What should the response of socialists be to the EU referendum?
(Lead-off for a meeting at Leicester Socialist Students, on the case for a left exit from the European Union).
It was interesting to see the poll on facebook, which was carried out amongst those who were interested in coming to this meeting, showing a majority in favour of staying in the EU. I am not surprised that many people on the left, in opposition to the xenophobia stirred up by UKIP and the right-wing mass media, are instinctively siding with the Labour / Conservative / Lib Dem position – that we are better off within the EU. I will outline the case for leaving, and open the debate up to the floor.
We don’t fight on a political terrain of our own making. We are socialists, so we fight for international solidarity of the working class. Yet, we live in an imperfect, capitalist world, where the rights of people are subject to the needs of capitalism – and these two continually come into conflict.
We have to be honest with people and weigh up the consequences of remaining within the EU. Quite often this is portrayed as “coming out of Europe” – it is not the same thing at all. We had a referendum in 1975 on the question of Britain remaining in the European Economic Community (EEC). In that referendum, the Labour Left campaigned against joining, including Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn. It is a measure of how weak and isolated Corbyn is as a leader within his own party, that he has recently turned his back on his previous convictions on this issue, under pressure from the right of Labour.
If you look at the experience of many economies within Europe – Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal – they have had to endure huge hardships as a result of being wedded to the troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. The Greek people have been forced to pay 170% of their GDP in debt, and have been told that there is no choice but continued austerity. However, there was the choice of a different course of action – but this would need a socialist leadership prepared to break with capitalism in order to carry this through. Syriza thought they could barter concessions from European capitalism, using a referendum vote against austerity as a bargaining chip. In reality, Angela Merkel and the EC wanted to crush any dissent – the result was a humiliating defeat for Tsipras, Varoufakis and the Syriza leadership.
From an Interview with Nikos Kanellis, Volos City Councilor (Xekinima/ CWI Greece) by Sascha Stanicic (SAV/CWI Germany)
“The great majority of Greek population was in favour of taking a “hard line”. That is why mass demonstrations were organized in all the country in favor of the government and against the blackmail of Troika and especially the German government. In polls, up to 70-80% of Greeks supported the Greek government in this “battle”. Xekinima(CWI in Greece) alongside with other forces and even some Syriza MPs proposed that Tsipras should turn to the Greek people and call for a referendum on the dilemma “euro and austerity or anti-austerity, pro- working class policies and the drachma?”. We strongly believe that if this question was posed the great majority of Greek workers and poor would have chosen to break with the euro. Of course, at the same time, we explained that the return to drachma would not, in itself, provide solutions to the crisis of Greek capitalism and socialist policies should be followed immediately to put the economy on a growth path and in the service of working people.
At the same time, Tsipras should explain who is the real responsible for the debt (bankers, capitalists, the Greek, German and whole European ruling class) in order to immediately stop paying it. Then they should carry out socialist policies, nationalization of the banks and the commending heights of the economy, under social and workers’ control and management and mass public investment etc., to plan the economy and put it on the path of growth. The economy should be “protected” from profiteering and the sabotage of Greek and European capital, through capital controls and the control of the external trade.”
Similarly, in Ireland, a referendum was held on the Lisbon Treaty, where we campaigned for a NO vote, against austerity. When the result didn’t go the way of the capitalists, they simply asked the Irish public again, in another referendum, and when they finally got the required result, they imposed another package of severe austerity measures, in return for a bailout of the banks.
If you look at the fortunes of the equivalents of New Labour in Ireland and Greece – Labour and PASOK respectively, they have been hammered by the electorate. The Labour Party in Ireland has been reduced to just six seats. A new socialist electoral formation, which is a much smaller party in terms of membership, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, has the same number of TDs (the Irish equivalent of MPs). The same fate could happen to Labour in Britain, should it not put forward clear anti-austerity policies.
We say – drop the debt. Working-class people should not have to pay for a crisis of capitalism.
The EU is an undemocratic organisation. Decisions are made behind closed doors and the European Parliament has no real powers – the unelected European Commission wields the real power. It acts in the interests of big business, not the working class. Italy had its elected government replaced by an EU-approved board of bankers, the very people who precipitated the global economic crisis. Is it that the EU cannot be reformed and we should leave, or are we better off staying in and fighting to reform the EU?
Why can’t we reform the EU? Why is capitalism incapable of uniting Europe? Capitalism is based on the one hand on private ownership. Fewer and fewer giant companies control the means of producing the goods and services we consume. On the other hand, capitalism has divided us into nation states. These are not just economic entities, but also social and political formations, with historically rooted features such as territorial boundaries, language, culture, etc., which are not mechanically created and changed by purely economic forces.
