Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron conferring  Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron conferring. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

The referendum is not a vote on whether we want to be ‘part of Europe’ its a vote on an institution that has done far more harm than good

In recent weeks I have encountered a variety of reasons, from fellow socialists, for staying in the European Union and voting Remain in the 23 June referendum. Here I outline the most common reasons and offer my own responses.

1 The EU has given us workers’ rights and social protections. Leaving the EU will mean we lose those.

It is overwhelmingly a combination of trade unions and domestic governments (mainly Labour) that have delivered those modest protections. It is through collective working class struggle that we can defend (and extend) them.

Such protections are in any case meagre, and they cannot be revoked by the Tories without a struggle because EU laws are subsequently incorporated into domestic UK law. The EU is overwhelmingly dedicated to the interests of finance and business, not to support for the trade unions.

Tories can happily push through their draconian attacks in the Trade Union Bill within the framework of the EU. If anything will stop them, it will be trade union resistance. The TUC’s preoccupation with campaigning to stay in the EU has actually somewhat demobilised opposition to the Bill.

2 We need the EU to protect human rights – the Tories will shred our rights otherwise.

The European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights have nothing at all to do with the EU. They are completely unaffected by this referendum.

3 This is a referendum on migration and to vote Leave is effectively to oppose immigration into the UK.

No it isn’t. The referendum’s outcome will make no direct difference to migration laws and rights. The battles over migrants’ rights are already happening and will continue after 23 June, whatever the result, with quite different dividing lines to those we are seeing on the EU referendum.    

While many right-wing Leave supporters are motivated partly by hostility to immigration, left-wing opponents of the EU are implacable anti-racists who stand up for freedom of movement and migrants’ rights. And the mainstream pro-EU camp is hardly friendly to migrants’ rights, with David Cameron negotiating away as many such rights as possible to secure a deal with the European Commission before launching the referendum.

Polling has shown that immigration is a major issue influencing how people will vote, but that it’s way behind the economy in importance. This is certainly not a referendum on immigration and the debate is not dominated by that issue, as some on the left feared.

4 Brexit will lead to migrants being deported in huge numbers from the UK.

No it won’t. No section of the British ruling class, or of the Tory government, wants that. Cheap migrant labour is good news for many employers. For the Tories – for every strand of the Tory Party, whether pro-EU or anti-EU – this economic imperative is combined with the need for racist scapegoating.

Also, such large-scale deportations would be highly contentious and enormously difficult in practice. And they would raise the difficult question of why British emigrants should be allowed to remain in the EU countries they have moved to. In any case, the direction of political travel inside the EU is clearly to start resurrecting border controls, so the EU provides no long-term guarantees of freedom of movement.

5 Brexit will lead to a carnival of racist reaction.

The same was said of the referendum campaign. But it hasn’t happened and it clearly isn’t going to happen. This referendum is taking place in the context of important political upheavals that are largely beneficial to the left, following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour’s leadership.

News headlines in recent weeks have concerned George Osborne’s disastrous budget, Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, the crisis in the steel industry and the toxic fallout from the Panama Papers. The Tories’ divisions have – pleasingly – deepened.

There is no need for such miserablism and fatalism on the left, especially given that the most immediate result of a Leave victory in June will likely be the prime minister’s resignation (not to mention a defeat for everyone from Barack Obama to the European Central Bank, from the IMF to the bulk of the City of London).

6 The EU is at least some sort of shelter against a Tory government.

No it isn’t. And no it won’t be. This is the same EU that smashed the Greek left-wing government’s attempts to defy austerity.

The Tories are not some uniquely awful right-wing government. There are many right-wing governments in the EU, the ‘centre-left’ governments are little better, and the EU itself is deeply conservative and has neoliberal commitments embedded deeply in it.

Also, why should we cling to an utterly undemocratic edifice? If a Corbyn-led Labour Party should be elected in 2020 – or earlier, given the Tories’ crisis – the EU will be a severe barrier to attempts to deliver positive reforms. We can’t be trapped by the fatalistic short-termism of assuming we face a vicious right-wing government.

