The issue of Europe is tearing the Tories apart and also splits the Labour Party. For many on the left, however, the European Union is seen as at least part of the solution to years of Tory attacks and cutbacks. Surely the Social Chapter or appeals to the European Court, they argue, are a means of preventing the British government going too far.
In fact the prospect of monetary union and the single currency has meant a serious assault on working class living standards across Europe. Unemployment, austerity and cuts in welfare are the order Of the day as bosses try and impose their idea of the 'European ideal' on the rest of us.
For socialists the response is simple we are not in favour of working class people having to pay for the crisis that engulfs all the major European capitalist countries. While the bosses demand the free movement of capital, we demand the free movement of labour; they demand cuts and unemployment, we demand greater spending and jobs for all.
Whatever the colour of the national governments from the centre-left administrations of Pasok in Greece or the Olive coalition in Italy, to the right wing governments of Kohl in Germany or Juppé in France the strategy for getting out of this crisis has been to try to make workers pay.
This is what underlies all the talk of the route to stability and prosperity being closer European union. The convergence criteria which have been set as conditions of entry for the next stage monetary union demand massive attacks on public spending in areas of welfare, healthcare provision and pension rights.
The drive to a single currency is in reality a drive to make workers shoulder an increasingly heavy burden for the mess of the bosses' system.
Growing numbers of workers across Europe are seeing through this facade. As one French lorry driver expressed it last month, `Today in Europe you can argue all you want about the currency and the regulations, but it is simple: employers will always be employers and we will always be doing the work.'
The assaults on public spending and welfare have created a widespread anger and a cynicism about the ability of the mainstream political establishment to deal with the problems faced by the majority of workers. The resulting political vacuum has led to a volatile polarisation which has seen both industrial and social unrest with general strikes and mass demonstrations in cities all over Europe at the same time as a growth of far right and fascist parties.
This polarisation is most dramatically evident in France, where the nazi Le Pen's National Front now controls three town councils, while the last 12 months have seen widespread mass protest and strike action from virtually every sector of workers in the country from Air France through to rail workers, teachers, civil servants and defence workers. In one by-election near Marseilles last October 65 percent of voters voted either FN or Communist Party, leading the right wing former finance minister, Alain Madelin, to say, `The result shows the advanced state of decomposition of French political life. It illustrates a deep gulf between politicians and the everyday concerns of French people'
The need to fulfil the convergence criteria led to the prime minister, Alain Juppé, launching an all out assault on whole sections of the working class at the end of 1995.
Since the social upheaval which resulted from this attack in November and December 1995 the French government has attempted a different tack, waging an ideological war to try and divide the workers' movement. This has included a campaign around the centrality of the French family and nation and a crackdown on asylum seekers and immigrants. But the government faced a massive outcry from the general public with demonstrations of workers, students and public figures when it chartered planes to deport immigrants.
A year on from the mass protests which rocked the country the government has once again been forced to back down, this time by a single, though powerful, group of workers and in a dispute which is in the private sector.
Juppé shares the unenviable position of Major in that he is the most unpopular prime minister of all time. So electoral considerations, which caused tax cuts, and settling the lorry drivers' dispute, clash with economic pressures which mean he will sooner or later have to come back for more attacks. As the Economist said, `If Mr Juppé goes too slow or gives in too quickly to malcontents, France's sorely needed across the board reforms will be in jeopardy; if he goes too fast and tries to face down the unions he could provoke that much mooted explosion.'
Nowhere is the contradiction facing workers more stark. In November polls showed that 87 percent of the French population supported the demands of the lorry drivers while 59 percent supported their tactics. Meanwhile another showed that 51 percent approved of some of the National Front's ideas, even though 71 percent considered it to be a racist party. These figures show that individual workers can be pulled both ways at once. Whether racism or class solidarity wins out will depend on which exerts the stronger pull at key points in the struggle.
