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National democracy: Tasks and issues for the 21st century


Address by Kevin McCorry

National Committee, People’s Movement

to Féile an Phobail (West Belfast Festival)

5 August 2010


     The historical alternatives for this century and beyond are socialism or barbarism.
     Socialism calls for social control of capital in the human interest.
     This means ecologically sensitive economic development on a global scale.

  
With humanity nearly doubling in numbers by 2050, and the income per head and resource gulf between the First and Third Worlds getting wider and wider, a failure to restrain the furies of private interest in the First World—which leads one-sixth of humanity to consume the greater part of the earth’s non-land resources—imperils the future of the human race itself.
     The question of capitalism and socialism is concerned with inequality: inequality in ownership and control of society’s productive forces, in power, wealth, income, and social function.
     The political mass democracy that was first achieved under capitalism makes less intolerable the inequalities of power characteristic of capitalism—but intolerable nevertheless! But it gives opportunities for advance towards economic democracy on the basis of socialism.
     Also, as big capital is nowadays so subversive of democracy, the struggle to establish or defend national democracy becomes part and parcel of the struggle for socialism.
     James Connolly recognised in his time that socialists and the labour movement should strive to be the foremost champions of democracy, the best and most consistent fighters against imperialism, sexism and racism and for national independence and democratic accountability in public life.
     At the present time the best way for socialists and the left to win support far beyond their traditional base and establish political hegemony over society as a whole is to champion national democracy and independence in the face of the assault on nation-states by transnational capital. Such an orientation can enable European socialists to end their present retreat before big capital and once more go on the political offensive.
     The political way forward in Europe is to oppose the main project of European transnational capital, the destruction of national democracy through European integration, and the establishment of a multinational EU state.
     The present leaders of the mainstream European socialist, labour and social-democratic parties have for the most part betrayed the working classes throughout Europe by their craven willingness to surrender national independence and democracy.

