As an organisation ruled by 27 commissioners and with a wholly unhealthy and undemocratic nature riddled with corruption – and for 19 years not been able to produce untainted accounts – if it were a candidate state it would not be allowed to join itself. 1
– Nigel Griffiths, Scottish Organiser of Labour Leave and former Labour MP
Today we decide on whether Britain will remain or leave the European Union – the likelihood is that we will remain. In one year, two years, ten years, after the campaign circuses have long since departed, the decision we make will continue to reverberate. I stress this point because I sense that we – the collective we – have basically lost sight of it.
The test today ought to have been a more or less straightforward one, if still complex. A decision based upon matters relating solely to Britain’s membership of the European Union: the pros and cons of the institutions comprising the EU per se, and issues directly related to Britain’s future prospects inside or outside of it. Issues I have been attempting to pursue throughout this brief sequence of articles, of which this will certainly be the last installment and very probably the least restrained (apologies in advance).
Friends have said to me that the vote today is really just a choice between David Cameron and Boris Johnson – ergo no choice at all. This is superficially valid, but wrong in all other regards. Doubtless a vote to leave will fatally injury Cameron, and boost Johnson to some extent, but Cameron is stepping down before the next election regardless of this result, and Boris is likely to remain the prime candidate to lead the Tories whatever the referendum outcome. To maximise Tory damage, I very strongly advise voting ‘leave’, but this is equally beside the point – hurting the Tories is certainly a jolly sport, but the relevant issue here is Britain’s EU membership: do we want to stay or not? It is extremely unwise to make long-term decisions purely on the basis of short-term gains.
Other considerations that are totally wide of the mark include voting for the nicer team or the lesser evil. Nigel Farage is obnoxious and abominable, as is Tony Blair (who is solidly ‘remain’ of course), but only one is as yet responsible for the deaths of a million innocent people.
Nor should we be swayed by the opinions of a (lame duck) US President or the very lovely Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Or tempted to vote on the merits, demerits or the principles (if we can find any) of the various ‘remain’ or the ‘leave’ campaigns – of which there were at least five separate variants (two each for the Tories and Labour and another for UKIP). 2 The campaigns are ephemeral. They truthfully added nothing of real substance to an already overheated and rushed debate. Better not to get too drawn by the distraction and miss the genuine importance of the actual vote.
Finally, today’s vote will not open up the possibility of Scotland getting another shot at “independence” (from England and not the EU, obviously). This is another chimera and another distraction. Likewise, in the event of a vote for Brexit, the process of reunifying the divided halves of Ireland will not begin in earnest. If reunification does happen then it will take extended negotiations and a long-term political settlement – Brexit changes very little in this regard.
In short, this truly is a single issue vote: are we better off living inside or outside the EU? Two issues at most, if we add: is the rest of the EU better off with or without the UK, which is a moot point. I believe they are better off without us too.
Brexit does indeed involve a leap in the dark for everyone – people in Britain and elsewhere in the EU. But do we seriously need to remain as a member of the European Union to protect civil liberties (damaged as they are), or to secure workers’ rights (weak as they have become), or even to protect the environment (which TTIP will render impossible)?
Doubtless the Tories are ready to take advantage of the referendum outcome whatever we choose, and if we do decide to leave, then trade unions in particular should be prepared to (temporarily at least) batten down the hatches. Overall, however, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t because what the EU has on the cards under the guise of “free trade deals” like TTIP (the most infamous but far from the only treaty of this kind) can bring untold damage by means of short-circuiting environmental regulations and the further trampling civil liberties and in ways the Tories could only dare to dream.
And whereas the left is generally galvanised by the cause of fighting a grotesque excrescence like TTIP, an embarrassed silence descends whenever it comes to matters surrounding that another EU “free trade” policy of open borders. In common with ‘downsizing’ and ‘offshoring’ (those widely-criticised globalist strategies that first undermined the West’s industrial labour force), there can be no real dispute that the laissez-faire approach to immigration has likewise driven down salaries for the lowest-paid workers in our wealthier nations, and, that weakening their bargaining position has had a detrimental effect on labour rights. For perfectly understandable reasons, many of the left feel queasy about discussing this issue, but in avoiding it they are also failing the very people they ought to be supporting.
Certainly there is a case to be made for pointing out how the real problem is not “the vast reserve army of low wage labour” but an unfettered capitalist framework that is dependent upon exploiting it (as argued here). However, so long as we are in thrall to “free market” capitalism then the real consequences of any social arrangement must be judged within its strictures. To the capitalist, open borders means cheap labour. Or, as Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC, and Janet Henry, HSBC’s global economist, put it in a research note:
“Globalisation isn’t just a story about a rising number of export markets for western producers. Rather, it’s a story about massive waves of income redistribution, from rich labour to poor labour, from labour as a whole to capital, from workers to consumers and from energy users towards energy producers. This is a story about winners and losers, not a fable about economic growth.” 3 [bold highlight added]
That globalisation has been all about “income redistribution” and “a story of winners and losers” is the hard truth that some on the left – especially amongst social democrats – have tremendous difficulty accepting. Being good internationalists has blinded them to the obvious.
So here is a list of words to aptly sum up what the ‘left leave’ campaign should have been focussing attention during the last few months: corporatism, neo-liberalism, the so-called “free market”, economic “shock therapy”, and (never forgetting) globalisation. The future of the EU is bleak, the left should have been honestly admitting, and unless there is some process of radical reform, we may soon be unable to reverse the direction we are heading.
For thanks to the EU, the southern states of Europe are about to be driven over an economic cliff and back into a new dark age. Also thanks to the EU, there are many thousands of displaced people abandoned in the squalid and unsanitary camps across the continent. Thanks to the EU, some of these refugees are shipped back across seas they first crossed in overcrowded dinghies only to be returned again to more squalid and dangerous camps they had escaped in Turkey. And meanwhile, thanks to the EU’s very close strategic partner, Nato, Eastern Europe has just hosted Anakonda-16, the largest scale war game since the end of the Cold War – an exercise that actually included tank divisions from Germany moving again within shooting range of Russia’s border. Evidently, the EU is not bringing peace, prosperity and security to Europe – and this outlandish but repeated claim is the biggest distraction of all.
Some, like Varoufakis and Left Unity, say we need to hold together and work within the system to change the EU – which is a distinctly non-revolutionary path, but then Yanis is no revolutionary (as we know). Only by holding the hand of the monster can we hope to correct its bad behaviour, or so the same argument goes, concluding that failure to do so will inevitably result in outright collapse and a return to squabbling national states, which soon afterwards will succumb to a rising right-wing. Legitimate concerns and serious ones, of course, but to little avail when there is no proposed alternative other than the encouragement to hold on more tightly to an admittedly abusive partner.
The ‘left remain’ campaigns of DiEM25 (led by Varoufakis), Another Europe is Possible, Left Unity and the plethora of related organisations (including Avaaz – who never stop sending me reminders of how terrible Brexit would be) are founded on capitulation and acquiescence, while presenting themselves as brimming with hope – well, let me say this: power concedes nothing without a demand, so where is our demand… just a single tiny demand… is there one? How then are we to reform the distant and thoroughly bankrupt institutions of the EU when, underwritten by the treaties on which it became established, all (with the exception of the largely impotent European Parliament) are beyond democratic reach and control and irreconcilably so? Varoufakis et al offer no strategy or programme; not even the faintest whiff of a way forward.
The risks are huge either way to be fair, but I am willing to take the leap into the dark (it is dark in both directions) because we have to try to force a change. I appreciate that a great number who back the campaign to leave are indeed “swivel-eyed” nationalists or worse, but there are countless others – generally less vocal others – who loathe the EU for all the right reasons. This number includes many remnants of the traditional left – the left of Tony Benn and also Jeremy Corbyn (had he been allowed to speak more freely).
Corbyn has evidently been persuaded to toe the line to quell the ongoing war within the Labour Party. His position is therefore the politically expedient one and I reluctantly support his decision – were he to nail his colours to Brexit he would be betting his leadership on a referendum victory. The risks were perhaps too great.
However, the sorry truth is that reform of the EU is tantamount to impossible – as we shall gradually realise if we do vote to remain. It is impossible because the treaties are binding.
