Tom Walker: We’re talking about the EU referendum, and what attitude the left should take. There’s a case on both sides. I’m joined for our debate by, first of all on the ‘out’ side: Michael Calderbank from Red Pepper, and Hannah Sell, who is the deputy general secretary of the Socialist Party. Then, arguing the case for ‘in’: Marina Prentoulis, who is a member of Syriza and senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia; and Luke Cooper from Another Europe is Possible and also a lecturer in politics at Anglia Ruskin.
People will have a minute each just to give their opening case and then we’ll get into the debate. Let’s start with you Hannah.
Hannah Sell: Ok, thank you very much. I think it’s essential that we have a left campaign for exit—a Lexit campaign, if you like. It may not be something that many of us as socialists put on the front of our newspapers day to day, but we are facing a referendum and in that referendum I think we have to take a correct position. What we’re talking about is an independent campaign, an internationalist campaign, in solidarity with the working class across Europe—fighting for the right of workers from across Europe to come to Britain with full rights. We think it’s essential to do that, firstly because it’s a correct position. In essence—as unfortunately Greece has shown all too clearly—Europe, the EU, is a neoliberal treaty or series of treaties in the interests of big business. But also, because if we don’t do it there is a real danger that this referendum will become a referendum on a Tory Government, a hated Tory Government. If the left stand aside then UKIP can get the benefit from that.
Marina Prentoulis: I would like to agree that, yes, we have to open a space for the left and have a campaign—although I don’t necessarily think that referendums allow that very much. Probably the position of the exit will work better for the extreme right-wing. But I wanted to talk a little bit about Greece and what we’ve learned from Greece. I would agree with Hannah that, yes, we are talking about a neoliberal project, and we saw that in the Greek negotiations, and a neoliberal project that has a very specific strategy, which is to depoliticise economy and block any other perspectives. So we saw in the case of Greece that there are structural problems within the Eurozone, and Europe more generally, and a democratic deficit. But, having said that, I don’t think the answer will be to turn back and go within the nation state. We are far from that. We have to stay in Europe, in the European Union, and fight for a different Europe.
Michael Calderbank: I think we need to avoid conflating a general idea of Europe—that is, the unity and solidarity between the nations of Europe—with the specific institutional architecture of the European Union that we face today. The European Union emerges from a political project, from the European ruling elites, which is about insulating the interests of capital from directly elected bodies which—at that time after the Second World War—were thought to be vulnerable to communist and radical left parties. So they wanted to put certain key decisions beyond politics at a national level and create a depoliticised space for protecting a particular form of class compromise. From that they moved to a neoliberal agenda—still with the decisions outside of the democratic arena, but the decisions which were about being a key agent and driver for neoliberalism. So I’m for withdrawal from these political institutions, and believe it’s necessary, but not sufficient. It’s not a quick fix. But, as Hannah was saying, it’s vital that we counter pose an alternative vision of society and deny space to UKIP.
Luke Cooper: I guess one of the things that we’re going to be discussing today, and that I’m concerned about, is whether we should be arguing on the basis of these national sovereignty-type arguments—whether that is the main approach to take. Two points that I would make that frame my position on this whole question: firstly, that I don’t think the problem in Europe is super-states, I think it’s nation states, too much nationalism, too much conflict, not enough solidarity, not enough cooperation. Secondly, yes, we absolutely need an alternative to neoliberalism, but that alternative just cannot be built in the nation’s borders, of the nation state alone. It can only be built on a transnational level. So, I think we’re playing with fire, if we follow Nigel Farage and the right-wing of the Conservative Party out of the exit door, when we should absolutely be campaigning with parties across Europe—like Syriza, like Podemos—that are arguing for an entirely different economic model.
Tom Walker: Hannah, you were talking about Lexit—a left exit. Do you think that means following Nigel Farage out of the exit door?
Hannah Sell: Of course I don’t think it is. If you look back to the last referendum—I know it’s a long time ago and probably the rest of you weren’t born, I wasn’t that old—at that stage, then I think there were 39 trade unions in Britain campaigning against the EU. The left of the Labour Party, including Tony Benn, led a major campaign. It was predominantly a left issue. Now in Britain today it’s true that the issue has been dominated by the right, but I don’t think that there’s anything automatic about that. We are not campaigning for national sovereignty. Nigel Farage might be, but we’re not. We’re campaigning for internationalism, for workers’ solidarity across Europe, but we don’t think that can be done within the framework of the EU.
