European flags European flags. Photo: Flickr/European Parliament

Chris Bambery explains why the left has to oppose the EU, which is a neoliberal and unreformable institution

There is a debate in the radical left and among anti-capitalists as to what stance to take on the June referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. I’d like to address some of the arguments put forward by those arguing the left should vote to stay in the EU.

Argument 1: Stay in and fight for change.

The palaver which accompanied David Cameron’s negotiations of the piffle that is his “deal” with the EU should remind us of a stubborn fact. Even this agreement, which is not legally binding, required the assent of all other 27 EU member states. That is true for any change within the EU. So the only way to get another EU would be to get the agreement of every one of the 28 member states.

For any socialist change, that would require the radical left being in office simultaneously from Dublin to Tallinn. It’s a tall order, if not an impossibility.

What about the European Parliament? It has no power to affect fundamental or even minimum changes in the make up and functioning of the EU. When it comes to the Trans-atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, it will not be allowed to amend the deal currently being negotiated in secret between the unelected European Commission and the US. It will be allowed one vote on accepting or rejecting the treaty. But before that the European Commission will sort out the voting with the heads of the two dominant groups in the parliament – the centre-right European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats. 

The European Parliament has very limited powers, virtually zero regarding the current migrant crisis. It is also very good at co-opting MEPs who might be troublesome through the largesse on offer. It’s very rare indeed to hear about anyone of them upsetting the apple cart.

The simple fact is that internal change is an impossibility within the EU. The task of creating genuine unity in Europe based on solidarity and respect is one which requires starting all over again. Britain and other member states quitting can help develop the debate about what sort of Europe we need, one which is democratic unlike the current EU where democracy is virtually absent.

Argument 2: How can you take the same side as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith?

The answer might be how can you take the same side as and Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond, let alone David Cameron and George Osborne?

Currently the debate is between two sides who broadly share the same neo-liberal outlook. There is one important factor, however; the bulk of corporate Britain backs staying in the EU. In the coming weeks and months they will unleash a barrage of “shock and awe,” as in the 2014 Scottish referendum, aimed at intimidating people into voting Yes otherwise they’ll lose their job, pension or home!

Furthermore who else wants a Yes vote? Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, Barack Obama and John Kerry…

If Cameron was to lose the referendum he would have to resign, igniting a battle in a divided Tory Party. It would also lead to a major crisis to UK PLC. Two good outcomes.

Argument 3: The Cameron government is so right-wing we need to stay in the EU because it restrains the Tories.

There is no doubting how nasty Cameron and Osborne are but in today’s Europe they are not the most right wing government in Europe? Check out Hungary, Finland or Poland. Britain is not the driving force of neo-liberalism in Europe as it was under Thatcher. It is the EU which is the driving force, look at what its inflicted on the people of Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Portugal and Ireland. Check out the way it’s used the economic crisis after 2008 to force through a raft of policies, including giving the European Commission (unelected) the power to veto member government’s budgets and spending plans.

So take for instance the Cameron government’s war on benefits. This is drawing on the experience of Germany a decade ago when a Social Democrat and Green coalition government headed up by Gerhard Schröder implemented a series of measures in advance of the requirements of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Above all they cut benefits, understanding that if you remove the safety net below working people they will cling onto their job come what may rather than rely on state benefits.

The subsequent German export boom resulted from a dramatic fall in labour costs as wage levels fell across Germany.

The EU is not a barrier to free market “reforms,” it’s not only taking the lead in pushing them through but it is encouraging member states in a disasterous “race to the bottom,” where they each compete as to who has the lowest wages, the poorest health and safety conditions and the lowest rate of tax for businesses.

Further the people of Greece are living through a calvary imposed by the unelected Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. That saga reveals volumes about how undemocratic and free market is the EU.

Argument 4: Vote Yes to oppose racism and to keep our borders open.

UKIP is very nasty but it’s a fringe player. The European Union itself is the driving force once more with its Fortress Europe policy towards migrants fleeing wars and economic chaos it has in large part helped create.

People are drowning trying to cross the Mediterranean as a consequence, fences are being erected across borders and Syrian and Iraqi refugees being deported back to a war zone.

The EU has also been a key force in driving forward Islamophobia with bans on headscarfs spreading.

Again the Cameron government is nasty, not least in the tiny numbers of Syrian refugees it has given asylum too, but it is not the driving force behind the wave of racism growing across Europe, fuelled by the EU and national governments.

The EU allows freedom of movement for citizens of the EU but pulls up the drawbridge for those fleeing poverty and war

Argument 5: We need to stay in to build European unity against austerity and racism.

In the 2014 Scottish referendum Labour deployed a similar argument – we need to stay in the UK in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Wales and England. The response was that we don’t need the British state to bring us together, that is best down through common resistance.

European unity against austerity, racism and many other things will be built on the basis of common struggle, not through relying on Donald Tusk or Jean Claude Juncker.

Back in 2002 it was the European Social Forum, a grass roots body involving tens of thousands of people making decisions involving direct democracy, which launched the call for the European wide protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. That went global in the biggest protests in the history of humanity. Whether your country was or wasn’t a member of the EU was of no significance in that decision.

Argument 6: We should vote Yes in solidarity with the rest of the European Radical Left.

The majority of the radical left in Europe is pro-EU. In the case of Syrizia in Greece this was their Achilles heel. Their desperation to stay in the EU and the Euro meant they threw away their referendum win rejecting austerity and then had to accept an even worse pack imposed by the Troika.

While a majority of the radical left in Europe are pro-EU that’s not the whole story. The Red Green Alliance in Denmark see the EU as “an agent for neo-liberal politics, anti-democratic and militaristic. We oppose the creation of a European Union and favour European and international cooperation based on equal rights for all nations including the right to independence and self-determination.”

The Socialist Party in Holland shares much of that and the Left Bloc in Portugal is a more critical voice regarding the EU.

But to return to a previous point: unity is built through action not institutions. The lack of a common Europe wide coalition of resistance to austerity or racism needs to be addressed but it will have to involve forces on both sides of the divide over EU membership.

Argument 7: The No campaign is so right wing and racist and its arguments will always reflect that.

That is true for the bulk of the leaderships of both campaigns. Our job is to try and offer a different viewpoint and to shift the ground the debate takes place on.

Since the 2008 financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis that’s followed the EU has driven forward its neoliberal project. One of the biggest beneficiaries have been those banks that caused the crisis, fed money by the European Central Bank and Bank of England’s Quantative Easing which helped drive up their share price and their cash reserves.

For the working people of Europe integration means the imposition of free market economic and social policies, not the coming together of European states. Indeed the contrast between the EU’s prosperous zone grouped round Germany, including Austria and Holland, and Southern and Eastern Europe has grown wider (Britain and France lie in an intermediate zone).

There are a host of anti-capitalist reasons as to why we should oppose the EU. Let’s get them out there.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.