The UK and the EU Referendum

The United Kingdom’s EU referendum, which takes place on 23 June, provides a challenge to the Left. It should be answered by a “remain” vote, together with the rallying cry for #AnotherEurope, a better Europe.

On June 23, 2016, the British people will face a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. The referendum was a pledge included in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, prior to the May 2015 general election, most likely to head off support for the UK Independence Party, which was challenging it at the polls from the right. But this is an issue that opens deep fissures in all parts of the British political landscape. For much of the right and the far right, this is a matter that touches on the whole question of the free movement of labour, xenophobia, racism, and petty nationalism. For other sections of the ruling class, particularly in support of the free movement of labour to drive down labour costs and renew the labour market, EU membership is seen as positive. Across the left there are also divisions, from those who want ‘British jobs for British workers’, to those who wish to leave the EU because they consider it irredeemably neoliberal, and to those who actively support immigration and believe that European solidarity is key – that ‘Another Europe is possible’. And there are many other intermediate positions.
Voting on membership for the first time since 1975, the question put to the electorate will be ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get what he considers to be a better deal from Europe – opting out of closer union, more powers to block new EU laws, and restrictions on welfare benefits to migrants. At the moment, polls suggest a very close race, to say the least.
There is no doubt that the EU referendum is a major political discussion point within working-class communities in the UK, within the left, the labour movement, and amongst progressive people. It will also have an impact on attitudes and relationships within the European left, labour, trade-union, and progressive movements.

Corner stones of the discourse

Watching media coverage of street vox pops and discussion shows – as well as reviewing polling data – suggests that most young people in Britain see the EU overall as a positive institution. What would they expect as citizens of an EU Member State? They would expect:

  • that they could travel freely to other EU countries
  • that there would be the rule law
  • that basic public services would be provided; they would expect
  • rights at work
  • healthcare
  • education
  • human rights guarantees
  • pensions
  • environmental protection
  • adequate food for the population.

Some see Europe as definitely better than Tory Britain.
The oldest section of the population, in part at least, regards the EU as a success because there has not been war in Western Europe since 1945. Attitudes of other sectors of the population vary. Many construction workers as well as young people have worked in Europe, the latter particularly in summer jobs, and enormous numbers have travelled there on holidays. Universities have links across Europe and many young people have participated in study exchanges through the Erasmus programme. Obviously, big business links across Europe through the single market mechanisms. A section of British pensioners live in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, with some areas of those countries dominated by British ‘expats’.
The EU has been the butt of much negative publicity, much of it through anti-migrant and xenophobic propaganda. And the stereotype of European bureaucracy and red tape abounds. The picture of ridiculous EU regulations has been pushed by the tabloid press and accepted by many as true, unless challenged by their own experience. Most people have had little reason to doubt these myths, and they have become part of the political landscape, the ‘common sense’ in Gramsci’s definition.
The rise of right-wing anti-Europe feeling, as expressed by right-wing Tories and UKIP, is a factor in Britain. Fifty-two Conservative MPs are organised within the Conservative Party to fight for exit from the EU. However, the neoliberals in the Conservative and Labour parties are wedded to the EU project. In the political environment provided by the EU, they have in recent years had no trouble in carrying out robbery of the poor and have more pragmatic nationalist attitudes. Behind nationalism in the UK is the history of empire, a yearning for a ‘glorious’ past and a hankering for links across the Atlantic rather than across the Channel.
However, in Scotland this is not the case. The ‘yes’ vote in the referendum was seen as synonymous with support for staying in Europe and a more socially democratic country free of Tory rule. If the UK votes to leave the EU this is very likely to trigger a second Scottish independence referendum, based on Scottish determination to remain part of Europe.
The politically conscious left often despises the EU because of its increasingly neoliberal role and more recently the pain inflicted on the people of Greece by the EU through enforced austerity measures. The ‘no to the EU’ project recruited important sections of the left to the idea of the UK leaving the EU; many people have an almost knee jerk response to this. Our own distaste for EU policies is no less strong, but we have a traditionally socialist internationalist approach.
The original European project founded in the aftermath of World War Two was based on the post-war consensus. This included the idea that avoiding war and huge social upheaval required improvement in the living standards of ordinary people, which was part of the social democratic politics then common in Europe.
When the EU expanded to take in the post-dictatorship countries (Greece, Spain, and Portugal), huge resources were invested there. The project had the populations’ political consent, and this made EU membership truly popular in these countries.
The post-communist expansion, though, was much less positive and has proceeded very differently. It did not see the same level of investment or increase in economic growth. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) represents 40 per cent of the EU budget, favouring rich western countries over eastern Europe; feeding these EU citizens is seen as somehow less important. When the eastern European nations joined in 2004 they were not given the same rights to the CAP (or to the European Regional Development Fund) as western states had received.

