EU debate: A socialist case for leaving the EU

Neil Davidson, in a piece originally published on Bella Caledonia, makes the case from a Scottish perspective about why socialists should support leaving the EU.  


Faced with the impending referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU), and the reactionary arguments which dominate on both sides, socialists might be forgiven for echoing Mercutio’s dying cry in Romeo and Juliet of a plague o’ both your houses” and opting for abstention. It is certainly true that the radical left cannot join either of the highly fragmented “official” camps, both of which espouse anti-working class politics of one variety or another. But refusing to take a side is also untenable. Abstention will simply mean invisibility and, consequently, irrelevance. An even worse position would be where socialists do have a preference between Leave and Remain, but are unwilling to state it publicly because they fear being tainted by association – in effect hoping that someone else will make their arguments for them. Leaving aside the moral bankruptcy of such a position, it is also politically useless: on 24 June the UK will either be heading for Brexit or it will not, but we cannot avoid taking a position unless we are prepared to live with consequences which we had no part in shaping. If the radical left says nothing then we can be sure that the right-wing positions will continue to dominate both the campaigns and the aftermath.

We have to approach this situation, not as bystanders, observers or commentators, but as participants who can help determine whichever outcome looks most likely to open up a dynamic advantageous to the left – providing, of course, the left is capable of recognising the possibilities and acting on them. Brexit would intensify three existing crises: of the EU itself, of the British state, and of the Tory Party, which is potentially facing its greatest split since the repeal of the Corn Laws. Indeed, the very absence of effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster is weakening internal discipline within the main party of British capital and encouraging unrestrained internecine warfare. Yet I have lost count of the number of articles which seem to start from the assumption that, after a vote to Leave, the Tories – elected by 25% of those eligible to vote, having achieved an outcome opposed by most of the capitalist class they are supposed to represent, and now engaged in open civil war – will be in power until the end of time. But after Indyref, after Corbyn, after Sanders, we have to understand the volatility of contemporary politics, the speed with which positions can shift in quite unexpected ways.

The Left Consensus for Remain

It would something of an understatement to say that the position stated in the previous paragraph does not exactly have majority support on the Scottish left. Indeed, in terms of formal party positions, there is a remarkable unanimity about remaining in the EU all the way from the Scottish National Party through the Scottish Greens to the Scottish Socialist Party. RISE, an alliance rather than a party, has not taken a position and need not do so, although candidates will inevitably and quite properly be asked to set out their personal views on the issue in the Holyrood elections in May. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), a movement rather than a party, is under the least pressure to arrive at a position – and judging from the discussion of the EU at RIC conference on 20 February – its members are currently as uncertain and divided as most other people in Scotland.

Normally, this level of comradely agreement on the left would be welcome, as it was during Indyref. Unfortunately, in this case I believe that the majority of the radical left have converged on a position which is both wrong and potentially dangerous. Let me be clear what the problem is here. It is not that those arguing for Remain are seeking the same outcome as David Cameron and Peter Mandelson: I am arguing for Leave and that means that I am seeking the same outcome as Nigel Farage and George Galloway. Clearly, we are not doing so for the same reasons in either case. A similar situation arose in the 1975 referendum on membership of what was then the European Community (“the Common Market”). The revolutionary left at the time rightly argued for Britain to leave, even though this was the same outcome supported, not only by the Labour Party left and the Communist Party of Great Britain – whose arguments were, to say the least, coloured by British nationalism – but also by Enoch Powell and the fascist National Front (NF).

In other words, it remains perfectly possible for two groups of people to support the same political position in the expectation of, not only different, but diametrically opposite outcomes. When this happens, it is usually for one of two reasons: either one group has simply misunderstood the situation – in other words, the two opposing groups cannot both be right and the meaning of the outcome will be different from what one of them expects; or because the situation is genuinely indeterminate – in other words, the outcome will be decided by what the different groups do in the process leading up to it. Both misunderstanding and indeterminacy were on display during Indyref.

On the No side, Labour left-wingers like Neil Findlay argued a case based on British-working class solidarity and defence of the welfare state. I think that case was misleading about the issues at stake, but it was a perfectly honourable one to make; the problem was that it was clearly incompatible with the dominant case for No (effectively the official Labour position), which was based on strengthening British capitalism and maintaining its position in the global imperialist order. Once the votes were counted, it was obvious from a range of indicators, from fascists rampaging in relief through George Square in Glasgow to the soaring value of stocks in Scottish financial companies, that supporters of the official No position had been correct.

On the Yes side, the vision of a Scottish socialist republic held by RIC was clearly different from the small-scale capitalist utopia envisaged by Business for Scotland, and it was by no means settled in advance which of these would have triumphed had Yes actually won. Given the role played by the left and its relative strength by the end of the campaign, however, there is at least a realistic possibility that our version of Scottish independence would have prevailed. And it remains the case that how we struggle for independence will shape the nature of a new Scotland.

