Socialists do not have the luxury of choosing the conditions in which we fight; however unfavourable the current balance of forces, our task it to argue for an exit from the un-reformable EU on left terms, write Jen Wilkinson and Paul O’Connell.
Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.
The referendum on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Union (EU) is now fully underway. This debate confronts socialists with a series of pressing tactical and strategic challenges, the two key questions being: (i) should socialists intervene in this debate and (ii) if so, what position(s) should we advance. The position defended here is that, in all the circumstances, individuals and groups committed to the fundamental transformation of society have to come out strongly against Britain’s continued membership of the EU. We should do this on the basis of our commitments to democracy, genuine egalitarianism, solidarity and anti-racist internationalism. The Brexit debate provides an entry point for the bigger contest between defenders of a Europe in the service of capital, and the protagonists of a radically different Europe for the Twenty-First Century.
II. Dirtying Our Hands:
It is undeniably true that issues of immigration have, so far, dominated the referendum debate in the UK, and that the dominant narratives are, for all intents and purposes, slight variations on shared xenophobic and racist themes. In this sense, then, the choice between voting to stay in with Cameron or leave with Johnson/Farage is an empty choice between competing strands of racism that many people are not willing to engage in any substantial way. There is, of course, a section of the left (centred around the Labour Party/Green Party and certain trade unions) that are also making the case to stay in the EU, on the basis that voting to leave would jeopardise various legal rights guaranteed to workers and migrants by the EU.
Given the constrained character of the debate so far, many socialists in Britain have adopted one, or a combination, of the following positions: this is a fight between different factions of the Tory party, and not something that socialists should expend energy and resources on; the debate is unmistakably and irredeemably framed in racist terms, therefore socialists should not get involved in arguing for one or other side of the racist coin; whatever its limitations, the EU has provided important legal protections for the rights of workers and migrants and we should not campaign or argue for a position that would lead to a loss of such rights; and in the event that Britain does leave the EU, we will be confronted by a triumphant and fundamentally unconstrained Tory government, which will accelerate its attacks on workers’ rights and on migrants and refugees.
Each of these arguments or reservations reflects legitimate concerns about the current political conjuncture in Britain, and Europe more broadly, but they are not sufficient arguments against socialist intervention in the debate. A concern for many on the left is that the Brexit campaign has been launched to appease the more reactionary wing of the Tory party; consequently, the dominant discourses on either side of the In/Out-Stay/Leave debate are irredeemably racist. As a result the entire debate on the issue has become toxic, and it is impossible for socialists to make a meaningful, principled, anti-racist and pro-migrant intervention into the debate, because the populist howling of the reactionaries on both sides will drown it out. The problem with this argument is that ultimately it is a counsel of despair, and invites a level of resignation that socialists simply cannot afford.
Reframed slightly, the argument runs as follows: the narrative is controlled by the reactionary forces of the establishment, and whatever the outcome it will be interpreted by them (and spun by their media) in a way which reinforces their narrative. This of course is true, but if we accept this as an invitation to sit out this particular fight, then we may as well hang up our gloves entirely. The simple reality is that in modern capitalist democracies, with the various complex means of producing and reproducing consent and control, establishment forces will invariably set the terms of almost every debate. The onus, then, is on us to intervene in spite of their rhetoric, their mystifications and their lies, and to set out principled, revolutionary arguments as to why, in the instant case, we should stay in or leave the EU.
Choosing, instead, to concede the terrain of battle before the fight has even begun is an abdication of our responsibility as individuals and organisations committed to the radical and fundamental transformation of society. In the midst of the biggest crisis in world capitalism since the 1930s, we cannot abandon working people to the demagoguery of the right. As recent election results in France, Germany and Slovakia (and the large numbers of people voting for UKIP in the last UK general elections) show, reactionary and racist right wing movements are benefiting from the dislocation and frustration that many people feel as a result of the crises of capitalism. If we take the high ground and refuse to engage in the Brexit debate because we see it as an inter-racist turf war, we also abandon working people at a time at which the intervention of socialists is most sorely needed. And if we fail to engage, this, in turn, does not weaken the right, but rather gives them a free run to spread their noxious easy answers. Daniel Singer offers an instructive and timely warning on this point in Their Millennium or Ours (94): ‘if frustrated people see no progressive solution and have no rational explanations for their fate, they opt for irrationality and the search for scapegoats’.
