7 June 2016 — Counterpunch
Virtually the entire British political elite is in favour of remaining in the European Union. Aside from a handful of Tory careerists like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who see a disagreement with David Cameron’s leadership as a way to secure their own position within the party, the forces of reaction and business across the wingspan of British politics are flocking to support the EU. Once we examine the Brexit situation in terms of what would best undermine the more neoliberal forces of the EU, it soon becomes clear that a vote to Leave would pull the EU in a considerably less neoliberal direction, likely benefiting other European countries – not to the mention the global South, in particular Africa, which has enjoyed a fundamentally exploitative relation with the EU since its inception.
The mainstream Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe campaigns effectively reduce to a battle internal to the Tory party, and not much else can be gleaned from them with respect to the shortcomings and benefits of the EU, and so a broader perspective is needed at a time when recent Guardian/ICM polls are suggesting that working class support for Leave is growing. My intention here is to argue that even the more progressive goals of the various Remain camps are wholly unworkable and rely on inaccurate and misleading assumptions about the structure and function of the EU.
When Michael Chessum, a major organiser of the pro-Remain ‘Another Europe is Possible’ (AEiP) movement, is questioned about what concrete ‘changes’ he would like to see in EU, he simply dodges the question. Chessum’s behaviour generalises. To my knowledge, not a single supporter of Remain has presented a satisfying answer to the question of how we are supposed to go about reforming the EU. Even Yanis Varoufakis during his recent ‘Lunch with the Financial Times’ interview confessed that in reality the EU isn’t going to be reformed to anywhere near the extent the Remainers are hoping for (attempts to reform ‘will probably end in failure like all the best intentions’, he claimed). Even Remain supporter Ed Rooksby can write on his blog about how he is ‘not particularly convinced by arguments emanating from [AEiP] in relation to the possibility of transforming EU institutions in a leftist direction’. How is a new, reformed EU possible? How can we change it to break from the Washington Consensus? The answers are, worryingly, not forthcoming.
A number of trade union leaders in favour of Remain recently claimed that British workers would suffer a series of defeats in a post-Brexit Tory environment and wouldn’t be capable of resisting the government, but simulatensouly argued that British workers would somehow be capable of reforming the EU without stating exactly how, invoking some vague notions of internationalism (indeed, the RMT, ASLEF and BFAWU – unions in favour of Leave – put it much better when they recently claimed: ‘We are against a fortress Britain, so we are against a fortress Europe’). Relatedly, what has not been mentioned by the progressive Remainers is how the Tories cynically modified anti-union legislation in order to persuade a number of unions to support remaining in the EU and become more heavily involved in the Remain campaign, with the union leaders behaving equally as cynically in abdicating their responsibility to act in the best interest of working people.
Airy-fairy proposals for ‘another Europe’ to ‘protect our rights’ and so forth simply fill a void lacking any concrete solutions to achieve this and any proposals for how to achieve a new EU constitution. In theory, another anything is possible: Another New Zealand, Another Skelmersdale, Another Isla Nublar, Another Tamriel. It is not as if another EU is inherently unreachable, but rather that without any posited, realistic steps to achieve it, the hopes of the Remain camp will quickly dissolve after June 23rd, no matter which side wins.
Concrete solutions are lacking, then, as it is no good for the Left camp of Remain to simply point voters in the direction of Owen Jones columns and Caroline Lucas YouTube videos instead. The powers of the European Commission, European Central Bank and European Court of Justice are guaranteed by EU treaties and can only be reformed as a result of a unanimous agreement within the Council of Ministers. AEiP may exert some moderate degree of influence over the UK’s soft Left, but it will have to become substantially more commanding if it hopes to influence the Council of Ministers. Likewise, the foundational pro-austerity, market liberalisation principles of the EU are established by the same treaties, which can be modified only by a unanimous agreement by all 28 member states.
