Felicity Dowling assesses the political situation ahead of the EU referendum
Writing a summary of attitudes to the EU is an exercise fraught with difficulties. In writing this I have used what published resources I could find, discussions with interested members in my own area, and my own (limited) experience of working within the European Left and Socialist movement. Quoting a source does not imply political agreement.
The EU referendum will be a major political discussion point within the working class communities in the UK, within the Left, the labour movement, and progressive people within the UK. It will also impact on attitudes and relationships within the European Left, labour, trade union and progressive movements.
Left Unity is an internationalist party and it is therefore critical that we consider all aspects of this issue to plan an intervention that strengthens socialism, the left, the trade unions and progressive thought across Europe and possibly beyond.
Our aims are “to unite the diverse strands of radical and socialist politics in the UK including workers’ organisations and trade unions; ordinary people, grass root organisations and co-operatives rooted in our neighbourhoods and communities; individuals and communities facing poverty, discrimination and social oppression because of gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, unemployment or under-employment; environmental and green campaigners; campaigners for freedom and democracy; all those who seek to authentically voice and represent the interests of ordinary working people…”
“…to above all promote grass roots democracy in the understanding that fundamental and radical change can only come with the support and active involvement of the majority of people and that the way we organise today is a pointer to the kind of society we want to see in the future.”( Left Unity Constitution)
We have no illusions in the organisations of the EU, or in the role that they have played in damaging living standards and promoting war. We have huge hope and political investment in the social and political movements that have swept across the world and across Europe in recent years. The issue of the EU is wide ranging and complex. Our position must reflect these complexities.
We have no illusions either in the neo liberal policies of two decades of UK government. We have no faith in Cameron, or in neo Liberal Labour policies. We place no more trust in them than in the EU.
The forces of socialism, of the workers movement, of environmentalism, of rights for women and rights for children are puny as yet in confronting the masters of our era; yet they are our field of work.
How do people in the UK perceive the EU?
Most young people in Britain see the EU as overall a positive institution. What would they expect in an EU member state? They would expect:
Some see Europe as positively better than Tory Britain.
The oldest section of the population, in part at least, regards the EU as a success because there has not been war in Western Europe since 1945. Attitudes of other sectors of the population vary. Many construction workers have worked in Europe, many young people have worked in Europe, particularly in summer jobs, and huge numbers have travelled there on holidays. Universities have links across Europe and many young people have participated in study exchanges through the Erasmus program. At least a million Britons live in the EU, more than half of them in Spain. The impact of Britain leaving is explored in this blog
A section of British pensioners live in Spain, Portugal and Greece, with some areas of those countries dominated by British ‘expats’.
The impact on EU citizens living in the UK is explored here Obviously, big business links across Europe through the single market mechanisms. The importance of these links is explored in this article from the Independent
The EU has been the butt of much negative publicity, much of it through anti-migrant and xenophobic propaganda. The picture of ridiculous EU regulations has been pushed by the tabloid press and accepted by many as true, unless challenged by their own experience (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6481969.stm). Most people have had little reason to doubt these myths and they have become part of the political landscape; the “common sense” described by Gramsci.
Different ideas within the Conservatives
The rise of right wing anti-Europe feeling as expressed by right wing Tories and UKIP is a factor in Britain. Fifty two Conservative MPs are organised within the Conservative party to fight to leave the EU. However, the neo-liberals in the Conservative and Labour parties are wedded to the EU project. In recent years they have been able to implement robbery from the poor perfectly well in this political environment, and have more pragmatic nationalist attitudes. Behind the nationalism in the UK is the history of Empire, a yearning for a “glorious” past and a hankering for links across the Atlantic rather than across the channel.
However, in Scotland this isn’t the case. The referendum “yes” vote was seen as synonymous with support for staying in Europe and a more socially democratic country free of Tory Rule.
The politically conscious left often despise the EU because of its increasingly neo-liberal role and more recently the pain inflicted on the people of Greece by the EU through enforced austerity measures.
The ‘No to the EU’ project recruited important sections of the left to the idea of the UK leaving the EU; many people have an almost knee jerk response on this. Our distaste for the EU policies is no less strong, but we have a traditionally socialist internationalist approach.
Left Unity wants to look at what the Brexit alternatives are.
There will be real and present danger to the many EU citizens living in this country if Brexit occurs
One woman I spoke to said “Well, he would have to marry me…but then we don’t earn £35,000 a year, so I would have to leave anyway. How many nurses will have to leave because they don’t earn £35,000 per year?”
