After Brexit

Will the European Union crack up?

Occasionally when I have spoken before at Socialism, the organizers have tried to generate some interest by giving me controversial topics to deal with: “The irrelevance of permanent revolution” was a particular favorite of mine. So I’m delighted to be speaking on such a totally uncontentious subject as the European Union (EU). However, speaking in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the question before us isn’t so much whether the EU is going to break up—at least in the short-term—but whether the United Kingdom will, since the latter is likely to happen more quickly.

I expected a very close Remain vote, as indeed—to judge from their visible astonishment at winning—did most leaders of the Leave campaign. So this has been a startling development, and it is one that has thrown the entire British political system into crisis. I left behind a situation where things are changing daily and almost hourly. Consequently, I have to give a talk of two halves: one, a talk about the EU, because it is absolutely important to understand the reality of what that body is and what it does; and two, a talk about what has happened in Britain. I want to start with the latter, since as I’ve already suggested, it is where the most immediate crisis is taking place.

Misinterpreting the Brexit vote

To begin with we have to reject two false interpretations of Brexit. One, which is almost exclusively argued by those sections of the revolutionary left that (rightly) supported Leave, is that the vote is a great working class victory that represents a proletarian insurgency against neoliberalism. While I also argued for a Leave vote, this interpretation seems to me to be completely untenable. As I will argue, part of the Leave vote did indeed involve a rejection of the political elites and members of the ruling class who made the case for the EU; but you can’t uncomplicatedly say that this is a kind of conscious movement from below against neoliberalism. If this over-optimistic gloss on what just happened is taken seriously as a guide to action, it would lead comrades into real problems. But of course it is not intended in that way and in my view quite an unnecessary justification for taking a Leave position in the first place. We need ask only one question: have any of the groups arguing for this interpretation called for demonstrations to celebrate this class triumph, or for the immediate triggering of Article 50, which would start the two-year process of Brexit? Of course not, because everyone is perfectly aware that at least some of the people who voted to leave would be calling for the removal of migrants—and not just EU passport-holders but also British citizens who have been here for decades.

On the other hand, the opposite position—that the vote is an absolute victory for the far right—is equally exaggerated, equally wrong, but more dangerous, because it is upheld by more people particularly on the liberal left. (If you read The Guardian newspaper or New Statesman magazine you will have some idea of what I mean.) However, the same position is also accepted by sections of the radical left, some of whom have lapsed into virtual hysteria about the “carnival of reaction” which is supposedly now going to be unleashed. According to these people, we have entered the antechamber to fascism: we haven’t. There was a serious upsurge in both physical and verbal attacks on minority groups in Britain, including white immigrants, in the immediate aftermath of the vote. But the racism and xenophobia on display in those days were not caused by the result; they long preceded it and have now been given legitimacy by the demagoguery of the official Leave campaign. However, even if the result had gone the other way, I think it is likely that similar attacks would have taken place. These racists would still have regarded themselves as justified but in defeat would have been vengeful rather than triumphant. We have to look this racist reality in its face but also be sober about its extent: most of the perpetrators will have been hard-core racists and fascists, not mainstream Leave voters. If I had any evidence that the seventeen million Leave voters were all hardened racists then I would be making plans to stay here in Chicago: permanently.

No, Britain is neither on the eve of the October Revolution nor in the last days of the Weimar Republic. There were working-class voters on both sides and they had both good and bad reasons for voting the way they did. Trotsky used to quote Spinoza to the effect that we should neither laugh nor cry but understand so, therefore, let us try to understand the class forces involved.

Internally divided classes

The majority of British capitalists and their organizations like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) supported Remain. So too did the key institutions of the British state, including the Treasury and the chiefs of the armed forces, all the mainstream political parties including the Labour Party, especially its right-wing, and the liberal news media. The European Commission and Council, the European Central Bank and mainstream political members of the European Parliament were obviously all in favor of Remain, but so too was the Chinese Communist Party and the Democratic and Republican Parties—or at least the remaining sane elements within the latter. In other words, with the exception of some hard right-wingers, the same people from the international capitalist class who wanted Scotland to stay in the UK also wanted the UK to stay in the EU, and for the same reasons: the stability of international neoliberal and imperialist order—not least because of Britain’s role as the US’s Trojan horse in Europe. That’s why Obama and Kerry intervened so heavily in the debate.