A number of figures within AEiP have claimed that voting Leave will radically undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. This doesn’t seem at all reasonable, particularly given Corbyn’s well-known EU scepticism and his recent tongue-biting over its apparent susceptibility to reform. Even if a Leave vote is used by the Labour Right to attack Corbyn, in the long term he won’t be threatened too much: It is Sadiq Khan and David Cameron who are putting their heart and soul into Remain, not Corbyn. The Labour leader would not be hit considerably hard by an Out vote, and the forces of AEiP and the Momentum-based younger Left are ideologically flexible enough – and able to be rallied around a moderately revised internationalist consensus – to deal well with a readjustment in campaigning priorities post-referendum. This group has already won notable victories through reversing academisation, cancelling Cameron’s Saudi visit, and rolling back particular welfare ‘reforms’, among other things. Even if the British media somehow deem Corbyn a failure if we the UK leaves – and even if the racist right are in fact empowered significantly – it is doubtful that many on the Left would really see Corbyn of all people as the worthy target; everyone would be too busy dealing with Nigel Farage’s limelight.
The Left Remain camp have also recently been galvanised by Noam Chomsky’s tenuous support for their cause, with Owen Jones and AEiP posting quotations of the professor’s brief statements on the matter. Chomsky’s reasons for supporting Remain are extremely weak and don’t stand up to much scrutiny. His reasoning is as follows: The racist Right is in favour of Leave, therefore we should Remain. But the racist Right is also in favour of Remain. Chomsky’s logic seems to be as follows: If P, therefore Q, so why not Z? Indeed, if an Out vote would simply ‘leave Britain more subordinate to US power’, as Chomsky claims, then why did Obama urgently, even desperately call for Britain to Remain? Owen Jones has in the past ridiculed what he calls ‘Chomsky fans’ on Twitter (while also labeling those who politely disagree with him ‘Stalinist’, ‘sectarian’, ‘ultra-left’ and ‘Gallowayite’), but deems it appropriate to sign up to his views when they align with his own. Chomsky’s opinions about the UK are naturally not going to be thoroughly well-formed and articulated, unlike his criticisms of US domestic and foreign policy: For instance, during a visit to the University of St Andrews in 2012 he expressed pro-monarchy feels for the rudimentary reason that if people enjoy it and find it fun, then who’s to object to it?
Many on the left simply cannot begin to address the limitations of the Remain camp: For instance, Media Lens, UK leftists sympathetic to Chomsky, have been oddly silent about the entire EU referendum. A certain level of unease and awkwardness pervades a lot of discussion about the EU, with many preferring simply to abstain or delay decision making until later. At Chomsky’s university, Matt Damon recently addressed MIT’s class of 2016 with ideas that Will Hunting would be far from impressed with, calling for a Remain vote with his typical mixture of casual arrogance and self-assurance, but devoid of any argument or apparent understanding. Damon ultimately retreated into the safe territory of banker-bashing, forgetting to justify his reasoning for supporting Remain.
This groundswell of support for Remain across substantial parts of the Left is hard to square with the facts. State aid to declining industries, along with renationalisation, are not permitted by current EU laws (under directive 2012/34/EU), and any mildly progressive government which managed to get elected in 2020 would be hindered from the outset by the EU. Considerable reforms of the energy market would also be illegal under EU directives 2009/72EU and 2009/73/EU. Collective bargaining is becoming much weaker across the EU, most vividly in France and Germany.
McDonnell’s plans for People’s Quantitative Easing? Outlawed by Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The series of anti-trade union laws introduced in Britain over the past few decades? The EU has no qualms with these whatsoever, showing no interest in providing even modest forms of protection for workers.
