Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Left Can’t Afford to Get it Wrong on the EU. Why Socialists Should Vote to Remain

The EU debate is dominated by well-resourced Leave and Remain campaigns promoting right-wing, pro-business arguments about the UK’s future relationship with Europe. They mainly reflect divisions within the Tory party (Cameron’s chief reason for calling the referendum) and also the wider British ruling class. It is vital that socialists get their response to the EU debate right. The outcome of the referendum will not just determine the character of the British state for the foreseeable future.  It will also determine the prospects for building a socialist alternative over the next decade or more; both in the UK and throughout Europe.  It is not surprising therefore that a significant debate has broken out between Marxists and others on the radical left about whether or not socialists should call for an EU exit.  This post is an attempt to address some of the important issues raised by that debate. It supports the Left Remain position. 
A Left Leave group has been formed supported, amongst others, by the SWP, the Socialist Party, the CPGB, Scottish Left Leave, some labour and trade union left figures and other smaller far left groups.  A number of left wing academics and commentators such as Tariq Ali have also supported a left leave position. This post examines the Lexit case, analyses its shortcomings and proposes a socialist case for voting to remain in the EU.

According to a recent article in Socialist Review by Joseph Choonara, the socialist case to remain is based on certain key propositions. These include that the EU “secures free movement”, that the EU “protects workers” and that a Brexit will shift British politics further to the hard right. He dismisses all of these as myths which are deeply “pessimistic”(Choonara 2015). Tariq Ali at a recent meeting organised by the Scottish left group Rise, argued along the same lines; claiming, at the same time, that EU social and workplace protections were largely illusory and that meaningful rights came only from struggle not the EU.  As so often in debates on the left, Choonara and Tariq have been highly selective in their critique. 
There is in fact much common ground between the left remain and leave positions.  Firstly all socialists would agree that the EU is a capitalist project.  From its inception as the European Coal and Steel Community to its present institutional form its prime aim has been to increase the competitiveness and profitability of European capital. Secondly the institutions of the EU, as currently constituted, are undemocratic. The European Parliament has limited powers and the Council of ministers and the unelected Commission and ECB increasingly dominate decision making – especially within the Eurozone. Thirdly the institutions of the EU have become instruments for imposing austerity and neoliberal policies on member states, even where this is opposed by the democratic wishes of their populations; and even, as in Greece, where it causes a breakdown in civil society and a humanitarian crisis for ordinary people.  Finally the refugee crisis has shown that the liberal notion of “free movement” of labour actually disguises an institutional racism expressed now in a “fortress Europe” response of staggering inhumanity towards those fleeing violence, war and destitution.

EU Social and Workplace Protections
Notwithstanding all this, comrades on the left who advocate a leave vote are making a fundamental mistake.   An examination of their arguments shows them to be long on rhetoric and short on serious political analysis. To start with there is the question of positive EU workplace and social protections. Lexit supporters generally dismiss these as trivial at best, or at worst misleading delusions of the trade union bureaucracy.  However these protections are real and important to the daily lives of thousands of workers in the UK.  They may have been conceded grudgingly and for primarily business reasons such as ensuring fair competition and a “level playing field” for firms operating in the EU’s Single Market, but they are there and they are under threat from the mainstream advocates of Brexit. When politicians like Gove, Johnson and Duncan Smith talk about reducing the burden of red tape on businesses, they really mean scrapping such things as EU rights for part-timers to claim fulltime work, rights for agency staff to equal treatment, rights to paid holidays, limits on work time and all the protections against injury and work related ill health stemming from EU Health and safety Directives. In fact removing these protections is essential to their vision of a post Brexit Britain.  To compete globally as an isolated medium size economy through bilateral trade deals would mean massively reducing UK costs of production, particularly labour costs.  This could only be achieved by further driving down living standards and removing costly workplace rights.  Outside the EU this becomes so much easier.

