The EU referendum: damned if you leave, damned if you remain

The EU referendum offers no progressive outcome, but it's a game of realpolitik we must play, argues Bertie Russell

May 27, 2016 · 9 min read

EU - UK

June 23, 2016 is likely to be a miserable day for anyone with an even remotely left-leaning conscience. The weeks before are already overcast with a feeling of inescapable gloom reminiscent of that which consumes a student, the clock ticking down to an exam in which they know they are doomed to fail. Much like the student, you spend the weeks before studying, weighing up the arguments for and against, hoping for some light-bulb moment when it all becomes clear. Then comes the exam itself, you put pen to paper hoping there is some merit to what you are doing, yet privately admitting that you haven’t really got the foggiest idea. Ultimately, you stop even caring about the outcome; you just want the damn thing to be over.

The bottom line is, that whilst you can’t escape it, the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) is an event that no clear-thinking individual has any burning desire to participate in. Jeremy Corbyn may well be pleading that the ‘vote to remain is about taking control of your future,’ but the reality is that this European referendum has got nothing to do with precipitating the type of future we want. It is this that makes June 23 such a depressing affair—whichever ever way you vote, neither embody a vision of a more progressive, just, or ecologically balanced society. Nonetheless, as much as we may want to abstain, not voting is an equally bad option. More on this later.

Where art thou, progressive argument?

There are, of course, well-reasoned leftist arguments being made for both sides. On the one hand, the EU is structurally orientated towards crushing any dissent to a neoliberal agenda (see Greece for a recent example). It is undemocratic, it prevents countries from administering state aid to industries, and it is the purveyor of a racist border policy that is leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean. We should take this opportunity to get ourselves out of this mess, the argument goes, and open the door to more progressive alternatives that could only be realised outside of the EU.

On the other hand, the EU guarantees freedom of movement (for those privileged enough to be inside the fortress), and guarantees a convention on human rights that the Conservative party has threatened to withdraw from. Beginning on the May 28, a UK tour organised by Another Europe is Possible will see arguments concerning progress on environmental safeguards and workplace protections (such as limits on working hours or guaranteed breaks) as providing good reason to stay in the EU, albeit coupled with an urgent need to transform it. As their campaign states, ‘stay in Europe, to change Europe.’

The reality is that we need to stop pretending that either ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ offer anything resembling a socially or environmentally progressive option

All this can leave the humble ‘thinking’ person confused as to what the best option is. As someone committed to trying to reverse decades of privatisation, rising inequality, a decline in real wages, and ongoing precariatisation, how should you vote? The reality is that we need to stop pretending that either ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ offer anything resembling a socially or environmentally progressive option, and deal with this referendum as a depressing bit of realpolitik that we must reluctantly take-part in.

Damned if you leave, damned if you remain

Whether one dreams of ‘another social Europe,’ or of the UK shorn of the constrictions of the EU neoliberal straightjacket, we must realise that the referendum is not about fulfilling either of these dreams. It’s worth recalling that this referendum was triggered by the significant political leverage generated by the rise of UKIP, sustained over a number of years and reaching a peak in the months prior to the 2015 General Election. This referendum was trigged because a right-wing nationalist party generated a powerful narrative that, in absence of any convincing left-wing proposals, explained peoples deteriorating living standards as a result of a) immigration and b) the inability of Britain to exercise its sovereignty.

Whilst it’s understandable for progressives to hypothesise what a left exit or a left Europe might look like, the political forces at play make neither of these realistic outcomes. This referendum is the result of a Conservative government that has no coherent political-economic plan to address global capitalist crisis, and that is pressured by a far-right nationalist discourse that also lacks any coherent political-economic plan but is armed with a fallacious story that places migrants and the EU as the root cause of stagnant wages, underemployment AND overwork, as well as declining living standards.

