Whenever I talk to my left-wing friends who support the Remain campaign they're always very fast to remind me that I’m sat on the same side as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage (never mind reminding them that they are sat on the same side as the CBI, Jeremy Clarkson, David Cameron, George Osborne and the Mail on Sunday). “That’s who we’ll be voting for if we vote to Leave, we are just not at the right moment yet”.
But let’s just remind ourselves that their power is not eternal. They’ve been given voice by the media who excites over their bombastic chatter. The point is to challenge them. I also regularly hear this: but we are not ready to quit the EU yet, to which I say this: there was a time when lefties – of which I am one, dyed in the wool – supported democracy and the determination of the people come what may. Not it's treated as though it were a nuisance.
“What about workers’ rights, the Working Time Directive, maternity pay?” You would think sometimes that the EU is a guarantee for these things. Check this out from the Guardian a few weeks ago:
"There are many areas of UK employment law that do not derive from Europe, and therefore would not be affected by a Brexit. These include unfair dismissal protection, the national minimum wage, and unlawful deductions of pay. Furthermore, laws promoting equal pay and banning race discrimination both pre-date the UK’s membership of the EU. In some cases, the UK has even enhanced the rights given to workers which goes beyond what was required by European directives. For example, the right to shared parental leave, and to request flexible working, are domestic in origin."
Any concerns we have about whether things like equal pay and unfair dismissal are honoured by this government aren't to do with the EU, therefore we must take this battle up with them. And I'm sure most us aren't against the concept of voting them out. But it also goes to show that the EU is not a guarantee for those rights.
In fact the EU is a barrier for another worker right I think many of us would want to keep: the right to strike. The Rosella or International Transport Workers Federation vs Viking Line ABP (2007) C-438/05 was an EU law case which held that while there is a positive right to strike, that very right infringes upon a business' freedom of establishment under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union article 49 (ex TEC article 43).
So that's great. We'e the right to strike, but that right is trumped by a business' freedom of establishment. That EU really has our back people.
Let’s get another thing clear: the EU is primarily a neoliberal bully whose main interests are to serve capital and its free movement. While it doesn’t guarantee our rights in the workplace (we do, as do unions who have fought and won many rights in this country), the EU may seem from time to time like a stopped clock that is at least correct twice a day. “Yes, sure, Greece was bullied into austerity, but what about rights for UK agency workers”. Agency workers are screwed in other ways, zero-hours contracts, no contracts, temporary contracts, instant dismissal – the EU allows us opt-outs; chat about workers’ rights is just a sop; for our rights at work we do not need the EU.
But that’s why some people, my political comrades on the Left, are voting to stay in: it might empower the Tories. Well, look around you: the Tories are already empowered. But instead of talking about self-determination and taking the fight to the next level, we are going to proactively remain in an undemocratic European Union which primarily pits rich nations against poor nations; which is predicated on creditor and debtor nations; the Core and the PIGS. And the Left knows this: but we cannot vote out because now is not the right time.
It’s a sad day when democracy is seen, not as something to fight for by the Left, but as an inconvenience.
“But what about the unelected House of Lords” – yes, but let’s get rid of the House of Lords. Though in any case, this rather underestimates how much power the EU has – which is summarily downplayed.
So, I read the Business pages recently discussing whether the EU is undemocratic and found the following:
“Europe's political parties put forward a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. The European Council then votes on a nominee for the post of president — the Lisbon Treaty stipulates that the Council must take into account the European elections — who becomes the Commission's new president after obtaining approval in the new Parliament.
There are 751 members in the European Parliament, 73 of them represent the United Kingdom.”
This was a Business publication saying this, but if I wanted to find a retort I couldn’t find one from the Left. The following is from someone on the Right:
“The Commission is made up of 28 unelected commissioners, who cannot be held to account. Each commissioner has a specific policy area in which to create laws. The Commission has a President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker); unlike the other 27 commissioners he is personally elected by the European Parliament, however his was the only name on the ballot paper, not exactly democratic. The Commission is advised by the Directorate General, which along with the Commission is heavily lobbied. Once the Commission proposes an EU law, this proposal is taken to the Parliament.