There are several differences between Indyref and the EU referendum, to which I will return. In one respect, however, the latter involves a similar misunderstanding, in this case by the majority of radical left about what a vote to remain will involve. It is not about maintaining the status quo, but changing it in two respects. First, we are being asked to vote remain on the basis of Cameron’s deal attacking migrant access to benefits, which is itself predicated on the false claim that migrants are essentially a parasitic drain on “our” resources. And of course, once the logic of only being able to draw out benefit system what you have paid in is accepted, we can be sure that it will be extended from migrants to all inhabitants of the UK, be they ever-so white and their lineages of the purest Anglo-Saxon. Second, it means participating in a full-spectrum (i.e. not just in relation to migration) rightward-shifting agenda which is being driven by other member states of the EU. There is a particular inverted conceit on the part of the British left, to which the Scottish contingent is particularly prone, where the British state is the most undemocratic in Europe and our present Westminster government the most right-wing in the EU. I will return to the British state later, but – incredible though it may seem – the Tory government is by no means the most right-wing in the EU; that dishonour could realistically be claimed by the governments of Hungary and Poland, or of Denmark and Finland. The point is that they will now draw two conclusions for their own countries from a British Remain vote on the current basis: one, that the road to neutralise populist anti-EU sentiment is to increase attacks on migrants; the other that they can press their own “exceptional” demands of the EU with the expectation that they will be granted in order to keep the Euro-show on the road.

For some Scottish nationalists, and supporters of independence more widely, none of this matters. The prospect of a renewed crisis of the British state is significant mainly, or in some cases, solely because of the implications for Scotland. They look forward to a scenario in which a majority in England vote to leave while a majority in Scotland vote to remain, thus triggering Indyref2. This, as the English say, is too clever by half. Leaving aside the question of whether we want Indyref2 to be generated as a side-effect of a separate process at a time not of our choosing, the assumptions behind these calculations are manipulative in the extreme. The issues of the EU and consequently of voting in this referendum have to be addressed on their own terms. If we believe that staying in the EU is beneficial to working class people, why would we wish to deny these benefits to those who happen to be English? If, on the other hand, we think that the EU is detrimental to working-class interests, why would we argue for the Scots to be subject to it a moment longer than necessary? There are, however, two non-nationalist, left-wing arguments for voting to remain across the UK, to which I now turn.

_88066142_sun3Europe as “the Lesser Evil”

With one very important exception, the forces supporting the UK’s continued membership of the EU are the same as those who opposed Scottish secession from the UK: internally – the institutions of the British state including the Treasury, the BBC, and the Chiefs of the Armed Forces, most British capitalists of any size and their representative organisations like the CBI, all the mainstream political parties including (for the moment, at any rate) the Labour Party, and the liberal news media; externally – the US State Department, President Obama and both of his potential Democrat successors (although this is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree), and, most obviously, the European Commission and Council, the European Central Bank and mainstream political members of European Parliament. In short, the principal opposition to Brexit consists of those ruling class representatives and their hangers-on who understand the importance to the international neoliberal and imperialist order of maintaining both the territorial integrity of the British state against the threat of Scottish independence and its EU membership against the threat of Brexit.

But the political parties which were on the Yes side during indyref are now arrayed, in relation to the EU, with the very people and groups to whom they were opposed in the previous referendum. What has led these quite different and – in virtually all other contexts – bitterly opposed forces into such extraordinary political alignment? The main explanation is the nature of those arguing for withdrawal. I wrote above that there was an important exception to the way in which the indyref line-up for No has moved seamlessly to an EU Remain position, and that exception is the hard right, from the actual fascists of British National Party (BNP) and the NF, through the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party – still its most influential section – and its media loudhailers in the Murdoch newspapers, plus the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.

As a result, the arguments for remaining in the EU most commonly expressed on the radical left is essentially a negative one. This perspective begins from the correct observation that the main drive for withdrawal from the EU has historically come from the hard right. It recognises that UKIP popularised this position by focusing on the question of national sovereignty in general, specifically by highlighting the inability of the UK to control its borders in the face of supposedly unlimited migration either from within or – in the case of refugees – via the EU. The success of UKIP in turn emboldened the Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party: the referendum is therefore only happening in response to pressure from these forces and the campaign for exit is being conducted according to their racist agenda. If there is a majority vote to leave, the argument goes, it will immediately mean that non-UK citizens and their families from the EU who currently have right of residence here face the danger of expulsion or, at the very least, will face a much more precarious situation. In this context, voting to remain, while not necessarily leading to any positive result, would at least avoid a negative one: it is the “lesser evil”.

Now, the hard right is certainly our enemy but, in this context at least, it is not the main enemy. The imperial nationalism unleashed by the Conservatives before 1997 in relation to “Europe,” was not, as we shall see, because the EU was in any sense hostile to neoliberalism, but as an ideological diversion from the failure of neoliberalism to transform the fortunes of British capital, outside of the City of London at least. The nationalism invoked for this purpose now places a major obstacle for British politicians and state managers who want to pursue a strategy of greater European integration, however rational that may be from their perspective. The overwhelming majority of capitalists, managers and their political representatives do not want to leave the EU, although many would like to renegotiate the treaty on terms which remove even the minimal worker rights which it currently contains, as Cameron, if victorious, will almost certainly attempt to do. Above all, they do not want to stem the flow of migrant labour into the UK, although they do want it to be precarious and consequently pliable.

The hard right has, in effect, broken with this mainstream ruling class position. There is a problem with some left analyses of the hard right and its far right component in particular, which is the assumption that it represents the “real” face of capitalism unmasked. In fact, in the developed world at least, it is only in very rare situations of dire extremity – and usually after facing the kind of threat from the labour movement that has unfortunately been absent for several decades – that capital has ever relied on the far right to solve its problems. UKIP, like the Tea Party in the USA, is capital’s Frankenstein’s monster, an unintended consequence of the unresolvable social tensions thrown up by the neoliberal order. UKIP has given a focus to a range of concerns in the shape of a quasi-imaginary institution called the “Brussels”, in a similar way that the Tea Party did in the shape of another quasi-imaginary institution called “the Government”; the main difference is that in the case of the former, the institution is foreign, rather than domestic, the crime of local elites being their compliance with it. The basis of at least part of UKIP’s popular support is, however, drawn from a comparable constituency to that of the Tea Party. Unsurprisingly, one section involves small businesses and the petty bourgeois proper, which tend to trade within the UK rather than the rest of the continent, and for which increased regulation and improved worker rights – even of a minimal sort – pose a far greater threat to their profit margins than they do to large corporations. But the constituency also includes a section of the working class who no longer feel represented as their lives and communities are being destroyed by neoliberal globalisation. Former employees in the fishing industry in parts of northern England like Grimsby can point to the Common Fisheries Policy and its attendant quotas and regulations as contributing to its local demise. These are genuine grievances which have nothing necessarily to do with racism, although UKIP of course tries to frame them in this way.

It is a fixation with the hard right and its policies on migration to the exclusion of virtually everything else that has led sections of the left to embrace the problematic notion of the “lesser evil” – regrettably, since it has not proved to be a particularly successful tactic in the past. Indeed, history tends to suggest that it can also result in the “greater evil”. Think of Germany in 1932, when the Social-Democratic Party refused to stand their own candidate in the Presidential elections and called instead on its supporters to vote for the right-wing but non-fascist Hindenburg as the “lesser evil”, only to find that, once elected, he appointed Hitler – the “greater evil” – as Chancellor anyway. This is obviously an extreme example, although I suspect we will shortly be hearing the same argument again in relation to Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. There is, however, two reasons for rejecting arguments from the “lesser evil”, quite specific to our current situation.

The first is that approach is entirely reactive and deeply pessimistic, since it assumes that all the left can do is adopt a defensive position in relation to UKIP and the Tory right. In effect, it is saying that a majority of working-class voters are so in thrall to anti-migrant racism that they will only vote for withdrawal on that basis. But socialists have to argue for what they actually believe in on the assumption that we can win working class people to our positions. If we think this is impossible, whether in relation to migration or anything else, then we are essentially confessing to our own political impotence, our inability to change anyone’s mind. It is to assume that we have to work within the policy limits of what the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade union leaders will allow Jeremy Corbyn to say on the subject.

The second reason for rejecting the “lesser evil” is that reduces the EU (and non-EU) migrant population of the UK to the status of passive victims of the Tory government. Yet many of the over 2 million EU workers here are integrated into the communities where they live, have joined trade unions and are members of left-wing political parties, like the Polish RAZEM. From the point of view of capital, entire sectors and some whole firms (Sports Direct springs to mind) are dependent on their labour. Remain supporters conjure up a nightmare vision of the day after a 23 June vote to Leave in which hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are rounded up by police in unmarked black vans; but this would only be realisable under an actual fascist government prepared to contemplate the collapse of large sections of the British economy, particularly services and agriculture. What happens during the prolonged period of post-referendum negotiations will, again, depend on what the left actually does before and in that period. In any case, to argue exclusively in relation to EU migrants who are currently in the UK is to ignore the plight of those actual and potential migrants and refugees from outside the EU, whose position behind the razor wire borders of our Common European Home will be reinforced. In any case, the central task is to support and help organise migrant workers while arguing for British borders to be open to everyone, in the EU or out. And if comrades think this is Utopian, where does that leave the prospects of ever achieving socialism, which is, if anything, an even harder argument to win?

Why is the source of the fatalism which large sections of the radical left displays over the EU? A comparison between the 1975 and 2015 referendums is interesting in this respect. In the former, after nearly seven years of intensive and largely victorious industrial class struggle, and the emergence of several new social movements, the left felt confident enough to argue for what it actually thought was the right course of action. The fact that it lost can, in retrospect, be seen as the beginning of the turn to the right and the onset of the neoliberal era. It is sobering to think that the last generalised victory achieved by the working class since then was the repeal of the Poll Tax legislation and the downfall of Thatcher, twenty-five years ago. Yet even that struggle was based in working class communities, not their workplaces, as was the Yes campaign. These decades of defeat have left their mark.

