EU debate: We need to stay in Europe to change Europe

The idea that a social Europe could emerge by quitting the EU is a delusion. There are no quick fixes for neoliberalism, writes Luke Cooper

December 15, 2015
11 min read

eu-dystopiaBritain after exit would be a Faragist dystopia. Illustration: Tom Lynton

Locked in the neoliberal nightmare, it becomes tempting to try anything to wake up. But when all you can think about is escape, illusions all too easily become delusions. This is a general danger for radicals in the populist movements and parties that have begun to reshape the European political landscape in recent years. Hope of a quick fix drives the emergence of these new political formations in a coalition of social groups who urgently desire an alternative to the failed economic model. But even when, against all odds, electoral victory is achieved in one country, the tragedy of left politics in an era of globalisation and interdependence lies in how even this achievement is insufficient. The need to not only ‘think global’ but also ‘act global’ sets a higher bar for any serious alternative economics.

Events in Greece have brought home these challenges for Europe’s radical left. The brutal imposition of austerity on the Greek people by the European institutions, in defiance of the Syriza government, has led many who would never previously have contemplated voting for ‘Brexit’, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, to consider doing so.

The split between the left ‘in’ and left ‘out’ positions is analytical as much as it is political. It represents a dispute over whether the structural forces of neoliberal globalisation, such as the reach of corporate power or capital markets, can be most effectively tackled at the national or regional level. But beyond this conceptual terrain there is also a more practical set of considerations over whether rights won at a European level, such as freedom of movement or employment and environmental protections, could be at risk if Brexit wins out.

Asking what Britain would look like the day after exit, how it would shape the consciousness of the populace and how it would affect the balance of class forces, requires a clearheaded, concrete analysis. In this sense, there are two different levels on which the in/out debate is taking place.

The first concerns the nature of the European institutions, while the second involves an assessment of the impact of an exit on British politics. It is telling that left ‘outers’ like to argue on the first level, making well-founded points about the undemocratic and neoliberal structures of the EU, but are desperate to avoid debating the issues at the second level: what would Britain realistically look like following Brexit and what overall dynamic would it generate in British politics? In other words, what happens if Nigel Farage wins? On both counts, however – how we tackle neoliberal globalisation and the British context – the left eurosceptic argument falls flat.

The day after Brexit

Imagine the day after Britain decides to leave the EU. David Cameron makes an address outside 10 Downing Street, keen to reassure international capital markets that Britain will work with its ‘European partners’ to ensure ‘business as usual’ and an orderly departure. Similar noises come from Europe’s political elites. Stock markets take a tumble but recover many of their losses by close of trading. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage and his supporters are ecstatic. They are quick to insist that there must be no free movement agreement struck with the EU, but only a free trade and capital area. Farage had fought the whole campaign as a referendum on EU immigration and now Britain awaits the wholesale reintroduction of immigration controls.

There may be hypothetical circumstances in which a British exit from the EU could be carried through on left-wing terms and without any threat to the rights of European migrants to live, work and study in the UK. But these clearly do not exist at the moment, and will not for the foreseeable future. There is evidently no sense in which a British exit could possibly be conceived as an act of solidarity with the Greek people, or the peoples of other southern European states that have been hit hardest by austerity. Indeed, many of the most fervent opponents of neoliberalism in southern Europe have urged the British electorate not to vote to leave, but instead campaign for a social Europe.

‘Those of us who disdain the democratic deficit in Brussels, those of us who detest the authoritarianism of a technocracy which is incompetent and contemptuous of democracy, those of us who are most critical of Europe have a moral duty to stay in Europe, fight for it, and democratise it,’ said former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis at a recent public meeting in London. The left in Spain and Greece have been emphatic that they are desperate for allies within the EU structures.

Nor is it only European migrant rights that are at risk if Britain leaves. European directives cover many social and environmental protections that are incorporated into British law and could be threatened by Brexit. Ardent eurosceptics in the UK tend to be hardline Thatcherites who see exit as an opportunity to water down employee protections.

‘Those of us who are most critical of Europe have a moral duty to stay in Europe, fight for it, and democratise it’ – Yanis Varoufakis

The European Working Time Directive (incorporated into British law by the Working Time Regulation Act), which provides for a right to work no more than 48 hours a week, guarantees four weeks holiday a year and a mandatory break every six hours, is a key target. Similar employee protections exist for agency workers and over health and safety law. They are designed to ensure common minimum standards across EU states, obstructing a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour protections to attract capital. None of them go far enough in creating the social Europe we need, but they would all be at risk following a UKIP-led exit from the EU.

Being a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights is also effectively a precondition of EU membership. The 1998 Human Rights Act directly incorporates its provisions into British law, but is now ‘under review’ by the government. Many right‑wing Tories have talked openly about a British withdrawal from the convention. This huge step backwards would not only be much easier to achieve legally in the context of a British exit, but would also be easier to undertake politically as the nationalist climate created by a British withdrawal would clearly imperil other international agreements.