Refusing to engage in this debate because it has, so far, been dominated by reactionary and racist positions does not, in any way, undermine the reactionaries and racists; rather it allows them to operate freely, at a time at which they should be fought for every inch of ground on the ideological and political terrain. The plight of refugees in Calais and elsewhere in Europe, or migrants facing racism in the UK is not in anyway improved by socialists sitting this fight out; if anything, it will likely make their position worse. As Singer (276) warned, ‘politics abhors a void. If the left fails to provide rational, progressive solutions to the growing economic and social traumas, the extreme right will come up with reactionary and irrational ones, playing on the fears aroused by globalization and on prejudices reinforced by apprehension’. All we have is the conjuncture before us, and we have to enter the fray. We do not have the luxury of waiting for more propitious circumstances of our own choosing before acting to make our own history.
III. Politics Without Illusions:
Whatever the arguments of the various segments of the right in the Brexit debate, what is crucial is that socialists advance their own principled arguments about the EU. The argument here is quite simple: the prospects for the radical, necessary changes to combat the crises of capitalism within Britain and Europe more broadly are dramatically inhibited by the existence of the EU. Therefore, we should seek a fundamental rupture with the institutions of the EU, so as to free up the potential to develop more radical politics grounded in genuine internationalism, not the truncated solidarity that the project of European capital offers. To make this intervention, we have to address three key arguments from those on the left who argue we should stay within the EU: (i) the EU guarantees numerous rights for workers, migrants and others that we should defend; (ii) whatever the shortcomings of the EU, Britain should remain a member state and socialists should fight within the existing structures to pursue ‘another Europe’; and (iii) even if we accept that leaving the EU might be necessary in the long run, now is not the right time because the right in Britain (and across Europe) is on the rise, while working people and the political left seem ill-prepared to resist them.
(i) Rights and Struggle
One of the central arguments for remaining within the EU is that membership of the EU has led to the development of substantial protection of workers rights, as well as the rights of consumers and the environment. This argument has been advanced in the current debate by, among others, the TUC and Jeremy Corbyn. A further element to this argument is that, as Corbyn says, ‘the Tories would use a vote to leave as the chance for a bonfire of rights in its aftermath’. There are three key responses to this line of argument. The first is that the rights protected by EU law are not the result of a gift from Jacques Delors and the benevolent institutions of ‘Social Europe’. Rather, the most important workers’ rights protected by the EU were won through the struggles of working people across Europe throughout the early- and mid-twentieth century. The legal structures of the EU, like all legal structures, reflect the crystallisation of particular struggles and conflicts, and the key workers, migrant and consumer rights protected by the EU were wrested from European capital by the collective action of working people.
This leads to a second, crucial point, which is that these formal legal guarantees were conceded at a point in time when European capitalism could afford to commit to such rights, and European workers were strong enough to demand such rights. The current conjuncture in Europe, in contrast, is one in which capital is on the offensive, and is necessarily seeking to break down all barriers to the pursuit of profit. In line with this, it is a period where the logic of neoliberalism has, since at least the mid-1980s, been encoded into the DNA of the EUs constitutional architecture. The last eight years of austerity have seen a dramatic acceleration in the undermining of workers’ rights and the living standards of working people. As Asbjørn Wahl notes:
In several EU countries—the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Hungary—wages, working conditions, and pensions have been severely weakened. Pensions have been cut 15–20 percent in many countries, while wages in the public sector have been reduced from 5 percent in Spain to over 40 percent in the Baltic. In Greece, the number of public employees has already been reduced by more than 20 percent. And still more is demanded: in Spain only one in every ten vacant positions in the public sector is filled, one in every five in Italy, and one in every two in France. In Germany 10,000 public-sector jobs have already been cut, and in the United Kingdom it has been decided to cut close to half a million jobs, which in effect will involve about the same number of jobs in the private sector.
Such has been the assault on workers rights and living standards, that both the Council of Europe (separate from the EU, but with responsibility for monitoring human rights protection across Europe), and the European Parliament have published reports documenting how the policies of the EU have led to the dramatic erosion of the entire corpus of rights.