Herein lies the danger of attempting to forge a ‘leftist’ argument for either position in this EU referendum. Given the lack of any credible leftist force that could generate leverage of a similar magnitude to that which UKIP exerted on the Conservative government, any progressive outcomes are foreclosed. Discussions of whether we want ‘lexit’ or a ‘left Europe’ amount to little more than an intellectual game, for the forces that would bring either into being do not exist. Whilst you may vote this or that way because of solid progressive principles and carefully considered analysis, the dominant social forces mean that your ballot will be ‘swept up’ in an altogether different game. This game is being played between deluded austerity monomaniacs touting their non-solution to capitalist crisis, and a bunch of xenophobic reactionaries whose political-economic strategy will be equally toothless in either diagnosing or addressing systemic economic problems.

We are therefore facing a double-bind. Voting to leave opens the door to Boris Johnson and the Conservative right, who as Paul Mason outlines, are ‘seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism: less employment regulation, lower wages, fewer constraints on business.’ Voting to remain further binds us to the neoliberal straightjacket of the EU, whilst offering a ‘vote of confidence’ on a Conservative government that appears to take objective pleasure in presiding over the most unequal country in Europe. Damned if you leave, damned if you remain.

What to do in the absence of a ‘left’ option

Given this double-bind, it is tempting to regress to a position of spoiling the ballot. Faced with a choice between two evils, abstaining altogether seems like the most principled stance one can take (and has been argued for by fellow travellers such as Rob Owen over at RS21). However, whilst there is nothing on the table worth fighting for, there is nonetheless something worth fighting against.

A vote to ‘leave’ is a win for the reactionary, nationalist right. It’s a signal to those burgeoning right-wing movements across Europe that an inward-looking, closed-door, xenophobic position is a politically and economically viable option. Far-right parties will be bolstered in their claims that it is the EU and migrants (along with all the other ‘Others’) that are at the root cause of our economic and social crises, further closing down space for any progressive systemic analysis.

With Brexit as their example, we can expect to see powerful nationalist movements gaining further ground across Europe, with further pressure mounted against the EU from the far right. Ultimately, Brexit is likely to contribute to a series of right-led departures that, as Vassilis Fouskas argues, could feasibly lead to the collapse of the EU. Whilst the impact of a catastrophic collapse of the largest economy in the world is hard to predict, it’s a safe bet that it isn’t going to end well.

Put simply, to vote Remain and put wind in the sails of neoliberal ideologues such as Cameron, Osborne and Hunt will make many of our stomachs turn. Yet the vote to Leave will not empower any progressive alternative, and comes with the added sickness of bolstering far-right nationalist sentiment.

In the choice between these two miserable options, a vote to ‘remain’ is perhaps the least worst option. But frankly, it’s a shit option. And therein lies the rub. The EU referendum is a choice between two shit options. Even if one is a slightly lesser evil than the other, neither offer any hope, any liberatory potential, any improvement in living conditions, any increase in wages or in job stability, any reduction in rents, any opportunity to reappropriate and promote the commons, any slowing down of greenhouse gas emissions, any turn towards more democratic control (however we interpret it), or indeed anything that we could see as building blocks of a desirable future society.

Thankfully, just like the dreaded school exam, the rest of your life doesn’t really depend on this one vote. To the contrary, what you actually do with the rest of your life has a much greater bearing. Given the current balance of forces, neither staying nor leaving the EU are attractive options, but fueling the fire of nationalist movements will certainly make the job of progressive leftists—not to mention everyday existence—infinitely harder. So whilst we should regrettably vote to remain in the EU, we need to stop trying to construct an argument for either side of this debate being a credible ‘progressive’ option, and start focussing on building serious political movements that are for neither leaving nor remaining, but going beyond Europe.

Bertie Russell is a member of Plan C, an organisation committed to ongoing experimentation to find the forms of collective activity needed to build a world beyond capitalism. This article originally appeared on the Plan C website and is republished with the permission of the author. To read more from Plan C visit their blog.

Follow Bertie Russell on Twitter.


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