I would add something else: the EU talks about how it’s not a question of a super-state, and actually I would agree with that. I think it’s a coming together of different national capitalist classes, and they’ve never been able to completely overcome the bounds of the nation state. It’s not a super-state but, at the same time, where there is this coming together—on a neoliberal basis of big business and capitalist classes—that is creating nationalism across Europe. Unfortunately, if you look at what’s happened in Greece, then those who gain from that are likely to be Golden Dawn and the right, to a certain extent, and we’ve got the Front National in France. I think it’s very important that the left also stand up to this big business club, but on an internationalist basis—on the basis of international solidarity.
Tom Walker: Luke, if you’re saying that people who are on this side are with Farage, aren’t you with big business and neoliberalism?
Hannah Sell: And David Cameron.
Luke Cooper: I wouldn’t accept that, naturally. I just think it’s not about us, as individuals, deciding that we would like a left exit that has all of these nice features. It’s about the structural effect of what an exit is. Britain would be leaving an international organisation of many nations, and it would become a ‘more independent’ nation state. That would be a huge blow to a project within Europe of bringing nation states closer together. It’s just much more complicated. If you go back to the foundation of the European Union and the European Economic Community—back in the Treaty of Rome, 1958—yes, there’s one tendency, which is a big business tendency, a multinational capital tendency; but there is another tendency that comes from the left. It was very strong in the Italian left, for example—that’s actually saying, ‘well, look, we don’t want to repeat the barbarity of a war again in the countries of Europe, we have to cooperate internationally.’ So there’s a pressure from the left as well as a pressure internationally.
Hannah Sell: I would agree. Many people across Europe would see it as a positive thing because they don’t want war, and they want internationalism. Many young people in Britain would favour the EU from that point of view. But, if you look at the reality of what it is, do you actually think it’s bringing nations together? Do you think the people of Greece feel closer to Germany now as a result of what’s taken place? It’s not bringing people together, it’s driving them apart.
Marina Prentoulis: Let me take something of what you said, and I think Michael mentioned, something about Europe and solidarity. What we saw in the Greek case is, irrespective of the European Union, we don’t have a European identity. We don’t understand solidarity. To put it more bluntly: the rest of you, you let us down. We thought that the imposition that very neoliberal institutions were having on Greece would make people take to the streets. Yes, a few thousand went in the streets, two or three thousand people, but not the rest. So we don’t have this solidarity. We don’t have this sense of European identity. I think the only way to foster that is within a European Union, but a different type of European Union—a social Europe. In terms of the nation state, I started by talking about a democratic deficit, don’t we have the same on the national level? So you can’t expect that if you will have bigger institutions that suddenly they will become democratic, when you don’t even have democratic representation on national levels. My answer, is let’s stay together, let’s try to create this solidarity—this European identity—and let’s change the neoliberal institutions the same way we are trying to change neoliberal democracy, which is not really democracy but we haven’t given up yet.
Tom Walker: Michael, let’s pick up this thing about Greece and explore it a bit more. I think this was a huge moment for a lot of people in Britain, where a lot of people who had either supported the EU or just weren’t quite sure said: ‘Wow, look at what the EU has just done to Greece.’ Owen Jones, for example, did basically that—‘I can’t support the EU any more after what they did to Greece.’ [Note: he has changed his position since.]
Michael Calderbank: Well, there was flagrant disregard for the democratic mandate that had come from the referendum in Greece. It was ruthless. They said: ‘We’ll collapse your banking system, and destroy your economy.’ It was as point-blank as that. The point that that was not the democratic will of the Greek people, that didn’t even come into the decision-making processes that were happening in Europe. I think people do fear that if, in the event that a left government in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn tried to do half the things it’s pledged to do, the European Union would immediately step in and prevent those policies from being enacted. So I think it is very difficult to see on what basis we would allow this kind of reign, of these neoliberal institutions that are beyond our democratic control, to go unchallenged in the form of a referendum. Why would we vote to continue to be a member of this club?