Coupled with these developments, the highest court in the EU, the European Court of Justice (even before the onset of the economic crisis) has issued a series of judgments, starting with the Viking and Laval cases, which dramatically undermine the right to strike, so as to protect the rights of companies. That these judgments pre-date the economic crisis is important. The accelerated assault on workers rights in the era of austerity is not an aberration, or a break with some mythical ‘social Europe’; rather it is the opportunistic intensification of tendencies inherent in the era of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism is a response to the crises of capitalism. It is, first and foremost, a political project to reassert the interests of capital and capitalists worldwide. For this reason, the rights of workers were being systematically hollowed out prior to the US housing bubble bursting in 2008 and the assault on these rights has been facilitated, not restrained, by the institutions of the EU. This tendency can be seen further in the ongoing negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and US, which will further weaken workers‘ rights in the interests of capital. In short: given the trajectory of global capitalism, the EU is more likely to facilitate the undermining of fundamental rights, than act as a bulwark against their erosion.
This leads to a final point on this issue. The concern that leaving the EU would lead to an unrestrained Tory party engaging in a bonfire of rights is based on two flawed premises: the first is that formal legal guarantees effectively protect people from the vicissitudes of capitalism and the second is that the working class in Britain is unable or at least unlikely to mobilise to defend their rights. As to the first point, reference by proponents of the ‘remain’ side in the debate to the much-vaunted Working Time Directive (which is by no means unimportant) conveniently ignore the fact that British employees are allowed to negotiate with (read “pressure”) their workers to opt out of the protections provided by this law, and thousands of workers do so annually. Furthermore, many British workers are faced, in the current crisis, not with being forced to work too many hours, but with having too few hours. A recent report shows that more than 800,000 British workers are on zero-hour contracts, with all the insecurity, working poverty and precarity that that brings. The existing legal regime is virtually silent on this matter.
It is interesting to note that in New Zealand, such contracts have recently been outlawed, not as a result of some benevolent regional integration regime, but because of the sustained struggle of working class people there. In recent years in the UK, teachers, nurses, transport workers, junior doctors, migrants, refugees and their communities and supporters have come out in their tens thousands to assert and defend their rights. The loss of faith by some on the left in the capacity of the working class in Britain to fight to defend their rights, and the rights of migrants and refugees, ignores the history of struggle here, and the potential of ongoing struggles. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Tories and their ilk will continue to wage war on working people and migrants; the challenge is to be part of these struggles, and to trust in the capacity of people to fight to defend their interests, as the only real guarantee of the rights we have.
(ii) Reform or Revolution
It may well be that the rigid binaries of the early-twentieth century do not quite hold at the dawn of a new millennium, but there is, on the left, a sharp distinction between those who argue that we can and should remain within the EU to fight to make ‘another Europe possible’, and those who argue that commitment to socialist principles require us to break with the EU. The former position is represented well by the foundation of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), which leads with the tagline that the ‘European Union will be democratise or it will disintegrate!’. Led by Yanis Varoufakis and others, DiEM25 argues, correctly, that the EU as constituted is fundamentally undemocratic, and that it needs a ‘surge of democracy’ to save it from a steady slide into disintegration. In the same way, many on the left in Britain argue that while the EU has its faults, we should nonetheless stay and fight to reform it from within. Another Europe, they argue, is possible, and the EU’s democratic shortcomings can be overcome piecemeal.
It is interesting, given events in Europe over the last five years that a former Greek Finance Minister should be to the fore in a movement that claims the EU can be salvaged through democratisation. If anything, the treatment of the Greek people at the hands of the Troika provides a signal lesson, if one were needed, of the inherent antagonism between democracy and the functioning of the EU. In 2015, having suffered under some of the worst (EU-sponsored) austerity policies of the last decade, it appeared as if the Greek people would vote in a Syriza government to reject the economic and social policy prescriptions of the Troika. In response to this, the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned the Greek people that
To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality … There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.
