Charlie Hore kicks off debate and analysis on the rs21 site in advance of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, set to take place before the end of 2017. Charlie argues for support for a yes position in the referendum, and tomorrow we will be publishing an article that argues for supporting a no position.
Sometime between May 2016 and the end of 2017, voters in Britain will vote in a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union (EU). But even though the vote is at least a year away, the debate has already started.
For an organisation like rs21, getting the debate over the EU referendum right means a proper understanding of two related questions The first is simply: what is the argument actually about? The second is: who are our audience? Who will we be talking to about it, and what do we want to say to them?
It seems obvious that the primary arguments are over migration – whether the right to migrate should be limited, and whether there are too many migrants in Britain. In other words, the tone and terms of the debate are being set by the xenophobic right. That should be no surprise, given that the referendum has been called as a sop to the racist right, and is the product of a defeat for our side in the re-election of the Tories in May.
The last fifteen years have seen a rise in racism in various forms – both anti-migrant and Islamophobic – which both Labour and the coalition governments have fuelled, but which also finds expression in the rise of UKIP as a populist right party. But it becomes particularly important given the circumstances that have given rise to the referendum.
Cameron wanted it for two reasons – firstly because it is a sop to the Eurosceptics inside the Tory party; and secondly because the promise was a key part of Cameron’s (largely successful) strategy of wooing back enough UKIP voters to win a majority.
So the referendum is taking place in the context of a clear swing to the right among voters in England and Wales. This is fundamentally different to 1975, when the opposition to Harold Wilson’s referendum was led by left-wing Labour MPs and union leaders. The content of the anti-EU argument then was essentially economic – EU membership will be bad for workers’ living standards. The content now is fundamentally different.
That fundamental difference derives in part from the particular impact of EU membership on Britain. Across southern Europe, the EU is an obvious driver of neoliberal austerity – in Spain, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere the EU is driving austerity further and deeper than national governments have wished to go. There, the EU is very obviously the enemy of working people.
In Britain, it’s hard to point to a single attack on working people that has originated with the EU and that a British government opposed. If anything, the EU has been seen as something of a shield against attacks from successive governments, which from Thatcher onwards have been more neoliberal than the EU. That pattern has continued in the recent negotiations about Britain’s place in the EU, with one of Cameron’s conditions being that the EU should speed up its acceptance of TTIP.
So on the huge People’s Assembly demonstrations in London and Glasgow, for instance, there were almost no placards referring to the EU, and none of the publicity for them referred to the EU. Campaigns against library closures, health services cuts, the lack of decent housing provision or attacks on education provision do not target the EU, because none of these attacks stem from the EU. I think this very different perception goes a long way towards explaining why opposition to the EU has come primarily from the right.
If the essential argument is going to be about migration, then we have a very clear idea of where we stand and what we want to say. We are for the right to migrate, against restrictions on migrant workers’ rights, against a racist discourse that blames migrants for austerity, and for extending the existing rights to migrate – all summed up in the slogan ‘They’re welcome here!’ And it is extremely difficult to see a line of argument that starts with defending the right to migrate, and ends with recommending a vote that will have the practical effect of further restricting that right.
Defending the limited rights to migrate that exist inside the EU doesn’t at all mean defending the EU, or seeing the EU as somehow more progressive than the British state. On the contrary, developing our arguments in favour of migration will involve contrasting freedom of movement inside the EU with the barbarity of ‘Fortress Europe’, and centring our arguments on the need to defend and extend workers’ freedom of movement.
But it’s wrong to see the free movement of labour inside the EU as somehow a part of that repressive apparatus: allowing the free movement of people from Poland, Hungary or Spain is not what prevents the free movement of people from Eritrea, Palestine or Syria. If Britain leaves the EU, and there are greater restrictions on European migration, that harsher regime will also be applied to people from outside Europe.
We need to be alive to the ways in which the terms of debate have shifted on both sides. Just as anti-EU arguments are now predominantly anti-migrant arguments, there is an anti-racist ‘common sense’ that equate support for Britain staying in the EU with support for migrant workers. That comes across in a Populus poll, which shows 56% of 18-24 year-olds opting to stay in the EU with just 16% being for leaving.
