By Bruce Wallace in personal capacity
I campaigned against joining the European Community in 1975 when I was a 19 year old member of the Labour Party Young Socialists. The world is a very different place nowadays. Then the EU only had 9 members. Now it has 38 member states with a population of 500 million.
The official campaign rejecting EU membership in 1975 was Out into the World. This was an umbrella organisation, but its main leader was the late Tony Benn, Labour ‘s minister for energy. A young Jeremy Corbyn was also part of the No campaign.
Benn’s main argument was that the EU was a “capitalist club” that would erode British democracy and destroy jobs.
I agreed with part of this criticism. The EU was and is definitely a capitalist project to build an alternative economic power block for the European capitalist class in order to compete on the world market. It was intrinsically undemocratic given it had power to overrule the governments of member states, but I never warmed to the idea that I was campaigning to defend British sovereignty. This was a nationalist aspect of the campaign I rejected.
Unfortunately, Out into the World joined forces with some of the most right-wing members of the Tory party during the campaign. Labour left wingers shared joint platforms with the likes of Enoch Powell, for example.
The Militant-controlled Young Socialists rejected the official No campaign and refused to share platforms with Tories and other reactionaries. We campaigned separately for a No vote but called for a United Socialist States of Europe and at that time this slogan gained an echo.
We lost the vote, but the key point about the EU being a reactionary capitalist project has been completely borne out by history in the form of an economic catastrophe for the working class of southern Europe. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the major export of the EU has been crisis and its citizens emigrating to find work. Need we be reminded of the youth unemployment rates of Greece (49.9%), Spain (45.3%), Italy (39.1%) and Portugal (30%).
Greek society has practically returned to the Stone Age by the depredations of the Troika (EU, ECB and IMF). The EU rides roughshod over the democratic rights of the peoples of the depression hit states.
In Portugal, for instance, the Left-Bloc won an outright majority of 50.7% of the vote in a general election in October 2015. Led by the Socialists on a programme of ending wage cuts and Troika austerity, the president of Portugal, Anibal Cavaco Silva, refused to appoint a Left-Bloc government. He invited the defeated Conservatives to continue as a minority administration to satisfy the demands of Brussels and the financial markets!
This despotic rule of the EU capitalist elite is stoking up inflammable material for a revolutionary conflagration of continental proportions. The workers of the depression-hit states will fight back against this flagrant crushing of their democratic rights.
Marxists are internationalists
Marxists must see the bigger picture. As Karl Marx and Frederik Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:
“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”
The key point here is the phrase independently of all nationality. This means we do not place the interests of British workers over and above the interests of other sections of the working class in any other nation.
EU no defender of worker’s rights
This brings me to the current UK EU referendum. Never has the left, unlike 1975, been so divided and confused. Three positions have surfaced; Remain, Abstain or Lexit (a left vote for exit).
The Remain camp includes Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party and many Labour MP’s. In his limp capitulation to the Labour right wing Corbyn has backed staying in the EU saying a vote to stay is to protect worker’s rights. In reality this is a delusion. The EU certainly has legislation in place applying to British workers like Health and Safety regulations or the Working Time Directive. Yet even a report commissioned by the TUC about EU legislation noted of the Working Time Directive:
“An empirical study in 2003, for example, found that about 90 per cent of employees in the manufacturing, financial, engineering and legal sectors were subject to individual opt-outs, as well as almost 100 per cent of managerial staff in the hotel and catering sector, and between 10-15 per cent of staff in the health sector.”
Furthermore, most of the workers’ rights mentioned by Remain were already UK law, like paternity leave and other rights, where the UK far exceeds the EU minimum already, such as maternity leave. Equal pay also existed before Britain joined the EU. The minimum wage was established without any EU legislation, for example. This is a complete red herring by the Labour Party and Trade Union bureaucracy who have hardly been the staunchest defenders of workers’ rights in practice.
The EU is no defender of workers’ rights. Currently, French workers are battling the “Socialist” government of Hollande who is hell bent on “reform” of French labour law, but in reality the target is the hard won rights of the working class. This offensive in the name of austerity has been welcomed by Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commissioner for the Euro and Social Dialogue (?). France is still under a Commission-imposed excessive deficit procedure which requires drastic cuts in public spending. These proposed reforms are a direct response to demands from Brussels in line with the EU executive’s analysis of the French economy. The EU is demanding that restrictions on the sacking of workers be abolished and other so-called restrictive practices.
The French workers aren’t taking this lying down and have responded with a rolling strike wave hitting transport and mounting mass street demonstrations involving pitched battles with the riot police. Dombrovskis said “we are paying close attention to the political debate (?) and we understand that this bill must strike the right balance”. I bet they are – in order ensure that the French government doesn’t retreat in the face of the militant opposition of the French working class.
