The trouble with being both anti-austerity and pro-EU

Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.

December 12, 2017
10 min read

Photo: Ivan Bandura

There is something of a logical contradiction within the current Brexit debate. It is peripheral and easily ignored, so enjoys relatively little exposure in the media, but it is there nonetheless. Moreover, it is a contradiction which left-wing Remainers – those who share a commitment to ending Tory austerity – should really be forced to consider.

It is the simple fact that the European Union, at its heart and above all else, is a fundamentally pro-austerity institution.

Public discourse has largely engaged with the debate in a black and white manner: Remain or Leave. This two sided-presentation has been reflected in the media coverage which has offered so little challenge to either viewpoint that it has allowed both sides to indulge in a good deal of self-mythologizing. It has grown from a political stance to a marker of identity. Those on the Leave side paint themselves as plucky upstarts, utlising the ‘British bulldog spirit’ to breathe renewed vigour into a Britain that has been castrated by faceless, power-hungry elites. Remainers, for their part, have crafted a self-indulgent narrative that sees them cast as the great, outward-looking cognoscenti. They are pragmatic and compassionate in equal measure, at odds with a world determined to close in on itself.   

A great many of their number are cut from the same sociological and ideological cloth as the young, metropolitan liberals that helped to sweep Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, and bolster Labour’s performance in the 2017 General Election.

Many of these Labour supporters, who are anti-Conservative and reject the austerity myth on a domestic level, are demonstrably committed to EU membership. A YouGov poll conducted before the EU referendum showed that the vast majority of Corbyn’s supporters were very much in favour of remaining in the European Union and wanted the Labour leader to campaign for Remain. Since the vote, polling suggests Corbyn has lost support due to his stance on Brexit, and thousands of members resigned from the party after the Labour leader imposed a three-line whip on triggering Article 50. Even Momentum, the hardline pro-Corbyn campaign group, mobilized its membership to campaign for Remain.

On the surface, there is no conflict here. These voters support the EU of free-movement, the EU of workers’ rights and of international cooperation. What is not considered, however, is that the EU maintains a staunch and unwavering commitment to austerity within its member states.

This is not an exaggeration. The European Union (alongside its legislative arm, the European Commission, and its monetary arm, the European Central Bank) is committed to the kinds of sweeping austerity measures that have been championed by successive Conservative governments here in the UK. The EU has either demanded or directly imposed austerity measures on several of its debt-ridden member states

For example, in April 2011 the Portuguese government requested a bailout package from the European Union in order to pay for debts incurred due to the corruption and incompetency of private banks, both international and domestic. In return for the €78 billion bailout fund, the European Union demanded harsh and widespread austerity measures to bring down Portugal’s budget deficit.

With no other option save bankruptcy, the Portuguese government set about its task. It enacted austerity measures which included a huge public sector wage cut, mass privatisation, and cuts to public services including healthcare, education and social care. In addition, these measures were coupled with major tax rises.

The result? Predictably, these measures hit the most vulnerable in Portuguese society the hardest, with massive increases in inequality, the cost of living and use of foodbanks. So damaging were these measures that the European Commissioner for Human Rights labelled them a serious threat to the human rights of the “most vulnerable social groups” in the country.

Five months prior to this, in November 2010, the Irish Government was forced to request a bailout package to the tune of €85 billion from the European Union in order to plug debts incurred through the incompetence and malpractice of the private banking sector.

Again, the bailout was granted on the promise of sweeping austerity measures which included public sector pay cuts, cuts to social welfare and cuts to child benefit amongst many others. Again, these measures impacted hardest on the most vulnerable. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Chief Commissioner Emily Logan asserted that the cuts had “fallen disproportionately on those least able to bear its impacts”.

And the examples don’t end there. Since the global financial crisis, the European Union has exercised its considerable might to demand austerity measures in many countries including Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands

And, of course, there is the biggest victim of the European Union’s obsession with austerity: Greece. EU austerity measures, forced on the Greek people against their democratic will, have decimated the lives of millions in the country. This frenzied commitment to austerity is largely driven by the EU’s demand that all countries must keep their budget deficits at or below 3% of GDP. Even when research asserts that austerity is not the answer, as an International Monetary Fund paper did last year, the EU’s commitment to its austerity agenda remains unshaken. And yet you would struggle to find any allusion to this key contradiction in any of the mainstream discourse around the stance of left-leaning Remainers.

The question that needs to be asked is how can anti-austerity, anti-Conservative voters support an organisation with such an inauspicious track record on austerity? An organisation that will, when the next financial crisis strikes, impose austerity measures on countries at a far higher order of magnitude than we here in the UK have experienced?

But, of course, this question is never asked. In public discourse, left-leaning voters want to remain in the EU because they support free-movement and protection of workers’ rights and the debate ends there. The intricacies and contradictions of this stance are rarely, if ever, addressed, contributing to the disorientation and lack of clarity that has characterised the whole Brexit debate.

The truth is that, due to our dependence on international markets, life outside the EU is most likely going to be materially worse for the majority of UK citizens. But unerring commitment to the European Union and its agenda is incredibly difficult to square for anyone one who is committed to ending austerity and the economic ideology from which it springs. 

The economic doomsaying of Remainers (and even by now some Leavers) cannot be met with simple pie-eyed loyalty to a deeply neoliberal institution. Remaining alone is no guarantee of economic salvation. We must consider how we dismantle institutions enforcing austerity – whether those institutions are within the bounds of our archipelago or without.

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