Left leave supporters show a staggering indifference to EU social and workplace protections.  But, like so many of their arguments, they do not explain why these protections are of little consequence. They simply counterpose rights won through class struggle within the British state with supposedly weaker EU rights. In doing this they come close to re-writing history and they certainly ignore the impact of working class organisation and agitation on EU law making.  So for instance Choonara claims:
“British health and safety provisions largely emerged in the 1970s and because they were won in a period of union strength and worker militancy, they go further than is required by the EU. “  (Choonara 2015)

Whilst it’s true that the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act came out of a period of worker militancy, it imposed only vague “general duties” on employers.  All key health and safety regulations since 1977, from managing safety at work to the design and maintenance of protective equipment, has emanated from EU directives. They have not been perfect but they have massively improved the rights of workers granted by the 1974 Act. Moreover most of them were shaped, in part at least, by trade union organised campaigns co-ordinated across EU member states.   Very few union reps involved in day to day struggles to improve safety at work, in the face of hostile managements, would argue that these rights are unimportant. (TUC 2016)

Having peremptorily dismissed EU workplace and other rights such as environmental protections, Lexit supporters usually justify a leave vote by advancing four key propositions.  Firstly, in the words of a Left Leave leaflet from Counterfire , neoliberalism “is hardwired into the EU and its laws.”   Secondly the EU is undemocratic and unreformable. Thirdly that, as Alex Callinicos argued recently, European neoliberalism is more likely to be broken at the national level (Callinicos 2015). And fourthly that exit will destabilise the British ruling class, opening up opportunities for socialism in the UK and the EU more generally.  Each of these is examined below.

Is Neoliberalism “hard-wired” into EU Law?

The EU is a “businessman’s club”.  As such it reflects neoliberal orthodoxy in its approach to economic and social policy.  No one disputes the recent horrors this has produced. Lexit comrades rightly point to the inhumane treatment of the Greek people. They cite the vile racism underpinning the EU’s “fortress Europe” refugee policy. And they highlight the contempt for democracy in the imposition of Troika-led structural adjustment programmes on those Eurozone states worst hit by the financial crisis.  But to what extent is neoliberalism actually “hard-wired” into EU law? 
Left leave proponents claim that EU law would prevent a future Corbyn government from implementing progressive policies such as the social ownership of energy and railways.  This genuinely is a pessimistic argument.  With the lessons of Syriza’s capitulation so recently clear, surely a radical left Corbyn government would deploy whatever mass popular support it had to resist EU neoliberal laws?  If it was ultimately thrown out of the EU, a whole new left wing dynamic really would open up. A situation that would contrast totally with the scenario following a voluntary exit orchestrated by hard right populists like Gove and Johnson. 

In reality though the "leave" comrades once again over-exaggerate their claims.  There is no doubt that EU laws in recent decades have increasingly promoted free trade, privatisation and have generally asserted the rights of capital over the rights of working people. But EU law has not prevented Germany from municipalising energy provision and it has not prevented the operation of publicly owned railways throughout much of the EU. In Germany 90% of passenger services are run by the state railway company; in France both the main train operator and the infrastructure operator are state owned; the same applies in Italy; the Spanish railways are virtually entirely in public ownership; as is the case in Belgium and Holland; even in Sweden which has started to privatise its railways 80% of services are still publicly owned and run. (TSSA)

As another example of hardwired neoliberalism, Scottish Left Leave on their website state “the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) has directly limited TU rights”.  It’s tempting to reply – not half as much as Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Cameron have done!  But the website correctly points out that recent ECJ judgements (Viking, Laval etc) have restricted aspects of collective bargaining and industrial action. However a simple glance at the European Trade Union Institute’s website shows the persistence of collective bargaining throughout the EU and its remarkably wide coverage . .  98% of French workers are covered by collective agreements, in Belgium 96% are covered, in Sweden the figure is 88%, in Holland 81%, in Italy 80%, in Germany it is 62%.  In contrast in Britain, where neoliberalism really is “hardwired” into our anti- trade union laws, just 29% of workers are covered by collective agreements.    None of this is to dispute the fact that the political and corporate elites who dominate EU policy making have pursued a vigorous anti working class agenda. But it does cast doubt on the Left Leave claim that EU law is more unassailably neoliberal than national legal structures.