The principal support for Leave from within the bourgeoisie came from relatively small capital—small businesses shading into the petty bourgeoisie proper. These are people who find European Union directives difficult to meet because, unlike large corporations, they can less easily afford to meet health and safety standards or regulations about maternity leave. (Although some of the laws they resent most do not actually originate from the EU, but stem from the British legislative process.) These people, not “the white working class,” are central to the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). The only other coherent section of the ruling class that supported Brexit are hedge-fund managers who tend to be free-floating anyway and are not tied geographically to any state. They therefore don’t need an entry point into the EU like other sections of capital. Beyond these definable economic interests I think there is a small faction in the political wing of the ruling class—of whom Michael Gove[1] is a representative—that is looking for a different strategy for British capital, involving a shift of focus from Europe to China East Asia, and the United States. Even leaving aside the fatal overestimation of the UK’s importance to the US, I don’t think this is likely to be successful, but it should be noted that, from the ruling class-perspective, Brexit wasn’t just an irrational xenophobic spasm.

The middle-classes—the traditional petty bourgeoisie, professionals, and the new middle class (NMC)—were more divided. Although a lot of attention has been paid to the working-class Leave votes in the north of England, equal attention should have been paid to middle-class Leave votes in the south, particularly from the first two groups, and often in places where immigration is minimal or non-existent.

Many of what you might call the left-leaning sections of the NMC voted Remain because they mistakenly believe the European Union to be essentially benevolent. While it may currently follow some misguided policies, their argument goes, it is primarily dedicated to the free movement of people, the prevention of war, the establishment of workers’ rights and environmental protections, and the demise of narrow nationalisms in favor of shared European values. They also believe the EU prevented nationalism from becoming a driving force in European politics and perhaps even acted as a barrier against America’s imperial interests in the area. One would have to return to the fantasies about Stalinist Russia in the 1930s to find a comparable disjunction between illusion and reality.

If you do rely on the idea that all the good things, like working hours and the rest, come from the EU, it makes the working class actually sound weaker than it actually is. For one thing, the workers’ movement was the source of the original victories on holiday pay and the welfare state. We won those because we fought for them, not because of the beneficence of the EU. That argument implies that we are completely helpless because without Europe we are unable to achieve anything. This besmirches the actual record of the workers’ movement in achieving some of the things that we actually got, which were subsequently enshrined in EU law because they had already been achieved by workers’ struggle in individual countries.

The working class was also divided, and this is really quite serious. Some say that London voted Remain because it is the most neoliberal city in Britain, but it is also one of the most working-class cities in Britain, and by and large those who voted in London didn’t want to embrace the EU’s neoliberalism but wanted to oppose racism and xenophobia. So this comes from a good place and from an attitude that is healthy, but the problem is that it comes with incredible illusions in the EU as an institution.

Only a very small minority of people opposed the EU for the reason that I am about to give, namely that it is a ruling-class club whose main function is to impose neoliberal austerity. But only a small number of workers on the extreme left voted to oppose the EU on internationalist, antiausterity, and anticapitalist terms.

On the other extreme are fascists who oppose it because they are extreme British nationalists. They also are quite small. One of the things that the British Left has successfully done over the last forty years is to make sure that the British fascists are a very small minority, compared with those in France or some of the other countries in Europe. For example, when the Scottish Defense League turns up in Edinburgh there are only about thirty of them, and half of those are from Newcastle, which is in England. The counterdemonstrations always outnumber them by at least ten to one. So the fascist backing of Leave is very small. The opposition to the EU among workers in not coming from fascism, it’s coming from much deeper wellsprings of opposition to the Tory Party.

