Bill Bonnar looks at the choices facing socialists over the referendum on EU membership.
For the Left it used to be fairly simple. When it came to membership of the Common Market the position was one of unequivocal rejection and a call for British withdrawal. The Common Market was an institution specifically set up to protect and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism. For those who embraced the different versions of a British Road to Socialism which was almost all of the Left from the Communist Party to most of the Labour Party Left this would be impossible to implement while Britain was part of the Common Market. Withdrawal was a key part of any Left programme. However as the Common Market has evolved into the European Economic Community and then the European Union it has also evolved from simply an economic union to become a political, social and cultural union which required a more sophisticated response from the Left. At the same time, opposition to the EU, which historically was centred on the Left, is now driven by the Right across Europe.
The economic structure of the EU has not changed from its inception; in fact it has developed to embrace much of the neo-liberal agenda inflicted on Europe over the past 30 years. Its core purpose; to defend and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism remains unchanged. But this is not the whole story. In many parts of Europe, particularly Germany, the social democratic consensus remains strong and that agenda has woven itself into the fabric of the EU much to the hostility of successive British governments. This has created the idea of a social Europe where a broad range of measures have been introduced over the years. These include measures on worker’s rights, the minimum wage, health & safety, women’s rights and measures to protect the environment. In themselves none of these are earth shattering but given the experience in Britain over the past 30 years it has been precisely these areas which have been under attack. Those trying to resist the neo-liberal onslaught have often tried to use Europe as a counter balance; this particularly true of the TUC.
A major turning point was the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1980 from which something quite startling has occurred. This treaty allowed for the free movement of capital and labour across the EU without reference to borders. It was a measure to facilitate the interests of capitalism on a European wide basis but as a by – product has created something additional; one of the largest cross migrations of people in history. Since 1980 literally scores of millions of people across Europe have migrated within the EU. French moving to Spain, Spaniards moving to Italy, Italians moving to Germany and the biggest migration of them all; British people migrating all around Europe. It is now reckoned that around 4 million British citizens live and work or are retired in other EU countries. In recent years this has been added to by mass migration of people from central to western Europe forging more of a European identity; particularly among young people who tend to comprise most migrants. As an aside, how many people have noticed in Britain the way migrants from eastern Europe have replaced those from the Indian sub-continent as the new migrants of choice to be hated by papers like the Daily Mail. This recent migration has also affected the character of many cities particularly the major capital cities of Europe. More than ever cities like London, Paris, Madrid and Rome have become international centres; European rather than national capitals. This more international and cosmopolitan picture is something to be welcomed by a European Left uncomfortable with being identified with ‘national’ movements.
In turn, this mass migration has fuelled a reaction from the far right. In many countries, mass movements of the radical right have emerged in recent years; examples being Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria, Northern League in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, National Front in France and our own UKIP. At the centre of the programmes of all these parties is strong opposition to the EU driven by racism and xenophobia fuelled by mass migration resulting from the Maastricht Treaty. Opposition to the EU used to be the almost exclusive property of the Left. Now most Left organisations across Europe accept, to a greater or lesser degree, membership of the EU while almost everywhere else opposition is being led by the Right.
This poses a major strategic dilemma for the Left none more so than in Britain. If a referendum was to be held tomorrow on Britain’s membership of the EU, what would the rival YES/NO campaigns look like? The No Campaign would be a festival of reaction. With a direct appeal to British patriotic feelings it would be a campaign driven by xenophobia and racism and cheered on by the most reactionary sections of the British media. It would be a campaign marching to the tune of Rule Britannia and wrapped in a great Union Flag. It would also be a campaign supported and financed by those increasing sections of the capitalist class who no longer believe that membership is in their interest. Any attempt by the Left to organise an alternative No campaign would simply by squeezed out. The YES campaign would certainly be more progressive sounding. Common European identity, rejection of narrow nationalism and stressing the social and cultural advantages of membership. It also likely that progressive opinion in Britain would coalesce around the YES campaign with reactionary opinion doing the opposite. For the Left, being on the YES side of the divide would certainly feel more comfortable.
In Scotland, this debate takes on a particular focus. Again, if a referendum was to be held tomorrow opinion polls would suggest that England would vote overwhelmingly for withdrawal while most people in Scotland would vote to retain membership. Why is this? In part it is because European migration to Scotland has been proportionately less than in many parts of England. Also, immigration is ranked as much less of an issue in Scotland and is generally seen in positive terms. On the economic arguments for or against membership while a case can be made either way as to whether Britain has been a net beneficiary of EU membership the situation in Scotland is more clear cut. Scotland has been a significant beneficiary particularly through the European Structural Fund. A key plank of the Better Together Campaign was that an independent Scotland was a threat to Scotland’s membership of the EU. This has now been completely turned on its head. It may well be that such membership can only be guaranteed by independence.
Where does all this leave the Left? To go back to the beginning. The Left’s economic analysis of the EU is as relevant today as when it was first formulated. The EU is a capitalist club with institutions and procedures designed specifically to promote the interests of monopoly capitalism on a European level. In fact many of the reforms over the years have been aimed at strengthening this raison detre. Of course, another way of looking at this is to ask the question; what did we expect? The EU is composed of capitalist economies whose interests are reflected in the institutions of the EU. For this to change the individual and collective economies of these states would have to be very different.
As for the social changes ranging from the social charter to the emergence of more of a European identity; there is much that the Left would be broadly in favour of while recognising that we are not talking about a socialist Europe here.
On the issue of whether Britain should retain its membership in the eventuality of a referendum the Left should support a YES vote. This does not invalidate our critical analysis of the EU but simply recognises that this is as much a strategic and tactical issue as it is an issue of principal. Any approach we adopt has to take into consideration the objective conditions which help inform that approach. To put it simply, the Left cannot be a single voice in a choir of reaction.
At the same time the left must project an alternative vision for Europe. The ultimate aim is for a socialist Europe; part of a socialist world and we should not shy away from proclaiming this even if it sounds idealist and a bit utopian. If we don’t believe in this why are we here? Short of this we can present a picture of a different kind of Europe in the short to medium term. This would centre on the following;
Democracy; the current institutions of the EU are undemocratic and even anti-democratic in nature. Even the elected European Parliament is hardly a shining example of a democratic body. We should support measures to strengthen the European Parliament as a counter weight to the other institutions; making it more accountable and relevant.
Social Cohesion; many countries in Europe are well ahead of Britain in terms of equality, workers’ rights, social provision and environmental protection. The very best examples of these should be established as a standard and enshrined in a new European Charter.
Immigration; Fortress Europe should be ended and the myth that Europe would be swamped by countless millions of migrants from outside be challenged. The cross migration within Europe has been an overwhelmingly positive phenomena; there is no reason to believe that increased immigration from beyond Europe’s borders would be any different.
Regulation; The EU was established to regulate the European wide interests of capitalism in the interests of capitalism. Regulation can also involve the opposite. An example of this would be bringing in regulation to curtail the massive tax avoidance by multi-national companies across the continent.
Vision; It is clear that the current crisis in the EU is in part because people increasingly do not buy into the vision of European unity as currently constituted. We need to come up with an alternative vision perhaps borrowing the slogan from a related campaign; ‘Another Europe is Possible’.
Because successive governments, fearing the result, have resisted a referendum on EU membership it is becoming clear that such a referendum is now inevitable. All that remains to be decided on is the detail of the question and the timing. To an extent this has let the Left off the hook in agreeing a position on EU membership. It no longer has that luxury.