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EU divisions are only skin deep

TORY MEP Daniel Hannan is being generous when he says there will be “an element of choreography” about David Cameron’s bid to renegotiate the terms of EU membership.

Whatever the noises from his party’s eurosceptic wing, there has been no serious disagreement between the Tories and Brussels on the direction of travel in Europe since the financial crash of 2008.

It’s a cliché that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” and “opportunity,” and an inaccurate cliché at that.

Nonetheless the bankers’ crisis was treated by elites in London and Berlin alike as a golden opportunity to accelerate the neoliberal assault on working people’s rights and public services which took off in the 1970s.

Both the Conservative Party and the European Union immediately set about blaming the recession on public spending, when it had in fact been caused by reckless financial gambling.

The cure, we were told, was “austerity,” jargon for a programme of massive cuts to welfare and social security safety nets, attacks on pensions, the privatisation of huge segments of the public sector and the outsourcing of services in institutions that stayed in public hands.

“Austerity” also included lengthy wage freezes or below-inflation rises that drive down working people’s living standards .

At the same time we saw tax cuts for the richest and the erosion of job security in the name of “flexibility,” a further step in increasing the power of the employer over the employed.

Many on the left took up the term “austerity” as shorthand for everything we are up against. Much recent evidence suggests few people outside a core of political activists are familiar with what the term means, however — and little wonder.

“Austerity,” as the phrase’s founders intended, implies belt-tightening, “we’re all in it together,” everyone foregoing a few luxuries for the common good.

That hardly chimes with the lived experience of working people over the past five years. The wealth of the richest has ballooned while ordinary people have seen their incomes shrink and their rights removed.

So perhaps it’s time we started calling it what it is — a ruling-class offensive designed to enable an unprecedented transfer of power and wealth away from working people and to big business.

That offensive crosses borders. The experience of the Doncaster care workers stripped of up to half their wages when their jobs were handed to Care UK was not so different to that of public-sector workers in Greece, ordered to take hefty pay cuts by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

On all this, Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel see eye to eye.

As in any alliance there are points of tension.

The Conservatives are the political wing of the City of London, keen to maintain its tax-haven status. They will naturally try to block any bid by the EU to regulate the City or promote Frankfurt as a rival financial centre.

The US rapprochement with Iran has seen France attempt to increase its influence over the resentful Gulf autocracies. How Britain will respond to this is unclear.

But on the main planks of the EU project — privatisation, deregulation, attacks on trade unions — Westminster and Brussels are peas in a pod.

And it’s no surprise the EU’s current priority — ratification of the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States, entrenching corporate power ever more deeply in both continents — is not on Cameron’s renegotiation list.

Cue a carefully stage-managed negotiation. Cameron will no doubt return brandishing some hard-won concession, enabling him to deprive immigrants of the right to see a doctor or rent a council house.

But the war on working people will continue, in Britain and in Europe.

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