By Andrew Burgin
Founder member of Left Unity
On June 23rd the British people will vote on whether to stay in or leave the European Union. The European project is facing the most profound crisis in its history driven by the subordination of the European Union not to the needs of its peoples but to finance capital, free markets and globalisation. The EU guarantees the interests of the banks and big business whilst imposing the cost of continuing economic stagnation and crisis on those least able to bear it. We have seen the crushing of the Greek government in 2015 when it sought to renegotiate the terms of austerity imposed on its people and the callous treatment of refugees and migrants driven by war and poverty to the shores of Europe. The lack of democratic accountability within the Union fosters the growth of xenophobic and far right political currents which threaten a return to the politics of the 1930s.
Some parts of the left in Britain respond to the failings of the EU by arguing for Brexit. Membership of the EU is seen as a block to socialism whereas Brexit would open up a political space favourable to the left. It is a position I used to hold and in 1975 I voted, as did most on the left, to leave the Common Market as it was then. However I now believe, as I will try and explain, that in the forthcoming referendum we should vote to remain.
In 1973, Ted Heath’s Conservative government took Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC). In 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government asked the British people to ratify that membership in a referendum. Although Labour had originally opposed entry, the Wilson government officially supported the ‘Yes’ (remain) campaign. But the party was split on the issue. A majority of Labour MPs wanted out. The ‘No’ campaign was led by Tony Benn and Michael Foot. The Labour left were by far the most dominant part of the campaign and were supported by a Communist Party which then had a membership of near 30,000 and considerable weight within the labour movement. The right flank of the ‘No’ campaign was represented by Enoch Powell, the Tory 1922 committee and the National Front. The entire national press except the Morning Star supported the ‘Yes’ camp and portrayed the ‘No’ campaign as something akin to a Marxist plot.
More than 17 million people voted Yes and close to 8.5 million voted No.
Today no senior Labour politicians are campaigning against continued EU membership. The trade unions, neutered by rafts of anti-union legislation and with membership more than halved since the 1970s, have with few exceptions, reversed their opposition to the EU. The Communist Party is reduced to a few hundred members and the far left has suffered a similar decline.
The last time the Labour Party campaigned to leave the then Common Market was at the 1983 general election. It argued that continued membership would not allow a strategy of exchange controls and regulation of foreign investment and that it would ‘prevent us from buying food from the best sources of world supply’. At that time the labour movement saw more possibility for social progress outside.
Today it is the Tory party which is split over EU membership with possible future Tory leader Boris Johnson leading the ‘Leave’ campaign along with six cabinet ministers. A majority of Tory MPs will vote ‘leave’ and most Tory voters want out. As a rough guide to the divide, the big capital wing of the party wants to stay and the little Englander side – with fond memories of Empire and a strong desire to curb immigration – wants to leave.
The referendum was called as the result of pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party [UKIP]. This party was formed following the 1993 signing of the Maastricht treaty which established the European Union; UKIP’s sole rationale for existing was to campaign to leave the EU. It has grown erratically over the last 25 years but more recently, campaigning primarily against immigration, has picked up significant support. In the 2015 general election it won nearly 4 million votes.
The Tory supporting national newspapers are now unanimously for exit, serving up a toxic combination of xenophobia and racism, screaming – ‘we want our country back’. Currently the outcome of the 2016 referendum is finely balanced with the ‘Leave’ campaign picking up support according to recent polls. Brexit is now a serious possibility. Whatever the result, it is clear the EU is at an impasse.
The EU has its roots in the post-war settlement. Europe was impoverished and exhausted whereas the US emerged from the war as the dominant world power, preventing the collapse of European capitalism through the imposition of a new world order – Bretton Woods and NATO.
Sections of the European ruling class sought European integration to prevent another war and a Franco-German alliance drove the process forward. This alliance has been at the heart of all European development for the last 70 years. It allowed Germany to re-emerge as the dominant economic power in Europe whilst supposedly held in check through the structures of European integration. The US wanted both a bulwark against the Soviet Union and stability in world trade and so financed much of the development of Europe through the Marshall plan.
