Len Arthur – LU South Wales branch
The Left Unity conference will be discussing the position to take in the European referendum. This is a contribution to that debate, arguing that we should support a yes vote. It builds upon the points made by Felicity Dowling and Luke Cooper on this website a few months ago.
A considerable discussion has started across the left on this issue and two of the better contributions have been made in the International Socialism Journal issue 148 as a debate between John Palmer the former European editor of the Guardian and Alex Callinicos editor of ISJ.
Both articles provide a detailed historical background on the evolution of the EU and are worth consulting for this alone. The article by Callinicos has the following key statement, making the proposal that the struggle at the national level should be prioritised, it is that position this contribution seeks to challenge:
“Strategically the problem is that since the 1980s, but more especially as a result of the eurozone crisis, a Europe-wide neoliberal regime is being constructed. Breaking that is most likely to happen at national level. To make successful resistance dependent on a coordinated movement at the EU level is to postpone that resistance indefinitely. The process of uneven and combined development implies that struggles are most likely to succeed at national level but can then be generalised.
Dialectically, then, for internationalism to advance there have to be breakthroughs at the national level.”
There is a general level of agreement among socialists that the problems posed by capitalism require an international level solution, the debate, it seems is how best to get to the position to make that challenge and carrying through transformation.
The EU terrain of struggle
Historically the EU has been a post 1945 project primarily for the interests of capital. In the previous 60 or 70 years before that date capital, faced with increasing international competition, often sought to ally with nation states to secure its competitive interests: securing home markets and worker compliance, whilst supporting imperial policies to secure markets beyond the reach of the particular nation state. State capitalism remains a useful way of describing this process and period.
The Second World War confirmed the emergence of world domination by the US economy, ?a trend which was strengthened by the outcome of the First World War. Faced with state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe – with a different historical root to those in the west – and US domination, European capital realised that the size of western European states, weakened economies and blocked imperial expansion required a different form of state capitalism: one based on a closer cooperation across state boundaries. Surprisingly, given their political backgrounds John Palmer and Alex Callinicos in their different ways, describe this history by avoiding using the idea of state capitalism.
As all of us on the left seem to agree, the EU is a capitalist and even imperial project. However, as with all expansions of capital, which still does require the cooperation of workers who produce the wealth, there is a unifying social flipside which potentially provides the source of an internationally challenging contradiction. It is this feature which is widely ignored by many socialist commentaries.
First, possibly due to the need to have social and Christian democrat cooperation in the European parliament and at the council of ministers to make the EU work, a range of measures and reforms have been adopted that seek to ameliorate the social consequences of some market forces. The Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the EU, its incorporation of the European convention of human rights and legal back up through the work of the court of justice of the European union as well as development through the European parliament, is one outcome, as are the various financial support programmes for regions, areas of deprivation, support for certain economic sectors and the huge £77 billion research fund. These measures have specific benefits at workplace and local level such as on working hours, agency workers and freedom of movement; on basic investment in places such as Wales and in over £7 billion that comes to UK higher education.
Of course these measures are under pressure from the dominant neo liberal pressure of EU policy but, nevertheless, they are international reforms socialists should defend as we defend other reforms on a national basis. They provide a basis for mobilisation.
Second, as socialists, we recognise that the problems of capitalism are international and can only have international solutions. The existence of the EU means that as its policies operate across national boundaries so the challenges faced by the working class constantly have international dimensions which provide opportunities for solidarity and action on this basis. The fight against austerity in Greece, and now Portugal, is much more obviously our fight as being part of the EU than if we were outside. Similarly the politics of right wing governments in Hungary and Poland require to be challenged as much as our own UK government for the same reason.
The European Left: the socialist organisation that no one mentions
Left Article after left article on the EU makes reference to the need for an international struggle, often with vague reference to possibilities such as in the recent Red Pepper article by Leigh Phillips.
Hello, smell the coffee! A socialist organisation that is linking campaigning and politics across the EU and wider, does actually exist: the European Left (EL). Here is a policy statement agreed at the EL conference last year stating why it is central for there to be an international opposition to neo liberalism and austerity, together with a programme of campaigning demands and including alternatives.
The EL is composed of 21 European parties and through the European United Left / Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) has 51 MEPs. With the Green MEPs with whom they regularly cooperate, they are the third largest section in the European Parliament. Left Unity now has observed membership of the EL.
The last EL congress policy statement, referred to above, covers the ground that most socialists could support. This is not so much the case with some specific decisions such as the lack of criticism of the final deal reached by Syriza. However, centrally it argues that another radical and democratic Europe is possible and thus provides an international basis for socialists to debate and agree what this means and how we can act to make it happen.
The existence of the EL adds an absolutely key dimension to the referendum debate, particularly in challenge the right. UKIP, and the like, attempt to frame the debate in terms of the UK and people taking back power almost as a form of liberation. This becomes the peg on which to hang populist policies such as scapegoating migrants and refugees for causing all the problems experienced by workers: low wages, housing, NHS queues, unemployment – even motorway traffic jams.
Of course, as with all populist arguments they are opportunist and hypocritical, as the taking back of power the UK right are really after is the freedom to dump all the social charter and introduce even more attacks on workers, exacerbating all the problems they seek to champion.
Having an internationalist alternative programme and strategy which addresses how these problems are related to the failures of capitalism and their neo liberal policies, backed up with a real international political organisation, provides a direct and internationally based challenge to the right and their nationalistic populism. Ignoring this possibility, as many on the left are doing, at best weakens the internationalist case and, at worst, plays into the hands of nationalist populism.
And at the very worse, if Brexit happened and the neoliberal right have the free reign they are after, socialist who argued the exit case will be saddled with that responsibility. Hair splitting over nuances of difference and meaning will be a very poor fig leaf.
The history of the UK is inextricably linked to world history and in particular, Europe. The development of capitalism and the various forms of imperialism over the last 400 years have accelerated this process. The last 100 years have seen two European wars of utter annihilation, which are of also part of a world conflict. Like nearly every other family I know, mine and that of my partner’s have been scarred by the deaths and experiences of these conflicts. The consequential wars have continued since 1945. Working class support for these wars was justified and won in nationalist terms, weakening the solidarity and international links that may have prevented them and challenged capitalism at the same time. This was, let us not forget, the key failure of the second international. That nationalism continues to undermine us, with potential fatal co consequences.
It is not dealing with this reality to argue that a UK or perhaps just an English answer to the problems posed by capitalism and imperialism exists. Just as states cannot abstract themselves from the world, neither can we as socialists and as a working class: we have to engage on an international basis within the terrain of struggle we find ourselves: unlike Callinicos, as socialist we need to organise and fight on both national and international fronts, not prioritise one against the other.
Not to do so when the chance actually exists could set back the socialist case in the UK for a generation. We have to argue for a yes vote to continue with the internationalist struggle; to argue that another Europe is indeed possible and to point to the programme and existence of the EL to show how it could happen.
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