Reflections on Brexit

EU referendumMy daughter wrote in her Facebook page that “I’ve attempted to write how disappointed and shocked I am over the results and I just can’t put it into words.”

My partner said she struggled to get to sleep because she was worried about Brexit, while earlier in the day she had long text conversations with her English cousins who were apologising for the result and (jokingly?) asking if they could come and live in Ireland.

In my office I signed an application for an Irish passport for someone who wants to retain EU citizenship and the freedom of movement it brings, while my partner says she’s going to stop calling herself Northern Irish and will also apply for an Irish passport.  Even in unionist areas applications for them have risen dramatically.

These personal responses to the Brexit vote are instinctive, since we don’t know exactly the changes coming down the line.  None of them are in themselves a political response in any real sense although they are healthy personal reactions.  However they aren’t answers.

Will the EU allow citizenship to those who are citizens of a state, the UK, that is not a member of the EU so that they could be both a citizen and non-citizen of the European Union?

Even assuming you wanted and were able to move to the Irish State the issues of nationalism, the EU and austerity would follow you.  The EU sent the Troika to impose austerity but thinking the Irish state can be some sort of protector is insane when you recall it would rather bankrupt itself than let down the gambling French and German bank bondholders.

And consider this: how fair is it that just because your parents were Irish you are entitled to Irish citizenship while children actually born in the Irish State are denied such citizenship?

The lovable and cosmopolitan Irish had their own referendum in 2004 in which they voted not to allow automatic Irish citizenship to children born in Ireland of foreign migrant (read – black) parents who were ‘obviously’ coming to Ireland to gain citizenship and residency for their whole family.  It was brutal and it was racist and the Irish voted almost 80 per cent in favour of it.

Today, after the Brexit vote, we have faced the smug and reactionary mug of Nigel Farage boasting that “real” and “decent” people have won “without a shot being fired” while these decent people are now emboldened to repeat xenophobic and racist comments to reporters, where previously they repeated them only in private.  The family and friends of the Labour MP murdered by a right wing zealot declaring ‘Britain First’, a rallying cry of the Brexit campaign, may stand shocked and horrified at the claim that not a shot has been fired.

Last night a TV reporter stated how difficult it has always been to get people on the streets to respond to political questions but that now in this Brexit town everyone was prepared to speak.  But of course now nationalist prejudice has been validated; it is now legitimate to repeat bigotry because the Brexit campaign won, it is the majority, its campaign was successful and it will now govern.

That this was a victory for the most reactionary forces is understood by many, and understood in the responses recounted at the start of the post, even by people who aren’t particularly political.  Not only was the campaign reactionary but so also are its consequences, including an invigorated Tory Party, soon under an even more reactionary leader; a rancorous exit procedure that will stir up xenophobic feeling even more; and further accommodation to racist attitudes by Blairite MPs who are plotting against Jeremy Corbyn.

So while the motives for the Brexit campaign have been reactionary and its campaign became even more so as it went along for some, despite all this, it must be considered  as some sort of workers’ revolt against austerity and denial of democracy.  Even Farage has claimed it was a campaign against the establishment, “against the multinationals” and “against the big merchant banks”. This, from an ex-City trader!  But it is no truer when mouthed by the left than it is when claimed by Farage.

Some on the Left have looked on the Brexit majorities in some working class towns and hailed this alienation from the political system as progressive, merely distorted somewhat by anti-immigrant attitudes but nevertheless a healthy revolt.  Since many of the same people also hailed the nationalist illusions of many Scottish workers in the Scottish referendum this creates something of a problem for their view of the world. I have yet to see a rationale for both a vote to remain by Scots and a vote to exit by the English both being valid expressions of opposition to the establishment.

I have also yet to hear what these left nationalists have to say about the millions of workers – including two thirds of Labour Party voters, in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland who voted to remain, who obviously also oppose austerity but who refused to blame immigrants for their problems.  I doubt very much they have many great illusions in the EU either, certainly their leader Jeremy Corbyn gave them no reason to have any, and I don’t recall anyone saying the EU was wholly progressive.  Except of course the Blairite MPs who want to get closer to the one-third of Labour voters who endorsed the bigoted Leave campaign and get further away from the two-thirds who rejected its reactionary appeal to nationalism.

