Socialists, the European elections and the Referendum


Can we make an internationalist case for withdrawal from the EU? Michael Calderbank (Brent Central CLP) kicks off the debate.

Europe1The debate around May’s elections to the European Parliament is almost certain to be caught up in a wave of reactionary nationalism. UKIP is likely to be the prime beneficiary as the right wing media stokes the fear that Britain is under siege from Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants. Designed to stop votes haemorrhaging to Nigel Farage’s populist outfit, Ed Miliband’s admission that Labour “got it wrong” on immigration has done little to shore up his own core vote. Indeed, it has only encouraged some of his own MPs like Tom Harris to embrace the bigotry and proclaim themselves fellow members of the “Romaphobe” club.

Sadly, the whole question of Britain’s membership of the European Union has now become a cipher for our ability to “control our own borders”, to pull up the drawbridge and retreat into the isolation of small-island xenophobia. The debate is so immigration-obsessed it is hard to see how the whole spectrum of other aspects of European policy – such as the Common Agricultural Policy, employment rights, trade agreements and competition law – will even begin to get a look in. Labour is not really managing to build support behind a different agenda for Europe. But behind these difficulties lies the still more explosive question of our position on any future in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. There are a wide range of views on the left about how we should respond to these debates, including in the LRC itself.

The clamour of voices currently calling for withdrawal from the EU are predominantly coming from the political right (including the far right), on a prospectus of anti-immigration scaremongering and deregulatory freemarket attacks on workers’ rights. Some draw the conclusion that the left cannot seriously entertain involving itself in support of the No side of the argument, without making some politically fatal compromises towards a “red-brown” nationalistic workerism. Indeed, that is precisely how detractors viewed the Communist Party of Britain and Socialist Party backed NO2EU project. We might not like the EU as it is, so the argument runs, but at least EU membership has brought with it some basic social rights and a general culture of international co-operation and pluralism. In endorsing withdrawal from the EU, it is claimed, the left would be opening the door to an atavistic relapse to a world without basic minimum standards or protections.

This analysis is both flawed and dangerous. Firstly, it assumes that the project of a ‘social Europe’ is a living reality, as opposed to a remnant of a European project which has long since mutated into something else altogether. The European Common Market was the product of a consensus between Christian Democrats and moderate Social Democracy based around a compromise of liberalising trading links while consolidating basic social welfare entitlements. The project was led from the outset by a para-state bureaucracy deliberately insulated from direct channels of democratic accountability which might have resulted in mass pressure for radical socialist policies. It is true that – in comparison to the philosophy of Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher – the EEC, and later EU, under the leadership of Jacques Delors, was still prepared to extend statutory rights to workers in Britain which would not have been obtained under the Tories.

ThatcherDecades later, however, and the institutional protections of European Social Democracy have largely been swept away by the tide of neoliberalism. Far from being the last solid bastion against Thatcherism, European Social Democratic parties have been emptied out and transformed into agents of marketisation and corporate entrenchment. The para-state bureaucracy of the European political institutions is even less responsive to democratic pressures, and has effectively been commandeered by those seeking to further insulate European policy-making from the European populace. Europe is now set on very different political trajectory even from its founding principles, a path which will lead inexorably to the rights we currently enjoy under EU auspices being eroded and undermined.

Take, for example, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – an EU-US trade deal – which will allow for multinational companies to sue national governments which seek to regulate their behaviour, bypassing the courts and overriding domestic law via decisions made in secret by corporate lawyers based offshore. Or take the European Commission’s 4th rail package, a set of proposals which would make it illegal for any future British government to renationalise the rail industry, since they make mandatory the competitive tendering for rail passenger services and require the fragmentation between infrastructure providers and rail operators that has been so disastrous in Britain’s rail privatisation. Far from being barriers to neoliberal reforms, European institutions today are key promoters of corporate interests.

UKIPWith the mainstream political elite likely to unite around both the politics of austerity and staying in the EU (with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson among those leading the charge), any attempt to associate the left with a Yes vote would leave disaffected working class voters with nowhere to go but the far right. Conversely, were the left to campaign against EU membership in any referendum, it would have to be on a basis totally opposed to that of UKIP and the Tory right. The question of immigration would need to be taken up in class terms without making concessions to populist scapegoating. Does anyone really believe the financial crisis was caused not by the rapacious greed of the bankers but by a surfeit of Polish plumbers? UKIP’s popularity is best contested not by clinging to the coat-tails of an establishment liberalism that says “immigration is good for business”, but by taking a clear class stand against the forces behind exploitation of British and migrant workers alike.

It is time for the left to get off the defensive. We can build support if we emphasise the importance of solidarity across borders in combating poverty pay and exploitation at work. We can challenge the grip of the financial elites insisting on an agenda of slashing government spending on jobs, pay and services, leaving workers on the periphery with no choice but to leave their home countries to seek employment in the major European economies. We can insist that taking back power means relying not on our own bankrupt political institutions but on taking control over our services and economies, on a local as well as national scale. We can promote the benefits of international co-operation in the interests of the millions not the millionaires. But our membership of the EU makes all of the above more difficult, so calling for withdrawal from an internationalist left perspective would be perfectly consistent.

SocialEuropeBy contrast, to suggest that we try run a parallel campaign for a ‘Socialist Europe’ while also calling for a vote to remain in the EU, or abstain, is to imply that it is possible to somehow adequately reform the existing institutions. Given the lack of any real or prospective democratic power to influence the operation of these bodies it is extremely hard to see how this could be achieved. In effect, those arguing for a progressive Yes vote are asking us to accept the continuation of the status quo on the basis of an unredeemable promise, since to adopt a neutral position in an in/out referendum would be seen as evasive, ducking the very concrete choice faced by voters in the ballot box.

The left – including the LRC – faces a choice. Are we to cling to the last vestiges of a project which has never been ours, and is now growing ever more hostile to our interests? Or can we argue for radical change, setting out a compelling vision of a workers’ Europe, and strike a blow against the new architecture of pan-European neoliberalism?

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