Why we should oppose British exit from the EU

Submitted by AWL on 7 October, 2014 - 6:07

“...The slogan of the United States of Europe will in all cases retain a colossal meaning as the political formula of the struggle of the European proletariat for power. In this program is expressed the fact that the national state has outlived itself — as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for the class struggle, and thereby also as a state form of proletarian dictatorship.”

Trotsky wrote about the United States of Europe in 1915, refining his ideas in 1917, after the February Russian Revolution, in the midst of the First World War. Almost a century later, a century of war, we are still for the Socialist United States of Europe (SUSE)!

It was a policy for the socialist movement; Trotsky did not believe that the European ruling classes could unite Europe, although capitalist economic development was clearly outgrowing its national boundaries. That Europe is now belatedly being united piecemeal and bureaucratically by the bourgeoisie, rather than in a democratic, socialist way, is because of the weakness of the socialist movement and its failure to overthrow the bourgeoisies, to prevent two world wars, and to build the Socialist United States of Europe.

The current European integration project, with the European Union (EU) at its core, is a capitalist project, not our project; the capitalists are uniting Europe in their own way for their reasons. We resist the many anti-working class elements in their project, including its overwhelmingly pro-capitalist ideology, bureaucratic structure, and the way the ruling class can use it to over-ride democratic and working-class achievements. Nevertheless, it features elements that are important for our own project:

• Development of the economy, thus developing the basis for socialism;

• Lowering of barriers of all kinds, development of a transnational political terrain;

• The gradual weakening of nationalism, peace between European nations;

• Development of the working class across the continent and bringing them together, evening out the disparities in their lifestyle and culture — our task is to fight for levelling up rather than down.

It will not be possible to reform the EU to such an extent that we can transform it into the SUSE. However, our fight to reform it, waged simultaneously with our fight to reform the nation states that compose it, is an important part of our fight to create what will replace both: at the national level, the workers’ government, at the European level, the SUSE.

The failure of or destruction of the EU before we are in a position to put something better in its place will create a situation less favourable for the realisation of socialism. We do not hope or work for the demise of the EU. A return to a situation like that before the current epoch of capitalist integration, one of fiercely competing nation states, would be an historic setback for the socialist goal, implying renewed prestige for nationalism; hostility between nations and thus between workers of those nations; trade wars; and economic regression.

Support for European unity does not have to imply backing what the dominant capitalists and their servants do, or the way that they do it. It does, however, commit us to European unity and to opposing politically all those who advocate the break-up of the EU and the restoration of the old, long-bankrupt, European bourgeois national-state system. It does commit us to counterpose working-class measures on a European scale to the bourgeois system. Socialists and working-class forces must resist neoliberal/pro-capitalist aspects of the EU; build cross-border links between workers and begin to fight on the European terrain; and campaign for more democracy in the EU.

To some extent, working-class organisations are already forced to do this, whatever their attitude to the EU. Since they are not strong enough to stop it happening, they must fight to make the best of it. This parallels the situation of the working class at the national level. To the extent that capitalist nation states have been civilised, it has been as a result of the action of the working class — nothing was given at the start.

The prevailing views about Europe on the left are Europhobic. Left Europhobes oppose capitalism expanding beyond national borders because, they say, it will entail us “starting again from scratch” on the project of democracy. They are mistaken — we are not starting at zero.

We have developed many tools to help us fight on the European terrain:

• Bourgeois democratic norms (some championed by the EU itself, where different bourgeois and even social-democratic views compete — for example, the EU is an important arena in the struggle against discrimination);

• Organisations (trade unions, parties — some with strength within EU institutions);

• A rich historic experience of international cooperation against nationalism and war.

Concerted effort at a European level has already had results. For example, between 2005 and 2009, a Europe-wide campaign by trade unions and NGOs drew much of the sting of the so-called Bolkestein directive which aimed at increasing the marketisation of public services.

There are many aspects integral to the EU that we can take advantage of, for example, organising together of workers in multinational companies — just as much as at the national level, the capitalist class at the European level creates its own grave-diggers.

The labour movement and socialists are not making the most of the opportunities. In addition, they downplay the enormity of the task of reforming the national states, and often scapegoat the EU as the source and seat of power of neoliberalism. Left Europhobes erroneously characterise the EU as being little more than a conspiracy to rob the labour movement of the gains it has made at each national level.

Of course the bosses will take advantage of any opportunity they get to push back workers’ organisations and take away the gains workers have won through struggle. But the raison d’être of the EU is primarily something else: a reflection of the capitalist economic system outgrowing the bounds of the nation states. This is not something that workers have an interest in stopping.

Of the many objections Left Europhobes raise to the EU, the most sinister is their hostile attitude toward workers migrating, in search of work and a better life, from poorer areas of the EU toward richer.

They echo the far-right, either saying that migrant workers are displacing settled workers — “taking jobs” — or undermining the gains of British workers by accepting lower wages and conditions — “social dumping”.

There is little evidence of migrant workers displacing settled workers but, in any case, our answer to unemployment is the creation of enough jobs for all, through, for example, rebuilding public services, paid for by tax on wealth.

Where bosses attempt to employ migrant workers on lower wages or conditions our answer is to organise those workers and insist that they are paid the same wages and enjoy the same conditions as settled workers.

