Obama's remarks have shown that the EU is a constraint on anything democratic and popular that may fall foul of the capitalist class, writes Alex Snowdon
The EU referendum has generated a lot of debate on the British Left, with a range of perspectives on the EU itself and on whether socialists should advocate a vote to leave it in the 23 June referendum.
I've been a little surprised by the extent to which many left-wingers have rallied behind a Remain position. It seemed to me that two big developments last year - the smashing of Greece's government-level resistance to austerity and the EU's appalling response to the refugee crisis - had created a new understanding, especially among left-wingers, of the reality of the EU today. However, this hasn't generally translated into advocating a Leave stance in the referendum this year.
It's especially notable, too, when you recall that David Cameron's renegotiation deal was entirely reactionary. This might have been expected to push a layer of undecided left-wingers into backing a Leave position. But it evidently didn't do so on any serious scale.
One reason is that the full force of the official labour movement - TUC, a number of big unions, 90 percent of the Parliamentary Labour Party and even the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn/John McDonnell leadership - has rallied behind staying in the EU. This has naturally impacted on many grassroots activists and socialists.
Another element is the appeal of the idea that the alternative would somehow be even worse. The spectre of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson seemingly intimidates people into (critically) accepting the status quo as a Lesser Evil.
Different stances on the Left
I've perhaps never known an issue - in over 20 years as a socialist activist - where there's been such division between the overwhelming majority of the revolutionary/radical left and the overwhelming majority of the organised reformist left (though I sense that many people with left-wing ideas, but not part of any organisation or party, are unsure about the left Remain position or even reject it outright).
Most independent socialist organisations strongly back a left Leave position, while the considerable ranks of parliamentary left reformism - Labour left, Green left and SNP left - are mostly supporting a Remain position (including some - Corbyn among them - who are privately very sceptical).
In a way it shouldn't be too surprising. It's in the nature of parliamentary reformism to look for... well, parliamentary reformist solutions. And that means looking to the EU - or at least a reformed EU - as a progressive force.
It doesn't seem to matter that the EU is so hopelessly beyond reform, and there are no serious democratic means for reforming it. The illusion still holds. I'd have expected more of the old attitude of Tony Benn, though, among some contemporary left Labour activists.
Benn had a degree of faith in Westminster, but was utterly scornful of Brussels: he grasped the profoundly undemocratic nature of the EU, and understood that it was driven by elite big business and finance interests. Yet there seems to be little of this attitude about, partly no doubt because we currently have a Tory government and the EU is seen (rightly or wrongly) as at least a partial moderating influence on it.
The radical, or anti-capitalist, left has been implacably opposed to the EU and now advocates a Leave vote for obvious reasons. The EU is thoroughly neoliberal and synonymous with austerity; it is undemocratic and, as seen especially in Greece, anti-democratic; and its 'Fortress Europe' policy is vicious, racist and anathema to many of the left's core values.
Our recognition of the limits of parliamentary reformism and our emphasis on mass working class struggle means that reforming the EU holds no appeal for us - especially when regarding the ways in which it is even less accountable and amenable than national governments - and we articulate an entirely different vision of international co-operation and solidarity. It is through action - movements, strikes and left-wing political parties - not elite institutions that change can be effected.
Different strands of the pro-Remain Left
But it would be a mistake to see left-wing pro-Remain opinion as a monolithic bloc. There are in fact 3 distinct, if overlapping, 'left-wing' pro-Remain positions.
The first is that of advocating the EU as currently constituted. This is the dominant position at the level of the broad Left. It involves presenting the EU as a beacon of progressive workers' rights and social protections, together with freedom of movement, while downplaying all the ugly, brutal stuff (inflicting massive cuts on Greece, fences and razor wire, bodies sinking to the bottom of the Aegean and Mediterranean).
The second position is that of the EU reformers - 'yes, the EU may be awful, but let's work on changing it'. Corbyn's public position is a mixture of these two positions - playing up the alleged existing achievements while also clearly pushing for something better.
Nobody who advocates this reform position ever explains the mechanisms they envisage for reform. That's because there aren't any.
The third - and ostensibly most radical - position is one of rejection of the current EU, sober realism about the hopelessness of reforming it... but we should still vote to stay in because the alternative is even worse: really right-wing Tories taking over, success for Ukip, a carnival of racist reaction, and migrants deported.
This last position strikes me as unnecessarily fatalistic. It rests on a quite erroneous assessment of the current balance of political forces that underestimates the significance of Corbyn's rise and the leftwards shift involved, while rather exaggerating the significance of Ukip (a party that has already declined somewhat) and neglecting the depth of the splits and crisis in Tory ranks.
