European flags outside the European Parliament. Photo: Wikipedia European flags outside the European Parliament. Photo: Wikipedia

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica points out the glaring contradictions in Paul Mason’s argument to boycott the EU referendum

In his Guardian column, Paul Mason made a principled case for Brexit, only to argue that it should be ignored at the forthcoming referendum on pragmatic grounds. Mason contends that Brexit now would leave Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two neoliberal fundamentalists, best placed to profit from the political fallout.

But he provides no evidence for this argument – and indeed the substance of his argument runs against his conclusions. It may be the case that the dominant official voice in the ‘leave’ campaign, just as in the ‘remain’ campaign, is a neoliberal one. Whether that reflects why voters are leaning to leave or remain is not obvious.

But it is fair to assume working class people across Europe tend to be sceptical of the European Union. Since the left does not articulate a progressive case for exit, however, the space is left open for other forces to articulate anger against the establishment. Far right forces like the National Front in France pick up support where the Communist Party used to, before it became an appendage to the social liberal Socialist Party.

Instead of leaving the field open to two neoliberal camps, as Mason appears to suggest, the left has to act. And it should start from Mason’s ‘principled’ rather than ‘pragmatic’ arguments. For, unlike Mason, the main party of the left in Britain is actively arguing to stay. This can only weaken it if it is faced with implementing a progressive agenda – just like Syriza was.

And just as with Syriza, the Labour leadership’s argument in favour of staying in the EU will make it harder for Labour to argue for a “Plan B” were the EU to decide, as it would, to sabotage progressive measures passed by a hypothetical Labour government in the future. Worse, it could lead to a ‘Scottish scenario’. A very Blairite Labour argued for union, and has consequently been hammered in elections. It recently fell to third place in the Scottish elections held in May. Could the same fate await Labour if it argues for a ‘remain’ vote, only for neoliberalism to run triumphant?

Luckily, Labour under Corbyn has fared better in England than in Scotland. It is perceived as an anti-austerity and anti-Tory party, as the recent local elections have shown, rather than a Blairite one. Of course, it remains vital for the left outside and inside the Labour Party to help maintain its support for Corbyn against the Blairites. The best way is to maintain a strong anti-austerity mobilisation outside parliament, both by supporting and arguing for more militant strike action among public sector workers and for mass protest more widely.

But, the left inside and outside the Labour Party should also be arguing the principled case to leave the EU. This is because such an approach would, in case of ‘leave’ victory, provide a pole of attraction in opposition to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, preventing demoralisation among Labour supporters on account of the defeat at the ballot box from being carried over into the anti-austerity struggle.

Moreover, a ‘leave’ victory would saddle Johnson and Gove with a difficult situation. Most of the British establishment is against leaving the EU, so the new Tory leadership would be at odds with its base. The party itself would be divided. And its austerity agenda would continue to be unpopular. Add to that the potential for a second Scottish referendum, and you get a recipe for major instability from the perspective of the establishment and its party. The left that argued to ‘leave’ would in such a scenario be in a stronger position to challenge the government and counter the racist filth coming from the likes of UKIP than the Blairites of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Arguing in favour of ‘leave’ even in case of a ‘leave’ defeat, however, would still leave the left stronger to argue for a ‘plan B’ at a later stage if the ‘leave’ vote loses and a Labour government is elected in 2020. This is because the public would recognise an important strand of continuity at least on parts of the left in the UK. And that would go far in terms of pulling Labour left rather than right when, inevitably, the Government would face ‘operation fear’ from the capitalist elites of the UK and the EU.

It should be underlined that, even while arguing for a left exit, the left should be careful to position itself as internationalist in opposition to nationalism. The case for leaving should be made, as Mason partly argues, on the basis that ‘EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy… [T]he difference is that in Britain I can replace the government, whereas in the EU, I cannot.’

The left case should not be made, by contrast, on the basis of the argument that Mason also makes at the end of his article, that the ‘EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice.’ Because, as Mason himself notes, the Eurosceptic far right is gaining in western Europe too; and because such language can only strengthen those arguing that Britain should leave to save it from East European immigrants.

Such an argument should also be made because the left in western Europe has a special duty to show solidarity with the left in countries exposed to western imperialism. The EU runs protectorates in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it certainly ran something close to one in Troika-supervised Greece.

Instead of arguing for a boycott of the Euro referendum, then, the left should be arguing that a left exit from the EU would be an encouragement for progressives elsewhere, from Greece and Slovenia to Spain and Ireland.  Such an argument would above all show faith in the ability of the working class movement in the UK to take on its rulers. For the boycott argument is one that is profoundly pessimistic. And pessimism today breeds defeatism tomorrow. Opening the door for the likes of Ukip to appeal to the bitterness that comes with defeat.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.