Which brings us to yet another reactionary consequence of the referendum – the renewed, but not entirely confident, demand for another Scottish referendum: a case of maybees aye, maybees naw.  After all, even the most wilfully blind Scottish nationalist is going to wonder how the Scottish state will finance state services with the price of oil through the floor.  Another Scottish nationalist vote against austerity that inevitably inflicts austerity is exactly the same sort of non-solution English workers voting Brexit have just embraced.

So Scottish nationalists, having played the nationalist card and lost, see English nationalists play their own and have responded in kind.  Like the Irish who have forgotten their own shameful racist referendum, Scots nationalists regard other peoples’ nationalism as ugly and their own always attractive.  Except for some really lost people on the left who now seem to regard all these nationalisms as healthy, at least underneath it all, and sometimes not even underneath.  Like most left nationalists they have left wing opinions and right wing politics.

Returning from work on Friday evening I had my MP3 player on, listening to the media show on Radio 4 in which some BBC editor was making a poor show of defending himself against the charge of one listener/viewer who said the BBC unduly emphasised the Tory versus Tory argument in its referendum coverage. Five minutes later the PM news programme headlines carried statements from Cameron, Sturgeon, Boris Johnson and a couple of others but not Jeremy Corbyn.  No wonder BBC pundits claim Corbyn didn’t do enough!

Like some on the Left they have an outsiders view of what is going on in the real world, where some workers are voting for racism but somehow are never themselves racist while workers who reject scapegoating are written out of the picture, swallowed up in categories such as youth, metropolitan elites or middle class because some of them have a good job.  Only voters against immigration apparently express genuine alienation while the others have uncomplicated pro-EU views.

But they, and the near 50 per cent who voted Remain, are the hope for the immediate future in this bleak hour.  The left that supported Brexit can get lost chasing an ‘anti-austerity’ vote consumed by reaction while the former is the basis for stemming the tide of reaction.  The anger expressed on social media, the barracking of Johnson as he travelled to his victory press conference, signal that though there has been initial despair this can translate into anger that can transform into action.

That the campaign was portrayed primarily as a Blue on Bluey fight, which of course was its catalyst, reflects deep divisions in the Tory party, although this is no time for purveying false confidence on this count.  The Tories heightened class consciousness has given them a keen sense of self-preservation and understanding of the need for unity.  Now that UKIP has achieved its programme many of these reactionaries may return to their Tory home.

However precisely because it is the Tories who wrought this overturning of the existing arrangements it is they who will have to account for it and all its looming failure to deliver on its promises.  Already the £350bn to the NHS has been dropped.  The reaction of EU leaders to the hope for a slow exit negotiation process is a warning that the other EU states have no incentive to pander to the requirements of a party that has threatened their project.  The arrogance of British nationalism will clash against the reality of Britain’s much reduced power in the world that has been reduced further by the vote.  Now more than ever the British state is reliant on “the kindness of strangers”, as the Governor of the Bank of England put it, in particular the US. The latter has no reason to disrupt the UK economy, particularly now, but now less reason to give it any privileged protection.

So if the Tories have the potential to split, and will be under stress for their responsibility for Brexit and all it will entail, it is the Labour Party and wider British labour movement that alone offers hope to the nearly half the voters who voted Remain, and even to those who opposed austerity by blaming immigration. Most unions supported Remain and in my own little part of the world, my own union NIPSA, which voted Brexit, got some considerable grief from many members who first heard of the debate after the decision was publicised.  In this decision it aligned itself with that bastion of progressive thought in Ireland – the Democratic Unionist Party.

The centrality of Corbyn to this fight is illustrated by that steadfast and trusted friend of the labour movement, Polly Toynbee in ‘The Guardian’ today:

“Jeremy Corbyn faces an immediate leadership challenge after a performance that was dismally inadequate, lifeless and spineless, displaying an inability to lead anyone anywhere. What absence of mind to emphasise support for free migration on the eve of a poll where Labour was haemorrhaging support for precisely those metropolitan views.”