The fact that Juncker invoked the treaties on which the EU is founded in his contemptuous dismissal of democracy is instructive. Since at least the Maastricht Treaty, the EU’s constitutional arrangements have been revised to do two crucial things: (i) lock in the economic logic of neoliberalism and (ii) insulate the real decision making bodies with the EU from democratic control and accountability.
The most powerful actors within the EU, the European Commission and European Central Bank, are also the least accountable. This is not accidental, but the product of intentional choices to constitutionally lock-in the logic of neoliberalism to advance the interests of capital, and make it virtually impossible for the public at large to meaningfully impact on the decision-making processes at the heart of the EU. It is for this reason that mainstream law and political science journals are now replete with articles that characterise the EU project as an example of authoritarian statism or authoritarian liberalism. The contemptuous treatment of the Greek people in 2015 is just the most brutal, recent example of tendencies latent within the EU, and manifested in the discarding of the initial decisions of the Irish people on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties and of the French and Dutch people after they rejected the proposed constitution for Europe.
The EU is constitutionally undemocratic, and intentionally so. The calls to democratise the EU, though laudable, fundamentally misunderstand the character of the project. It is not the case that the dream of social Europe has been captured and derailed by evil technocrats in Brussels. Rather, the crises of capitalism necessitate a break for the ruling class with the post-War consensus in terms of social policy, and a rupture with the inhibiting limitations of democracy. These imperatives have been encoded into the constitutional architecture of the EU over the last twenty years. These constitutional arrangements constrain national governments that might wish to pursue some modest social democratic reforms (let alone institute radical social change); they make the functioning and operation of the leading EU institutions opaque and unaccountable; and, through the principle of unanimity enshrined in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union, make it virtually impossible to revise (or democratise) these arrangements. The upshot of this is, as Wahl notes, is that ‘the possibility of changing any of the EU treaties in a progressive direction through ordinary political processes is virtually nonexistent. One right-wing government in one member state can prevent this’.
The recognition by DiEM25 and others that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic is correct, but the belief that it can be democratised, in any meaningful sense, is fundamentally mistaken. You cannot use a flame thrower to put out a fire: the EU has been transformed over the last 20 years to lock-in the victories of capital over workers, and to constitutionalise Margaret Thatcher’s idea that There Is No Alternative. On this point, Samir Amin cuts through all of the sophistry when he writes that ‘the European Union can be nothing else than what it is, and as such is unviable’. Another Europe may well be possible, but another EU is not. A Europe committed to democracy, solidarity, egalitarianism and genuine internationalism will only be brought about in spite of, not through, the EU.
(iii) Bringing the War Home
The final objection to deal with here is the idea that even if we accept that the EU is flawed, perhaps fundamentally so, voting to leave now would be a retreat into narrow nationalism at a time at which the right in Britain, and across Europe, is ascendant and there is little prospect of a coherent, left alternative to it. This whole argument turns on matters of faith: on the one hand it reflects a misplaced faith in the possibility and potential of transformative, transnational politics and on the other it represents a loss of faith in the capacity of working people, and of the political left, to genuinely transform the political and social landscape. The first sort of faith is reflected, again, in the DiEM25 initiative, which wants to build a ‘Europe of Peoples’ beyond the nation state, and has as one of its medium-term aims the convening of a Constitutional Assembly to develop ideas and institutions to govern the peoples of Europe. Such transnationalism, a form of liberal cosmopolitanism, counter-poses its own progressive character with the spectre of retreating into ‘the cocoons’ of narrow nationalism.
There are a number of problems with this argument. The first is that (notwithstanding the rhetoric of popular participation) it seeks, unwittingly perhaps, to substitute the top-down rule of one set of technocrats for another. The premise behind this line of argument is that the EU, as such, was positive and progressive to start with, until the bad, neoliberal technocrats captured it. It can be salvaged by the good, social democratic technocrats leading the peoples of Europe, from above, into the light of a more enlightened set of social and economic policies. This is ironic, yes, but also fundamentally problematic. It seeks to put the cart before the horse, and develop a Europe of peoples through the agency of a few prominent personages. Charismatic, top-down leadership geared towards salvaging the EU is not a break or rupture with the logic of neoliberalism capitalism, but a variation on it – and as such, will be riddled with the same shortcomings and contradictions.