Then there are people who don’t know about the EU’s exact relationship to neoliberalism but understand it's a ruling-class club. And basically if you’re told by David Cameron, George Osborne and their ilk, who have been imposing austerity on Britain for decades, to vote Remain, you’re immediate instinct is going to vote Leave. It’s a healthy response to reject what these people are saying. Next to that there are people who are worried about immigration and think that it’s reducing wages, putting a strain on the National Health Service (NSH) and housing and so forth. These people are wrong but I don’t think their arguments are racist. Some of the people making these arguments are sons of Pakistani shopkeepers or Afro-Caribbean bus-drivers. They’re not racists and can’t be—unless you’re going to extend the concept of racism so far that it becomes just a blanket description of any people with a position you don’t like. That’s not helpful theoretically or politically; they are wrong in their attitude toward immigrants, but they are capable of being won over to opposing the EU on a left-wing basis. That is, they can be won and we must win them.

Next to them are people who do have soft racist ideas and think that everyone who is not British is coming to steal their jobs, a kind of distorted displacement of the very real problems they have encountered over the last thirty years as their communities have been destroyed. And no one has paid any attention to them or their problems including the Left. It’s relatively easy to call a demonstration defending immigrants in London; it’s quite another thing to do it in Bradford or Oldham, but these are precisely the place where these discussions must be held.

We cannot abandon them otherwise they will simply go to the people who do talk to them, which is the Far Right. This is the problem, and it hasn’t just happened in the last six months but has been building for years and years during the neoliberal onslaught, displacing their real grievances on to immigrants, who are not in fact the cause of their problems. The Left has a responsibility to provide them real answers and real reforms to redress their legitimate grievances. To people who voted Leave and who may be subject to racist ideas or Far-Right ideas against migrants, it is no good at all to say “Well OK, we’re in favor of leaving, but you won’t understand the reasons because you’re a racist idiot.” That is patronizing; we instead have to argue with them and explain why they are wrong.

The triple crisis

To understand the actual situation in the wake of the Leave vote, let’s start by looking at the triple crises facing Britain today: in ascending order of seriousness, the concurrent crises of strategy, of party, and of state. In relation to strategy, think of the British ruling class’s misjudgments over Suez in 1956 or Iraq in 2003. In relation to party, think of the divisions within the Conservative Party over the Corn Laws in 1846 or within the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule in the 1880s. But these kinds of crisis are relatively common; state crises are relatively rare. If you exclude 1745­­–46 and 1831–32, there have only been three in modern British history. One was from 1916 to 1921, from the Easter Rising in Ireland to the defeat of the Triple Alliance, with 1919 being the key year. The second ran from 1968 to 1975, again involving Ireland and massive working-class insurgency, but in this case the antiwar movement, women’s liberation movement, and other struggles against oppression. Here, 1972 is the decisive year. The third state crisis is happening now, but before turning to it I want to look at the concurrent crises with which it is converging, beginning with that of ruling-class strategy.

The decision to go ahead with the Bexit referendum not only unleashed vicious anti-immigrant sentiments, but also demands for a revival of those towns and communities that have been devastated by neoliberalism. The Tories will obviously do nothing to address the real needs of workers in these towns, but neither will they be able to restrict immigration, and they are already backing off from their promises to “take control” of it. Angela Merkel has quite clearly said that if a post-Brexit Britain wants to be part of the single market it must accept free movement of people. So the Leave campaign has stoked up demands, which are actually impossible to satisfy.

But the Tories also have other difficulties. The plan to use a referendum on EU membership—which, remember, is supported by most of British capital—as a bargaining chip, a way of resolving an internal dispute within the Tory Party, and of seeing off UKIP as a rival, has backfired enormously. We used to say during the Scottish independence referendum that David Cameron might go down as the twentieth century Lord North—the British prime minister who ‘lost’ America during the Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century. Cameron may well oversee the destruction of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which may explain why he was not looking particularly happy the day after the referendum. His personal responsibility for the disaster is almost total. Think: the leading party of British capitalism for nearly 150 years, the Conservative Party, is committed to a position of leaving the EU that is opposed by most of the capitalist class it is supposed to represent. To put it mildly, this is not helpful for that class especially since it has no obvious alternative “party of capital” on which to rely.

