The EU referendum: The case for a socialist Yes vote

Issue: 148

John Palmer

I would like to preface this discussion with Alex Callinicos, on what attitude socialists should take to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU),1 on a personal note. This debate has echoes of earlier controversies on the same issue in which I was involved when I was a member of the predecessor organisations of the Socialist Workers Party; first the Socialist Review Group and then the International Socialists.2

When I joined the Socialist Review Group in 1959, its position could best be summed up in our slogan: “For a socialist united states of Europe.” The emphasis was very much on the necessity of the broadest and deepest unity of working people across Europe. But we did not develop policies towards the European Economic Community (the future EU) in any detail. The SR regarded the Common Market, as it was called at the time, as an organisation primarily representing the interests of the big European employers. There was no suggestion that, by some political alchemy, the EEC could be converted into a European workers’ state. That, we insisted, required a root and branch transformation of the entire system.

The debate about UK accession to the EU intensified after the 1959 general election. This had returned the Tories to power for the third time since the fall of the post-war Labour government in 1951. In ­subsequent years there were two failed attempts by British Tory governments to secure accession to the EU before membership was finally agreed in 1973. During that time the general line of Socialist Review (and subsequently of the International Socialists) was that: “In or out the same struggle of the working class continues.”

The IS stressed the deeply reactionary character of most of the movements formed to fight Common Market membership. These not only included far-right racist and fascist groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists and the National Front but also what was then a relatively small group of the Tory “hard right” led by Enoch Powell.

Other anti Common Market campaigns were led by the Communist Party and some members of the then still influential Labour left. What united them was a defence of British “national sovereignty”.3 But even some anti-EU “lefts” were not above echoing right wing evangelical Tories who denounced the very concept of European integration as a right wing “Catholic plot” run by Rome.4

The CP caricatured the IS as “Euro-Trots”, for the ­internationalist positions it took on Europe. Indeed the balance of the arguments put forward by IS did suggest that the organised labour movement would be better placed if it was part of a wider struggle for economic and political change inside the EU—even as then constructed—rather than outside. One striking expression of this view came in a leading article in this journal which concluded: “For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure”.5 The editorial, written by its editor, Michael Kidron, had been discussed and approved by members of the IS editorial board, including Tony Cliff. Kidron also sought the views of others, including Alasdair Macintyre, then the editor of the group’s monthly paper, Socialist Review. MacIntyre, while supportive of Kidron’s approach, questioned the use of the phrase “more secure”. But this was because MacIntyre always suspected suggestions that any economic or political process could be vested with “inevitability”. Kidron’s approach to the EU was also reflected in articles I subsequently contributed to the International Socialism.

The main opponent of Kidron’s line was Peter Sedgwick who was for many years a leading member of the IS and a member of the editorial board of the journal. Later, at the 1970 and 1971 IS annual conferences, Sedgwick had unsuccessfully moved a change in the IS position on the referendum from abstention to outright opposition to EU membership.

During the upsurge of militant class struggle throughout Europe in the aftermath of the “hot summer” of 1968, the priorities of the IS remained primarily focused on building rank and file trade union networks on a pan-European basis. A modest beginning was made with the launch of an embryo European dock workers’ liaison committee (with French, Belgian and Dutch dockers) to oppose containerisation with its inevitably heavy loss of jobs. Contacts were also made between militants in some big engineering, motor and steel plants in a number of EU countries to try to coordinate joint action against job cuts. But these aspirations suffered a drastic setback with the economic downturn and rise of unemployment in the decade that followed.

