EU referendum: A crisis of the right, not an opportunity for the left

Rob Owen continues our debate on the EU referendum by arguing the left can abstain from the vote without abstaining from the politics.

eu referendum

How to respond to a referendum is a tactical question that requires careful consideration of the political context it takes place in, the questions at stake and whether it presents a chance to advance the left politically or increase the level of class struggle. The weight placed upon these different aspects has led to revolutionaries taking a range of different positions on how to respond to the upcoming EU referendum.  In a debate polarised around a crisis of the political right, advocates of “left-exit” or “left-in” have tended to downplay important aspects to construct a decisive conclusion on how to vote. A large in or out vote, given both the terms set for the referendum and the current conjuncture, would represent either an endorsement of the status quo or an increase in support for a reactionary, anti-migrant British identity. The referendum marks, not a moment of opportunity for the left to advance, but a crisis for the right of British politics.

Here I suggest that since the left has little hope of shaping the vote through meaningful campaigns our analysis is best popularised by refusing to pick sides in a referendum produced and driven by a crisis of the right.

Opposition to the EU – there is no path to “reform”

Whatever approach we take to the referendum, the experience of Greece shows the need for the left to be clear that there is no path to reforming the EU in the interests of the working class. Slogans like “Another Europe is Possible” raised by left-in campaigners fudge the question in a way that damages our ability to explain the role and purpose of the EU. The EU’s core raison d’être is to strengthen European capital and enable it to better compete on the world market. While it would be possible to win minor reforms if left governments were elected across Europe, the EU could never be transformed into a project based on solidarity and anti-racist integration. As a supra-national organisation, the EU is one stage further removed from democratic pressure then nation states, meaning its direction is more shaped by major capital and less susceptible to pressure from below. We have seen how the EU, and related institutions, can be used to enforce neoliberalism on weaker states like Greece and override democratic mandates. Despite this experience, large swathes of the radical retain illusions in their ability to reform the EU into a project geared towards integration from below. For revolutionaries, the referendum is an opportunity to raise a Marxist analysis of the EU amongst those who have been influenced by the recent waves of radicalisation in Europe.

Not the same as Greece

A materialist analysis also needs to recognise that Britain has a different relationship to the EU than nation states heavily indebted to Europe’s bigger economies. Greece’s EU membership, and more significantly membership of the eurozone, undoubtedly made it easier for creditor nations to enforce their will against a democratically elected government. However, the ability of international capital to clamp down was more fundamentally based on the debt relationship between weaker and stronger economies. Creditor nations would have attempted to enforce a similar outcome in exchange for loans regardless of whether Greece was in or out of the EU. The Syriza government’s refusal to break from conditions imposed upon them was also an important political factor, undeniably influenced by their commitment to the idea that the EU could be reformed from the left. Politically there is no comparable political current in the UK other than, in a less radical form, the SNP in Scotland where political dynamics are markedly different to those south of the border.

Britain had relatively low exposure to Greek debt and played only a minor role in imposing the conditions demanded by Germany. It is hard to imagine that if a country like Spain (where Britain has a higher exposure to debt) were to face a similar situation that Britain would not try to enforce similar conditions in exchange for further loans – regardless of whether Britain remained an EU state. If Britain left the EU it would be in the interests of all European states to retain arrangements that ensured capital flows between Britain and EU states alongside a British role in deciding and enforcing conditions on nations in risk of default. EU exit (if voted for) is widely tipped to take place over up to 10 years to allow the maintenance of just these type of agreements and minimise disruption to capital. Britain’s role in the EU has always been one of resistance to further integration and support for the most neoliberal policies within Europe. While a British exit would be damaging to the EU, an exit forced by the current dynamics would leave the debt relations between Britain and other European states fundamentally untouched.

Does the EU block reform?

