The timing of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – June 23rd – could not be better for those on the right and far right of the country’s political spectrum. With a refugee crisis of biblical proportions lapping up on Europe’s shores, and with the collapse of the political centre ground across the West in the wake of the enduring impact of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the right has suddenly found itself vying with the left to occupy the political space that has opened up as a result.
This in itself is no bad thing, for just as the reactionary ideas and politics of Donald Trump in the US and Nigel Farage in the UK have gained traction in recent times, so has the socialist and progressive politics and ideas of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in both countries. However in the context of a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU, in which we are witnessing an egregious conjunction of left and right, there are serious grounds for alarm.
There is no viable left wing, socialist, or progressive case for Britain leaving the EU – and certainly not in the current political and economic climate. What there is in truth is a campaign for exit (Brexit) that is dominated by the ugly far right politics of anti immigration, xenophobia, and British nationalism. That section of the left that is also campaigning for Britain exit from the EU, basing their arguments on the anti-democratic nature of its institutions and its neoliberal economic orientation, not to mention increasing militarization, is merely allowing itself to be recruited as unwitting footsoldiers by right and far right in what qualifies as a catastrophic collapse of judgment, if not principle.
Jean Monnet’s vision of European unity
The EU started life as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, which later became the European Economic Community (EEC), established by the Treaty of Rome in 1958. The original EEC was made up of West Germany, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, and Italy in a common market and customs union. It was the brainchild of French diplomat and political economist, Jean Monnet, whose vision of European unity was born of the experience of two devastating European wars by the middle of the twentieth century, and the desire to avoid another by fomenting closer economic cooperation, ties, and integration across the continent between former belligerent states, in particular France and West Germany. “There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty,” the Frenchman said, “with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection.”
His idea was that member states would cede a little national sovereignty in exchange for peace, and continue to do so until a fully fledged European Union came into being.
Today’s EU worships at the altar of neoliberalism
In 2016 Monnet’s dream is a reality in the form of a European Union of 28 member states with a combined population of 500 million people. For obvious reasons, however, Monnet’s dream for many of those people across the EU has been a nightmare. For not only is the EU an economic behemoth, the largest single market in the world, it is one dominated by the needs, interests, and prerogatives of finance capital, reflected in political institutions underpinned by a constitution, the Treaty of Lisbon, which legislates that its member states worship at the altar of neoliberalism.
We witnessed the grievous consequences of this neoliberal hegemony during the Greek crisis of 2015, when the so-called Troika – the IMF, European Central Bank, and the European Commission – forced harsh austerity measures onto the Greek economy and people, while callously dismissing the popular democratic mandate of its government, under Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, to pursue an investment led alternative in order to navigate the country out of the economic depression it was suffering
Calls from the far left and right within Greece for the country’s exit from the EU rather than continue to be subjected to what the country’s former finance minister and economist, Yanis Varoufakis, described as “economic waterboarding”, were not shared by the vast majority of Greeks, who understood that Greece’s specific economic circumstances meant that going it alone would be as bad, and perhaps worse, than the austerity medicine prescribed by the Troika.
The awful events in Greece in 2015 confirmed the extent to which neoliberalism is incompatible with national sovereignty. However this incompatibility is not merely a product of the EU. It is also a factor across the entire Western world, with the exception of the United States for the historical and geopolitical reasons set out by Varoufakis’ in his book, The Global Minotaur (Zed, 2015). Most of all it emphasized the need for a pan-European anti austerity movement of sufficient size and strength to mount a serious challenge to the status quo. That one did not and still does not exist does not mean that anti-austerity as counter hegemonic current within Europe is dead, however. In this regard the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party last summer by a landslide on an anti austerity platform, is grounds for optimism.
Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist vision and public ownership
Corbyn’s socialist ideas and vision for Britain has garnered huge support across the country, attracting record numbers of new Labour Party members with his pledge to take back the nation’s railway transport system into public ownership, along with the so-called ‘Big Six’ energy companies. Corbyn is also leading Labour’s campaign for Britain to remain in the EU come the referendum in June.
Here, on the left, opponents of Corbyn’s position claim that public ownership is illegal under current EU legislation. But they’re wrong, at least according Article 345 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU of 1958, which states: ‘The Treaties shall in no way prejudice the rules in Member States governing the system of property ownership.’
This legislation remains extant and refutes the claim that existing EU legislation prohibits the kind of nationalization, or public ownership, being advocated by Jeremy Corbyn. But even if it did prohibit it, are we seriously suggesting that in the event that Corbyn gets elected prime minister on a manifesto that includes public ownership that he would not be able to implement it? Nonsense. If David Cameron can negotiate ‘special status’ for Britain within the EU in areas of welfare benefits and migration, then so can Corbyn on taking key industries and services into public ownership. Britain remains a major economy, not just within Europe but globally, and with that economic status comes negotiating power.
But things won’t have to go that far given that all across the EU state or public ownership within the transport and energy sectors is currently a fact of life.
The EU’s role as US gendarme and human rights
Another issue of concern when it comes to the EU has been its role as a geopolitical and economic gendarme in service to Washington, specifically in recent times with regard to the crisis in Ukraine involving Russia, the conflict in Syria, and the Iranian crisis. In this regard the symbiosis between the EU and NATO is of undoubted concern, particularly with regard to the accession states of Eastern Europe and how this has raised tensions with Moscow, leading directory to the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Yet given the longstanding nature of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, and the way in which both Germany and France have also established closer ties across the Atlantic over the past decade and more, neither an EU independent of Britain or a Britain independent of the EU would alter the close relationship between either and Washington. If anything, in the event of Brexit, the British political and security establishment would place even more emphasis on its partnership with the United States in order to compensate. As for the eastwards expansion of the EU, there is no reason to presume that this process would cease either.
Another reason for opposing Brexit is the consequences it would have for Britain’s continuing membership of European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which enforces its writ across Europe. Though separate from the EU, the ECHR has been thrown in as part of the toxic brew cooked up by Tory Europsceptics and their far right fellow travellers, led by UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Brexit would almost certainly lead to Britain’s withdrawal and, with it, the removal of a vital layer of human rights legislation for those who find themselves at the sharp end of British justice. This particularly applies to asylum seekers and others facing deportation to countries where they are in danger of being tortured or worse.
For all these reasons and more – workers’ rights and consumer protection, etc. – there is no strong progressive case for Britain leaving the EU, despite its many and manifest flaws. And certainly not when the beneficiaries should it come to pass will be the ugly forces of reaction and nationalism.
Nationalism not socialism is the driver of the campaign for Britain’s exit from the EU, and If successful it will feed a regressive national consciousness at the expense of its class counterpart.