I must complete my personal recollections of this period with an embarrassing mea culpa. After Ted Heath’s Tory government signed the accession treaty with the EU in 1973, Labour, led by Harold Wilson, won the 1974 general election on a platform promising a “renegotiation” of the terms of British membership and a subsequent referendum to approve continued membership.The promise of renegotiation and a referendum was a device by Wilson to keep the anti Common Marketeers in the Labour Party quiet. At that time his critics in the party included both left Labour politicians who had been prominent in the Bevanite movement in the 1950s—such as Michael Foot—and an openly nationalist faction of supporters of the previous right wing Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, including Douglas Jay and Peter Shore. Shortly before his death Gaitskell had denounced UK membership of the EU as a “betrayal of a thousand years of history”.6

The much vaunted Wilson recasting of the terms of British membership proved hollow and changed virtually nothing of significance. But it did wrong-foot his critics in the Labour Party and thus contributed to a substantial Labour swing to the “Yes” side which helped win the 1975 referendum by a large majority. The intense public debate about whether to vote “Yes” or “No” subsequently led to a sudden and very sharp about turn in the position taken of IS just before the referendum campaign.

The case for coming out against UK membership of the EU rested on two main premises: the bitter and widespread working class hostility to the Heath government (which had just been given a bloody nose by the stunning victory of the national miners’ strike in 1972) and the hope that, by joining in the anti-EU campaign, IS would be better able to win members of the Labour left and the Communist Party to IS politics. It was a seductive argument. The IS had emerged in the early 1970s with a substantially bigger working class membership and a national network of rank and file shop steward militants—some of whom were former Labour lefts or ex-CPers. The talk was of recruiting thousands more working class militants by marching and debating with Labour and Communist Party anti-marketeers.

I was seduced by this prospect (as was Tony Cliff) and we both played an important role in reversing the existing policy of abstention in the EU referendum, against the strong opposition of others in the leadership including the IS secretary, Jim Higgins, Michael Kidron, Geoff Carlsson and other experienced shop floor trade union militants. I now regret my role at that time.7

The entry of IS into the anti Common Market campaign led to no significant recruits from the Europhobic left. The anti-EU campaign was dominated by the Powellite Tories and the far-right and IS talk of a United Socialist States of Europe was drowned out by the right’s nationalist slogans. Our militants also found it difficult to answer questions such as: “Would your United Socialist States of Europe affect our national sovereignty?” and “Would it lead to more or less integration of Britain with the rest of Europe?”

One last footnote to this personal recollection. I am fairly sure I was one of the last IS comrades to see and discuss with Peter Sedgwick before his tragic death a few weeks after we met in Brussels in 1983. We reviewed our political experiences over the previous decades (including our political blunders). Peter and I both agreed we were wrong to have taken the stand we did in 1975.

The origins and early development of the European Union

It is possible to trace the roots of the movement for European unity and integration to the inter-war decades. A number of loosely linked groups—some led by radical federalists including socialists, liberals and supporters of the League of Nations—argued for a federal, united Europe.

The coming to power of Italian and Spanish fascism and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship swept such currents to the margins of political debate. One of the militants of this early movement for European unity was a young French professional economist, diplomat and businessman, Jean Monnet. His wartime experience coordinating policy between the British government and the French resistance leaders led to his appointment by the post-war French government to integrate French and German steel production.This led to the launch of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a supranational steel cartel run by the participating governments. Monnet, its first director general, argued, with some reason at the time, that the integration under supranational control of the steel industries of the key Western European states would make war between France and Germany not only undesirable but, in practical terms, impossible.8

From the beginning Monnet saw the ECSC, which was formally launched in 1951, as an essential first stage towards a much more ambitious scheme for European integration. In this he had the support of some key post-war political leaders—notably the French Christian Democrat Robert Schuman and his West German and Italian opposite numbers, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi. They were joined by most West European social democratic parties and notably by the Belgian social democrat prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak. Another strand of support came from what might be described as “premature Eurocommunists” such as the former Italian Communist Party militant, Altiero Spinelli. He had helped to theorise a new approach to a democratic European federalism while he was a political prisoner for 17 years under Benito Mussolini. This led to the Ventotene Manifesto of 1941 which was subsequently adopted by the European federalist left.9

There were some major exceptions to this developing consensus about the goal of a united and increasingly integrated Europe. In France the powerful Communist Party and many right wing Gaullists were hostile and combined to defeat an earlier proposal by the social democrat-led government of Pierre Mendès France, to create a European Defence Community. This was voted down in the French National Assembly in 1954 and led to a widespread perception that the wheels had come off the entire European integration project. This proved not to be the case.