As the Labour Leave campaign points out, the EU would also outlaw an end to NHS outsourcing, tougher measures on tax avoidance, and general improvements to workers’ rights. The soft Left’s talk of international solidarity and the brotherhood of man in relation to the EU is absurd, especially as it continues to drive forward deeply militaristic and undemocratic (or rather, anti-democratic) policies. The EU is, after all, one the world’s major post-war imperialist projects, boasting an inherently and aggressively exploitative relation with the global South. The entirety of the EU parliament could be filled with McDonnells and Iglesias’s and no substantial reform would be forthcoming: The parliament is an institution purely of amendment and all power lies with the civil servants and the unelectable Commission.
And while Cameron, Johnson, Gove and Osborne are not the most admirable men in the world, they cannot be blamed for everything: It is the EU which has been hindering a just and lasting resolution to the refugee problem, not the UK state. A Left argument for Leave is firmly grounded not in the Left Remain camp’s ‘politics of hope’ (Owen Jones’s terminology), but rather in a well-earned sense of pessimism. As Chris Hedges recently told Vice: ‘This kind of mania for hope, that has infected even the Left, is a political pacifier. You know, everybody is addicted to these happy thoughts, and that keeps us complacent’.
Indeed, one of the very few positives of a Remain vote is that it would boost the mildly liberal pro-immigrant values of the traditional socialist Left and, in the short term, undermine racist anti-immigrant rhetoric (this is a point Novara Media’s James Butler clings onto when discussing Brexit), since unfortunately this is how the debate has been framed, typically sidelining other issues relevant to the UK’s membership of the EU. And if, as the soft Left has it, that a vote for Leave is in the immediate aftermath of the referendum a vote for racist anti-immigrant policies, then Remain supporters like AEiP and DiEM also have to admit that a vote to stay in the EU is a vote for European finance (the Remain campaign is funded by Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley, and is also supported by the heads of the arms trade), NATO and the majority of the British establishment, corporate world and media (which are plenty racist enough on their own without the support of Farage and Johnson).
From this perspective, neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes. Further, it is not simply ‘corporations’ that dominate the EU’s institutions, but rather the corroding and pervasive logic of transnational state-capitalism. While it’s true that in the immediate aftermath it wouldn’t be fair to say a Lexit had occurred (Britain will most likely not change all that much in the months following the vote), by the same token it would be disingenuous to say that the Left could Remain on its own terms too. Given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain – at least in the short term.
In brief, one of the major disasters of the Remain endorsement by substantial parts of the Left is that many seem incapable of acknowledging that the EU has by now become masterful at generating racism and promoting finance capitalism. Acknowledging this dynamic is frankly essential in understanding the rise of Far-Right forces across Europe. The EU was more than willing to impose sanctions on Greece when it became tempted to disobey orders to kowtow to European banks, but it seems far less willing to do anything about the rise of the Far-Right in Germany, France, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary. As Kevin Ovenden recently put it in Counterfire: ‘Far from countering the far right and authoritarian tendencies, the EU – with its austerity, Fortress Europe, anti-democratic diktats and endemic national antagonisms – is generating those reactionary features: and not only on the far right. The EU is fully behind the French government of Francois Hollande. It has suspended basic freedoms under an eight-month old state of emergency and is using the militarised police to batter through new austerity measures passed not by parliament, but by executive decree’.
We should be under no illusions, then: Despite the fact that the EU has been contributing eagerly to the migrant crisis through the securitisation of borders, Brexit will likely boost the anti-immigrant Tory, UKIP and Labour base in the short term. Yet over the coming years it will permit a future Labour-run Britain to implement mildly social democratic reforms much more easily, to be otherwise hindered by the EU’s strictures – that is, if Corbyn goes on the offensive and exploits the Tory’s weaknesses to a greater extent than he currently seems willing to do. A Corbyn-led Britain (or at least a Corbynite-influenced Labour Britain) outside the EU would be free from the direct influence of the European Central Bank, which is legally committed to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. Government aid to failing industries is barred: When Belgium attempted this, the European competition chief denied it the option and claimed that ‘EU state aid rules don’t allow public support for the rescue and restructuring of failing steelmakers’.
