Debate: What should socialists say about the EU?

As UKIP’s popularity continues to rise, we asked Nick Evans and Hanif to discuss what arguments socialists should be making in the run up to the European elections this month. Continue the discussion in the comments section. If you’d like to write a longer piece on the debate, please email us at




As internationalists we should argue for an end to border controls. This means we must oppose the racism of UKIP, but also argue for the dismantling of ‘fortress Europe’ as a whole. The left needs to confront the way the EU’s structures have been used to drive through neoliberal austerity regimes in its core and periphery. But this is made harder by the politics of immigration, caught between the cynicism of Europe’s neoliberal elites and the rise of far-right nationalism. We need to argue for an alternative.

In Britain, the discussions leading up to the European parliamentary elections are dominated by UKIP. The multimillionaire Paul Sykes has funded its racist posters about the threat to British jobs from migrant workers from other EU member states: it is good to see this challenged, from Plymouth to Newcastle. There can be no question of socialists supporting anything that would make it impossible for Polish, Romanian or any other workers to migrate to and remain in the UK. But we can’t ignore the wider context of European migration policy, with its elaborate architecture of security forces, detention centres, naval patrols, courts and surveillance technologies.


During the European parliamentary elections, protesters will be marching from Strasbourg to Brussels in demonstration against ‘fortress Europe’. Those killed trying to enter the Spanish outpost of Ceuta this February, or trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa last October are among tens of thousands of migrants who have died trying to enter the EU since 1993. The UK government has been an active participant in the creation of the EU’s militarised frontier system. Although the UK is outside the Schengen area, in 1999 Jack Straw did sign up to the sections of the agreement relating to policing of borders and information-sharing on migrants, and talked about using the EU as a curb on the ‘over-liberal approach’ to asylum cases of British judges. The EU is no friend to migrants.

The EU is also no friend to its own workers, especially in its periphery. Its technocratic institutions have been designed from their inception to be unaccountable to the working classes of Europe. These institutions have been tools for the implementation of neoliberal policies across the continent in a way that systematically reproduces inequalities between its core and its peripheries. The euro in particular has entrenched the dominance of German capital, while wages for German workers remain stagnant. But even outside the Eurozone, regulatory ‘harmonisation’ programmes have been used to drive through neoliberal reforms in countries such as Sweden where social democracy was once strong.

The EU bears huge responsibility for the social crisis unfolding in countries such as Spain and Greece, forcing its workers to pay with their jobs, wages and public services for a crisis partly of its making. It has relied upon these same states to police its southern borders, creating the culture of state violence against migrants that has helped to foster the rise of Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn. A similar role played for the EU by the security services of neighbouring states such as Ukraine has contributed to rise of the far-right there. Now the crisis is feeding their rise still further.


The people of Europe’s peripheries desperately need a way out of the spiral of EU-imposed austerity and far-right insurgence. The reluctance on many on the European left to challenge the EU itself has made it harder to create a serious alternative to the neoliberals or the fascists. But last year, one of the euro’s ‘architects’, Oskar Lafontaine, called for it to be scrapped. Costas Lapavistas and Heiner Flassbeck wrote in The Guardian calling on the British left to join with others across Europe in working to put forward ‘a coherent leftwing critique of the monetary union as well of the EU’. We should echo that call, and work to ensure that anti-racism is at the heart of that critique.



As we approach the European elections, it is clear that the results will be seen as an indication of the outcome of an in/out referendum that may take place in the future. While socialists should have no illusions in the EU, setting up a left-wing ‘no to the EU’ campaign during the referendum would serve little purpose. This article sets out the arguments against both the left liberal notions of a progressive EU, and against a strategy that would join in with the chorus of ‘EXIT!’


There are three EU membership narratives that feature in the media. The right wing narrative uses xenophobia and calls for a swift exit; the neoliberal argument promotes the EU as a protector of British capital, and the left-liberal position paints the EU as a bulwark of progress, against reactionary Tory governments.