*

Nationhood—shared membership of a national community—is the normal basis of democratic states in the modern world. This is shown by the advent of many new nation-states to the international community since 1989, and the likely arrival of many more this century.
     We are internationalists on the basis of our solidarity as members of the human race. As internationalists we seek the emancipation of mankind. Therefore we stand for the self-determination of nations. The right of nations to self-determination inspired the eighteenth-century American Revolution. Formally proclaimed as a democratic principle in the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, the right to national self-determination is now a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
     As democrats and internationalists we assert the right of those nations that wish it to have their independence, sovereignty, and a nation-state of their own, so that they may relate to one another internationally on a basis of equality with other nations.
     The democratic principle of internationalism does not mean that we are called upon to urge people of other nations to assert their right to self-determination but that we respect their wishes and show solidarity with them if they should do that.
     Nationalism developed as an ideology legitimising the formation of nation-states in the eighteenth century, although its elements can be found centuries before in some of the world’s older nation-states, such as England, Denmark, France, China, and Japan.
     Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common territory and language and the common culture and history that arise from that. On this basis develop the solidarities, mutual identification and mutual interests that distinguish one people from another. They underlie a people’s sense of shared citizenship and allegiance to a government as “their’ government, possessing democratic legitimacy, and their willingness to finance that government’s tax and income-transfer system, thereby tying the richer and poorer regions and social classes of particular nation-states together.
     The solidarities that exist within nations do not exist between nations, although other solidarities may exist, international solidarity, which become more important with time, as modern communications, trade, capital movements and common environmental problems link all nations together in international interdependence.
     It is the absence in the European Union of anything like the underlying national solidarity which binds Europe’s nation-states together that makes the EU project, and especially the euro-currency scheme, so problematic and therefore unlikely to endure.
     The EU is a creation of powerful political, economic and bureaucratic elites, without popular legitimacy and authority. It is directed from the top down rather than the bottom up and is therefore fundamentally undemocratic.
     There is no European people, no European “demos,” no European “we,” bound together by solidarities like those that bind nations and nation-states together. Rather, the EU is made up of a plurality of Europe’s nations and peoples.
     There is therefore no EU “common good” comparable to that underlying its component member-states that would justify the establishment at the supranational level of state-like governmental institutions.
     All independent states are monetary and fiscal unions as well as political unions. As monetary unions they have their own currency, and with that the capacity to control either the domestic price of that currency, the rate of interest, or its external price, the rate of exchange. As fiscal unions, states have their own taxation, public spending and social service systems.
     By contrast, the euro-currency project, EU economic and monetary union, is a monetary union but not a fiscal union. Never in history has there been a lasting monetary union that was not also a political union and fiscal union.
     The euro-currency scheme deprives the poorer EU states and the weaker EU economies of the ability to maintain their competitiveness or to compensate for their lower productivity, poorer resource endowment or differential economic shocks by adopting an exchange rate or interest rate that suits their special circumstances. It fails to compensate them for that loss by the automatic transfer of resources from the centre which membership of a fiscal union entails.
     Compensatory fiscal transfers at the EU level to the extent required to give the EU monetary union long-run viability are impossible, in view of the volume of resources required and the unwillingness of the richer EU countries to provide them to the poorer, because of the absence of a shared national solidarity that would compel that.
     Currently expenditure by Brussels in any one year amounts to little more than 1 per cent of EU annual gross domestic product—a tiny relative figure. This contrasts with expenditure on public transfers by the EU’s member-states of between one-third and one-half of their annual national products. Thus the fiscal solidarity which would sustain an EU political union and an EU multinational state does not and cannot exist.
     Democratising the EU in the absence of a European demos is impossible. To align oneself with such a misguided, inevitably doomed project is to be out of tune with history. It is to side with a supranational elite against the democracy of one’s own people, to spurn genuine internationalism for the illusion of building a superpower.
     Insistence on the sovereignty of one’s own state is a social duty and is in no way an expression of misguided national egotism. Sovereignty has nothing to do with autarky or economic self-sufficiency. It means that one’s domestic laws and foreign relations are exclusively decided by one’s own parliament and government, which are elected by and responsible to one’s own people.
     State sovereignty is a result of advancing political culture and is an achievement of modern democracy. It is not an end in itself but is an instrument of independence. It is the opposite of every kind of subordination to foreign rule. Without sovereignty, a nation’s politics become provincial, concerned with marginal and unimportant issues.
     The sovereignty of a democratic state means at the same time the sovereignty of its people. The only mode of international co-operation acceptable to democrats is therefore one that will not demand of a state the sacrifice of its sovereignty. But that is the sacrifice the European Union requires of its members.
     Concepts of “shared sovereignty,” “pooled sovereignty” and “joint national sovereignties” are deceptive terms for having one’s laws and policies decided by European Union bodies that one’s own people do not elect, that are not responsible to them, and that can have significantly different interests.
     EU membership means that countries can no longer decide their own laws over a wide range of public policy matters. Countries and peoples that surrender their sovereignty to the EU become in practice ever more subject to laws and policies that serve the interests of others, in particular the bigger EU states. The EU continually reduces the influence of smaller states in decision-making by abolishing or limiting national veto powers.
     Even if bigger states divest themselves similarly of veto power, their political and economic weight ensures that they can get their way in matters that are decisive to them.
     The nation that gives up its sovereignty, or is deprived of it, ceases to be an independent subject of international politics. It becomes more like a provincial state than a national one. It is no longer able to decide even its own domestic affairs. It literally puts its existence at the mercy of those who are not its citizens, who have taken its sovereignty into their hands and who decide the policies of the larger body. In the European Union the big states, in particular the French-German axis, decide fundamental policy.
     EU integration is an attempt to undo for the participating states the democratic heritage of the French Revolution, the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. Its profoundly undemocratic character makes the EU a project that is historically doomed and that must inevitably disintegrate.

