In the final part of our two part series, Michael Rafferty explains why he supports the UK staying in the EU and why he thinks you should too.
The equation that ‘what is bad for capitalism is good for the worker’ is what is behind the thinking of much of the Left’s support for the ‘out’ campaign in the upcoming referendum on UK membership of the European Union.
This equation is not merely simplistic – it is fundamentally wrong. Left-leaning people all over the UK should be actively campaigning to keep the UK in the EU, and become more attuned to the dynamics of European decision-making in order to have an impact on it.
However, the task of making a positive left-wing case for continued membership of the EU is constrained by the popularly-held myth that the EU is ‘unreformable’, and the unmistakeably neo-liberal case being made by the ‘in’ campaign.
There are two gaps which the Left needs to fill: i) what a left-wing EU looks like and how to get to it, and ii) matching or reducing the strength of industrial lobbying in EU decision-making.
That the EU’s current policies are a reflection of the second neo-liberal shift in European politics, after the fall of the Soviet Union should come as no surprise. Deregulation, financialisation, and austerity are all policies for which the EU can be held responsible for promulgating, particularly since and in response to the 2008 financial crisis.
In contrast to this relatively recent neo-liberalism, the EU also has a formidable history in progressive social policy, inclusion of trade unionism in industrial policy, and pro-active programmes of citizen education, exchange and dialogue.
But the question is not ‘do you like what the EU has been doing?’ It will be on whether the UK establishment will have to operate within the constraints imposed by other member states, or freely of them.
European legislation conceded by the UK is the sharpest tool in the arsenal for activists trying to force regional government in Northern Ireland to liberalise abortion laws, advance LGBTQ rights and prevent irreversible damage to the environment. Were it not for successive ‘pro-business’ opt-outs by the UK government, they could add the Working Time Directive and other strings to their bow.
A central tenet of Green political thinking is that democratic decision-making should occur at the lowest effective level. For several issues of global social importance, this is the European Union.
What is the ‘lowest effective level’ of government when one considers climate change, the refugee crisis and the mobility of European citizens for work, study or leisure? Local, regional, and national tiers of democratic authority cannot possibly grapple with these mutually critical issues in a coordinated manner without some form of democratic collaborative structure. The UK outside this structure would renege on as many commitments as possible, particularly under a Conservative government.
The logical outcome of a ‘no’ vote is unclear – but a withdrawal from the EU would precipitate a subsequent negotiation around the dismantling of various deeply embedded legislation, from the Human Rights Act to Equal Pay and the vast swathes of Environmental legislation that the UK has transposed into national law. The Tories would be in their element. Fracking all over, unfettered mining and mineral extraction, destroying renewable energy production… it would be a field day for any Eurosceptic conservative whose concerns are purely commercial and limited to ‘red tape’ and victimising immigrants.
Thankfully, the European Union will remain in existence, and continue to have influence over the UK’s affairs, regardless of a UK exit. This would, hopefully, limit some of the destruction that could be wrought by a victorious Eurosceptic heir to a defeated and resigned Cameron. But it begs the question – if the effect is the same, why throw away your influence over it?
The policy of the EU is primarily informed by the national governments of the member states and the Commissioners they appoint. The challenge for the Left in respect of the EU is therefore simple to express – change your national and regional political landscape and you change that of Europe.
The EU as a democratic system has a lot in common with local authorities in Northern Ireland. The agenda is set and leadership provided by a neo-liberal consensus of the unelected bureaucracy, business and the political establishment. Decision-making is influenced through overt lobbying of officials and elected members. Funding is distributed through well-meaning programmes to the anointed few. Elected chambers are ignored, utilised or disenfranchised as necessary.
Should ‘left-wing’ councillors therefore simply resign their seats and disengage with the system because they don’t like it? No – they use their hard-fought position to bring influence upon a system which is geared against them. Such is the nature of any honestly progressive democratic pursuit in 2015.
All international, democratic frameworks with a social and economic remit, facilitating free movement and opportunities for redistribution of wealth should be enthusiastically participated in by those seeking real change.
Those on the Left arguing for UK withdrawal from the EU underestimate the current fanatically neo-liberal agenda of both government and media, and overestimate opportunities for the sprouting of ‘something new’ once the UK has withdrawn. It’s not hard to see that immigration and the defence of borders will frame the overall agenda, the EU’s caution on coming to a deal on TTIP will be replaced by total compliance from the UK.
One caveat for my support of membership of the EU is around TTIP – which isn’t agreed until it is all agreed. If the European Union in its current state is a hard sell, under TTIP it will be unrecognisable. All of the saving graces of the EU are worth holding onto if the alternative is the USA-lite model TTIP promises.
The effect of a serious ‘out’ campaign from ostensibly ‘Left’ organisations would have little effect other than providing a left-flank for the nationalist right in English politics. The price of ideological purity is to enable the most objectionable sections of both elite and populist nationalism against the interests of the majority in society.
The current fanatical neo-liberal hegemony in charge of the EU has bitten off more than it can chew, and its time at the helm is coming to an end. Just like the Blairite tendency within social democracy before it, its demise leaves an unmissable opportunity for those interested in instigating a serious social and economic change in direction affecting more than 500 million citizens. The EU elite’s arrogance (and frustration) over the TTIP negotiations and its incoherence around providing for the influx of refugees from Syria and Africa bear testament to this loss of control and authority. The conditions are currently perfect for a polemic of the current elite which could have serious political impact across the member states – the UK included – and improve the strength and standing of left and centre-left internationalist organisations within their domestic context.
Decades of industrial lobbying have, over time, produced an EU that works for the interest of capital. Those same decades have produced the groundswell in popular disaffection with regressive policies that has seen elected Corbyn leader of the UK Labour Party. The challenge for the Left really is to provide an alternative EU to the grinning ‘consensus’ of the austerity-focused government parties across Europe. Only by developing linkages, alliances and alternative policies will the Left be able to assert itself against the industry-bureaucracy duopoly within the European decision-making system and gradually tilt the spirit-level of European power. That is the only productive course of action left – to throw the towel in leaves the power where it currently is.
My advice to those who see themselves as ‘on the left’ – reject both the cringeworthy business-driven nonsense of the ‘in’ campaign and the self-harming naivety of the ‘out’ comrades.
Europe is changing whether the UK is ‘in’ or ‘out’ – use the referendum as an opportunity to internationalise your own political activities and develop an alternative vision for a redistributive, socially progressive and environmentally responsible European system.
Michael Rafferty is a member of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and a postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast.