The left and the EU referendum

This is an edited extract from the introduction to Our Europe not Theirs.


We are now facing a referendum on EU membership because the Tory party feared the external threat of UKIP, and for reasons of internal party management. The Tory rank and file is massively anti-European because the EU is held responsible for all the changes to our society which the average Tory activist detests. The England so cherished by John Major of old maids on bicycles riding past pubs serving warm beer while cricket is played on the village green has gone, seemingly for good – and it is all the fault of the EU. Such people have long ceased trusting the metropolitan elite running their party, and are deeply suspicious of their current leadership.

But there is also another strand of Tory euroscepticism. Today the business community is less united on the pro-European side, some of the larger hedge funds are bankrolling the Leave campaign, and the press is for the most part implacably opposed to the EU. Why this change of heart since the previous referendum?

Some in the business community fell out of love with the single market when it became clear that there were social, environmental and consumer dimensions built in to the structure of the European regulatory framework. What the political authorities sought was a balance between economic efficiency and solidarity, to prevent or circumscribe the risks of social dumping. For businesses, this became ‘heavy regulatory burdens’, forgetful of the fact that however complicated it sometimes might seem, one regulatory framework is always going to be simpler than twenty-eight if you are doing business in the wider European market. Some in finance have noticed that, since the financial crisis, some twenty or so EU laws have been put into place to provide a European framework for banks and the financial services, building in elementary safeguards, and limiting banking bonuses. It is therefore a matter of no surprise that some leading players in the financial community want out of this system, and prefer to have any legal constraints on their activities imposed by a British Tory government, which they largely finance, and is therefore more likely to listen to what might be charitably described as ‘their concerns’. The press barons, too, back Brexit because, they find it easier to impose their writ on Westminster and Whitehall than on all those European institutions, which are just a little bit more complicated.

These elements help to explain the tangle in which David Cameron now finds himself, but they are also useful pointers for those on the left deciding what attitude to take in the forthcoming referendum. At the very least, finding oneself on the same side of an argument as Murdoch, the Barclay brothers, Paul Dacre and the bulk of Tory activists looking for a one-way ticket back to the England of the 1950s should give pause for thought.

The pre-Brexit referendum negotiations will have little or no impact on the poll itself. There are not millions of voters out there waiting with baited breath to see if the phrase ‘ever closer union’ is qualified by some clarifying declaration by all the other governments. The issues are stake are not on the agenda because the voters insist on them, but because they are judged to be the minimum face-saving required for Cameron’s continuation in office.

How should the left vote?

For whatever reason, we now face a vote and the left needs to be clear about the arguments.

The ‘leave lobby’ on the left will make the following arguments.

  1. Why give the Tories a free run on this? There is a serious chance that the Tory leadership will cut itself off from the rank-and-file, that the cabinet will split, that a majority of Tory MPs not on the government payroll may campaign against. If the government implodes, disavowed first by its party and then in the referendum outcome, why rescue it?
  2. The solidarity which was supposed to be one of the founding principles of the EU is now almost a distant memory. The Greeks have been ground down by Brussels-imposed austerity and the social-democratic, humanitarian, vision of a Jacques Delors has now been sullied in the mud, snow and ice at the borders of Balkan states and in the Calais camps. There is a new alternative left out there, but any chance of progress to a better, fairer Europe requires starting over again and abandoning this ship, which is in any case heading for the rocks.
  3. The European Union is now descending into a shambles: a common currency which doesn’t work; institutions people don’t understand; the chain of democratic accountability broken; austerity throttling growth and bringing real hardship to millions; no common approaches to immigration, asylum and the external challenges faced. Europe’s citizens are now challenging this Europe: the UK left should be leading the charge and getting out of this failed bureaucratic, quasi-state.
  4. The populist extreme right is in the ascendant to such an extent that the Union’s institutions are or will inevitably be pushed to the right.

