The RCN is in the process of conducting a debate over the EU referendum on June 23rd. Where differences of opinion occur, we like to bring other socialists’ attention to these, so they can make their own minds up. Eric Chester (RCN and IWW) and Allan Armstrong (RCN and RISE) offer two different perspectives. Eric argues that we should leave. Allan argues that we should remain.
1. LEAVING THE EU: A SOCIALIST PERSPECTIVE – Eric Chester
The referendum to determine whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union is playing out in terms very similar to that of the Scottish independence referendum. In both cases, the establishment, and this includes the trade union bureaucracy, has lanched a campaign of fear designed to cajole voters into accepting the status quo. Underlying this campaign is a crude statement of capitalist power, that is should the majority vote to leave corporations will curtail investment and the economy will collapse. Similar threats and tabloid hysteria succeeded in sinking the independence referendum. It remains to be seen if the same blatant threats will succeed in swinging a ‘yes’ vote on the EU referendum.
In addition to the support of every major political party in the UK except for UKIP, those arguing for the UK to remain in the European Union have the vocal backing of President Obama and the U.S. government. It seems odd to see U.S. officials openly intervening in a vote being held in the UK, an indication of how important the maintenance of the EU is to the U.S. imperial project. This can be seem most clearly in Eastern Europe. As countries slip out of the Russian orbit, they seek to both join the NATO military alliance and become a member of the European Union. Forging a unified Europe as a counterbalance to Russia is a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. The European Union is an important component of this strategy.
Although the link between the European Union and NATO is usualy implicit, Lt. Gen Ben Hodges, in command of U.S. army units in Europe, recently insisted that a vote by the UK to leave the EU “could weaken NATO.” From a socialist perspective, a vote to break with the EU will be a vote to defy the United States, a first step in moving the UK away from its role as a subordinate adjunct assisting U.S. military adventures.
Of course, one of the motivations underlying popular opposition to the EU is a xenophobic distrust of migrants. Those who argue for break need to emphasize that they believe in a multi-cultural society and that they want to increase the number of migrant, not engineer a drastic reduction. Yet the pattern of migration in an independent UK would be quite different from the current one. Instead of workers emigrating from Eastern Europe in search of higher wages, an independent UK could focus on refugees fleeing war-torn countries.
Xenophobia is not the only underlying motivation for the widespread support for leaving the EU. The European Union is not a democratic institution. Much of the power resides in the European Commission, a body that is not directly elected by the voters. Although the European parliament is democratically elected, it holds little power and serves largely as a debating society.
Even if the EU were more democratic, a concentration of power at a level so far removed from the grass roots should be resisted. The drive toward Scottish independence is largely underpinned by the desire to shift decision-making authority closer to home. If this is true at the UK level, it is even more true when assessing the growing centralisation of power at the European level.
The UK has always insisted on a significant autonomy within the European Union. Nevertheless, as the eurozone countries become increasingly integrated into a single economic unit, the pressure on the UK to conform will continue to escalate. It is doubtful that the current situation can be sustained. In the end, the UK will have to choose whether it is willing to remain within the European Union as a full member or whether it decides to move outside of it.
For the Scottish National Party, the choice is clear. No political party in the UK spectrum is as enthusiastic and uncritical of the EU as the SNP. Should Scotland become independent, the SNP is already committed to applying for membership in the European Union and yet EU leaders have indicated that an independent Scotland would only be accepted if were prepared to join the eurozone. Having decided that the UK is an empire in decline, the SNP hopes to see Scotland transfer its allegiance and become a subordinate component of an EU dominated by Germany, a more dynamic and successful capitalist country.
Thus for socialists in Scotland, the issue is not just the relationship between the UK and the EU, but also the relationship between Scotland and the EU. Given the increasing integration of the eurozone countries, it is very possible that an “independent” Scotland would have even less say in determining its own affairs than it currently does. This argument needs to be advanced now, during the current referendum, rather than sidestepped until independence has been achieved.
Of course, we recognise that that there are issues that need to be determined on a European level, or even on a global basis. We stand for a federation of European socialist states as a component of a global socialist federation. Questions that inherently cross borders need to be resolved at a level beyond Scotland, or even the UK. Immigration policy and climate change seem two obvious examples. Still, this does not mean that we have to support the existing supranational organisational institutions, which are designed to buttress global capitalism and not to provide the basis for a more just society. For instance, the many international conferences have done little to nothing to counter the trend toward global warning. Furthermore, the European Union has failed to cope with the refugee crisis. International cooperation has to develop from a mass movement from below, not be arbitrarily imposed from above.