The European working class, radicalised by the war, found itself in a powerful position. A change in the balance of class forces led to the creation of the welfare state. The result was huge advance in employment, healthcare, education and housing with provision for publicly funded art and culture. All this was made possible by a post-war economic boom which lasted for 25 years.
The post-war period was marked by rapid decolonisation. Britain suffered the near complete loss of Empire and brutal colonial wars drained the finances of many European states. For France and Britain the Suez crisis in 1956 was the last time they sought to be major imperial players, their role superseded by the growing power of the US. As a result Britain was motivated by its reduced status in the world to look again at partnership in Europe.
However when Britain decided to join the European project in the 1960s de Gaulle twice vetoed its applications and it was only allowed to join in 1973 after he died. It joined as a country in economic decline seeking shelter within an economically more successful European community.
The end of the post-war boom was marked by the breaking of the link between gold and the dollar in 1971 and was followed by the devaluation of the pound in 1972. The Vietnam war had drained America’s coffers and its increasing cost and unpopularity meant not only a dramatic increase in military expenditure but also on welfare spending in order to buy off its restless working class. Throughout western economies, inflation, an increase in commodity prices and the oil price increase of 1973 exacerbated the underlying crisis.
The end of the boom meant a change in class relations. Whereas after 1945 the working class through social democracy had been able to extract concessions from capital in the form of social provision, the conditions under which this had been possible ceased to exist. A struggle ensued which continues to this day whereby the ruling class sought to reverse and take back those gains, primarily through the mechanism of neo-liberal policies, first experienced in Britain as Thatcherism in the 1980s – deregulation, privatisation and the imposition of the free market.
The response of the French and German ruling class to the crisis was to drive forward ‘ever closer’ union within Europe on the same neo-liberal basis, driving down wages, cutting welfare and lowering tax rates for business and the rich. This turn, which moved the European project far from the vision of its founders – of constructive European co-operation, economic equalisation between states and containment of its most powerful member – to become instead an arena in which the most impoverished countries had their economies depleted in order to prop up the most prosperous.
This agenda was given an enormous boost post-1989, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led to a broadening and deepening of the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s. 1989 put global capitalism very much on the offensive with vast swathes of the world that had previously been closed to free market forces, now open for business. In Europe this resulted in very rapid progress towards the 1993 Maastricht Treaty which founded the European Union. It established a monetarist framework for economic and monetary union, limiting the level of total public debt at 60% of GDP and government budget deficits to 3% of GDP. This meant major public spending cuts in most EU states. The Treaty also ensured that key areas of economic policy were insulated from democratic accountability: the European Central Bank was given control of monetary policy in a framework which specified that price stability would take precedence over economic growth, employment and living standards. In effect, the Maastricht Treaty made Keynesian economic policies impossible, ruling out the traditional economic framework of West European social democracy.
The implementing governments found themselves on a collision course with the labour movements in their respective countries, not surprisingly – the social and political consequences of the Maastricht-compliance spending cuts were dramatic. Trade unions launched the biggest wave of struggles seen in Europe since the period following May 1968. In May 1992, Germany was paralysed by a series of major strikes, starting with the public sector. In Italy in November 1994, one and a half million people demonstrated in Rome against the government’s plans to cut welfare benefits and state pensions. In November 1995, French trade unions launched a wave of general strikes and protests that lasted for more than three weeks. Major support for the French strikes came from German workers expressing the real movement of the working class across Europe.
The political impact of these struggles struck across the board – mainstream conservative parties experienced major splits in their social bases, often losing out to far-right and anti-immigration parties; social democratic parties that had embraced neo-liberal policies and implemented cuts suffered significant losses.