There were some other naysayers. By 1948 the peoples of the Soviet occupied countries of Central and Eastern Europe had had a series of totalitarian, Stalinist-type regimes imposed upon them. Stalin was alarmed that the call for European unification might act as a dangerous attraction for his European satrapies. He also feared that Josep Tito’s independent Yugoslav regime would be drawn into the new European order. This all came true, but only 40 years later.

Britain was the other obvious stand out. Ironically Winston Churchill, while leader of the post-war Conservative opposition, had come out strongly in favour of a “United States of Europe” in a major speech he gave in Strasbourg in 1949. He supported the unification and integration of Europe but declared that it could not possibly apply to Britain because of its “Empire” (as he called the Commonwealth) and its “world role” as a military and trading power.

This was broadly Labour’s position at the time. When Monnet and his deputy, Max Kohnstamm, lobbied the Labour leaders for support before the Coal and Steel Community was launched, the Labour deputy prime ­minister, Herbert Morrison, ruled it out without hesitation stating that “the Durham miners will never wear it”.10 There is no evidence the miners of Durham or anywhere else were ever consulted. Morrison’s attitude to Europe was similar to that of Ernest Bevin, Labour’s foreign secretary, towards nuclear weapons. Dismissing objections to Britain having its own H bomb, he declared: “We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs…we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” The Tories and Labour alike saw both EU membership and proposals to scrap nuclear weapons as fatally compromising Britain’s “standing” among the “Big Three” powers (the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom).11 However, the “Keep Left” group of Labour MPs and especially the ex-Independent Labour Party members in the Labour Party, were at that time strongly for a “United Europe”.12

During these years the British ruling class were victims of a profound illusion. They were confident that Britain’s post-war economic recovery, combined with the “Imperial Preference” trading system, which allowed the UK to dominate the markets of its empire/Commonwealth, would protect it from any serious threat from its continental European competitors. Until the early to mid-1950s this was not quite such a fatuous notion as it became later. During the post-war decade, the UK could justifiably claim to be internationally pre-eminent in Western Europe in many different industrial sectors including cars, machine tools, shipbuilding, chemicals, coal and textiles. UK corporate giants then, such as Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Alfred Herbert, Viyella and Rover, no longer exist.

In the early 1960s the evidence for British relative economic decline, especially when measured against Germany, the Netherlands, France and other continental economies, became overwhelming. This found expression in the UK’s chronic balance of trade and payments deficits which eventually could no longer be financed by the profits from British global investments. The German Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”)—and a parallel export-led boom in France, Italy and other EU economies—could no longer be ignored by British capital. The talk in the City was of a possibly irreversible decline in British capitalism as global economic force.

There was a second major problem, however. The British government was also in denial about the seriousness of the plans Monnet and his collaborators had, not only for a supranationally run Common Market, but also for an economic union and an eventual European political union. When the six founding EU governments met in 1955 in Messina, Italy—to plan what became the Treaty of Rome—only a middle ranking civil servant was sent to represent the British government as an observer.

The official, Russell Bretherton, from the Board of Trade, told the Messina conference: “The future treaty which you are discussing has no chance of being agreed; if it was agreed, it would have no chance of being ratified; and if it were ratified it would have no chance of being applied. And if it was applied, it would be totally unacceptable to Britain”.13 Although the accuracy of this quote has been queried in recent years, it certainly was held to be accurate by Bretherton’s close Board of Trade colleague at the time, Sir Roy Denman. Moreover, it certainly prefigured the empty arrogance of so many British political interventions in European affairs in subsequent decades.

