Cameron, Europe and referendums

Submitted by Matthew on 23 January, 2013 - 5:45

On 23 January, a few hours after this issue of Solidarity is printed, David Cameron will deliver his much-trailed speech on Europe.

Cameron will call for renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the EU; but we don’t know how aggressively.

He will promise a referendum on the EU if the Tories hold office after 2015; but we don’t know the terms of the referendum. Will it be in/out? Or yes/no to approve Cameron’s renegotiation?

He will say that in general he favours Britain being in the EU; but he will not say where he will stand if the EU refuses to renegotiate as he wishes, which it may well do.

Cameron is trying to deflect pressure on the Tories from Ukip (now at over 10% in the polls, ahead of the Lib-Dems), and pressure on him within the Tory party from anti-EUers.

Anti-EU right-wing sentiment is probably stronger in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. Traditions of British insularity play a part.

Since the Thatcher era, Britain has had, as Tony Blair famously commented, “the most restrictive [laws] on trade unions in the western world” (Daily Mail, 31 March 1997), and weaker worker-rights laws than most European countries. Right-wingers yearn to improve on that by escaping (mild) EU pressure for improved worker rights (like the Agency Workers’ Directive and the Working Time Directive).

Their stance also reflects Britain’s closer economic ties with the USA than other European countries’. There is a rational capitalist basis for being reluctant to take Britain into the euro and to want the pound to track both the euro and the US dollar. Small capitalists, whose gaze is fixed on local markets, also tend to be anti-EU.

Many big-business people, seeking the widest possible markets and easiest cross-border flows of capital, fear new economic barriers between countries more than they would value a bit more suppression of workers’ rights. They fear that Cameron will stumble into pulling Britain out of the EU.

Others are less concerned, because they reckon that a Britain quitting the EU would still stay within the European Economic Area, like Norway or Iceland, and would thus retain almost all the economic arrangements of the EU.

Socialists neither endorse the capitalist and undemocratic structure of the EU, nor give credence to backward-looking aspirations to improve things by unwinding international economic integration and restoring “economic sovereignty”.

Our answer to both capitalist attitudes is workers’ unity across Europe, to fight for democracy and workers’ rights.

A workers’ plan for Europe

Anti-EU feeling has been boosted by the crisis in the eurozone. In Greece and other countries, the EU and the European Central Bank have acted as capitalist enforcers, imposing budget cuts and destruction of worker rights and collective-bargaining structures.

Anti-EUism is no good answer here. The coalition government in Britain is making the same attacks off its own bat, and the stridently anti-EU faction of the Tories wants even more attacks.

A Europe-wide programme, with the potential to unite workers across the continent, is needed to deal with the crisis.

• Tax the rich, Europe-wide.

• Expropriate the banks and the big corporations, Europe-wide. Put them under workers’ and democratic control. Gear their resources to the reconstruction of public services, decent jobs, and social welfare.

• Thorough-going democracy across Europe. Social levelling-up across the continent, to the best level of workers’ rights and conditions won in any part of it.

• Win workers’ governments across Europe, and join them in a democratic federation.

The working class in each country cannot wait for fully-assembled Europe-wide unity before moving. But a single isolated workers’ government could only be a temporary makeshift. The workers’ revolution would have to spread to other areas quickly, or collapse.

Over 150 years ago, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that “united action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”, and the international intertwining of the forces of production has increased hugely since then, especially in Europe.

What about referendums?

David Cameron is likely to promise a referendum on British membership of the EU, though he probably won’t make clear the terms of it. Labour leader Ed Miliband opposes a referendum “for no”, saying it would create “uncertainty for business”.

Referendums used to be favoured by radicals as a specially direct and democratic form of political decision-making. Over the later decades of the 19th century, however, Marxists became more critical of “direct legislation” and referendums. In 1875, Frederick Engels, commenting on the Gotha programme of the German socialists, wrote: “‘legislation by the people’... exists in Switzerland and does more harm than good, if it can be said to do anything at all. Administration by the people - that would at least be something”.

In his handbook explaining the German socialists’ Erfurt programme of 1891, Karl Kautsky noted that some middle-class radicals “have declared in favour of the substitution of direct legislation for legislation by representatives... This may sound very revolutionary, but in reality it indicates nothing but the political bankruptcy of the classes involved”.

In the 20th century, referendums were often used by dictatorships or by demagogic politicians. Leon Trotsky commented: “The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time the question is put to the citizens: For or against the Leader”. In France, Charles De Gaulle, after winning the presidency in 1958 through a soft military coup, staged referendums to bolster (or try to bolster) himself politically five times between 1958 and 1969.

Referendums are necessarily more or less skewed by being yes/no votes on propositions, usually formulated by incumbent governments, which may be unclear or blur over other more important choices. Referendums can work against, rather than for, informed debate and accountability, which are the core of genuine control by the people over public affairs.

A “Britain out” vote in an EU referendum, for example, would be an amalgam of quite varied opinions, from the Norway/EEA option to autarky, from a desire to turn Britain into an offshore sweatshop to (illusory) hopes of socialism in one country, from passionate hatred of the EU to indifference combined with a wish to punish the government politically.

Since the current forms of representative democracy are so clogged up and unresponsive, sometimes socialists do support referendums. In the run-up to World War Two, for example, the US Representative Louis Ludlow campaigned for an amendment to the US Constitution to bar the government from declaring war without a prior referendum (unless the US had been attacked first).

The US Trotskyists at first opposed the Ludlow amendment, but Leon Trotsky persuaded them they should back it. “The capitalists want free hands for international manoeuvring, including a declaration of war.... The average citizen... and even the farmer and the worker... are all looking for a brake upon the bad will of big business. In this case they name the brake the referendum. We know that the brake is not sufficient and even not efficient and we openly proclaim this opinion, but at the same time we are ready to help the little man go through his experience against the dictatorial pretensions of big business...”

In the current case, a referendum on the EU would be more a lever for anti-EU demagogy than even a partial brake on capitalist arrogance.

Why we are discussing Europe

On 16 February, Workers’ Liberty will be holding a dayschool on the class politics of Europe.

As long ago as the turn of the 20th century, Marxists like Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that capitalist development had overflowed the borders of Europe’s nation states. During the chaos and slaughter of World War 1, and the revolutionary crisis that followed, they linked the fight for European working-class unity to the call for a broader political framework: the United States of Europe.

A century later, European capitalism is more integrated than ever. The European Union is a reflection of that. Yet the dominant forces on the British left — not only Stalinists and the trade union and Labour left influenced by them, but “Trotskyists” like the SWP and Socialist Party — reject Trotsky’s approach. They argue that, short of socialism, a Britain less integrated into Europe — or separate from it altogether — would be better for the working class.

At a time when nationalism is a major and growing force, with UKIP ahead of the Lib Dems in most polls, much of the left is throwing its weight into the nationalist camp. In doing so it not only strengthens our enemies, but prevents the education of the British labour movement about how to confront the attacks being coordinated across Europe — united, cross-European working-class struggle.

14 November saw Europe’s first ever cross-border general strike, with strikes in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, and protests in many other countries.

In Greece, where the crisis and workers’ struggles are sharpest, the rising left party Syriza opposes cuts, but rejects calls for Greece to leave the Eurozone. Its left wing raises slogans such as “No sacrifice for the euro, no illusions in the drachma” and “Not euro vs drachma, but class vs class”.

We are holding a dayschool on capitalist crisis and class struggle across Europe in order to help educate British labour movement and socialist activists about these kind of ideas.

We want to help make the left a force which can challenge nationalism and take a lead in building working-class unity across Europe.

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