It was in this context – of the rightward shift of social democracy, and the catastrophic economic consequences of the intensification of the neo-liberal turn, post-1989 – that the European left re-emerged, consolidated and strengthened. Those radical left parties and political forces – many of which have subsequently become well-known to us – embarked on a process of unifying the left, across Europe, on a broad basis, to some extent transcending previous differences, and attempting to articulate and fight for an alternative vision of a socialist Europe, to be achieved through common struggle and social solidarity.
The continuing and escalating crisis in Europe shows the extent to which that political and economic alternative is essential. Neo-liberal policies – at national and European level – take us from one crisis to the next, while the people pay economically and socially for the increasing wealth of the ruling elites. The financial crisis of 2008 showed that very starkly: as during every decade since the systemic crisis of the 1970s, the ruling class has merely intensified the attack on working people and made them pay for their own crisis. The political pattern of the 1990s, with growth to the far right and losses for social democracy, has also been repeated, with anti-immigration sentiment exacerbated by the cynical political manipulation of the human tragedy faced by refugees attempting to enter Europe to flee from wars and economic problems generated largely by western policies. New parties are drawing from the poisoned well of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia. For them the solution to the crisis of Europe is a return to the Europe of nations – Finland for the Finns, Germany for the Germans and so on. This may be a solution for the populist right because there are always immigrants and refugees to be scapegoated and wars to be fought, but it is no solution for the working class.
The disastrous consequences of the EU’s neo-liberal policies, together with the complete absence of democratic accountability in economic decision-making, have been most starkly shown in Greece, where the logic of Maastricht has been played out in its most extreme form to date. The election of the radical left Syriza government on an anti-austerity platform, with a democratic mandate to re-negotiate the terms of its agreement with the Troika, raised hopes in Greece and across Europe. But the Greek working class discovered that its struggles and its vote against austerity counted for nothing in the institutions of the EU. The ECB engineered a run on the Greek banks and threatened the collapse of the entire economy unless the Greek government capitulated and agreed to pension reform, wage cuts and mass privatisation. The third bailout agreement imposed upon Greece is unenforceable and unsustainable and was designed to be so.
What happened in Greece has exposed the stark realities of the EU project as it currently exists: the Troika, comprising the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the EU Commission, has no democratic mandate yet it overrules democratic decisions; the European Union is characterised by its lack of democracy and its subordination to finance capital. The structures of the EU are fraying as economic crisis bites ever harder. The European parliament is remote and powerless and the peoples of Europe are increasingly disinclined to vote in its elections.
Yet within the new movements and parties growing on the left across Europe – we have seen the rise of anti-austerity parties in Greece, Spain and Portugal and most recently the election of Jeremy Corbyn here – the politics is not against European integration. None of these new left formations advocate leaving the EU and all want substantial reform and a break with the undemocratic institutional structures. In the current referendum the labour movement in Britain recognises that there is little or nothing to be gained from leaving the EU at this time. Brexit would not under current conditions open a political space to the left and it would not bring Jeremy Corbyn to office as some suggest.
A political crisis for Cameron is not in itself an opportunity for the left. It depends on the balance of political forces. If Cameron is forced to resign in a situation where the right is resurgent, essentially on the question of migration and free movement, and Johnson takes over, this is entirely different from the situation created were he forced to resign over his corrupt financial dealings. The immediate result of Brexit would be to strengthen the right and place the free movement of EU citizens in jeopardy. Millions of people have made their lives in Britain and millions of British people are living in other European states.
There are no serious proposals for a campaign that would undercut the immediate demands from the right to close the borders following Brexit. Moreover the Schengen agreement that abolished internal border controls within Europe, although Britain is exempt, is under threat – such a retreat could never be a step forward for workers.
The ending of free movement within the EU will not strengthen campaigns on refugee rights or open borders. The opposite is the case and the political movements that will arise or be strengthened on the back of the return to national borders and nation states will be reactionary ones.