The only alternative to the EU, with its neoliberal and fundamentally undemocratic character, is the self-organisation and mobilisation of working people in Europe (in all of their variety). Such a movement cannot be conjured up at the transnational level, but must begin at the local level. As Singer (210) succinctly put it, ‘the nation-state is still the ground on which the movement begins, power is seized, and the radical transformation of society is initiated’. Notwithstanding the delusions of post-nationalists (whether of the neoliberal or social democratic variety), movements for fundamental social change have to be built at the local level, and the nation state remains the basic unit of political action in this regard. In this respect, the EU, again, acts more as a restraint than an aid. As Wahl puts it, ‘the European Union itself creates a number of impediments, not only for economic and social development in Europe, but also for the social struggle’. Faith in the institutions of the EU and the possibilities of transnational politics to bring about the changes that are needed is misplaced. At present, the ‘working class, the trade unions, and other popular forces are now facing a brutal power struggle, which was started from above’. This assault has been facilitated by the institutions of the EU. The fight back against it will, of necessity, be mounted at the domestic level (while also building and relying on internationalist solidarity) and in this context the need to rupture with the institutions of the EU will become increasingly apparent.
Finally, then, is the loss of faith in the capacity of the working class in Britain and of the political left to develop the sort of politics necessary to confront the rise of the right and the crises of capitalism. There is not space enough here to deal with every aspect of this issue, but it can be one of the positive upshots of the Brexit debate if it forces socialists in Britain to face up to the organisational and political malaise which they now find themselves in. It is patently true that in Britain, and elsewhere around Europe, the working class and the political left are in bad shape, and the biggest crisis in capitalism since the 1930s has not, yet, produced a dramatic change in fortunes in this regard. It is understandable that such a vista could induce a degree of melancholy, resignation and defeatism amongst socialists, even while they continue to espouse the slogans they inherited from the Twentieth century. But the Brexit debate is an invitation to break with this malaise. In much the same way as the referendum about Scottish independence in 2014 became a thoroughgoing debate about what sort of Scotland, and what sort of future people wanted, the Brexit debate can provide a space in which socialists advance principled, revolutionary arguments about the nature of capitalism and the EU and invite working people to become the active protagonists in the construction of a different future.
We can turn away in dismay at the number of votes that went to UKIP in the last general election, or we can focus on the fact that a recent study shows that a majority of people in Britain have recently said they prefer socialism to capitalism. Focus on the fact that crises in capitalism can open up space for political developments that seemed impossible not long before. The choice confronting us now is between two distinct approaches to politics. We can, as Samir Amin argues, approach the current conjuncture as opportunists, who understand politics as ‘the art of benefiting from the balance of power, such as it is’, or we approach it as principled socialists, for whom politics is ‘the art of transforming the balance of power’. In a similar vein, Marta Harnecker argues that ‘for revolutionaries politics is the art of making the impossible possible, not from some voluntarist urge to change things but because our efforts should be realistically focused on changing the current balance of power so that what appears to be impossible today becomes possible tomorrow’. Entering the fray and arguing, on principled, anti-racist lines, for Britain to exit the EU and seeking to clarify the real issues facing working people is the crucial role of socialists in this conjuncture.
If we could choose our own battles—or to paraphrase, choose the conditions in which we are called upon to make our own history—then many socialists would not put a debate about Britain’s continued membership of the EU top of their list. But that is the fight before us now. It may well be that this debate has its origins in Tory civil war politics, and that the mainstream debate will be dominated by racist, economistic and other misplaced narratives, but none of that absolves us of the responsibility to set out a principled socialist position on the debate. We can and must engage people and make clear that: (i) the EU now does as much to undermine peoples rights and living conditions as it does to protect them; (ii) the entire edifice is constitutionally and irredeemably undemocratic and neoliberal; and (iii) the thousands of dead men, women and children at the bottom of the Aegean and the despicable deal recently struck between the EU and Turkey are not an aberration, not a breach with mythical European values – instead they reflect Europe and the EU as it is. As such, we can and should break with the EU. If we do so there are no guarantees of what will come next: we do not get guarantees. But there are opportunities to imagine and fight for an entirely different Europe; that’s our challenge and we must prove ourselves worthy of it.