The Messina conference was followed in short order by the Treaty of Rome, signed by France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries, which came into force in 1958. Its initial focus was primarily on creating a barrier-free Common Market” but its longer-term ambitions were not disguised. It even committed the signatories to work for “an ever closer Union of the Peoples of Europe” and to admit all “democratic” European states to membership provided they met certain economic and political conditions. In fact Monnet’s vision of a stage by stage integration of the European Union was more ambitious than even most pro-EU political leaders realised. As Monnet put it in his later memoirs: “European integration is in itself only a stage of a stage on the new global order.” He envisaged a future global democratic system of governance, designed eventually to supersede the post-war international institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF/World Bank and what became the World Trade Organisation.

It was desperation that eventually drove the UK to seek EU ­membership. The first two applications London made in the 1960s produced no agreement. President de Gaulle vetoed the second deal because he was not convinced UK foreign and security policy would be ­independent of the United States.14

Ted Heath finally secured agreement on accession at the third attempt and, together with Denmark and Ireland, the UK joined the EU in 1973. By then the decline of British capitalism—aside from its banking and financial sectors—was obvious to all. The UK also had to sign up to the Common Agricultural Policy which had been designed to boost post-war food output and primarily benefit smaller, peasant farmers of which there were relatively few in Britain.

The new entrants did secure some new policies of benefit. An EU regional development fund was set up to direct resources to the poorer regions of the European Union. The first tiny steps were also taken to develop what later became known as EU social policy—a major source of conflict between the Margaret Thatcher government and the European Commission in the 1980s. The terms of UK membership also involved complex arrangements for the funding of the EU budget by member states. Initially the UK government believed that the cost of its net budget payments to the EU would be more than compensated for by a massive increase in British exports to the “Common Market”. This proved illusory as, over the next decades, British exporters’ loss of competitiveness and the UK appetite for imports from Europe took their toll. The net result was a spiralling annual net UK budget payment to the EU in the 1980s and 1990s. This became the first issue to trigger serious political friction between London and Brussels and marked an important phase in Thatcher’s emergence as a fiercely anti European Union leader.

Business was, however, both divided over and relatively indifferent to the early debates about long-term European integration. The EU first abolished tariffs and custom duty obstacles to free trade. Then, in the 1990s, it launched a “Single European Market”, guaranteeing the free movement of capital and labour. Unsurprisingly big business became more enthusiastic partisans of Britain’s EU membership. Capital also approved the stage by stage enlargement of EU membership with the admission of both Nordic and Mediterranean countries. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Stalinist regimes, a steady stream of countries in both Central and Eastern Europe, and subsequently, the Balkans joined the European Union.

All was not entirely well in capital’s relations with the EU, however. Employers became increasingly suspicious of and eventually hostile to the strengthening of the EU institutions and its system of regulation in what became a rapidly expanding Union. As sectors of British capital increasingly espoused neoliberal doctrines of reduced social welfare and a “small state”, they began to see the EU institutions as creating worrying obstacles to the “competitiveness” of their companies.

The United States had been relieved when the European Defence Community project was defeated—fearing it might fatally weaken NATO and even challenge its global imperial hegemony. In subsequent decades, however, the EU proved a solid—if not always entirely dependable—ally of Washington’s foreign policy and the US also had a big interest in the extension of market capitalism to the former “communist” countries.15

UK entry, enlargement and a “Social Europe”

The growing support of the trade unions and other civil society organisations for EU membership became significant in the 1980s. At that time the European Commission and the European Parliament (EP) seemed to offer a means to achieve social reforms which could no longer be achieved at the national level—especially under the Thatcher government in Britain. The accession of Sweden and other Nordic countries also increased support for more ambitious EU common social and environmental policies and labour rights, in many cases to well above UK levels.