These ‘metropolitan’ views are socialist views, it’s called freedom. Like all liberals, Toynbee will defend it except when it’s under attack.  Corbyn, to his eternal credit, defended it when every other leading politician was uttering weasel words of exclusion and discrimination.  Having defended these principles it is up to all those who voted Remain to defend him from the blinkered and opportunist attacks of Blairite MPs who would rather see a Tory victory than a Labour victory under Corbyn.

It is speculated that a general election will arise when the new righter-than-right Tory leader takes over, supposedly to give him or her a mandate but equally to protect them from the developing failure of a Brexit project that will breed disappointment and anger.  It is also speculated that this failure, and the anger that will flow from it, will not rebound on the promoters of this crazed project but will intensify antagonism to the already identified scapegoat – immigrants, ethnic minorities and foreigners.  But this is not inevitable, or at least the scale of it certainly is not.  But to ensure it is minimised and defeated requires a working class alternative based on those workers who have already rejected it, as many as possible of whom should be organised into the labour movement.

The underlying weakness of the Brexit project is revealed in its reliance on xenophobia and prejudice because it has no strong rationale of its own.  It will fail to make good its promises, which is why some have been deserted so quickly.  This weakness is reflected in the incredulity of some Leave voters that they actually won. More than one has revealed that they doubt they have made the correct decision.

The evening before the vote I heard an interview with two intending Leave voters who said they were ‘voting with their heart and not their head’; an admission that they couldn’t defend their decision.  This is not to say that the majority who voted leave are unsure, many are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists or even racists but many will not be.  But what will not convince them that they are wrong is the proposal from Toynbee, Blair, Mandelson and all the other career politicians that actually they are right!

The majority of young people voted Remain, another reason for hope.  The millions of EU citizens in the UK are also a reservoir of support.  Claims by the Leave campaign that their rights will be protected are exposed by the fact that they weren’t allowed to vote.

There are therefore some grounds for hope in what is an otherwise depressing situation.  But I am reasonably sure that my grounds for hope are stronger than the optimism that it must be assumed is felt by those lefties who ‘won’ through supporting Brexit.  Lexit was a failure.  The left case for Brexit or whatever you want to call it was and is miserable.

The Socialist Party (SP) in Ireland has claimed that the creation of an EU border in the middle of Ireland will not mean a “hard border” because the common travel area between the UK and the Irish State pre-dates EU membership.  They fail to recognise that both jurisdictions were then outside the EU; they were then both in and shortly one will be out. The only chances that there will not be a hard border is if the EU doesn’t care about its borders, the Brexit campaigners don’t care about immigration or they decide to keep all the Paddies at arms lengthy by putting the hard border at Holyhead, Stranraer, Glasgow airport or Heathrow etc.

The SP make the frankly nonsensical statement that “there is nothing genuinely internationalist about the EU.”  Where do you start with this?

Well you start with capitalism as it exists and fight to make a socialist society based on capitalism’s already international development, not try to wind the clock back to an earlier period that actually never existed.  In this the supporters of Lexit are the same as Brexit – pining for a mythical national development that, even were you to attempt to return to it, would lead forward again to internationalism.  The fact that the EU is an international  political arrangement of international capitalism makes the statement that the EU is not internationalist simply a stupid thing to say.

It may not be our internationalism but the nationalist socialism of the SP is not genuine internationalism either.  The failure of the Lexit campaign means that they may have been on the right side of the result but were on the wrong side of the campaign.  They too, just like the Tories, can look forward to telling us how the evolving exit from the EU is such a great step forward, for them supposedly for working people and for socialism.  Both promised money for the NHS and not the EU and that promise is as worthless from both.

What those disappointed by the result should do now is not simply put down in words how gutted they are but think for a while and put down what they think could be done to make things better.  Even working to understand the issues better is a contribution because out of understanding comes a realisation that there is an alternative and knowing this is an invitation to make it happen.

The EU: neoliberalism and democracy – part 2

images (10)An argument was made a long time ago by right wing ideologue Frederick Hayek that Europe could only be united on the basis of the free market.  Generally speaking, unity by state power can be achieved by conquest, or diplomatic alliance and compromise which would be slow, messy and prone to threats of resort to the former method. The Left supporters of Brexit also pose the unity being attempted by the EU as one underpinned by, in fact essentially and intrinsically comprised of, neoliberalism and its child austerity.  This approach is presented as a policy choice at the national level but essential to the EU, which doesn’t add up.