Secondly, the Parliament is made up of 751 MEPs who are elected by the people in EU Member States every five years in elections. National parties arrange themselves into European groups of similar parties throughout Europe. It also has a President (currently Martin Schulz) who was voted in by the Parliament, but once again he was the only candidate. Theoretically, the Parliament has the ability to remove the Commission; however the Parliament has never successfully been able to remove it - even when the Commission has been full of corrupt cronies. The Parliament didn’t even remove the commission of 2004 to 2009 which was full of questionable characters. This Commission included Siim Kallas the Anti-Fraud Commissioner who was given this role despite being charged with fraud, abuse of power and providing false information after £4.4million disappeared while he was head of Estonia’s national bank.”
When did the Left stop caring about this stuff? Why is it a price worth paying to join in a union of 28 countries to guard capital, but not leave because it might empower Michael Gove in the very short term. The latter point isn’t even true (Gove, whether I like it or not was elected, he has power, let’s get rid of that power: vote him out!). The former point is perhaps summarised by this: the political Left in the UK abhor the devil we know, but the EU is ok so long as we believe it is a benign organisation that doesn’t eventually intend to harmonise competition laws with greater integration – which a Remain vote will validate – and sue national governments if they nationalise key services (I don’t just mean TTIP – which will do this, too; try nationalising the railways or the postal service and see what the EU has to say).
But why would I also vote for the neoliberal bully when I’ve seen what it does to places like Greece. Is this an organisation that has my back? And austerity. Do we think the EU is on the fence about austerity?
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.
Any left-winger worthy of the name would ask: is it sensible for the European institutions to outlaw a mechanism to stimulate growth in the economy, even if it sticks in the throats of fiscal conservative lawmakers?
On occasions governments will need to temper the risk of an economic downturn with temporary increases in spending. You don’t just need to be on the left to realise that. But this is common sense too far for the EU.
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.
In any case whatever fiscal conservatives may think, is it fair for the economic programmes of elected political parties in Europe to be swayed like this? And by law?
We have more chance turning the UK into a soft power of social democracy or revolutionary socialism before we’ve a chance to reform an institution so wedded to the ideals set above.
“But what about the migrant crisis – won’t the UK just put up a big wall?” The EU is currently, right this very second, making this crisis worse. From the news today: “European Union nations say Turkey is a safe country for migrants to be returned to despite some Greek court rulings that people should not be sent back there.” Oh yeah, the EU’s going to take advice from Greece. But tell me: where’s the hard proof that we won’t accept refugees in event of an Exit? Do you think our fellow countrymen are so unenlightened that we can’t accept the misfortunate? I don’t believe so – and the EU is not a guarantee of peace in our time for these people anyway. It’s just assumed, once again, that the EU is a benign power.
As Jonny Jones has recently put it:
“…the refugee crisis laid bare the callousness of Europe's rulers as thousands drowned fleeing war and instability. The EU deployed gunships despite criticism from aid groups such as the Red Cross and then made the deal of shame that saw the forced relocation of migrants from Greece to Turkey. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein argued that “resources currently deployed for ineffective border control systems could instead be invested in maximizing the benefit of regular migration channels.””
Leaving the EU will not iron out every problem that faces us today. The cause of the migration crisis are there whether we leave or not. But to pretend the EU is a guarantee of the UK’s positive behaviour regarding this crisis is a lie. The EU, as far as I’m concerned, has had zero impact on our conduct to this reality. Therefore we have a real fight on our hands to persuade our government to take in more refugees – particularly now at a time when they are more displaced peoples in the world than there ever has been since records began. But we can have this fight outside the EU. Answer this: why do we need the EU to help us win this fight. The EU is going backwards on the migration crisis, we don’t need their counsel. Those who believe we do believe that the EU is a benign power and it is not. It is an ideological one.
But it’s not all negative. When someone recently said to me that the UK will be poorer outside of the EU, and that our rights will be curtailed under a resurgent Right, I replied: “1) Hardly. We're the fifth largest economy in the world. The EU doesn't hinder us from sharing our wealth more, but it doesn't help either. 2) we don't get given rights, we fight for them. If the Tories threaten our rights we fight the tories, in the same way we should now.”