Britain, as the second biggest economy in the EU, and sitting outside the eurozone, has a completely different relationship to the EU than debtor nations. Austerity is not imposed on Britain by its membership of the EU but driven by Westminster. Insofar as EU legislation has been a fetter on domestic policy-making, it has been in slowing down the stripping-away of regulation around workers’, environmental and human rights, advocated in the name of increasing competitiveness. For example, despite attempts to find loopholes, it is the requirement of member states to sign up to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that has stymied conservative ministers attempts to scrap Britain’s membership. This reality contradicts the statement from many advocates of “left-exit” that as the ECHR is not an EU body Britain’s relationship to it has no bearing on the referendum.

While EU membership is no “defence” of our various legal rights, the current weakness of working class resistance in Britain means that EU membership has acted as a fetter on the Tories’ attempts to destroy what legal restrictions remain to corporate power. This material reality should be a real concern to advocates for left-exit, and means it is totally inappropriate to simply export arguments from other nations’ exit campaigns into the UK context. In a referendum caused by a reformist government coming up against the limits of EU membership the political questions and dynamics would be entirely different.

Migrant workers and precarity

Left-exit advocates are keen to stress (see articles from both rs21 and Socialist Review) that the exit campaign has not yet turned into a “carnival of reaction.” A brief read of the exit literature dropping through doors will, however, give a clear sense of the overwhelming stress placed on questions of migration. That UKIP are neither setting the pace nor set to automatically benefit does nothing to diminish concerns about the political dynamic and material effects of a strong out vote.  The response to the referendum by EU migrants should be of genuine concern to the left. The fact that many migrant workers fear that an ‘out’ vote will result in a significant increase in their insecurity is a real factor, especially when combined with the rising levels of racism towards Eastern European economic migrants over the past decade. As the referendum has neared there has been a large spike in applications for British citizenship as migrant workers worry about losing their status and rights.  Arguments that the UK needs a large migrant workforce and so these fears are ill-founded ignores the experience of other groups of essential migrant workers (such as the recent wave of teachers encouraged across from Jamaica) who have found themselves with almost no rights to benefits should they lose their employment. It also ignores work on the experience of precarity that argues that the fear of losing your job is as significant in making workers feel precarious as the actual likelihood of losing it. Given the size of the EU migrant population in Britain, this increased sense of precarity amongst EU migrants would have a real impact in many workplaces making it markedly more difficult to persuade migrant workers to join struggles for better pay and conditions.

On a wider level one of the impacts of imposed austerity on weaker states in the EU has been the exodus of a generation of workers seeking employment in stronger economies like the UK. The impact of voting out, often intended as an internationalist vote in solidarity with movements fighting austerity, is different depending on the dominant forces driving an exit campaign and the situation of the state in which the vote takes place. Given the nature of the exit campaign it is likely a large vote for exit will be interpreted by many workers in Europe as a rich nation slamming the door closed on workers from countries facing the sharp end of austerity.

Nationalism, migration and racism

As well as addressing the material realities of the EU it is important to look at the political dynamics that are shaping the campaign. First we have to acknowledge that, despite the rise of Corbynism, it is not pressure from the left or workers’ movements that has generated the referendum, but crisis within the political right.  While big business and much of the political establishment supports retaining EU membership there is a substantial section of the Tory support base for whom the EU represents a weakening of British sovereignty, most often expressed in terms of control over “our” borders. There is also a material basis for a right-wing Brexit campaign amongst smaller businesses wanting free of EU regulations and sections of capital that believe a move away from “EU protectionism” could boost UK trade globally.  Yet the popularity of the Brexit campaign is widely acknowledged, as evidenced by polling data, to be based around ideas of nationalism and increasing control of migration. This form of British nationalism, represented politically by many Tory backbenchers and UKIP, has never truly come to terms with the collapse of the British Empire and is inherently racist (see Paul Gilroy, ‘After Empire’).