As socialists, the first two positions need no rebutting. In terms of seeing the EU as a progressive counterweight to the British establishment, it’s easy to see why some on the left come to this conclusion. The EU has often been quicker to move on Green initiatives while British tabloids pander to climate change denial. The freer movement of EU citizens appears as a nod towards open borders, in defiance of the hardline eurosceptics.

However this view is superficial. It ignores the walls that the EU has thrown up between itself and non-EU migrants, as well as austerity is has forced upon its own citizens. Can anyone really say that EU financial diktats handed down to Athens has helped ordinary people in Greece? Has EU membership stopped the UK from introducing draconian laws that curtail civil liberties? Did the EU stop Italy introducing finger printing for Roma people? The EU is no friend of the European working class.

So what should our strategy be in a referendum?


We must accept that the activist base that can organise around a left wing No campaign is tiny, and that that particular narrative is not represented in the media. This is somewhat unlike when French voters rejected a neoliberal treaty to create an EU constitution in 2005. In the 2002 Presidential election, revolutionary socialist candidates polled 2 million votes.

Whilst being small should never preclude agitating around principles, it does have an affect on how we agitate. A No campaign based around a few tiny left groupings with very limited trade union support will have little impact. Is our time best spent trying to persuade people to vote to leave? Or is it better spent challenging racist myths and exposing UKIP’s anti-worker policies?

The TUC has organised the Stand up to UKIP campaign and there are already a number of anti-racist and migrant-rights groups. Engaging these forces in a grassroots issues-based campaign would be easier and more productive than organising around a ‘vote no’ campaign.

We must also face the facts that this referendum will be seen as a referendum on UKIP’s politics. UKIP is dominating the debate, from news coverage, to poster campaigns, to televised debates. At best the Tories and Labour leadership will court the anti-immigrant vote, as we know they are willing to do. We cannot abandon our principles and fail to make the left-wing case against the EU, but neither should we join in with the screams of ‘EXIT’! The bigger the vote to leave, the more of a victory this will be seen for UKIP, and the bigger the chance of a Tory or Labour government further restricting the free movement of people from other EU states and attacking international students.

Whether we wake up after the referendum in or out of the EU the fight of socialists will be fundamentally unchanged. We will be fighting attacks on working conditions be it from Boris Johnson or an EU directive. We will be challenging immigration controls, whether against international students or African migrants. The question is how to build a side against the xenophobic hysteria that will dominate the referendum campaign. We do that by focussing on challenging migration myths and exposing UKIP, even if it means working alongside people voting to stay in the EU.

No to the EU should be our principle. No to Xenophobia and Stand up to UKIP should be our slogans.


  1. Hi. “Progressive” is not so hard to understand. I advocate socialists should see both sides of capitalism, following Marx in the Manifesto. See the positive, progressive side, as well as the brutality.
    On the one side capitalism is a force which prepares socialism by creating an ever bigger working class; integrating the world, making enormous technological and scientific innovations, expanding the forces of production. And on the other side capitalism brings ecological catastrophe, leaves half the world destitute, makes stupid wars and brutalises workers, their organisations and the poor.
    Why is this important? So we understand we are not just negative towards capitalism. We do not look to simply do it damage, undo all its work. We’ll keep what we find useful.
    There are gains that have been made within capitalism – economic, political – which we’ll reshape in our own class interets, not abolish. European integration is a gain. It would have been better if the workers’ movement had done the job, of course…
    But what about the referendum? If the question was about an economic treaty, for example, international socialists should abstain. It is not our job to decide how we are exploited.
    But this won’t be a referendum about that, it will be a poll on our attitude towards European unity (and, given the tone of the debate, foreign migrants). We should vote for the UK staying in the EU because we generally favour fewer, weaker borders and boundaries between peoples.
    I honestly can’t take seriously: vote for withdrawal now, so we can create a united Europe in the socialist future. We should engage in the existing structures, contest within them. We should take what we can use – factories, libraries, the NHS, existing European unity too – and put it to use. Not smash things up like anarchists.
    Neither can I take seriously: vote with the far right in British politics to defend migrants. Honestly, that’s not a very convincing position…