Class Struggle and Democratising the EU
A still more contentious argument claims the EU is so undemocratic that socialist should have nothing to do with it.  Leave advocates, however, never explain how Brexit would in any way challenge the EU’s institutionalised contempt for democracy. Leaving and denouncing the EU from outside would not stop the Troika imposing inhumane pension reforms against the democratic will of Greek citizens.  It would not stop TTIP with its undemocratic legal procedures.  It would leave untouched the fiscal stability pact that locks the poorest Eurozone economies into endless austerity.  Anti-democratic neoliberal policies like these are not a product of EU institutions.  The prevailing rules, laws and structures of the EU are those agreed by representatives of the neoliberal elites who dominate policy making within member states. There is nothing intrinsically unassailable or unreformable about them.  But challenging them requires challenging the politics they reflect.

Impotently calling for the EU to be broken up while making vague rhetorical statements about international solidarity is not the way to fight-back.  At best it is mere propaganda.  Active, concrete engagement with those struggling to resist neoliberalism across the EU, in communities, workplaces and on the streets must always be central.  But challenging neoliberalism within the EU institutions and policy making processes is also an aspect of resistance.  A number of EU-wide left organisations like the European Left Party, Another Europe is Possible and the new Varoufakis led Diem25 are doing just that, whilst also seeking to build and link up resistance to the neo liberal project within member states.  These organisations are not perfect but they are not the rotten reformist entities of Lexit mythology.  What benefit does the UK left gain by cutting itself off from such organisations?  For socialists there should be no contradiction between fighting to democratise the EU and building mass resistance to the Troika on the streets of Athens.

Lexit or Internationalism?
This leads to the third reason advanced by leave comrades for supporting Brexit. They deny that the EU can be a valid terrain of struggle for socialists at all. Prioritising the national struggle is the only way to defeat neoliberalism.  Alex Callinicos of the SWP explained why recently:

 “Strategically the problem is, since the 1980s but more especially as a result of the eurozone crisis, a Europe-wide neoliberal regime is being constructed. Breaking this is most likely to happen at national level” (Callinicos 2015, my emphasis)

Less theoretically, Paul Embery (FBU London Secretary) on the Open Democracy UK website has insisted that the EU is a key “pillar” of austerity and that if we want to defeat the “enemy at home” and elect a progressive Labour government: “the first step to achieving that is getting out of the EU”.
It is hard to see how this “stageist” theory of resisting ruling class attacks can be justified. Why does building an effective anti-austerity movement or progressive alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy within the UK depend on exit from the EU?  Even in Greece, Spain and Portugal where resistance to the Troika’s neo-colonialism has been strongest, those calling for an EU exit or the break-up of the EU are a small minority. In Greece for instance both main proponents of exit have failed to attract mass popular support.  The Greek communist party (KKE) polled only 5.5% in last September’s election; well below its recent high water mark of 8.5%. Whilst the far left Antarsya which has links with the UK’s SWP polled a miniscule 0.85%.

 Across Europe working people are starting to fight back against austerity and neoliberalism.  There have been mass strikes and demonstrations in France against the Hollande government’s labour market “reforms”.  Tens of thousands of German workers have been on the streets in recent months protesting against the secretive and undemocratic TTIP trade deal. General strikes and mass demonstrations are once again an everyday occurrence in Greece. Whilst throughout Europe thousands of ordinary people have campaigned and provided support for refugees in defiance of the EU’s racist fortress Europe policy.   Left leave comrades claim they are internationalists but it is hard to see how isolating ourselves from the rest of the EU makes it easier to build meaningful solidarity with such emerging struggles. 