A neoliberal institution

The EU has become a neoliberal institution. Its neoliberal role is operative not just within its borders; the EU has been involved, with the World Bank, IMF, and others in forcing neoliberal ‘restructuring’ on areas of the global South. This transition to neoliberalism has been most marked since the events of 1989, which put ‘global capitalism’ very much back on the offensive. In Europe, this resulted in very rapid progress towards the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in February 1992, establishing a monetarist framework for economic and monetary union. A strict limit was set on the level of total public debt, at 60 per cent of GDP, and government budget deficits were limited to 3 per cent of GDP. Compliance with these requirements means major public spending cuts in most EU states. The Treaty also ensured that key areas of economic policy were insulated from democratic accountability: the projected independent European Central Bank was given control of monetary policy in a framework specifying that price stability takes precedence over economic growth, employment, and living standards. In effect, the Treaty of Maastricht made Keynesian economic policies impossible, ruling out the traditional economic framework of western European social democracy.
In this context, it was hardly surprising that the implementing governments found themselves on a major collision course with the labour movements of their respective countries. Western European politics in the 1990s was dominated by the struggle for and against the consequences of the Treaty of Maastricht. The first crisis appeared rapidly and was actually an unforeseen spin-off of the events of 1989. Germany was the strongest economy in Europe and the chief contributor to the EU budget. Its trade surplus subsidised the rest of the Community, while its industry benefited from the relative exchange-rate stability provided by the European Monetary System. With German unification, this balance changed significantly. Indeed, the Treaty of Maastricht provisions were set so rigidly because Germany had no intention of subsidising the weaker EU economies. The European Monetary System collapsed in August 1993 because the rest of the EU could not, during the recession of that time, cope with the levels of interest rate that the German Bundesbank had established to attract the funds needed to soften the impact of unification upon East Germany. The deadline for the start of monetary union was postponed from 1997 to 1999. In order to meet it, almost every EU government had already embarked on a programme of public spending cuts and labour-market deregulation in a context in which average EU unemployment was over 10 per cent.
Major social democratic parties set about implementing swingeing cuts, as European capital intensified its struggle to recover what it felt it had given away to the working class after 1945. This resulted in the political and economic course that has led to the austerity nightmare in which the European working class finds itself today. This is of course most strongly expressed in Greece, where debate about how to respond to the EU blackmail over austerity included considerations of ‘Grexit’, or Greece leaving the euro or even the EU. The political case for this was based on the appalling policies of the EU leadership in imposing the memorandum deal. There was also debate (which will likely be ongoing) about leaving the euro and establishing a central bank that could create money as all central banks do. The Bank of England, the US central bank (the Fed), and Japan’s central bank, created large amounts of money through ‘quantitative easing’ to mitigate the effects of the crisis. This was not available to the Eurozone countries, which had no national banks.
But being outside the EU would not make the UK less neoliberal. The UK in the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era followed a different economic model from the one generally pursued by the rest of the EU. In the run-up to the economic crisis, Britain, like the US, pursued the Anglo-American kind of free market economics which had less labour protection, mass migration, and worked on the basis of a deregulated labour market, low pay, and freedom for investors and employers. They were the forerunners, and Thatcher was indeed the pioneer of neoliberalism in the developed world. Her greatest achievement, she claimed, was the creation of New Labour, for, as a result of the climate she created, Tony Blair rejected social democratic Keynesian economics and embraced neoliberalism. These ideas became the norm for the UK even before the austerity era in Europe. The UK government is arguably the most committed to neoliberalism in the developed world, matching the USA; its record includes ‘deregulation’, ruthlessly imposed austerity, increased child poverty, and privatisation.
The EU is the largest economy in the world, and the London financial institutions see Europe as a crucially important project. A ‘common sense’ approach to the UK leads us to envisage a second-rate bumbling power, not able to afford to give its people much, with an old industrial infrastructure, and bravely battling away. In reality, it is one of the richest countries in the world, with one of the most inequitable societies. Trade unions are legally and socially constrained. The financial sector is totally dominant and has very little connection with the day-to-day life of ordinary workers; it almost operates in a different world. The UK plays host economically and literally to the world’s oligarchs who play monopoly with the streets of London.

How then would the working class fare in a Brexit?