    • For Mark the rather tired, not to mention determinist, idea that capitalism in Europe today is progressive because it increases the means of production, is central to his argument. That this happens at the expense of the working class is of no concern to Mark it seems nor does it seem to occur to Mark that much of the growth of the means of production in Europe in recent years is in fact the formation of exchange values that bear little relation, if any, to the development of use values that is of things that actually satisfy the needs of people. There is no longer any need for capitalism to increase the means of production there is more than adequate means available in society today to more than fulfil all the needs of the people of Europe and help fulfil the needs of people further afield.

      Mark of course has another argument as to why capitalism is progressive in Europe today. It has you see integrated the continent. To be more precise it has integrated markets and done its best to provide a level playing field for capitalists in every part of the continent. With regard to labour it has urged national governments to hold down wages and reduce the strongest workers movements to the level of the weakest. Yes Europe is integrated, to some degree, at the level of the market but labour has been weakened by this integration. It is nothing for socialists to celebrate.

      I’m all in favour of joining with anarchists and smashing things up. I’m also in favour of working in the existing structures if we have the strength to do so. But why not weaken those structures if we can especially when they do not benefit the working class? An independent state in Scotland will not mean the end of capitalism in that country but it will weaken british imperialism politically and make the struggle for socialism a tiny bit easier. Similarly withdrawal from the EU will weaken the position of the ruling class and make the struggle against that class a tiny bit easier. And there is no reason why withdrawal from the EU need ;ead automatically to an increase in racism and chauvinism. That depends on the level of struggle and the balance of class forces and it is impossible to understand how by siding with the bosses we will improve the position of the working class but that is what Mark advocates with his bizarre vision of a progressive capitalism in 2015!

  2. Historically the position of revolutionary socialists in Britain, more specifically the International Socialists, regarding what was once called the Common Market was to abstain and to agitate for the continuation of struggles regardless of whether or not Britain joined the EEC as it then was. This position was abandoned in the 1960’s as it became clear that the European Union was a project designed to restructure capital at a European level that would require that workers rights and living standards be standardised in order to enable capital to compete at a global level. In countries, such as Britain, with relatively high living standards and high wage levels this meant direct attacks on the working class. At the time such attacks appeared as little more than a continuation of the constant demands for higher productivity and competitiveness that the bourgeois media was so full of through the 1970’s and it is true that such attacks would have taken place regardless of membership in the EU as british capital sought to become more competitive. Nonetheless membership of the EU provided Britain’s bosses with an augmented armoury with which to attack organised workers and the living standards of the entire working class.

    Having changed its position on Europe IS adopted a position of opposition to British membership of the EU. At the time IS was attacked by the forerunners of Workers Liberty for adopting a position that appeared to be similar to the positions of the CPGB, the bulk of the trade union bureaucracy, what was to become the Bennite left and indeed of the mainstream No campaign. It is interesting to note that the CPGB, the trade union bureaucracy and the Bennites were opposed to the EEC on nationalist grounds as they believed that it was a specifically British capitalism that provided workers with jobs and that british capital had then to be protected from multi-national capital. As nationalists they had then few if any qualms about lining up with the more backward sections of capital in the mainstream No campaign and from first to last the slogans they employed were chauvinist and reactionary as a result. IS, of course, remained totally apart from the No campaign and campaigned on an internationalist basis rejecting national chauvinism completely. Today only a few small sections of the trade union bureaucracy and the sorry remnants of British Stalinism’s senile stage, gathered in the CPB and NCP, still hold an anti-European position based on nationalism as the majority of trade union bureaucrats long since came to the conclusion that jobs are best protected within the context of a liberal Europe. Just as in the 1970’s this is seen as an alternative to struggle. Just as in tjhe 1970’s it is totally wrong both in principle and tactically.