A critical case in point is the manner in which the European Union has handled the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. In its effort to maintain the stability of the euro, the EU has coerced the Greek government into instituting horrendous cuts in health, education, pensions and the wages and working conditions of public sector workers. Although SYRIZA has capitulated to these demands, the radical Left in Greece has begun to organise a grass roots resistance based on two immediate demands, leave the EU and repudiate the debt. Throughout Europe, the radical Left has come to see the European Union as a driving force behind the push to austerity and the assault on Europe’s working class.
A decision by the UK to leave the EU will not be a panacea. The essential problem remains global capitalism and the urgent need to build a movememnt that can present a credible socialist alternative. Nevertheless, a ‘no’ vote would be an important statement of solidarity with the working class of Greece, as well as the other EU countries that have borne the brunt of the crisis. It would be a statement that we are not prepared to accept the existing system and that we will move forward to fundamental change.
2. REMAIN IN THE EU: A SOCIALIST PERSPECTIVE – Allan Armstrong
(This is an updated version of the case Allan made at the RIC-Edinburgh debate with Donny Gluckstein of the SWP on June 23rd, 2015 – see http://radicalindyedinburgh.blogspot.co.uk/2015_06_01_archive.html)
i) The background
Following the Second World War, and after Germany and France had been in three wars against each other, key European figures decided that their only possible future lay in greater economic and political unity. It was clear to them that the major European states were no longer the dominant powers in the world, and any future intra-European wars would prove suicidal. The USA and USSR had taken their place. Therefore, one of the major considerations behind the initial negotiations that led to the EEC was the desire to create a new European-wide imperial centre, which could survive in the new post-war world.
We have arrived at the current phase of the EU in five main stages:-
- The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (free trade in iron, coal and steel, and no more wars between France and Germany over vital resources) in 1951 (6 members).
- The creation of the European Economic Community (towards a complete free trade area with free movement of capital and labour) in 1956 under the Treaty of Rome (6 members).
- The creation of an expanded EEC/EU. The UK joined the EEC in 1973 followed by Ireland, Sweden and Denmark (10 members). The next two major waves of accessions in the 1980s followed the ending of fascist or military regimes in southern Europe, and the demise of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe in the 2000s. There are now 28 EU members and 5 applicant members.
- The creation of the European Union (a political union with shared citizenship) in 1993 under the Maastricht Treaty.
- The creation of the Euro currency in 1999, now used by 19 member and 2 non-member states. This is run by the European Central Bank (ECB), of which the largest shareholder is the Deutsche Bundesbank.
Power in the EU is mainly divided between the heads of the member states, represented in the Council of Ministers, and the European Commission, which has a more all-EU identity (although its make-up is still on a member state basis). The European Parliament is very much a subordinate element in the EU set-up.
Germany has replaced France as the most powerful member state, due to its greater economic strength and population, particularly since German reunification. Germany is now the state with the greatest ability to determine policy in the European Council and the European Central Bank. However, the European Commission is less a centre for competing member states, and more a body where multinational corporations can make their influence directly felt. This is where the TTIP initiative came from.
ii) The politics of the EU
The underlying politics of the EU have been dominated by an alliance between Christian Democrats (social conservatives) and Social Democrats. Until the 1990s their policies were largely based on the idea of the social market, with protection for small farmers and workers. This contrasted with the more ‘free’ market politics of the USA on one hand, and the statist politics of the USSR on the other.
From the early 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR and the wider impact of neo-liberal politics (originating in the 1970s Pinochet’s post-coup Chile and taken up in the 1980s by the Reagan and Thatcher governments) there has been a move away from the earlier social to a neo-liberal market model. After a last flurry of old style Social Democrat/Christian Democratic reform, when the Social Chapter was introduced as part of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the EU began to be drawn along the neo-liberal road.
