The “Referendum campaign” has been dominated by the public rows between the two wings of the Tory Party. But there are also those on the left advocating exit. This article makes the case for socialist internationalism By Dave Stockton
The divisions amongst the Tories are rooted in the different interests of different sections of British capital, the “Remainers” expressing those of the biggest capital formations, who need to operate on the global scale, while their rivals are generally backed by smaller capitals who fear competition and regulation from foreign companies.
The picture is complicated not just by the selfish interests of career and wealth characteristic of their class, but much more by their shared inability to say what they really want. The tone was set when Cameron promised a referendum on British membership as an easy way of placating the right wing of his party. This led to the much-hyped “renegotiation” of UK membership, itself a conscious deceit since that could only be done by revising the various Treaties, which were never discussed. Now, we have the ridiculous claims and counter claims that have dominated the “debate” as the two sides try to whip up support on an issue that barely registered any interest among voters.
Thus, David Cameron claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State chief, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will be pleased if Britain votes to leave, while Boris Johnson says of European unity, “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically”. Ukip’s Nigel Farage then claims EU membership means “the free movement of terrorists, criminal gangs and Kalashnikovs”. Such buffoonery just demonstrates their contempt for ordinary people.
The fountainhead of lies and confusion are the right wing dailies - The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Star, whose millionaire owners all hate a “Europe” they cannot control as they do British politics. For years, they have reported all things continental as negatively as possible, not hesitating to simply invent “regulations” about straight bananas and reduced meat content in sausages or borders wide open to terrorists.
Slightly more seriously, Cameron has quoted businessmen and women and economists warning of the tough consequences of leaving the EU. You would hardly believe that, less than a year ago, he was himself claiming he would advocate just that unless his piddling “reforms” were agreed to by the EU leaders. Nevertheless, such warnings have probably had an effect. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the only legal basis for leaving, envisages a two year timetable for negotiations, firmly under the control of the EU. Britain would have no vote on the outcome, it would be a ‘take it or leave it’ deal.
Brexiteers claim that this would include a preferential trade deal, like those with Switzerland, Norway or Canada. They do not mention that those deals require adoption of nearly all the rules the Eurosceptics hate so much. In Norway’s case, this even includes membership of Schengen. Moreover, Britain would lose its veto on any measures the EU adopts in future. In addition, exit by a major economic power like Britain would be a serious blow to the EU as a whole and the other major powers would hardly be inclined to reward it with generous trade deals. Obama’s visit made it clear that the US would not be coming to the rescue, either.
Playing the racist card
The Brexiteers, sensing that they have made no impact with the economic arguments, are now playing what they imagine is their trump card, racism. Here, they think the anxieties cranked up by the tabloids over decades can be turned into Leave votes. Thus, Michael Gove claims anywhere between 2.6 million and 5 million extra EU migrants could come to Britain by 2030. The Justice Secretary warns of “clearly unsustainable” strains on Britain’s hospitals if the country remains in the EU.
“We will regain control of our borders” they chorus, as if Britain today had an open borders policy or that Brussels could impose one. Britain never joined the passport-free Schengen zone, so it retains all its own border controls and checks, as everyone who has crossed the Channel knows.
Moreover, as the spread of border fences has just demonstrated, the EU cannot enforce the Schengen rules. Britain’s brutal refusal to help with relocating Syrian refugees also proved that the EU cannot force open any of its member states’ borders.
Nor has anyone produced any serious evidence that Eastern European workers are taking “our” jobs, welfare and health benefits or lowering “our” wages. The overall evidence is that migrant workers pay far more in taxes than they receive in state benefits. According to the Economist, “even during the worst years of the financial crisis, in 2007-11, they made a net contribution of almost £2 billion to British public finances”.
Another fraudulent claim is that “most of our laws come from Europe” and are imposed on us, Ukip tries to claim as many as 78 per cent! It is difficult to calculate exactly what percentage have a European component, but the House of Commons Library estimates 1.4 per cent of formal laws and 12.9 per cent of implementing measures are related to the EU. Most are detailed regulations concerning trade and are negotiated by British ministers and governments. In short, Britain is not ruled from Brussels and certainly not by a “monstrous bureaucracy”, it is smaller than any of the single major departments of state at Westminster.
What has Europe ever done for us?
What the Tories, both Remainers and Leavers, object to most violently are rules and regulations that give protection to British workers, require higher standards of goods or protect the environment. Wherever these hit the pockets of our bosses they have insisted British governments, Labour as well as Tory, demand the famous “opt-outs”.
During the 1990s and early 2000s there was a tendency, far too weak and with too many UK opt outs, for protective and social legislation to be levelled up across Europe. Since then, this process has been reversed in the name of competitiveness on the world market. It was the strength and militancy of continental workers, especially the French, that held this back to some degree. Today, many British workers' legal rights, from holiday pay to the right to work free from discrimination, are the result of membership of the EU.