The debate on the EU will again highlight the issue of migration. Left Unity recognises a responsibility to support the rights of migrant workers and refugees. All of our work on the EU should oppose racism, xenophobia and Islamaphobia. This is a moral position for many, but also one that goes to the potential strength of the unity of the working class.
“Compared to the 2.3 million EU citizens in the UK, which includes people who came after Poland and nine other states joined the Union in 2004, British consular authorities estimate that 2.2 million Britons live in the other 26 EU countries, excluding Croatia, which joined in 2013. A previous response to a ……question in January said another 900 Britons live in Croatia, putting the net immigration-emigration ratio even closer to par, however.
The country breakdown says just over 1 million British people live in Spain.
Other popular destinations are: France (330,000); Ireland (329,000); Germany (107,000); Cyprus (65,000); the Netherlands (48,000); Greece (45,000); Portugal (39,000); and Italy (37,000).
The government reply indicates the real numbers could be higher, due to “a high evidence of non-registration” in France, Portugal and Spain.
Of the total, some 400,000 are British pensioners.
Meanwhile, relatively few have gone to former Communist or former Soviet EU countries, with just 6,000 UK passport holders in Poland, for instance.
“The latest estimate for non-UK born, non-UK nationals living in Britain, is 4.9 million, the ONS said, just under 8% of the population (or one in 13 people). Official data shows the UK proportion is higher than in Italy (9.5%) and slightly more than France (12%). It is slightly less than Spain (13%). And it is lower than Belgium (16%), Sweden (16%), Switzerland (27%) and Australia (28%).
In Germany, 20.3% of the population has a migrant background, while there are 10.9 million immigrants living in the country (about 13.5% of the population). The UK is not exceptional in this regard”
Left Unity supports free movement of people. We oppose the war in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. We recognise that war flows from the economic and political policies of neo-liberal capitalism. We recognise the rights of refugees.
We recognise the rights of populations to overthrow repressive regimes (as expressed in the US Declaration of Independence!); “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”.
There is wealth in this planet to abolish poverty and war but in this interconnected world the chance of reconstruction and peace in just one country, is harder now than ever. The resources; economic, social and political to rebuild societies after war, and in a democratic or socialist space are more difficult to command in the neo-liberal world than before. A prosperous, peaceful, democratic socialist Palestine, Libya, Iraq, or elsewhere is a worthwhile, affordable project but the forces of capitalism stand in the way.
History of EU.
The original European project founded in the aftermath of World War two was linked to the post war consensus. This included the concept that avoiding war and huge social upheaval required a level of improvement in living standards for ordinary people. This linked to the social democratic politics then common in Europe.
When the EU expanded to take in the post dictatorship countries (Greece, Spain and Portugal), huge amounts of resources were invested into those countries. There was political consent from the populations to the project, and this made the EU membership truly popular in those countries.
The post-communist expansion though, was much less positive and has been very different. It did not see the same level of investment or increase in economic growth
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is 40% of the EU budget, favouring rich western countries over Eastern Europe. Feeding these EU citizens is somehow less important. When the eastern European nations joined in 2004 they were not given the same rights to the CAP (or to the regional development fund) as western states.
“…the EU has exported a more market-radical variant of neo-liberalism to its new member states. This is the result of struggles and compromises within the historical bloc: exporting the core of the EU’S deregulatory programme serves the interests of transnational capital, whereas not extending the redistributive acquis (the body of legislation and rights) and blocking labour mobility, protects the existing bloc’s weaker forces”.
The EU has become a neo-liberal in its economics. Its politics is still limited to some extent to the Aquis the body of regulations some of which involve labour rights, environmental protection and other human rights” (D. Bohle, Professor of Political Science at Central European University, Budapest).
The EU has become a neo-liberal institution. Its neo liberal role has not been just within its borders but it has been involved, with the world bank, IMF and others, in forcing neo-liberal ‘restructuring’ on areas of the global south.
The single currency, along with various treaties since the Single European Act of 1986, has helped restructure the institution. The fault at the heart of the single currency was the role of the central bank, which refused to play (until last year) the same role that the US and the other central banks played in mitigating the effects of the crisis.
Greece The debate in Greece about how to respond to the EU blackmail over Austerity included debates about “Grexit”, or Greece leaving the Euro or even the EU. The political case was based on the appalling policies of the EU leadership in imposing such a deal. There was also debate (likely to continue) about leaving the Euro and establishing a central bank which could create money as all central banks do. The Bank of England and the US central bank, the Fed, and the Japanese central bank, created huge amounts of money through “quantitative easing” to mitigate the effects of the crisis. This was not available to the EURO zone countries which had no national banks.
