European Union referendum:
No to a capitalist EU, Yes to a socialist Europe!
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party General Secretary
There has been no honeymoon period for the Tory government. No electoral cavalry is poised to ride over the hill to save working class people from the Tory onslaught.
Workers and young people have concluded that they and their organisations are on their own and will need to energetically push back the bosses and the government’s offensive.
Already, within weeks of the election, there have been unprecedented strikes and threats of strikes – most notably of rail workers and, for the first time in 30 years steelworkers, and others.
This, together with the outbursts of young people – in cities like Bristol, London, Liverpool and Leeds – is a forewarning of the resistance to come.
Tossed into this toxic mix for Cameron is the promised referendum on European Union (EU) membership, which has the potential to split the government and the Tory party itself from top to bottom.
It could even complete the work of the Scottish referendum in accelerating Scottish independence.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, has already proposed a ‘double majority’, meaning that exodus from the European Union would only be possible if England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all agree, which is unlikely.
She also suggested 16-year-olds and upwards should be able to vote, something that we would endorse.
And the Scottish referendum campaign should be the benchmark for the workers’ movement approach to the EU referendum.
That was fought not just on the issue of independence, but on austerity – planned poverty – which was overwhelmingly rejected by the Scottish working class, as were the parties which supported it.
A clear ‘No’ to the EU linked to a class and internationalist programme – emphasising the common interests of the European working class and rejecting capitalist nationalism – would be a shattering blow to Cameron, and could possibly hasten his departure and that of his government.
Not least of the effects of a rejection of the capitalist EU would be the encouragement this would give to all those who have felt the heel of ‘Brussels’ on their necks, beginning with the Greek workers.
The referendum is due to take place by the end of 2017 but could be held as early as 2016, to avoid coinciding with elections in France and Germany in particular.
The electorate in these countries will not be enamoured by the pleas of Cameron for special treatment for British capitalism, ‘concessions’ or even ‘full-on’ EU treaty changes.
‘Me too’, the people of other countries could demand if Cameron is successful, although his frantic dash around Europe to meet with his counterparts has met with a lukewarm response.
Nevertheless, a field day could be provided for virulent nationalism, setting workers against one another other, to the benefit of the bosses.
Racism will also be whipped up by right-wing parties like UKIP demanding action against so-called ‘scrounging’ immigrants.
It is therefore crucial that the workers’ movement in Britain starts from an independent working-class standpoint through a class campaign.
The EU is, in the final analysis, a bosses’ club , with different wings of capitalism collaborating – like thieves chained together in the same cart – while also striking blows at one another, only differing on how best to defend their own ‘national interests’ and their system.
Our starting point on this issue is the exact opposite; what benefits working class people and helps to cement their unity can be supported and what acts against this must be implacably opposed.
This referendum takes place in a different political context to 1975, the last time when a vote on the ‘Common Market’ took place.
Then, the TUC justified its support for a ‘Yes’ vote by seeking to give a ‘progressive’ content to the EU.
It argued that the workers’ movement would be able to extract benefits from Britain’s membership. But that argument has now been completely undermined as the EU becomes more and more a neoliberal tool against workers’ organisations and rights.
The alleged benefits of the ‘free movement of labour’ are in reality a device for the bosses to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour, which can then be used to cut overall wage levels and living standards.
However, higher and higher barriers, ‘wider’ oceans, the bombing of boats used to carry refugees to Europe, which Cameron scandalously suggested, will not stop the flow of desperate workers fleeing terrible wars or demanding a better life for them and their families.
The war criminal Tony Blair, through the Iraq war, and Cameron, with his gung-ho bombing of Libya, and the resulting mayhem in the Middle East have directly contributed to this.
In general, no worker flees his or her homeland through choice, but only if the conditions of their lives become unbearable.
The only way to end this is to assist the masses in the Middle East to change their present conditions by fighting against the rotten dictatorships which have temporarily dashed the hopes raised in the initial wave of revolutions.
It is necessary to forge a unified movement which can combat the deadly sectarianism of Isis and its kind and open up a new socialist vista for the peoples of the region.
In Europe, the way to proceed against the bosses’ attempt to split the working class is to demand fairness for all, above all ‘the rate for the job’, of at least a £10 minimum wage in Britain.
There is fear and resentment that scarce resources in housing, education and the NHS will not be sufficient if a new wave of immigrants comes to Britain.