Brexit would not resolve the refugee crisis. Most polls indicate that a large majority of people in Britain believe that either enough or too many Syrian refugees have already entered Britain. Leaving the EU would not change that – in fact it would strengthen and reinforce that backwardness. The refugee crisis needs a pan-European solution. An EU of over 500 million can accommodate all those seeking refuge and it should do so, as they are taking refuge from wars initiated and supported by European nations. We have to build and support organisations and campaigns across Europe that welcome and defend refugees, helping them integrate into the European working class and we must oppose the war against refugees that the EU-Turkish deal represents.
In many cases these campaigns are a continuation of the work of existing national campaigns and solidarity movements, with trade unions across Europe at their heart. It is through these campaigns – these existing networks of social and political solidarity that we begin to build the necessary structures that will challenge the undemocratic institutions of the EU. Many struggles now take both national and European forms – such as the movement of the squares that has swept Spain, Italy, Greece and now France over the last several years. They can be part of a democratic socialist practice developing and emerging across Europe.
One of the key arguments for the left is whether Brexit would save jobs. Since the crisis erupted around the possible closure of TATA steel in Port Talbot it has been suggested that re-nationalisation would be impossible ‘because the EU won’t let us’. This is not the case. We must be clear that leaving the EU would not save a single job at TATA. We do the steel workers at TATA a disservice to argue otherwise. The decision whether or not to save the steel industry in Britain rests entirely with the Tory government. It is not prohibited by EU law from re-nationalising the industry and if there were such constraints they should be opposed and broken. In fact, we know that the Tory government has worked inside the EU to undermine proposals to defend the European steel industry as a whole.
Paradoxically the Left Exit campaign, while arguing that it is the EU that hampers British industrial policy, presupposes that capital can only be challenged at a national level. This leads to a reluctance to engage with necessary challenges to capital that have to take place at a European level. Their argument is that we must all deal with our own ruling classes separately and that the best way to support Greek or other workers in struggle is to concentrate on fighting our own government. This downplays the importance of building movements at a European-wide level. We must not ignore the powerful reality of pan-European action against austerity, such as that initiated by the ETUC on 14th November 2012, which drew more than 10 million workers across Europe into general strike action. If we reduce all international work to just movements of solidarity, necessary as those are, then we exclude the possibility of joint action across Europe against a common enemy.
There can be no de-globalisation, nor the creation of a stand-alone socialist Britain with its own import and exchange controls and its own tariffs, resulting in a more egalitarian and more democratic country. This is an empty dream. It ignores the necessity of confronting capital as it is, not as we wish it to be. The lesson of Greece is not just that the Tsipras government could and should have acted differently but that the international working class was powerless to act as a force to impose its/our desired outcome on the crisis, because it is insufficiently developed, strengthened and united. This needs urgently to be redressed and the basis already exists. One of the reasons that the Troika came down so heavily on the Syriza-led government is that it recognised that the conditions facing the people of Greece were no different to those in Portugal, Spain and Ireland. Greece had to be defeated as a lesson to others not to step out of line. The Troika and the European ruling class see it as an international struggle to be waged against the working class on a pan-European basis and we need to understand that and act internationally too.
It may seem paradoxical that the labour movement has very largely changed its position on the EU at a time when it has become a vehicle for many of the attacks on the working class. In fact, it was the Thatcher governments that finally succeeded in transforming the position of the labour movement in regard to the EU. Her anti-trade union legislation enabled Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission in 1988, to woo the trade union movement in Britain in favour of EU membership by promising a social Europe – the introduction of reforms protecting workers’ rights across Europe. The reality is that there are social and economic rights enshrined in EU law through the social charter that would be threatened by Brexit. No one in the main Brexit campaigns is arguing to increase workers’ rights; on the contrary, as most trade unions recognise, we would face further loss of rights at the hands of a strengthened right-wing political elite, even where these rights pre-dated the social charter.