It gets to the point: the guy who told me we’ll be poorer with fewer rights forgets that the EU is not a neutral alignment of 28 countries within Europe, nor is it a benign power. Frankly the resurgence of the Right will happen if we vote to Remain. Note what the Green party’s Jenny Jones said on this point recently:
“David Cameron’s forcing through of a stronger deregulatory agenda worries me. If the EU is worth having at all (I don’t think it is, but IF it is) then it is worth having mainly because of some of its labour regulations and environmental regulations. But those are exactly what rightwingers such as Cameron and George Osborne have in their sights: they are a central aspect of what Cameron and Donald Tusk agreed could potentially be got rid of in the recent deal. It is therefore completely wrong-headed to represent Cameron’s deal as a good basis for staying in the EU. In fact, from the Green point of view, it strengthens the case for leaving.”
Some people feel the EU is a neutral alignment and this is why their power seems less bad than the power they see in their elected members of Parliament. But some people even see the EU as a positive good; a social good. But let me tell you about the concept of a social EU: EU law prohibits industrial action which “disproportionately” obstructs the free movement of goods, services, capital and workers. You only need to look at the Viking and Rüffert rulings of the EU’s Court of Justice. As Danny Nicol recently put it: “Overriding these rulings would require Treaty amendment, needing common accord of all Member States.”
He also pointed out that:
“A Social Europe should respect public ownership. Member States should determine the size of their own public sectors. However, EU legislation consolidates privatisation. Nationalising sectors such as gas, electricity, telecommunications and postal services is unequivocally forbidden by EU liberalising directives, which accord rights of market access to corporations. New public enterprises have to compete with private firms in a capitalist market. Similar legislation on railways is presently going through the EU institutions. Repealing these directives would require a proposal by the Commission – the very instigators of EU “liberalisation”.”
There is no reason why a socialist should want to give power to validate these claims on our democracy and our self-determination. I usually steer clear of bombast myself, but this is our liberty we’re talking about here; by voting Remain we’re prepared to give validation to people who ultimately want to collapse national self-determination and collapse workers’ rights into a bonfire ignited by the dominance of neoliberalism – and we’ve no excuses to have missed its advances: the notion of “Social Europe” has long been trumped by the need for a single market (see the 1987 Single European Act). And yet my comradely friends tell me that now, nearly 30 years after the Act, is not the right time to vote to Leave.
In the words of one guy I spoke to recently: "I would vote Leave if the campaign were led by the Left". But, we should not vote Leave because it isn't being led by the Left, nor should we necessarily vote because in actual fact we're being led by the Right (in the UK and the EU). We should vote Leave because we oppose the EU and the EU actively works against our interests.
But I must end positively.
My pro-EU left-wing friend said to me, if we vote to Leave the EU 1) we will have less trade and our economy will be in a worse state. 2) we stop a race to the bottom by standardising workers rights. 3) We aren't doing a great job of exposing them, but I know people from traditional migrant populations who feel xenophobia has been stoked already by the referendum.
This is the politics of despair. What has happened to the Left. I responded: 1) how can you even possibly pretend to know this? It's so unlikely that a country that's the fifth largest economy in the world that exports naan bread to India is going to be short of trade deals. 2) standardise them, but only among EU countries? We really don't need the EU to tell us what good workers' rights look like. It brings a tear to my eye to see how many unemployed young people there are in periphery EU nations. 3) it's because sadly there are xenophobes in our country and near the levers of UK power. There will be whatever happens on the 23rd. We got to stamp them out and raise our game. Don't need the EU for that.
He replied: 1) we would get trade deals but worse, we are currently a market of 300m. In the past 5 years we doubled trade with Korea because of the trade deal they wanted with German markets. 2) work with those workers we can. Easiest with those in compatible economies. Look at the way Britain drove and standardised workers rights. 3) fine but one side being in the ascendent will make it worse.
