As the campaigns for and against EU membership heat up, how should the left respond to the issues of the referendum and EU membership? In the first of a two part series, Kevin Henry gives the Socialist case for leaving the EU.
Opposition to the European Union is often presumed to be xenophobic and right-wing. However, there have also been voices from the left opposed to the EU, including figures like Tony Benn and Bob Crow. In the last year, a number left-wing commentators who were previously pro-EU, such as Owen Jones and George Monbiot, have had a rethink and have been won to the need for the left to oppose this institution. They did so in light of events over the last year, from struggle against austerity in Greece to the EU’s role in the refugee crisis.
An anti-worker EU
The ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund have waged class war on the people of Europe, driving an austerity agenda which has had horrific humanitarian consequences. After years of crippling austerity, SYRIZA came to power in Greece with a mandate to end austerity. This was arrogantly dismissed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, who stated, “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
Then, in the referendum on 5 July 2015, a magnificent 61% people voted ‘Oxi’ to a new austerity deal despite the blackmail of the Troika. What happened next was described by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, as “terrorism” and an by EU official as “extensive mental waterboarding.”’ The EU responded by threatening an immediate banking crisis by cutting off access to liquidity.
The Greek government capitulated and billions more austerity measures have been imposed on the country’s people. SYRIZA are now responsible for imposing austerity primarily because they didn’t have a program that was prepared to break with the framework of the EU and capitalism itself.
These events show how the politics of austerity is institutionalised into the EU by successive treaties and pacts. Restrictions are placed on government deficits, public spending and national budgets are “monitored”. The so-called Fiscal Stability Treaty states that government deficits must not exceed 3% of GDP and public debt must not exceed 60% of GDP. This effectively renders not just socialist policies but also Keynesian and social democratic measures illegal.
This will have real consequences for left governments elected anywhere in Europe, including a Corbyn-led government in Britain. If Corbyn was to implement the popular policies which saw him elected as Labour leader – such as nationalisation of the railways and energy companies – he would find himself in a confrontation with the EU, whose laws and directives forbid such actions. Even to stop the dismantling of the NHS would mean violating EU competition laws.
We are told by some that the EU acts as a check on the Tories. However, the British government already has opt-outs to many relatively progressive EU employment laws such as the Working Time Directive. Other EU employment regulations such as the Posted Workers’ Directive – which allows migrant workers to be paid less than the legal minimum in their host country – are designed specifically to drive down wages. In 2009, this Directive was used in an attempt to undermine conditions for construction workers at Lindsay Oil Refinery, provoking a series of strikes.
More fundamentally, our rights were not granted from on high by benevolent EU leaders but won from below by workers’ struggle. A jewel in the crown of EU employment law is the Equal Pay Directive, which formally guarantees equal pay for women. This was won first by the mass strikes in France after the World War II. Later, the French government demanded equal pay be included in the Treaty of Rome as they feared being at a trade disadvantage. However, it was only much later that this law was enforced across Europe, again following the heroic strikes of women munitions workers in Belgium, Ford workers in Britain and countless others in the decades that followed.
The same can be said of environmental laws and many other rights. However, this is all now up for grabs with the proposed EU-US free trade agreement known as TTIP. It will erode workers’ rights, environmental protections, increase unemployment, and incredibly allow businesses to sue governments for passing laws that limit their profits, including bans on fracking or minimum wage increases!
EU has blood on its hands
If the idea that the EU defends workers is laughable, then the idea that it is a force for peace and human rights is a sick joke. It may have won a Noble Prize but ‘Fortress Europe’, with its appalling treatment of refugees fleeing for their lives from Syria and elsewhere, shows the reality. At the time of writing, the EU is even doing a dirty deal with the reactionary Turkish state to stop refugees entering Europe. Its policies have seen the death of tens of thousands trying to enter Europe. The EU now plans to establish a border agency which will act to reinforce this racist migration policy.
The western government solution to the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS is more brutal wars. The EU is increasingly an important part of this militarism. Billions of euros from the EU are spent on arms research, including developing drones and funding the Israeli state’s war against Palestinian people. They have also established “battle groups” of thousands of soldiers that can be deployed anywhere in the world. Successive EU treaties demand that member states spend money on arms and engage in military alliances.
Another Europe is possible
Many on the left will agree with this assessment of the EU but argue that it can be reformed. I think this is utopian. The EU has almost no mechanisms of democratic accountability, with central decision making in the hands of the European Council, the heads of government of the 28 member states and an increasingly powerful, unelected European Commission. The elected European Parliament is little more than a rubber stamp without the ability to initiate legislation. The majority of MEPs are at the beck and call of an army of 20,000 corporate lobbyists.
The only reforms we are seeing from the EU are right-wing counter-reforms. The negotiations that Cameron is currently engaged in are to push for more reactionary opt-outs for Britain, in particular in relation to restrictions on immigrants and social welfare rights. The model of Europe that they favour is a more “competitive” Europe with less regulation – i.e. more exploitation and fewer rights for workers. It is this that we will most likely be asked to vote ‘Yes’ to.
Many people fear leaving the EU will lead us down a blind alley of nationalism. Leaving the EU doesn’t mean leaving Europe. Even programs like Erasmus, for example, involves a number of non-EU member states. One of the favourite targets of the Tory right, the European Convention on Human Rights, is entirely independent of the EU.
There is nothing genuinely internationalist about the EU. What was internationalist about the EU’s role in Greece? Where is its internationalism when refugees are left to drown in the Mediterranean? The solidarity and internationalism we need is constrained by the EU. It will only come through a struggle for a fundamentally different kind of Europe, one run in the interests of the 99%, not the 1%.
Kevin is an Organiser for the Socialist Party and formerly worked as an Adviser to the radical left in the European Parliament. You can follow him on Twitter here.