The EU debate: for a yes vote and internationalism

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.

Personal plea

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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2 responses to “The EU debate: for a yes vote and internationalism”

  1. Roy Wall says:

    LU conference misleadingly passed a motion that characterises “. . . the EU as a reactionary anti-working class unreformable institution”. The British government and the British state are also “reactionary anti-working-class” institutions whose basic class character cannot be reformed. But despite this, we argue FOR reform of these reactionary institutions DESPITE their fundamentally-fixed class character. To single-out the EU for criticism WITHOUT APPLYING THE SAME CRITICISM TO THE BRITISH STATE is disguised social chauvinism, i.e, defence of one’s “own” state against foreign incursion.

  2. John Tummon says:

    EUROPE AND THE LEFT: How should socialists vote in the referendum?

    Saturday 21 November, 1pm at the Red Shed, Vicarage Street, Wakefield WF1

    John Tummon (member of Republican Socialist Alliance)

    1 How & why did the political pressure build up to produce this Referendum?

    Between British entry and the creation of the Eurozone, the EU impacted little on British political debate. The European Parliament and EU bureaucracy did, however, evolve policies in a number of areas, such as anti-racism, the environment and the Social Chapter, which trade unionists and single issue activists on the Left were able to use to strengthen aspects of our work. As these were the foundation years for neoliberalism and saw the rolling back of working class gains, these European protections accordingly became more important than they would have been in previous times when popular movements and working class struggle was stronger.

    In this way, European funds came to play an important role in regions like South Yorkshire, Cornwall & Merseyside where sudden and dramatic de-industrialisation under neoliberalism had created a great need for regeneration initiatives. Some good, progressive projects resulted and took the edge off the worst aspects of the most depressed regions.

    These arrangements remained stable and relatively uncontroversial until the early-90s, when a) the enlargement of the EU due to the collapse of Comecon and b) the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union changed the landscape significantly.

    The 3% borrowing limit on which the Eurozone was founded helped German capitalism, which was already re-structuring, at the expense of the working class, by driving up worker productivity (the rate of exploitation), to cope with the fiscal burden of reunification. Hence its competitive advantage, which became worryingly asymmetrical after the 2007-8 Credit Crunch, such that German industry cornered a much bigger % of the business contracts and the ‘less productive’ countries experienced a reduced % and, therefore, mass unemployment. This is the origin of the Eurozone’s Sovereign Debt Crisis.

    The other big change – the enlargement of the EU to 28 states due to the collapse of Comecon – effectively ended EU regeneration funding for depressed regions in countries like the UK, as these funds were diverted to address Eastern Europe’s lower standard of living. Secondly, the principle of the free movement of labour, which was uncontentious while the EU was a club of relatively rich, established capitalist countries, now led to unprecedented flows of migrants to western European countries that had not fully addressed their own racism towards previous waves of migrants by this time.

    The re-structuring of German capitalism at a much higher productivity rate, EU enlargement and increased migration flows all became politically toxic as a result of the current, post-2008, capitalist crisis and the austerity programmes that have impoverished large sections of the western European working class. This became even more a political, not just an economic, crisis because of a succession of political scandals in the UK and the imposition by the Troika of technocratic heads of state on Greece and Italy. This resulted in a wider loss of trust in politics.

    Capitalism’s political structures therefore started to suffer a crisis of legitimacy, across Europe, which caused a general re-alignment of the right, with radical far right groups like the BNP giving way to nationalist conservatives like UKIP and the re-vamped French Front National.

    UKIP emerged into the political space created by opportunist Conservative rhetoric about the sovereign debt crisis, EU migrants and the abandonment by New Labour of the poorer sections of the working class, but it also reflects the more general antagonism of the Tory right towards the apparent ‘centrist’ politics of the Coalition. UKIP should not be confused with the BNP. One is overtly and primarily racist; the other uses racism in much the same dog whistle sort of way as the 3 traditional parties.