Neither the EU nor the UK are based on the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people. The unionist, imperialist and monarchist UK state was the original bosses’ club and has a history and politics moulded by once being the largest imperial power on this planet. The UK government is just as committed to TTIP and austerity as the EU bureaucracy. It was the UK’s Labour government that declared Iceland a “terrorist state” when it refused to buckle down to City of London demands. British owned banks like the Anglo-Irish and Bank of Scotland have played a major part in enforcing austerity and house repossessions in Ireland. Since Thatcher, successive UK governments have been to the forefront of pushing the EU along the neo-liberal road.
iii) The UK and the EEC
The historical relationship between the UK and EEC/EC/EU has changed over time. After the Second World War, both Conservatives and Labour agreed that Britain’s economic future lay in continued trade with the Empire (renamed Commonwealth), and closer political links with the USA. They decided not to join the EEC negotiations. However, the UK, as a declining imperial power, has had to adapt to the growing economic power of the EEC/EU. By the 1970s it was patently obvious that there was no future in building the economy around trade with the Empire, which had fallen apart. This was when the British ruling class decided that the UK would have to join the EEC. Under the Conservatives, the UK became a member of the EEC in 1973. In 1974 the new Labour government was committed to a referendum on continued membership. The Labour government campaigned to stay in. The opposition came from two sources – Left and Right.
The Labour Left and British Communist Party opposed membership because they thought the UK could be pushed further along the social democratic path on a ‘British road to socialism’. They saw the social market model of the EEC as a barrier to achieving this. There were aspects of the UK economy and social provision, which were more progressive, e.g. the system of agricultural subsidies (c.f. the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy), whilst the NHS provided a beacon for directly state provided welfare (c.f. state subsidised private insurance health provision in Germany and France).
However, there was also a Right opposition to the EEC involving small businessmen and various reactionary British chauvinists, worried about the UK’s continued economic decline and the demise of the British Empire. This Right opposition was led by anti-immigrant, ultra-unionist, Tory MP, Enoch Powell.
At that time of greater working class confidence it was possible to argue that staying out of the EEC would allow the Left greater influence in the UK. However, even then, the dangers of the Left becoming involved in a British chauvinist campaign were apparent. In 1975, the platform of an anti-EEC rally organised by the CPGB-dominated Edinburgh Trades Council, included a Powellite speaker, whilst the wall behind the platform was adorned with a large Union Jack!
iv) The UK and the EU
Since the 1990s, though, there has been little doubt where the primary axis of Eurosceptic politics lay in the UK – on the Right. Many previous critics, particularly in the trade unions, began to reluctantly accept the EEC/EU, when British politics leapfrogged EEC/EU politics to the Right. After Thatcher, trade union leaders, less and less willing to confront the Tories in the face of the new draconian anti-union laws, settled for defending the EC/EU ‘Social Chapter’ provisions (TUPE etc.) to provide some protection for their members.
The Right has become divided over the best way to undermine such social provision and to limit EU migration, and of course, asylum seekers. Thatcher, followed by Blair (both backed by the US), argued for the UK to remain in the EU to act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for US-style neo-liberal economics. They both wanted to undermine the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’ provision. By pushing for the rapid accession of former Warsaw Pact countries, they hoped to find neo-liberal allies for their strategy. These new member states would also diminish the political influence of the core seven states, (the original Six plus Spain), particularly Germany, preventing a more united EU from developing as an imperial rival. At the same time, both Tories and New Labour pushed for British exemptions when it came to social provision, so they could undercut working conditions, e.g. on maximum working hours.
Much to the chagrin of many on the Right, including sections of an increasingly atomised working class susceptible to the politics of fear, the accession of eastern and southern European countries has led to large-scale economic immigration into the UK. The neo-liberal economic politics of successive UK governments have led to particular skill shortages due to the neglect of industrial training (e.g. in the construction and repair sector where Polish workers have filled an economic niche), the driving down of pay and conditions in the NHS and Local Authority care work, and the expansion of a low paid service work at the expense of better paid industrial work. These types of employment have all proved attractive to migrant workers, particularly from eastern and southern Europe.
Due to the continued decline of British imperialism, the Thatcher/Blair strategy of the UK becoming the leading neo-liberal force in the EU, backed by the USA, and in alliance with the ex-Warsaw Pact countries, did not come to pass. Economic decline is measured in real terms such as declining labour productivity, which can not be long offset by profits from fictitious capital and property values loved by the City of London and successive British governments. German industrial power has increased relative to the UK. Germany now enjoys economic hegemony over the former Warsaw Pact countries too.