But it is still possible for left interventions to shift popular consciousness, as socialists in Scotland should know better than anyone. RIC did so by pushing the entire campaign for independence to the left and mobilizing forces which had previously been ignored by official politics. And sometimes this can happen even without the left. The expressions of public support for refugees which followed publication of the photographs of Alyn Kurdi’s body were only in part a shift in popular mood; the photographs were also the occasion for people who were always unhappy with the racism surrounding this issue to find their voices. There was a quite uncharacteristic silence from UKIP spokespeople following their publication, which suggests they were aware that they were no longer setting the agenda. Of course this did not mean that anti-refugee racism had vanished, but neither is it unchallenged. The point is that people are capable of both supporting refugees and also rejecting the EU – not least because it is visibly the behaviour of the EU as an institution which is at least partly responsible for their suffering.

Finally, a situation may well arise in which the argument becomes completely redundant. Imagine that England votes to leave and Scotland votes to remain. Indyref2 then follows according to plan, with a Yes vote of sufficient size to silence any attempts to question its legitimacy. At this point Scotland could apply for membership of the EU and, in all probability, be accepted with the usual conditions which would include – since we would not have the UK’s current opt-outs – adoption of Maastricht convergence criteria, including cutting the percentage of debt to 60% of GDP, the Euro (including the Eurozone bailout mechanisms), and the Schengen agreement. The assumption has been that this would proceed without any further reference to the Scottish electorate, but this would be undemocratic in extreme. A vote to remain while part of the UK may not be replicated when the context is a newly independent state and would have to be tested again, not least because the UK referendum electorate excluded 16-17 year olds and migrants, who should be given the chance to register their choice. However, at this point the “lesser evil” position would no longer be relevant, since the anti-migrant hysteria associated with the English hard right will no longer distort the nature of the argument. The positive case for joining the EU, based on what it actually is and does, could finally be made on its own terms, without distraction or evasion. What is that case?

“Social Europe”

The positive argument for joining the EU, independent of the contingent ravings of racist Europhobes, tends to be made by the liberal and centre left. In their vision, the EU is a fundamentally benign institution (“although of course it is not perfect”) which has helped prevent war in Western Europe since 1945, established rights for workers and citizens, and regulated the impact of businesses on health and the environment. Associated with these claims is a notion of “Europe”, usually presented in a cloud of vaguely uplifting waffle, as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, transcending what is invariably described as “narrow” nationalism and acting as a barrier to US interests, which are presumed to be different. In this perspective, the EU today may have been temporarily taken over by neoliberals, but it can be reformed until it becomes a body capable of responding to demands for social justice. The dissonance between the reality of the EU and the fantasy of “European values” beloved by the likes of Polly Toynbee, Will Hutton and Martin Kettle (whose support for the EU is matched only by their opposition to Scottish independence) is partly disguised by blurring what is and is not part of the former. Here, liberals effectively collude with the hard right, which has its own reasons for sowing confusion. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, which was responsible for the Human Rights Act, is frequently cited as a reason for remaining in the EU; but it is quite separate and was established with the support of Churchill during the 1950s, although this unsettling fact is usually concealed from readers of both the Guardian and the Daily Mail.

The attitude of the socialist left to the EU tended to be more hostile to the EU than the liberal and centre left, as the line-up in the 1975 referendum suggests. Tom Nairn was only slightly exaggerating when he titled a famous article from 1972, “the left against Europe”. All this began to change during the Thatcher era when, in the face of massive trade union defeats and the apparent inability of the Labour Party to win General Elections, the EU appeared to be the sole bulwark against attacks on the labour movement. The turning point was probably a speech by Jacques Delors, the then President of the European Commission, to the TUC in September 1988, followed by the adoption of the Social Chapter at the Strasbourg Summit the following year. Delors, as French Finance Minister, had of course been partly responsible for the Mitterrand Government abandoning its reform programme of the early 1980s and embracing the neoliberal project, which should have alerted his audience to the purely tactical nature of his blandishments, but desperation makes fools of us all.

Contrary to the sophisticated conspiracy theory promulgated by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberalism was not created because politicians, state mangers and corporate CEOs, after years of being mysteriously thwarted, suddenly saw opportunities in “disaster capitalism” to successfully apply the doctrines of Freidrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman. On the contrary, neoliberalism was a strategy improvised in response to the return of generalised economic crisis in 1973/4, in conditions where mode of accumulation which had prevailed since 1945 was no longer working and where policy options – or at least those supportive of capitalism – were consequently highly constrained, hence the turn to privatisation, deregulation, indirect taxation, and the rest. But neoliberalism is no longer simply a set of policies, but the way in which capitalism is currently organised. In retrospect, we can see neoliberalism as an entire period in the history of capitalism, as yet open-ended, in which the dominant social and liberal democratic consensus of the post-war boom was overthrown and replaced: these days will not return.

