The EU was never about peace or defending workers' conditions, but a means of expanding the bosses' power. Sally Campbell argues for unity with Europe's workers but hostility to its rulers
In January 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) in which he promised to renegotiate the “terms of the relationship” and put the result to a referendum in 2017.
Cameron was seeking to stem the growing support for Ukip, undercut the Eurosceptic wing of his own Tory party, defer the EU question until after the May 2015 general election, and simultaneously blame Britain’s economic troubles on the Eurozone debt crisis.
On all four counts he has failed. In the two years since his speech Ukip has gained two MPs and seen its poll ratings rise. Former Tory environment secretary Owen Paterson has called for Britain to leave the EU with immediate notice. And both the Tories and Labour are vying to out-do Ukip in the anti-EU-migrant race to the bottom.
Cameron’s attempt to blame Britain’s economic crisis on Europe is unconvincing. He claims that the financial meddling associated with the EU would damage the City of London — as if Britain’s financial sector has been doing great for the past six years. In reality both Britain and the Eurozone are suffering the effects of deregulation, austerity and cuts — and the EU has been responsible for imposing the harshest measures on those at the sharp end of the crisis.
However, the rise of Ukip notwithstanding, membership of the EU has not been a key issue for British voters. In the 2014 Euro elections Ukip built its support largely on the basis of anti-immigrant racism and anti-establishment bluster. As Owen Jones pointed out in a “letter to Ukip voters” in 2012 — at the height of the euro crisis — three quarters of Ukip voters didn’t see the EU as an important issue when deciding how to vote. And, despite Ukip’s growth, support for EU membership is currently at its highest since 1991: 56 percent would vote to stay in if there were a referendum tomorrow, and 36 percent would vote to leave.
Many see the EU as a guarantor of human rights and workers’ rights, a bastion against war and nationalism and, for us in Britain, a progressive alternative to xenophobic “little Englanders”.
But European integration was never about peace or workers’ well-being. Its central purpose from the beginning was to rescue European capital in the aftermath of the Second World War, making it fit to compete as a bloc with the US and Asia.
The project was also concerned with subduing the enemy within — the European workers’ movement. There were big strikes in France in the immediate post-war years, and the Communist Party was influential in Italy. This all took place in the context of the changing imperialist balance at the start of the Cold War. The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, established the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community (EEC).
The US required a stable Nato bloc at the frontline with the east, trumping even the prospect of economic competition. French capital sought to rein in West Germany while gaining a foothold in its heavy industry; and German capital recognised that its best chance of reunification and renewed economic dominance would be through European integration, as it wouldn’t be allowed to grow on its own.
Europe has since been caught in the contradiction of the need for European capital to be big and integrated enough to operate as a successful economic unit on the world stage, while its member states retain their own conflicting interests.
But what of the ideal — the peaceful, social Europe? In 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its “successful struggle for peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights”. At the time member states were involved in military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, Libya, Syria and DR Congo.
Earlier wars fought by EU powers include the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s and again in 1999. It is noteworthy that three of the world’s biggest arms exporters — France, Britain and Germany — are all members of the EU.
Equally abhorrent is the EU’s attitude to immigration. In theory there is free movement of people within the EU. In practice all people are not treated equally. When Bulgaria and Romania joined in January 2007 other member states were given the right to restrict entry into their job markets for workers from these countries for up to seven years. Most EU states only allowed Bulgarians and Romanians full rights at the start of 2014.
Even worse is the experience of those from further afield — even to claim asylum. Estimates suggest that since 2000 some 23,000 people fleeing war-torn countries have drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to get to the shores of Europe.
The EU has progressively tightened its borders over the last 20 years, with heavily armed border police patrolling “Fortress Europe”.
Britain’s relationship with European integration has always been difficult. In the 1950s the British ruling class felt it could pass on the Treaty of Rome because it was still a world power in its own right. It also claimed a “special relationship” with the US, representing Britain’s close economic ties with the superpower.
Within a decade the empire was largely gone and British capital had to re-evaluate its relationship, joining under Ted Heath’s Tory government in 1973. At this time the Tories were largely pro-European, seeing integration as the best future for British capitalism. The Labour Party was split on the question.
Tony Benn and others on the left of the party correctly identified it as a bosses’ club designed to trample on hard won rights and make life easier for European capitalists. The right wing of the party were pro-European.
In 1975 a referendum on continued membership was held by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. His cabinet was split on the question. Benn and Michael Foot led a No campaign, backed by most trade unions, the Communist Party and the revolutionary left, while the Tories and right wing Labour united for a Yes vote, which won the day with 67 percent of the vote.
The Tories have failed to unite since then. A crisis of confidence in Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist policy following the slump of the early 1980s was the beginning of their bitter rows over where the future for British capital lay. Some want Britain as an independent financial centre, attracting investment from abroad and renewing the special relationship with the US. Others prefer it as a member of the EU with special privileges. On balance the Tory Party is currently pro-EU, but only just.
The defeats for the workers’ movement in the Thatcher years contributed to a shift in the left’s position. Increasingly workers’ organisations looked to a “social Europe” as a guarantor of rights at a time when there seemed to be no stopping the onslaught of the British ruling class.
This continues today, with Unite the union and Labour lefty Owen Jones half-heartedly backing membership on the basis that its benefits outweigh its drawbacks. But the ructions of the last few years have revived a sense in Europe that there can be a real alternative.
Even before the economic crisis of 2008 there were signs of resistance to the European bosses’ project. In 2005 France and the Netherlands held referendums on a new European constitutional treaty, which enshrined neoliberal free market capitalism.
It sought to make everything, including public services, subject to market forces. The left built a No campaign which put opposition to neoliberalism at its centre, and inspired thousands to take part — much like the Yes campaign in the recent Scottish independence referendum.
France rejected the treaty, as did the Netherlands. Later Ireland rejected the same treaty and was forced to vote on it again — which reminds us that the EU should not be lauded for its democracy either. The institutions of the EU are even more remote from pressure from below than national governments, and the key decision-making bodies are unelected — such as the European Commission, the Central Bank and the President.
In the course of the Eurozone crisis there has been a return of struggle as the EU attempted to impose mass unemployment and poverty on those at the sharp end. November 2012 saw strikes of millions across Greece, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, Malta and Italy.
Yet this doesn’t automatically lead people to reject the EU project wholesale. Podemos, the radical electoral formation in Spain, has severe criticisms of the EU, but does not call for Spain to leave it or to leave the euro.
Die Linke, Germany’s left party, said this year: “We fight for a re-foundation of the European Union; for a new definition of its objectives, policies and structures; an economic, productive, social and ecological model based on solidarity, social justice, democracy and popular sovereignty, acting in the service of the people.”
This reads like something of a fudge, leaving the question of membership of the EU and the euro vague, perhaps out of a desire not to line up with the right wing populist Movement for Germany, their equivalent of Ukip.
But the EU cannot be reformed. It is structured to prevent even any kind of welfare state Keynsianism, let alone socialism. It is also a central part of the “Troika” — with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which has imposed the neoliberal project. Far from providing a reprieve from unemployment, cuts, low wages and anti-immigrant racism, it has created these conditions.
In Britain the only loud voices against the EU project at the moment belong to racists and the right wing. If and when a referendum on Britain’s membership is announced the debates will be difficult and the left will have to think tactically about how to intervene.
But looking to the EU for an alternative to Ukip’s racism is not an option — the EU is responsible for creating the conditions in which the far right has grown across the continent. We are for solidarity with the struggle in Europe and beyond.
If we are to change the terms of debate about the EU, we must foster a real fight against anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia — and against the neoliberal austerity that is replicated across Europe.