The EU’s Schenken agreement, which allows free movement of people within Europe (with the exception of the UK), is being ripped apart by the “refugee crisis”. Of course this is a crisis of capitalism’s own making, created by military intervention in the Middle East. According to The Guardian, there are eleven million empty homes in the EU – this would be more than enough to home the 1 million refugees who have entered the continent, and solve housing shortages for its citizens. Yet, capitalism is incapable of squaring this circle. Housing should be regarded as a basic human right; social housing could be provided for all, yet this would need socialist planning to organise and deliver.
Instead of being urged to support the EU, ‘with reservations’ or otherwise, workers in each EU country should demand that their government defy the pro-market, anti-worker EU directives and rulings. In Britain, for example, that would mean refusing to implement EU directives to ‘liberalise’ postal services, of which the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail is another step. Why couldn’t the EU transport directives be defied and the railways re-nationalised, and other privatisations reversed? Why couldn’t the ‘race to the bottom’ under way in the EU be resisted, with European Court rulings on the posted workers’ directive defied, as the construction workers who struck for their jobs at the Lindsey oil refinery did?
But such struggles, which would come up at each stage against the capitalists’ control of the economy and society, would raise the need for new mass, socialist parties to represent the working classes of Europe.
Another argument is that we are better off within Europe, because of the rights such as the European Working Time Directive. These include paid holidays, equal rights for part-time workers, parental rights, equal pay for equal work, working time limits, health and safety standards and protection from discrimination. Paid holidays have existed in Britain since the 1871 Bank Holidays Act and were widespread, largely through collective bargaining, long before the EU working time directive was passed in 2003.
The EU employment equality directive was issued in 2000, but before that we had the 1970 Equal Pay Act, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, the 1976 Race Relations Act and the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act — all agreed by the Westminster Parliament without input from Brussels. However, even with this legislation – women are still paid less than men, and minorities are still discriminated against; legislation alone is not enough. We need a political voice, to ensure that workers’ interests are represented in Parliament.
EU directives on paternity leave, the 48-hour working week and rules on transfers of undertakings when a company is taken over all had to be enacted at Westminster to take effect. In England, Parliament is the sovereign decision-making body – not the EU (though this is not recognised by EU law, and it is all a bit complicated). However, laws can be broken – Thatcher was brought down by non-payment of the poll tax; water charges in Ireland are on the verge of being defeated by a similar campaign. A determined, socialist challenge to unfair laws can win victories for the 99%.
Leaving the EU does not mean that laws Parliament has passed would automatically fall. Any government that wanted to end these measures would have to go through the same legislative process to repeal them. In addition, John Major negotiated a full opt-out from the social chapter enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, while Tony Blair did similarly with the 48-hour weekly limit in the working time directive.
The European Parliament isn’t a parliament. It can’t propose laws. That right is reserved to the Commission. MEPs cannot change the direction of the EU. It is not time for Britain to entrust the future of its people to, what has been called by Paul Murphy, ex-Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, a “cabal of big business”. The only sensible vote in the referendum for trade unionists and socialists is to withdraw from the EU.
To abstain from this debate, or to support the “in” campaign, would be to leave the “out” campaign to the far-right – on the basis of controlling immigration and narrow-minded protectionism of the economy. This would be a disaster – Jeremy Corbyn, for example, has taken many votes away from UKIP in recent by-elections – this is putting Labour’s gains in danger, in my opinion. It was a big mistake for Galloway to appear on the same stage as Nigel Farage. Farage described him as a towering figure on the left – the only towering thing both men have in common are their towering egos.
This was an attempt to make UKIP’s out campaign official by claiming broad support for it across the political divide. By contrast, we support a position of no government funding for Tory / UKIP campaigning. There could be an official No campaign, which would receive government funding – or neither campaign would get government funding. TUSC has a petition against government money going to right-wing, Eurosceptic campaigns.
I would argue for withdrawal from the EU – not on the basis of racism or xenophobia, but as part of the struggle for a socialist Europe. Many of the fundamental problems facing workers today, from the economic crisis to planet-threatening climate change, cannot be solved in one country alone. A united Europe, bringing together in real solidarity all the resources and human talent in the different countries and cultures encompassed in the 490 million-strong European Union (EU), would be an enormous step forward in the struggle for a new world. But can the EU unite Europe, not in an artificial or imposed ‘unity from above’, but in a genuine coming together of the European peoples? The answer to this question is, “No”.