The inauguration of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons The inauguration of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

The EU is an enemy of working people, as well as those fleeing poverty and war. Now more than ever, the labour movement must advocate to leave

In 1975 the vast bulk of the Left – Labour and otherwise – backed leaving the EEC.

Now we have the horrors of the assault on Greek democracy, enforced austerity and Fortress Europe. Yet the majority of the Left, broadly defined, wants to stick with the EU in the forthcoming referendum.

What happened between 1975 and today to explain this extraordinary situation?

The past

From roughly 1983 onwards, both the Labour Party and the trade unions shifted rightwards. Neil Kinnock succeeded Michael Foot as Labour leader and embarked on the long journey to the right. The Bennite surge of the early 1980s – not the machinations of the party’s hard Right and its subsequent split to form the Social Democratic Party – was blamed for the 1983 general election defeat.

The defeat of the great Miners’ Strike in 1985 weakened the left and strengthened the right-wing arguments about the impossibility of achieving change through class struggle. Trends already in place – in both the Labour Party and the unions – were accelerated. The ‘new realism’ of a right-wing union bureaucracy preached moderation and conciliation with the bosses.

This dovetailed with Labour’s growing acceptance of Tory policies. Increasingly, Margaret Thatcher was seen as invincible. She would later remark that New Labour was her greatest achievement.

In 1988, then European Commission President Jacques Delors spoke to the TUC Congress. He presented a ‘social compromise’ model that claimed the Commission was a protector of workers’ rights and conditions at the same time as advocating free markets. It was disingenuous, but it had at least a grain of truth and it preyed on the pessimism and passivity of the ‘new realists’.

Unions previously hostile to a European capitalist project were largely persuaded. Much of the Labour ‘soft left’ also made its peace.

Never mind that the mass anti-poll tax movement shattered the myth of Thatcher’s invincibility and showed that popular struggle could win. The embrace of ‘Europe’ continued. Three key things explain this.

Firstly, the 1992 election defeat strengthened Labour’s general shift to the right and led to Blairism. Secondly, indsutrial struggle remained at low levels: since 1991 there hasn’t been a single year in which official strike figures topped two million days lost. ‘Europe’ could seem like a modest substitute for winning through trade union struggle.

Thirdly, the civil strife inside the Tory Party – during the Major Years (1990-97) – encouraged the idea that criticism of the EU, as it formally became during those years, was the preserve of the xenophobic Right.

Many left wing Labour figures continued to oppose the EU, from the Maastricht Treaty during John Major’s premiership to the thoroughly neoliberal Lisbon Treaty ratified when Gordon Brown was in Number Ten. Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn were foremost among them – combining opposition to neoliberal elite co-operation with advocacy of genuine internationalism and unwavering anti-racism.

The present

One thing about the EU referendum debate – in labour movement circles – is that the position people adopt has implications for specific issues and what we do about them.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the highly controversial US-EU deal that will enable corporate power enormous sway over public services, is currently the supreme example. We have pro-EU trade unions like Unite limiting themselves to merely trying to get exemption for the NHS. If you’re campaigning to stay in the EU, it would be rather contradictory and incovenient to also campaign against TTIP.

This would prompt the obvious question: if TTIP is so bad, why don’t you want to leave the EU and thus ensure we’re not part of it, while also weakening the chances of the deal going through for everyone else? Why not strike a powerful blow against the corporate takeover of public assets?

On social media and in online discussions, I see some socialists and trade unionists people arguing the following sequence of points:

a) the EU is more worker-friendly and amenable than this Tory government

b) the Tories will get even worse after Brexit because power will shift to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith

c) we should therefore regard anything on offer from the EU – including TTIP – as less worse than what we will get after Brexit.

This is weak politics and completely demobilising. The only logical conclusion is to keep quiet about TTIP and don’t make a fuss: settle for merely trying to make the NHS exempt.

Instead of independent left-wing politics, we end up with trade unions and elements of the left choosing between two right-wing blocs. What they’re choosing is basically the status quo option, but actually worse than that because things are moving in a reactionary direction (with TTIP specifically, but the wider EU project too).

These pro-Remain arguments in the labour movement are making it harder to actually campaign and mobilise on a number of issues. There’s a serious danger this will continue to be the case after the referendum. The Trade Union Bill is another example: if you believe the EU is a protector of workers’ rights, then resources that should be deployed for stopping the Bill instead get diverted into providing a vaguely ‘left’ gloss for the Remain camp.

The various movements – against austerity, racism, war, climate change etc – will continue to unite people regardless of their views on the EU. But those movements can be politically sharper if we have a clear-eyed view of the ugly reality of the EU, ditch the disabling illusions in it, and mobilise around demands that constitute a real alternative.

The future

How does the EU referendum intersect with the prospects for a Corbyn-led left-wing Labour government in 2020?

There’s an odd paradox here. One of the biggest left-wing arguments for leaving the EU is precisely the fact that continued UK membership will prove a major barrier – in 2020 and beyond – to any positive reforms Corbyn wants to introduce. Yet most Corbyn supporters inside the Labour Party and the trade union movement are supporting remaining inside the EU, with the perspective of ‘reforming’ it.

Anyone who doubts that the EU will be a barrier to social change enacted by a future left-wing government should consider the fate of Greece. It’s not merely a question of this or that directive, e.g. whether or not the EU makes it impossible to renationalise the rail. Greece shows how the EU simply won’t tolerate any challenge to the austerity consensus and the rule of finance capital.

No, the UK won’t be different – because we’re bigger, or because we’re not part of the Eurozone. These things might make some difference to the nature of the confrontation, but there will undoubtedly be a big confrontation between any left-wing government (together with trade unions and protest movements backing it) and the EU.

It’s also clear – following Barack Obama’s visit to London and Hillary Clinton’s latest pro-EU remarks – that continued UK membership of the EU is an integral component of American strategy for this continent. It’s one part of the UK continuing to be a subservient American vassal.

Obama and Clinton both see the EU (and particularly UK membership of it) as closely linked to Nato. These are the two insitutions that the US administration sees as crucial to there being a Europe that is helpful – and to an extent subservient – to US interests. Both institutions have been expanding; both types of expansion are beneficial to the US.

The US political establishment sees Britain’s voice inside the EU as a loyally pro-American one. It therefore fervently supports a Remain vote on 23 June. It makes sense for anyone who wants to weaken US influence – and the US/UK ‘special relationship’ – to vote Leave in the referendum.

Getting out of the EU certainly doesn’t guarantee an independent foreign policy – especially when a hardline neocon like Michael Gove is a prominent pro-Leave Tory – but it opens up greater political space for a future Corbyn-led government.

Leaving the EU will stengthen the prospects for any future Labour government. To see things purely in terms of two current variants of Toryism – one embodied by Cameron and Osborne, the other by Johnson and Gove – is appallingly myopic. There is much more to play for than that.

Now more than ever, it is clear that the EU is an enemy of working class people across the continent and also of millions of people fleeing the capitalist system’s many miseries – extreme poverty, war and persecution – outside Europe. Now more than ever, the labour movement has good reason to rally opposition to the EU and advocate Exit.

If we are serious about re-shaping the future in a left-wing direction, this becomes abundantly clear.

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).