That Europe is in urgent need of reform is beyond question. At risk of being lost in the current British public debate, however, is the discussion as to the type of reforms that Europe needs. The focus on David Cameron’s ‘wish list’ of demands has established an accepted discourse that presumes that these demands reflect ‘British interests’. It also presumes that were Cameron to win European acceptance for all of his demands, then this would be ‘a good deal for Britain’.
One of the key benefits of European integration are the non-discriminatory labour rights and social provisions between member states, which allow European workers to access the same benefits as ‘natives’ when working in one another’s countries. By seeking to ban EU workers in the UK from accessing in-work benefits until they have lived in the country for four years, Cameron has been attempting to roll back a fundamental achievement of European integration. If this were only happening in Britain the future of the union would not be in question, but all across Europe a rising tide of nationalist sentiment – and with it the inevitable lurch towards discriminatory practices aimed at non-nationals resident in the ‘home’ country – is putting in question Europe’s unity.
Those of us on the left who believe that workers of all countries have common interests, that they should all enjoy the same rights and protections and that they are being failed badly by a broken economic system, face a particular difficulty when looking at the current state of the European Union. None of us support the status quo; we all recognise radical institutional and political change is needed. Most of us also know, however, that a British exit would leave workers even more vulnerable to a Tory government and would not be a step towards the social Europe we believe in.
Rising nationalist sentiment, the structurally embedded neoliberalism of Eurozone institutions and the new downturn in the global economy all create a significant challenge for how to go about constructing an alternative. Taken together they require the left to construct a political alternative that is, firstly, bold and radical enough to address the systemic causes of the current crises and, secondly, rejects the illusion that a retreat into competing protectionist states offers even a partial answer.
Internationally, there are promising signs of movement in this direction. A range of parties and movements across Europe have come together around the goal of a Plan B for Europe; breaking with austerity and constructing a European new deal based on ecologically sustainable investment in jobs and growth. Meanwhile, the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has launched Democracy In Europe 2025 to push for the radical democratisation of European institutions in order to give power to the people.
In Britain, however, we remain too isolated from these developments and the referendum vote itself increasingly seems to be on a real knife-edge. Cameron’s demands directly feed the nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric that is fuelling the ‘out’ case and it is little wonder that a recent YouGov poll showed a four point majority favouring ‘leave’ over ‘remain’.
The official ‘in’ campaign, Britain Stronger In Europe, also parrot a similar big business and nationalistic agenda, failing to offer any kind of compelling progressive vision of what a better Europe might look like. With Conservative voters likely to split equally between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ and Labour voters consequently critical to the outcome, the message of the official ‘in’ campaign has little to offer what is arguably the key constituency that will decide the vote.
There are, however, promising signs that the left is beginning to move. Unite the Union will soon launch a campaign to persuade its 1.4 million members to vote to stay. Frances O’Grady has indicated the TUC is likely to soon come out for ‘in’, citing key workplace rights protected in European law. ‘It’s one hell of a gamble’, she told Reuters, ‘to depend on the government we have now to protect these rights.’
Beyond the unions and parties of the left, grassroots campaigners also have a critical role to play. That’s why Another Europe Is Possible, the campaign I have helped to establish, will launch on 10 February in East London, as a broad based movement saying ‘stay in Europe, to change Europe’. A range of campaigners, politicians and public figures, including Michael Mansfield, Ann Pettifor, Richard Murphy, Stephen Gethins, Clive Lewis, Caroline Lucas, Cat Smith, John Palmer, Sunny Hundal and John Christensen have already formally backed the campaign.
Another Europe Is Possible has a very different message to the official ‘in’ campaign. Determined to work together with movements and parties across the continent to deliver the open, democratic and socially just Europe we so urgently need, the campaign offers a message of hope in a referendum likely to be heavy on fear.
We share the anger at the neoliberalism that has caused so much damage to European societies, but recognise that an alternative has to be built internationally. A British exit on the back of a campaign fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment would take us further away from a social Europe that offers the only real answer to Europe’s multiple political crises.
Another Europe Is Possible will hold its launch event at 7pm on 10 February at 93 Feet East, Brick Lane. For more details and for free tickets see Eventbrite. This article was first published by OpenDemocracy.