At this point, it may seem unnecessary for a Labour left-winger to seek to justify a decision to vote ‘Remain’, as it’s been increasingly difficult to find ‘Leave’ supporters within the Labour party, or anywhere else on the mainstream left and centre-left, within recent weeks. But even a couple of months ago, it did not seem so inevitable that someone like me would vote to remain in the EU – speaking personally, I had not made up my mind – and the issues are just as complex, and as important, now as they were then. So, I will rehearse what I see as the main arguments, even if most or all of this has already been said by others.
My starting-point is a commitment to internationalism and a desire to see the establishment of a United States of Europe – an equal and democratic alliance of all the nations and peoples across the European continent, from Ireland to the Urals. I recognise that the current European Union is very far from that ideal, being dominated by the major powers at the expense of the smaller countries and those outside the Union, and run in the interests of their ruling classes. Of course, it is the case that the EEC was, from the outset, a “capitalist club”, more interested in free movement of capital than of people and more dedicated to private property rights than to the rights of ordinary people, as citizens, workers or consumers. But, along the way, it has secured greater legitimacy by instituting valuable social protections and by redistributing resources, to some extent, from the richer to the poorer nations and regions. Over the last twenty years or so, the EU has promoted privatisation (e.g. the Services Directive); enforced fiscal discipline (e.g. the Stability and Growth Pact and the more recent Fiscal Compact); and, since the financial crash, has imposed draconian austerity measures on those countries it has “bailed out”. TTIP threatens to take these neo-liberal tendencies further. But the real question is this: if we want a European union that is different from the current EU, is it more credible to think we can achieve that by taking charge of the existing framework of treaties, protocols and reciprocal obligations and reforming the current institutions to produce different outcomes? Or by withdrawing altogether in the hope that that this will precipitate the collapse of the whole edifice and allow the ‘liberated’ nations of Europe to start again from scratch? The former option may entail the formidable prospect of renegotiating every major treaty from 1957 onwards in order to achieve a complete turnaround, in many respects, from the EU’s current trajectory - but the latter is a complete step into the unknown.
Second, the argument by left-wing supporters of ‘Exit’, that the EU is inherently reactionary implies that it has a distinct, ‘corporate’ political character independent of, and taking precedence over, the cumulative political character of its member-states. Certainly, the EU is capable of compelling a country like Greece to abandon the mandate on which its government was elected. But if a majority of member states were to reject neo-liberalism, are we really to believe that they would nevertheless be obliged to accept the dictates of an organisation that could not exist without their financial, political and diplomatic participation? The neo-liberal character of the EU is surely no more than a reflection of the general political ascendancy of neo-liberalism over the last thirty years and its defeat or co-option of social democracy. The left cannot defeat neo-liberalism on the European continent by abolishing the supranational institutions through which neo-liberal policies are enforced. Rather, the political defeat of neo-liberalism by a revived and emboldened left is the precondition for any substantial lasting reform of those institutions. It follows that the best chance of beginning that process is by taking our cue from those parties that have gone furthest in challenging neo-liberalism, such as Syriza and Podemos. And those parties are arguing for radical reform of the EU from within, not for withdrawal.
Third, for a ‘Brexit’ to have progressive consequences, people would have to have voted for it on that basis and there would need to be a movement capable of presenting the necessary conclusions to a mass audience and taking the struggle for a more progressive Europe to the next stage. The reality is, however, that the Left Exit (‘Lexit’) campaign has been virtually invisible, given the near-total absence of prominent mainstream left-wingers supporting ‘Leave’, which has left the field to the CPB, SWP and Socialist Party. We can complain about media bias and misrepresentation but it does not change the fact that the only voices calling for ‘Brexit’ that most voters will have heard are those of UKIP and the Tory right, along with their allies in business and the media. Those are the political forces that would be strengthened by a vote for ‘Brexit’ and given a mandate to pursue their own political aims. And those aims are, needless to say, inimical to the interests of ordinary people. The ‘debate’ over Europe, such as it is, has, of course, been dominated by the question of immigration and a UK outside the EU would undoubtedly impose even greater restrictions on migrants and refugees than currently exist. In addition, a post-Brexit Tory government - presumably led by a Johnson or a Gove – would (as has frequently been pointed out) move to scrap many of the workplace rights, equality laws, health and safety legislation and other ‘red tape’ that is supposedly holding back British business. And, while the TTIP negotiations pose the threat of such protections being stripped away by EU officials themselves, there is at least greater chance of such retrograde steps being halted by a continent-wide campaign than there is of equivalent measures, undertaken by a strengthened Tory government, being blocked in Britain. The other significant political consequence of a ‘Leave’ vote would be a blow to the personal standing of Jeremy Corbyn and a setback to his political project of moving Labour to the left. We may not like the way that Corbyn – always personally ambivalent about the EU – was bounced by Hilary Benn and others into pledging Labour’s unqualified support for ‘IN’ vote, but he has nevertheless invested his personal credibility in the campaign and the party as a whole has rallied round. A ‘Leave’ vote would be a disaster for the Labour left, as in so many other respects.
There is much else that could be said but the above points, in my view, clinch the case for ‘Remain’ from a specifically socialist perspective. One might well resent the uncritical praise lavished on the EU by Labour spokespeople or the apocalyptic tone of the post-Brexit scenarios invoked by the ‘Remain’ campaign (mirroring, to some extent, the more offensive scaremongering of the ‘Leave’ lobby). The sight of Sadiq Khan, Harriet Harman and Carwyn Jones lining up with Cameron and his cronies at press conferences is an unedifying reminder of how little Labour has learned from the ‘Better Together’ campaign debacle in Scotland in 2014. But, in the end, there are only two options on the ballot-paper and it is incumbent on all of us to decide which would be more conducive to the political objectives of the left. No socialist would have chosen to have this debate conducted in the terms we have witnessed in recent weeks – but we cannot change that now. All we can do is to decide which outcome we would rather wake up to on Friday morning, taking into account the implications for working people, the unemployed, pensioners, refugees, migrants and all those whose lives are blighted by prejudice and inequality. But if, as I hope, the vote is for ‘Remain’, the left needs to be much more serious and committed in our campaigning for a different kind of Europe – one that is truly democratic, that breaks with austerity and that supports public services, not privatisation. It is long overdue for Labour to lead such a campaign, instead of simply paying lip service to the need for ‘reform’.