I suppose I should be happy.
For the first time in 40 years, the British public will get a say in our membership of the European Union. When we last voted, the EU was an entirely different beast, with far fewer federal powers and considerably less rot. It isn’t too much to require a new democratic mandate for our continued commitment to this loveless marriage.
So, having been a member of that rare breed – a left-wing Eurosceptic – for well over a decade, I suppose I should be happy. But I have the ugly feeling this is going to be a mess.
Let us ignore the usual sneering of left-wing pro-Europeans, who dismiss all Euroscepticism as naïve, flag-waving jingoism. It’s odd how a political movement that is supposedly committed to human welfare is so utterly blasé about an organisation that is driving entire countries into destitution to defend neoliberalism.
Let us also ignore the Europhiles’ inability to recognise that this is a referendum. People will have a vote. Of course, the British left, for all its supposed belief in ‘power to the people’ and what not, actually regards most people as pig thick. They’re opposed to a referendum because they don’t trust people to make up their own minds on a crucial vote. They think everyone will read a Daily Mail editorial and vote to leave Europe. This sneering arrogance is precisely why people ignore the left.
The real problem is how it’s going to be done – and why it’s going to be done. Obviously it’s a desperate attempt to win back Tory deserters to UKIP – now boundary changes are dead, the Tories’ last shot is to get back the Eurosceptic vote. It won’t help them as this will mostly be in safe Tory seats, not in the northern and Midlands marginals they need to cling on to. But that’s neither here nor there.
The real problem here is the backstory – which, as ever, is the City of London. This is about protecting private profits. Again.
Shifting the centre
David Cameron’s famous ‘veto’ in 2011 hindered the passage of a truly awful treaty – but it was deployed purely to protect London’s ravaged financial sector. With Brussels (and Washington) increasingly exasperated by the spate of scandals emerging from lawless London, the EU wanted to bring the Square Mile under the yoke of Brussels regulation, seeing as the British government had utterly failed to defuse this timebomb. Cameron threw a fit and stormed out.
Ever since, it’s been about ‘repatriating’ powers from Europe. What powers? No-one really knows, but it’s quite clear that EU employment law and work protections are top of the Tory list. In his speech, Cameron singled out the working time directive, which limits working hours. It’s just another attack on workers.
Of course, nobody would ever vote for a national pay cut and longer hours, so the Tories have had to reframe it. An EU referendum – lower pay dressed up as democracy. Cameron’s plan is this:
1) ‘Renegotiate’ powers with the EU (fat chance they’ll let him) by opting out of European employment law and financial sector regulation
2) Offer this as the ‘in’ option in a referendum, with the ‘out’ option bringing full withdrawal
3) Campaign to stay in the EU, presenting this as the ‘moderate’ approach, and thereby dressing up a full-frontal assault on workers’ incomes as the ‘centrist’ position
4) Repeal the minimum wage, the maximum working week, maintain financial sector deregulation etc etc
Doing so gets rid of the main good thing the EU has done in the last 20 years, and keeps us tied in to all the poison. But instead, Cameron may find people simply vote to walk out.
The dream that died
The real problem with the EU is that over the last two decades it has shifted from an intergovernmental to a federal body. This is a fundamental point, completely missed by the know-it-alls of the left. They look at the employment legislation and think of the EU as some fuzzy social democratic idyll. It is not.
Europe’s former left-wing bent was simply the product of the politics of the continent. As an intergovernmental body – where nation states met to agree new measures on a consensus basis – the European Community, as it was then, reflected the political make-up of European national governments. These were often social democrat – think Francois Mitterand. National polities made European policy.
That was then. Since the Maastricht Treaty, Europe has seen an ever-growing transfer of power and direction to the unelected, federal European Commission. The Commission has become outright neoliberal in its agenda – Bolkestein was the canary in the mine – and its current president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was a warmongering, pro-cuts prime minister of Portugal before he took his Brussels seat.
The elephant in the room is what the EU is actually doing in Europe. Whole swathes of this continent are being frogmarched into the gutter to save the European private banking system, all at the behest of the Commission and the European Central Bank. Neo-Nazis roam Greece’s streets, youth unemployment is soaring in Italy and Spain, and Ireland is losing a generation. This is not an aberration or a hijacking – this is the EU functioning exactly as its masters intend, as a shock doctrinaire for neoliberalism’s continental recalcitrants. The poverty and joblessness sweeping Europe is not because of the EU – it is the EU. It is neoliberalism, and the EU is neoliberalism. Whatever it once was, that is what it now is.
Not that you’d know it from listening to the British left. They fret over Britain’s lost ‘influence’ with its main trading partners, apparently not realising that the EU is taking these trading partners – the nation states of Europe – down the toilet.
A more urgent call
The EU is now a broken, bankrupt kleptocracy, stamping a banking jackboot onto the people of Europe. It will spend every last devaluing cent trying to keep its federal, neoliberal dream alive – embodied most strongly by the Euro – but its banks are bust, its nations are going under, and its remaining democratic legitimacy has long since bled away. Anti-EU sentiment will skyrocket across Europe in the next two years. It’s not impossible that in four years time – by when our referendum will supposedly have been held – there won’t be an EU to leave, at least not in its current form.
Inside or outside the EU, it is this task – defeating austerity – that is the most urgent. The rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn shows the potential consequences of the status quo. Whether we have any influence within the EU right now is hard to ascertain – our own government is austerity’s biggest fan – but even a more enlightened leadership would struggle to make itself heard above the masochistic din of Brussels and Berlin.
The only way forward is for workers across Europe to build on what they have already begun – a cross-continental movement against austerity. As the UK is outside the Eurozone, it’s only natural that our protest movements will feel more distant from what is happening on the continent, but our role ought to be to give European workers the courage to refuse the blackmail visited upon the Greeks last year – namely, that any resistance to austerity means leaving the Euro, leaving the EU, and economic oblivion. Our role should be to help lay a path whereby countries can reject austerity – and if that means they leave the EU, that this shouldn’t be their economic downfall, but instead must be a source of revival. To build the foundations of a democratic Europe to replace the sclerotic bankocracy we have today.
But that is not what our so-called ‘progressives’ are doing. Instead we are getting sneers driven by fear. For behind every casual dismissal of the Eurosceptic case lies a dread terror that without the EU, there can be no clipping of the City’s wings, no maximum working week, no minimum wage. That the British left does not believe it can persuade the public to support such basic measures via the ballot box, and cannot detach itself from political parties that might refuse to do so, simply embodies the three decades of failure that have reduced the left to this wretched, whining state.
The British people are fully entitled to a vote on their membership of the EU. It’s a simple point of democracy, of which the left seems bafflingly terrified. There are arguments for staying in Europe – mostly scaremongering, in my view – and there are arguments for leaving. It is a debate there is no harm in having. But the bigger fight will have been won and lost by the time Cameron rolls his loaded dice in 2017.
P.S – We can now see the political stupidity of Labour trying to corner the Tories on Europe without going all the way themselves. Cameron has scratched his party’s Eurosceptic itch, possibly resolving this long-running sore, and improved his standing with deserting grassroots supporters. Meanwhile Labour still have no actual policy on Europe at all. If they hold out against a referendum, they risk the next election being fought on Britain’s EU membership – and that cannot end well for them.