On the other hand, a vote for Brexit almost certainly signals the beginning of the end of the European Union as it currently stands. With Britain out of the way, the rest of the EU will be forced either to rearrange it for the better without us (our influence has been a terrible one in any case) or to dissolve (a quite probable outcome). A more genuinely humane international union might then re-emerge, for the principle of European cooperation is certainly a vital one. Unfortunately, however, the EU is now bringing about European disintegration instead.
“I look forward to the day when the Westminster Parliament is just a Council Chamber in Europe.” – Kenneth Clarke †
I have previously made the case against independence movements on the grounds that such a move weakens us. However, leaving the EU is not Balkanisation in this sense because the nation state remains intact. In fact, the EU itself is secretly pushing the people of Europe towards a form of Balkanisation by means of expanding technocratic control with an overarching authority in Brussels whilst increasing regionalisation beneath it.
A keyword here is subsidiarity, which is the EU’s given justification for a sustained drive towards localisation. It is the EU’s initiative for supposed “decentralisation” and one that helps to explain why Scotland, Wales and other parts of the UK have been granted regional assemblies and parliaments often in spite of relatively low public interest – this is also another part of Tony Blair’s legacy too. If this trend continues then we can eventually expect to have assemblies for Cornwall, Yorkshire, etc. Ultimately the tiny regions will make up the rump states of a fully federalised Europe.
The word you won’t probably hear, on the other hand, is mediatisation, which was a strategy during feudal times of constructing an intervening layer of authority between the lord and his vassals. For as our national parliaments are slowly hollowed out, more and more powers will be passed either upwards to the Commission (for executive and legislative powers) or downwards (in the case of more trivial day-to-day concerns) to the new regional assemblies. Then, as the old nation states are stripped of autonomy, smaller regions something akin to city states can arise to replace them. This envisaged globalised future is indeed foreshadowed by the “Global Parliament of Mayors”:
The Global Parliament of Mayors is an unprecedented new experiment in democratic global governance platform by, for, and of cities. Mayors from cities large and small, North and South, developed and emerging, will convene in September 2016 to identify and pursue in common the public goods of citizens around the world. For the first time, building on extant urban networks, the GPM will deploy collective urban political power manifesting the right of cities to govern themselves, as well as the responsibility to enact viable, cross-border solutions to global challenges.
In this era of interdependence, where nation states are increasingly dysfunctional and cities are everywhere rising, the moment has come for cities to take the leap from effective local governance to true global governance. 4
From the mission statement of the forthcoming Global Parliament of Mayors which convenes in September.
Additional: Final thoughts and an open letter
Criticism of the European Union – so-called ‘euroscepticism’ (a stupid term since it implies equivocation, but we must use it anyway) – has today become the preserve and the preoccupation of those on the political right and especially the kinds of political dinosaur Americans fittingly classify as ‘paleoconservatives’. And though, it is an exaggeration to say that leftist resistance to the “European project” is extinct, it is not a tremendous one.
Three decades ago, however, criticism of “Europe” was customarily associated with the political left. The true socialists of old Labour who had so fiercely opposed Britain’s bid for membership of the free trade area known as the EEC, thereafter remained in staunch opposition to the stealthy transfer of political and economic powers to technocrats inside the European Commission. More recently, however, as the old guard has (to an extent quite literally) died away, left-wing ‘euroscepticism’ has undergone a more substantial decline – a trend commensurate with the general shift rightwards in mainstream politics. This is not a coincidence.
The cause of this reversal of the political poles can be quite easily traced back – as with so many political transitions, the transformation began under Thatcher. Desperate to find an exit route, it was during the Thatcher years that leftists of all shades finally rushed blindly towards the welcoming arms of Brussels, forgetting as they did so that Thatcher had already beat them to it – that neo-liberalism was always at the heart of the “European project”:
The decade of Thatcherism that also sidelined democratic socialists like Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot and dumped the true left into the wilderness, thereby freed up the political space the left had vacated. Space that was promptly reoccupied by the new social democrats – those fresh-faced adherents of a “Third Way”, who tricked themselves and their followers into imagining that social justice and equality could be achievable by gently softening the edges of our rapacious capitalist system. Thatcher’s other legacy was New Labour itself.
