Briefing: EU referendum

THE referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, EU, is now likely to take place no later than the Autumn. David Cameron was forced to promise a referendum in his election manifesto under pressure from UKIP. Now he wants to get it out of the way as quickly as possible because he knows a lengthy campaign will deepen the divisions in his party.

His opponents will argue that his “renegotiation” of the terms of British membership has been completely superficial and does not alter anything fundamental. In this, they are right; the fundamentals are laid down in treaties that cannot be changed except by unanimous agreement of all member states and that was always impossible in the time available. What Cameron is trying to achieve, however, was never meant to be fundamental. His aim is to make changes that will be advantageous to a wide range of UK employers but to present them as a victory for Britain against the encroachment of “Europe”.

Cameron’s strategy

At two EU summits, in February and March, he will try, first, to get an agreement that excludes Britain from any further steps towards fiscal (tax raising) union. This would maintain his government’s ability to manipulate taxation to maximise profits and avoid funding development in the poorer parts of Europe.

Second, he wants to reduce the “burden” of excessive regulation, meaning workers’ rights and environmental safeguards, and “extend the single market”. In short he wants to move towards the EU being a free trade zone, restricting the free movement of labour whilst encouraging the free movement of capital.

Third, he wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrant workers and students, stopping them claiming benefits until they have been resident for four years. This, of course, would force such workers to accept poverty wages, undermining the living standards of all workers.

Lastly, in the clearest appeal to nationalism, he wants an explicit opt out for Britain from the EU’s founding goal of an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe. The real content of that is to give Westminster the power to block EU legislation. This would doubtless be used to further erode labour rights.

If Cameron is successful on any of these, and the referendum question was ‘do you support this deal?’ then the obvious answer would be no. But that is not the issue. The referendum will be about the much bigger question of remaining in the EU or not. For socialists, the issue is whether the working class, in the UK and in the other EU states, can better fight for its interests with Britain as a separate, more “independent” state or with it remaining within the supra-national framework of the EU.

Red Flag believes that Britain remaining within the EU offers the better prospects. Labour is right to support a Yes vote and to run its own campaign, distinct from that of the Tories. A wise move given the disastrous effect of their joint campaign with the Tories in the Scottish independence referendum. This collaboration with the most hated party in Scotland saw Labour throw away a century of overwhelming support north of the border.

What Corbyn says

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn, who was previously anti-EU, now said he was “proud” to support Labour’s Britain In Europe campaign. But on Radio 4 he also spelled out that his support for EU membership was very critical and certainly does not mean any support for David Cameron’s negotiating terms:

“We are determined to build alliances across Europe for progressive reform to make the EU work for working people. Labour backs Britain’s continued EU membership as the best framework for trade and co-operation in 21st-century Europe, along with defence of the European convention on human rights. But we need to make EU decision-making more accountable to its people, put jobs and growth at the heart of European policy, strengthen workers’ rights in a real social Europe, and end the pressure to privatise services.”

What socialists say

Socialists have no reason to prettify the present European Union, especially given the role that the European Central Bank and the European Commission have played in Greece since 2010. This was proof positive that the EU and the Eurozone are indeed instruments of big capital and of the big imperialist powers like Germany and France. The EU is a bosses’ club, but so is the British state, in or out of the EU.

Socialists oppose the bludgeoning of southern European states into austerity, but equally we oppose Britain and other European Nato members’ military and diplomatic aid for the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or its New Cold War in Ukraine. An independent Britain would remain a dangerous imperialist power in the Nato camp.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to abandon the Brexit perspective of the old Labour Left without falling for the pro-EU position of the Labour Right. He is right that leaving the EU would be of no benefit to workers in Britain or the rest of Europe. He is right, too, that the EU needs a radical social transformation. Red Flag would go further and say it requires a revolutionary change, both in its goal, a socialist not just a “social” Europe, and in the means that the workers of our continent use to break the political power of the bankers and industrialists.


However, a minority of Labour Party members and a larger proportion of the non-Labour left, in England at least, remain vehemently opposed to EU membership. The Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party have stuck by the position they took in the last referendum, forty years ago, whilst the majority of the Left in the Labour Party and the unions have moved on. For the CPB, at least, this is rooted in the belief that Britain’s institutions offer a better starting point for their “parliamentary road to socialism”.

It is nonsense to imagine the interests of any working class in Europe would be served by breaking the EU into separate national entities. The productive forces of capitalism, primarily labour, have long outgrown the borders of Europe’s individual states.

Re-imposing border controls and customs barriers, severing ties of economic and cultural exchange, restricting the free movement of labour, would divide yet further the working classes of these states in the name of a fictional national independence. Overall, it would only foster economic decline and increase friction between states. Inevitably, this would promote even more reactionary nationalism everywhere.

Above all, Brexit would put barriers in the way of the unity that the workers of each European country need to fight their own ruling class as well as the international agencies of capital. The Greek workers lost in 2015 because there was not enough international solidarity action against their persecutors in Germany, France and Britain.

A reformed, social Europe?

However, to imagine that the institutions of the EU are any more capable of being reformed into the organisations that the working class needs to rationally and democratically plan the optimum development of Europe’s economy would be as utopian as any national reformist programme.

The means by which we can achieve a continent without austerity, racism, exploitation and war is by active solidarity between the workers of all countries, spreading struggles, like those in Greece, beyond national borders into a Europe-wide revolution. That is why socialists should vote Yes to staying in the EU but unite with workers across the continent to fight for a Socialist United Sates of Europe.

Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe, donate or join.