Should they win, the Brexiteers are promising a post-referendum bonfire of EU regulations to make Britain super-competitive in world markets. Rights on age discrimination, equal pay for work of equal value, disability rights and guaranteed holiday pay would be under threat and women workers would be disproportionately impacted. Of course the labour and trade union movement here would fight to retain these rights but it does no service to workers to claim that these rights would not be targeted by a resurgent right-wing Tory government. The threat of deregulation is a real one and certainly more real than the idea of Brexit opening up a space for the left. The arguments from the left that it would be easier to defend hard won rights by leaving the EU is an illusion. The struggle against the secret free trade negotiations (TTIP) between the EU and the USA needs to be engaged at a European level. German workers have demonstrated in their tens of thousands against TTIP and a mass movement has to be built across Europe – that joint struggle is necessary whether we are inside or outside the EU.
The return to the nation state under these conditions is regressive and does not strengthen the working class but atomises it. We need to elaborate new strategies to deal with the economic crisis that work on both a national and a European level.
In this context, and in the wake of the defeat in Greece, the left across Europe is coming together to debate a common strategy and organise the way forward. There are a number of pan-European projects – the Joint Social Forum which emerged from the European Social Forums, the Varoufakis Plan B initiative and Bloccupy are just three small but important developments. Moreover the resolution of the European sovereign debt crisis requires a European debt conference along the lines of the London Debt Conference of 1953 which led to the reduction of the German post-war debt by 50% – neither this issue nor many others can be resolved at a national level.
There are millions perhaps tens of millions of (mainly young) people who while being French, British, Spanish, Greek etc also have a common European identity. Millions live, work and struggle in countries which are not their country of origin. Those arguing for Brexit who support free movement must explain how Brexit will help defend this right rather than threaten it. European workers living in Britain who are anxious about the outcome of the referendum are setting up their own campaigns to remain and are at the heart of the Another Europe is Possible campaign.
The neo-liberal model brings perpetual crisis, hence the EU faces severe and perhaps terminal crisis, but there can be no return to a mythical, idyllic past of a national and democratic sovereignty. This idealised past actually gave rise to fascism, war and dictatorship. The Greek people are reluctant – despite the urging of the left – to leave even the Eurozone, let alone the EU. And while enthusiasm for the EU seeps away people still have not forgotten the colonels, Franco and Salazar. They know the EU is not the solution but just its dissolution is not the answer either. The left must be prepared to show through its organisation across Europe that it has a strategy to confront capital and break with neo-liberalism.
Today’s Europe has to be replaced by a Europe founded on social and economic planning, cross border welfare programmes and a common European democracy. The Europe of finance and big business is opposed to a Europe of the people, opposed to the creation of a European comradeship – a comradeship based on pan-European mass mobilisation to oppose capitalism and ensure a Europe organised on the basis of meeting the needs of its peoples rather than the needs of capital.
There can be no solution to economic crisis within Europe without an end to austerity policies, without financial transfers from the economically more powerful states to the weaker, and without cancelling the debts and nationalising the European banking system. Fundamental to winning these struggles is the extension of democratic control at a European level. But gains can only be made through the development of a European-wide resistance movement.
The fight for a socialist Britain has to be part of the fight for a socialist Europe, the two are inextricably linked. The politics of Europe have been dominated by what has been called the extreme centre – a grand coalition of social democrats and conservatives wedded to neo-liberal policies. That dominance is now under threat as European politics polarises. Europe has been the central locus of two world wars and was the scene of the triumph of fascism. Those dangers have not disappeared and will be exacerbated by a return to the nation state. The need to go beyond the existing structures of European politics is clear – we need a strategy to break from the neo-liberal structures of the EU in order to create a Europe which represents and acts in the interests of the vast majority. But Brexit, under present political conditions, will not achieve this and will not serve the needs of working people. It will make everyday conditions of life worse for working people and will unleash the most reactionary forces. Another Europe is necessary and it is also possible and we will work with the labour movement and radical organisations across Europe to bring it to fruition.