For the moment at least, the Labour Party cannot play this role—not just because of its internal divisions, but because it is possible, even likely, that Jeremy Corbyn will stand for reelection as leader and win on the basis of mass support from the party membership: twenty thousand people have joined the Labour Party since the referendum and the influx continues, and most of them support Corbyn. The unbridled hostility of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to Corbyn is not because they fear that he would lose a general election, but precisely because they fear he would win. Consequently, there is the possibility of a split and even that the PLP could set themselves up as a centrist parliamentary Labour Party in an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. It is therefore conceivable that the Labour Party could be either fundamentally transformed into an organization nearer to the new formations emerging in  southern Europe, or fragment entirely.

But the party crisis is wider than the Labour Party—indeed, in some ways this transcends individual organizations and threatens the party system itself. There is no longer a single bourgeois party that commands support across the whole of the UK. The Tories have collapsed in Scotland, and Labour has collapsed in whole areas of England as well as Scotland. There is no longer any party that can claim to represent the entire nation—something unprecedented in the history of the British state.

And so we turn to the crisis of that state. It really started in 2011, in the context of the long depression, which began three years earlier, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) first got elected with a majority government in Scotland, making a referendum on independence inevitable. The 2014 referendum was a close call—an earlier tactical blunder by Cameron—but what Brexit has put on the agenda is of course the possibility of a second Scottish referendum, more quickly than I or most other people thought possible in 2014. By the way, the loss of Scotland is much more important to the British state than the loss of Ireland. Ireland was a colony; Scotland was central to the whole project of the conquest of Ireland, above all in Ulster. And so if Scotland goes then the United Kingdom is well and truly finished. The break-up of Britain would have an enormous impact on the structure of world imperialism.

It looks at the moment as if the SNP is going to argue for a second independence referendum, on the basis that the majority of Scots voted Leave. However, the fact that many people in Scotland have illusions in the European Union is a major problem. One of the key issues facing the Left in Scotland is to argue, against the SNP (and the Scottish Greens), that the questions of Scottish independence from the UK and Scottish membership in the EU are entirely separate questions. We must therefore start by understanding what the European Union actually is and go from there. How did the EU emerge and how does it work?

EU origins: Imperialist geopolitics and capitalist growth

If we leave aside early post-war formations like the European Coal and Steel Community, the EU as we know it today grew out of the European Economic Community (EEC), which was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1958. There were four drivers and one condition for setting up the EU, none of which have much to do with worker’s rights or concerns for the environment.

The first driver was the need to end historic imperial rivalry between France and Germany, which had resulted in three wars over the previous eighty years. After World War II, there was a general agreement among most of the western ruling classes that this rivalry, which had caused such devastation in Europe, could not continue—a conclusion which for obvious reasons the French were particularly keen to support. Even had it wished to resist, Germany was in no position to do so, following its catastrophic defeat in World War II and further weakening by the Cold War division into East and West states. West Germany was at the mercy of the western powers, and its politicians thought it best to agree to incorporation into the EEC. Thus they agreed to a balance of power within the new setup. Moreover, what does it say about “European values” that many people thought these two countries would be at war with one another again unless both countries belonged to a supra-state institution like the EU?

The second driver was the broader context of the Cold War. The United States was very keen to establish hegemonic control of Europe through NATO and the EEC and use its European subordinates as allies against Russia and Eastern Europe. To a certain extent, this involved a degree of self-sacrifice on the part of the US ruling class, for the greater good of the system as a whole. The United States correctly thought of itself as a global power with the task of restoring economic health to parts of Europe and indeed Japan, which were important to revive—not least as customers for US goods—but also as part of facing down the Stalinist regimes in the East. So Washington was prepared to encourage the emergence of the EEC, knowing that it would eventually be an economic competitor but prepared to do so in the knowledge that it would face no political competition because the EEC would be subordinate to the United States in the Cold War. The relationship between the EU and US geopolitical strategy did not, however, end with the fall of the USSR; it is no accident that before the East European states were allowed to join the EU after 1991 the United States insisted that they first join NATO.

