Now that David Cameron has got his deal we will have a referendum on whether the UK remains in the European Union. The decision is described as the biggest to be taken for decades, yet when we look at the narrow grounds of Cameron’s renegotiation it scarcely seems to measure up to these assertions. They also look puny beside the strongest criticisms of membership and the confusion this creates feeds into the deeper ignorance, which most people, especially in the UK, have of the EU. Given the reactionary terrain of the argument over renegotiation it would appear that the left is isolated from the debate.
What do we have to say and what do we face in the referendum? One set of reactionary proposals from Cameron versus an even greater collection of reactionary interests expressed by his Tory and xenophobic critics? Or an important decision which should also have significance for those on the left? If it’s the latter, then what are the issues that need to be taken into account, and if they are important shouldn’t the left be campaigning on them already?
The history of the Irish and British lefts’ position on the EU is one of opposition. In 1975 the British left in general voted to leave the European Economic Community. In Ireland, the left in the Irish State has opposed the various EU Treaties, which the written constitution has compelled the Irish State to put to a vote in referenda, on the grounds that they impose reactionary duties on members, such as the criteria for a common currency or imposition of austerity policies. When the Irish people have voted the ‘wrong’ way, as in the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, they have been compelled to vote again the next year, so they get it right.
In Britain the previous default position of opposition to the EU is under strain because this implies voting to leave the EU and this position is now dominated by the most right wing forces in British society. As a recent article states – “the shape of the main ‘official’ No campaign is already clear. Its central components will be UKIP and the Tory right.”
The left therefore seems isolated from the debate, with a history of opposition to the EU that appears to promise it only a subordinate role in campaigning and voting alongside reactionary forces for the UK to leave. The article quoted seeks to avoid this position by noting that while previous left campaigns have included nationalistic motivations a different stream of past opposition has had a more progressive approach. It notes that the British left has become more pro-EU over the years partly, it says, because politics in Britain has moved so much to the right that some aspects of EU policy are progressive in relation to it.
To sum up, the article calls for a vote to stay in the EU mainly because “any No vote is going to be seen as lining up with the racist elements that will be demanding this (a No vote). It will be very difficult to avoid (this)”; and “the conditions for a progressive and credible No campaign (i.e. on the basis of socialist and working class politics and significant forces) do not exist in Britain today.” In addition there is “the rather important matter of the consequences of a vote for exit at this time and under these conditions—and this is clear. It would strengthen both the Tory right and UKIP.”
While these are no doubt important issues to be taken into account they are also second order factors. When it comes to the actual question, the article has no strong arguments to justify its view that socialists should vote to stay in the EU. The isolation of the left which weighs so heavily in this articles’ analysis would in no way be addressed by calling for a vote on such slender political grounds. In fact the redundancy of socialist argument would be confirmed because it would be accepted that the socialist view had to be abandoned because it could not be distinguished from that of the right. It can be guaranteed that with such a weak basis there could never be any grounds on which to build a successful campaign.
Yet if this referendum is deciding such an important question should the left not be trying to put together as strong a campaign as it can muster? And how could we do that?
A first step would be to debate the issue openly because the first task is to determine what position to take. If this can’t be distinguished from xenophobic nationalists there’s obviously something wrong.
The second issue, of making this distinction in practice, is firstly a matter of having a separate campaign from the right, which should not be a problem, and arguing along very different lines. Unfortunately the article noted above presents contingent and not principled grounds for opposing exit from the EU and the idea that such grounds exist appear to be dismissed.
This failure arises from the core argument advanced, which is not so different from then left-nationalist argument about ‘national sovereignty’ that the author claims to reject. This view is that advances by the working class will take place on a national basis, resulting in a left-led nation state having to face the opposition of an overarching capitalist EU. Implicitly it is argued that while the nation state can be a vehicle for working class struggle and advance the framework and structures of the EU cannot. While the capitalist nation state can in some ways be reformed the EU cannot.
So we are informed that “If Britain elected a government that broke from austerity to any degree (or failed to implement it effectively) it would be a very different matter, the EU would be down on it like a ton of bricks.” So what we have is a defence of ‘left national sovereignty’, as opposed to the more obvious xenophobic and reactionary variety.
It is not that the idea of a left government is something to be dismissed (see my posts on this matter starting here). The idea that a number of left wing members of the EU would make it harder for other states to isolate a British left wing Government; or that membership of the EU would give such a Government an arena to spread its struggle; or that the logical demand would be to seek to fight for a left wing EU do not appear as potential perspectives.
Yet if getting a left Government is so central to perspectives and it is also necessary to fight on an international basis, as the article argues, why would this perspective not also include fighting for a left Government across Europe? If such a task is possible in one state then it must be possible in others and why then should they not unite? Why is the EU unreformable when its real power still lies in the collaboration of the separate nation states?
For those who see the advancement of socialism coming not from the actions of the capitalist state, a left government sitting on top of it or not, the benefit for the conditions of struggle provided by the EU is that it much more quickly puts the question of international workers unity to the fore and in doing so pushes against the nationalist poison that has so hobbled and disabled the working class of every country.
In this respect we are in favour of more, not less, European integration and in favour of fighting for reforms within this process of integration that strengthen the working class: such as levelling up the terms and conditions of workers and undermining the race to the bottom. How else could measures to do this be taken and secured (insofar as they can under capitalism) except on an international basis? How else are we to teach workers the necessity of international unity, and not just sympathy or temporary solidarity, if they are not bound together internationally more and more by the same conditions defined by the same laws?
How much easier would it be to organise workers unity across nationalities if they faced attacks from the same state? How much less divided would they be if they could no longer be told that they must make sacrifices for their country in the face of foreign competition or aggression when they face the same state imposing these demands? How less likely are they to agree to welfare cuts for others if it means exactly the same cuts for themselves? Every step to such conditions should be welcomed on the basis that all workers in whatever part of the EU should partake of the gains achieved by the most advanced.
Such a programme seeks to reduce the barriers between workers from the start and not after some necessary stage of nationally based left advance having been taken first. It is one thing to understand that workers’ struggles will develop at different rates in different countries, causing problems of potential isolation of the most advanced, and actually adopting a strategy that not only makes this inevitable but is actually its objective.
It is not a question of seeking to reform the EU into a workers paradise, which is no more possible than it is to achieve this in one or more isolated countries. It is a question of advancing workers conditions, their organisations and their consciousness on an international basis as capitalism itself advances it organisation at an increasingly international level. The answer to the latter is not to create hopeless socialist redoubts in the capitalist sea but to benefit from the internationalisation of capitalism by developing a parallel development of working class organisation. In much the same way as the development of national markets and national industry led to national trade unions, national working class parties and national workers’ cooperatives so must this now be accomplished at an international level.
It is possible to oppose the demands of the xenophobic right, and nationalist reformism inside the left, which wants out of the EU while also refusing to endorse the drive to strengthen capitalism at a European level through the current programme of the EU.
Those who think it is not possible to seek reforms at an international level that provide better circumstances within which workers can struggle to advance their interests will have a hard job explaining how on the other hand an international socialist revolution is possible.
Socialists in Ireland, especially in the North, should be debating the coming referendum and how they can take the opportunity provided to advance a consistently internationalist case to a working class whose horizons have for too long been limited by nationalism. Ironically the North provides an opportunity for the working classes of two member states to unite to put forward a different view of European unity than that peddled by the officialdom in Brussels, Berlin, Whitehall and every other European state bureaucracy.