As we approach voting day for the EU referendum, panic has set in for the establishment and ‘project fear’ has been stepped up. The official campaigns on both sides have bandied about arguments full of lies and misrepresentations. Many working class people don’t know who to believe or feel completely turned off the debate. Here we address three of the concerns workers and young people may have about voting Leave.
Does the EU help us show international solidarity and stand against racism?
A lot of people, young people especially, look at the official representatives of Leave and are – rightly – completely repelled. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and the rest are repugnant right-wing millionaires, spouting nationalist and racist bile. As a statement of anti-racism, and of internationalism against ‘Little Englander’ isolationism, some people think they need to vote to remain in the EU.
Even some on the left promote their own ‘project fear’ suggesting that a vote to leave will lead to a wave of popular racism. They point to working class people’s concerns about immigration and votes for Ukip, for example in the recent Welsh elections.
It is important to oppose racism. However, the majority of working class people who express concerns about immigration do not do so out of racism but out of fear that there is already not enough to go round. They see the destruction of stable, skilled, reasonably well-paid jobs (for example, currently, in the steel industry) and their replacement by low paid zero-hour contracts. They experience a stagnation in wages, a housing crisis, cuts in benefits and pensions.
This is why the Socialist Party and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition have argued strenuously for an independent socialist Leave campaign. A bold anti-austerity alternative that fought for jobs, council houses and rent control, £10 an hour minimum wage, and an end to cuts and privatisation, would go a long way to cut across divisions, and harness and direct anger against the bosses and the Tories.
Cameron and Osborne, who lead the campaign to remain, are no less racist and nationalist than Johnson etc. They just believe, as does the majority of big business leaders and the banks, that the pursuit of profit for British business is better served in the EU.
But is the EU itself a guard against racism and promoter of internationalism?
We are internationalists – the internationalism of the working class, not of the bosses and the bankers and the super-rich, whose internationalism is in order to maximise the exploitation of working class people across Europe to enrich themselves.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Greek bus workers in Athens who have just won a pay victory. We stand with the French workers engaged in a huge battle against proposed new labour laws. We stand with workers in Belgium on general strike.
None of this internationalism is aided by Britain’s membership of the EU – in fact in many cases the action is against EU dictats implemented by willing big business governments. While we stand with the people of Greece, the EU is grinding them into the dirt.
Our support for European workers is no different, or easier to deliver, than our solidarity with miners in South Africa after the Marikana massacre, or in support of Palestinians under the cosh of the Israeli state, or the huge human sympathy and support shown to refugees fleeing war, terror and persecution.
The EU, on the other hand, is clearly no defender of refugees or migrants. The free movement of people within the EU is in order that big business can guarantee a cheap labour supply. For anyone else it is ‘fortress Europe’. Refugees are left to drown in the Mediterranean, and rot in squalid camps. In fact barriers are going up within Europe to prevent movement of non-EU people across borders.
To combine resources, skills, technology and production across Europe would be a hugely positive step forward. However, under capitalism it is impossible to fully achieve. Although they established the EU to facilitate trade and move around capital and labour without barrier, in the end capitalists in different nations are in competition and retreat behind national borders and protections when their profits are threatened.
It also suits them to promote national and racial loyalties so they can divide working class people against each other rather than have us all come together against the bosses.
It will only be on the basis of working class action, solidarity, and a socialist fight that this divisive and unjust system can be removed and human and material resources can fully come together on a voluntary basis.
Does the EU protect workers and the economy?
As the referendum gets closer, the Remain campaign has stepped up its emphasis on the supposed benefits the EU brings to the economy (and thereby jobs, pay and services) and to workers’ rights.
We’ve scandalously had corporate bosses on TV saying ‘we are going to cut investment and jobs’ in the event of a Leave vote. Who elected them to decide our fate? Those companies should be taken into democratic public ownership to secure jobs and services.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the Tories couldn’t guarantee rises in the state pension if Britain wasn’t in the EU. He said that NHS spending would be under threat. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told us a Leave vote would mean a “bonfire of workers’ rights.”
This despite the fact that much of the legislation that exists to protect workers was won prior to the UK joining the EU. Equal pay for men and women is often referenced. But British workers had won the right to equal pay in 1970, particularly through the strike by women workers at the Ford Dagenham plant.
In fact there are examples where UK law offers better protections than EU law. We’re told to thank the EU for paid holidays, but the EU legislates four weeks while UK law legislates 5.6 weeks.
And it would be very pessimistic to think that workers would sit idly by while the few protections that have come specifically from EU legislation (which are all incorporated into UK law anyway and would need reversing) are attacked.
