of, in some cases historically antagonistic, political traditions. Even their attitudes to the EU differ, with the Greek Synaspismos being the most 'Europhile', the Swedish, Dutch and Danish parties solidly opposed and the rest at various points between the two.
Similarly with enlargement, of the parties from the new member states represented in the GUE/NGL, the Cypriot AKEL was in favour of EU accession and the (Czech) Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia was against. Despite these differences, co-operation in the European Parliament continues for two reasons.
First, it is extremely difficult to work in the institution as an independent member. The GUE/NGL, recognising this, makes the obligations of membership as light as possible. It is a "confederal" group whose different components are free to take their own positions.
Second, the group is not entirely a marriage of convenience, even if its 16 hearts rarely beat as one. GUE/NGL members, notwithstanding the illusions which some of them have in the possibility of reforming the EU, are the only MEPs who consistently and reliably stand up against the European Commission and its liberalising, deregulating, privatising feeding frenzy.
Interestingly, in recent years, divisions within the GUE/NGL on the question of the EU itself have ceased to have much practical significance. The group solidly opposed the planned European constitution, for example.
The discussion in Prague demonstrated that the range of attitudes to enlargement - from enthusiastic to hostile, though most parties stressed that it was up to the people of the applicant countries to decide for themselves - has effectively narrowed to the realisation that, whatever anyone may have thought beforehand, EU accession has brought few, if any, benefits to the people of the countries involved and many, many disadvantages.
As GUE/NGL chairman Francis Wurtz, of the French Communist Party, told the meeting, while the European Commission's recent report on the enlargement trumpeted the level of foreign direct investment in the new member states as a measure of success, it "said nothing about the nature of these investments nor their effects from the point of view of environmental or social criteria". Pointing to an overall unemployment rate of 15% and average income levels which stand at only a quarter of those in the older member states, Wurtz noted that "the division between old and new members is growing. The only ones who are profiting are generally big corporations".
Erik Meijer, the Dutch member whose Socialist Party (SP) was the only parliamentary party to campaign for a No in the Netherlands' referendum on the 'constitution', drew attention to the problems which the enlargement was also causing in Western Europe. Noting the "anxiety over cheap labour from the new member states," he said that the SP was "not against an open labour market," but that this would only be acceptable to Dutch workers if people from whatever country were employed "under conditions of equal pay for equal work."
From the new member states themselves, Czech MEP Miloslav Ransdorf said that "we were promised higher levels of investment, more employment and more prosperity. Not much of this has come to pass, while, on essential points such as the working time directive, we've gone backwards. Privatisation was a major factor in the loss of 750,000 jobs, while sanctions on agricultural overproduction meant that the country had become a net payer into the Common Agricultural Policy funds.
The effects of EU policies can only mean a continuation of mass migration from east to west as unemployment and low wages force people to look for a better life. The enrichment of British and other western European culture through immigration has long been among the most positive features of the country's and the region's life and the arrival of workers from central and eastern Europe will bring much to celebrate. As Erik Meijer pointed out in Prague, however, if such workers are brought in as cheap labour, their welcome will last only as long as the economy continues to be relatively healthy, which, in a capitalist system, can never be sustained for very long.
Moreover, while everyone should have the right to pursue a better life through migration, no-one should be forced to do so. Poland and its neighbours are beginning to suffer critical labour shortages as a result of the outflow of mostly young, reasonably educated and often skilled workers to unskilled but better-paid jobs in Britain and western Europe.
Only investment in the creation of worthwhile jobs in the new member states, jobs capable of directing people's talents and energy towards addressing social and environmental problems, coupled with measures to prevent the exploitation of migrant labour and the displacement of indigenous workers, can avert the multiple disasters to which the sudden, massive enlargement of the EU is leading.
These policies will not come from the European Commission, the unelected bureaucracy whose job is to serve the interests of big capital. Trade unions in the west need to get together with those in the new member states to organise co-ordinated pressure on their own governments to force a change of direction.
Vienna exits downbeat EU political stage
The six-month Austrian presidency of the EU stint which comes to an end this Friday, saw some major achievements for Vienna including a final deal on the financing of the EU from 2007-2013.
EU leaders agreed a spending plan for next year onwards in December, some six months after a bad-tempered meeting saw them scatter to the four corners of the EU without agreement.
Vienna put the final seal on the budget by getting MEPs to agree money distribution in April following weeks of negotiation. But implementation of the deal is still being disputed with Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown fighting to minimise the Britain's contributions, according to media reports.
Austria also presided over an agreement on a watered down services directive- a piece of legislation that proved so controversial it managed to shape the political discussion in the EU for much of last year.
It also managed to get some transparency initiatives agreed, despite resistance from London. Under the agreement, the law-making body of the EU, the Council, will conduct its negotiations on legislation in public.
However, there were also high-profile legislative failures including the Working Time Directive which Vienna had pledged to crack.
Instead, Austria will be added to the long line of presidencies that have tackled the legislation - which is up for review - but have had to pass it on unresolved to their successors.