The ‘choice’ of austerity in Britain is no such thing in the EU, being part of its treaty. Anyone who claims that the EU is beneficial to workers’ right clearly hasn’t read the text of its treaty, which makes it very clear what the EU’s intentions are, and always have been. The ‘freedom’ for big firms to move capital, labour and commodities without any restrictions in order to maximise profits, regardless of social or environmental cost, is something no genuine socialist, communist or anarchist could ever support. Moreover, the EU is infamously driven towards privatisation, ‘free markets’ and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (largely the work of the Troika) – which signifies game over for much of Britain’s indigenous industries if adopted, as the EU’s 28 states engage in a race to the bottom in order to diminish living standards and workers’ rights.
These neoliberal doctrines of the Troika have hit the people of Greece, Portugal and Ireland extremely hard, with one in four young Irish citizens doing what the Irish do best and migrating from the country to avoid the EU’s imposition of neoliberal policies. The EU has conveniently postponed the punishment of Portugal and Spain until after the Brexit referendum and the Spanish elections so as not to tar its image too much, but it doesn’t take much effort to see that an ingenious game of self-preservation it as play. Meanwhile, the truncation of democracy across Europe and the pauperisation of its member states continues: Greece, Portugal and Ireland are forced to get the thumbs up from Brussels and Berlin before any novel domestic economic agenda can be implemented.
In the face of this apparently austere ideology, the EU is nevertheless careful to generously fund British quangos, charities, arts groups, museums and universities to ensure the recycling of a healthy pro-EU sentiment amongst the influential middle class intelligentsia, academia and commentariat, ensuring that most of its major limitations are sidelined or forgotten about. It manages to do all this after having intentionally destroyed Britain’s fishing industry. This system amounts to one of the clearest definitions of a racket.
It is not simply that the European Commission is undemocratic (a feature it shares with the UK parliamentary system, though with greater intensity), but also that the Commission is additionally isolated from possible public pressure (a feature it doesn’t share with the UK parliamentary system). In 2014, the European election turnout in the UK was 36% and reached an astonishingly democratic 13% and 18% in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As abhorrent as the UK’s attempts at democracy are, at least the British public know who they are being led by: Not so with the European Parliament. Most Europeans wouldn’t be able to name a single Eurocrat. The question therefore arises as to whether MEPs (notoriously surrounded by a cavalcade of lobbyists) truly have much of a mandate at all to represent their constituencies. The EU has a judiciary which typically subordinates workers’ rights to employers’ rights, while the EU’s legislature is a force of hazardous contradictions: Too strong to not proffer any mercy to the Greek people, but simultaneously too weak to control its own civil service.
Contrary to much discussion in the various Remain camps, British democratic rights are enshrined in domestic law alongside obligations emerging out of international law – not originating in the EU. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is also enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act and the European Court, crucially emerging from the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, established before the EU even existed. In addition, EU membership by no means guarantees that member states will adhere to the ECHR, and states have proven themselves very capable of undermining it. Membership of the EU signifies very little in the way of adherence to human rights conventions.
That said, leaving the EU would by no means result in immediately significant changes or wins for the European Left. But it would crucially open up an entirely different kind of debate from the one inevitably resulting from a Remain vote (especially given the bizarre fixation of the Remain campaigns – including AEiP – solely on the virtues of the EU, and not its considerable shortcomings). In addition, it would lead to the kind of debate in which leftists would no longer feel compelled to recycle myths about how David Cameron is somehow ‘better’ on immigration issues than Boris Johnson.
In addition, a Leave vote would present the public with a Tory party sharply divided down the middle and being forced to spend considerable energy (at least an estimated four years, bringing us fortuitously to 2020) negotiating the exact terms of Brexit while also dealing with a worsening Scottish constitutional crisis. The government has already made a series of significant U-turns on its austerity agenda thanks to the Corbyn leadership, and irrespective of who would be leading the party (likely Johnson) it would have a very difficult time trying to impose further cuts in the face of these obstacles. Indeed, the only way to secure a genuinely strong, unified Conservative government committed to austerity would be if Cameron won the Remain vote by at least 60%, which under current forecasts is not going to happen.