7 We may avoid TTIP, but a Tory government led by Eurosceptics would simply negotiate an even worse deal with the US.

Let them try it! Such efforts would be subject to the British parliamentary process – not merely the remote and obscure world of Brussels politics – and therefore also to mass popular opposition. Such big decisions about trade deals – about powerful corporations grabbing, and profiting from, our public assets and services – should be subject to democracy. This is a fundamental principle for the left.

We should also be clear that TTIP is not going to be defeated inside the EU’s structures. The European parliament has very weak powers on this, as on everything else. It is a highly secretive matter for the unelected European Commission (whose trade commissioner notoriously declared that she doesn’t take her mandate from the people).

8 If Cameron and Osborne are forced out, they will simply be replaced by even worse Tories.

The Tories are split and in crisis. It’s getting, if anything, worse for them. This mounting crisis is for a number of reasons, Europe merely one among them. Broadly speaking, this crisis is a boost for the left, the labour movement and the working class.

A defeat for Cameron in the referendum will make things even worse for the Tories – and will scupper any remaining chance (already slim) of Osborne replacing him. Whoever does take over will do so in deeply unfavourable conditions, presiding over a divided party. That will shape their prospects. Bring it on!

9The EU may be awful, but it can be reformed.

No it can’t. It is not democratic and there are no mechanisms for reforming it. It is deeply bureaucratic and has many commitments to neoliberal mantras enshrined in it, via a series of treaties and rulings.

It would, in any case, require genuinely left-wing governments coming to office across the EU – pretty much simultaneously – to make such reform an even slightly viable proposition. There is no indication of this being remotely likely to happen.

10 The EU may be flawed, but it still functions as a forum for much-needed international co-operation on issues from climate change to tackling tax evasion.

No it doesn’t. This claim featured in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech this week, but there’s scant evidence to support it. The EU has had extraordinarily little impact on these particular fields. It has not even slightly restrained capitalism from destroying our climate – any more than it’s restrained the super-rich from robbing their national treasuries (and thus the people) by putting their money where it can’t be taxed.

It has, however, been a useful forum for strengthening transnational corporations and powerful corporate interests. Brussels is a hive of well-funded corporate lobbying. It’s really no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry is so overwhelmingly behind the Remain campaign – or that the IMF this week declared strongly for the UK staying in the EU.

11The EU may not be working well, but we need it for any prospective international co-operation.

Should we also argue for the maintenance of the IMF, WTO, World Bank and Nato? No serious socialist wants to sustain those institutions. The left wants to dismantle them because they are institutions of the capitalist and ruling class elites.

The same applies to the EU, which was founded and developed to advance business interests, has pushed for neoliberal policies of cuts, deregulation and privatisation for over 20 years and has overseen the barbarism of ‘Fortress Europe’.

Real internationalism comes from below. It advances through joint struggles of working class and oppressed people. It doesn’t rely – even slightly – on remote and elite institutions. The European Central Bank is one of the EU’s institutional bodies. Anyone who thinks it can be a friend of the working class has not been paying attention.

12 It is better to be a ‘European’ – whatever the EU’s limits – than a ‘Little Englander’.

It’s better to be an internationalist – with a truly global perspective and truly global solidarity – than either of them. Our vision should not be limited by the (ever more repressive) borders of Europe, with black and brown bodies from outside Europe drowning – in their thousands – in the sea. We can make common cause with American fast food workers and Egyptian revolutionaries, with Palestinian activists and Brazilian pro-democracy demonstrators, regardless of whether their countries are in the EU.

There is nothing inherently progressive about Europeanism. Proud ‘Europeanism’ is entirely compatible with the most vile forms of racism – and indeed it often is, as much of the European far right articulates the alleged superiority of ‘European civilisation’ over the predominantly Muslim, supposedly backward and dangerous, Other. International solidarity is in no way aided by the pieties of being proud Europeans.

This is not a vote on whether we want to be ‘part of Europe’. It is a vote on an institution: the European Union. It’s an institution that has done far more harm than good. We should get out of it, both for the sake of the great majority of people here and to weaken the EU as a whole. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).