Only a programme offering fully-funded services and a crash house building plan, driven by a publicly-owned and controlled programme of public works, can assuage all workers’ fears.
Cameron and the Tories support the import of cheap immigrant labour while denouncing immigrants who are allegedly living on benefits, which the government knows quite well, is only a tiny minority.
In any case, even Cameron’s attempt to limit Polish immigration to Britain was met with a flat rejection by the Polish Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz.
The latter is only too happy to continue to ‘export’ her problems, encouraging poverty-stricken workers to flee the country.
If they were forced to stay, she and the Polish capitalists would be confronted by a massive rebellion of Polish workers, which is coming in any case.
Only common action across national boundaries, as well as within nations, can allow us to build a strong workers’ movement to confront the bosses and stop them from exploiting and gaining from divisions within the working class.
This must include defending the rights of all workers who have moved across the continent in search of work to remain, if they wish to do so, with full rights in the country where they now live.
At the same time, if the workers’ movement was taking on and defeating the bosses across Europe, many workers would choose to return to the country they were forced to move from by mass impoverishment and unemployment.
Alleged EU advantages
Those who will advocate a ‘Yes’ vote, to remain in the EU, will play on the alleged advantages for workers of the EU.
This was not true in the past but is even less so today. Nicola Sturgeon, who supports a ‘Yes’ vote, has said she will not share a common platform with Cameron. This reflects the pressure of the Scottish working class.
The EU’s ‘Working Time Directive’, which sets limits on average working time, is a case in point. The British government has ‘opted out’ of that rule.
The Tories demand further ‘opt outs’, so furthering the process of slave-like wages and conditions in Britain.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, argues that “the TUC wants the UK to be at the heart of a fairer and more prosperous Europe…
“This will not be achieved if business leaders and politicians seize the negotiation of UK membership as an opportunity to weaken employment rights.”
She is suggesting that the bosses cease acting like bosses, their governments are transformed from feeding the capitalist werewolves to extract greater and greater profits from working people and become instead harmless lambs!
The brutal oppression of the Greek, Spanish, Irish, Italian and Portuguese workers, through the ‘Troika’ and the EU in general, is entirely lost on the tops of the trade unions.
In reality, trade union leaders tried to franchise out the task of improving workers’ living standards in the past through seeking concessions from Brussels rather than through workers’ movement pressure, including strike action.
Now, however, they confront an entirely different beast, an EU that is openly wedded to neoliberal policies, the super-exploitation of the working class.
History of moves to ‘unite’ Europe
In the 1975 British referendum the Socialist Party, as Militant then, conducted an effective independent campaign under the slogan “No to a capitalist Europe, yes to a socialist Europe”.
Through the Labour Party Young Socialists, meetings were held throughout the country culminating with a demonstration ending in Trafalgar Square of over 2,000 youth and workers.
The Labour Party then was still a workers’ party at bottom. Unlike others on the left (such as Tony Benn and the Communist Party) who spoke on platforms with Tory MPs and agreed to a simple common ‘No’ position, we refused to mix up banners and share common platforms with Tories, nationalists and pro-capitalist forces who also advocated a ‘No’ vote.
The EU was portrayed by its founders and is still seen even by many working class people today – particularly the young – as an expression of ‘internationalism’, a laudable attempt to overcome national antagonisms.
An additional advantage would be the development of the economies of Europe to the mutual benefit of all the peoples of Europe.
A ‘united Europe’ would also, it is argued, avoid a repeat of the two terrible world wars which left the continent and big parts of the globe in ruins.
But capitalism will never be able to really unify Europe. Nor is it capable of avoiding war, as the Balkan catastrophe demonstrated – with its quarter of a million victims and hundreds of thousands of forced displacements, leaving in its wake an even more poisonous legacy of intensified ethnic conflict.
The European capitalists participated in the Balkan war alongside the US, not for ‘humanitarian’ reasons as Blair and Clinton argued at the time but in order to enhance the national and strategic interests of imperialism.
It is true that the intertwining and economic collaboration in Europe was taken very far – fuelled by the economic upswing of capitalism in the post-1945 period and then in the 1990s.
This even generated the illusion amongst many, including some Marxists, that unification of the continent was possible on a capitalist basis.
But the Socialist Party insisted that the European capitalists could never succeed in completely overcoming the barrier of private ownership of industry on the one side and national states on the other.