The EU had begun its own march towards neoliberalism no later than the Single European Act in 1986 and this has been confirmed and deepened by every single subsequent Pact and Treaty from Maastricht on 1991 onwards. This is hardly surprising: the EU is not a body suspended above shifts in the capitalist system and, as the transition to neoliberalism was imposed within the constituent nation-states, it was bound to reflect this in its own policies and rules. What made this easier than in the individual nation-states was that the EU always lacked most of the democratic constraints which made the transition at least a contested process in Britain or Italy, even in the period when it did more-or-less embody more social democratic conception of ownership and control. Ironically, in this respect it was always structured according to the precepts of one leading neoliberal thinker.

In 1939, Hayek wrote an article in which he argued that “Interstate Federalism” at the European level would be desirable. Why? Mainly because it would ensure that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of meddling politicians who interfered with the market order to win electoral support from ignorant voters. The EU has followed Hayek’s advice by centralising power in the hands of appointed officials, above all in the Commission, which alone has the power to initiate legislation, three types of which – regulations, directives and decisions – are binding. The Parliament has a right to be consulted, in certain circumstances, but none to initiate legislation in its own right: in this respect it has far less power than any national government, or for that matter, any devolved government like the Scottish or Catalan. But this is not the only democratic deficit. If the Commission is a supranational body, the Council of Europe is an intergovernmental one. It consists of the heads of state or heads of government of the member states, who are of course elected in their own countries, but not by the inhabitants of the other countries whose fate the Council decides. It proceeds by “consensus” – in other words what is acceptable to the French and German axis, and increasingly, to Germany alone. No votes are conducted or minutes taken, and decisions are signalled by the President arriving at a “conclusion”.

These structures are one reason why we should reject claims that the EU is as amenable to reform as any nation-state. In fact it is much less so. Capitalist states are permanent structure until they are overthrown, although they can adopt different policies according to the political parties or coalitions which oversee the apparatus at any time, and these can be more or less – usually less – beneficial to the working class and oppressed groups. The problem with the EU is that, although it is not a nation-state, the balance between unelected state managers and elected representatives is even more heavily weighted in favour of the former in the EU than in its constituent members.

Reforms are never easily achieved, particularly under neoliberalism, since it has removed several mechanisms from control of states. Nevertheless, it is not impossible – even in Britain. This point is important since there is an argument, to which I have already alluded, that whatever may be possible in Other Countries, the UK is a uniquely archaic and undemocratic formation in Europe, or perhaps the world. The supposed archaism of the British state is actually more apparent than real, and can only be sustained by a truly catastrophic confusion between form and content, in which the existence of the Monarchy and the House of Lords is supposed to mean that the British constitution has remained unchanged since 1707. In fact, behind the façade of continuity, the British state has been one of the most flexible and adaptive states in the history of capitalism and always concedes reforms when forced to, which is one reason why it has manged to survive for so long. (For a genuinely archaic constitution you need to look across the Atlantic.) If reforms have been few in recent years it is because pressure to deliver them has been severely reduced, not because the British state is any less capable of reform than any other. All capitalist states have their own special ways of trying to thwart democracy: that is one of the functions of a capitalist state. It is not clear to me, however, why the Spanish constitution, which stresses “indivisible unity” and makes Basque or Catalan secession actually illegal, or the vaunted French republican constitution, which allowed the government to make public wearing of Muslim clothing illegal, are inherently superior to the British. In any event, it would be easier to achieve reforms in Westminster than in the EU, where it requires winning unanimity in the Council, and there is more possibility of simultaneous revolutions in all 28 member states than of this happening.

The second Hayekian aspect of the EU is the use of rule-bound policies – on limits to public spending, on debt as a proportion of GDP, on competition – to limit what national politicians can do at the behest of their electorates. Since the rules do not allow for devaluation or the levels of state expenditure or debt which would have been necessary to stimulate the economy, the only remaining response to the crisis of 2008 was austerity. The EU’s embrace of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – far more enthusiastic than Washington’s, incidentally – and the possibly even more insidious Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) are only the latest and most extreme examples of this. In this context it is incredible to me how lightly how some Remain supporters are prepared to pass over the experience of Greece. In Yanis Varoufakis’s revelations about his encounters with the Troika, it was the EU institutions – the European Central Bank and the Commission – and not the International Monetary Fund which took the most merciless position. And what did these upstanding upholders of European values tell him? We don’t care that that the Greeks voted against austerity. It is no concern of ours if Greek children are suffering from malnutrition. It is irrelevant that Greek hospitals are running out of pain-killing drugs. These are the rules, so get with the programme and start cutting pensions, privatising services and increasing taxes for low earners. Watching the Greeks being crucified upon the cross of EU membership, should we now congratulate them on their self-sacrificing support for the European ideal?

The lack of democracy and presence of binding rules would be reasons enough to leave the EU, but there are least three others, each of which attests, not only to the inherently reactionary nature of the project, but to how it fails to perform even the role for which it is most celebrated by liberal boosters: overcoming national self-interest.