It really is a sad joke that the defence of workers’ rights is being used to try to rally the working class to vote to remain in the bosses’ EU. They peddle the idea that overnight, should Britain leave, workers would lose all employment rights and we would become a sweat shop! This scare tactic is a sign of desperation. It assumes that after a Brexit, because of the tenor of the campaign, a right-wing Tory government would come to power with Boris Johnston as PM. This is a sweeping assumption.
Certainly, EU legislation would disappear and British bosses would like to “liberalise” labour legislation, but they would face mass opposition against it and it isn’t clear what political complexion a future government would have. The major difference would be that British workers could vote for a party that opposed any such changes and would be unencumbered by any “directives” from the EU.
In my view, French workers would see a Brexit vote as a major blow against the vampire squid of the EU Commission. It would seriously undermine its legitimacy and show that it can be defeated. It would embolden the workers of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere to take action against the Troika on a national and European scale.
The EU is a straight jacket which controls the ability of member states to break with the economic programme of the European capitalist class. That programme is for a neo-liberal economic strategy of privatisation and the use of the European working class as a massive reserve army to drive down wages and boost capitalist profitability. For example, the proposed economic programme of Jeremy Corbyn of renationalising the railways and founding a national investment bank, limited and illusory though it is, would be illegal under EU law!
In this sense Tony Benn was absolutely right that the EU was an undemocratic project run in the interests of the bosses that took away Britain’s right to govern itself, but for the working class it isn’t the question of sovereignty itself but its ability to vote for a party that can actually implement its programme if elected. Effectively, the EU means that no member state government can introduce a programme for socialist change. Marxists who fail to understand this and somehow think that the EU has redeeming progressive features are blind to the reactionary core of the institution.
Given the way the referendum was called because of a schism in the Tory party and the fact that the Labour establishment has gone over to the Remain camp, the campaign has been dominated by the arguments of the Right from both Remain and Leave. With Labour collapsing into the pro-EU camp, the Brexit campaign has been led by the right-wing of the Tory party and by the populist demagogue Nigel Farage of UKIP. This has skewed the public debate and left the Brexit campaign in the hands of the Little-Englanders. This has led some on the Left to call for workers to abstain (spoil your ballot paper). This is the cry of a pox on both your houses, that the working class shouldn’t get involved in a dispute between two sections of the capitalist class.
However, Marxists should be clear. Despite the campaign for Brexit being dominated by right-wing demagogues, the forces of big capital are overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. The working class cannot remain aloof during this struggle and, despite our small forces, must put forward an independent class position and campaign for leaving the EU.
The reason for this is simple. Millions of workers are moving towards voting Leave. Their reasons may be contradictory. They may have been influenced by some of the arguments of the Brexiters in relation to immigration but, at root, the working class is deeply concerned about the destruction of social services and continual downward pressure on living standards. The right-wing Brexiters have been able to tap into these concerns because the traditional organisations of the working class have deserted them on this question, but the surge in support for Brexit represents a deep and growing resentment with the political status quo.
We have to counter the arguments of the right-wing Brexiters and explain why continued membership of the EU is against the interests of the working class in the UK and Europe as a whole. Abstentionism isn’t a sign of independence but of prostration and powerlessness.
Lenin and Trotsky back the EU (apparently)!
Amazingly, various quotes from Lenin and Trotsky have been cited to attempt to justify voting to remain in the EU. For instance, Trotsky’s position on the 1935 Saarland referendum and on the Red referendum in 1931 have been churned out to justify voting to remain in the capitalist EU!
While Trotsky’s examples from the 1930s don’t apply to the EU question today, it is even more absurd that Lenin’s strictures from Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder have been called on. It suggests that Marxists who are for a Lexit from the EU are somehow indulging in anti-parliamentarian ultra-leftism and that we are arguing for a boycott of the European parliament. No, we are arguing to leave the EU completely!
One could laugh because Lenin was criticising those Lefts who saw participation in parliaments and elections themselves as a diversion from the class struggle. For Marxists, involvement in elections and seeking positions in parliament are obligatory in order to get our message across, not to buy into the capitalist political system.
Comparing British political institutions, like the civil service and monarchy, and then suggesting that EU institutions are somehow more progressive, completely misses the point.
The European parliament is a parliament in name only. True, there are elections for MEPs but the institutions of power in the EU aren’t elected – they are appointed and can’t be removed by elections! In her article, Joanne Telfer, for example, cites the existence of the British monarchy and civil service and says:
“Given these obstacles it seems unlikely that a socialist transformation is going to begin in Britain, more likely it will spread from the European continent.”
This shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation in Britain and on the continent. The reason why we are opposed to the EU is because it is a bulwark against socialist transformation throughout Europe including the UK.