These arguments need to be confronted seriously because they are based on an analysis which is not without foundations, even if the conclusion is wrong. The key arguments here are:

  1. On the alluring prospect of creating mayhem for the government, the answer has to be an equally tactical one. The risks for Tory unity are just as great if the pro-Europeans were to win the referendum as if they were to lose it. Cameron’s betrayal will never be forgiven by the bulk of his party, so deeply rooted is their visceral loathing of Europe.
  2. The continental radical left, despite having in many cases suffered the most from ‘austerity imposed from Brussels’, stand fast by their European commitment. Neither Syriza nor Podemos nor the new Portuguese left coalition, nor other new leftist movements elsewhere support the withdrawal of their countries from the EU, or indeed from the euro. Syriza has learned the hard way that creating a socialist nirvana in a cold climate is not an easy task. However they may feel about the humiliations meted out by Merkel’s Germany and other member states, they have not succumbed to the temptation of taking a ‘national road to socialism’ – which in a globalised economy, with the hostility of the markets, the ratings agencies and the corporations whose power exceeds that of individual elected governments – is condemned to end in failure. The Tsipras-led government has always recognised that you have to try to work within the EU system in order to change it: it has never been tempted by the isolationist path. It is a mistake to imagine that there is an alternative structure for a Europe-wide progressive alliance in which to cooperate to build the new Jerusalem.
  3. To say that the EU has been performing poorly is one thing: to conclude that anything is solved by walking out and starting afresh is something else. The EU has tasks given to it freely and democratically, but frequently lacks the institutional means and resources to carry them out. Reform is needed here rather than rejection. The argument about it being undemocratic is threadbare: no decision of any significance can be taken without the agreement of a clear majority of democratically accountable member states and a clear majority of directly elected MEPs. The new procedures for electing the Commission require parliamentary backing for the executive, exactly in the way that national governments do. It is depressing to hear left-of-centre commentators borrowing from the right-wing media the stale accusations about an anti-democratic Europe where decisions are all made in secret by technocrats.
  4. Combatting populist nationalism and xenophobia should be the left’s priority here and elsewhere in Europe but this will be done not by retreating behind boundaries which are no more efficient a protection against the spread of evil doctrines than they are against climate change or terrorism. What the extreme right – which is unanimous everywhere about one thing, hatred of the EU, seen by them as statist, humanitarian in ambition, supportive of diversity and liberal to its core – lacks is some tipping point that will give it sufficient critical mass to lend credibility to its prejudices and poisonous propaganda. Does the British left want to serve this up on a plate? To combine with UKIP, the BNP, the English Defence League and the right wing of the Tory Party to support British withdrawal from the EU and provide a majority for Brexit? The referendum will take place a few months before the next French presidential election. One can just imagine a triumphant Marine Le Pen telling French voters, ‘The British people have shown it’s possible. You can win your country back’ – just before she creates the big upset and wins the power to start on the first of the mass expulsions of ‘people of colour’, the anti-Muslim discriminations, and the purging of French public service of left-wingers, marginals, deviants and dissenters. Le Pen has already likened the UK referendum on the EU to the liberating fall of the Berlin Wall.

The key question

The question to be answered by progressives is a simple one: in tackling the almost breath-taking challenges that will dominate public affairs in the next decades, would we be better off confronting them alone or through Europe? Is it seriously imagined by anyone on the left that action on climate change, on the different humanitarian crises, on the challenges to world peace, on the threats posed by corporate power, on creating a fairer economy, would somehow be faced more efficiently if Britain faced them alone? And, if not alone, with whom exactly? With the United States, with China, with Japan, or with a Commonwealth which now values so much the UK’s presence in the EU? Is there an alternative for international action on offer which could pursue the left’s goals more effectively?

Membership of the European Union is not a panacea for all the ills of the world. The left has had a decisive influence on some of its decisions but is certainly not in the driving seat. But do we really believe that in a Britain, or England, set on an isolationist course, turning its back on the key structure for cooperating with others, we would have a greater impact?

The cause of staying in the EU is the progressive cause, and the case for the EU needs to be made by progressives, not least because it is a much more convincing and powerful case than the arguments that are being put forward by the ex-CEOs of FTSE 500 companies who threaten the terrors of the earth for business if we leave. The left needs to be a very prominent presence in the campaign for precisely this reason, but it behoves us to spell out more clearly its aims in Europe, and as an earnest to start a much more intense cooperation with other socialist and progressive allies across Europe, and to find ways to achieve an unstoppable force for real change in the EU.

This will not be a walk in the park, but whoever thought that the path to democratic socialism would be easy? That path, we are now clear, goes through European integration. Leaving the European Union is for the left at least to take a fork in the road which leads to a dead end.