It also ignores the reality that the referendum campaign simply hasn't been dominated by immigration or racist motifs. While the official debate may be shaped by the Right, in its different incarnations, we are not seeing the carnival of reaction some feared. This is particularly so because other political developments - Osborne's budget, steel crisis, Panama Papers - have been awful for the Tories.
Yet the logic of the campaign has pulled growing numbers on the Left into advocating the supposed benefits of the existing EU. This is predictable. It's hardly convincing or persuasive to say "The EU is rubbish and always will be rubbish, but you should vote for it because Farage is horrible".
So we see more and more people talking up the EU as a socially progressive entity. This means evading reality - and it threatens to blunt necessary opposition on particular issues like refugees.
Myths and misconceptions
One thing that hasn't really changed during the campaign is the widespread lack of information about the EU. All sorts of myths persist. Most people on the Left - just like the wider population - know relatively little about the EU's constituent institutions, its history, the wider picture of what the EU does (even on the left, the debate here is remarkably parochial), etc.
One persistent misconception is that the European Parliament has significant power. It doesn't. The unelected Commission and the European Central Bank are more influential.
The parliament is (inevitably for something covering 28 states) extremely remote: my native north-east England elects just 3 of its MEPs, whereas we have 29 MPs in Westminster, and very few people can name their MEPs. Turnout in elections tends to be low because it is so remote and makes so little difference to people's lives.
It is dominated by large political blocs and - unlike in Westminster elections - there is a total separation between electing individual representatives and the formation of a government. In a general election, people know they have a chance to kick out a government. While technically just electing an individual constituency MP, we are also effectively electing a government.
But this doesn't happen at European level - where the Commission, the nearest equivalent to a government, is impervious to what happens in European elections. That is a massive democratic weakness.
The lack of awareness of the reality of the parliament, and more widely how the EU actually functions, is one aspect of the difficulties in actually conducting an informed debate. The more you learn, the more you realise how indefensible the EU is for anyone who is committed to democracy and cares about economic and social justice.
Obama and TTIP
I've already alluded to how the bigger picture - in all sorts of way - is so often ignored in much left-ish discussion of the EU. There is frequently a narrow vision focused on the Johnson/Gove/Duncan Smith axis and the phantom menace of Farage. The referendum comes to be seen as a threat from the Right to make things even worse in British society by exiting the EU.
There are so many problems with that perspective. But let's - by way of illustration - consider Barack Obama's visit to London this week. The US president strongly advocated a Remain vote and specifically indicated that the UK won't be part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in the event of Brexit (this is meant to be A Bad Thing that scares us into sticking with the status quo).
Nick Clegg - who you may dimly recall was once Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister - commented that Brexit will be a bad thing for our 'empire', the Union and the 'special relationship' (with the US). For any socialist, that is surely a succinct list of three very good reasons to vote to leave the EU. Yet there's a substantial layer of socialists who appear to regard such big geopolitical realities as less important than giving Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage a bloody nose.
Despite Obama's warning on TTIP, some on the left are determined to insist that leaving the EU will actually make no difference to whether TTIP - and its corporate raiding of public assets - happens to us. This is simply wrong. Whatever uncertainties there may be about the consequences of Brexit, we know that the UK can't be part of TTIP if outside the EU.
Then we invariably get the suggestion that a post-Cameron Tory leadership would actually negotiate something even worse for us. This is highly speculative and ignores the chronic problems faced by the Tories. In any case, shouldn't such decisions be in the remit of elected national parliaments not the EU? Wouldn't it be better for the activist left - and for the potential of mass campaigning and mobilisation - if such things were brought into the national democratic realm?
Another world is possible
The issue of TTIP illustrates so much of what's going on in the broad left-wing debate about this referendum. It's a reminder of the reality of the EU as a deeply neoliberal institution - and an elite club for the transnational capitalist class and its politicians - that rides roughshod over any semblance of democracy. It has been made abundantly clear that Brexit will constitute a big setback for TTIP, yet there are layers of this country's left that don't wish to take that opportunity, instead insisting that we must stay in so we can change it.
We need a bigger, bolder vision on the left: one that recognises the EU for what it is, and advocates a Leave stance on that basis, but that also affirms a powerful vision of genuine international, anti-racist and anti-neoliberal solidarity in opposition to the EU and our own government. Should there ever be a Corbyn-led Labour government, the EU will emphatically be a barrier not a friend. No amount of rhetoric about 'reform' will alter that.
The EU is a constraint on the people of Europe ending austerity. It is a constraint (to put it very mildly) on free movement into Europe by the people of the Global South. And it is a constraint on anything democratic and popular that may fall foul of the capitalist class.
For these reasons, we should be getting out of the EU and raising the banner of something better. In a debate dominated by the Right on both 'sides', we sorely need a clear and coherent Left Leave alternative.
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).
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