The third driver was the need for West European capital to seek markets and sources of investment beyond the boundaries of the individual nation-states, during a period (roughly 1950–1973) which saw the biggest and most sustained growth the system has ever undergone or is ever likely to undergo again. This expansion was of course happening when the western powers were losing their colonies, meaning that the classical imperialist strategy of exporting capital to India or wherever was no longer going to be feasible. So the original six countries of the EEC became the initial terrain of investment and expansion for capital needing a home, which then expanded further outward as new members joined.

The fourth driver was the need to avoid protectionism, which was widely, if not entirely accurately seen as having prolonged the crisis of the 1930s. But while the EEC did tear down protectionist tariff barriers within Europe, it maintained tariff barriers against the Global South, and its member states continued to dump goods and destroy industries there, a strategy enshrined in the Common Agricultural Policy, which Nigel Harris once memorably described as “a criminal conspiracy” against humanity.

The condition for establishing the EEC was that the various states possessed approximately the same level of capitalist development with broadly the same kind of social democratic welfare regimes. In the UK we often delude ourselves about our welfare state being the greatest in the world, especially—and plausibly—when compared with the United States; but in comparison with the original member states of the EEC, this is only true in relation to the National Health Service, not in terms of hours worked, paid holidays, and so on. In some respects the EEC was superior to the UK from quite early on.

Unsurprisingly then, the original EU embodied the same kind of Keynesian liberal democratic lines as most of the member states of the time, but, of course, it is not something independent of the capitalist system and as the turn to neoliberalism evolved through the 1970s the EU began to reflect that change.

The neoliberal turn: Two phases

The neoliberal turn took place in two phases. The first occurred when Britain joined in 1973 and voted to stay in 1975, altering the balance of power within the EEC. Thatcher’s subsequent election in 1979 was followed by her successful attempt to push the EEC to the right. Next the Mitterrand government, within two years of coming to power, abandoned all its promises to achieve positive reforms for the working class and turned to neoliberalism.

The person responsible for that shift was a man called Jacques Delors, a member of the French Socialist Party, and its finance minister. Later he became the president of the European Commission. As a supposed socialist, he was able to sell the whole idea of the EU as an essentially social-democratic, solidaristic institution to the British Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party in the late 1980s. So the person responsible for imposing neoliberalism in France also sold it to the British workers movement. Ever since it has become a part of the self-deception of the trade unions that the EU is their friend.

This whole shift of the labor movement and its reformist representatives behind the EU begins to cohere around 1986 with the adoption of the Single European Act. It is at this time that the seduction of the left by the EU really gets consolidated. Most of the European and certainly the British Left used to be hostile to the EU. Revolutionaries voted to leave the EU in 1975, and so did the fascists, but no one then said that we were lining up with them. But with Thatcher’s election, Kohl’s election in Germany, and Mitterrand’s capitulation in France, there was an enormous shift. The Single European Act goes through, and the Left adopts EU as something worth defending.

The second phase began in 1991 and set the EU on course toward the current austerity regime. There were three elements to this phase:

The first was the fall of the Stalinist regimes, after which most of the East European states were desperate to join the EU. This changed the composition of the EU in a fundamental way, shifting it from a club of richer countries with more less the same level of development to a formation with a much higher level of unevenness. But all were nevertheless asked to cohere around a common project, above all adoption of the Euro.

The second phase, and this was decisive, was the reunification of Germany, introducing a massive new state in the middle of Europe, which was both the biggest in territory and in population. In other words, the outcome that the European project was originally initiated to avoid, the dominance of Germany, had now come about.

The third phase was the introduction of the Euro as a shared currency. The French insisted on this as their price for allowing Germany to reunify. They argued that the only way to reign in Germany’s ambition was to make everyone adhere to a new currency. This is a big mistake. Germany has far greater economic power than any other member-state and the European Central Bank is essentially modeled on the Bundesbank—even down to its obsession with fighting inflation. Now, inflation has not been a general problem for capitalism in over twenty years, and for the last seven years—with the partial exception of energy—deflation has been a bigger issue. Nonetheless, the European Central Bank and the Bundesbank have pushed for austerity, cutting wages, and all the rest in order to combat a nonexistent danger.