Some of the dwindling band of Left wing Brexiteers (Lexiteers as they like to be known) claim that it was UK trade unions that won these for their members but British law has always been weak on legal embodiment of general rights for all workers. What have been recognised are negotiated work contracts which apply only to the trades or firms which negotiate them. In British law, for example, there is no “right to strike”. Many gains were introduced in the form of directives at EU level and were only grudgingly implemented in the UK with new laws. Many were simply opted-out of.
Of course, these social gains for workers right across Europe were not a free gift from the continent’s capitalists. In large measure, they were the results of the strength of the trade unions and the pressure of large reformist workers' parties who won welfare states in better times. EU regulations, like the overarching Social Charter or Chapter, were nevertheless a mechanism for spreading them. In short, they are the gains of national and Europe-wide class struggle.
Since Thatcher’s victories over the steel workers, miners, print workers and dockers in the 1980s, Britain under both Tories and New Labour has been the pioneer of neoliberal “reforms” which were then followed by “Europe”. For at least two decades now, improved legal protections and rights, such as the Working Time Directive, limiting work to 48 hours per week, the Temporary Agency Workers Directive, giving the same protection to “precarious” workers and the Pregnant Workers Directive, have come to Britain, to an important degree, because the balance of class forces in Europe was more favourable to workers. That is why British unions changed their attitude radically over the past 25 years or so.
The rise of the Right
After the Crash of 2007-08, budget austerity was used to attack the gains workers had made right across the continent. But European workers did not meet this with passivity, resistance was strongest in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Greece. Thus, whilst the European Union is the Europe of Capital, it is also the continent and the major imperialist power block with the strongest and most militant workers' movement. Thus it is a major arena of class struggle.
The neoliberal right see social spending on health, welfare, education, as simply a deduction from “wealth creation” by which they mean their profits. This is a short-term and self-defeating view, leading to shortages of skilled labour and acute social problems. However, it is intrinsic to capitalism, which never grants substantial reforms except under extremely advantageous economic circumstances, such as in the 1950s, or in very dangerous political ones like the high levels of class struggle in the post world war period and the 1970s.
European workers have waged major battles over the past decade and a half against the destruction of their social gains first in the name of globalisation and then in the name of austerity.
On the other side of the barricades as it were there has been a turn to the right in countries across Europe in the early 2000s. This turn to pro-market policies was also championed by Labour and Socialist leaders, by “New Middle” Social Democrats like Gerhardt Schroeder and New Labour’s Tony Blair.
As the right grew stronger in governments across the continent the European Commission and Council and the European Central Bank started to press for more and more neoliberal “reforms” which tried to erode social protection, such as the 2006 Bolkestein Services Directive. However this met fierce resistance from sectors of European workers and was much watered down.
The ongoing onslaught on the Greek workers ripped the social mask from the face of Europe’s rulers. Of course there was no sympathy for them coming from the British ruling class or its media.
Nevertheless austerity, privatisation, social destruction has had a massive weakening effect on the prestige of the EU. Europhobic parties have emerged in France, Germany, Poland and Hungary, ironically proving Jacques Delors former head of the EU Commission correct, i.e. that a free market EU needed a social dimension (welfare, workplace rights, etc.) to make workers and the lower middle classes adopt a positive attitude to the EU of Capital.
The onslaught on a “social Europe” has fueled the rise of right wing Europhobic parties, some coming to power in the weaker economies of the east and centre of the Union. A contributory factor has been the defection to the neoliberal agenda of “Socialist” parties across the continent and the failure of the trade unions to press home the struggle when there have been mass movements in different countries.
Thus the answer to “Europe’s crisis” for British workers is not Brexit (or Lexit) - being left to fight alone with our ultra-neoliberal ruling class in conditions of economic crisis but engagement in a European class struggle alongside the French, Spanish and Greek workers. They have already defended important gains and will do so all the more successfully if we unite our forces, from Lisbon to Warsaw.
The Brexiteers complain the EU has a democratic deficit. This is true but it is the Tories, and their equivalents on the continent, who have obstructed, in every way they can, establishing democratic control over EU institutions.
A Socialist United States of Europe
On June 22 we should vote Stay not as an expression of confidence in the bosses Europe but to avoid further obstacles bring put in the way of international working class unity. But that is only the beginning. We need to reforge that unity in action against all the austerity governments.
If Europe’s workers rise up not only to defend their past gains against erosion, not only to win new and necessary gains - full employment, higher wages, restored education and health services, but a different sort of society altogether. Another Europe is indeed possible but it must be not just a social Europe, won by reforms but a Socialist Europe, won by revolution.
This ideal, proudly proclaimed against the advocates of anti-refugee racism and a new cold war – can drive the far right back into the sewers from which they are emerging.