The imposition of austerity in the Eurozone for example is a policy choice determined by the conservative leadership of Germany and some other Northern European countries. In large part this is a reflection of the interests of their particular national capitalism, or its perceived interests, so not an inevitable feature of European capitalist integration.

The imposition of this particular national capitalist regime across Europe cannot work so it involves the subordination of weaker capitalisms such as the Greek etc.  The ultimate subordination is expulsion from the Euro club, whereupon the Greek state is free to reflect its weakness through devaluation, have greater freedom to preserve or expand crony state ownership and decide which sections of its population it wants to throw to the wolves and which to protect. What it could not do on its own is reverse austerity and develop a strong capitalist economy.  A separate Greek socialism is out of the question.

The refusal of the strongest national states within the EU to seek an alternative to austerity that addresses the needs of all member states is grounded on refusal to implement fiscal transfers between states, common and pooled debt and greater regulation.  This would involve not less but more European integration but will not be accepted by the conservative led national states without their much greater control of the EU.  The question then becomes one of democracy.

For the nationalist opponents of the EU, on the right and left, democracy can only be national.  The Irish People’s Movement repeats this again and again:

“The EU is most accurately seen as a supranational anti-democratic system that deprives Europe’s diverse living peoples of their democracy while serving the interests of its big state members, as mediated through their ruling politico-economic elite, interacting with the Brussels bureaucracy. The project of EU and euro-zone integration is at bottom an attempt to overturn throughout much of Europe the democratic heritage of the French Revolution: the right of nations to self-determination, national independence, and national democracy.”

“. . . This right to national self-determination is the foundational value of all modern democracies and of democratic politics within them. But it is anathema to the EU elite. . . . The core illusion of the EU elite is that the peoples of the euro zone will consent to abandon their national independence and democracy, reversing centuries of European history . . .”

Today the increasing lack of democracy across Europe is sometimes put down to a lack of accountability of the governing elites in Brussels to the electorate, but it is notable that this complaint is widely expressed at national level as well.  The Irish State for example has long had two major parties periodically alternating in office that have had no ideological differences and which have provided no meaningful political choice.  In the last election the electorate voted against the incumbent main party and got it back in government.  In some other counties there has been more appearance of choice but it has been obvious for years that even social democratic parties have embraced neoliberalism, so it is not an EU only phenomenon.

It is argued however that it is worse in the EU and, unlike at the level of the individual state, nothing can be done.  It must be noted however that this malaise at the EU is partially a result of the processes at national level and made worse by being filtered here first. If pressure from below is stifled by the national political system there is much less to transmit upwards to the EU’s bureaucratic machinery.  At this EU level there are no European political parties, the trade unions at a European level are a shell and there are no other vehicles for protest except protest itself and its campaigns that put pressure on institutions but fundamentally do not threaten them.

The organisation, or rather the lack of organisation, of workers at the European level is not something that can be rectified by more democratic arrangements at the EU, although this would obviously help.  It is a task for workers themselves and seeking the nationalist way out is not a solution but rather running away from a problem that cannot be escaped.

The nationalist nonsense that posits democracy rising from the nation ignores the existence of nations that have had precious little democracy and ignores the process of struggle that imposed on ruling elites what democracy there is.  The idea that centuries of European history were devoted to the development of national democracy is as fatuous as the idea that these nations were generally independent states. War and subjugation has been a feature of the history of European states as much, if not more, than any sort of mythical independence, which no longer exists even for large European states never mind the smaller ones.

What is true is that the development of capitalism took place at the national level and that this involved the creation of classes which had a material interest in forms of bourgeois democracy and which fought for them as a result.   The state form within which this development took place has been elevated into the development itself but it is capitalist economic development and the political struggles that it generated that are the real foundations of bourgeois democracy.

That capitalist economic development has burst the bounds of nation states has created problems in relation to the forms of democracy that have taken root at the national level.  At this level the machinery of the state has legitimised capitalism through nationalist ideology and the exercise of state power that has educated, subordinated and reformed the society in which everyone has grown up in; making nothing more natural than the idea of belonging to a nation.  From this ideology and the state’s power to mould society has come the view that rights, freedoms and politics in general can only be framed at the national level with anything above this simply being political relations between the states and therefore not actually above them.

