David Cameron has committed to calling a referendum after 2015 on British membership of the European Union.
Right-wing pressure, both from within the Tory party and from groups like Ukip, is mounting against British membership, as a conservative, national-chauvinist section of the ruling class seeks to rewind history to an age of nationally walled-off, competing capitalist blocs (rather than the integration the era of relative European unity has meant).
Unfortunately, many on the left and in the labour movement chime in with right-wing propaganda against Europe, giving it a “left-wing” veneer by implying that the EU is somehow more capitalist, or representative of a worse form of capitalism, than the British state itself.
What are the real issues?
What has British membership of the EU meant for working-class people’s lives?
Short answer: a string of mild, full-of-loopholes social reforms. The Equality Act 2010, mandating equal pay for women, and restraining discrimination on grounds of sex, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, or age. The Agency Worker Regulations and the Working Time Regulations. The Tupe regulations which give some little protection when your work is contracted out. The Human Rights Act.
Freedom to travel or work across the EU. And, conversely, freedom for people from continental Europe to come to live and work in Britain. BNP and Ukip types don’t like that freedom, but it enriches Britain both economically and culturally.
But many non-EU countries have social reforms like that. Norway, which is not in the EU, is in the Schengen open-borders area, while Britain is not. The EU has meant privatisations, marketisations, neo-liberalism, more so than those feeble social reforms.
Yes, similar social reforms might have been won outside the EU. But David Cameron’s aim in “renegotiating” Britain’s EU membership, and the aim of right-wing Tories, Ukip, and BNP in wanting Britain out of the EU, is to trash some of those mild reforms, pushed by big EU states where the labour movement is stronger in order to restrain social cost-cutting across the EU marketplace. Cameron explicitly targets the Agency Worker Regulations and the Working Time Regulations.
The Tory anti-EUers want even more privatisation, marketisation, and neo-liberalism than the EU. The neo-liberalism we’ve had was not imposed by the EU. Thatcher pioneered it.
What would British withdrawal from the EU mean?
In basic economics, probably quite little, because Britain would probably follow Norway (which is in the “European Economic Area”, meaning essentially that Norway agrees to implement all the EU’s basic economic regulations, but has no say in their design; doesn’t pay into the EU budget, but doesn’t receive EU funds) or Switzerland (which does similar to Norway, except that it implements basic EU economic regulations case-by-case rather than through a general agreement).
It would mean something more dramatic only if it were part of a general collapse of international capitalist integration, and a regression to the high economic barriers between countries of the 1930s.
In a way, asking what British membership of the EU has meant is like asking what would have happened if Britain could have stepped outside the broad international trends of capitalist development of the last 60 or 70 years, notably the erosion of Britain’s old Empire, and increasing capitalist integration in Europe.
Britain’s membership of the EU means that Britain is the foremost home for US, Japanese, and other capitalist investment in Europe. On the latest figures (2011), Britain’s stock of inward foreign direct investment, at $1100 billion, exceeds other EU countries’ (France $950 bn, Germany $900 billion, Belgium $1000 billion, the rest far behind). What would have happened if British capital had stepped outside those international flows of capital? It could not and would not have done so.
To ask what would have happened if Britain had stood entirely outside that process of capitalist integration in Europe is a bit like asking what would happened if Britain had for decades been under a government of the Amish sect who dominate some small areas of the USA and reject high-voltage electricity, post-primary education, petrol-driven cars, etc. It’s like asking what capitalism would be like if it stopped developing.
But don’t socialists want capitalism to stop developing?
Socialists combat capital at every step of its development, but we do not try to stop or reverse capitalist development. That stopping or reversing is impossible, or possible only as part of general social catastrophe.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, many left-minded people wanted to stop the growth of “trusts” — big capitalist corporations or cartels, as distinct from smaller capitalist firms. In the USA, they won laws like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, and some big corporations were broken up into smaller units, like Standard Oil in 1911.
Marxists argued that these laws could not essentially deflect capital’s trend to concentration and centralisation. Lenin wrote: “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts... We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts [i.e. production becoming increasing a large-scale, social affair]... are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!”
Our attitude to the EU is similar. We do not want a return to the old high barriers between countries. Forward through the capitalist integration of Europe, and beyond it to socialism!
So British withdrawal from the EU would make no difference?
In basic economics. But it would embolden and strengthen the Tories to trash some of those mild social reforms. Swiss business organisations claim Swiss superiority over the EU because, they say: “Swiss labour laws are very liberal [from the bosses’ point of view] and are similar to US labour law. Strikes are almost unknown... social costs for employers are much lower in Switzerland... the Swiss average number of annual work hours comes to 1,832, which ranks first in Europe”. That is what the Tories want.
But there are left organisations which want Britain out of the EU to make opposite changes, for better labour laws and so on.
The labour movement could and would still fight for reforms and protection. Being outside the EU would not help us. The Tories (and Ukip and BNP) would get the boost from British exit.
Doesn’t the EU pose a threat to the national sovereignty of the UK? Doesn’t greater European integration threaten national self-determination?
No capitalist government can do other than adjust to the international flows and production chains of capital. Arguably by being in the EU, Britain can get more “sovereignty” (since the EU, as such a large unit, has more economic autonomy) than in isolation.
That is under capitalism. But what about socialism?
Socialism in one country was an impossibility even when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and ten times more so today. Workers in one European country should not wait for workers in others; but in highly-integrated Europe a workers’ government in one country would either quickly stimulate workers’ victories in other countries (and it would have a good chance of doing so), or be crushed by isolation.
Is it possible to reform EU institutions?
As much or as little as it is possible to reform capitalist institutions generally. Maybe a little more than national capitalist institutions, since the EU’s greater wealth gives it greater elasticity and greater ability to make concessions. But there will be no concessions without struggle. The lack of reform of EU institutions is due to the lack of united workers’ mobilisations across Europe.
Even if we’re in favour of European unity as a principle, surely we oppose the EU as an institution? Shouldn’t we vote in any referendums for outcomes that will break up and undermine it?
That would be like always defending small capitalist firms against takeovers by big capitalists, on the grounds that we oppose big capitalist firms as institutions.
What would workers’ unity across Europe mean in practice?
In the 1970s the capitalist governments of Europe had a plan, organised through the EU, for a concerted rundown of the steel industry. Workers’ unity across Europe would have mean the steelworkers across Europe organising together with a commonly-agreed alternative plan, instead of what happened — workers fighting to defend “French” steel as against “German”, or even “Scottish” as against “Welsh”.
Today, it would mean a common workers’ plan in defence of social and workers’ rights across Europe, and for levelling-up across Europe to the best conditions won in any one country.
It would mean a commitment by workers’ organisations across Europe to rally to the defence of the Greek workers if they win a left government in their country which rejects the imposed cuts, and to follow the Greek workers’ example.
* Further reading here