This triggered increasingly vocal opposition from right wing British Tories and many small and medium sized businesses. Of course, the EU Single Market remained a great boon to big European capital—creating as it did a massive European “home market” comparable to that enjoyed by US big business. It provided an essential springboard for big European business’s global ambitions.

A crucial change in UK/EU relations emerged after the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. The years which followed saw a steady growth in anti-EU populist nationalism within the Tory party. This not only tilted the political balance in the Tory party well to the right but also encouraged the later growth of the populist and radical right wing UKIP.

Meanwhile the goal of a so-called “Social Europe” seemed to become more tangible with the appointment of the French social democrat and ardent European integrationist, Jacques Delors, as president of the European Commission (1985-1995). With support from what were then predominantly social democratic governments in the EU, the Delors Commission introduced a raft of social reforms. These included new EU laws extending social and trade union rights, equal rights for women workers, restrictions on working hours and an enhanced influence for trade unions in collective bargaining.16 There was also a new emphasis on “sustainable development” and more ambitious European standards for environmental protection as well as proposals to tackle global warming. Delors even had the support of some centre-right Christian Democrat parties—particularly those with close links with trade unions.17 The reform process was made palatable to them by being branded as “Social Market” policies of the kind introduced in post-war Germany.

After the Thatcher government’s victory over the trade unions—notably
with the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 and the subsequent weakening of the organised labour movement—she came to regard Delors and his ambitions for the EU with outright hostility. Angered by the rapturous reception Delors received from the 1988 TUC conference (where delegates sang “Frère Jacques”) Thatcher launched a full-scale ideological counter-offensive. Addressing a conference in Bruges a few weeks later, Thatcher said that her government would support continued UK membership of the EU. But she served notice that the British government would now use all means at its disposal to halt any further significant moves to a more integrated, Brussels-led and—in her view—quasi-socialist European Union.

Thatcher did not disguise her ideological motivation. She declared that she had not: “worked all these years to free Britain from the paralysis of socialism only to see it creep in through the back door of central control and bureaucracy from Brussels”. She went on:

It is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction. We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.18

Behind the “Social Europe” project lay the notion that a growing ­political consensus at the EU level between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats would provide a stable political foundation for further progress towards economic and political union. They both generally favoured closer European integration, cooperation between employers and trade unions and could agree to improved European-wide social and welfare standards. To this end the centre-left and centre-right were by and large willing to give cautious backing to Delors’s formula of a gradually “Federalising Europe”. But, crucially, they insisted on a very lengthy process of integration rather than some dramatic short-term leap to a fully federalised European state.

In practice this never happened. A stalemate developed in the 1990s between advocates and opponents of “ever closer union”, mainly, but not exclusively, because of the Thatcher government’s threat to use its veto to block new integration initiatives. Tensions with London were further enflamed by the decision in 1992 to launch a “single European currency”—the
euro. The single currency project was in many ways a logical outcome of the creation of a barrier free “Single European Market”. However, the British Tory government refused to join and when the new currency was launched in 1999 the UK remained outside the “euro-area” and its new decision making institutions.

The euro project was flawed from the start by the lack of agreement on an economic or fiscal union to balance monetary union. Delors’s warnings of an eventual risk to the euro by not having an economic union with fiscal powers were ignored by EU governments.19 In spite of this, all seemed to go well for the euro in its first ten years. Economic growth and low interest rates benefitted the weaker euro-area economies and seemed to prove that even the frailest boat is buoyed by a rising tide.

While opposed to anything like a fiscal transfer union to help the weaker euro-area economies should they encounter problems, capital strongly supported other developments. These notably included the free movement of peoples across the EU, agreed in a series of treaties between 2007 and 2012 (to match the free movement of capital, goods and services). It all seemed to make the idea of a euro-area economic government redundant.