History is further perverted in this nationalist version by declaring that the ideals of the French revolution were purely national, ignoring the proclamations within it relating to the rights of individuals, the freedom of individuals and the equality of individuals.  In the first part of these two posts it was noted that for some Irish nationalists these “are not unequivocal concepts. There is no Union-wide consensus on what constitutes a higher or lower standard of protection of rights; there is no consensus on the source of human rights, such as the theory of natural law, whether secularly or religiously based, that would permit a rational analysis and evaluation of conflicting positions.”  But we are expected to believe such problems of unequivocal definition, consensus on source and application of rights, disappear within the nation, with all its minorities subservient to whatever the national ideal of these happens to be.  Most important of all, the national definition of these non-unequivocal concepts is assumed to be superior to the different understandings of these concepts that arise from the class divisions within society.  Instead these are assumed to be erased by unity behind a mythical ‘national interest’.

This understanding of the world as fundamentally structured by nations within which coherent, consistent and valid interests are formed and expressed reaches its height when we are told that:

“Although the EU has most of the formal features of a state, and Euro-federalists aspire to it becoming a United States of Europe, comparable to the United States of America, outsiders hesitate to regard it as a state in its own right. They think that if it were such it must surely have its own people, who would identify with it and insist on endowing it with some meaningful democratic life. But such a people does not exist.”

If this means anything it means that democracy can only exist for a relatively homogenous people, defined by nationality, which is the worst sort of ethnic-centred nonsense to which all nationalism is prone to fall into. It condemns those states that are multi-national in composition, which must presumably not expect to have any sort of democratic political arrangements.  This also of course absolves the EU, because it too cannot be expected to be democratic.  In fact no future unity of peoples can be expected to be democratic either. The more one reads this short paragraph the worse it gets.

But for a socialist it is precisely the identity of interests within the nation that must be exposed and rejected a false.  In contrast it is the identity of the interests of working people regardless of nationality that is the essential socialist argument and historically the nation state that has been the last barrier to the creation of the new society that expresses these common interests.  Workers of the world unite! is the clarion call of socialism.  If capitalism seeks to unite Europe on its own terms it is not the job of socialists to seek to reverse its progress but to fight for creation of the socialist society on these foundations.

If the nationalist left does not know how democracy, workers unity and a socialist future can be fought for except within the realm of separated national states then it should step aside because whatever the problems posed to socialists by the EU they will continue to exist, in fact worsen, in the nationalist rat race that implementation of their policies would involve.

concluded

Back to part 1

 

 

 

Brexit or Lexit?

CjC9SHcXAAAU8OOWhen the campaign over Brexit kicked off it appeared as an internal Tory argument over just how tough Cameron’s deal with the EU would be in hitting the welfare entitlement of migrant workers.  Two cheeks of one arse, as my granny would have said.

Socialists are against restrictions on the movement of workers and against cuts in welfare that are simply a means of hitting not only migrants but putting pressure on workers further up the ladder.  So socialists were on neither side of this particular argument.

The debate moved on to the economic impact of Brexit, with dire warnings of the impact on living standards of the UK leaving.  House prices will fall 18% says George Osborne, as if this were the worst nightmare of every civilised human being. The IMF also predicts drastic consequences while the OECD says it will cost UK households £2,200 by 2020 if we leave.  PricewaterhouseCoopers states that “by 2030 . . . EU exit could result in total UK GDP in 2030 being between 1.2% and 3.5% lower in our two exit scenarios”.  The UK Government brochure put through my door says “voting to leave the EU would . . . reduce investment and cost jobs.”

The ‘Northern Ireland Better in Europe’ leaflet that has sat about my house before I read it for this article lays it on thick – “leaving Europe is a leap in the dark for you and your family” – “NI Jobs AT RISK”; “Investment AT RISK”; “NI Security AT RISK”; “NI Farming AT RISK” and “NI Trade AT RISK”, at which point the author ran out of paper or things to put on the risk register.