Luke Cooper: I think we have to be really careful with this comparison of Britain and Greece. Britain is not Greece. For a start, Britain is not a part of the Eurozone, so that’s the key difference. I would say that what happened in Greece is a good example of a nation state system where some states are much, much more powerful than other states—they’re much wealthier—and capable of bullying smaller states into submission in terms of their domestic or international policy. We would still have those kinds of things going on if there’s no European Union. In some ways, the problem that Europe has is the same problem it’s had for 200-odd years. We haven’t actually built a European political project that’s based on solidarity yet. We’re just not there, and we won’t get closer to being there if Britain leaves the European Union.
The other thing I would say is that the euro is a funny invention because, obviously, it has some features of a common state—i.e. it’s a single currency—but it doesn’t have other features. There’s no European government that runs the single currency. This means that basically Greece can’t print its own money, and its budget is set by the European Central Bank. There’s obviously a huge democratic deficit that’s introduced into that type of system. I think we should discuss that more and be critical of it, but all I would say is, again: not enough state, not enough democracy. It’s not possible for the Greeks to actually change this policy by campaigning across Europe to change who’s running the ECB, because it’s controlled by Germany. So we need more democracy within Europe.
Marina Prentoulis: In relation to the referendum, I wanted to clarify something. It was a big rejection, and I agree with what Michael said. It was a terrible situation and we saw the imposition—totally undemocratic to Greece. All the proposals about changing the left government and all these things, I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I wanted to clarify that the referendum was about rejection of austerity and rejection of neoliberalism. It wasn’t a referendum about the European Union because, still, the vast majority of the Greek people do see something in the European Union. They see some form of solidarity, and something that could potentially change. I don’t say that wouldn’t change in the future—the position of the Greek people—but that’s where we were. In terms of the European Union—which is not the Eurozone, and we could discuss the more specific problems the Eurozone has, as Luke mentioned the difference between monetary union and fiscal union that we don’t have—the problem however is that the UK, which is not part of the Eurozone, it is neoliberal. It is one of the big centres of neoliberalism even outside the Eurozone. What will happen if Britain exits the European Union is not a social Great Britain.
Hannah Sell: Ok, Luke was saying we haven’t yet got a social Europe, but I suppose my point is we’re not progressing towards a social Europe—and the mechanisms don’t exist within the European Union to get that. I’m not arguing that British parliamentary democracy is real democracy, and that individual nation states have marvellous systems. Of course I don’t think that. But the EU is less democratic, and the main decisions are taken by 28 representatives of governments, the council of Europe. The parliament is utterly toothless. Now what that means is, could we change the decisions taken by those 28 people? We could, if we had a mass movement across Europe. But if we managed to have a mass movement across Europe, I don’t think it should just be fighting to reform the institutions and structures of the EU. I think it should be fighting for socialism. But the EU is extremely undemocratic.
Now, on the Greece vote, obviously the heroism of the Greek people voting ‘no’ in that situation was incredible, and was a real inspiration to people across Europe. I would agree with you from what I can see and our sister organisation in Greece would say that people were not voting because they wanted to leave the EU, but I do think people were voting because they understood that voting no meant no more sacrifices for the EU. In other words, they would rather be out of the euro than accept yet more austerity. I think that’s the decision they’d reached. But unfortunately, the Syriza government folded. I’m not blaming you for that.
Marina Prentoulis: Change the debate, because they were not voting in relation to the European Union. Seventy per cent still were supporting the European Union. You may say that this might change, or it should change, and that may happen in the future. I’m just saying where it was.
Hannah Sell: My point would be that, if Syriza had stood firm in the way the Greek people did, I think Greece would have been ejected from the euro. But you also would have seen a mass movement across Europe then in support of what the Greek people were doing—in Spain, in Portugal, in other countries. There is a connection with Britain. I know we’re not in the euro, I know it’s not the same, but what Michael said is absolutely right. A Jeremy Corbyn government—every single thing in the policies that he put forward when he stood for election would be illegal under the EU law. Now I don’t think the EU could stop him doing it, but they would attempt to kick him out for doing that.
Luke Cooper: Like what, specifically?
Hannah Sell: Well, in fact, you’re not allowed to carry out any nationalisation, like on the railways.
Luke Cooper: That’s not true.
Hannah Sell: I’m sorry it is true.
Luke Cooper: Actually, European law provides a protection for states that want to nationalise industries. It goes right back to the Treaty of Rome, European Union law is neutral on the property regime.