I responded: 1) but France didn't improve their trading with Korea. Spain didn't. Portugal didn't. Being in an economic union with Germany wasn't the reason we doubled our trade any more than being the reason why Greece didn't double its trade. It's that we have things to trade, these things we'd have in or out. 2) we'll never have compatible countries. The EU is predicated on creditor and debtor nations and greater harmonisation means monopolisation. 3) hope is important.
The EU – and its inner functionaries, too numerous to remember, too secretive to critique – is not a hands off organisation. It is the enemy of the democracy and the enemy of socialism. It was predicated on the inequality of nations for the opportunity of the freedom of capital. Left-wingers such as Another Europe is Possible believe that the EU is reformable – I do not think this. Take a look at the structure: the European council, the commission appointed by (often unopposed) by the council of ministers and the parliament who are all co-deciders on EU law, and look at the lobbying groups that organise in order to arrange big business laws that only large firms with the capacity to honour those laws, knocking out small businesses with no capacity for such compliance teams. Look at that and tell me it’s reformable. Nothing short of a revolution will be needed to scratch the surface; why now are the Left so uncomfortable with the notion of raising neoliberal institutions to the ground and building society up from the ground?
Just hear it from the horse’s mouth. This is how to bring about change to the EU treaties as spelled out in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) (from Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna):
“Under the “ordinary procedure” concerning key amendments, “such as increasing or reducing the competences of the EU”, national governments (or the European Parliament or European Commission) can submit a proposed treaty revision to the Council of the European Union. Then, if the Council “adopts a positive decision,” a convention will be called (comprised of representatives from national parliaments, national governments, the European Parliament, and the European Commission). This convention discusses the proposed revision and makes a decision by consensus, following which a conference of representatives of the governments is convened “with a view to adopting by common accord the amendments to the treaties”. And, of course, revisions cannot come into force until they are ratified by all EU Member States.
Under the “simplified procedure” (ha!) established by the Treaty of Lisbon, revisions concerning internal EU polices and actions can be made without the need for a convention or intergovernmental conference. The European Council consults the European Commission, the European Parliament, and – if the revision is related to monetary issues – the European Central Bank, and then makes a decision on the basis of unanimity. Once again, the revisions need to be ratified by all EU Member States.”
This is not the way to encourage change – and that’s what’s so frighteningly undemocratic about the EU. Reform of this structure is a fantasy.
And why if we believe in unity, why only 28 nations? I’ve heard this one many times: “the EU prepares the grounds for international solidarity”. No it doesn’t: the EU is not a benign organisation, and in any case why do you believe this international solidarity should stop at the end of the 28 nations? If anything, should we not be fighting for international solidarity further and wider than just those 28 – there’s even 23 more countries in Europe. The world should surely be our aim, and there’s a whole world outside the EU.
While we remain part of the EU we encourage its actions. We give justification for its behaviour. What happened in Greece: we legitimise that. In fact, if we vote to Remain in the EU not only does this give the EU more legitimacy over our own democracy, it empowers the system to strangle European economies on the brink. The Troika is rewarded by economic disaster: how else do you explain the need to impose measures on an economy that needs spending and growth rather than austerity and low investment. That's the power the EU has, and it isn’t afraid to use it.
A Europe of crisis is writ large if we remain in the EU. Austerity, neoliberal superstructures, these things we find so revolting when they touch our lives and those we care about. We’ve an opportunity to say no to it. For a positive future there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for a person on the Left to vote to Remain in the EU.
I’m not saying that leaving the EU is a guarantee for a perfect world: we live in an utterly imperfect world. But we’ve assumed the EU doesn’t have a part to play in this predicament. That it's a neutral bystander. We knock out this barrier and the only people in our way are elected people – and the elected people are a whole lot more easier to get rid of than the unelected settled, untouchable, in Brussels.
Let’s be clear: this is not a Brexit of Gove and Farage, any more than an election is about only the leaders of political parties. It’s about us. It's a Brexit for all those people in the UK and beyond impacted by neoliberalism.
And do me a favour: try and name to me one example of a thing that the EU guarantees the people of the UK that is positive for us that we couldn’t fight for and win ourselves. One thing. I’ll be voting to Leave because I can’t think of a single example.