However, after the 2008 Crash, Germany, with the backing of other EU leaders, is now pursuing a similar neo-liberal path to New Labour, Con-Dem and Conservative governments. This was shown most starkly by the EU leaders’ treatment of Greece. Hence the continuing austerity and anti-asylum seeker drives. Only for the current Right in the UK, attempts to ‘reform’ the EU have not been implemented fast enough or gone far enough.
v) The emergence of a new independent British Right
The UK’s failure to take the lead in the EU, or even to maintain its relative economic position, has led to the emergence of a new independent Right, not just within the Tory Party (c.f. the Powellites of the late 1960s and 70s), but outside, with the rise the right populist UKIP.
UKIP, with the help of the Tory Right, has been able to force Cameron to organise a referendum on June 23rd providing for a ‘Brexit’ option. UKIP won the largest number of MEPs in last year’s Euro-elections. It has been cultivating links in the UK with the Tory Right and Ulster Loyalists, and in the European Parliament with other national chauvinist and anti-immigrant parties, whilst also exploring extra-parliamentary links with far right parties, e.g. the Front National in France and even openly fascist parties, such as Jobbik in Hungary.
If UKIP was to get its ‘Brexit’, then their aim would be for the UK to become an offshore European economy, with British subjects taking the work of existing EU migrants. The Tory Right would like to impose controls on EU migrants, with quotas according to perceived economic requirements. Both UKIP and the Tory Right hope the UK would be able to compete internationally through imposing slashed pay, economic conditions and welfare benefits. UK defence and police spending would be increased. Those powers currently in the hands of the EU bureaucracy would revert to the Crown-in-Westminster.
The remaining liberal social features of ‘British’ society could also come under attack – human, women’s and gay rights, whilst the reactionary features of the UK state would be buttressed against ongoing moves towards a more open and secular society. The politics of fear would be pushed to new levels to counter the effects of the social breakdown, which would inevitably arise. In sum, this could lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’.
vi) The battle on the Right over the EU
Cameron is hoping to use this UKIP and Tory Right wing campaign for his own ends, to buttress his strategy of subverting the EU from within. He is viciously playing the anti-migrant card (whilst still being upstaged by the even more anti-migrant ‘Brexit’ leaders). This is being done to create a tiered workforce, since he also needs scapegoats when pushing austerity measures. He wants to protect the City of London from the threat of even the mildest EU banking regulation and to further undermine other social regulations, e.g. over health and safety.
The majority of the British ruling class, backed by the US, is behind Cameron’s strategy of ‘reforming’ the EU, or the UK’s relationship with the EU, as far as possible. However, both the Conservative government-led ‘Yes’ and a UKIP-led ‘No’ campaign share a common Right wing drive – to intensify the attack on workers pay and conditions, to further privatisation, and to promote scapegoating by attacking migrants. UKIP and the Tory Right seek even closer links with the USA as an alternative to the EU, and want increased spending on NATO. Obama would prefer that the UK continued with its wrecking role within the EU. However, if the US State Department might have to forgo having a loyal poodle acting within the EU, as a result of any ‘Brexit’ vote, it will quickly adjust and find new new allies in UKIP and the Tory Right. They will still be prepared to back the US on the world stage, just as the Tories fell quickly into line after their disagreement with the USA over Suez in 1956 and Grenada in 1983.
vii) The political line-up in the forthcoming EU referendum
At first glance, the political logic would appear to be ‘a plague on both your houses’ and to recommend abstaining. However, a ‘Brexit’ vote will pull politics much further to the Right in the UK. In direct contrast to the progressive franchise in the Scottish independence referendum last year, Cameron’s referendum (to appease the Tory Right and UKIP, and not contested by Labour either) excludes 16-18 year olds and 1.5 million EU citizens living in the UK (including an SNP MEP). Anti-migrant politics has completely dominated the campaign. The position of migrants has already been worsened under Cameron’s negotiations prior to recommending a ‘Yes’ vote, e.g. the removal of welfare benefits for EU immigrants for a number of years, although not the obligation to pay N.I. or taxes.
There are a number of ‘Yes’ campaigns. The uber-Blairite Frank Roy, ex-MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, heads up the cross-party ‘Better In’ campaign in Scotland, i.e. ‘Better Together’ mark 2, pushing a new version of ‘Project Fear’. The SNP will mount its own liberal ‘Yes’ campaign, with qualified support for migrant workers. None of these campaigns offer anything to socialists. As socialists, we need to base ourselves amongst the migrant walkers and asylum seekers most threatened by ‘Brexit’, whilst also highlighting the designs its principal proponents have on our pay and conditions – the so called ‘bonfire of red tape’.