Hannah Sell: But the Lisbon Treaty included points on not being able to nationalise.
Luke Cooper: Yes, the Lisbon Treaty does introduce a privatisation programme, but I’m saying that there is a protection in European Union law for nationalisation. It’s in the founding document which is as close as the European Union has to a constitution.
Tom Walker: Let’s not get too bogged down in the legal detail.
Marina Prentoulis: To support something Luke is saying. What we saw in the Greek case is a lot of the founding principles, and the treaties of the European Union, they were bypassed. There are clauses there about solidarity, about how you manage a crisis and you try to manage it in a way that it affects in a positive way all EU member states—and all this, because it has become neoliberal, has been pushed to the side. The founding principles of the European Union, however, and the treaty of the European Union was something different.
Michael Calderbank: I think what Hannah was saying is correct, that a radical Labour government would inevitably come into confrontation with the European Union around elements like the renationalisation of the railways. The Fourth Railway Package, for example, passed recently, specifically argues that it would be illegal under European law to reintegrate the network and the train operating companies. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn to renationalise the rail has been one of the key areas of public popularity in his campaign, and yet he would immediately be confronted by the European Union on the basis of trying to implement that policy. So I think that is a real concern.
Luke Cooper: I just think any socialist argument always has to be really careful of using the law—whether it’s national law or international law—as an argument against doing what’s right. I think that’s the principled thing. Yes, there would be conflict between a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government and the European Union on some policy areas, that is undoubtedly true; and those conflicts will often take the form of legal arguments as well, that is true too. But I would say we have to be careful of not misrepresenting the laws that do exist. So, for example, France, Holland, Germany, all have state railways. They’re all part of the British railway system—75 per cent of the British railway system is owned by state-controlled European countries, ironically. The bit of the railway directive that you’re referring to, it’s about tendering, it’s not about privatisation. It doesn’t say, you can’t renationalise the railways. It’s about the form that that renationalisation takes—it’s about marketisation, not privatisation. I’m not saying it’s a good policy.
Marina Prentoulis: And Labour will have to confront international capital anyway.
Hannah Sell: Of course, but why give yourself an extra obstacle.
Tom Walker: Luke, do you think the argument has changed? Because, of course, you’ve been arguing this for a few months now. In the intervening months we’ve seen the election of Jeremy Corbyn—do you think that this now strengthens the ‘out’ case, because you say: ‘well, look, if we get out of the EU, we will be giving more power to what might be a Jeremy Corbyn-led government’?
Luke Cooper: I’m not looking at a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government for what it can do for Britain. I’m interested in what it can do for Europe, and what it can do for the world. I think one of the really exciting things about having a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would be how can we help Greece. How can we link up with Syriza? What can our MEPs do in the European parliament to collaborate? How can we link up with Podemos and fight for a social Europe? I’m not interested in Britain, sorry. We’re internationalists aren’t we?
Hannah Sell: Surely whether you’re part of the capitalist treaty of the EU does not alter whether you can demonstrate in support of the people of Greece or Portugal.
Luke Cooper: It’s not about demonstrating. It’s about fighting within the institutions. Syriza are desperate for support within the institutions.
Marina Prentoulis: That’s what we are hoping—that the moment that we will see the neoliberal governments across Europe change, we will have more support. We can start moving for a different position for Greece within the European Union, but also a different configuration that will change a lot of the things that are happening within the EU. But let me say something else. This debate that we are having now, it’s a very old debate. It goes back to the 1990s and already there you had the Thatcherite view that we are talking about in a neoliberal EU; and you had the Delors position which was more trying to support a social Europe. We know which position won. This debate has been going on for a very long time and already neoliberalism has won. What I am saying is that we can reverse this.
Tom Walker: Michael, don’t you want to see a social Europe?
Michael Calderbank: What I would say is that the debate about a social Europe versus neoliberalism was actually a debate between different factions of the ruling class. A socialist Europe would look quite different from the kind of institutional class compromise—a sort of Keynesian-type corporatism—that someone like Jacques Delors meant by a social Europe.
Tom Walker: You’re making a distinction between a social Europe and a socialist Europe.
Marina Prentoulis: But we are very far even from that. As you said yourself, neoliberalism has won. What we are saying is that we have to change things and, in order to change things, you have to change them on an international level. You have to change and create this pan-European movement which doesn’t exist, and start working on different fronts at the same time.