Anything that unites working people in the same struggle across borders helps breakdown the barriers that divide us, and develop an understanding that the enemy we face is organised internationally and needs to be resisted internationally.  Because it is a capitalist project, the EU constantly creates class antagonism and generates common struggles across EU member states as a result of its policies. Being part of the EU makes those struggles more obviously “our” struggles in the UK, and international solidarity more obviously part of the solution to “our” problems. Being outside the EU does not make solidarity with Greek workers fighting the Troika or German workers resisting TTIP impossible but it does not make it so obviously integral to UK workers in their own struggles.  Therefore building international solidarity becomes harder. As Len Arthur from Left Unity Wales has argued:

 “… as socialists, we recognise that the problems of capitalism are international and can only have international solutions. The existence of the EU means that as its policies operate across national boundaries so the challenges faced by the working class constantly have international dimensions which provide opportunities for solidarity and action on this basis. The fight against austerity in Greece, and now Portugal, is much more obviously our fight as being part of the EU than if we were outside. Similarly the politics of right wing governments in Hungary and Poland require to be challenged as much as our own UK government for the same reason.”

Calling for Brexit and prioritising the national struggle undermines international solidarity. But worse still it has led some Lexit supporters into making significant concessions to the reactionary arguments of the mainstream Brexit campaign. For example in his Open Democracy piece Paul Embery asserts:
“And while as trade unionists we must oppose attacks on immigrants, we must also recognise that the EU’s policy of open borders has given rise to an explosion of cheap labour and contributed to the undercutting of wages (a reason why the policy enjoys the support of big business), caused real social tensions, placed public services under pressure…”,

Again on the Left Leave website there is an article by the author John King in which he argues that:
“The future of Britain lies in building ever better trade relations with the economically expanding parts of the world, such as the Commonwealth countries.  Britain would be liberated.” (My emphasis)

He goes on to make the argument that:
 “The less you have the more your identity matters, and the powerful elite do not have the right to sell this off to the EU or anyone else.”,  My emphasis)

It is not the factual inaccuracy of such statements that is striking.  Although almost every independent study suggests free movement benefits society, and there is little evidence that migrant workers take jobs, push down wages or put additional pressure on public services (Jonathan Wadsworth, Immigration and the UK Labour Market LSE 2015).  And how the Left leave campaign would justify the loss of jobs attendant on reorienting UK trade from the EU to the Commonwealth is anybody’s guess (about 44% UK exports go to the EU, less than 10% to Commonwealth countries).  What is much more striking is the concessions such arguments make to right-wing national chauvinism. They stress national “identity”, British exclusivity and concede the UKIP argument that migration and free movement cause economic and social problems. No matter how you qualify it with attacks on the bosses, this is a short step from calling for controls on “our” borders.  A step that will inevitably lead to blaming migrants for the economic crisis not the profit system and the ruling elites who benefit from it.

Prioritising the national struggle has also led Lexit supporters to ignore opportunities for building international solidarity with actually existing left political organisations as mentioned above. The European Left for example comprises left parties from 21 countries.  It operates within the European Parliament through the European United Left / Nordic Green Left.  But it also has a programme of international opposition to neoliberalism together with a programme of campaigning demands and actions.

Such existing examples of practical internationalism are of immense importance in resisting the nationalist and xenophobic agenda promoted by the mainstream Brexit campaign.  Again Len Arthur of Left Unity argues:

“The existence of the EL adds an absolutely key dimension to the referendum debate, particularly in challenging the right. UKIP, and the like, attempt to frame the debate in terms of the UK and people taking back power almost as a form of liberation. This becomes the peg on which to hang populist policies such as scapegoating migrants and refugees for causing all the problems experienced by workers…….

Having an internationalist alternative programme and strategy which addresses how these problems are related to the failures of capitalism and their neo liberal policies, backed up with a real international political organisation, provides a direct and internationally based challenge to the right and their nationalistic populism. Ignoring this possibility, as many on the left are doing, at best weakens the internationalist case and, at worst, plays into the hands of nationalist populism.” (

Will Brexit Open Up Opportunities for Socialists?

