The socialist case for remaining in the European Union is not straightforward. Nor is it easy to sell to a disengaged public. Superficially, ‘Brexit’ appears more attractive inferring as it does that ‘if we leave the EU, our problems will be over’.
The opinion polls suggest, arithmetically at least, the left could tip the balance on 23 June. This potential was highlighted when Cameron met TUC leaders and agreed to drop features of his anti-union Bill in return for their backing his case to ‘Remain’.
Ironically, the left’s case for remaining is hindered by Cameron who threatens, inter alia, ‘Tough new restrictions on access to our welfare system for new EU migrants. They will not have access to benefits until they have worked here for up to four years’ if he wins. This attack on migrants is one of many differences ‘Remainers’ on the left have with the right.
It is little wonder the SSP describes a vote to remain in the EU as ‘the lesser of two evils’. For both propositions are bedevilled by unattractive arguments and dubious ‘bedfellows’. This is a referendum only UKIP and the Tory right wanted. And tempting as it is to adopt the attitude ‘my enemies defeat is my victory’, the left must resist it and examine the political circumstances rather more objectively. The choice then is not between left and right. It is a tactical question.
The EU is an anti-democratic organisation gripped by neo-liberal finance capital. The socialist case for remaining is about changing that utterly. It is about working to convert the EU into an organisation that puts the needs of 500m people ahead of corporate elites. A 21st century EU could guarantee full employment with a living wage for all. It could push for publicly provided universal healthcare and education across the continent. Rich in resources and talent it could ensure Europe’s great wealth is shared out among all its citizens. There is no lack of ambition in that goal.
But if our objective is to transform the EU along these lines, the question is how? Left ‘Remainers’ are therefore obliged to bring forward detailed plans to democratise and ‘socialise’ the EU. The idiosyncratic former Greek Finance Minister, Janis Varoufakis, provides some suggestions in his recent book, And the weak suffer what they must?
He refreshes the French triptych ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’, arguing: ‘No European nation [or people] can be free as long as another’s democracy is violated. None can live in dignity as long as others are denied it. None can hope for prosperity if another is pushed into permanent insolvency and depression’ [p233]. Varoufakis proposes several basic demands such as open transparent decision-making to undermine the secrecy of the Brussels bureaucracy, the primacy of the rule of law applied equally to all and the terms of trade regulated to be mutually beneficial and fair to all sides. Such basic demands are far reaching in their implications for the future of the EU.
The answer to the ‘How?’ question then is by mobilising those political forces of like mind to transform the EU in this direction. Tariq Ali and Neil Davidson are among those on the ‘left leave’ side who disagree with this approach. Speaking to them both after a recent RISE election rally in Edinburgh, they insisted the EU was an untouchable bureaucracy closed off to such reforms.
But in my view they are wrong. The EU is entirely constrained by European political realities and therefore constantly subject to change. Admittedly recent reforms have been driven by the right, by neo-liberal finance capital and not the left. But all EU Treaties reflect the political balance of class forces in Europe at the time. And, in recent decades these have reflected the supremacy of French and German capital particularly.
Leaving the EU because of its neo-liberal programme is a cop out. It implies Westminster does not employ the same agenda or pose the same risks. No, the left must face the harsh realities behind our pan-European weakness. That is one lesson from Greece we must learn. The Italian left has a saying ‘la lotta continua’ – the struggle continues. And that ‘struggle’ needs a serious programme and strategy to transform the EU. Those who seek to oppose the EU’s attacks on working people need to link up far more effectively. That is the conclusion that confronts all of us on the left regardless of the outcome of the vote on 23 June.
Colin Fox is the national co-spokesperson of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)