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June 13, 2017

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There is no strong socialist case for staying in the European Union

 

Today Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the Labour party, made a socialist case for remaining in the EU. It has been coloured by a reminder that he has been exceptionally critical of the EU previously, voting against joining the EEC in 1975, against ratifying the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, and concerned by the collapse of national power being subsumed into the Brussels-based bureaucracy.

 

But let’s put all this to one side for now. Whatever he felt before, he is on the other side now. In this post we deal with the substantial points made in his speech.

 

The Labour Party is overwhelmingly for staying in because we believe the European Union has brought: investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment, and offers the best chance of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century. Labour is convinced that a vote to remain is in the best interests of the people of this country.

 

In EU nations, across the EU core and periphery nations, employment and dignity is being eroded. Around one in four workers are now unemployed in Greece and Spain, youth unemployment at double that. Unemployment in Spain was 22.7% in April 2015. Youth unemployment in Spain increased to 45.3% in February from 45% in January of 2016. Three-hundred thousand Irish working people have left their homes to look for work overseas since the 2008 banking crisis. As Kelvin Hopkins has previously put it: “Membership of the euro has acted as an economic vice on these economies, fixing them at unsustainable currency parities above all with Germany.”

 

Hopkins also said of the EU: “It is of course a branch of global neoliberalism, of laissez-faire capitalism, constructed to raise up the power of the market and progressively dismantle the socialist and social democratic structures which were established and were so successful in the immediate post-war decades.”

 

All these issues [he mentions climate change, the power of global corporations, tax] are serious and pressing, and self-evidently require international co-operation. Collective international action through the European Union is clearly going to be vital to meeting these challenges. Britain will be stronger if we co-operate with our neighbours in facing them together […] As Portugal’s new Socialist Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, has said: ‘in the face of all these crises around us. We must not divide Europe – we must strengthen it.

 

But is remaining in the EU the only way not to divide Europe? Is a union of 28 European nations under a fixed, near-harmonised bloc based primarily on stronger markets the only way to express cooperation? If Corbyn really thinks that, I wonder whether socialism is his forte.

 

Arguably, the European Union is a divide itself. It represents 28 countries in a Europe composed of 51 countries in total. It is economically divided. Though officially it is divided among core and periphery nations, it is actually divided among economic categories. In short: the rich and the poor, or creditor nations and debtor nations.

 

The lessons of Greece teach us everything we know about how division is writ large in the way the EU is composed and conducted. Collusion between the banks of Core countries is the reason why French and German banks got rid of their Greek bonds before the so-called “Greek haircut” (the term given to the markdown of debt on Greek private banks). Former Greek speaker of the Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, has previously reported that in that haircut, only Greek private banks were saved.

 

When Corbyn said that we must not divide Europe, did he know that west European countries still spend 86% of their income on goods or services made or provided at home and only 10% on goods from elsewhere in the EU? Did he know that fewer than 2% of Europeans work in another EU country? For a less divided Europe, the EU is not the answer.

 

So Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It’s perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member.

 

In this part it is important to ask: does he have a plan or is this conjecture? Put another way, is there an assumption that other left-wing parties in the EU, who may not see eye-to-eye with Corbyn on whether the EU has been good for jobs and protection of workers (see above), will form some sort of coalition? If so, why do we not have these details? Is Corbyn expecting us to vote in the referendum on the basis of some hopeful plan that may or may not come to fruition?

 

EU membership has guaranteed working people vital employment rights, including four weeks’ paid holiday, maternity and paternity leave, protections for agency workers and health and safety in the workplace. Being in the EU has raised Britain’s environmental standards, from beaches to air quality, and protected consumers from rip-off charges.

 

Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that these are minimum requirements of the International Labour Organization. The EU didn’t create these measures. Listening to Corbyn, and others alike, you’d think were it not for the EU minimum standards for worker’s rights wouldn’t exist. Secondly, let’s ask whether these “guarantees” have any bearing on the UK workforce experience. Richard Allday, a member of the Unite national Executive Council, put it very succinctly:

 

“To those who point to holiday pay, the limits on the working day (the Working Time Directive), and other positive conditions of employment as arguments for staying in the EU – I would simply point out: statutory holiday entitlement under EU law, 20 days; under UK law, 28. The WTD supposedly ensures no worker can be forced to work more than 48 hours a week (on average). I work in an industry where the 70-hour week is normal. And lawful under the WTD. Because the haulage industry negotiated a ‘derogation’ (exemption) from the WTD until they had come up with a way round it.”

 

We need to put this very clearly: leaving the EU is not an end to worker’s rights because the victories of working rights has been fought and won by workers. The EU doesn’t primarily care about worker’s rights. The EU is an instrument primarily of market harmonisation. Its client base is the capitalist class, not workers. It addresses worker rights in the same way the Tories say “we’re all in this together”: if we tell everyone something enough then maybe they’ll start to believe it.

 

The comments of another left-wing Eurosceptic sums it up perfectly:

 

“Social EU legislation, which supposedly leads to better working conditions, has not saved one job and is riddled with opt-outs for employers to largely ignore any perceived benefits they may bring to workers. But it is making zero-hour contracts and agency-working the norm while undermining collective bargaining and full-time, secure employment.”