A Johnson government would be a uniquely weak government (even weaker than Cameron’s current slim majority government elected by only 24% of the public) – something the UK Left (such as it is) and the Corbynites could take advantage of. Among other things, this dissolves the argument presented by the majority on the Remain camp’s Left (in particular AEiP) who effectively say to the ‘Lexit’ crowd: ‘We agree with what you say about the EU, but want to remain because of Boris Johnson’. The sight of Johnson trying to lead an increasingly fractured and rebellious party, forced into a number of substantial retreats, would be nothing less than a gift to the entirety of the UK Left.
It would not just be England that would benefit from a Leave vote. Last July, it was revealed that the Scottish National Party government has been forced by new EU rules on measuring state spending to radically amend its Scottish Futures Trust project for public investment in schools, hospitals and roads in order to afford private firms a much larger role. Free of the EU’s influence, Scotland (and Wales) would be able to choose exactly which industries and services to support. For instance, if it were no longer tied to the EU Classical Directive on public procurement then local government could provide larger contracts to local suppliers. More recently, the European Commission has been attempting to force the Irish public to pay water charges; something it previously attempted to do and was only stopped by the sheer mass of public protest in the streets.
The UK government’s own official arguments for remaining also don’t survive even a mild degree of scrutiny: Let’s vote to remain in the EU so I can save 38p on all those foreign calls I never make. The UK is already outside the Schengen agreement and the Eurozone and it is purely fanciful to claim that it will be a great benefit to remain part of a political union bent on imposing austerity on its member states.
Baroness Jenny Jones, prominent Green Party member, addressed some related concerns about the official Remain narrative in a Fabian Society essay, ‘A Fork in the Road’: ‘Personally, I fear [the EU] is unreformable … And latterly I’ve been horrified too by the deep influence of big business – corporate lobbyists outnumber NGO lobbyists by 15-1. What chance is there of tough progressive action on poverty or the environment? In the past the EU has brought in some good measures, for example the Directives on Clean Air, which I used to try to hit Boris Johnson over the head with while talking about London’s worsening air pollution. But the problem itself was caused in large part by the EU’s support and encouragement of diesel engines, after pressure from diesel car manufacturers keen to improve their sales. So thank you to the EU for the problem of poisonous air and then for a solution for cleaning it up, sadly too late for those thousands of people who had early deaths and for the children whose lungs will be permanently damaged’.
A serious Left argument against the EU needs to be presented both in the event of a Leave or Remain vote, since without the presence of any serious Lexit arguments being presented, in the event of a Leave vote left-wing Remainers will be thoroughly cornered and will be forced to rapidly re-orient their tactics to accommodate for the likely UKIP gains (among many other things). When Remainers focus purely on the positives of the (often dubious) positives of EU, we should ask how this dishonest and skewed set of priorities will be interpreted post-referendum.
In effect, the left-wing Remainers will have given the establishment (in particular the Tory party) a firm helping hand in supporting the EU, and though Michael Chessum and Owen Jones will cry out about how the EU needs to be reformed and challenged on its own terms, the dominant forces of parliamentary reaction will simply argue (correctly) that the majority of the political establishment and a large number of progressive campaigns from a number of distinct causes and sectors gave Britain’s post-referendum EU membership a resounding sign of approval. From that vantage point, Cameron and the right-wing media will simply be able to drown out calls for more radical EU reforms and gloat about how the Remain vote secures their position and augments their authority. With the corporate world, mainstream media, military, City of London, arms trade and the majority of the political Right and Centre supporting Remain, a vote for Leave isn’t just a vote against the neoliberal forces of the Troika: It is also a vote against our own ruling classes.