The Socialist Workers Party and the EU referendum

By Dave Stockton The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) recently launched its campaign for Brexit with a long article by Alex Callinicos, The internationalist case against the European Union, and a pamphlet by Joseph Choonara, The EU: a left case for exit.

If you want to know all the facts to prove that the EU is a collection of capitalist states, dominated by a few powerful imperialist countries, then they’re there. Again and again you can read about the EU’s imposition of neoliberal austerity.

They do lay it on a bit thick though. After all, anyone who thought that the EU was a bed of roses only had to follow the Greek events of 2015 to have these illusions shattered.

The problem is that these articles skip lightly over the anti-working class national policies of the EU’s member states, particularly the big imperialist powers that dominate it: Germany, France and Britain. Callinicos and Choonara make only the slightest reference to them.

This is peculiar, given that Thatcher’s Britain pioneered these policies (privatisation, the erosion of social housing and state education etc.) long before the EU took them up, when EU institutions were still promoting a “Social Charter”. Britain under Thatcher and Major exerted maximum pressure to keep this Charter minimal, and even then opted out of it.

Since it is precisely these states that really determine EU policy, and given that they can veto or (like Britain) “opt out” of those they don’t like, in no real sense then would exit from the EU lead to escape from them.

This is all the more true since international treaties and institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), whose negotiation is well under way, all keep national sovereignty hugely constrained by the foreign exchange and bond markets. These also are the enforcers of capitalist “rationality”, no less than the EU.

Callinicos and Choonara are doubtless well aware of this, but choose quietly not to mention it.

Yes the EU, especially since the Great Recession of 2008-09, has step by step abandoned its “social” promises; but it is only coming into line with Britain. Moreover, because of the greater strength, trade union rights and (in France’s case) the greater militancy of the continental labour movement, social rights have not yet been as thoroughly eroded elsewhere in the EU as they have in Britain. Why else should our bosses keep complaining about them, and why else does the Vote Leave campaign place their abolition high on its list of goals?

Both authors admit that, while there is a danger that the Brexit campaign will spread national chauvinism and racism against migrants, they see no alternative to competing with them, by denouncing the EU as the worst source of neoliberalism and imperialism. But how much worse is it than an “independent” Britain dominated by Cameron and Osborne, or Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage?

Callinicos rests his case on unevenness of the class struggle across Europe, insisting that the EU is “best understood as a dysfunctional would-be imperialist power” doomed to break apart. He continues with a quote from a 1971 article by former Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman saying that, “We face a long period of hard bargaining between rival, national capitalisms, in which national ideologies will remain of key importance to the ruling classes”.

But he does not deduce from this that the task of socialists is to link working class struggles together into an international class struggle that is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead he passively accepts Harman’s conclusion that, “political and social struggles will by and large remain nationally based”.

He goes on to say: “Strategically the problem is that since the 1980s, but more especially as a result of the eurozone crisis, a Europe-wide neoliberal regime is being constructed. Breaking that is most likely to happen at national level. To make successful resistance dependent on a coordinated movement at the EU level is to postpone that resistance indefinitely. The process of uneven and combined development implies that struggles are most likely to succeed at national level but can then be generalised. Dialectically, then, for internationalism to advance there have to be breakthroughs at the national level.”

In fact there is nothing dialectical about this. Without realising it, Callinicos offers a strategic recipe for class struggle “in one country”.

History indicates otherwise. Nearly all the high points of class struggle in the last century (1917-21, the mid-1930s, the late 1960s and early 1970s) saw an international cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods of struggle. True, Britain’s great class struggles (1926, 1984-85) took place in isolation, but they were also great defeats.


Callinicos cites Greece’s defiance of the Troika in 2012-15, which he claims was necessarily tied to leaving the EU. This wilfully confuses the need for a left anti-austerity government like Syriza’s to stop paying the state debt and to stop making cuts, with a “voluntary” negotiated exit.

Such defiance should have gone alongside active opposition to Greece’s expulsion from the EU or the Eurozone, something that would effectively have placed Greece under an economic blockade. “Grexit” by contrast would have shifted the political responsibility for this blockade away from the EU’s rulers.

A focus on ending austerity, not just in Greece but across the EU, and an appeal for solidarity from Europe’s workers could have put the Greek labour movement at the head of a continent-wide movement of resistance. The slogans for this international solidarity should have included a demand to make the bankers pay for the crisis, enforced by coordinated and escalating workers’ action, where the example set by the more powerful and militant labour movements could quickly have spread to the weaker ones.

Callinicos also ignores what his perspective of “hard bargaining” between our rulers really means. What would actually happen if every workers’ movement in Europe was to line up behind the “hard bargaining” factions of its own ruling class, who want to break up the EU and go for national isolation? We can already see the first glimmers of this “hard bargaining” in the razor wire fences thrown up across the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and the horrible scenes in the Calais “Jungle”.

Callinicos points to the EU’s torture of the Greek people as proof of its imperialist character. Again true, but the real question remains: what about the states that dominate it?

It was their banks, bondholders and ratings agencies that trapped Greece in the toils of an unpayable debt. Would these exploiters’ domination over southern Europe be less imperialist if the EU did not exist? They existed before it and will still exist after it. Likewise, would neoliberalism be qualitatively weaker without the EU?

The actions of the USA, the transnational institutions and the global financial markets do not suggest that leaving the EU would improve by one iota the real independence of existing national states, or improve the conditions for class struggle within them.

What “Brexit” would do though is to reduce the objective basis (a linked up economy, reduced state borders and a common legal framework) for a united struggle of Europe’s workers, just as Fortress Europe’s external borders obstruct solidarity with the workers of the world.

And this should be our starting point. A “Europe-wide neoliberal regime” demands a Europe-wide movement of resistance to it, and not a retreat behind national borders that breaks up the opportunities for this resistance.

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