Both sides in the official EU referendum debate were excelling themselves in their hideousness as Socialist Review went to press.
In late May, Vote Leave launched a racist poster with the headline “Turkey (population 76 million) is Joining the EU” and a picture of a British passport. The Stay campaign hit back with another dodgy dossier from the UK Treasury predicting a year-long recession if we leave — this from the geniuses who forecast 2.5 to 3 percent growth in the recession year of 2008.
Meanwhile, faced with a situation in which many, especially younger, people will vote to stay on the basis of a mistaken if understandable association between the EU and internationalism, much of the left have taken the mistaken and less understandable decision to back a Remain vote.
Their central argument is that the EU in its current form is admittedly barbaric — brutal in its handling of non-European refugees, contemptuous of democracy and committed to neoliberal austerity — but it can be reformed. Having debated with left advocates of this position around the country over the past couple of months, I have yet to hear anyone offer a method of actually reforming the EU.
The EU is littered with unelected bureaucracies surrounding bodies such as the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Its key decisions are generally made through the haggling of various different national governments meeting at the European Council.
There is no credible, democratic pan-European forum to press for reforms. The European Parliament, which does not even have the right to propose legislation, certainly cannot fulfil this function.
Fundamentally changing things would mean rewriting EU treaties, requiring agreement of all 28 member states. If the left wins in 28 different countries, we won’t need to reform the EU; we can construct genuinely internationalist institutions to promote the interests of workers.
Besides, the notion of a rising tide of left wing pro-EU forces capable of transforming the institutions of Europe ought to have died on the streets of Athens. The latest phase of the Greek bailout programme has seen the Syriza government, cheered on by the EU, driving through attacks on pensions. As the deal went through parliament, backed only by Syriza and the right wing Independent Greeks, outside in Syntagma Square riot police attacked protesters with teargas.
A few weeks later the Greek government cleared the unofficial Idomeini refugee camp on the Macedonian border, banning journalists from the area while police went about their work of forcing refugees into official camps. Again this action was part of the EU deal with Turkey, one that has seen a ramping up of repression of migrants, while, at the time of writing, a mere 177 of the 2.7 million Syrians trapped in Turkey have been resettled in Europe. Is Syriza reshaping the EU? Or is it the other way around?
Surely it is time to start treating the EU as we treat the IMF or World Trade Organisation: as a neoliberal capitalist institution that we should break up, not reform.
The second argument that left supporters of a Remain vote deploy is that an exit would leave us to the mercies of a Boris Johnson government. Why Johnson is deemed especially bad compared to David Cameron and George Osborne is beyond me. The radical left may be small but lowering our expectations to propping up one wing of the Conservative Party against another takes miserablism to new levels.
Our job is to weaken capitalist institutions at home and abroad, deepen the crisis for the Tories and exploit the growing tensions in their ranks. It has been a great relief, therefore, to participate in the launch of Lexit, the Left Leave Campaign, which draws together those forces that identify as internationalist opponents of the EU.
The Lexit campaign is not, of course, the dominant voice in the referendum campaign, but its arguments are helping to shape the debate in the unions and on the left. Take the superb statement agreed by the RMT, ASLEF and BFAWU unions in May. Not only does this call for a left wing leave vote, but it also contains the following lines: “Unlike UKIP and others we don’t believe Britain should be an island unto itself. Our country, and indeed many countries, are nations of immigrants. We want everyone to get a fair rate for the job and everyone to have the same rights at work. We don’t support fortress Britain and so we don’t support fortress Europe. We profoundly regret children and families fleeing poverty, persecution and war not being allowed in to Europe.”
Compare this to the spectacle of Sir Brendan Barber, former head of the TUC, sharing a platform with Cameron. In the cause of staving off a supposed threat of falling wages, Barber has joined hands with the man who has been hammering wages of union members. This is class collaboration at its most embarrassing.
Whichever way the vote goes on 23 June, the Lexit campaign should be proud of advancing an independent and internationalist case against the EU.