In recent years, this notion of Britishness has been increasingly defined in opposition to recent waves of economic migrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe. Proponents of a left-exit accurately point out that the counterposed “Europeanism” that the Green Party and others have embraced is similarly racist in its definition of “Europeans” against the non-white “other”. However, the notion of Europeanism has no comparable roots in British society and has gained support as a reaction against ideas of Britishness.  Given the dynamic of anti-racist politics’ “Europeanism” is a common sense expression of anti-racism and is often adopted by those most sympathetic to migrants from beyond Europe. That it is a contradictory rejection is a reflection of how ideas shift in the absence of a large and coherent revolutionary alternative. While revolutionaries in Britain have to stand unequivocally against ideas of “Britishness” we should engage with the adoption of terms like “European” to draw out and strengthen the anti-racist motivations that lie behind its adoption while arguing for the adoption of genuinely internationalist politics. The rise of a “European” identity around left-in campaigners is not an equivalent danger to the pandering to British nationalism by many around the left out camp.

It is absolutely correct to point out that freedom of movement within the EU is combined with the construction of Fortress Europe drowning refugees. Yet, outside Trotskyist groups, solidarity with migrants and active opposition to Fortress Europe is strongest amongst radical milieus supportive of an in-vote. A vote that will lead to tightening control of the borders between Britain and the EU will not weaken fortress Europe, but will represent a further defeat for those who wish to open the border at Calais to refugees and migrants.

What is the key point of rupture for the left?

Because the membership of the EU has little obvious impact on working-class life in Britain, both the campaigns for Brexit and continued membership have struggled to build a momentum beyond those with an active interest in “politics”. Both camps have attempted to build support on grounds unfavourable to the left. The in-camp on the grounds that leaving the EU will destabilise the economy and put jobs at risk, and the out-camp on questions of democracy and national sovereignty, while the Tory press continues to highlight the question of borders. For either camp to win on this basis would be a bad thing for the left. However, a strong vote for out on this basis would be widely interpreted by both politicians, commentators and the public as evidence of increasing public support to be tougher on borders and migrant right. This would represent a shift from the centre to the right regardless of the crisis it would inflict upon the Tory Party.

The EU referendum is a lose – lose situation for the left and the working class. Since Corbyn agreed to be an absent supporter of an in vote, the basis for a serious left-exit campaign vanished.  Left-exit (as an actual campaign rather than a propaganda point) has no substantial basis upon which to make an impact on how the vote is interpreted. For the referendum to become a moment of “rupture” advantageous to the left, there needs to be the potential for popular movements shaped by the left to exert an influence on the overall direction of events, either before or as a consequence of the vote. A crisis of the Conservative party forced by the left or major struggle could pose such a moment of rupture. An example being the water tax in Ireland, a struggle the left was able to engage with and utilise to build a political alternative with real roots in popular struggles that could win representation in the Dail. Alternatively the referendum in Scotland created an outlet for organising against austerity because a division in the ruling class enabled the left to mobilise working class communities by exploiting the sense that voting yes to Scottish independence could create a shield against austerity from Westminster. The French no campaign to the EU constitution in 2005, while formally being opposed by all the major parties of the establishment, included major sections of the Socialist and Green Parties including former prime-minister Laurent Fabius. All these examples presented a plausible case for being a moment the left could exploit to further our aims; any potential left-exit campaign presents no comparable case. While a no vote would speed the demise of David Cameron it would strengthen an equally reactionary wing of the Conservative party. It would also shore up the eurosceptic wing of the Tory party to further losses to UKIP. Whatever the result the process of the referendum will expose divisions in the Tories that should exacerbate their crisis. Given the low level of working class resistance and weakness of the radical left it is most likely to be the Labour Party under Corbyn who benefits by a further weakening of their electoral rivals.

Yet while the referendum is dominated by the right, the question of Corbynism and how it plays out is of larger significance for the left and working class movements then the referendum result. How the layers of radicals and working class activists come to understand how Corbyn deals with the limitations placed around him by the Labour Party and parliament will be key to whether and in what form a new left emerges when it hits a decisive crisis. How the outbursts of struggle from below interact with Labour and how revolutionaries raise the ideas of socialism from below within them will be key in determining the extent to which we can refashion and rebuild a new left.

When United are playing Chelsea you can’t bet on Millwall.

While in principle revolutionaries should be in favour of “left-exit”, the unfortunate reality is that it is neither on the ballot paper, nor is there the material basis for a left-exit campaign that can seriously shape the referendum. Advocates of a principled left-exit are limited to the tiny groups of the revolutionary left, and the idea has found limited resonance amongst the left’s wider audience. This is not (as suggested in an article on the rs21 site) simply a case of the malaise of the far left – it is a product of the political contradictions in Britain that sparked and are shaping the debate. Comparisons to the recent Scottish referendum are flawed because questions of Scottish independence seemingly offered a shield against Westminster. The question of Scottish independence developed a class character which the left could capitalise upon because in the eyes of many working class people, independence was intermeshed with questions of resisting austerity.

There is no comparable overlap in the EU referendum where there is no sense a ‘no’ vote could be a defence against austerity policies. The case for left-exit is based solely upon a theoretical understanding of the EU and internationalism, that the theoretical analysis is correct doesn’t mean it translates into effective agitation. To suggest that the EU debate offers the chance to “invite working people to become the active protagonists in the construction of a different future” is true in only the most abstract of terms. As such the only opportunities for an anti-EU left are for propaganda, rather than a campaign for an out vote in the current context.

The political context that sparked the referendum and the basis upon which the out vote has gained popular support lends itself to an argument for attempting to limit the size of the out vote, in active opposition to the ideas of Britishness and anti-immigrant politics it represents. But to campaign for a left-in vote would inevitably mean limiting our propaganda about the anti-democratic and neoliberal character of the EU. Importantly, it is also a vote that sees the question of the referendum in exclusively national terms by failing to acknowledge that actively campaigning for an in vote revolutionaries would muddy the waters in arguments taking place across the European radical left about the nature of the EU.

Abstaining on the vote is not abstaining from the debate

Revolutionaries can engage in the debates around both the EU and migration without lining up to campaign for either in or out in the referendum. The opportunities that are opened are primarily for debate not to shape the outcome of the vote. Tailing arguments towards either voting in or out in this referendum inevitably lead to downplaying either our analysis of the EU or the political consequences and popular interpretations of a strong no vote in the current referendum.

Referenda are not class struggle, and there is no principle that states revolutionaries should always take sides in them. They present us with a binary choice which we may, or may not, be able to use to advance our cause. Circumstances at this conjuncture mean groups better placed than rs21 have shown no ability to make headway building a credible left-exit campaign. In the absence of the ability to build a left-exit campaign from either above or below we can’t take the voluntarist view that the revolutionary left can impact the situation by force of will. Once we dismiss the possibility of meaningfully shaping the wider debate about how an out vote will be interpreted. we are left with the duty to propagandise against the EU and in defence of migrants – building our side and patiently debating with people who will be our allies in future fights on both sides of the referendum.

Abstaining on a vote is not abstaining from politics. A plague on both their houses.


  1. That would be the experience of a left government wedded to reforming the EU and harbouring illusions in its reform ability and susceptibility to democratic pressure hamstring it from taking the steps needed to peruse an alternative model of politics.

    The reason the EU is not susceptible to democratic pressure is “as a supra-national organisation, the EU is one stage further removed from democratic pressure then nation states, meaning its direction is more shaped by major capital and less susceptible to pressure from below. We have seen how the EU, and related institutions, can be used to enforce neoliberalism on weaker states like Greece and override democratic mandates.”

    It should really go further but detailing a Marxist critique of the EU was beyond the limits of what I was trying to write given the intended audience. A summarised analysis of why the EU is irredeemable but likely to be unravelled by a future (and perhaps not so distant) crisis of its economic contradictions would be:

    The evolution of the EU started as an attempt to rebuild German capitalism but to manage divisions in europe after ww2. It has evolved over its history as German capitalism recovered and sought (in a sometimes tense coalition with other major European capitalisms like France) to create a common market to maintain its export driven growth. As profit rates declined and neoliberalism became the paradigm across modern capitalism the EU locked in a form of stability (partly through montary union) that was based on weaker econonies buying in exports from the central economies in return for access to loans and finance from the central economies. This model ‘worked’ as a means of stabilising growth in germany (and to a lesser extent France and other EU states) but opened up an increasing disparity between the central and peripheral economies of the EU. It was also based on a semi permanent tension between all states within the EU which had to maintain themselves through taxation of their own corporations that were competing within and without the common market as well as manage differing class conflicts within their borders. As soon as governments of the peripheral states resisted the imposition of the terms of EU loans, or workers resistance challenged the police’s needed to make the debt repayments then the economic basis of the union itself was being challenged. The result was the imposition of extreme austerity policies in many peripheral economies to sustain repayments as the economies dipped and the over turning of a democratic mandates in Greece where popular pressure revisited the imposition of these policies.

