Cameron takes a gamble by threatening EU referendum

Cameron takes a gamble by threatening EU referendum

Workers in Europe must unite against capitalist neoliberalism

Judy Beishon

With the economy again sinking and likewise the Tories’ hopes of returning to power in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron has turned to the issue of Europe to try to take votes from Ukip and improve Tory fortunes.

His government had already guaranteed a referendum if the transfer of significant new powers to Brussels is proposed. But he went further in his 23 January speech, promising more ‘repatriation’ of powers and a referendum on the UK’s European Union membership in 2017.

However, much can happen between now and 2017; huge events could take place that would throw the EU into great turmoil, such as major debt defaults in Greece and other southern European countries, and even the breakup of the eurozone. Also, if the Labour Party wins the next general election, it may decide not to hold a referendum at all.

For socialists, the bosses’ EU must be firmly opposed, whether in a referendum or otherwise, as despite a few morsels of workers’ rights, it is fundamentally an institution that acts in the interests of the capitalist classes.

The EU capitalist project was an attempt to overcome the limits of developing the productive forces within Europe’s nation states and to enable Europe to compete better with other global capitalist powers and blocs. But as the Socialist Party always predicted, it has failed to overcome the barriers between the states and the antagonisms between the competing ruling classes.

Attacks on workers

Cameron repeated a warning originally made by German chancellor Angela Merkel that Europe faces difficulties in continuing to deliver the present “way of life” because it “accounts for just over 7% of the world’s population, produces around 25% of global GDP and has to finance 50% of global social spending”.

This is a thinly veiled rationale for more attacks on the working class: further austerity measures and a rejection of any EU regulations that prevent British bosses from undermining workers’ terms and conditions.

TUC leader Frances O’Grady was right to warn about this, but not to feed illusions in the EU as a protector of workers’ rights. The EU is basically a club of the capitalist classes, promoting their interests.

Although some EU laws are more progressive than British laws regarding workers’ rights, the EU treaties enshrine major attacks on working people by demanding privatisation of public services and many other policies in the interests of big business.

Governments across Europe, acting for their own ruling classes, all want workers to pay the price of the capitalist economic crisis. This includes the French government that has imposed a large austerity package on French workers and the German government that has led the way in insisting on nightmare austerity in southern Europe.

It suits them all domestically to try to blame each other for the austerity; Cameron, while inflicting savage cuts in Britain, argued in his speech that European people are “frustrated” because “their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity” as a result of “decisions taken further and further away from them”. His posing as a great democrat who trusts the electorate is clearly a sham when we are offered a vote on EU membership, but not on the brutal cuts he is spearheading.

While the eurozone struggles for survival with its leaders in a desperate conflict over further integration, Cameron rejects Britain being part of any moves towards closer ties across the EU, wanting instead a looser “network”, development of the “single market” and use of “collective power to open markets” outside Europe.

He infuriates other EU governments by demanding access for British big business to the EU market but with reduced regulations, combined with safeguards for the City of London and British ‘rights’ in the EU against whatever survives of the eurozone club.

Cherry picking

Unsurprisingly Cameron is accused of blackmail – cherry picking what he wants out of the EU with the threat of leaving it if he doesn’t get his way – and setting the scene for others to jump on the bandwagon. Already a Dutch minister has suggested his government should draw up its own shopping list.

However, Cameron’s edict is a dilemma for the EU capitalist classes, as they would prefer to keep Britain inside the EU.

The smaller states want a counter balance to German and French power, while Merkel has to take into account that Britain is now Germany’s biggest global trading partner and that Cameron is a ‘free-trade’ ally to counter the ‘less neoliberal’ southern states. Britain is also useful to them in other ways, including through its military apparatus (used in Libya and Mali) and international relationships.

So token concessions, at least, could be tossed to Cameron, as Merkel indicated when she advocated a “fair compromise” following his speech. But there are clearly limits to these concessions. Cameron painted a picture of an even less workable EU than at present, with every state choosing its relationship with it.

Achieving agreement for a deal in just two years after 2015, from all 27 EU states, with the background of economic crisis and the eurozone struggle for survival, stretches credibility to breaking point.

Tories’ prospects

Cameron’s speech was cheered in the Tory ranks. He was under the pressure of hostility towards the EU from a substantial number of Tory MPs and party members, backed up by much of the right-wing media, and increasing hostility in the population as a whole.

However, although he’s managed to galvanise his party and a post-speech poll showed the Tories gaining some support at the expense of Ukip, the issue of Europe is not the decisive one for a majority of the electorate and Labour still leads in the polls.

Not only has Cameron failed to convincingly shift towards winning a 2015 general election, but in the event of a hung parliament his referendum commitment could make Tory power less likely, by helping to propel the pro-EU Lib Dems towards a coalition with Labour instead of the Tories (despite Nick Clegg denying this). And with Cameron himself arguing – subject to gaining concessions – for staying in the EU, Ukip will still take votes from the Tories by calling for withdrawal regardless of any concessions.

Cameron must also be hoping that the issue of Europe and the eurozone crisis – the effects of which he fears – will distract attention from the dire state of the British economy and its struggle to compete globally.

“A new global race of nations is underway today”, he said, to get across the need for the EU to be economically strong. But his underlying agenda is to protect and promote the wealth and profits of British big business, through demanding more opt-outs from EU regulations and stepping up the slashing of workers’ living standards.


Present polls show more people supporting an EU exit than staying in. But it’s not yet possible to predict the fortunes of the pro- and anti-EU campaigns if a referendum is eventually held. Judging by present positions, Lib Dem and Labour leaders would campaign to stay in the EU and in all likelihood the Tory leadership too, but inevitably widespread anger against both the EU and the government would figure strongly. Many workers could vote No to the EU to express outrage at the government, austerity and the EU gravy train.

So while much could change during a referendum campaign, as was the case in the 1975 referendum, Cameron has entered dangerous territory for British capitalism – raising the possibility of an EU exit against the intent of the leaders of all three main capitalist parties.

How would the British economy be affected if Britain leaves the EU? Many Tory eurosceptics argue that Britain would be fine outside the EU.

However, half of British trade is with Europe and the British ruling class has benefited politically and economically in the world arena through being a leading EU player. So while British capitalism would stagger on, much of it could suffer significantly from an EU exit, including the car industry and finance sector.

Either way, new mass workers’ parties need to be built so that the working classes across the continent have the political tools to reject this capitalist Europe of crisis. Socialists must warn of the dangers of nationalism and strongly promote solidarity between workers and the unemployed across Europe. No to the bosses’ EU, and yes to an alliance of socialist states – a democratic socialist confederation – that would make the needs of the majority paramount.