As the campaign over Britain’s EU referendum, set for 23 June, gets under way, the arguments by those advocating a “remain” position are rapidly coming unstuck. There are three arguments often encountered on the left: that the EU secures free movement, that the EU protects workers and that an exit would lead to British politics shifting rightwards. All three are based on an unwarranted pessimism.
Take the idea of an inevitable rightward march after Brexit. The fears of a referendum campaign dominated by Nigel Farage have certainly not been realised, and there is no evidence from polls of a surge in support for UKIP. The argument has instead been dominated by the rival wings of the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron and Boris Johnson. But this debate, far from strengthening the right, is paralysing and weakening it.
The resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as secretary of state for work and pensions may have reflected genuine antagonisms about how Cameron and George Osborne are implementing austerity, and precisely where the axe should fall, but these antagonisms could have been contained within the cabinet were it not for the Tory civil war over Europe. Unless Cameron scores a decisive victory on 23 June, his career as prime minister is almost certainly fated to end. It is looking increasingly unlikely that his weak and divided government can limp on without him.
The problems with the claim that the EU affords free movement are just as evident. Even BBC News’s Europe editor, Katya Adler, felt moved to write, “The migrant crisis has put the EU — with its talk of continental unity and humanitarian ideals — to shame.” Nowhere is this truer than with the EU’s deal with Turkey. In return for €6 billion and an acceleration of a deal to give Turkish people visa-free travel in the EU, Turkey will take back migrants making the crossing to Greece. Under the “one out, one in” deal, for each Syrian returned to Turkey the EU will accept a Syrian from one of Turkey’s refugee camps — though the mercy of the EU has been given an upper limit of 72,000 Syrians, compared with the 3 million currently stranded in Turkey.
Adler describes the deal as “a bit of a bluff”. The EU wants to cow refugees into stopping their attempts to make the crossing. If the bluff fails, it is likely the machinery the EU has put in place to police the plan will be overwhelmed — and the more clement weather conditions as spring arrives will surely see more attempt the crossing. Refugees have already shown enormous initiative and courage in challenging the attempts of various governments to curtail their movement. Unless the forces driving people from their homes are arrested, they will continue to come, even if they are forced to use increasingly perilous routes.
Quite aside from the viability of the EU’s refugee plan, its grotesque immorality has been savaged by Amnesty International, which writes that “the very principle of international protection for those fleeing war and persecution is at stake”. Under the deal, there will be mass deportation of refugees back to a country currently engaged in a bloody war with a section of its own population, the Kurds, and detaining those challenging this war. In no sense is Turkey a “safe country” to which people can be returned, yet under the deal Greece has changed its laws to recognise it as such. It is also unclear what will happen to large numbers of non-Syrians, including Iraqis and Afghans, who make up about 40 percent of those leaving Turkey for Europe, none of whom are recognised as refugees by Turkey.
The UN High Commission on Refugees has announced the suspension of most of its activities on the Greek islands, refusing to be involved in what it now sees simply as a process of detention and return. Cameron has stated that he also wants to strike an agreement with the Libyan government to repel the boats of refugees bound for Europe, closing off another route to the continent. Perhaps they can be accommodated in the detention centres built with €80 million of EU backing under the Gaddafi regime and in which torture and rape are rife. Quite how this deal would work is entirely unclear given that the Libyan government’s authority is so weak that it is, at the time of writing, based in neighbouring Tunisia.
Unsurprisingly, the racist rhetoric of the official leaders of the stay campaign is also growing louder. Cameron began his campaign with the argument that should Brexit go ahead the inhabitants of the “Jungle” camp in Calais, France, would be allowed into the UK. The French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, responded by adding that he would also “roll out the red carpet” for any financial corporations leaving the City of London in the wake of Brexit. Bankers out, migrants in: this is a “one out, one in” deal that the left could get behind.