Finally, perhaps the most crucial argument for a left leave vote, is that it will throw the British and EU ruling elites into disarray and open up opportunities for socialists.  Some even argue it could bring about the downfall of the Tories and the election of a radical Corbyn government. Here it is worth stressing that whether or not to leave the EU is not a fundamental principle for socialists. An exit which undermined the European ruling class’s neoliberal project, and brought to power a radical left UK government with a socialist internationalist perspective would be worth supporting. The possibility of de-stabilising the British state with its warmongering and austerity politics was a key reason why the majority of socialists in Scotland called for a Yes vote to leave the UK.

Is such an optimistic scenario really on the cards following an EU exit?  According to the Left Leave  leaflet mentioned above:  “Brexit would tear the Tory party apart and could well bring them down.”.Similarly in his Socialist Review article Choonara argues:
 “The fears of a referendum campaign dominated by Nigel Farage have certainly not been realized, and there is no evidence from polls of a surge in support for UKIP. The argument has instead been dominated by the rival wings of the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron and Boris Johnson. But this debate, far from strengthening the right, is paralyzing and weakening it.”  (Choonara 2015)

Unfortunately all recent evidence suggests that the Tories and UKIP are not about to fall apart as Choonara suggests. The recent local and devolved nation election results were far better for Corbyn than many predicted.  They bore no relation to the disaster portrayed in the media and by Blairites within the Labour Party. But they showed support for the Tories holding up and no significant breakthrough for Labour outside London. In Scotland the Labour vote collapsed and the Tories became the leading opposition party for the first time in more than 30 years. In Wales the UKIP vote rose significantly giving them 7 seats in the Assembly. They also came second in both the Ogmore and Sheffield Brghtside by-elections.  Votes for the various far left factions in Scotland were insignificant representing a retreat from the influence of the Radical Independence Campaign 18 months ago.  None of this suggests the Tories or UKIP are about to fall apart.   Nor does it suggest a radical left alternative with mass appeal is about to break through following a Brexit.
Since the financial crisis there have been many fantastic local and national campaigns against austerity politics in all its variants. Such as those organised by the Peoples Assembly, Unite the Resistance, the National Shop stewards Network, TUC bodies, Greens and CND. There have been some significant national and local strikes and industrial action campaigns most notably the recent junior doctors’ strikes and before that the mass public sector pension strikes.  There’s even been a mini-strike wave going on in Scotland involving teachers, lecturers and local authority workers. But the sad truth is that, despite last summer’s magnificent Corbyn victory and all the hard work of activists from many different traditions over a number of years, the radical left in the UK, has not yet managed to build an anti-austerity movement capable of attracting mass support around a credible alternative to the neoliberal consensus.

This contrast markedly to the position the left faced in the last European referendum.  In the 1975 Europe referendum most of us on the radical left argued for a leave position on similar grounds to those proposed by comrades today.  But then there were real opportunities for a radical alternative to the emergent EEC businessman’s club.  There was a strong, confident trade union movement with 13 million members that had recently destroyed the Tory industrial relations bill and later had effectively brought down the Heath government.  There was a large and credible Labour left with a coherent (if flawed) “Alternative Economic Strategy”. There was a Communist Party of 30,000 members with a significant influence in a large and militant shop steward network. There was an emergent new left which through its Rank and File union organisations was able to influence a whole layer of public sector union activists. Today Union membership is half the size.  With a few notable exceptions union leaderships are weak and mistrustful of their members. The Labour Party has not yet shaken off the long shadow of Blairism.  The radical left has not grown significantly and is probably more fragmented. It struggles to be taken seriously by the mass of working people.
In short if there is no evidence that the Tories are falling apart and UK radical left forces have as yet failed to make a mass break-through, talk of disarray amongst the ruling class and opportunities for socialists after a Brexit is misleading to say the least.  All the evidence suggests that the most likely scenario following a Brexit is a rejuvenated hard right Tory / UKIP government with the solid backing of key sections of the British ruling class. Socialist should never underestimate the class consciousness of our ruling elite. Current rhetorical divisions will largely melt away following a Brexit.  Larry Elliott, the Keynesian economists, recently summed this up quite succinctly:

“But the sky would not fall in (following Brexit). Britain would remain a member of the EU for at least two years after a no vote and the full weight of the UK political establishment would switch from warning about the perils of Brexit to ensuring that the costs of divorce would be minimised” (Guardian Finance 16 May 2016) 
 Brexit would be a victory for the rightwing nationalist and xenophobic agenda of those leading the mainstream leave campaign. Anti-immigrant rhetoric would be turned into vicious immigration policies which would spread insecurity and fear amongst migrant workers who have made a life here.  In turn this will make it easier for the hard right to unleash a carnival of reaction including further attacks on the welfare state, the NHS, working conditions and workers’ living standards. All the while scapegoating migrants the poor and the vulnerable.

But the implications of Brexit go way beyond the immediate impact on working people’s lives in this country.  Socialists must never forget that across Europe increasing anger and disillusion with neoliberalism and the growing disconnect between citizens and their ruling elites is fueling the growth of the far right.  In Poland, Hungary and other former Eastern Bloc countries hard right parties are in government. In Belgium the prime minister is from the hard nationalist right. Even in traditionally liberal Scandinavia the hard right has made significant gains; with the Danish Peoples Party now the second largest party in parliament. Geert Wilder’s neo-fascists currently top the polls in Holland.  Whilst in France the far right Front National was the dominant party in recent regional elections, and polls show Marine Le Pen as the likely front runner in the 2017 Presidential elections. In Greece the openly Nazi Golden Dawn became the third largest party in last year’s elections at a time when some of its key leaders were in jail awaiting trial on charges connecting them with the murder of rapper and left activist Pavlos Fyssas.  A Brexit which ushered in a rightwing Tory / UKIP government in the UK would be a massive boost to this growing menace.  It would fuel rightwing nationalism across Europe and be a massive set back to all those struggling against it.

Lexit: A Perspective Based on Blind Hope
Nick Wrack of the Socialist Project argues that:  “In essence, the Lexit argument is to present a perspective based on nothing but blind hope.”  This article has tried to show why this is very much the case. The left remain position is simple.  We should not make it easier for the Tories and their corporate backers to plough ahead with their agenda of austerity, privatisation, xenophobia and racism.  We should not cut ourselves off from those fighting austerity and neoliberalism within the EU. The fight for a different EU is not an alternative to class struggle it is part of it. We should not, make concessions to cultural and identity nationalism.  We should not waver in our support for free movement and our demand for open borders.  And we should not irresponsibly minimise the benefits of social and workplace protections wrung from the EU (limited as they are).

A final point on where “blind hope” can lead. All recent opinion polls show the two main right-wing campaigns to be neck and neck. Increasingly both sides are resorting to the most lurid and populist scare stories to sway the vote. World war 3 will break out if we leave the EU; a Nazi super-state if we don’t!  In an attempt to mask their reactionary vision and win working class votes, the mainstream Brexit campaign has adopted UKIP’s strategy of posing as anti-establishment and pro-worker. Boris Johnson recently denounced the EU for supporting “nauseating” levels of executive pay at the expense of workers, arguing that:  “big companies are taking more and more out, while those on the shop floor are getting in real terms less and less”.  (Guardian 17/5/16)

Left leave supporters will no doubt condemn this as the cynical populism that it is. But Johnson is stealing arguments used by the Brexit left.  Without a clear internationalist perspective to counter such nationalistic populism, Lexit comrades are in danger of giving left cover to the most reactionary politicians in Britain.  If Brexit happens and the hard nationalist right are given free reign, then as Len Arthur puts it:
 Socialist who argued the exit case will be saddled with that responsibility. Hair splitting over nuances of difference and meaning will be a very poor fig leaf.”

References (Websites in text)

A Callinicos 2015: The internationalist case against the European Union, International Socialism 148
J. Choonara:  Should we stay or should we go? Socialist Review July / August 2015

TSSA:  Are EU rules really a barrier to reuniting the railways under public control

TUC : Hazards at Work 2016 edition.

Jonathan Wadsworth: Immigration and the UK Labour Market LSE 2015