EU referendum debate: Better to stay and fight

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In last month's Socialist Review Joseph Choonara put the case for voting No to EU membership. James Anderson is not convinced, seeing potential for an anti-racist, internationalist Yes vote.

The debate was opened by Joseph Choonara (July/August SR) with standard criticisms of the European Union (EU). Its policies are indeed capitalist, neo-liberal, anti-democratic, racist, murderous, and — he might have added — implicated in Nato’s reckless eastwards expansion to Ukraine. Not unlike UK policies in fact.

But unfortunately, like others on the left, he simply assumes that the only way to oppose EU policies is to leave it. There is no analysis of the likely consequences, no explanation of why we should “go”, or where.

Back to “Little Britain”, even more parochial and chauvinistic if the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Tory “Tea Party” win their referendum? Or to “Little England” if Scotland stays in the EU? With the UK and Ireland’s most reactionary bloc, the Ulster unionists, getting the windfall gift of an EU border entrenching Irish partition? And with how many jobs lost after four decades in the European Economic Community (EEC)/EU?

In his equally shallow Guardian analysis Owen Jones complained that the EU threatens “our democracy”, but it is arguably more threatened by itself and could only gain from wider European democratisation.

The UK already has Europe’s most grotesquely anti-democratic electoral system which often produces Tory “dictatorships” based on a minority of votes. A No victory in the referendum could virtually guarantee right-wing electoral dictatorships, and at present it seems a possibility. Socialists who vote No could have a lot of explaining to do.

During what will be a loud and nasty referendum campaign, making a distinctly socialist position heard will be difficult, especially if voting No. Those socialists, despite best intentions, will not escape guilt by association with Ukip, the Tory “Tea Party” and some possibly dodgy socialist eurosceptics.

The No2EU socialists who oppose the free movement of migrant workers make obvious concessions to the right, but it’s not enough to avoid these and simply assert anti-racism.

More fundamentally, to campaign for a No vote plays right into and reinforces the traditional small “c” conservative national state and nationalistic straitjacket which has long bedevilled British politics, including the trade unions and Labour left. The referendum is a major opportunity to confront this head-on by campaigning for an explicitly internationalist, left wing Yes for a new democratising Europe.

It will be most effective if done alongside like-minded forces, such as Podemos in Spain, People Before Profit in Ireland, Syriza in Greece and Die Linke in Germany, within the common framework of the EU. In broad historical terms the choice boils down to whether you fall into defensive backward-looking insularity or move to hopeful forward-looking internationalism.

In present circumstances it is not clear what a good socialist explanation for voting No would look like, and Joseph Choonara does not provide one. Valid criticisms of the EU do not do the job.

Repeating the fact that it is racist murder to let African and Asian migrants drown in the Mediterranean might understandably evoke feelings of not wanting to have anything more to do with the EU, but this “deterrence policy” was also the policy of our own Tory government (whose record is, if anything, worse).

For socialists the real practical and moral issue is not whether the EU is “good” or “bad” — it’s not some popularity contest — but whether it is better to leave or stay and fight.

Joseph’s article is not about that but instead is about asserting socialist principles like anti-racism as left-wing cover for being in the No camp, and in this context they sound like tired truisms which avoid the real issues.

He counters supposed illusions about the EU which are not held by many readers, especially after the Greek struggle if they ever were. No, we do not think the EU is “motivated by humanitarianism or anti-racism”; nor that it’s a “bastion against…neoliberalism” — indeed quite the contrary.

Failure to actually explain his No position stems from imagining that “opposition to the EU follows from our principles”. In reality these principles cannot tell us whether we should vote yes or no or abstain.

Joseph’s next sentence gets nearer the mark — “Our tactics…though, flow from the overall balance of forces” (emphasis added); but he then immediately shifts back again to “emphasising our anti-racism [and] distinguishing ourselves from others campaigning for exit”. And just as well he shifted for it would be bizarre to actually say that the principle of anti-racism dictates a No (or any other) vote in the referendum, though an overly-casual reader might be led to that conclusion.

The difficulty with issues such as EU membership, or whether Scotland, for example, should or shouldn’t have devolution or independence, is precisely that they cannot be decided simply by principles on their own. Attempts to do so are called “dogma”, the realm of religion not socialism.

Contingent possibilities predominate and principles have to be combined with comparative assessments and political judgments about “the overall balance of forces” in the alternative political arenas (eg the UK as a member state and the whole EU, or a stand-alone UK, a reduced UK, Scotland, and other arenas).