These developments fundamentally changed the balance of power within the EU, which used to involve Germany and France, with Italy tagging along,and Britain influential in some areas but always semidetached. Now Italy is totally out of the picture, France has lost its former position as co-hegemon, Britain has voted to leave, and Germany has become the dominant power in the EU. So clearly there is no equality between nations in the EU. In fact, its structure enshrines and freezes the hierarchical power relations between states within the European Union itself.

To compound the problem, the Maastricht convergence criteria beginning in November 1993, requires member states to control inflation, maintain deficits of no more than 3 percent of GDP, and limit national debt to 60 percent of GDP. For states joining the Euro, interest rates have to be no more than 2 percent higher than the average of three countries with the lowest inflation rates. This may sound complicated, but the results are straightforward: It requires states to accept a level of austerity like that which brought Greece to its knees. That applies to everything because Germany imposes uniform rules. They defend it  by saying it’s a level playing field. That’s a lie. There are massive uneven levels of development between countries and the bigger powers in the EU, especially Germany, thus have an enormous advantage over all their fellow members.

Structures against reforms

Now the question is: can the EU be reformed? The cry from the left Remain camp is that “We’re better in than out and in we have some power to influence the structures themselves.” In reality, the EU is structured in such a fashion that it is nearly impossible to reform it in any meaningful or serious way.

First of all there are structures that are totally undemocratic, like the European Central Bank (ECB). It is, of course, completely unelected. The interesting American conservative commentator, Edward Luttwak wrote a great book called Turbo Capitalism that is almost Marxist in its analysis. (He also believes, incidentally, that eastern Europe was state capitalist.) He argues that what he calls “central-bankism,” especially as practiced by the Bundesbank and the ECB, is one of the main obstacles to reviving the economy in Europe and America. He argues that if you got a bunch of trade unionists and businesspeople together in a room, they would come up with better positions than the central banks currently do. He rightly says the ECB is not an independent instrument. It’s modeled on the German Bundesbank and is utterly committed to its austerity regime.

Then there is the European Court of Justice. This must not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights or the Human Rights Act. It is a totally different institution, but in Britain they are always being confused, often quite deliberately. The European Court of Justice is made up of unelected judges. It’s tasked with interpreting European Union law and ensuring that the laws of individual countries are compatible with the EU’s overall positions. It has a totally undemocratic structure.

Then there is the European Commission—the central body really and absolutely at the core of the EU. It is also completely unelected. Its members are nominated by the individual countries and serve for a fixed period of time. The Commission has the right to propose legislation; it also issues directives, decisions, and resolutions. Its decisions are binding on all EU countries. It also represents the interests of EU states externally with countries like the United States. It is the decisive body and is utterly committed to neoliberalism, as indeed are most of the countries that make up the membership of the EU. If you think of the people responsible for this, they are people like New Labour architect Peter Mandelson and Jean-Claude Junker, who was for twenty years the president of Luxemburg, a country that primarily exists as the world’s biggest tax haven.

The European Council is made up of the heads of state of the member countries. These people are elected to govern in their own countries, but they are not elected to govern Europe. Yet they do come together to act as a governing body over Europe. And these are very unequal powers. So British representatives have much more power than a small country like Cyprus. The Council gets together as a hydra-headed monster of different committees. It’s worth noting that in this undemocratic structure, 90 percent of people who lobby represent business interests. Only 5 percent of lobbyers deal with worker’s rights, environmental protections, and so forth.

So what about the European Parliament? It is, of course, made of people who are elected. Perry Anderson describes it in his book The Old New World as playing the same role as the monarchy does in Britain. It has no actual or real power; it can’t propose legislation, but only amend or send back legislation that comes from the Commission. It has only symbolic value. We have to be clear about this. It can’t generate any legislation. That’s because it isn’t actually a governing body. The governing body is the European Commission and its associated bureaucracies. They run the entire thing. People often say to me that the Commission’s bureaucracy is not really that big. But that doesn’t matter. Regardless of its size, the bureaucracy expects the individual nation states to carry out its rules and regulations.