Working Time Directive
The Working Time Directive, for example, provides limits on the length of the working day and regular rests (although workers – generally at the ‘request’ of employers – can opt-out). Haven’t the junior doctors shown in their magnificent strike movement that when needed and given the chance workers will fight unfair and unsafe changes to working times?
Much more significant than these few crumbs are the number of EU directives that drive down pay and conditions for workers – the Posted Workers Directive, the Temporary Agency Work Directive and the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to name a few.
The rhetoric about potential negative impacts on the economy don’t carry much weight with many workers either. One study showed that while the majority of voters think there may be negative economic consequences if Britain were to leave, only a third think it would affect their personal finances.
This is hardly surprising given that the economy is supposedly now in recovery following the world economic crisis that started in 2007-2008, but workers are still experiencing unemployment, pay freezes and cuts, and attacks on terms and conditions.
An austerity avalanche has taken place in Britain since 2010 – including on the pensions and NHS services Cameron is now so keen to protect – while the EU has observed approvingly. The same is true for the biggest ‘bonfire of rights’ – the (anti) Trade Union Act – being implemented by the leaders of the Remain campaign. And similar is taking place in EU member states across the continent. More than 35% of youth in Greece, Italy and Spain are unemployed.
Ultimately, Brexit on a capitalist basis will produce broadly the same results as Remain on a capitalist basis – continued austerity, attacks on wages and living standards, cuts and privatisation of public services.
The only way to resist this is for a mass, united working class fightback against austerity – whether implemented by Brussels or the governments of individual countries. Workers should support legislation but legislation can be brushed aside as needed by the capitalist class – it’s militant trade union-led action that will really defend us.
A Leave vote would open up the potential to kick out this hated, weak and divided Tory government. It would remove one of the many obstacles that exist to make it harder for workers to organise effectively and defend their rights. It would be a kick in the teeth for the same EU institutions impoverishing the working classes of southern Europe.
As Ian Hodson, president of the BFAWU bakers’ union, said at the union’s recent conference: “The role of the trade union is to protect workers’ rights. Anyone expecting Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde to do it will be sorely disappointed.”
Does the EU keep the peace?
David Cameron unscrupulously referred to “rows of white headstones in lovingly tended Commonwealth war cemeteries” when arguing that the EU helps to maintain peace in Europe. This is the same Tory leader who has been promoting the bombing of Iraq and Syria, which the Ministry of Defence claims has killed nearly 1,000 fighters but inconceivably not a single civilian.
Also lacking any credibility is the idea that 70 years of peace in Europe has been due to the existence of European institutions. The truth is that it’s been – and still is – in the best interests of the capitalist classes across most of Europe to compete for markets and prestige through economic and political means rather than through turning to war.
After the second world war they were met with a revolutionary wave across western Europe – mass movements of the working class demanding welfare, jobs and housing. In Britain, the Clement Attlee-led Labour government was elected with huge pressure on it to deliver change. It nationalised failing large industries including coal, the railways and steel. It set up a welfare state – a great gain extracted by working people, which developed further during the post-war economic boom.
Another feature of that period, outlasting the boom even, was the cold war standoff between the western powers and the Stalinist eastern bloc, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons that was part of that. US imperialism underwrote the security of its western allies, including through spearheading the NATO military alliance.
So, far more overriding processes were at play regarding ‘peace’ than the economic cooperation treaties signed between governments in Europe. Those treaties were aimed at boosting the fortunes of European big businesses and not at maintaining peace – that wasn’t then in jeopardy – between the main western powers.
There have however been wars in eastern Europe, in the Balkans as Yugoslavia broke up and more recently in Ukraine, which the existence of the European institutions hasn’t prevented. As the EU is in essence a club of the top European corporations and elites, the peace-making attempts of it and its predecessors have been in their own interests and not in those of ordinary people living in the war zones.
In western Europe today though, with economies barely growing and the resulting tensions between governments, is the EU a vital force for peace and stability as Cameron would have us believe?
Certainly national antagonisms between the ruling classes are rising as a result of capitalism’s inability to develop industry and services. The 28 governments that make up the EU are increasingly divided over key issues, from their response to the refugee crisis to policy on Greece’s unsustainable ‘debts’.
The Eurozone, originally heralded as aiding integration and prosperity, has become a strait jacket for its most struggling members, again aggravating antagonisms. None of this will be any surprise to longstanding readers of the Socialist; it has always argued that capitalist European integration will become shipwrecked on the rocks of economic crisis.
This is no reason for doom and gloom, or for hanging onto the coattails of EU institutions, because those bodies have never operated in the fundamental interests of the majority in society.
The only way to build European institutions that would be genuinely anti-war and based on mutual wellbeing and cooperation between the working peoples of Europe, is to do so on a democratic socialist basis. Only socialist ideas can offer a war-free, poverty-free alternative to the impasse and horrors of capitalism.