There is thus ample scope for disagreement between equally principled socialists. Decisions require empirical analysis of the different possible arenas of struggle and cannot simply be read off from first principles.

Answers therefore can and often should change when circumstances change. Appeals to the No vote in the last UK referendum on Europe in 1975 cannot decide anything one way or the other in 2015, and merely sound outdated. The only thing worse than old socialists living in the past is cross-generational nostalgia, with Owen Jones (born 1984) picking up on the 1975 No vote of his Militant Tendency parents!

Four decades on, the circumstances are very different. In 1975 a majority of the British left voted No to EEC membership, but in those days the Labour left and the trade unions had the powerful (if flawed) “alternative economic strategy”, a national movement with strong reasons for rejecting EEC membership. Now it is atrophied — the admirable Jeremy Corbyn’s very positive Labour leadership campaign is a remnant, not (or not yet?)a movement, so too No2EU. The left widely defined is chronically marginalised.


With capitalism’s low overall profit rates and recurring crises, Labour and social democratic parties across Europe and beyond have been reduced to electoral machines which are almost entirely ex-reformist.

Fearing popular forces to their left, they were actually among Syriza’s harshest critics — witness the sycophantic labourites and social democrats in coalition governments in Ireland and Germany, and the call for a government of unelected technocrats in Greece coming (almost unbelievably) from the elected social democratic head of the European Parliament (which with democratisation should have more powers and more accountability, to counter the unelected parts of the EU).

In these circumstances, left reformist anti-austerity coalitions like People Before Profit, Podemos or Syriza are almost revolutionary in demanding reforms from neoliberal capitalism.

But even in 1975 there were divided opinions and lively debates on the left. For example Mike Kidron, one of the Socialist Workers Party’s leading thinkers, argued against the predominant No position on the EEC, and that was in pre-Thatcherite, pre-Ukip days before chauvinistic “Little Britain” had become such a serious threat. Today there are many fewer reasons for voting No and many more for voting Yes.

The main left wing argument for a Yes vote is actually not that the EU secures “free movement within its borders”, though it is a significant freedom which shouldn’t be trivialised. True, the motives are “to create a European-wide labour force that can be profitably exploited by capital”, but we can’t reject things simply because the profit motive fuelled their creation — the creation of the working class for example: to do so would be undialectical, blind to contradictions and just plain stupid.

The main argument for voting Yes is that in practice internationalism would be greatly facilitated and given credibility and focus by taking full advantage of the common political framework provided by the EU — by sharing the common membership and institutions and also the common enemies it provides.

Particular frameworks or arenas have political effects — witness the limiting horizons of national frameworks such as the British straitjacket; or the day-to-day realities of two different state frameworks in Ireland which can sometimes reduce anti-partitionism to abstract rhetoric.

In what is perhaps a revealing phrase, Joseph advocates solidarity with “Greek workers who face their own struggle with the EU” (emphasis added), whereas many international supporters saw it as our struggle in which the Greeks were then battling on the front line (and EU bosses intent on stopping the “Greek contagion” spreading were well aware of it).

For the left to break out of its chronic marginalisation there needs to be serious debate about the opportunities and the problems of making common cause with the various democratising forces across Europe which have been wanting a thorough democratic overhaul of the EU and an end to austerity. Perhaps anti-democratic neoliberalism might be at its weakest or most brittle at EU level.

However, for now it continues to dominate Europe, and Britain, whether inside or outside the EU, is still a part of Europe as some British people need reminding.

It’s worth remembering too that Greece’s superb referendum rejection of the EU’s neoliberalism was mainly a vote for staying in the EU and was widely hailed at the time as a victory for “democratising Europe”. People in the UK who want to argue for a new democratic Europe with any credibility cannot afford to be in the No camp.

When a lot of the action is now in the wider EU arena, why would socialists want to retreat back to the national arena of a UK framework? It is certainly narrower and arguably as bad and undemocratic if not worse than continental Europe. It would get even worse if the No vote gave Ukip and the Tory “Tea Party” their “Little Britain” or “Little England”.

The socialist vote should be clearly against backward-looking insularity. Cooperating with left reformist coalitions in wider international arenas seems essential if the left is to escape marginalisation. Campaigning Yes for a new democratising Europe would be an important step in that direction.

James Anderson is emeritus professor of political geography at Queen’s University, Belfast.