    This economic reality is the material reality of the EU. Peripheral economies got access to loans and bought into a ‘bigger’ system (central bank etal) as a means of encouraging investment and stabilising themselves against bigger economies in a globalised word but at what price is now the question being asked. Eastern European states populations often bought into it as a safeguard against cronyism and corruption (again at what price?) The economic basis of the EU is to weak and internally divided to be open to real’s structures guard against pressure for reform by stimulating real power in bodies several steps removed from direct election and pressure from below. Pressure for reform would stress EU structures to breaking point which is why when peripheral economies come up against the limits of the EU it is a genuine moment of potential rupture for the left if movements do not try to paper over the contradictions in the EU and moderate their demands to maintain the future of the EU.

    If your scenario of a synchronised election of left reformist governments in the core and peripheral economies of the EU were to come about it would require a tearing down of the financial and structural elements of the EU and rebuilding a union on a completely different basis. If this political reality were to emerge you would hope there would also be a much deeper questioning of why a internationalist union based on solidarity would define its borders by that of student “Europe” defined against the wider world by its imperial past. There would have to be a writing of off debts of the weaker nations and genuinely democratic economic planning that sought to develop all areas of the Union not conditional on meeting the needs of the most power capitalist interests. In short it would require revolutionary change.

  2. PW the article’s agreement for the EU being fundamentally irreformable (as opposed to the idea no reforms could be won) is not argued on the evidence of Greece. In fact the argument is made that the EU is not the key reason Greece was crushed. The argument is made that the EU is irreformable as it is a supranational organisation based on making European capitals more competititve. If the conditions were such that radical governments were elected across Europe then the EU would be torn apart by the economic tensions (between the state’s within it and the economic clashes between classes inside those states) it attempts to embody. The economic crisis has already brought it into a major crisis with just a few states resisting the economic policies the union demands for its survival.

    • “PW the article’s agreement for the EU being fundamentally irreformable (as opposed to the idea no reforms could be won) is not argued on the evidence of Greece.”

      Well it certainly didn’t come across that way. The piece state “the experience of Greece shows the need for the left to be clear that there is no path to reforming the EU in the interests of the working class.”

  3. “the experience of Greece shows the need for the left to be clear that there is no path to reforming the EU in the interests of the working class.”

    A premature conclusion to say the least, unless you’re seriously arguing that if left governments came to power in the majority of the EU member states (or in the key powers, UK, France, and Germany) they, like SYRIZA, would be utterly unable to reform the EU. SYRIZA — the left government of a tiny, economically wrecked Greece — had not 1 ally at the governmental level within the EU during its struggle against the Troika and that is the basic reason why they were defeated and a third memorandum imposed. To say that their defeat exhausts the possibility of reforming the EU is like saying the defeat of a single strike exhausts the possibility of forming stable, successful trade unions under capitalism. The possibilities have barely been explored much less exhausted.

    “Yet, outside Trotskyist groups, solidarity with migrants and active opposition to Fortress Europe is strongest amongst radical milieus supportive of an in-vote. A vote that will lead to tightening control of the borders between Britain and the EU will not weaken fortress Europe, but will represent a further defeat for those who wish to open the border at Calais to refugees and migrants.”

    This is probably the most important point in the whole essay since it applies Marx’s materialist approach to the politics of which class/social forces support/oppose Brexit and why but the point really undermines the author’s abstentionist/neutral stance. The question the author’s analysis raises is why are the radical pro-migrant/migrant solidarity groups wrong about defeating Brexit by means of an in-vote?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here