*

The doctrine of the separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary has been recognised as the basis of democratic states and as fundamental to the liberty of citizens since the days of Locke and Montesquieu.
     The European Union flagrantly violates the separation of powers. The Brussels Commission is the EU’s executive, but it proposes all EU laws as if it were a parliament. Its members are nominated by governments, not individually elected. It has judicial powers and can impose fines on EU member-states. It draws up and administers its own budget, with minimal democratic control.
     The Council of Ministers makes laws on the basis of the Commission’s proposals. It makes those laws in secret, often on the basis of package deals, and it takes some executive decisions. Most EU directives and regulations are in practice agreed privately in committees of civil servants from the member-states and are approved at the Council level without debate.
     The EU Parliament cannot initiate any European law. It does not decide the EU budget and acts more like a Council.
     The Court of Justice is not just a court but sometimes legislates like a parliament and continually interprets the treaties in such a way as to extend the legal powers of the EU to the maximum.
     Executive, judicial and legislative functions are thus not separated in the EU institutions but continually overlap.
     Every time the national veto is abolished in a particular policy area and laws are shifted from the national to the supranational level, where they are made by qualified majority voting on the EU Council of Ministers, national parliaments and citizens lose power correspondingly, for they no longer have the final say in the areas concerned.
     Simultaneously, individual government ministers, who are members of the executive arm of government at the national level and must have a national parliamentary majority behind them for their policies, are turned into legislators for 500 million Europeans as members of its 27-person Council of Ministers.
     National politicians thereby obtain a degree of personal power for themselves at the expense of their national parliaments and electorates, even though they may be open to being outvoted by a qualified majority on the EU Council. The more policy areas shift from the national level to Brussels, the more power shifts simultaneously from national legislatures to national executives, and the more the power of individual ministers and bureaucrats increases. Increasingly, national ministers come to see their function vis-à-vis one another as delivering their national electorates in support of further EU integration.
     When laws are made by the EU Council, national parliaments and peoples can no longer decide or make laws on the issue in question.
     A member-state on its own cannot decide a single European law. Its people, parliament and government may be opposed to an EU law, its government representative on the Council of Ministers may vote against it, but they are bound to obey it nonetheless once it is adopted by qualified majority Council vote.
     This devalues the vote of every individual citizen. Each policy area that is transferred from the national level to the supranational EU level devalues it further. This reduces the political ability of citizens to decide what is the common good and deprives them of the most fundamental right of membership of a democracy, the right to make their own laws, or to elect their representatives to make them, and to change those representatives if they dislike the laws they make.
     European integration is therefore not just a process of depriving Europe’s nation-states and peoples of their national democracy and independence: within each member-state it represents a gradual coup by government executives against legislatures and by politicians against the citizens who elect them.

*

The notion that “globalisation” makes the nation-state out of date is an ideological one.
     Globalisation is at once a description of fact and an ideology, a mixture of “is” and “ought.” It refers to important trends in the contemporary world: ease of travel, free trade, free movement of capital, the internet.
     The effect of these on the sovereignty of states is often exaggerated. States have always been interdependent to some extent. There was relatively more globalisation, in the sense of freer movement of labour, capital, and trade, in the late nineteenth century than today, although the volumes involved were much smaller. At that time also most states were on the gold standard, a form of international money.
     Globalisation imposes new constraints on states, but constraints there always have been. States adapt to such changes, but they do not cause nation-states to disappear or become less important.
     Globalisation as an ideology refers to the interests of transnational capital, which wishes to be free of state control on capital movement and seeks minimal social constraints on the private owners that possess it.
     The relation of transnational capital to sovereign states is ambiguous. On the one hand it seeks to erode the sovereignty of states in order to weaken their ability to impose constraints on private profitability and restrain “the furies of private interest.” On the other hand transnational capital looks to its own state, where the bulk of its share ownership is usually concentrated, to defend its political and economic interests internationally.
     Likewise, within each state different social interests align themselves for and against the maintenance of state sovereignty, seeking either to uphold or to undermine national democracy.
     This is a central theme of the politics of our time. Socialists should be in no doubt as to where they stand.