Michael Calderbank: My argument is that withdrawal would be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for rebuilding an alternative socialist architecture of Europe. I think the onus is on your side of the debate to demonstrate how the existing institutions of Europe can be reformed. I think it’s very difficult. People don’t see that that is a feasible prospect, which is why there is such resistance to the idea.
Marina Prentoulis: Let’s talk about some institutions. You have the European Central Bank, a huge problem in the case of Greece as it was; and the European Stability Mechanism, which refused Greece any funding, and was a political way of pushing Greece to accept the deal at the end. But if you had a different European Central Bank, and a different perception of the European Union, that would mean that countries like Germany, which have more wealth—that wealth will be invested in other countries.
Hannah Sell: How are you going to get that? The German ruling class aren’t going to agree to that.
Marina Prentoulis: Of course not, but it is exactly because you have the German neoliberal ruling class which is blocking the idea that, yes, we are a unit, and we can all work together even on an economic level, not to promote our own national interest—in that case a neoliberal German interest—but to promote what we think for the union as a whole.
Tom Walker: Luke, do you think that the EU can be reformed?
Luke Cooper: Yes, I mean, we can start tossing around reforms can’t we, but one of the most important, the European Parliament, it seems to me, is a decent institution but it doesn’t have enough power. So it can’t create its own legislation, and it really only has a scrutinising function on the European Commission. One reform that I think democrats should be arguing for across Europe, whether they’re on the left or not, would be to empower the European Parliament over the executive, if you like—which is the European Commission. That’s just a basic democratic demand. In a democracy, the executive should be subordinated to the legislature. There are more, obviously. I would want to see a European New Deal—a European jobs guarantee—that’s something we can all fight for, all over Europe.
Michael Calderbank: Aren’t these just pious aspirations though?
Marina Prentoulis: Socialism is an aspiration as well, but we don’t give up on that. That’s what we are working for: to change things.
Hannah Sell: We’ll get socialism before we reform the EU.
Luke Cooper: You can trade realisms in this debate, can’t you. Obviously your realism is: ‘oh, that doesn’t sound realistic, there’s not going to be a reformed European Union.’ Obviously, our realism is: actually, what does Britain look like the day after exit, after Nigel Farage and the extreme right-wing of the Conservative Party wins?
Tom Walker: So what would Britain look like if it did vote to leave the EU. Michael, what’s your vision of Britain the day after the referendum?
Michael Calderbank: In many respects, I think the British polity would be in crisis. The Tories would be immediately thrown into a huge division. There’s no way David Cameron could survive as prime minister if there was a withdrawal from the EU. The whole question of the union could well be reopened if Scotland had voted a different way than the rest of the United Kingdom. I think the danger would be if Nigel Farage had been left to make the case for the alternative throughout the campaign. He would then be in a much, much stronger position than if there was a credible left case that had articulated the path towards an alternative vision of Europe—both for a rejection of the existing institutions of Europe, and of the political status quo, but for a different vision of politics both nationally and internationally. I think that also what we should be concerned about is a kind of similar effect to SNP in the Scottish referendum, where Britain votes to stay inside the European Union but—although the referendum vote is won by Cameron—the actual politics of that moment are lost and there’s a big swing to UKIP even though Britain stays in the EU. I think that’s the real danger that’s posed by the referendum.
Tom Walker: Do you think that’s yes or no, UKIP triumphant? Do you think that could happen?
Luke Cooper: Well, I think the referendum is UKIP’s historical opportunity. I mean, this is what they’ve been waiting for their entire political lives for, so it’s a massive opportunity. It’s on the back of an election that obviously saw them get a historic number of votes—what was it, four million but only one MP? They are throwing themselves strategically into this campaign, and they are going to be very, very closely associated with the out campaign. I would say that they will de facto dominate it. It will be Nigel Farage’s face very much leading that whole campaign. That’s why I want to see that campaign defeated as heavily as possible.
