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EU debate: what are the real choices?

Of all the anticipated flashpoints to come in 2016, a UK referendum on EU membership could be the most divisive — John Palmer argues the left must begin with simple answers

December 27, 2015
7 min read

European-ParliamentAn EU exit would see the British left lose power both at home and abroad (Image: Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The prospect of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union presents a challenge to those on the political left. Voting to leave the EU is tempting to some, as a demonstration of opposition to the Tories and the neoliberal policies of other right wing governments across the continent.

The trouble with this approach is clear already, but will truly begin the day after the referendum. Should the decision be to leave the EU, Cameron, Osborne, their government and policies will still hold power. An anti-EU victory would be hailed by all the most right-wing forces in Britain, being seen to legitimise their crusade against what remains of a political settlement based on multicultural, social democracy. It would also be claimed as a moral victory by the populist and neo-fascist right elsewhere in the EU.

To leave the EU could derail much of the progress that has been made on issues essential to the left, and would open up a historic opportunity for the right.

1) Immigration

Some Eurosceptic Tories and their outriders in UKIP insist that the future of a sovereign, ethnically British and Christian society is at stake in the referendum. Already, the noxiously chauvinist tone in so much of the debate about immigration turns more openly racist when applied to the Roma people from EU states in central and eastern Europe. In the event that we leave the union, the right will consolidate the notion of Fortress Britain while encouraging moves elsewhere to create a Fortress Europe. For socialists voting in the referendum, there is a simple question: which vote would encourage and strengthen the racists and ultra-chauvinists most?

2) Labour and equalities

According to the narratives of both the Cameron government and the Eurosceptic right, the intent behind the concession negotiations and referendum is to liberate Britain from the shackles of overbearing EU social legislation. This is a barely coded message about scrapping laws which protect such things as working hours, employees’ right to be consulted, equal pay for women and other equal opportunities measures.

EU institutions are currently dominated by some profoundly reactionary interests; and the left should most likely oppose any concessions on immigration or social policy offered to Cameron in return for continued membership. But there can be no doubt that, if Britain leaves the EU, labour regulations and social reforms will be under greater threat. Again the question for socialists is clear: which referendum outcome will most threaten equality and the interests of the organised labour movement?

3) The environment

Successive British governments have tried to dilute or even scrap EU-wide standards introduced to protect the environment and support more sustainable energy sources and economies. Outside the EU, the Tory government would have a free hand to defer to big business demands on environmental legislation. Would the cause of a green, sustainable economy be better served by voting to stay in or to leave the EU?

4) Human rights

The anti-EU right has stated its desire to roll back of the powers of both the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and, more urgently, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The British Tory establishment has been particularly outraged by some ECHR rulings; for instance, the move to extend equal voting rights to prisoners throughout the EU. Even more objectionable to the Tories have been those ECHR rulings which have protected the human rights of immigrants at risk of deportation from the UK.

The ECHR is outside the remit of the European Union. But the CJEU is bound by the overarching decisions of the ECHR when ruling on matters of EU law. The Tories want a British convention on human rights to replace the European convention. There should be no doubt that this would deliver a serious blow to civil liberties and human rights in Britain. So which referendum outcome would represent the greatest setback to human rights?

5) International solidarity

Does anyone think that, in leaving the EU, the British left can make a more effective contribution to the organisation of a Europe-wide struggle to defeat austerity and build an alternative genuinely democratic, federal and social Europe? British unions would be marginalised in the European Confederation of Trade Unions. Bodies fighting for the rights of pensioners would be isolated from the growing European movement. Many British NGOs fighting on issues such as human rights, gay rights, women’s equality and climate change would no longer be automatic members of parallel European Union bodies. Solidarity can be offered from outside. But practical expression would become much more difficult. So which referendum vote would best strengthen future European working class unity?

The only way forward is together

I do not believe that serious socialists could answer the above questions with anything other than a vote to remain in the EU. A preference to leave can only be rationalised on the unlikely premise that the hard right would not emerge the undoubted winners of the referendum. To abstain, in these circumstances, would be to say that the hard right might emerge winners but it would not have dangerous consequences.

Socialists will, of course, want to use the debate about Britain and the European Union to build the widest possible campaign against the austerity policies which prevail across Europe. They will want to defend parties on the left — Syriza in Greece, Podemos and linked regional parties in Spain — from the strongarm policies designed to undermine their democratic credentials.

The recent Portuguese elections led to an explicitly anti-austerity coalition forcing the collapse of the centre-right government. Anti-austerity and left parties appear likely to do well in the forthcoming Irish general election. The left in Scotland and Wales is equally determined to remain in the EU and fight for radical changes in policy. Our comrades throughout Europe would be baffled and dismayed if we were to desert them now.

The next step might be for the Corbyn-led Labour Party to call a consultative conference of sympathetic political, trade union and civil organisations from all over the EU. The new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has already appealed for such a Europe wide conference and similar calls have come from Syriza, Podemos and the new left alliance in Portugal among others. Together, it should be possible to forge a detailed strategy for a radical new European economic and social settlement to counter austerity and reverse appalling economic inequalities.

Of course this initiative should be open on the broadest possible basis to all willing to contribute to a new EU direction. Policy experts from relevant fields are already producing a huge body of work to draw upon.

Such an initiative would also likely require a new mandate for the Euro-area authorities and the European Central Bank. It therefore implies a radical rewrite of the so-called Maastricht rules for the single currency. It should also aim at balancing the rules for the single currency with what is known as a fiscal transfer union — which would see those countries running surpluses financing far greater directed help for the weaker economies.

The European left must also revive the fight for a true European Social Union. The limited reforms achieved in previous years are under increasing threat. Far more ambitious new common standards for pay, welfare rights, equal opportunities and environmental sustainability must now be developed within the European programmes of the left. Major political and constitutional changes are also needed. EU citizens should be granted far greater rights and powers to initiate proposals for legislation, whether directly or through their elected representatives in the European Parliament.

Building a different Europe is going to take, time, effort, imagination and will require new, cross-border forms of organisation. Our enemies on the hard right — and the neo-nazis who skulk behind them — are getting organised. So must we.

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