    Arguably, No2EU emerged in a similar way to UKIP, but with far less impact, out of the abandonment of a nationalist social democracy by the Labour Party and TUC, drawing to some extent on those struggles in which British workers have appeared to be pitted against ‘cheap foreign labour undercutting our wages and conditions’.

    In conclusion, these developments – EU enlargement, German re-structuring and the crisis of political legitimacy produced a crisis due to the Credit Crunch and its aftermath and a general shift towards anti-establishment, populist right wing resurgence. Hence the Referendum.

    2 How are different parts of British capitalism and the British oligarchy lining up?

    Politically, the right wing forces in the Tory Party and UKIP includes many nationalists who worry about the decline of national sovereignty, including the inability of national governments to control immigration, and find it more comfortable to blame this on the EU than on globalised capitalism, which increasingly constrains all governments’ ability to govern their economies. Ranged against these are the forces of what Tariq Ali calls ‘The Extreme Centre’ and its talk of protecting access to our biggest market in Europe. This is the intra-bourgeois argument that leaves so many of us cold and disinterested.

    But the economics of this are more revealing and far more relevant to the Left – It is the fundamental incompatibility between modern British and modern German capitalism, the different ways in which they experience crisis and the type of external structures and relationships they favour that underlies the discomfort that British capital’s most direct political servants experience towards Europe. Yes, the CBI, dear old Digby Jones and the ever-diminishing British manufacturing sector are the ones who most depend on European markets, but they are very much the junior partners within British capitalism. The Corporation of the City of London does not depend on trade with Europe and neither do the Hedge Funds backing the ‘No’ campaign. Modern British Finance capitalism looks to New York, to Singapore, to Shanghai, and these are the forces lining up behind the ‘No’ campaign – the same ones who are negotiating TTIP in secret and fighting against a Financial Transactions Tax. The same ones who want to defend their tax haven network and the position of the City of London against the European Central Bank’s bid to become the primary financial centre in Europe.

    3 What are the likely outcomes and which would hit / help the working class and socialists the most?

    What we do know is that those in Britain who shout the loudest to leave the EU are those who would extend the working day, attack women’s rights, scrap safety and the rights at work safeguards in the Social Chapter as well as EU environmental protections, and further attack trade union rights. They want to see unfettered free trade and marketisation of all public services, as the UKIP 2015 manifesto made clear. Yes, a Britain outside the EU would not be a Britain outside the EU capitalist club; instead, though, it would be a Britain with a revivalist capitalism driving its oligarchy, competing globally against the EU for trade deals with Russia, China, India and the USA based on its ability to undercut the EU in terms of environmental protections, wage levels, business rates and so on. It would further enhance the power of the City of London over the rest of the country, with more social cleansing of the working class out of inner London boroughs, less and less investment in the rest of the country. It would certainly push the Scots out of the UK and into the arms of the EU, as leaving the UK would be the only way of getting into the EU and, this time, Spain would stand aside, as accepting an independent Scotland would not longer be a precedent for Catalonia to secede from Madrid. We would be left marooned in a small country where Klondike capitalism has no rivals and without recourse to a higher authority.

    This is a far worse prospect than business as usual type capitalism. Cameron’s letter to the EU listing his demands does not include opt-outs from social or employment laws, for transfers of power back to national governments, for a new national veto or for quotas on EU migrants, for British courts being freed from Strasbourg ‘interference’. Even his demand for a four-year timeout on in-work benefits and child benefits for EU migrants working in Britain has been clearly flagged up by Downing Street as negotiable.

    These are the issues the Eurosceptics will fight against Cameron on in the Referendum.

    That is why I basically support Corbyn’s position that staying in the EU to struggle to maintain the Social Charter, the redistribution of regeneration and other funds to the more impoverished regions and the free movement of labour is important + trying to roll back the power of capital (European Central Bank, imposition of austerity & replacing elected governments with compliant technocrats). Then there is the importance of maintaining environmental & health & safety protections, particularly in the light of the right wing Tory agenda. The EU-wide TTIP petition shows the ability of the European Left to work together to win progressive positions within the EU, whereas a fully sovereign UK would enhance the ability of the oligarchy to use the Crown in Parliament framework to evade democratic accountability & transparency to an even greater extent than it can now.