I think the idea that there will be a credible left exit campaign is just illusory. The largest forces on the political left, if you look at the three main political parties—the Labour Party, the SNP, the Green Party—are all for staying inside the European Union. There’s a very, very small minority of MPs in the Labour Party—I think there’s 17 or 18 of them—who have launched a leave campaign. But it’s not credible, and it won’t be high-profile, and it won’t be significant. So I just think you’re deluding yourselves if you actually think that a Lexit will somehow be able to intervene on a high-profile stage in that election. It’s just not going to happen. The exit campaign is going to be led by Nigel Farage, and it’s going to be largely a campaign against the free movement of people, against immigrants, and it will be a nasty, racist, chauvinist campaign.
Hannah Sell: I think it’s deeply pessimistic to say that you cannot have a Lexit campaign that has an effect. I also agree with the points that Michael was making. I think you’re underestimating how incredibly damaging it will be for British capitalism if they lose this referendum vote—and for the Tory Party. Thatcher said never go into a referendum unless you know what the result is going to be. Cameron wants a yes vote, he’s been forced by his own party to have the referendum. If he goes in and loses, he’ll be gone as Prime Minister, and the Tory Party will be split into smithereens in reality. It will be a big blow for British capitalism—who are going to have a huge campaign to say you’ve got to stay in, it’s the only way forward, and so on. When you say—not that you have, and I don’t want to attack you for something you haven’t quite said—when people say ‘well, you’re lining up with Nigel Farage’—socialists who are campaigning to stay in will be lining up with David Cameron and the majority of big business in Britain. Now, I’m sure you’ll have independent campaigns, as we will for an exit. The question is, who will gain from that mess for capitalism?
You’re saying it will certainly be UKIP and the far right, the far right of the Tory Party as well. But I don’t think there’s anything automatic about that. The TUC, the trade unions in Britain—this year they didn’t vote to automatically call for a yes vote. They said it depends what happens on the workers’ directives. That’s a change from the TUC, and there are a number of important unions like the railway workers’ union that will certainly be campaigning for a left no vote. So there will be significant social forces campaigning for that and, I mean, how many of us thought that Jeremy Corbyn was going to be the leader of the Labour Party? He was elected as a result of this big anti-austerity wave. That mood exists in society, and a left exit campaign potentially could harness it.
It’s a big shame that Jeremy Corbyn, who himself during the election campaign took quite an open position on the EU and said they’d call a workers’ conference to discuss it, wasn’t prepared to definitely commit to voting yes, and then it was the first issue the right went for him on. Hilary Benn, later Syria, but first it was the EU: ‘we’ll resign if you don’t call for an unequivocal yes vote.’ That says something about who’s on which side in these arguments. But, as a result of that, he’s retreated. Because, if he had been calling for a Lexit, then that potentially could have been a mass campaign led by a very prominent socialist. But I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed that it will only be the right that can step into that vacuum. We could do it, if we’re determined.
Marina Prentoulis: I think I agree with Luke and it will be the right, and it will be UKIP. We know that because throughout this situation—after the economic crisis of 2008—the forces that have been winning significantly across Europe have been the far right. But also, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I see the day after. The day after, I will have to run around to find what is going to happen with my citizenship and if I should get one. Because I’m the European here, I’m the one who has a double identity. I see myself as Greek, but I’ve been in Britain for all this time, and I will feel very, very uncomfortable. Now there is a vision for a different Europe, and unfortunately it’s not ours, and it’s not coming from the left. It’s coming from Germany and the countries that are following the German neoliberal government, and it wants to divide Europe—the European Union—into a core and a periphery, and Greece will find itself on the periphery. I think, when we are talking about that, we have to take into account that they have a much stronger vision which is exactly destroying any unity and creating different areas there with different influence. For Greece, the German vision is about neo-colonisation. But still, this is why I feel we should try to open this debate as we do here amongst the left. What that means—and we have to remember, we shouldn’t go simplistically—is there are very strong forces that do want to divide us and we’ve seen that in the previous situation and, of course, all these problems that Luke mentioned. I don’t think we will have the space to discuss the left within this referendum. We won’t have this space that we all would like to have and have a different type of debate.
Tom Walker: Just to pick up on the point Marina’s making about freedom of movement, which I think we should discuss a bit. I mean, you’re not the first person who I’ve heard say—I have friends who are Spanish, Italian, say: ‘look, if Britain votes to get out of the EU, it could mean that I am literally thrown out of the country.’ People feel that on quite a deep level. Maybe it won’t happen, but they feel that kind of insecurity. When the left is saying vote to leave the EU, they feel like, what about me?