Advocates of this Third Way, now comparatively comfortable with business as usual, found great affinity with the “European project” too; far more so than either the socialists they had usurped or the traditional conservatives who once opposed them. In fact, the entire “centrist” political mainstream of today is resolutely aligned on the question of the European Union, just as it is on all other issues of relevance. But then today’s centre is actually a political extreme – it is Thatcherism-plus, albeit in disguise (we might say in drag!) – which is also the real cause of growing public outrage against the political mainstream.
Win or lose the referendum tonight, the fight goes on. For whether we remain or leave, the forces of oppression will try to press ahead and take advantage of the outcome. The important point is organise our collective action and to constantly speak truth to power – if we are still in Europe next week then, those who oppose its anti-democratic institutions must continue to speak loudly against them. Most crucially, we must not permit the justified resentment of the people of Europe to be misrepresented, stifled, or worst of all, channeled into violent hatred against minorities with the rise of far-right extremism.
The miserable farce of David Cameron’s “renegotiation” of Britain’s membership of the EU has only served to underline the regressive and undemocratic nature of that institution (Report, 16 February). We know from extreme austerity enforced on the people of Greece that the union is not only undemocratic in itself but also anti-democratic in the profound sense that its institutions will not allow the democratically expressed view of the majority of people to stand if it runs counter to the free market project.
The EU is irreversibly committed to privatisation, welfare cuts, low wages and the erosion of trade union rights. This is why the dominant forces of British capitalism and the majority of the political elite are in favour of staying in the EU. The EU is irrevocably committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other new trade deals, which represent the greatest transfer of power to capital that we have seen in a generation.
Claims that the free movement of labour within the EU is a barrier to xenophobia are false. But without labour rights and an alternative to austerity, migrants will be prey to hostile xenophobic forces with or without the Schengen agreement. And, even more seriously, “Fortress Europe” ensures that those outside the EU cartel of nations are subject to vicious discrimination if they are lucky, and drowning in the Mediterranean if they are not.
We stand for a positive vision of a future Europe based on democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability, not the profit-making interests of a tiny elite. For these reasons we are committed to pressing for a vote to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum on UK membership.
General secretary, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
President, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union
Writer and broadcaster
Executive director, War on Want
Prof Mary Davis
TUC women’s gold badge winner
Co-founder, Novara Media
General secretary, Communist party
Writer and anti-war campaigner
National general secretary, Indian Workers Association – GB
Former president, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
Chair, Communist party
International secretary, Communist party
Musician and writer
Former president, European Transport Workers Federation
Past president, National Union of Teachers
Chair, Trades Unionists Against the EU
Former treasurer and national executive member, University & College Lecturers’ Union
Former national executive, National Union of Teachers
Past national president, Association of Teachers and Lecturers
GMB (personal capacity)
Reuban Bard Rosenberg
Manuel Bueno Del Carpio
Unison, Sandwell general branch
National president, Indian Workers Association – GB
Secretary, Association of Indian Communists – GB
Editor, Morning Star
Socialist Labour party Scotland and Chair, Irvine & North Ayrshire TUC
Letter published in the Guardian on February 17th. 5
† Cited as recorded in the International Currency Review, Vol. 23, No. 4, Autumn 1996
1 From an article entitled “The EU couldn’t join the EU if it was a state” written by Nigel Griffiths published by fudgeoff.eu http://www.fudgeoff.eu/articles/2016/2/3/the-eu-couldnt-join-the-eu-if-it-was-a-state
2 The ‘remain’ campaign is more strictly speaking two parallel campaigns running in opposite directions. One says that Britain should stay in Europe for reasons of business and security (that’s Tory remain) and then people like Left Unity say we should stay to protect workers’ rights, the environment, and also help migrants. I regard both arguments as dishonest and deeply flawed although since the EU is run primarily in the interests of big business, the Tory remain argument is a tad more truthful.
3 Quoted in an article entitled “Profits of doom” written by Richard Tomkins, published in the Financial Times on October 14, 2006. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e12828ac-5b20-11db-8f80-0000779e2340.html#axzz4293Cyt1k
4 From the Global Parliament of Mayors Project (GPM) mission statement. http://www.globalparliamentofmayors.org/home/4589660128
5 A letter published in the Guardian under the headline “EU is now profoundly anti-democratic institution” on February 17, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/eu-is-now-a-profoundly-anti-democratic-institution