    4 Issues in the Referendum debate relevant to the class struggle:

    • The democratic deficit

    UKIP and the Tory right are fond of pointing to the EU as the source of undemocratic decision-making that limits our sovereignty. Greece and Italy show that socialists must not abandon the democratic deficit argument simply because UKIP have made the running so far. The democratic deficit is a far broader question than the EU. Socialist politics alone has the potential to create direct, accountable, mass democracy across the whole of Europe and we should argue this case. The key question is how to properly frame the argument so that it both challenges the dictatorship of capital within the EU and also the idea that a simple exit from the EU and a nationalist ‘capitalism in one country’ is a viable option. Not to address this fundamental democratic question would be to leave the field to UKIP and miss one of our best chances of arguing our politics. We should argue for a Peoples’ Constitutional Convention that establishes a Bill of Rights and displaces the medieval Parliament, Royal Prerogative and Privy Council with a wholly elected, sovereign single Chamber.

    • Racism & Immigration

    The ‘No’ campaign’s anti-migrant campaign contained in the euphemistic demand to ‘be able to control our own borders’ contrasts with Cameron’s half-hearted and heavily hedged demand for a 4-year waiting period for migrant benefits. If the ‘No’ campaign wins, the racism of a ‘little England’ after the Scots depart is likely to be far worse than what we have seen to date. Without exonerating the ‘Yes’ campaign of their own racism, we should use the Referendum to campaign for a tolerant and humane policy towards Refugees & Migrants displaced by wars, environmental disaster & structural poverty and demand that all communities in which new migrants are settled are automatically given extra housing, health and educational resources equal to the increased demand for services, to prevent local race relations degenerating into a racialised competition for scarce resources.

    • TTIP and a Financial Transactions Tax

    Cameron’s demand for a watertight legal definition of the relationship between the 19 countries that share the euro single currency and the nine EU countries with their own currencies, is to protect the pre-eminence of the City of London as Europe’s leading financial centre against the EU favouring the European Central Bank. It is also there to ward off the threat of a EU Financial Transactions Tax. His demand for a target “to cut the total burden on business” translates as cutting back environmental regulation and a big ‘Yes’ to TTIP. The ‘No’ campaign will not argue against this stance, but we must.

    • The shape of the British economy

    As socialists, we don’t want capitalism at all, but it is important for us to use the opportunity of the conflict highlighted by the Referendum between a weak export-oriented manufacturing sector and the Masters of the Universe to argue for a National Investment Bank, Peoples QE, the Million Green Jobs initiative, No to Trident and No to HS2 as the basis for orienting the economy in a Third Direction – towards the needs of the British people. We should alert people to the danger that a ‘No’ victory would immediately end the protections in the Social Chapter, Environmental Regulations, and EU anti-racist agreements. Life would be even harsher and very quickly so.

    • The cross-border impact of austerity

    We must argue the importance of standing together with the European working class against the common austerity offensive of ruling elites. The 3 million-strong cross-country anti – TTIP petition, the continent-wide solidarity demonstrations for Greece and the recent victories of the Left across southern Europe all reflect a growing fightback; leaving the EU would mean that some of the issues on which the continent’s working class fights in future will concern institutional contexts which do not apply to Britain, so the tendency will be for them to be ignored here.

    5 How we can campaign within this ‘opportunity’?

    Unless the Corbyn-led Labour Party sees these threats and opportunities and positions itself accordingly, the extra-parliamentary Left will only be able to work locally, without any TV presence whatsoever. Our small voices will be drowned out.

    But by the time the Referendum campaign begins, Momentum might have emerged as a campaigning vehicle, semi-detached from the Labour Party and amenable to these ideas.

    In either case, my view is that we need to be clear on the issues and perspectives we want to raise in the campaign, arguing within an overall position of critical but unambiguous support for the ‘Yes’ position. A victory for ‘Yes’ will not make anything better for British workers and the EU will remain a capitalist club, but we will escape a worse scenario, and that is not to be sniffed at.

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