First, the EU is designed to maintain the structure of existing inequalities between European nation-states, although this has only become entirely obvious since the enlargement process after 1992, when the poorer areas of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean were allowed to join. Beneath all the talk of “solidarity” this is inescapable: a financial and industrial structure designed to meet the needs of the strongest economies – France and Germany and, since the advent of the Euro, increasingly just the latter – but which forces the weakest to play by the same rules, will always be detrimental to them, particularly when there is no mechanism to transfer funds or resources within the EU in the way that can be done within nation-states.

Second, although the EU is not an imperialist power in its own right, as a collective body it does, however, increasingly act as an adjunct to NATO, and consequently as a support to US interests. It is, as they say, no accident that the US insisted that Eastern European accession states should join NATO before the EU. But this role was inscribed onto the EU’s DNA from the beginning. The US initially encouraged and supported the formation of the EU’s predecessors as part of a Cold War bulwark against its Russian imperial rival, and this is the main reason why there was “no war in (Western) Europe” between 1945 and 1991: although engaged in in economic competition with each other, the EU member-states were united behind the USA in the same geopolitical alliance. But if the EU itself does not act as an imperial power, the main constituent nation-states increasingly do, and they by no means always bow to Washington’s wishes. Here again we see the more powerful placing their own interests over those of supposed European unity. For some this is externalised, as in the persistently underestimated French presence in Central Africa, but for others it is manifested in the heart of Europe itself – most obviously in the case of Germany, whose recognition of Croatian independence in 1992 contributed to the subsequent Yugoslavian bloodbath.

Third, the EU is structurally racist. The very idea of “Europe” is necessarily exclusionary. It is little remembered now that Morocco applied for EU membership in September 1987, much to the hilarity of the Commissioners, who turned it down on the grounds that it “did not meet the criteria for membership”. The much vaunted “freedom of movement” within the EU is predicated on blocking the movement of those without, as tens of thousands of desperate refugees are currently discovering. The spectacle of these people being trapped in the camps, behind barbed-wire fences and facing the police dogs and tear gas on the borders of European civilization is obscene enough, but it is compounded by the attitude of the constituent states themselves. For here again, their individual interests take precedence over even collective barbarity, as the Schengen Agreement collapses into a free-for-all to defend individual borders against the alien hordes. There are certainly evils here, but it is not apparent to me that they are “lesser”.

There is one final positive argument for the EU, which tends to be expressed by sections of the radical left. It is that capitalism rules everywhere, from the EU right down to our individual workplaces. But, so this story goes, at least the EU fulfils one of the few positive functions of capitalism: it brings together workers into one of the largest groups on earth, and their pressure can transform the EU. This is a classic example of confusing our wishes for reality. The EU organises the ruling class, it does not organise workers. As Trotsky once wrote in another context, a brake cannot be used as an accelerator. There are no EU-wide political parties, or trade unions, or movements. In any case, one of the arguments Yes supporters used during Indyref was that solidarity across borders did not depend on constitutions or institutions, but on the willingness of workers to support each other, even if in separate countries. That is as true for the nation-states in the EU as it is for the nations of the UK. Instead of invoking imaginary battalions of workers organised at a European level, it would more useful to begin building where we are.

Let us return to the question with which I ended the previous section. Faced with the choice of whether to join the EU, from the position of starting afresh in an independent Scotland, should we choose to do so? For one thing we would be seeking to join a body which was aligned with NATO, from which the left is committed to withdrawing, but let that pass. Suppose we did join and subsequently a genuinely radical government took office, consisting of a coalition of the left parties. The EU’s rules already affect Scotland in relatively trivial ways: the Aberdeen Ring Road, the new Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh, the proposed film studio in Cumbernauld – in each case the Scottish Government had to seek private (and more expensive) funding because of EU prohibitions on state spending. But what would be the case if a radical Scottish Government wanted to renationalise the railways, or nationalise and decommission the oil industry? These policies are not revolutionary, simply the kind of serious reforms which – along with increased taxes on wealth, repeal of the anti-trade union laws, a massive public house building programme and land reform – would be necessary to rebuild Scottish society after the depredations of neoliberal capitalism. What do you suppose the attitude of the EU would be to them? A message saying: “we congratulate the Scottish people in their attempt to realise the European ideal of social justice”, perhaps? Or would it be threats, then expulsion, followed by boycotts, blockade and a course in “preventative retaliation” by our NATO allies? To ask the question is to answer it. Any course of radical action is simply incompatible with membership of the EU. It is clear why the SNP find this acceptable since it is committed to maintaining the neoliberal settlement, at least at the fundamental economic level; but why are members of the radical left even contemplating move that will make our goals even harder to achieve?

Can the Left Make a Difference?

I wrote earlier that there were differences between the Scottish independence and the EU membership referendums. In the former, most of the forces of the radical left were united in RIC and we had over two years to shift the broader Yes campaign away from the Monarchy-Sterling-NATO package initially offered by the SNP. In the case of the latter, we are divided and the time is absurdly short to alter the terms of the debate. Nevertheless, whatever the difficulties, a left argument for Leave urgently needs to be made.