    Today Workers Liberty is almost alone on the ostensibly revolutionary left in advocating that Britain stay in the EU. In fact judging by the remarks of their supporters above they are more enthusiastic for the EU than most British bosses! For example Mark writes that “The work of the European ruling classes in bringing together Europe is in a general historical sense, progressive.” What Mark means by “progressive” is difficult to fathom but I assume that he is referring to the greater integration of capital at a European level if this is the case he is only echoing the views of German capitalism and giving it a socialist gloss. He goes on to say ” in many ways the limited unification has impacted badly on the European working classes” which rather gives the lie to his earlier assertion that the EU is “progressive”.

    What then should be the attitude towards the EU and does it matter? In terms of a referendum the truth is that any position the revolutionary left advocates will be heeded by a tiny minority so in a sense it doesn’t matter as we cannot affect the outcome of the referendum. But it does matter that revolutionaries call for a no vote. It matters because by so doing we are seen to be taking a clear stand against a key institution of the boss class but in any literary commentary on the issue and in any mass produced propaganda, leaflets or articles on websites, it becomes easy enough to explain to that minority that is interested in revolutionary politics that revolutionaries are opposed to the institutions of the Europe of the 1% but are strongly in favour of closer union with a Europe ruled by working people and that we oppose all racist borders whether they be national or Europe wide. The position adopted by revolutionaries must flow from our internationalist programme but as a result of our small size and division be a matter of literary commentary rather than active political campaigning.

  3. Starting from the forces we know are present, in sheer numbers and relative power, the IN campaign looks likely to win the vote.
    This will cause spasms of uncontrolled blood letting within the Tory’s and UKIP… with any luck.
    This is a good outcome.
    Mind you equally an OUT Vote will will cause serious problems for the Tory’s and the EU (the class enemies).
    This could be seen as a win win situation, if not for the racist bile which will accompany campaign for some months leading upto the referendum.

    But both campaigns will be narrowly defined on the immigration “hate spectrum”, clearly the OUT campaign will be the most vicious, but have no illusions that the IN camp will be as bad during the campaign, especially if the TUC element adopts the “British jobs for British workers” slogan of a few years ago.

    And in the long term the redefining of what it is to be a human may even be made worse, by subtlety winning out, over the outright polarisation of the less subtle racist arguments from the OUT camp.

    But as we are a tiny Left, with little influence in the debate, other than through our unions—who already by and large are saying we should stay IN— and in our local campaigns, we can only really address the nature of the EU, and the racist arguments of the Right.

    Calling for a vote, either way, at the moment, for certain is too soon, and we are, no doubt, for the foreseeable future, only going to have the time to be able to put out the fires of the racist rhetoric rhetoric from both sides.

    All we can do realistically is stick by our internationalist and anti racist principles, in this way we can be in all camps.

  4. Hanif: indeed. You accept an exit would be led by the right, and the “general crisis” created by an exit would be of the right’s creation and benefit them, so why chime in with them? The left needs to get away from the idea that any crisis for our ruling class benefits us. The roots of that idea are in Russian Stalinist foreign policy and should be put in the bin.
    No doubt the current UK parliament can not be transformed into a “Peoples’ parliament” (whatever that might mean); however, we wouldn’t concentrate our fire on the existence of UK parliament (and especially if it was under attack from the right). No, we contend for our ideas inside the existing political structures, in order to supersede them if we can.
    The work of the European ruling classes in bringing together Europe is in a general historical sense, progressive. Of course they’ve done it in their own way, for their own reasons, and in many ways the limited unification has impacted badly on the European working classes. Nevertheless our job is to unite the working class forces across Europe and to fight inside the structures for a leveling up of pay, conditions, union rights etc.

