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 2015


Britain 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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Will Podmore 16 December 2015, 09.52

It’s not about Nigel Farage. The Labour party is on the wrong side of the two issues that voters judged to be most important: it is for mass immigration and for staying in an unreformed EU.
Labour under Corbyn is committing us – unconditionally – to membership of an unreformed EU just as Blair did.
Committing us to the EU and saying you’re against ‘austerity’ is like committing us to NATO and saying you’re against wars – which Corbyn’s done too! He’s against wars but wants us to stay in NATO which wages wars and he refused to impose a three-line whip, thus allowing his warmonger MPS to vote with Cameron to back yet another war.
Corbyn’s against austerity but wants us to stay in the EU which enforces austerity. He’s against TTIP but wants us to stay in the EU which wants to force TTIP on us all.
Liberals make the same arguments for the Labour party as for ‘social Europe’: it should do something nicer, please.
Luke writes of the ‘threat to the rights of European migrants to live, work and study in the UK’. The EU has taken away our democratic right to decide who should move to our country. It decides our immigration policy for us, as if we were too immature to decide for ourselves.
How is it an ‘act of solidarity’ to vote for the very body that inflicts ‘austerity’ (aka misery) on the peoples of the EU countries?
Luke writes of ‘the ill-fated Better Together campaign in Scotland’ – would that be the one that won by 55/45?
No Luke, Brexit is the only progressive option.

Jamie 18 December 2015, 10.50

Corbyn is strongly against NATO, and repeatedly said so during his leadership campaign. Just FYI

Will Podmore 18 December 2015, 13.35

Yes, and Mr Corbyn used to SAY he was against the EU, but look at him now.
And I note Jamie that you don’t refer to his allowing a free vote to Labour MPs, enabling enough of them to vote for war against Syria, giving Cameron victory. Put not your trust in princes, even if they have most labour party members voting for them.

Trevor L. Williams 22 December 2015, 01.05

Cooper, by advocating a mighty United States of Europe, would yield all national power to the global corporations and in particular to their undemocratic determination to impose TTIP.
It is even impossible to talk about TTIP, since none of us knows what precisely is being negotiated. There will be no referendum on whatever hand is eventually revealed.

I am shocked that anyone on the left would welcome even more immigration than we already suffer. The effect on wages and the wellbeing of the working classes is already plain to see.

Nigel Farage received over 4 million votes at the General Election, and a large proportion of those votes were culled from the ranks of former Labour voters, fed up with elitists like Cooper who tell the rest of us to bog off when we rightly complain about the savage political correctness of abortions like the European Human Rights Act.

Robert 22 December 2015, 13.18

I will be voting to come out we are an island with an island mentality, we will never ever have no passports to go around the EU and we will never really be part of what they call the United states of Europe.

Looking at how welfare the sick the disabled and the poor have been treated thank god for that , we must come out.

Chris 28 December 2015, 17.23

How on earth did these Little Englanders and xenophobes find their way to Red Pepper? When did socialist internationalism get forgotten, exactly?

Will Podmore 6 January 2016, 16.30

Chris, we note, doesn’t argue his case. He just asserts that those who disagree with him are Little Englanders and xenophobes. Those who make abuse their first resort show contempt for civilised discourse.

Tom in Kilburn 9 January 2016, 09.55

Following the disastrous Greek experience, and in the absence of any meaningful opposition or public debate about TTIP, accompanied by merely generic statements about staying in the EU “to make it better”, I am quickly moving from being pro-EU to being in favour of the UK completely leaving. This has nothing to do with UKIP or hating refugees etc. I am a Labour Party member and a Corbynite.

Dave 18 January 2016, 02.16

What the organisation is matters not. We have to take (democratic?) control of them. We cannot be against the organisation only those we don’t want to control it – otherwise we defeat nothing. It takes the masses much longer to regroup and redefine their targets than it does the small number of ‘elites’. Moving the target will only benefit them. The battlefield is drawn and now we must fight.

Will Podmore 19 January 2016, 13.50

Dave, writes, “We cannot be against the organisation ..” Does this apply to the IMF? NATO? The Conservative Party? The EU?
We see no argument from Dave, just assertion.

Glennin 22 January 2016, 00.29

Luke says the “left outers” fail to offer up “an assessment of the impact of an exit on British politics”. I think that’s not only wrong, it misses the exciting opportunity a Britain free of the corporate tyranny of the EU represents for those of us who believe in building a non capitalist society.

Britain is the beating heart of the capitalist system, the place Marx chose to study it, and it has now advanced to the point of decay with usury being a main staple of our ‘economy’ and institutions which stink like mouldy fish. . So it makes complete sense to me that these green and pleasant lands should be precisely the place where a model of post-capitalist sanity emerges, which would be like a heart attack for capitalism. It’s already happening all around us in many ways I reckon.

Unlike Greece, Britain didn’t sign up to the Euro, and for many other reasons we are ideally placed to build a model of a much better society which not only rejects the neoliberal noose the EU does and would tie around us, but would provide a real life model of a radically better way of doing things, based on a manifesto centred on an economic alternative drawn up by team McDonnell, Stiglitz etc, and all done with the active participation of the public at large.

Surely thats an exciting prospect Luke? Couple a bottom up, participatory democracy emerging here with fair trade agreements between and solidarity with our European brothers and sisters who are fighting from within the EU plus people friendly border rules and we’re on the road to a better future metinks…

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