The ‘No’ campaign is dominated by the anti-migrant politics and Islamophobic of the populist and far right. Their counter to ‘Project Fear’ is ‘Project Hate’, with its litany of horror stories attributing Islamic terrorism and criminality to continued membership of the EU. There is Nigel Farage’s ‘Get Out’ campaign. George Galloway (‘Just Say Naw’) and Kate Hoey (Labour and Countryside Alliance) have signed up. There is also the cross-party, Tory, Labour, UKIP and DUP ‘Vote Leave’ headed by Nigel Lawson. The anti-migrant, UKIP-Lite Tom Harris, ex-MP for Cathcart, is running the ‘Labour Leave’ campaign in Scotland. Any socialists attempting to fight for a ‘No’ vote on their own anti-EU grounds are going to be even more marginal than the Red Paper Collective was in the ‘No’ campaign during the Scottish independence referendum.
In the event of a ‘No’ vote, the position of 1.5 million EU citizens (not to mention many other non-EU residents in the UK) will become much more precarious. The already draconian 2014 Immigration Act (due to be further tightened up), which currently mainly affects non-EU migrants, leaving them in constant fear, would be extended to non-UK EU residents. Their presence will also provide an opportunity for the Far Right to regroup, and begin a massive campaign of intimidation.
Back in 1979, during the Scottish referendum campaign, the SWP argued ‘No to Devolution, Yes to Revolution’. Well they got ‘No’ to Devolution, but instead of revolution they got Thatcher! Today, the equivalent seems to be arguing ‘No to the EU, Yes to the British road to socialism’ (or more often just to neo-Keynesian social democracy). Such politics might well get a ‘No’ to the EU, but instead of the ‘British road to socialism’ we are more likely to end up with Boris Johnston!
If we apply the ‘September 19th Test’, who will be out on the streets celebrating after a ‘No’ vote? The motley crew of rampaging loyalists and fascists in George Square would be nothing compared to what happens after a ‘No’ vote on September 23rd. The DUP would also be celebrating the prospect of erecting border posts in Ireland, and with the help of loyalists try to re-establish Unionist ascendancy. Migrant families would face the most immediate and direst consequences following ‘Brexit’, but such a Right wing victory would affect us all. This is not a prospect that can be glibly ignored.
viii) Another Europe is Possible
Some on the Left may ask, “What has the EU ever done for us?” The answer clearly lies in the much more multi-ethnic society and workforce. In this respect, Scotland has very much changed for the better. It is a very different place to the narrow ‘province’ it was 20 years ago. Many migrant families joined the ‘Yes’ campaign, highlighted particularly by the Edinburgh North and Leith Walk day of action on Leith Walk on August 23rd, and RIC’s September 17th rally on the Meadows.
A right populist ‘No’ majority vote can not be ruled out, in a context when mainstream parties are losing support throughout Europe, with the dominant trend being to the Right. Some key ruling class figures (including it seems the queen) back ‘Brexit’, even if this has not yet won a majority from this class. Much of the most widely read populist press supports ‘Brexit’. There are times when initially reactionary sections of the ruling class start with minority support, but through populist campaigning emerge as the majority. The ditching of Irish Home Rule, in the face of a reactionary unionist offensive, provides one example.
There are occasions when socialists do fight alongside (not with) sections of the ruling class. That is when the alternative is even more reactionary, with grave consequences for our class. Socialists campaigned for a ‘Yes’ to gay marriage in the recent Irish referendum, alongside an Irish government coalition delivering austerity, and an official campaign receiving considerable corporate backing.
Given the political nature of the overwhelming majority of ‘Brexit’ advocates, the likely horrific consequences of a ‘No’ vote, the continued anti-working class basis of the mainstream unionist ‘Yes’ campaigners, and the inevitable weaknesses of any official SNP ‘Yes’ campaign (we also saw this in the Scottish referendum campaign), the Left should be launching its own Remain campaign.
Following the independent RIC ‘Yes’ campaign in the recent Scottish independence referendum, based on ‘internationalism from below’, we should be appealing to socialist organisations in the EU (including members in Scotland and the rest of the UK), and to migrant workers organisations in the UK, to join us in new ‘Yes campaign’. Another Europe is possible.
For more the re-emergence of reactionary unionism as a serious political threat in the UK see:-
The case for a European Democratic Revolution can be seen at:-