The BBC described five options for the UK leaving the EU: the Norwegian, the Swiss, the Turkish option, a free trade agreement, and a clean break. In none of these is there any mention of replacing the Social Chapter, safeguarding workers’ rights, or protection for the environment. There is talk by the supporters of Brexit of a 1.6 per cent improvement in GDP if Britain is given a reasonably favourable settlement and pursues large-scale deregulation at home. Such deregulation would of course be at the expense of workers, the environment, and democracy. We know this. Our ruling class has form.
Cameron’s intention is to ‘re-negotiate’ UK involvement. While he dances to one tune at the front of the stage he conducts backstage negotiations with the EU. It matters little to the financial institutions that a few migrants claim tax credits; British workers in Europe do so too. The financial sector has billions of pounds per year invested in Europe.
The EU is thus an organisation that has long ago ceased playing a positive role and is knee-deep in projects that defend the interests of major corporations and the very rich at the expense of working people and public services. But the world outside the EU is not the world that existed before the EU; there is no going back.
We have no illusions about the organisations of the EU, or the role they have played in damaging living standards and promoting war. We have great hope and political investment in the social and political movements that have swept across the world and across Europe in recent years. The question of the EU is a wide-ranging and complex one. Our position must reflect these complexities.
But at the same time we of course have no illusions about the neoliberal policies of two decades of UK government. We have no more faith in Cameron or in neoliberal Labour policies than we do in the EU.
We do not see leaving the EU on a tide of nationalism as a progressive move. There is no haven outside the EU, no progressive form of capitalism, and no chance of a Tory government leading Britain out of Europe to a positive, just, and equitable society respecting the rights of workers, the rights of migrants, of women, and of people with disabilities. The UK will face TTIP and worse either in or out of Europe.
Some argue that the TTIP threat is a reason to leave Europe. Far from being safe from TTIP outside Europe, ordinary people would be more vulnerable to BITs (Bi-lateral International Trade agreements), as the UK already is one of the greatest users of these trade agreements. TTIP, TISA, and similar treaties and agreements, like the Trans Pacific Partnership, will have an impact on the UK whether it is in or out of the European Union.
The British ruling class is completely committed to such deals. These treaties need to be defeated politically, across Europe. The risks from these trade deals include threats to the justice systems, imposed conditions for trade in services and more, all applying to the UK in or out of the EU.
In terms of working conditions, there is nothing to be gained economically for working people in leaving the EU. Much would be put at risk. Nationalism in this form will weaken the organisation and social cohesion of working-class communities. Trade unions will be further damaged. The right wing will gain credibility.

So can we #change Europe?

The battle for a better world must be on three fronts: the national, the European, and the international.
Workers (including precarious workers), students and pensioners, have fought austerity. Many people across Europe, even in Greece, still politically accept the EU; others show limited acceptance. Even some who accept it are opposed to austerity. The traditional left and the trade unions have fought hard and are still winning more support for the project of defeating austerity, defeating TTIP, and defending rights.
These struggles have not yet been successful, but the potential is there. We believe that in confronting the referendum we must stress the importance of defending European human rights legislation and equality legislation. The EU was said to be built on solidarity; we should call for more solidarity, more Europe not less, in defending the interests of Europeans across the continent.
Women across Europe are all facing the same attacks on post-war gains. We have more in common with abortion rights campaigners in Spain than with right-wing misogynists in the UK. We stand with working people in Britain fighting poverty, fighting fracking, and struggling for decent housing and adequate food. We have more in common with Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau Ballano in fighting against evictions than with London mayor Boris Johnson entertaining privateers and making London too expensive to live in. We have more in common with workers resisting water charges in Ireland than with UKIP in the UK. We have more in common with those fighting against a polluting gold mine than with this government, which allows a corporation to sue their government for protecting the environment, more in common with Despoina Kostopoulou, the leader of the Greek cleaners fighting privatisation than with Verena Ross. We have more in common with those fighting racism and fascism in Europe than with the Tory Party.
We stand with the precariat, working-class communities, campaigners for environmental and social justice, and progressive people across Europe.
The potential for a cross-Europe movement is there. It is our job to try and build it, not to cut ourselves off from it. That is the message and struggle that we will take into the referendum.
#change Europe, a better Europe is possible!


The authors are Principal Speaker and National Secretary of Left Unity, the new left party in the UK, which has recently been granted observer status with the Party of the European Left. Their views broadly represent the current thinking of the Left Unity leadership.
This article from our 2016 yearbook, written in October 2015, has been updated to contain the actual referendum date.