The ‘national interests’ of each capitalist class after more than 60 years of attempts to establish ‘European unity’ are still seen as primary, as Cameron has made clear through his demand for substantial changes to the EU.
The continent is riven with conflict, by separate states with their own armies, largely different legal codes, etc.
Does this mean that Europe is destined to be Balkanised, divided for ever? No! But only the working class can really unify Europe through democratic socialism, eradicating poisonous divisions through real working class internationalism, leading to a voluntary democratic socialist confederation of the continent.
Capitalism’s nation state
The establishment of the first ‘Common Market’ and its extension as the EU and the ‘single market’, then the eurozone itself, are undoubtedly reflections of the real economic processes developing under capitalism.
The productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour – have outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state.
The transnationals, with their vast economies of scale, are not limited to the countries in which they originate, but within which they are still mainly based.
They organise on a continental and world scale. This process was even evident before the advent of the EU in the 1950s and 60s period, when the world boom enormously furthered the dismantling of tariff barriers and, to a limited extent, even partially overcame the obstacle of the national state itself.
This was reflected in a spiralling of growth that lasted for an unprecedented 25 years between 1950 and 1975! The advent of neoliberalism – characterised by colossal intensification of the exploitation of the working class, low-paid part-time jobs instead of high paid and permanent jobs, etc – greatly reinforced this process.
Many were thrown off balance by this development and swallowed the illusion that capitalism could complete the process and unify Europe.
The establishment of the eurozone seemed to reinforce this. But the onset of the economic crisis, as the Socialist Party predicted, saw the exact opposite take place with the re-emergence of national divisions and nationalism with a pronounced tendency towards the eventual breakup of the eurozone itself.
The introduction of the euro was utopian in its aim of establishing a lasting common currency, something that could only be possible on the basis of a ‘political union’, which has not and will not happen.
Like the gold standard of the past, which the capitalists were compelled to abandon in the interwar period, the euro became a deflationary trap.
While Germany, as the strongest economic power, has been strengthened, the euro has economically crippled those weaker states like Ireland, Greece and Spain, and threatens to do the same to Italy and others.
In the past, these countries had the option of devaluation of their currencies, which could cheapen their exports and therefore lead to a greater share of the ‘market’.
Of course, the working class would suffer with a rise in the cost of imports and therefore cuts in living standards.
But with this option closed off by a ‘common currency’, their only option as their economic position worsens has been, in effect, to carry through an ‘internal devaluation’, savage cuts in living standards and austerity to meet the euro’s criteria.
Eurosceptics in Britain
In the case of Britain, the general dissatisfaction with the European ‘project’ has been aggravated through the resentment – felt particularly by the right of the Tory party – of British capitalism’s historical decline.
This in turn has been reflected in the growth of euro-scepticism, particular manifested within the Tories.
These unreconstructed nationalists wreaked havoc in John Major’s government through the revolt of the ‘bastards’. This considerably restricted his government’s room for manoeuvre.
Cameron now confronts a similar problem, magnified and aggravated by the long-term crisis of British capitalism.
His attempt to mollify them through the EU referendum will now be put to the test. But the political situation is much more complicated now than when Major was in power.
The eurosceptics in his party appear to be even stronger, while his European counterparts are less willing to make the necessary concessions which would enable Cameron to mollify his right wing than were Major’s contemporaries.
Cameron faces a number of severe road blocks. Britain, particularly the financial power of the City of London, is the major channel for inward investment from international capital to the EU itself.
The idea of breaking from the EU and the ‘City’ therefore losing its leading role in Europe and the world, means that the majority of the finance sector is opposed to exit.
49% of British goods exports go to the EU, while just 37% of ‘services’ are exported there.
The combination of the pressure of the eurosceptics on one side and the intransigence of Cameron’s ‘partners’ in the EU on the other to give sufficient concessions could lead to a breakdown, with the prospect of ‘Brexit’ therefore not ruled out.
However, there is some way to go before that point is reached. And, as in 1975, if there appears to be a real fear of being isolated and ‘left outside’, this will result in a massive scare campaign by the decisive sections of British capitalism – “jobs will be lost, conditions will deteriorate” – in order to achieve the ‘right’ result.
The workers’ movement should intervene by revealing the gross capitalist reality behind the ‘European project’ and advance the case for a new socialist Europe and world.