We saw this in Greece, when Finance Minister Varoufakis went to meet the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) of which the IMF representatives were actually the most willing to compromise. (Just think about that, if you will: the IMF, the body that we have to thank for the structural adjustment program, was less inclined than the Commission and the ECB to enforce the austerity regime.) In the end, the Troika said, “Sorry, Yanis, old boy, but the rules are the rules. We don’t take a mandate from the people of Greece or indeed from any people at all. That would go against the way that the treaties are formulated. So get with the program and go back and start slashing pensions, restricting child benefits, and cutting healthcare benefits for things like pain-killing drugs. That is what is necessary for you to impose the austerity regime and pay off your debt.”

The structure of the EU also explains why it’s going into crisis. It is a halfway house between the original Common Market and the “ever-closer” political union the treaties envisage. The latter is not quite the “European Super State,” which Nigel Farage and UKIP fear, or pretend to fear. It’s halfway-house status has the worst of both worlds. In the EU, unlike in Britain, you can’t transfer funds from one country to another. In Britain, you direct state funding to different regions to address needs in particular areas like Scotland. That cannot happen in the EU. You can’t transfer money to Greece. Instead the ECB loans it money that the Greek state has to pay back. So it doesn’t function as a nation state although it has some of the attributes of one.

So these are the difficulties that the EU poses. Everyone is forced to conform to a set of conditions that most of the states cannot actually achieve. Within the Eurozone it is obviously impossible for individual member-states to increase the money supply (“quantitative easing”), but neither can they alter interest rates or devalue currency. The only ways to achieve competitiveness is unemployment, wage cuts—or emigration. The result is a permanent low level of growth, massive unemployment—particularly among the young where it is as high as 50 percent in some areas—and the rise of the far right as a populist response to the EU-wide neoliberal regime.


These were some of the reasons why I thought it was necessary to argue for Leave, whatever other people—including those on the far right—were arguing. You have got to be honest with people. It would have been wrong to avoid discussing the crimes of the EU during the campaign, on the grounds that this wasn’t “the right time.” You can’t put off the question of dealing with the actual issue of what the EU is and what it does to some better time, because that better time may never come. If Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party, becomes prime minister and finds his plans stymied by the EU, perhaps that is the time for this discussion; at that point it would be a suitably “left” occasion to argue about the EU. One can imagine the conversation: “Sorry we didn’t mention during the referendum campaign that the EU is actually a racist neoliberal machine for imposing austerity. That must have slipped our mind because we were so worried about the rise of the far right.” Who would believe you if you came and said that to them after not having talked about it earlier on?

First, socialists have to accept the result of the referendum, in the same way that we would have expected others to accept the result of the Scottish referendum if it had been Yes. The idea of ignoring it, or running the referendum again until “we” (i.e. the Guardian-reading middle classes) get the “right” result (i.e., the one most of the British and global ruling class want), is deeply undemocratic—although there are many precedents in the history of the EU. The starting point should instead be to campaign for the right of all migrants currently in the UK—whether on an EU passport or not—to remain, and in the longer term, to fight for open borders regardless of the UK’s or its component’s relationship to the EU. 

Second, and specifically in relation to Scotland, socialists there have to argue against Scotland remaining—or more plausibly—joining the EU. If Scotland joins the EU and is forced to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria—let alone adopt the euro—it would mean austerity worse than anything we’ve seen before. We have to argue against Scottish accession to the EU however hard it may be, because that is the only honest and revolutionary approach.

Finally, we have to have a genuine internationalist position that goes beyond winning a better deal for each individual member-state. We have to argue with comrades in Portugal, Greece, Spain, and beyond that a progressive future, let alone a socialist one, is impossible within the EU, not only within the Eurozone.

The EU may break up of its own internal contradictions over the long term. In any event, that kind of collapse—the result of structural failure rather than conscious intervention—is unlikely to benefit the working class. No, it will have to be destroyed, and perhaps the most serious argument facing the European Left at the moment is to convince a majority of comrades of this necessity.








[1] An unsuccessful challenger for Tory Party leadership.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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