More space for a left No

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The debate continues on how best to be an internationalist in the run up to the EU referendum.

Last month’s Socialist Review contained James Anderson’s rather intemperate response to an article I wrote calling for an “internationalist No” in the forthcoming referendum to retain British membership of the European Union.

He writes, “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.”

The argument here rests on a non-sequitur. Both James and I are internationalists but in what sense must this express itself through the framework of the EU’s institutions?

There is a long history of internationalism in the workers’ movement. Consider the solidarity of Lancastrian cotton workers with the plantation slaves of America in the 1860s, even as the civil war cut off supplies of cotton and caused unemployment and hardship in the mills. Think more recently of the support given by many British trade unionists to the Palestinian struggle.

Such solidarity does not rest on capitalist institutions such as the EU. We are quite happy to stand on the dung heap of the European Parliament to publicise initiatives such as the coordinated anti-racist protests on 21 March 2015, but the key networks that drove this project emerged from common struggles against racism internationally.

Solidarity of this kind cannot be reduced to a particular region either. Do we feel any less strongly about the Kurdish liberation struggle or the battle of Gezi Park in Turkey because it takes place outside the EU’s borders?

Indeed, the existence of the EU often runs contrary to real solidarity because, insomuch as it suggests a common identity, it is an exclusionary, racist identity. The support workers here have shown with refugees fleeing to Europe clashes with the logic of fortress Europe that wants to keep them out.

Now, James’s answer to this is simple. He wants to reform the EU in parallel with forces such as Podemos and Syriza, whose opposition to neoliberalism is, he thinks, “almost revolutionary”.

However, Alexis Tsipras’s disastrous handling of the negotiations with the Troika rested on precisely this logic — his refusal to break with the EU or the euro destroyed any prospect of carrying through his democratic mandate and, incidentally, damaged the credibility of other left reformist forces such as Podemos.

Greece’s “superb referendum rejection of the EU’s neoliberalism was mainly a vote for staying in the EU”, writes James. But this simply highlights a central contradiction in what Syriza was arguing. The anti-capitalists of the Antarsya coalition, who were prepared to break with the EU, had a far more credible perspective.

James does not really say what kind of reform would stop the EU being a racist and neoliberal institution. He mentions in passing that the European Parliament “with democratisation should have more powers and more accountability to counter the unelected parts of the EU”.

Perhaps he is simply saying that the European Parliament can curb the power of the unelected bureaucracies in Brussels or forces such as the European Central Bank. But many of the key decisions in the EU are in effect taken by representatives of the most powerful European states.

Does James really think that the European Parliament is going to challenge neoliberalism across the region in the face of opposition from these capitalist powers? Why would the various powers of Europe go along with this? Here the critical battles will take place not between the European Parliament and capitalist interests across the region but within particular states.

Maybe James is arguing that powers currently held by individual countries should pass to some kind of EU-wide super-state. But even if the states making up the EU wanted this, would it be progressive? We would almost certainly favour the breakup of such a European super-state, necessarily a major imperialist power, just as we supported the break-up of the British state during the Scottish referendum.

James’s illusions in the EU and the scope for its reform seem to reflect his pessimism about the situation in Britain. We face “right wing electoral dictatorships”; the left is “chronically marginalised”, and so on. However, the EU, reformed or otherwise, will not solve any of these problems.

It will be tough to differentiate our position in the referendum campaign from that of the little-Englander voices to our right. But why does James imagine it will be easier for him to differentiate his position from that of David Cameron or the CBI?

As it happens, the space for a left campaign has opened up a little since I first wrote on this issue — with, for instance, the interventions by Owen Jones and George Monbiot. While Labour and most unions are likely to support the Yes campaign, the Trade Union Congress has threatened to reconsider its support for British membership and Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the EU seems less than enthusiastic.

There will be a serious debate on the left about the EU next year. I remain convinced that we ought to stake out a position for an internationalist No.