Interview with Susan George

The French trade justice expert Susan George was hosted in Dublin last November by The Campaign Against The EU Constitution, a coalition of left wing groups and individuals established to oppose the original EU Constitution. Ms Goerge spoke to Village about her experience in the French campaign to oppose the Constitution in 2005, and her views on both the defeated Constitution and the new Reform Treaty which will be put before the Irish electorate in 2008. By Eoin O'Broin



Speaking about shock defeat of the EU Constitution by the French electorate in 2005, trade justice expert Susan George, who led the ‘No' campaign, attributed the victory to “the spirit of the French revolution, the spirit of the republic”. She said the defeat of the Constitution “was in the long line of French movements on the left towards human emancipation. Once people found out what was actually in the treaty, which was the hard part to get across, then it was quite natural for them to vote no. It was a popular decision and it was a class vote...working class and lower middle class people voted no. The only social category that voted a majority for the yes was the mid to upper managers and professionals.”


When asked why France voted ‘no' Susan George explained; “Well they found objectionable the fact that the economy practically took up all of the space in the Treaty. Maybe it was there before in different laws, but it was all spread out and this was the first time that people became aware of what was already there and they didn't like what they saw. It was a blueprint for neo-liberal economics. It favored privitisation. It gave no protection to public services. It didn't even call them public services but services of general economic interest and subjected them to competition. The word ‘market' appears 78 times in the text. The phrase ‘free and undistorted competition' was there many times also, the free movements of goods, people, capital and services across the borders was repeatedly emphasised, and this was expanded into trade issues with a very heavy free trade bias. A lot of people don't agree with that.”


“It was social systems in competition” Susan George continued, “It was not just this French man against this Pole or Czech, it was whole social systems placed in competition with each other. Though this may seem a bit extreme and a bit of a departure from the text itself, I think what was actually happening was an example of that old phrase, ‘all for ourselves and nothing for other people seems in every age of the world to be the vile maxim of the masters of mankind'. Of course that is not Karl Marx that is Adams Smyth. Adam Smyth knew one or two things about the upper classes and capitalism and it seemed to many people, perhaps not in those terms, but that this was the spirit if not the content of the EU Constitution.”


Fifty-five per cent of the French electorate voted against the EU Constitution. The turnout was unprecedented for an EU poll, at 70 per cent compared with the 42 per cent turnout in France for the 2004 European parliamentary elections. Susan George's experience of the campaign was that it was different; “We had a terrific debate, it was just amazing. People spontaneously formed collectives all over the countries, where different interest groups came together, people active in health campaigns, Catholic organisations, environmentalists, women's groups, small farmers, some trade unionists, dissidents from the Socialist and Green parties, people who had never done anything before but recognised that they better stand up and be counted in this, that this was going to be a last chance kind of affair...I hadn't seen anything like it since may 1968. I think that all of a sudden people discovered what European was about and they got scared.”


The defeat of the constitution sent EU leaders back to the drawing board. After an 18 month period of reflection they announced the Reform Treaty which was agreed by the European Union's political leaders 19 October 2007. The 200 page document will be put to the Irish people in a referendum in early 2008. Replacing the defeated EU Constitution, the Reform Treaty contains a detailed series of changes to institutional, procedural and policy matters within the EU.


Despite the claims of some, Susan George firmly believes that the Reform treaty is no different to the Constitution, “Giscard d'Estaing [chair of the Convention that drafted the Constitution] spilled the beans when he published a piece in the French daily newspaper Le Monde right after they had tabled this new so called Reform Treaty. He said this is exactly the same as what we had done but they have made, and I quote ‘cosmetic changes so that it will be easier to swallow'.”


Susan George has spent her life researching, writing and campaigning on issues of fair trade, developing world debt and global inequalities. She is concerned about the implications of the Reform Treaty for the developing world; “the relationship between developed Europe and the south is going to profoundly change. They have slipped in an article stating that one of Europe's objectives is that all countries engage to a maximum in world trade. Europe would also have for the first time a juridical personality. The EU would be an actor on its own without having to consult with its member countries, so it would be able to push through the kind of trade agreement that Peter Mandelson is trying to negotiate right now with the African, Carribean and Pacific countries, 78 of the poorest countries in the world. He is pushing for a total opening up of these countries markets, with no barriers to foreign direct investment and no barriers to government procurement so European countries would be able to bid on any government contract. Since October 2006 Mandelson has been trying to force developing countries to remove what he calls ‘beyond borders barriers' such as environmental regulations, consumer protection regulations, health regulations. It's the line he has been pushing at the World Trade Organisation. If the Reform Treaty is passed he will use the new powers it provides to do exactly as he pleases. That means that member state citizens, the people from Trocaire for example, can complain all they like to the Irish government, but the Irish government will not have the power to reverse any future trade agreement.”


Susan George describes herself as a European and argues that rejecting the Reform Treaty is the first step in building an alternative, progressive EU. “ I want to open up some space,” she says, “we have to keep saying no until they get the point and we can sit down and have a real discussion about the future of Europe... I would like to see a separation of powers, a lot more power to the parliament, a central bank that is not independent, much greater financial means, much more encouragement for research and higher education, and obviously for healthcare. Is this a utopian project? It is if we pass this Treaty, which is why the Irish have a huge responsibility on their shoulders.”