Voting Left Remain on tactical (“lesser evil”) grounds, whatever the putative short term advantages, will be negative in the long term, because it will effectively involve submitting to political blackmail and putting our defence of migrant rights in hock to the EU, which – to say the least – we know cannot be relied upon to defend them. In other words, we need to build our own independent capacity to argue a case, otherwise we will find ourselves subject to the same blackmail each and every time it arises. And it will arise again, since the multiple crises of the EU – of which the crisis of its external and internal borders is only the most visible one – are not going to come to an end any time soon. If we do not, the working class people we hope to influence will conclude either that the left has no positive position of its own or that its position is simply incoherent – as illustrated by the spectacle of usually credible left commentators like Owen Jones and George Monbiot explaining just how completely undemocratic and neoliberal the EU is…only to then call for a vote to Remain. And the Left Remain position, no matter how “tactical”, ineluctably slides into an apologia for the EU and then onto a delusional reform programme.

One final point: some would argue that a Left Leave position is simply retreating to the follies of socialism in one country, whether that country is Britain or Scotland, but that is not what is being argued here. The struggle against neoliberal capitalism is unlikely to begin simultaneously across the whole of the EU, or to be confined within its boundaries. What we are likely to see is an uneven series of movements of different intensities, within different nation-states which, if victorious, could form new alliances and ultimately a United Socialist States of Europe. However, this vision cannot be realised within the EU, but only built afresh on its ruins.


  1. Michael, so tell me why the British ruling class has created a straw man of the EU? When has The Left ever said: this is a fight among capitalists and we must take no part or position? Of course the EU debacle is a fight among capitalists and states but if the working class has no part of this, what a defeat is this for the working class?

    The CPGB (Weekly Worker) has an abstentionist line on the EU referendum – while very many on the reformist Left are for a Yes vote. The consequences of a YES to EU vote is business as usual for the working class of Britain. A NO to EU vote would throw the British ruling class into crisis. Cameron says he won’t resign if it’s NO precisely because it’s what he’s got to say at the moment.

    Two problems with the CPGB Referendum abstention line: a) the futility of turning a vote into a non-vote and b) a defeatism on the Left in making decisions.

    We’d be having a different argument now if UKIP had taken off on the back of the Referendum call. But presently it’s the Tories, the CBI, big business and the right wing media tearing each other apart. Socialists surely want this to continue after the Referendum and a NO vote can realise it.

    Cutting through the Racism, all roads this week lead to the Anti Racism demos Saturday 19th March

  2. I can think of loads and loads and loads of socialist arguments for saying fuck off to both sides of the argument. It’s a classic case of the ruling class setting up the boxing ring where the fight isn’t taking place. We all watch their fight at great cost to ourselves.

  3. A nationalist break up of the EU would be no more useful to the working class than the nationalist break up of britain promoted by the SNP and leftist “hangers on” in the Scottish indy ref of 2014. Socialists should be about the promotion of working unity against the bosses. We need to defend the political unity of the british working class in its struggle against the british capitalist class and fight for the political unity of the european working class in the struggle against austerity. There are no national roads to socialism.

  4. An excellent article by Neil Davidson. Strangely, to me, those on the Left opposing leaving the EU abstractly suggest that the Tories will be strengthened by a Referendum decision to leave the EU. If there is a NO majority, Cameron would have to resign. UKIP, so far, hasn’t advanced via the Referendum call. Rather, we are witnessing a huge battle within the Conservative Party and ruling government. Bumbling Eton boy Boris might be able to become PM but at what price to the neo-liberal agenda and the Tory Party? A snap election may even be called.

    Look at the Tories ripping themselves apart. Yet, the Left doesn’t want to applaud. It wants to get in bed with them. Already, Jeremy Corbyn has been put in a position by those Blairite stalwarts in the Labour Party to go with a YES campaign. Worse, George Monbiot has changed his mind from NO to YES as the weight of Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and others side with big business and the notion that the EU has built some kind of social cohesion despite the global corporations leading the EU.

    If the EU meant anything in terms of democracy making decisions then the refugee crisis would be solved in a day! It is precisely because the EU is a few pence worth of democracy (controlled entirely by states) that there is no resolution to the refugee crisis. Refugees and death on a mass scale serve neo-liberal capititalism – the capitalist structure Europe is built upon – with the USA the other seat in the EU (presently). Only the huge, huge efforts of ordinary working class people across the world has put refugees on top of the agenda.Indeed, this fight should be foremost in any discussion about the EU.

  5. The Tories are not in power for all time, but they are in power until May 2020 and a vote to leave the EU on 23 June would give them nearly two years in control of power after the obligatory two years notice has been served.

