Many on the left are committed to 'Leave' the EU, viewed as irremediably pro-capitalist, but I shall reluctantly vote to Remain. Although WLG has taken no position on the EU referendum, UK Momentum supports Labour 'IN' but, like Jeremy Corbyn, will not campaign with Tories, both on principle and as a lesson from the debacle in Scotland. 'Another Europe is Possible' advises 'Remain' but advocates radical reform to tackle the serious flaws of the EU. Both sides exaggerate how much of the past 40 years can be attributed to the EU. The TUC presents protections within EU law as gifts for which we should be grateful, rather than rights won through struggles. EU treaties look restrictive but allow more opportunity than often admitted, if elected politicians seek it. Politics counts for more than institutions, and 'Brexit' would today spur the growth of the nationalist far right across Europe. We should Remain, then campaign across Europe for change.
Let’s start with rights. EU protection for workers is valuable against a Tory government, even though EU law today allows employers to exploit migrant workers to drive down pay and conditions. The EU provides a framework but national politics matter. French workers are fighting a law imposed not by the EU Commission but by the Hollande-Valls government. It originates from Paris, not from Brussels. Similarly, the Tory TU Bill was drafted in Westminster. Brexit would offer more immediate opportunity for Tories to attack rights than for unions to extend them. There is no prospect of this government improving protection for consumers or the environment, which would be at serious risk.
Neoliberalism defines the worldview of most EU leaders but austerity does not follow directly from EU treaties. In the UK, it is driven by a Tory government that sees an opportunity to attack acquired rights and public services. The EU is not forcing Osborne to cut and we should not excuse him by suggesting it is. The Eurozone is more restrictive, as states have lost control of monetary policy, but the UK referendum is not about the Euro. Even in the Eurozone, there is more scope than politicians pretend. When the EU tried to fine Germany and France for exceeding deficit limits, it was put in its place. A Podemos-led government in Spain would undoubtedly face obstruction but even the Greek example does not prove that austerity is inevitable. The EU Commission acted as it did because the politicians backed it. Hollande could have blunted the attack on Greece and with Renzi’s support he could have blocked it. If the SPD broke with Merkel, it could challenge Berlin’s fixation on public debt. The issue is not the wording of treaties but the political bankruptcy of European social democracy. This is not a vote on neoliberalism. Socialists working together across Europe can stop austerity. Brexit will not.
Any decent human being should feel appalled at the EU’s treatment of refugees escaping from chaos initiated or worsened by military interventions. But the referendum is not a vote of moral censure and leaving the EU will not help. The UK stance has been one of the worst and will not be improved by a campaign infected by racism. The Tory Leavers, cheered on by UKIP, would cut migration to deliver on their rhetoric, worsening life for refugees. Across Europe, governments would see Brexit as confirming that anti-migrant policies win votes, and harden their positions. Fewer refugees would be accepted.
The great and the good of the economics establishment have lined up with dire prognoses of the costs of leaving the EU, but we do not need to accept all the claims or the spuriously precise predictions to acknowledge that the impact would be disruptive, particularly for a vulnerable economy like Wales. Investment and exports would fall, hitting jobs and wages in a new recession, already a significant risk as the global economy slows. The Tory government is more likely to tighten austerity than to act to offset this. Nor will the Tories put the interests of working people first when negotiating new trade deals with the EU. Instead, they will look for opportunities to shift the balance further in favour of big business. TTIP is often quoted as an example of how the EU bows to corporate interests but a Tory government would be keen to sign a UK-US deal on similar or worse lines. Indeed, with opposition to TTIP growing, it’s possible that the EU would reject what the UK would accept. It is hard to see how Brexit, under a Tory government, would benefit workers or consumers.
The argument that EU institutions are fundamentally undemocratic and constrain elected national governments is powerful. It is undeniable that EU structures make it easier to hear elite lobbyists than the European people. If we remain, socialists and other progressive forces across Europe must challenge this. But the Council of Ministers only accepts Commission proposals because elected governments concur. The EU treaties define procedures but do not compel agreement, and we should not let politicians hide behind bureaucrats to pass bad laws. Leaving the EU would not give the UK a free hand. We would still be members of the WTO, NATO, the IMF and many other organisations, and most of the 14,000 treaties the UK has signed would still apply. Treaties impose shared obligations, which are essential in an otherwise anarchic world. The UK pressed for the European Convention on Human Rights to hinder fascism but the Tory right would like to leave that too. Autarchy is not an option. Britain would need new reciprocal arrangements with EU countries, and there is no guarantee these would be better. Indeed, in Tory hands, we can expect them to be even worse.
Behind left concerns on EU democracy lies the fear that a future socialist government would be unable to carry through the programme on which it had been elected, as either the Commission or the European Court of Justice would block it. Is this true? Unlike Syriza, a Labour government need not face an immediate confrontation with the EU: we have our own central bank, we can borrow in sterling under English law, and our economy is far stronger than that of Greece. We will not need permission to initiate our programme. Nor need we directly challenge the EU from the outset. The next Labour government will have a long agenda and the EU would have weak grounds to obstruct steps to reduce tax avoidance, tighten financial regulation, restore union rights, or remove labour market abuses. McDonnell’s Fiscal Credibility Rule does not threaten public finances; Germany cannot object to a National Investment Bank when it has one itself; house-building can be self-financing; green investment meets the EU’s own commitments; Parliament can revise the Bank of England’s mandate ... and so on.
Some of this might be challenged, depending on how certain EU treaty clauses are interpreted. But we should approach this not as amateur lawyers but as political actors. Neoliberal orthodoxy is crumbling, with even the IMF calling on governments to take on more debt to finance investment, and a Labour government could defend well-crafted policies with strong popular backing. Conflict is more likely over state aid and competition rules, which could hamper industrial policy and public ownership, but, once again, the treaties and the institutions define the terrain for any dispute but do not prejudge its outcome. Since the crash, the EU Commission has approved over 400 state aid applications for banks, including nationalisations. Governments wanted that and it happened. How far Labour could go would ultimately depend on the political balance in Europe, not on references to the ECJ. In the right political circumstances, rulings could be rejected and, yes, Britain could threaten to leave the EU, and do so if necessary. But what might be required in a hypothetical future is misjudged today.
Socialists should decide Remain or Leave on its consequences. Brexit would create opportunities, but for the right as well as for the left. After a vicious campaign, attacks on workers and migrants are more likely than a socialist dawn. Cameron would fall but it is wishful thinking to imagine an immediate election making Jeremy Corbyn PM. Financial and business interests will not trust Labour to negotiate corporate-friendly treaties and will rally behind a new Tory leader. A defeat for Remain would open recriminations in Labour and weaken Corbyn’s leadership. The EU’s failures have spawned a vicious far right in many countries but Brexit would further stimulate this by demonstrating success for anti-migrant, anti-union politics. Let’s not delude ourselves into believing it would be seen across Europe as a vote against austerity. By encouraging nationalism, Brexit would reduce stability at a time when hardening borders could turn into violent conflicts. Peace is not guaranteed. How would the left gain from any of this? Today, in June 2016, the right would win most from Leave. Reluctant 'Remain' it is.