A strong point for the pragmatic presidency was enlargement. Austria has been very successful in keeping the EU's eye focussed on the Western Balkans as future members of the bloc.
A big supporter of Croatia joining the bloc, Vienna also sent out a positive note to the Western Balkans by ensuring enlargement was the main topic at a meeting in Salzburg in March.
Referring to that meeting, foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mladen Ivanic, praised the Presidency for keeping the issue alive despite obvious enlargement fatigue among some member states. "For us, the fact that this possibility [of membership] is still alive constitutes the most important progress", he said.
Austria was less successful though in getting member states to agree that the EU's own state of health should be taken into account as a criterium for new countries joining the bloc.
Going under the name "absorption capacity", the new hurdle was pushed by France and the Netherlands and fell very much in line with Austria's less than enthusiastic approach to Turkish EU membership.
However, it was dropped at the EU summit on 16 June after resistance mainly from new member states and Britain.
On the EU Constitution, Vienna made very little progress- either in getting the document officially declared dead after the Dutch and the French referendums last year or in getting an honest outline of other options.
But that was not entirely Vienna's fault. It was Austria's bad luck to be at the helm of the EU at one of the most downbeat times in the recent history of the bloc.
With emphasis more on realistic and citizen-tangible targets - like more money in people's pockets and jobs - the EU appears to have lost its appetite for big declaratory statements which it cannot fulfil.
On top of this, the major powers in the EU were unwilling or unable to take the lead on Europe.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is only now finding her European feet while an embattled Jacques Chirac is fighting for his political life in France, and Italy spent much of the first part of the year in election fever before returning Romano Prodi to the job as Prime Minister.
The Austrians hand over to the Finns on Saturday, with Helsinki set to inherit the same downcast EU mood.
Thousands defend Basque prisioners' rights
Thousands of people gathered in Bayonne last Saturday in support of Basque political prisoners. The demonstration was called by the Ibaeta forum.
Basque National Radio Station EITB said the demonstration, calling for repatriation of Basque political prisoners, started late because police prevented thousands of demonstrators from crossing the Spanish-French border to reach the nearby town of Baiona.Those who could not cross the border organised a demonstration in Irun.
According to the organizers, 3,500 people took part in the march.
In a communiqué read at the end of the demonstration, the Ibaeta Forum reminded the French Government that "France is also part of the conflict" as one out of four Basque prisioners are in French prisions.
MEP's Diary.... BAIRBRE de BRÚN
The June plenary session of the EU Parliament in Strasbourg was dominated by a debate on the worrying rise of both racist and homophobic violence across the EU. In an often heated debate, a number of right wing MEPs decided to focus on their belief that homosexuality is wrong, rather than the ways that we could actively combat discrimination.
I informed MEPs that the Six Counties has seen a number of violent attacks on communities from other member states and from further afield, as well as a consistent level of homophobic violence. MEPs were also informed of ongoing sectarian attacks, including the recent murder of a 15-year-old Michael McIlveen. The groups on the left and centre of the EU Parliament joined together to put forward a motion demanding immediate action at European level. One British MEP queried why the EU can take action on pollution crimes but not on hate crimes. It is vital that the European Council now adopts the 2001 Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia and I would call on the Finnish Presidency to re-start work on this with all urgency.
I also supported an EU Campaign designed to raise awareness and help end the practice of forced prostitution, particularly around the World Cup in Germany. It has been suggested that at every major sporting event where a large number of people gather, there is a spectacular, temporary rise in the demand for sexual services. The Campaign, 'Red Card to Forced Prostitution' has been launched in advance and during this summer's World Cup Finals tournament. This World Cup should mark the end of an era where big sporting events provide a platform for the sex trade in men, women and children.
The most effective way of dealing with forced prostitution is to eliminate demand, but the German authorities must also be alert to the needs of victims of trafficking that have been brought into the country at this time.
I also spoke in a debate last Tuesday on the EU's preparedness for future outbreaks of flu pandemic. Recent bird flu outbreaks are a reminder of how such a disease can spread and how potentially susceptible we are to possible future outbreaks of flu pandemic. On this basis I called upon the European Commission to take the lead in co-ordinating the response to avian bird flu in conjunction with EU Member States national governments.
Strasbourg In Brief
- Bairbre de Brún meets a delegation from Fairness for Farmers in Europe‚ who visited the European Parliament. The lobby group were dismayed at the reception they got from Commissioner Fischer Boel, who told them that "Dairy Farmers in Europe are doing quite well".
- The EU Parliament has expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in developing and following up the Sustainable Development Strategy adopted in 2001. Strategy priorities include combating climate change, ensuring sustainable transport, addressing threats to public health, managing natural resources more responsibly and stopping bio-diversity decline, combating poverty and social exclusion, and meeting the challenge of an ageing population.
- Bairbre de Brún launches an online EU bulletin designed to update and brief MEPs, European officials, European Government representatives and NGOs on the political situation in Ireland. The first edition highlights issues such as the peace process, the murder of Michael McIlveen in Ballymena and recent revelations regarding British state collusion.