Challenging corporate Europe.

Author:Hilary, John
Position:European Union's economic policy

At its Lisbon summit in March 2000, leaders of the European Union adopted a new strategy whose grand idea was no less than 'to modernise Europe'. Reaffirmed and relaunched in 2005, this strategy has underpinned the EU's work programme throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. It has also enshrined a neo-liberal agenda of competition and competitiveness at the heart of the European body politic, explicitly designed to favour the interests of capital over labour and to locate ever greater powers in the anti-democratic institutions of the EU.

The Lisbon agenda has been developed on the principle of creating new markets for business to expand into, both in the EU itself and abroad. Nowhere was this agenda stated more clearly than in the European Commission's attempt to create a single European market in services through the infamous Bolkestein directive, which threatened to undermine key public services at the same time as opening up new business opportunities for the powerful European services lobby. As a result of concerted trade union resistance, including mass demonstrations in Brussels itself, the directive was watered down prior to its adoption in December 2006. Yet the writing was on the wall.

At the same time as the Bolkestein directive was being contested on the streets, the European Commission was further developing the Lisbon agenda in close collaboration with European business representatives. Originally introduced by Peter Mandelson in his role as European trade commissioner, the EU's new Global Europe strategy (European Commission, 2006) was adopted by the EU Council of Ministers in November 2006. This now represents the official articulation of the Lisbon agenda as it relates to the internal and external relations of all twenty-seven EU member states (War on Want, 2008).

'Global Europe'

By its own admission, Global Europe is primarily aimed at creating new business opportunities for European companies in the emerging markets of the developing world. In place of the soft, pro-development language which characterised much EU trade policy in the past, Global Europe speaks of a 'hard-nosed', aggressive effort to obtain market access for European exporters in the developing countries of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

The EU's own impact assessments have confirmed that this will be highly detrimental to the development prospects of those countries, while new research from War on Want has shown that millions of jobs will be lost as a result of the dogmatic insistence on trade liberalisation (Hobbs and Tucker, 2009).

At the same time, the Global Europe strategy aims to open up the internal EU market still further. The most significant threat posed by the programme of internal liberalisation is the strategy's intention to 'harmonise' European regulations with those of trading partners whose standards are lower than our own. As Peter Mandelson made clear, this means first and foremost a process of convergence with the US regulatory system so favoured by business for its meagre social and environmental content. According to the Global Europe strategy, the progressive labour, health and environmental standards of the EU must be lowered so as to avoid making unwanted demands on companies from other parts of the world (Mandelson, 2006).

Recent rulings by the European Court of Justice have already indicated how key labour standards can be undermined when free market principles of competition are given priority over social concerns. Judgements in the four cases of Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxembourg have threatened two of the most basic trade union rights in Europe: the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining. Most worryingly, it was the European Commission itself which brought the case against Luxembourg, seeking to uphold the European internal market and the interests of multinational corporations against the labour laws of one of its own member...

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