However, the victory of the lorry drivers was an important landmark in pulling the working class more to the left. The picture of social disintegration and discontent is mirrored across Europe. Germany, constantly billed as the most stable model of social cohesion and economic success, is also having to sell austerity programmes in its mission to be fit for monetary union. Last year saw the largest demonstration in Germany's postwar history, in Bonn in June, in protest at planned cuts in social benefits, and more recently there have been major strikes against the reduction of sick pay. Faced with the prospect of losing hard won reforms such as sick benefits and pensions, workers have looked to their collective strength. However, in Austrian elections last year Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, whose core is made up of Nazis, won over a quarter of the votes.
Last year's election in Italy of the Olive Tree coalition, dominated by the ex-Communist PDS and held in power by the `hard left' Refoundation has not signalled any shift in economic policies. The prime minister, Romano Prodi, last year announced the most austere budget in Italy's postwar history to make Italy's entry into EMU possible by 1999. But the problems inherent in this strategy have not gone away. The rightwinger Berlusconi mobilised hundreds of thousands of the middle classes to march in Rome against the increases. At the same time Refoundation mobilised a mass demonstration against unemployment in Naples. Instability, unrest and economic crisis will continue to plague the system while the needs of big business go before the well being of the majority of the population.
Greece has seen general strikes over the imposition of an austerity budget. Athens came to a virtual standstill as both public and private sector workers took to the streets in protest while farmers, inspired by the French lorry drivers' blockade, virtually cut Greece in half with road blocks on the main motorways, calling on the government to cancel crippling debts.
In other parts of Europe the leaders of the labour and trade union movement have worked in partnership with the ruling class to argue that cutbacks in public spending and workers' living standards are necessary for the national good. Ireland, the fastest growing economy in western Europe, sees a net income of investment from the European Union and so the trade union bureaucracy has been persuaded to collaborate with the government resulting in a reduction of living standards for many Irish workers.
Spain, too, has seen the ideas of `social partnership' with the Tory government there encouraged by labour leaders yet the austerity measures proposed have been such that there were mass demonstrations and general strikes in December.
The development of the European Union has demonstrated to workers everywhere that the central plank of the ruling class strategy is increased exploitation.
Though initially some labour leaders warned that workers would have to take wage cuts because of the danger of `social dumping' that is that companies would relocate to the country with the lowest wage costs by and large this hasn't happened. Wage costs may be lower in Portugal but the skills and communications needed for smooth exploitation of the workforce may not be available there.
Therefore there is a constant battle between the idea that, for instance, British workers should identify with the needs of the British government competing with other European governments, and the basic gut reaction that workers of all nationalities feel when they see workers fighting back.
This clash of consciousness was expressed by one British lorry driver last month when he said the French blockade had `caused a lot of bad feeling between the French and the English on the roads. You've got to admire the unions though, they've got what they wanted. They didn't back down that's what would have happened in England.'
Such a generalisation of class interests is exactly what Major, Juppé, Kohl and their class most fear, as summarised in one French headline, `Will the truck drivers' victory prove "contagious?"' What the pundits don't seem to recall is that what they currently call `the French disease' fighting back was only a few years ago being referred to as `the English disease'. The lesson is that the conditions which have led to mass resistance can be found across the countries of Europe and workers are increasingly seeing the similarities and expressing solidarity across national borders.
But what is also true is that the same conditions feed despair as well as resistance. Mass struggle alone may not be sufficient to cut off the ability of the right wing to take advantage of the feeling of disenfranchisement and being let down by mainstream politicians. In Britain the polarisation has not yet been as acute as in other parts of Europe as the working class movement is concentrated on getting rid of a discredited and despised Tory government.
The disappointment that will arise when a Blair government calls for austerity measures and welfare cuts, which will be portrayed as the only way Britain can compete in the world market, can be easily foreseen by the events already taking place elsewhere in Europe. What socialists do now is crucial in shaping the direction of future battles away from the politics of despair to the politics of hope and the possibility of victory.