What to do about the European referendum?

DExpressNow 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.

5 thoughts on “What to do about the European referendum?

  1. Pingback: Democracy on Trial: What is the Correct Marxist Interpretation of Brexit? | Tychy

  2. It is odd that the British Left has so little to say about the future of the EU. I listened to the debate in parliament yesterday (22/Feb) and all the Labour party could say was that Cameron had borrowed his reform proposals from their own manifesto, they were all very unimpressive and hardly worth listening to. The policy seems to be stick with the Status Quo and hope the Tories split into factions.

    The problem is that the Status Quo of the EU does not really exist. It is likely to change very drastically in the near future. The lesson of the great recession is that the EU must change or break down completely. You could argue that only the Tory far right has factored in the necessity of impending change and has decided that the direction of change is a ‘bridge to far’.

    Also it would be interesting to think what the Irish Left would say and do facing the same referendum. Only last year David Begg was making statements to the press like the following ‘The Troika has done more damage to Ireland than Britain did over 800 years. At least IMF officials are willing to admit they have been wrong but the EU officials are total ideologues’,

    Of course the first part of the statement is absurd and crass but the second part pointing to the fact that the IMF administrator for in Ireland Ajai Chopra has been pretty scathing in his treatment of the European Central Bank and Commission officials for being over committed to austerity. It turned out that the IMF was more sympathetic to the economic plight of Ireland than the EU, what a turn up, we somehow expected it to be the other way about.

    Why we thought it would be the other way about is a question worth pondering, maybe because the purpose being served by the EU is covered in a thick layer of mythology that is hard to shake away? Never has a political process been so inaccessible to political science, probably because nothing like it has ever been undertaken ie when a large number of nation States prepare themselves to dissolve into something else. What that something else is the deeper question. Some think it could be a capitalist federation of local States like the USA, others even believe it might easy become a Socialist Federation of Europe. I think it can only become a clumsy Empire and that is why I am voting to leave now while I still have the chance.

    Thanks for Sraid Marx for allowing me to state my opinions even though I am sure the thinks they are a Nuts.

  3. Read the article referred to, very confused IMHO. This struck me:

    “The 1975 referendum was completely different. Then there was a majority Labour government with left wing ministers like Benn and Heffer, a powerful grassroots in the party and a youth section led by the left. More importantly the trade unions had over 13 million members and controlled the majority of votes at Labour Party conference and we’re overwhelmingly anti – EEC.”

    Well I was around then, the out campaign by the “left” was heavily compromised by petty nationalism then, as now. Just because the unions supported it didn’t make it right. You could argue that in 1975 the EEC was MORE social democratic/christian democratic than it is now. I note the Socialist Resistance article comes out in favour of staying in the EU, but I find the arguments very weak. I still think abstentionism is the best approach.

  4. Surely the position socialists should take in the EU referendum is an abstentionist one? We have no illusions that a return to a “little england” state outside of the EU would be any better for workers and we don’t believe the EU will protect or save us from neoliberalism (an idea popular on the left of the UK Labour Party), or any other flavour of capitalism. We fight for workers and socialism whatever the circumstances. I think we have to make that argument to cut across what is in fact an argument within capitalism. Export-led, EU focussed big capital (represented by the Tory establishment, LibDems and Labour right) versus “national” small capital (represented by the Tory right and UKIP).

    I use the term “little england” because I suspect that it is England (and unionists in NI) that anti-EU feeling is strongest. It doesn’t seem to have much traction in Scotland, and possibly not in Wales either (although I’m not sure).

  5. My own opening statement is in favour of an exist. This as you point out has been the historical position of the socialist part of the political spectrum. Of course the historical position of the socialist spectrum may have been wrong about the issue in the past and therefore this is no certain guide for the present and near future. But it does set a precedent for the present in the sense that those looking to break from the past position must state good reasons for a new departure.

    When I examine the thing free from the heritage of the past I think of three things. The first is on economic policy. As some see it the EU can be said to follow an itinerary grounded in free trade, this is what George Galloway says it is, in a recent interview he said laissez-faire is built into the very bricks and mortar of the EU. On the other hand on economic policy it has been well argued that in historic fact the itinerary of economic policy has been basically mercantile, meaning it favours certain sectors like agriculture with special protections against free competition. To those producers outside the EU it seems as if it favours a mercantile trade policy and this is a constant complaint from them.

    I don’t think socialists should be in principle in favour of one of the capitalist trade policy over the other, so on economic policy I am neutral over the economic EU.

    The second issue is politics or to be more exact the current political institutions. The choice is between the current political institutions of the bourgeois State and the proto-institutions of the EU. Although socialists are in favour of overcoming the current political institutions of the nation state on the ground that they are only semi-democratic they cannot be in favour of the EU institutions that are hardly even semi-democratic. The current political institutions of the EU are surely less amenable to workers influence than are the existing nation State institutions though this is in only in terms of degree and not in political kind.

    So in relation to the political I lean marginally in favour of the current real national bourgeois institutions over the more hypothetical EU institutions.

    The third think I think about may be called philosophical. The thing that I worry most about the EU is that it is a process without a knowable end. Both critics and defenders constantly reinvent the end on command. When you are studying to understand a process it is good to know what the end is. When you plant a field with seeds you think you know what the end is, a crop to be harvested. It may not turn out that you get an actual harvest due to bad whether but at least you can start again because knowing what the end is.

    Everyone admits that the EU is an ongoing process but it is hard to discern to what end it is moving toward. If we can’t say what the teleological end is then it is just a constant process of expansion, expansion into north Africa, expansion into Turkey and the middle East, expansion into Russia. One political term that can be used to describe an ongoing process of political expansion is called imperialism.

    I would seriously doubt that Great Britain is in fact European in any historical sense. The thing that united Europe including England and France before capitalism was Roman Catholicism and feudalism. Great Britain came in to being as a separate entity in opposition to both Roman Catholicism and feudalism. When the EU emerged after the second world war it was heavily accented by a European Christian democracy that was largely Catholic in origin: France, Italy, Belgium. There were a few exceptions, Germany being the main one, but even this is an odd thing, for the political party that rebuilt Germany after the war within the context of the European Union was primarily the CDU or the Christian Democratic Union, having its own origins in the minority tradition of German Political Catholicism.

    Whatever the historical difference of origin between Britain and the EU my main philosophical objection to the EU is that it constitutes an ongoing process I can’t know or even guess at with confidence what political end is intended, I can only speculate as to possible ends. I might like to think that the prospective end is socialism because this is the only teleological end of capitalism, but I regard this as a leap of faith. The best argument the Brexit people have is that you don’t really know what you are preferring for if you vote yes, the EU could be something very different to what it is now in just a few years time. The EU is a an open ended process without a recognisible end this is the philosophical objection.

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