Over 160 people joined a left debate on the European Union (EU) referendum in Manchester last night, Wednesday.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and Labour member Sara Khan argued for remaining in the EU to reform it and stop the racist right. Joseph Choonara from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Eleni Michalopoulou from the Greek anticapitalist coalition Antarsya argued for a left break with the EU bosses’ club.
It follows similar events across Britain and underlined that it’s possible for the left to debate the EU without right wing and racist politics dominating.
Bennett opened the debate by arguing that supporting the EU was internationalist. She said, “We flourish best when we work together on the problems that we face.
“We have to rein in the multinational companies and make them pay their taxes. But even if we had a different sort of government, it would be difficult to take on the multinationals on our own.
“So we have to work together as the peoples of Europe to rein in those multinationals and build a different sort of economy.”
But the EU is not a neutral force within global capitalism. As Choonara said, “We have to start looking at the EU as a neoliberal institution, like the International Monetary Fund, that we have to break apart.
“If you want to understand the nature of the EU don’t start in Britain—start in Greece.
“The EU is working hand in glove with the IMF to drive through the most appalling austerity programme and has actually fought off an attempt by the IMF to win debt reduction.
“When the IMF taps you on the shoulder and says ‘Maybe you’re going a little bit too far’, you have to ask questions about where you’re going.”
Bennett argued that the EU is responsible for protecting workers’ rights but Choonara pointed out that they were won through working class struggles.
Khan agreed that it’s “right to say that grassroots campaigning won our rights”, but asked, “is leaving an alternative to austerity?
“It’s equally ludicrous to say that leaving would see the Tories overthrown as it is saying the EU protects us from Boris Johnson,” she said.
Khan argued that leaving the EU would put us in a far worse position to resist attacks on workers and migrants. Bennett said leaving could lead to a more reactionary Tory government headed by Boris Johnson.
Choonara disagreed, “The reality is that the Tories are ripping themselves apart and Boris Johnson would inherit a damaged government.”
The panel agreed about the need to defend the free movement of labour and migrants’ and refugees’ rights.
Khan said, “The free movement of labour should be celebrated and it’s an important step to a world with no borders.”
But Choonara argued that the EU wasn’t a “staging post” to getting rid of borders. He slammed the “barbaric” deal between the EU and Turkey, which allows the EU to deport refugees trapped in Greece.
He said, “In exchange the EU promised to resettle Syrian refugees—the grand total of Syrian refugees resettled is 177 out of 2.7 million people.
“That’s the reality of Fortress Europe.”
Some people asked what would happen to EU migrants living in Britain.
Michalopoulou said, “Britain was already allowed to change the law regarding benefits for migrants, so Romanians and Bulgarian have specific restrictions.
“It won’t get better, if we don’t fight against either side.”
But leaving would blow a hole in Fortress Europe and weaken both Britain’s rulers and the EU.
As Choonara said, “We should see it as a bosses’ club and we should be proud to vote to leave it on a left wing basis to begin the break-up of that bosses’ club.”