Rendering a strange month in British politics even stranger, Jeremy Clarkson entered the debate. Writing in the Sunday Times he called for a “United States of Europe”, a slogan I last saw in the works of Leon Trotsky. Sadly Clarkson’s vision is not based on proletarian revolution dissolving national boundaries but on the existence of an existing “unifying set of values” across Europe. Clarkson happens to be a close friend of the prime minister, and his views are not in fact an anomaly. His brand of “Europeanism” is compatible with slurs against the non-European Mexican, Indian or Thai people he has previously insulted — or those deemed insufficiently European such as the Roma or veiled Muslim women. It simply applies the racist myths that have underpinned traditional forms of nationalism to Fortress Europe as a whole.
The arguments over workers’ rights are no more persuasive. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Unite union have produced a series of briefings and press releases trumpeting the supposed benefits of the EU. Often these seem to involve urging workers to vote not for the actually existing EU, the one that has presided over one humanitarian catastrophe for the population of Greece and another growing catastrophe on the borders of Europe, but a phantasmagorical EU that exists only in the imagination.
So a recent Unite press release acknowledged “the punishment meted out to Greece” along with the mishandling of the refugee crisis, while going on to say that “for millions of UK workers and their families, the EU is the best hope for their jobs and their fundamental rights”. One might ask, if that’s the role of the EU, what is the point of the trade unions?
A flyer on the union’s website tells us that “because of Europe” we have secured health and safety protection, 28 days paid leave a year, equal pay for men and women, restrictions on working time and so on. Erased from history are the struggles by millions of workers, over two centuries and more, to win rights in the workplace, and the continued struggle required to enforce and defend them. The battle for equal pay, for instance, involved strikes by workers such as the one by Ford sewing machinists in 1968, recently depicted in the film Made in Dagenham. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 came on the back of this strike.
The notion that the EU can be credited with this is an odd one, given that it did not exist at the time, and Britain was not yet a member of its predecessors. So too is the idea that equal pay has actually been achieved during British membership — the gender pay gap currently stands at 19 percent.
Similarly, British health and safety provisions largely emerged in the 1970s and, because they were won in a period of union strength and workers’ militancy, they go far further than is required by the EU. This fact has been noted by the Tories, who talk about “gold plating” of British health and safety legislation and the need to reduce it to European levels.
Even holiday entitlement is more generous in Britain than is mandated by the EU — 28 days rather than 20. Indeed, the unions were previously happy to take the credit for this, claiming on one TUC-run site that “trade union arguments have convinced the government to do even better than the European minimum”. That said, British holiday entitlements remain among the worst in the EU. Surely the unions ought to be campaigning to raise British entitlement to the levels in France or Finland, rather than proclaiming the virtues of the EU.
When workers do actually fight for their rights, the EU stands on the other side. So while the junior doctors talk of escalating their struggle to defend their conditions and the NHS, the EU is ploughing ahead with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, which negotiators now want to sign before the year is out. This deal will further entrench privatisation of public services including sections of the NHS and make it harder to take services back into public ownership. The deal has now provoked mass opposition, with up to a quarter of a million marching in Berlin last autumn. When challenged about TTIP by John Hilary of War on Want, Cecilia Malmström, Europe’s trade commissioner, simply replied, “I do not take my mandate from the European people.”
At least the pro-EU trade unions make an effort to pose the question as one of defending workers. The mainstream Labour campaign, “Labour In For Britain”, instead collapses into straightforward pro-capitalist arguments. One of its recent posters claimed we should vote to stay in order to secure “police powers to catch criminals”, “Britain’s place as a world power”, and the interests of “British business”. Workers’ interests are subsumed into some supposed national interest, in which the key thing is to strengthen the state, capital and British imperialism.
Sadly, the “Labour Leave” campaign is no better. One of its recent posters claimed, “The UK would need to build a new house every seven minutes to accommodate the net rise in migration for 2014.” Wherever we happen to stand on the question of the EU, the whole left should fight to drive this kind of rhetoric out of the referendum campaign.
One tragedy of all this is that the 200,000 or so who have recently joined Labour, many of them young and radical, have been abandoned to such unpalatable arguments. We also need to ensure that there is an independent and unified radical left campaign for exit, which can speak to them and millions of others who are distrustful of the mainstream arguments on either side. If we are going to make our voices heard above the clamour, the principled, internationalist left needs to ensure there is a unified left campaign for exit.
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