We cannot be neutral with regard to the upcoming referendum on EU membership. If Britain votes to stay in, we will be effectively signing up to all of Europe’s neoliberal strictures for another generation
Meet Cecilia Malmström. You haven’t heard of her, you didn’t vote for her and you can’t get rid of her. Yet in the near future she might well cost you your job. Because, like it or not, she is the European Commissioner who is in charge of negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States.
People in Britain and across the continent have started to make a lot of noise about TTIP. Over two million people have signed a petition against the deal, which will erode workers’ rights, increase unemployment, and potentially allow businesses to sue governments for passing laws that limit their profits. Yet, in Britain at least, there has been a strange reticence to broach the bigger question, namely, who negotiates our trade policy and why can’t we get rid of them?
Outside of Europe, trade agreements are typically negotiated by national governments. Leaders may enter into deals that destroy jobs and living standards. Yet ultimately, those who make agreements can be voted out by the people who have to live with their consequences. Unless of course you have the misfortune to live in, say, Saudi Arabia – in which case you can get rid of your king about as easily as we can get rid of Ms. Malmström.
The issue of TTIP is indicative of the wider impact of the European project upon the politics and political economy of member states. It is tempting to regard TTIP as an attempt to extend America’s extreme neoliberal norms across the Atlantic. Yet this is to ignore the more authentically European aspect of the project, whose antecedents are to be found not just in Washington but also in Maastricht.
Like TTIP, the Maastricht Treaty placed the European economic system on a permanent trajectory towards privatisation and deregulation. Thereafter, regardless of who came out on top in national elections, governments were obliged to open up key parts of their public sectors to those looking to make a profit. And as with TTIP, this was a privatisation treaty dressed up as an agreement on free trade – a shift in the domestic political economy of member states, represented as something to do with international relations.
To take a case in point, the Corbyn surge has placed the question of who controls (and profits from) our railways right back at the centre of the agenda. Corbyn has promised renationalisation, whilst Burnham has promised something that looks like renationalisation until you read the small print. Yet in reality, EU law makes it illegal for any member state to properly and fully renationalise its transport system – a fairly basic prerequisite to exercising any strategic economic control.
Under the Railway Directives, the tracks and the trains must be run by separate organisations. Meanwhile, public and private sector organisations must be allowed to bid against each other for the right to run trains on any given network. Similar EU directives have recently compelled ferry workers to ballot
for strike action in Scotland. Here, the European Commission has ruled that the ferry service serving the Isles – a truly crucial piece of social infrastructure – must be opened up to a bidding war and privatisation. And then there are Europe’s restrictive ‘State Aid’ rules, which can prevent a government from doing so much as giving a co-operative a low interest loan. With these policies in place it is nigh on impossible to see how a future administration might intervene to seriously alter the shape and structure of our currently dysfunctional economies.
Against the background of the Corbyn surge, this matters a great deal. More than at any time since the Coalition came to power in 2010, a great many people feel it possible to articulate a real political alternative to free markets and to austerity. Yet it is impossible to plausibly do so without addressing the European question – since the European system mandates a future of privatisation, deregulation and free trade.
If we want to be at the forefront in articulating a radical, egalitarian alternative to the status quo we cannot be neutral with regard to the upcoming referendum on EU membership. If Britain votes to stay in, we will be effectively signing up to all of Europe’s neoliberal strictures for another generation. Conversely, a push for Britain to exit the EU is the only position that is consistent with our demands for the prevailing economic system to be radically adjusted.
It is of course understandable that many people are wary of campaigning for the same result that Farage will be pushing for. Some worry that a vote to leave the EU will be seen as a victory for the reactionary, nationalist right. Yet we have to ask who our biggest and most powerful enemies are right now. Is it the clichéd “little Englanders” who are said to read the Daily Mail and worry about the price of their houses, or is it the business leaders who read the perpetually pro European FT, and worry about minimising their social rent and maximising their access to markets?
In the Blair-Cameron age, it is the pro-European, free market species of conservatism which dominates our society, and which aims to dominate our future.
As socialists we can take the lead in making the case for an exit – on the grounds that we cannot allow our country to be locked into a future of free markets, and that we do not want any part in the kind of great power politics in which the EU enables the continent’s declining powers to engage. If we do so, a vote for a British exit will mean something very different to anything Farage would ever countenance.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.