    During these two years, there is no doubt what would be the concrete outcome should the vote go to the Leave camp:
    1) It would completely strengthen the reactionary elements of the Tory government, represented by the Ian Duncan Smith wing of the cabinet; Cameron would probably go, but his replacement would not be a socialist such as Jeremy Corbyn or Neil Davidson, but most likely Boris Johnson or IDS.
    2) There would be an immediate and complete ban on all immigration into the UK from EU countries; the UK would refuse to take any refugees from other EU countries; a fence would go up around all UK borders.
    3) EU migrants already settled would be under threat.
    4) All protective legislation introduced by the EU, such as restrictions on working hours or GMO crops, would be repealed.
    5) The government would negotiate a free trade agreement with the USA that would be even worse than TTIP in terms of the threat it represented to the working class particularly through the privatisation of public services.
    6) Xenophobia and reaction would be stirred up, UKIP would be bolstered and racist groups would become more overt in their campaigns against black and migrant communities.

    And this would just be the start …

    Now, we can say that the Tories are reactionary anyway, but they don’t have an entirely free hand so long as they remain bound by EU treaties. What would be unveiled as a result of a Leave vote would be far worse in terms of its concrete impact on the working class.

    We can all be against the institutions of the EU and in favour of a socialist government leaving the EU if it conflicts with concrete pro-working class policies, but to vote to Leave in this specific referendum is an utterly incorrect tactic that would be responsible for a highly specific reactionary outcome if it is carried. We should instead campaign against the policies and institutions of the EU but in terms of tactics, a vote to Remain on 23 June is the best terrain on which to fight future battles for the working class and socialism.

  6. Although I am one who has learned much from the writings of Neil Davidson, I find it impossible to follow the convoluted logic of his case for voting to withdraw from the European Union. At its heart appears to be a conviction that neo-liberal policies not only shape important EU decision making, but that this must necessarily continue to be the case. Really? Over the past half century EU governments (for it is they who take the key decisions) have been guided by a variety of ideologies most notably Christian Democrat style state corporatism and social democratic reformism. At present we see the rise of hard right forms of populist nationalism and governments which openly espouse stateist protectionist policies which openly challenge neo-liberal doctrines (just look at the Orban government in Hungary.) We have also seen the rise of radical “New Left” style parties in Greece, Portugal, Spain and elsewhere. The future of politics at the EU level is still being written.
    The Marxist tradition has far more often than not testified that European integration is fundamentally progressive tendency – notwithstanding the dominance of right wing capitalist governments. This was the stance taken by the early editors of the IS journal. It echoed the insistence in their day by Marx and Engels that German unification and integration was to be supported in spite of the dominance of the process at the time by reactionary Prussian militarism.
    For the left to vote to withdraw from the EU today is to pretend that that British withdrawal will not strengthen the most rabid currents of racism, imperial style ‘British’ nationalism and reactionary social and environmental policies.
    Or worse; it would be gamble (in grotesque imitation of the German Stalinists in the 1930s) that, after the “Carnival of Reaction” unleashed by EU withdrawal the left would somehow be better positioned to become a mass political force.

  7. no socialist can possibly support leaving the EU To do so would support nationalism and deny internationlism, sorry guys same advice to you as to the right wing rednecks of the leave campaign YOU CAN’T HAVE YOURCAKE AND EAT IT !!

  8. “In other words, it remains perfectly possible for two groups of people to support the same political position in the expectation of, not only different, but diametrically opposite outcomes. When this happens, it is usually for one of two reasons: either one group has simply misunderstood the situation–in other words, the two opposing groups cannot both be right and the meaning of the outcome will be different from what one of them expects; or because the situation is genuinely indeterminate–in other words, the outcome will be decided by what the different groups do in the process leading up to it. Both misunderstanding and indeterminacy were on display during Indyref.”

    No, two opposing groups supporting the same political position in most cases because their interests temporarily coincide, not because one side is stupid or misunderstood the situation and not because a situation is genuinely indeterminate. The Bolsheviks and the Kaiser for example both wanted Russia out of WWI and so the German government put Lenin and his comrades on a train bound for Russia and Lenin agreed to ride that train because their interests coincided. The Gulf states and the Syrian rebels both want Assad gone in Syria but for vastly different reasons — the former to damage Iran, the latter as a step towards a more democratic/less fascist (less murderous) political order. Both are cases where different, even opposing, social and political forces came to the same position because their interests coincided temporarily.

    Whether to vote for or against Brexit shouldn’t hinge primarily on who our allies would be for either position but on an examination and determination of what the interests of workers and oppressed peoples are in this conflict over leaving/staying. The analysis presented here spends a lot of time looking at who supports/opposes Brexit and why, but provides little or no explanation of why or how “intensify[ing] three existing crises: of the EU itself, of the British state, and of the Tory Party” by voting to leave — as the author argues in favor of — advances our interests. Millions of refugees are pouring out of war zones in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan which is causing a major crisis for the EU and a crisis for capitalist states in Greece, Germany, and other nations, but surely we don’t favor that.

    How does Brexit (which allegedly will lead to “intensify[ing] three existing crises: of the EU itself, of the British state, and of the Tory Party”) advance our interests? What are the pros and cons of Brexit and do the pros outweigh the cons?

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