*

Since the ending of the Cold War and the involvement of both Britain and Ireland in the EU, Britain no longer has a key strategic or economic interest in staying in Ireland.
     The British government stated as much in the Downing Street Declaration. It still has some marginal interest in maintaining partition. Willie Whitelaw once famously said that a change in the Irish border would be a dangerous precedent for Scotland and Wales. This remains true.
     David Cameron’s Conservative Party sought to enlist the support of local unionists, but the initiative failed to deliver. Nevertheless there is still a residual pro-unionist mindset among sections of British Conservatism. But the key fact is that today British banks, businesses and supermarkets operate freely on both sides of the border.
     Twenty-five years ago Jacques Delors, then president of the Brussels Commission, said that by the year 2000 the EU would be making 80 per cent of economic laws for its member-states. In other words, the EU, not their own national parliaments, would be making most of the laws for Ireland and Britain.
     This meant in effect that anti-partitionists would be anti-partitionist and unionists would be unionist over who was going to be making the remaining 20 per cent.
     You can argue about the percentages, but this was and is the reality, and EU power is all the more potent for being invisible and not embodied in a foreign army on our streets.
     The EU treaties represent a sort of constitution in that they set up institutions that rule us and make laws that we must obey. As such they are in effect the first constitution in the world to be drawn up by capital in the interests of capital, without any democratic element.
     Economically, the EU treaties provide an ideal terrain for the profit-making activities of the EU-based transnational corporations. Politically, they provided a framework for Europe’s old imperial powers to assert themselves collectively on the world stage in the post-World War II period when they could do that individually no longer.
     Inside the EU the peoples of former imperial countries, like Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, which in the past ruled vast colonial territories and in the past drowned their colonies in blood and caused countless other peoples’ national problems, are discovering the drawbacks of losing their national democracy and having their laws made mostly by people they do not elect and who they cannot control.
     Thus when people talk in the Northern context of the EU “eroding borders,” others who base part of their political values on the assertion of the 1916 Proclamation, “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies,” remember that the traditional aim of national democracy in the Irish context has not been a united Ireland but a united independent Ireland, or, to put it another way, an Ireland united in independence.
     That is what the demand for “the Republic” has historically been all about. Ireland was united between 1800 and 1921 as part of the UK but had no independence. Uniting Ireland or encouraging a united Ireland through a “United Europe,” namely in the EU, would have similarities to that nineteenth-century Irish unity inside the UK, except that you could plausibly argue that Ireland has less voting strength in making EU law today than it had in making UK laws during the nineteenth century.

*

Logically, there are only three possible ways to secure the “unfettered control of Irish destinies” so far as the EU is concerned:
• for the EU to lift these fetters, or some of them, which requires the twenty-seven member-governments to agree unanimously to do that in a new EU Treaty that would in turn require ratification in twenty-seven national parliaments or referendums;
• for a state to leave the EU, repeal the 21st-century Act of Union which the treaties represent, and resume the political independence it had before joining the EU; and
• a collective effort to re-establish national independence and democracy for several countries simultaneously, one such country being Ireland. This requires democratic parties and democratic forces against the EU co-operating to this end and mounting intermediate campaigns directed at weakening the EU and asserting their own national independence. The longer-term objective of this course is to achieve governments in a number of member-states pledged to this objective.
     Elements of these three courses may interact and be combined in practical politics as well as shift in importance over time.
     One key demand that addresses the EU’s widely admitted democratic deficit is to repatriate policy-making powers from Brussels to the member-states.
     Despite a lot of rhetoric about subsidiarity from the Commission, there is not a single example in the years of European integration of a national power that was surrendered to Brussels being repatriated. What Brussels has once occupied stays occupied.
     Within the North there is now a new political terrain resulting from Ireland’s and Britain’s joint membership of the EU.
     British state policy is to be seen primarily in an EU context these days. At the same time one of the “objectively progressive” features of Ulster unionism is distrust of and hostility to the EU. There is an opportunity to explore the potential of this in the light of the fact that the EU is increasingly bringing into being new forms of struggle for national democracy and independence.

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