Hannah Sell: That’s why it’s very important that any Lexit campaign has to have central the right to stay; and for freedom of movement for all workers, with full rights, which Cameron is trying to undermine in or out of the EU.
Marina Prentoulis: I think we should vote also, as Europeans. We are here, we are Europeans, we’ve been in this country forever. Our contribution has to be recognised, the left has to do that, and we have to vote in this referendum as well as Europeans. We are making Europe.
Michael Calderbank: But it’s also worth remembering that the EU policy on immigration is deeply racist—in the sense of the fortress Europe where Syrian refugees drown in the sea, but eastern European workers can move across the European Union with no problems. That is, in itself, a racist immigration policy. I think that we can look at these whole questions about the free movement of labour in the round, but the idea that somehow defending existing EU membership—and the existing policies of the EU—is to be pro-worker and pro-freedom of movement, is itself illusory.
Luke Cooper: I object to calling it free movement of labour. I think you lose the argument once you accept that labour is a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. What we’re talking about is people. Free movement of people, we absolutely have to defend. We have free movement of people for 28 countries, plus the EFTA area as well. I am absolutely critical of fortress Europe. I think the way that Syrian and Eritrean refugees, and other refugees, have been treated is something that we need to condemn as, I completely agree, a racist policy. But the reintroduction—the biggest reintroduction of border controls that we’ve seen in the entire post-war period—is not a step towards global free movement rights for Syrians, for Eritreans, for Afghans. It would be a massive step away from those rights. So the day after exit, what will Nigel Farage insist on after having led the exit campaign, being the most prominent part of it, he will insist there must be no free movement agreements signed with the European Union.
Michael Calderbank: Let’s just remember that UKIP will only have one MP at this stage. They won’t be in government.
Luke Cooper: But the Conservative Party is in government, and the day after the election the Conservative Party will say: ‘look, Britain has decided.’ Assuming that people vote to leave, I don’t think they will, but—worst case scenario—the day after they will say ‘well, look, we lost this vote because of the free movement of people, because British people don’t support immigration. We can’t go to the European Union and sign a free movement agreement.’ David Cameron is not going to do that. His successor is not going to do that.
Tom Walker: To be clear, you’re saying that you can demand that there should still be free movement, but not within this framework of the EU—within some other framework. So you wouldn’t accept that, basically, if we leave the EU you’re drawing an extra border.
Hannah Sell: We would have a huge campaign, and I think it has to be part of a campaign for exit to say full rights. As you say, better rights than they’ve got now—the right to vote in the referendum; the right to vote in national, and not just local, elections; full rights for workers from the rest of Europe to come to Britain, and to stay and to work, and to have every legal right. You have to have that as part of the campaign. Why can’t you? And if you build a powerful force like that, that can help to cut across racism. You say about a no campaign leading to an undermining of the rights of workers from Europe in Britain—but so is the yes campaign. Cameron is hooking it all on getting to undermine the right to claim benefits.
Marina Prentoulis: I wonder if we have a little bit of time to discuss about foreign policy, and how the day after will be in relation to foreign policy. Because in the vision, that I was saying, of a different Europe—part of that will be a different foreign policy from Britain, and not following any more the American foreign policy. I think the moment that Britain will be out of the European Union, it will be more of a lapdog of the Americans.
Luke Cooper: There’s a serious point there because, look, it’s no coincidence that UKIP, the right-wing of the Conservative Party, are hard-line Thatcherites. I’m going back to something you mentioned earlier in this debate, that somehow it’s not in the interests of—potential interests of—major multinational capital for Britain to leave.
Michael Calderbank: Just look at the big battalions of capital that are swinging in behind the yes side. You’ve got the CBI, the Financial Times, the City of London—these are the big powerful players.
Luke Cooper: What they object to is the insecurity of exit. That’s what capitalist investors are generally concerned about. They don’t want insecurity, they want stability. I would predict that the stock market will fall heavily in the morning of a British exit. But it will recover by five o’clock that day. Because capital turns every crisis into an opportunity, and what will the right-wing of the Conservative Party be gunning for the day after exit? One thing will probably be the Working Time Regulations—which incorporates the Working Time Directive from EU law into British law; guarantees a minimum of 20 days holiday a year; guarantees the right to work no more than 48 hours a week; guarantees 11 hours consecutive rest between two shifts at work; guarantees a break every six hours. They will be gunning for workers’ rights.