  5. Hi Rob – We should also be frank that the current EU cannot be transformed into a peoples’ Europe. And that many of the battles we face in terms of working directive etc are attacks from that institution, so we have to talk about why the EU is bad when we fight those battles. Where I think I agree with you, is that if we exited we would exit from the right door, not the left and so the things that are bad about the EU would probably just get worse under goverments pandering to UKIP. The only argument against that I think, is that the UK leaving the EU would cause a general crisis amongst the ruling class of Europe, which would be a blow against them. Personally I worry that a UK exit would be more likely to back up eursceptics like the FN, as oppose to those on the left.

  6. Yes, I or out the fight goes on, Rob. But better: “A united workers’ Europe”. “Workers” not “people” for the same reason we are for a workers’ revolution, not a peoples’ revolution. And “united” because a free union is better than isolation.
    Let’s try to use good slogans, rather than take a good slogan and mangle it in the opportunistic hope we might get a hearing. Tell the truth, in small things as in large.

  7. It’s good RS21 is having this debate but unfortunate that Hanif, in making some sensible arguments, accepts “No to the EU” (obviously in some sense distinct from no to all capitalist states) as a “principle”.

    Have a read of this: “Do you really want the EU to break up? An open letter to Britain’s left”

    The EU is a capitalist institution and we should obviously not endorse it, let alone let its rules or blackmail about respecting them block or moderate our struggles. But there still seems to be a half-thought here that, even if it is not tactically possible to call for it, socialists should favour withdrawal from the EU as positively better for workers and the oppressed than staying in. Why?

  8. Sigh. Still the old clichés.
    “No to the EU” should not be our principle. Yes, we should oppose the undemocratic institutions of the EU, we should campaign against policies that are detrimental to migrants and working people. We should campaign for policies that benefit disadvantaged groups, better health and social services, improved employment rights, Build unity among progressive organisations across the continent.
    As much as the EU drives neoliberal policies, so the government of the UK has driven the EU further in a neo-liberal direction. We should not forget one of Jack Straws other significant interventions in Europe: To ensure the Tory anti-union laws would continue to override over anything we could ahve gained from the EU’s Charter of Fundamental rights. Knee-jerk hostility to the EU on the left meant that this betrayal was largely overlooked.
    The slogan we campaing under should be “Yes to a peoples’ Europe.”

  9. I think there is room for a rethink of the radical left’s position on Europe. Like so many of our shibboleths, this one emerged from a particular tactical consideration – would entry into the Common Market benefit capital and disbenefit labour? The removal of import tariffs and duties was predicted to work in capital’s favour by easing trade, and the easing of trade was predicted to lead to both ‘rationalisation’ and outsourcing. The seventies left had good reason to oppose membership.
    Decades after the UK joined the EU and its predecessors, the prospect of withdrawal should be evaluated on its own merits, not on the basis of chauvinism (as on the right), or abstract appeals to ‘a workers’ Europe’, internationalism or traditional left anti-statism. It is not enough to counterpose these currently inaccessible ideals to an actually existing institution, one that (like the modern state) does not look precisely like the wholly repressive ‘bodies of armed men’, but which has a mixed record in respect of workers’ interests. Nor should we imagine that to support withdrawal now is necessarily consistent with having opposed entry, or that it would reverse the effects.
    The challenge posed by any kind of vote, and this is particularly true in a referendum, is that there is no room on the ballot paper, and even less in public discourse, for nuanced, subtle arguments. The anti EU right, Tories, UKIP, BNP will be the loudest voices when (if) this vote takes place. Any whispers of support for their ultimate conclusion (‘Vote to Leave’) will only add to their racist din, while the alternative routes to that conclusion will be invisible. Until a workers’ Europe is a possibility, which is to say until the left is strong enough to make it a possibility, any benefits will accrue to the right – making Britain, whether in or out, a much more dangerous place.


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