That shift is paralleled by the support for staying in the EU expressed by many trade unions, the SNP, the Greens, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru. For what it’s worth, that is also the position taken by Left Unity and by much of the far left. There is a sense that the ‘progressive option’ has shifted, and that the arguments of a generation ago no longer fit. One of the things that has propelled that shift, of course, has been the very rapid integration of workers from other EU countries into workplaces, colleges and communities across the UK, especially in the cities.
There is still a substantial anti-EU left, but too many in that camp argue in a nationalist way that makes concessions to the right’s arguments about migration. So Kelvin Hopkins, a UNISON-sponsored Labour MP likely to be one of the leaders of the left anti-EU campaign, can write that “For Britain, EU membership means that we have had to accept free movement, the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Common Agricultural Policy”
The Socialist Party argues that “The alleged benefits of the ‘free movement of labour’ are in reality a device for the bosses to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour, which can then be used to cut overall wage levels and living standards.”
The only anti-EU argument coming from a clearly internationalist position are those put by Socialist Worker and Counterfire – and in recent weeks Socialist Worker has published a number of letters from long-standing members challenging the paper’s position.
Voting against leaving the EU in this referendum would not mean that we are in any sense pro-EU, or that we line up with the Blair/Cameron-led official campaign to keep Britain in. This is not an argument for staying in the EU under any conditions – we are against leaving for racist reasons that will make the lives of migrant workers significantly worse. The official pro-EU campaign will talk about the advantages to business of EU membership, and will make concessions to racism rather than challenge it. But the exit campaign will be even worse.
To the very valid question ‘how can you vote the same way as David Cameron’ the answer has to be that the options are either voting the same way as Cameron, or voting the same way as Nigel Farage, the EDL and the BNP. It’s understandable that people should want to abstain in disgust at the options on offer. This is an argument inside the ruling class about how their interests are best served, and on that plane we are indifferent. But often arguments inside the ruling class have implications for the working class, and our question has to be ‘what’s best for our class’?
In Greece, this week, the answer to that is very obviously ‘break with the Euro, and break with the EU.’ And if the referendum was happening now, we would have to put solidarity with Greek workers against the ravages of the EU at the heart of our arguments. But that does not alter the fact that the context and the timing of the debates of the debates here and in Greece are fundamentally different. We cannot read off from the present crisis what our attitude should be to a vote here in 18 months or two years time.
We also need to understand that a key part of the debate now involves European migrant workers – including large numbers of Greek migrant workers – asking what the referendum might mean for their future in this country, and where we work, study or live alongside them we are expressing our sympathy and solidarity. When we do that, we are to some extent already taking a position on how we will vote in the referendum. The same reasoning applies to our defence of EU migrants’ right to vote in the referendum itself – if we are for their right to vote in the referendum, why would we then vote for an outcome which could take away future voting rights?
And so we have to put the human consequences of an exit vote at the heart of our argument – a vote to leave will be experienced as a vote for ratcheting up racism and restrictions on migrant workers’ rights, and as a rejection of people’s right to live and work here. Every racist would take heart from it. That’s why abstention is not an option – even though this is an argument between two ruling-class camps, one outcome would have more severe consequences for working people, and we oppose it on that basis.
The last question is about our audience. What a group like rs21 says will not shape the debate, or even how the left approaches the debate. Where we matter is what we say as individuals at work, at college, in our communities, in pubs and in cafes – wherever the debate is raised. A clear revolutionary position will involve no concessions at all to racism, or to any of the pro-business arguments for staying in the EU.
Whatever position we take, it is certain that we will have nothing at all to do with either of the official campaigns. But it seems just as certain that the two camps will not be equally balanced – the anti-EU campaign will be driven above all by racism and xenophobia, and the other will not. And a victory for the anti-EU campaign will be experienced as a victory for racism and xenophobia. The choices are between something that’s bad and something that will make the future worse – and in that situation, our voices should be with those who do not want the future to be worse. The road to defending and extending the right to migrate cannot go through restricting existing migration rights, which would be the practical outcome of a vote to leave the EU.