Marina Prentoulis: We should not underestimate our enemies, and I think we are doing that time and time again. We underestimate them and we don’t have a vision, and we should develop this—meaning that we start talking about how we can transform the institutions of the European Union and we have to create a different vision of the European Union.
Michael Calderbank: The difficulty is that all these genuine protections that you speak of are vestiges of a different period of the development of the European Union. They’re from the time of the likes of Jacques Delors—the vision of a social Europe was there and was operative. Now they’re already being undermined from within the EU institutions. David Cameron’s attempt to try to renegotiate further deregulation and the power of business to opt out of these key social protections—and the likes of TTIP, and the increasing power of multinational corporations—are continually undermining these things. So it’s not a method of protecting workers’ rights to stay within the European Union, because they’re already being eroded from within in any case.
Luke Cooper: But I don’t think you’ve responded to the basic point—that the forces that will take Britain out will respond. You’re right that, the day after, British capitalism has a problem. How does it adapt to that problem? It makes its internal market more competitive. How does it do that? It attacks its workers.
Tom Walker: Ok, that’s about all we have time for, but you each have a minute to tie together any loose ends and draw some kind of conclusion.
Michael Calderbank: I think that we agree, fundamentally, that an alternative vision of Europe is necessary, and that new institutional structures need to emerge. My problem is I’m not convinced that there’s any route from staying within the current EU institutions to the emergence of these new institutions that would work in the interests of working class people. I don’t see that there’s a route map. In fact, quite the opposite: I think these institutions have been deliberately insulated from any democratic pressures and therefore it would become incredibly difficult for us to stay within the European Union and to realise that vision of an alternative Europe. I think withdrawal is a necessary, but admittedly not sufficient, condition—but a necessary condition—in order to create that vision of an alternative Europe.
Luke Cooper: I suppose I’d go back to what I said initially, but in a slightly different way. We have a Europe of nation states. I think the European Union ultimately reflects the politics of those nation states, and unfortunately it is the political right—conservative forces in Europe, in some cases the far right—that have been the main beneficiaries of the post-crisis politics since 2008. We have a long-term decline and crisis of social democracy that is made worse by the financial crisis. You talk about different periods of European Union reform—I would say, well look, there was a period where the social democratic left in Europe was stronger. That was reflected in European institutions, and today the social democratic left has neoliberalised, declined. The right are in power and that is reflected in European institutions. The day after a British exit we will still have a horrible right-wing government in this country. It’s no solution. We need a strong, pan-European, radical left politics, not a retreat into nationalism.
Hannah Sell: I think that the EU has always been, in essence, an agreement between different capitalist classes across Europe to maximise their market and to compete against the US, Asia, and so on. I think the vestiges that existed in the past of a social Europe, which gave us a few crumbs in return for that, are being eaten away by treaty after treaty—which is privatisation, deregulation, undermining of workers’ rights. I think unfortunately your position is you accept the neoliberal project is dominant at the moment in Europe, but you think that it’s possible to reform it and to lean on more progressive elements. But I disagree with that. I think the danger with that is you end up defending these institutions, which in Greece would be seen by working class people as hammering them into the ground—it’s not exactly the same in Britain—but by doing that you leave the field open for the right-wing nationalists and populists. This referendum in Britain, this isn’t certain, but it’s possible it could become something much bigger than just a referendum on the EU. It could become a referendum against Cameron. If people feel that they can’t get rid of him any other way, they’ll punish him by voting no in this referendum. The danger is, that is just left to the right. The left can claim it if we have a Lexit campaign.
Marina Prentoulis: There is a vision—a very strong vision, and we saw that in the Greek case—of dividing Europe into a core and a periphery. We saw that international capital is very strong—it will operate if you have European Union or not. Actually, the original idea—and it should go back to that—of the European Union, is to block the forces of international capital. What we have to think is how we transform these institutions, and actually we go back to some of the basic articles of the treaty of the European Union, which are about solidarity, which are about human rights. It’s not what happened, as all of us agree, what happened in the case of Greece. I think in order to do that we have to change neoliberal governments. We have to create alliances within the European Union and the European Parliament. This started to happen, and something changed with the case of Greece, and we need very, very fast a European movement.
Visit The Wedge at www.thewedge.org.uk