Withdrawing any of these measures would have a direct impact on the rights and living standards of workers resident in the UK, whether they are British nationals or not. In contrast, for big capital a British exit represents a danger only insofar as it creates political uncertainly. A Europe that is more geopolitically divided and where economic conflicts between states are more severe is far from inhospitable to the interests of corporate power. A clear structural pressure would exist to push Britain towards ‘light touch’ regulation and cutting social protection and corporate taxation in order to attract (and retain) capital investment.

These are the circumstances around which the vote will take place in Britain. They are reflected firmly in the politics of the ‘out’ campaigns, which are nationalist and neoliberal. It is wilfully irresponsible for some on the left to promote the fantasy of a ‘progressive’ Brexit when it means de facto falling behind these right-wing forces.

Not European enough

There is a basic style of argument that animates the left eurosceptic cause and has a simplicity that makes it superficially appealing. It argues that the European institutions are undemocratic; that they have a record of supporting neoliberal reforms at home and globally; and that eurozone institutions do not just epitomise these foundations but take them to a particular extreme. As far as left ‘outers’ are concerned it follows logically that exit is the only progressive option.

Aside from the conclusion, the overall analysis is broadly shared by those socialists who favour ‘in’. The European institutions are undemocratic, the eurozone is structurally flawed, and the commission and other institutions have been at the centre of the neoliberal agenda globally. Indeed, these arguments must form a central plank of the radical ‘in’ campaign. Such a critique of ‘free market Europe’ demarcates the left ‘in’ from the arguments of Britain Stronger In Europe, whose stress on the ‘business case’ and open appeal to British nationalism seems intent on repeating all of the mistakes of the ill-fated Better Together campaign in Scotland.

The left ‘in’ case departs from the ‘out’ in its analytical account of the structural causes of Europe’s neoliberal status quo. Left outers tend to implicitly give credence to claims of right-wing eurosceptics that the EU has been successful in creating a bureaucratic proto-state, which has usurped power from sovereign nations. Talk of ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’ resonates with popular opinion in the UK but it is, nonetheless, far from the root of the problem. Europe’s problems, especially with regard to the flawed structure of the eurozone, lie in the EU’s failure to transcend national divisions, not its success in doing so.

Take the lack of democracy within the institutions. Out of the three major political structures of the EU – the commission, the council of ministers, and the parliament – only the latter provides a direct link between the institutions and the people of Europe, and it is by far the weakest of the three. The parliament cannot initiate its own legislation, has little power over the commission beyond appointing its president and essentially acts as a scrutiny and ratification forum – nothing more.

An agenda for reform could empower the parliament over the executive functions shared by the commission and the council of ministers. But this would involve national governments ceding power to a pan-European body – something they have been consistently reluctant to do. This reflects how, far from having a coherent federal structure, European politics remains divided among competing national states that put their own narrow interests ahead of the common good. Moves to give more power to the parliament would be considered a ‘threat’ to national sovereignty and therefore to democracy.

What this ignores is how a system in which power is distributed unevenly across competing polities is rarely, if ever, ‘democratic’. There have been numerous times that smaller nations have been bullied into policy changes by bigger ones. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the crisis in the eurozone. Its historical peculiarity lies in how it has taken on a facet usually found within a single sovereign state, a shared currency, and applied it to a group of competing states – with appalling social consequences for the people of southern Europe.

With no mechanisms for fiscal transfer from Europe’s more financially and industrially prosperous core to its periphery, the euro has accentuated the continent’s economic unevenness. Given that they do not have their own currency to devalue or any injection of funds that could come, for example, from a EU-wide social security system, eurozone states in recession have no choice but to make swingeing cuts in spending and engage in aggressive market restructuring, in the hope of attracting capital to kick-start growth.

These problems were anticipated at the time of the original Maastricht agreement. As Perry Anderson put it in 1995, ‘A federal Europe in this sense would not mean – as Conservatives in Britain fear – a super-state, but less state,’ i.e. a form of hyper-neoliberalism in which austerity is the only option in recessionary times. The euro crisis has confirmed this prophecy. But it crucially reflects the failure to establish the united, democratic political structures necessary for a single currency area. In short, Europe’s problem has arguably been consistent for the last 200-odd years: too many national divisions, too many narrow interests and not enough unity.

Another Europe

Fixing the many economic and political problems will take radical reform, which would only be possible in the context of a pan-European upsurge of Europe’s citizens for ‘another Europe’. But it must be an upsurge committed to a European project – not the one of neoliberals and technocrats, but for a social Europe.

In Britain, the Another Europe Is Possible campaign will soon be launched to make these arguments. The campaign is backed by dozens of figures from civil society, committed to not only opposing a British exit ‘from the left’, but also arguing for another Europe based on human, social and environmental rights, and founded on the basis of real, substantive democracy. To win this Europe will face a huge battle over many years, but there really are no shortcuts for the radical left.


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