We are for freedom of movement and for equality: all should have access to jobs and services. If migrants put pressure on public services in some places, the answer is to campaign for adequate public services! These are the campaigns that the left needs to fight, rather than opposing freedom of movement.

We are internationalists; we fight for the interests of the entire working class, not the working class of one or a handful of countries. We say the British labour movement needs more migrant workers! It needs to be invigorated by the spirit shown, for example, by the “3 Cosas” workers at the University of London, almost all of whom are migrant workers.

The left in each country has a responsibility to think critically about its own national history and to reflect on the extent to which the dominant ideas of its society, which are those of the ruling class, have infected their own thinking and those of the working class.

For historic reasons, the British working class tends to be more eurosceptic/phobic than the working class in most other European countries.

That is not because they are more social-democratic, on the contrary, it more reflects the history of British imperialism. We need to be aware of the forces that have influenced thinking on the left, including the utopian/dystopian British Communist Party tradition that advocated “Britain’s Road to Socialism”, separate from Europe. We need to warn against chauvinism, and root it out, in whatever guise it hides itself.

Running scared from UKIP, the Tories have promised an in/out referendum on the EU if they win the general election in 2015. Significant sections of the labour movement are pushing Labour to offer a referendum.

Reflecting the boost in the fortunes of right-wing populism across Europe, UKIP came first in the British European Parliamentary election in 2014, promising to take the UK out of Europe. The Tories and UKIP, reflecting the range of views across the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, are divided between those who believe they can better exploit workers outside the EU, and those who believe they can better exploit workers inside the EU.

The labour movement and socialists should not politically side with, or take responsibility for, the policy of either bourgeois faction. We are not “for” the EU any more than we are “for” the British state.

However, we recognise that, after decades of integration (both of capital, and, to an extent, social integration, due to the freedom of movement), a UK withdrawal from the EU, under pressure from the Tory right and UKIP, would be reactionary, and would predominantly benefit the far right and racists.

In the past, we have raised the idea of an “active abstention” on referenda concerning particular projects within the EU framework — the single currency, or the European Constitutional Treaty. An “in/out” referendum on UK membership of the EU is not the same. In this situation, our general stance is to oppose withdrawal.

The UK left is in general Europhobic rather than Europhile, and we have a particular duty to warn of the dangers of that prejudice. The road to the SUSE has to be the road of building European working-class unity, the road of class struggle, the road of fighting one’s own bourgeoisie and one’s own nationalism and chauvinism, in the spirit of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who raised the cry in 1914: “The main enemy is at home.”

Socialists that oppose the EU will boost the fortunes of the nationalist right.

While it is possible to be organisationally separate from Right Europhobes (though Left Europhobes often fail to manage even that), to the ears of most workers, a “left-wing” “no to the EU” (e.g., No2EU, “Non de gauche” [French far-left slogan in the 2005 campaign against the proposed European Constitutional Treaty]) sounds no different to a right-wing “no to the EU”. Particularly since the Left Europhobes often deploy right-wing arguments, for example, they can be found defending “sovereignty”, sowing illusions in the British state, or opposing “social dumping”, which sometimes amounts to little better than opposing immigration.

On the issue of whether we support the holding of a referendum at all, we say, while socialists are not in principle against a referendum, we see the Tories’ call for a referendum for what it is: a ploy to boost their chances in the General Election.

We say: In or out, the class fight goes on, but rather EU membership than withdrawal.

Our slogans in a referendum would be on the lines of:

• Oppose withdrawal from the EU

• Reduce borders, don’t raise them

• Support free movement across Europe

• Oppose the present neo-liberal and bureaucratic regime of the EU, support workers’ unity to fight for democratic reforms, for social levelling-up, and for a socialist Europe.

• For a republican United States of Europe! Scrap the existing bureaucratic structures and replace them with a sovereign elected European Parliament with full control over all EU affairs.

• Fight to level up working-class living standards and conditions. For a common campaign for a legal 35-hour week.

• Fight for a guaranteed decent European minimum wage.

• For a Europe-wide emergency programme of public works to tackle unemployment and social exclusion. Workers’ control of the big multinationals, to steer production toward need and to guarantee every worker the right to a decent job.

• For Europe-wide public ownership of the big banks, and democratic control of credit and monetary policy.

• For the replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy with a plan worked out by workers’ and small farmers’ organisations, based on the public ownership of land. Food production should be geared to the needs of the world’s hungry people.

• For the abolition of VAT and the financing of public services by direct taxation.

• Stop state hand-outs to big business — subsidies, tax concessions, reductions in employers’ contributions for social security — and use the money to create jobs in public services.

• Prioritise rebuilding good public services, halt all privatisation plans.

• For free abortion facilities, freely available, everywhere.

• For a Europe which respects the environment, putting controls on industries which pollute. For social ownership and workers’ control of the major energy firms; for a rapid transition away from dependence on fossil-fuel-based energy sources, and toward renewable and sustainable sources.

• For a Europe open to the world! Free movement of people into the EU; free access for Third World exports to EU markets; a big EU aid programme without strings to the Third World.

• For the right to vote of all residents of EU countries.

• For the replacement of all of the EU states’ existing military hierarchies by people’s militias. For a Europe free of nuclear weapons!

• For a united working class. For Europe-wide shop stewards’ committee in all of the big multinationals and all of the major industries!

• Fight to rebuild a European international socialist movement.

• For a Socialist United States of Europe!