In my work I get an email every morning, which is a digest of the local economic stories in the press and invariably over the last few weeks it has consisted of warnings of job losses and reductions in living standards if Brexit takes place.

Socialists don’t take kindly to such warnings as they usually greet any demand by workers for higher pay or better terms and conditions.  We are told that a major change like Brexit will create uncertainty and involve a leap in the dark, while socialists are of course in favour of even more fundamental change (though it cannot be a leap in the dark), so instant or unreflective rejection of such claims might be an instinctive reaction.

But such a reaction would be misplaced.  Going further, to conscious rejection, would be an example of taking one’s cue from the enemy and putting a minus sign where the establishment puts a plus.   In other words it would be a failure to form an independent view.

Similar warnings of disinvestment and threats to living standards surfaced in the Scottish independence referendum and I wrote at the time that there was no point in crying foul if you didn’t have a sound argument that either the threats were invented or that their effect could easily be countered.  Neither response could be said to be true in the Scottish referendum nor can they be said to be true now.

Whatever the exaggeration there is no doubt that a UK economy torn from the EU would witness increased barriers to trade and to domestic and foreign investment and that this would lead to job reductions and reduced living standards.  Since socialists are the most consistent defenders of workers and their conditions, and if we know that Brexit will have these effects, on what grounds could it possibly be supported?

Not caring for the good health of capitalism, which is a healthy socialist attitude, is not the same as basing one’s politics on seeking its malfunction and disintegration.  After all, we don’t advance policies to screw up capitalism, capitalist crises arise from its own contradictions – it screws itself up.  We advance a movement to replace it.

There are many people who claim to be anti-capitalist, but socialists don’t start from this but from the contradictions within capitalism, which show in what way the system contains an alternative, the replacement that is socialism.  We are not therefore in the business of seeking to prevent the development of capitalism, including its internationalisation, but in favour of building the alternative that will replace it as it develops.  It is this development that increasingly provides the grounds for the socialist alternative.

So on the two issues dominating the debate – on migration and economic consequences – socialists take a view.  We are not bystanders in this debate and when we look at the issues it should be clear on which side we stand.  We should know how this position not only informs our view of wider questions but how our wider view informs how we can understand the role of particular issues.

The left that supports Brexit have their own wider view of socialism, heavily reliant on action by the capitalist state as the vehicle for income and wealth redistribution and state ownership of the economy etc.  This nation-state centred view is revealed in their approach to Brexit.  They propose a different term -‘Lexit’, one with little currency that has even less purchase on either the debate or on the reality it purports to describe.  “Leaving the EU will be part of a process of creating a different Ireland which puts people before profit,” says one organisation, but what is this process?

People before Profit, from whom the statement above is taken, mention five grounds for leaving the EU and we will come to these in a moment.  But first, the essential socialist case for remaining in the EU is that it creates better grounds for fighting to create the international unity of workers than their separation into multiple nation states.

Those who propose Brexit base themselves in one way or another on nationalist solutions.  With the right wing of the Tory party this is obvious in what it says; when it comes to the left it is obvious in what it doesn’t say.

So we have a proposal that “leaving the EU is part of a process” but where is the international element of this process?  People before Profit believe that socialism is international so just where is the international aspect of this strategy?  In its statement on ‘Lexit’ it says nothing.  In its 2016 general election manifesto it also says nothing. (Opposition to war and to Israel do not constitute a strategy by which socialism may come about).

This stems from no serious consideration of how socialism can come about, aside from a moralistic opposition to an evil capitalism that culminates in a revolution that itself is just an accumulation of anger arising from this opposition. It’s a failure to understand that the alternative does not arise ex nihilo on the day of revolution but is built upon and arises out of the existing system and its development.  This is how the existing labour movement has been created; it could arise in no other way. The growth of People before Profit (PbP) itself is an illustration of this, being created out of the electoral system of the Irish state’s political structure. Whatever the limitations of this, and there are many, this is how People before Profit presents a strategy to Irish workers, so how does it think the socialist alternative can grow internationally?