Britain has no such problem. It has its own central bank.
The EU adopted Austerity as eagerly as did the IMF, yet it has done great harm to the peripheral nations in the EU. The post 2008 crisis, and especially the Greek crisis, has seen it descend to the level of a disciplinary organisation, enforcing its neo-liberal policies in terrible ways.
Germany has become the dominant force in the EU, working with France. The western European countries have survived the 2008 crisis, whilst Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have suffered badly.
Why is Britain in the EU? It helps the very rich become even richer.
The EU is larger than any individual economy in the world (Source: ONS). From 1999 to 2014, UK exports destined for the EU fell from 54.8 per cent to 44.6 per cent of total exports.
But despite the proportion of exports to the EU declining, there has been an upward trend in the overall amount and value of these exports – exports grew on average by 3.6 per cent each year between 1999 and 2014.
And while the UK has historically recorded a trade in goods deficit with the EU, its trade in services balance with the EU is much more favourable, running a surplus in each year since 2005, which reached £15.4 billion in 2014
Britain had a politically ambivalent position about the EU; whilst big finance and manufacturing seriously need membership of the EU, years of right wing (and some left wing) populism has railed against the EU.
Britain’s economic model
The UK in the post Thatcher era pursued a different economic model from the rest of the EU. In the run up to the economic crisis Britain, like the US, pursued the Anglo-American style of free market economics which had less labour protection, mass migration, and worked on a deregulated labour market, low pay and freedom for investors and employers, “paradigm of deregulated markets, reduced power of trade unions, privatised social services, macro-economic austerity and lower taxes on business”)
The free market deregulated financial system precipitated the collapse of the banks and the subsequent crisis in Europe. The particular sovereign debt crisis in Europe and especially the Eurozone was in turn exacerbated by the role of the Central Bank in the Euro Zone.
All of Europe though, adopted the Austerity project which has done so much harm to living standards, a level of harm that would have been politically unacceptable in earlier periods where the EU accepted that rights for workers and minimum public services were politically necessary. Apart from the peripheral countries in the EU, that attack on living standards is worse in the UK than in many areas of the EU.
The Great Recession changed the trend of overall EU wage inequality. Between 2004 and 2008, EU wage inequality decreased; after 2008, it increased. The decrease before the crisis was entirely due to a significant reduction in between-country wage differentials (in other words, a process of convergence in pay levels), which came to a halt in 2008 and even started to reverse at the end of the period of this analysis (2011)
Living standards in Germany, with its huge industrial base are still reasonably high although they have grown slowly and face threats from the Chinese slow down.
The EU is politically linked to NATO and has been terribly linked to the tragedies of recent wars in Europe and in the Middle East. The UK in or out of the EU would stay in NATO (at least until Corbyn is PM…)
“Europe’s margins are burning, not just with rapid declassing (PIIGS) and normalized poverty (the East) but also with people trying to cross minefields and seas and jump walls and fences, fleeing from, most often, the effects of western imperial and neo-colonial policies.”
A process is working whereof powerful economic centres pull in resources and create ever poorer peripheral areas, serving the centres. This is within the world economy, within the EU, within individual countries.
The situation in the EU then, is grim; but it is grim outside too.
The UK government is arguably the most committed to neo liberalism in the developed world, matching the USA; its record includes “deregulation”, ruthlessly imposed austerity, increased child poverty and privatisation.
The UK ruling class (as opposed to an elected government) is exceedingly rich and very, very powerful. Thatcher was indeed the pioneer of neo-liberalism in the developed world. Her greatest achievement, she claimed, was the creation of New Labour. These ideas became the norm for this country even before Austerity.
The EU is the largest economy in the world and the London Financial institutions see Europe as a crucially important project.
Verena Ross, a key figure in financial regulation claimed that;
“The UK has developed into the world’s, and certainly Europe’s, leading financial centre. In that sense, the UK is probably one of the EU Member States that has embraced the idea of developing an EU single market most forcefully, allowing companies to develop themselves on a pan-European basis to face the competition from their American, Chinese and Japanese counterparts. London is one of Europe’s main access points to capital and has been a source of inspiration for many EU Member States that have opened their markets and even who started developing their markets originally, not least for the Eastern European markets who joined the European Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. By opening its markets, London is today home to 85% of European hedge funds and accounts for around 90% of European prime brokerage. Total net assets of European investment funds amount to about ten trillion Euros, including more than one trillion in UK funds” (29 October 2014 “Financial Markets after the Crisis – More Europe or Less?”, Verena Ross (http://www.eifr.eu/files/file4482594.pdf).