 

[Corbyn calls for] democratic reform to make the EU more accountable to its people. Economic reform to end to self-defeating austerity and put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy, labour market reform to strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real social Europe. And new rights for governments and elected authorities to support public enterprise and halt the pressure to privatise services.

 

We deal with privatisation below, and how this, too, is writ large within the EU treaties. But it is worth reflecting on the opinions of former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso who in 2007 said: “. . . I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.”

 

As for economic reform, at the moment we have a situation where the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (or the Fiscal Stability Treaty), effectively enshrines into law balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, which in turn outlaws expansionary fiscal policy.

 

Additionally, the EU Fiscal Compact is a legal requirement on eurozone states to slash their public debt (by 1.5 per cent of GDP in France, two per cent in Spain and 3.5 per cent in Italy and Portugal) every year for the next two decades.

 

Does Corbyn have a plan for reforming these aspects? Any reform, remember, I would assume is coming from a broad coalition of Left political parties who have the power to take the EU to task, but the commission is not an elected body given to listening to external demands. Does Corbyn even have a plan for this minor hurdle? It didn’t come through in his speech today.

 

Today is the Global Day of Action for Fast Food Rights. In the US workers are demanding $15 an hour, in the UK £10 now. Labour is an internationalist party and socialists have understood from the earliest days of the labour movement that workers need to make common cause across national borders.

 

A brief point: we can make common cause with fast food workers in the US, but cannot make that same common cause with Greek workers unless we are a member of the EU?

 

Left to themselves, it is clear what the main Vote Leave vision is for Britain to be the safe haven of choice for the ill-gotten gains of every dodgy oligarch, dictator or rogue corporation. They believe this tiny global elite is what matters, not the rest of us, who they dismiss as “low achievers”.

 

If the Leave vision protects the tiny global elite, how does he explain the support of JPMorgan and the Confederation of British Industry, both of which want to remain in the EU? But, hang on. It was Alan Duncan who sneered at the low achievers. And guess what: he’s on Jeremy’s side, calling for Britain to remain in the EU.

 

Labour is committed to bringing rail back into public ownership in 2020. And that is why Labour MEPs are opposing any element of the fourth rail package, currently before the European Parliament, that might make that more difficult.

 

John Mills put this subject into context very succinctly recently:

 

“In his August 2015 policy document A People’s Railway, Jeremy Corbyn proposed “an integrated publicly owned railway network that is run by the people for the people” and he promised a new Railways Act in 2020 to bring the railways back into public control. Unfortunately, however, such a proposal is illegal under EU law. Directive 2012/34/EU establishing a Single European Railway Area makes it clear that no such integration can be allowed, not least because there must be a considerable degree of separation between track and rolling stock. Nor can railways be run for the people by the people. They must be managed independently of government and run on commercial principles.”

 

What Corbyn didn’t mention today is that on August 7 2015, the he stated that: “I would want the public ownership of the gas and the National Grid… [and] I would personally wish that the big six were under public control, or public ownership in some form… energy should be publicly owned, whether that’s at community, municipal or national level.” Mills again:

 

“Two EU directives (2009/72/EC and 2009/73/EC) on the “internal market” in natural gas and electricity, however, constrain the ability of the British government to undertake radical reform of the energy market. On the contrary, EU m­ember States are required to introduce more market orientated reforms, including unbundling transmission systems and operators, thus allowing third party access to the distribution system to be progressively rolled out by 2017.”

 

In their reaction to Corbyn’s speech today, Labour Leave have published a report on the legalities of Labour party policy under EU law. It is fantastic and well worth a read. It concludes by saying the following:

 

“The only way to ensure that these five key Labour Party policies [public ownership of the railways, ending NHS privatisation, energy companies, rights for trades unions and cracking down on tax avoidance] can be implemented without costly and time-consuming legal challenge, and potentially billions of pounds of losses to public services, is to achieve fundamental treaty change or to vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum.”

 

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is also a huge cause for concern, but we defeated a similar proposal before in Europe, together when it was called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, back in 1998.

 

There’s something in this. According to Theodore H. Cohn, “[t]he most effective opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was launched by a wide-ranging coalition of civil society NGOs. These NGOs argued that the MAI would threaten protection of human rights, labor and environmental standards, and least developed countries.” But the decision to back-track was internal. In any case, we should not be going forward hoping that all undemocratic disputes, which is in essence what the debate on TTIP comes down to, will be defeated by popular disobedience. On first principles we should oppose all decisions made about our public services that are affected without our consent, or which come about contrary to our consent.

 

Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.

 

This referendum is not just about what happens now, but what national parliaments elected by free people can achieve. Talking about the EU as a corrective to a Tory Britain not only neglects the fact we can vote them out, it neglects our ability to hold elected governments to account.

 

I’m more concerned about what kind of radical politics is deemed illegal while Britain remains a member of the European Union. To be sure, many of the aims and goals of Jeremy Corbyn will be impossible within the EU.

 

Do we have equal pay now? Do we work long hours today? Is remaining in the EU the only means of guaranteeing annual leave, rights for agency workers, and the rights for those women with new-born children? Or are these things valued by the British public?

 

There is no strong socialist case for staying in the European Union. Listening to Corbyn today, you’d think we had no appetite for autonomy at all. This is why socialists should feel patronised by Corbyn today, and vote to Leave the neoliberal EU on June 23.

 

 

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