Amidst a chorus of frenzied calls to “get off the fence on Europe”, and under immense pressure from the Labour right-wing to make a positive case for the EU, Jeremy Corbyn made a highly publicised speech on Thursday 15th April in which he set out his case for remaining.
Corbyn, along with the TUC, has advocated a vote to remain in order to fight for “a social Europe of decent jobs and equality for all”. But what exactly is ‘social Europe’ and how does it differ from the capitalist status quo being defended by Corbyn’s right-wing peers in the Remain camp?
The left-wing case for EU membership appears to rest on two legs: Firstly, that we should defend the protections for workers granted by the EU against the risks posed by Brexit; and secondly, that we should stay in the EU in order to reform it from the inside – we have to “stay in Europe to change Europe”.
The ‘Social Chapter’
The image of the EU as guardian of workers’ rights is a relatively new development, which has grown up alongside the enfeeblement and degeneration of the British labour movement over the last 30 years.
In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC (the precursor to the EU), the majority of British trade unionists were against entry. The antipathy of organised workers toward the EEC at that time arose not from chauvinist prejudices, which were and are present on both sides of the debate, but from a class-based opposition to the “bosses’ Common Market”.
It was obvious at the time that the sole purpose of the EEC was to protect the European market from outside competition for the benefit of the huge European monopolies, which continue to dominate the economy. Socialists at that time posed the alternative of a Socialist United States of Europe to the capitalist club of the EEC, an alternative which we still fight for to this day.
However, following the defeats of the 1980s, the British class struggle entered into a period of retreat and disillusionment, with the Labour Party in particular shifting decisively to the right. Adapting to this environment, the trade union leaders began to see their role as mediators and insurance providers rather than as the leadership of fighting organisations, and looked to Brussels and the “Social Chapter” (of the Maastricht Treaty which founded the EU) for protection against their own government.
In fact, the Social Chapter sets out broad social policy directives which can be implemented or ignored as each member state wishes – hardly a victory for the European working class; and despite the protections supposedly granted under EU law, European workers’ conditions have if anything worsened in the recent period.
Where the EU has legislated in favour of workers, the implementation of the legislation has been far from universal, benefitting a small minority of workers in the most well organised sectors. In 2015, a survey conducted by the TUC showed that almost 3.5 million people in Britain worked longer than 48 hours a week, the maximum allowed under the much-lauded Working Time Directive. This was an increase of 15% on the 2010, leading the TUC to warn of a return to “Burnout Britain”.
The increase in over-work is not surprising considering the opt-out provided for in the Directive itself. Employers can easily pressurise workers into working for as long as necessary when the alternative is the dole. The only thing which can prevent this abuse is the workers themselves, mobilised against the bosses’ attacks. Instead, however, our leaders look to the EU for protection.
No one can reasonably argue that workers’ rights have been adequately protected, let alone enhanced, anywhere in the last few years. This is neither solely because of the EU nor the Tory government – which both exist for the exploitation of workers and the application of austerity – but rather stems from the craven leadership of the working class. This has to change!
When it comes to peeling back the gains won over generations of struggle, both the EU institutions and the Tories, seemingly at odds on so many issues, are in complete agreement. For example, the European Commission has raised no objection to our government’s Trade Union Bill, which even a Tory MP compared to Fascist Spain.
The recent experiences of the Greek workers is a case in point. Despite the election of a left-wing Syriza government last year, collective bargaining has been all but suspended under the terms of the ‘Memorandum of understanding’ signed in July, despite mass opposition. Greek workers now work the longest hours in Europe, while youth unemployment stands at 50%. All this is being done at the behest of the same European institutions which are supposedly protecting the rights of workers in Britain!
In or out of the EU, British and European workers will face a ferocious assault on every front. The EU cannot and will not offer any protection against this. Indeed, it is already negotiating the infamous TTIP agreement with the USA, which will effectively enshrine privatisation within EU law.
To disarm workers in the face of a Tory government - and, more importantly, the very business interests which dictate its policy - by raising the potential loss of rights which are already inaccessible to most workers isn't just wrong: it is positively dangerous. Regardless of the result of this referendum, without a serious struggle against austerity on the basis of a socialist programme, British workers can look forward to Greek conditions in the not-too-distant future.
But what of the future? In answer to the demands of European workers for change, even supposedly radical Lefts can only offer empty promises of future reform. Arguably the most well-known left-wing advocate of EU-wide reform is Yanis Varoufakis, the former Finance Minister of Greece who resigned last summer after his government capitulated to the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF.
As its name suggests, Varoufakis’ Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 aims to “bring about a fully democratic, functional Europe by 2025”. This “realistic” demand means nothing at a time when the European project - on a capitalist basis - is already unravelling and disintegrating. It is likely there will be no EU to reform by 2025 - but this is of no concern to a democrat like Varoufakis, who “comes out of the most disgraceful defeat just as immaculate as he was innocent when he went into it, with the newly won conviction that he is bound to win”, as Marx wrote in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
The argument that we must “stay in Europe to change Europe” is false from start to finish. The EU is not “Europe” as a whole – it is an alliance of capitalist states made up of various competing interests. From its birth as a gigantic coal and steel cartel, to a glorified customs union, and finally the death grip of the euro, the EU has erected an enormous byzantine bureaucracy above the heads of European workers for the sole purpose of exploiting markets and human beings with equal vigour.
Behind the toothless European Parliament you can see the real levers of power in Brussels and Frankfurt (where the European Central Bank is based). Greece, again, provides a clear picture of the actual situation. Syriza raised the demand for a reformed EU even before it came to power, but as soon as it tried to implement its programme it immediately came up against the reality of the EU and its institutions.
In response to their appeal for solidarity the Greeks were simply told, “pay your debts”, even by other debt-stricken states. Far from being a vehicle for reforms, the EU and its institutions have proven themselves to be reliable means for crushing any opposition to the rule of capital. After the tragedy in Greece, Varoufakis now seeks to attempt the same failed experiment on an even larger scale.
Varoufakis’ acolytes amongst the Left in Britain say, “Britain is not Greece”. Is this the extent of their internationalism? In fact, this argument epitomises their narrow and ultimately chauvinist outlook. Support for the EU on the grounds that Britain is big and wealthy enough to avoid the fate of smaller nations (itself a fantasy) is not an act of solidarity with Greek workers – it is an endorsement of their oppression, to say nothing of the appalling treatment of refugees being held in the EU’s internment camps.
Ultimately, the demand to reform the EU stems from the belief that it is possible to reform away the exploitation and crisis which is inherent in capitalism. We would not accept this argument in relation to the British state and we cannot accept it in relation to an alliance of states like it. To propose this during a boom would be utopian - to propose it while the EU is collapsing is insane. We follow this well-trodden path to defeat at our peril.
The only socialist and internationalist alternative to the crisis of the EU is a Europe built on the power of the working class to change society, which is by its very nature incompatible with the EU.
- Workers must overthrow the EU, not reform it!
- We need socialist measures to fight austerity!
- For a Socialist United States of Europe!