A “common sense” approach to the UK leads us to picture a second rate bumbling power, not able to afford to give its people much, with old industry, and bravely battling away. In reality it is one of the richest countries in the world, with one of the most unequal societies. Trade Unions are legally and socially constrained. The financial sector is totally dominant and impacts far less on day to day life of ordinary workers. It operates almost in a different world. The UK plays host economically and literally to the oligarchs that rule much of the world. These oligarchs play monopoly with the streets of London.
How would the working class fare in a Brexit?
The BBC described five options for the UK leaving the EU: the Norwegian, the Swiss, the Turkish, a free trade agreement and a Clean Break. In none of these is there any mention of replacing the social chapter, safeguarding for workers’ rights, or protection for the environment.
There is talk by the supporters of Brexit of a 1.6 improvement in GDP if Britain gains a reasonably favourable settlement and “whilst pursuing large-scale deregulation at home”. Such deregulation would be at the expense of workers, the environment and democracy. We know this. Our ruling class has form
Globalisation has seen the rule of the huge multi-national corporations. These institutions have been granted powers over and above those of elected governments and nation states. TTIP, the Trans Pacific Partnership and other secretive trade deals are being debated without popular involvement or, largely, knowledge. They are creating unprecedented power for corporations. The world trade organisation, the IMF and the World Bank have imposed Austerity or ‘restructuring’ on countries outside the EU. Jamaica and Ghana particularly, are facing just such interventions now).
There is no hiding place from global corporate capitalism (except perhaps in parts of China). Military and economic power has been used to enforce this political model, as seen in Ukraine. Even in Latin America where social movements have given some recent protection to their populations, they too face the rule of the big corporations, free trade organisations and agreements. Intervention has happened there too.
“In the process of globalization, a culture that took 200 years to build was torn apart in twenty…Over the last four decades the global working class has tripled from 1 billion to over 3 billion.” Globalisation has created huge new working classes in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and more.
Poverty, the crisis is housing, the heartlessness of the Sanctions policies, and the attack on the NHS. Not one of these will be helped by making common cause with the right wing to support Brexit.
The forces of socialism, of the workers movement, of environmentalism, of rights for women and rights for children are puny as yet in confronting the masters of our era. Our aim is to grow these forces to build the challenge they were able to achieve in the immediate post war period and more. Everything we do should look to build the ideas of an alternative, and confidence in those ideas.
Greece has demonstrated that to change the world we will need to challenge all these undemocratic institutions.
The actual campaign
Cameron’s intention is to “re-negotiate” the UK involvement. He dances to one tune at the front of the stage and conducts back stage negotiations in the EU. It matters little to the financial institutions that a few migrants claim tax credits, British workers in Europe do so. The financial sector has billions of pounds per year invested in Europe.
It is possible that the anti-EU campaign could develop into a populist campaign to give Cameron a bloody nose.
The political context of this campaign will remain the threat to the NHS, TTIP, poverty, sanctions, and attacks on rights for people with disabilities, and the attacks on the unions.
So the EU is an organisation that has left its positive role far behind and is deep in the projects that defend the interests of major corporations and the very rich at the expense of working people and public services. “[a] silent revolution based on two pillars: the authoritarian policy and reforms aimed to the deregulation of the markets and the increase of competitiveness” (See more at:
The world outside the EU is not the world that was there before the EU; there is no going back.
Left Unity does not see leaving the EU on a tide of nationalism as a progressive move. There is no haven outside the EU, no progressive form of capitalism and no chance of a Tory government leading Britain out of Europe to a positive, just and equal society respecting the rights of workers, rights of migrants, rights of women, of people with disabilities TTIP and worse will face the UK in or out of Europe.
Some argue that the TTIP threat is a reason to leave Europe. Yet the UK government is one of the greatest users of BITs (Bi-lateral International Trade agreements). Far from being safe from TTIP outside Europe, ordinary people would be more vulnerable to them as the UK already is one of the greatest users of these trade agreements. Monbiot writes of the negative British government effect
TTIP, TISA and the similar treaties and agreements, like the Trans Pacific Partnership, will still impact on the UK in or out of the European Union. Such treaties need to be defeated politically, across Europe The British ruling class is totally committed to such deals. “Currently, the UK is one of the world’s most prolific users of BITs, with 104 deals in force globally. The UK government is currently negotiating a handful of BITs, including one with Ethiopia which could give UK corporations more power over Ethiopia’s agricultural sector A Canadian firm is suing Romania over a gold mine. The Government claimed that the Gold mine would be bad for the environment so the Canadian company sued. The firm is using the excuse that it is a British firm because it has a subsidiary registered in Jersey)
The risks from these trade deals include threats to the Justice systems, imposed conditions for trade in services and more, all applying to the UK in or out of the EU
Economically there is nothing to gain for working people in leaving the EU. Much would be put at risk. Nationalism in this form will weaken the organisation and social cohesion of working class communities. Trade unions will be further damaged. The right wing will gain credibility. Politically and socially there is nothing to gain by making common cause with the Conservatives and right wing labour
So can we #change Europe? Jeremy Corbyn has tentatively suggested a campaign for a better Europe “ A social Europe, a cohesive Europe, a coherent Europe, not a free market Europe.”