As I said, it gives five grounds for a ‘No’ vote:

Neoliberal policies have been sealed into the EU – but the EU is a creation of nation states and so is its neoliberal policy but PbP wants to go back to these individual states.  It calls the EU a ‘bosses club’.  But who are the members of this club but the member states who in or out of the club will still be the bosses?  How does going back to separate bosses take us forward in defeating either particularly right wing policies or creating an alternative?

The EU is developing military structures to fight ‘resource wars’ – this is possibly the most patently weak argument because the EU is noted for not having an army, not having an armed force capable of asserting its collective capitalist interests and not being able to punch its weight in world affairs.  Again it is the individual states that have armies and that deploy these in capitalist wars.

The EU is fundamentally undemocratic – and so it is and so are the individual member states which are responsible for the EU’s undemocratic structure and functioning.  However it is not the job of socialists to exaggerate the democratic opportunities offered to the working class by the democratic features of capitalist states.  While these are important it is the democratic content of the working class’s own movement that will be decisive in the fight for socialism and the division of this movement by nationalism is one of the key fractures that has historically divided it and disfigured its development.

The EU legitimises racism though fortress Europe – the EU has indeed acted scandalously in its treatment of the refugee crisis but the actions of many individual states has been just as bad if not worse, including the British.  The refugee crisis is a particular example of a crisis that can only be addressed at a European level and hardly even on this scale.  It certainly cannot be solved at the level of the individual states.  How does Brexit or Lexit help?  How does Brexit help the common travel area within the EU or will this be sacrificed because it does not go far enough for those outside?  Will we go backward because we’re told we can’t go forwards?

Finally it is argued that claims that the EU protects workers’ rights are false – PbP argue that these came about during the boom times and capitalism is no longer booming.  In fact this isn’t even true and can British workers expect better working conditions arising from a right wing Tory Government?  One doesn’t need to dress up the EU to see this.  People before Profit say workers can defend existing gains, which draws attention to the real motor of advancement, but it should be obvious that separate states in competition to lower conditions is not advantageous to workers in defending legal rights and working terms and conditions.

The policies of People before Profit are themselves a good example of the difficulty of resisting this sort of capitalist state competition.  The Irish state’s 12.5% corporate tax rate is a central part of the state’s competitive strategy and has gained widespread acceptance in the process.  People before Profit also support it but just demand that 12.5% equals 12.5%.  It has accepted this race to lower taxation on corporate profits.  If there were a common EU-wide tax rate the grounds for such a strategy would be removed.  Why then would this not be supported rather than creating more grounds for state competition that impact negatively on workers?

The arguments for ‘Lexit’ do not add up.  We are debating Brexit, not the fantasy of a left exit, which is so fantastical that it cannot even be hypothesised how workers would be better off the day after exit and what the second step is to follow this first one.

The establishment say that Brexit is a leap in the dark and should be avoided.  In fact a vote to stay in the EU is more a vote for an unknown future than is voting to leave.  The political consequences, and onerous tasks, facing the British state for example, are known to a degree –   joining “the back of the queue in seeking a new trade deal” according to Obama, or making “the UK a less attractive destination for Japanese investment” according Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Staying in the EU on the other hand is not a vote for history to stop.  The EU will either move forward to further integration or it will start to move backwards; the Euro crisis and the treatment of Greece and the breakdown of the free movement of people within the EU are examples of this. Do we want to be part of this fight or declare that it is worthless because the EU cannot be changed?

The fundamentally conservative approach of People before Profit is illustrated when we consider how it would answer this question.  This conservatism appears everywhere, assuming bad things would change and good things not.  It assumes that border controls would not return within Ireland or between Ireland and Britain.  But why, when trade treaties are being torn up, would we have any reason to assume this to be the case?  Why would a common travel area continue when preventing unwanted migration is the major impetus behind Brexit?  Why would the Irish state be allowed to become the back door to entry into Britain from the EU?  It assumes the world will not essentially change for Ireland from a Brexit vote and that partition will not be strengthened.

It assumes that voting to exit is a ‘No’ vote to bad things it cannot possibly believe that it will be interpreted positively as a vote for workers and refugee rights, a vote against imperialist war, against neoliberalism or for a different national democracy.  But it is not even a negative vote, it implies something affirmative.  But what it affirms is nationalist – that in their separate little national states workers will be in a better position.

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.