The solidarity campaigns for Greece as it faced murderous black mail from the EU leadership called for #change Europe
The social chapter and the rights for workers currently protected in the EC are important. As a contrast look at the situation in the US which is the model the right of the conservatives hope to emulate. Kathryn Edin’s research shows one in 25 of all US families are now $2-a-day households – the US government’s definition of deep poverty is $8.50 a day
Why should we not abstain? That way we avoid linking with the racists and anti migrants and we avoid being associated with neo conservative big business and right wing Labour? The position is attractive but while one group of workers is at greatest risk from any political event, Left Unity believes we must stand with the hardest hit. Migrants of every kind would be at greater risk in this referendum. We cannot be neutral. .
Neither can we be neutral if workers’ rights are at risk. Take for example US maternity rights; this is what could face UK women if we fail to defend workers’ rights. Already thousands of new mothers are forced out of employment here in Conservative Britain
In the course of events many things change and there might be a situation that turns this position on its head. If the EU abolished workers’ rights to keep the UK in Europe, we might change our position.
The left in Britain, in or out of the EU will need to defend workers’ rights, to link with campaigns in Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Athens, Budapest, Amsterdam, Warsaw and more
Faint glimmers of joint industrial struggle are being seen. Electricians unions international bodies are campaigning for a EU wide rate of pay
Climate change and the environment are also key issues for Left Unity. Outside of the EU the UK could again emulate the US in its disregard of environmental issues. Volkswagen has made an idiot of EU regulations and it was not the EU that revealed the scandal but the USA. The fracking scandals in the USA show how we need to maintain EU rather than USA style regulations. Asbestos too is a problem as is mega agriculture. In the USA excess pig faeces is known to be sprayed over local homes.
We oppose the Common Agricultural Policy but we support regulation of agriculture. Britain already faces a crisis for its soils from intensive farming. A free market Britain is a nightmare. Only one hundred harvests are left in UK soils
The battle for a better world must be on three fronts, the national, the European and the international.
“We stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism, Islamophobia and fascism. Our goal is to transform society: to achieve the full democratisation of state and political institutions, society and the economy, by and for the people.” (Statement agreed at Left Unity’s founding conference).
Workers (including the precarious workers), students and pensioners, have fought Austerity. Many people across Europe, even in Greece, still give political acceptance to the EU; others show limited acceptance. Even some of those who accept the EU are opposed to Austerity.) The traditional left and the trade unions have fought hard and are still winning more support for the project of defeating Austerity, defeating TTIP and defending rights.
These struggles have not yet been successful, but the potential is there. How then does Left Unity approach the European referendum? We must stress the importance of defending European Human rights legislation and equality legislation. The EU was said to be built on Solidarity; we should call for more solidarity, more Europe not less, in defending the interests of Europeans across the continent.
Women across Europe are all facing the same attacks on the post war gains. We have more in common with abortion rights campaigners in Spain than with right wing misogynists in the Uk. stand with working people in Britain fighting poverty, fighting Fracking, struggling for decent housing and adequate food. We have more in common with Ada Colau Ballano the mayor of Barcelona fighting against evictions, than with Boris Johnson entertaining privateers and making London too expensive to live in. More in common with Zoi Konstantopoulou, speaker of the Greek parliament than with John Bercow, speaker of the UK parliament, more in common with workers fighting water charges in Ireland than with UKIP in the UK more in common with those fighting against a polluting gold mine than this government allowing a corporation to sue their government for protecting the environment, more in common with Despoina Kostopoulou, the leader of the Greek cleaners fighting privatisation than with Verena Ross. We have more in common with those fighting racism and fascism in Europe than with the Conservative Party.
We stand with the precariat, working class communities, campaigners for environmental and social justice and progressive people across Europe – #change Europe.
The potential is there for a cross Europe movement for a better world. It’s our job to try and build it, not to cut ourselves off from it.
#change Europe, a better Europe is possible!
09 10 2015
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