European banks and finance capital generally proved enthusiastic investors in the weaker euro-area “peripheral economies” in Southern Europe. Among right wing politicians in Europe generally the idea that the integration of the EU had gone as far as was really needed gained ground. Anything further, the employers warned, would be potentially ­destabilising. The result was that subsequent EU treaties were largely of a technical character—designed to speed up decision making at the Brussels level. They all fell well short of anything remotely resembling a federal political union. The entire system still rested heavily on precarious forms of EU ­“inter-governmental cooperation”. But “cooperation” implied a utopian assumption that EU national states would take a wider, more collective, view of the “European interest”.20

The governance changes which were introduced did have one significant and largely unanticipated result. Over time the political power of the elected European Parliament grew to the point where EU laws could only be taken with the agreement both of the member governments and of the EP. Members of the EP proved to be keener on taking further steps to economic and political union than national governments. Paradoxically, at the same time, the political influence of the European Commission—seen by some as the embryo of a possible future EU government—has markedly declined. In the resulting vacuum, increasingly conservative led EU national governments began to assert themselves.

Inevitably the biggest and most powerful states overawe the smaller states in any confrontation. Within the inner group of the most powerful states, Germany has begun to assert its own interests with increasing ­confidence—even against those of its hitherto close partner, France. This in turn has led to fears that instead of a “European Germany” we would end up with a “German Europe”.21

The complex and still fragile system of decision making at EU level took a further serious blow with the sudden eruption of the US—and ­subsequently the global—financial crisis in 2007-8. This is not the place to analyse the causes of the crisis in any detail but the touchpaper had been lit which would also eventually explode within the euro-currency area itself.

The recklessness which marked the activities of finance capital only became obvious with the collapse in economic growth following the 2007-8 crash. But even before this, the US investment and banking giant Goldman Sachs had collaborated with the Greek right wing New Democracy government to disguise blatantly the true extent of the Greek economic crisis, so Greece could qualify to sign up to the euro in 2001.22

Crisis of neoliberalism—the rise of right wing populism

The deep recession and rapidly rising unemployment that followed the banking crash have led to a further political lurch to the right in many EU countries. Social democracy is now out of government in all but a handful of EU states. Even where social democrats have held office—in Britain under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and France under François Hollande’s Parti Socialistethey have pursued policies increasingly indistinguishable from their Conservative rivals. So far has popular support for hitherto mainstream centre-left social democratic parties now fallen that, in some countries, there are genuine questions over their ability to survive as major political parties. Nowhere is this more the case than in the British Labour Party whose members are currently contemplating its possible demise as a serious potential “party of government”.

Across centre-right and centre-left European parties, ultra-free market economic orthodoxy and political priorities hold undisputed sway. Thatcherite style policies on social rights, welfare, privatisation and cuts in public spending have swept virtually unchallenged through much of the EU. In Britain the very foundations of the welfare state and the National Health Service, introduced by the post-war Clement Attlee Labour government, are now threatened.

The important EU-level social and industrial reforms of earlier years have not, as yet, been revoked. But the Social Market model and with it the ambitions for a Social Europe are being increasingly disregarded. An increasingly “class war” stance by EU governments has been given dramatic expression in the ruthless campaign to unseat the radical left wing Syriza government in Greece.

In a number of countries even right wing Tory governments face serious electoral competition from a rash of far-right, xenophobic populist parties. Some of these have won significant parliamentary representation in general elections in many parts of Europe—even in the more “progressive” Nordic countries.23

To this noxious mixture an even more dangerous element has been added—anti migrant worker xenophobia and outright racism. The response of the right wing EU establishment to the growth in the numbers of asylum seekers as a result of the terrible conflicts in the wider Middle East has been to try and impose a “Fortress Europe” policy. The result has been an inhumane attempt to keep asylum seekers and economic migrants from poverty stricken parts of Africa from reaching the borders of the EU. Tackling the loss of life of those fleeing persecution and war while crossing the Mediterranean has been given lower priority than a doomed attempt to build a notional Berlin Wall around the EU. The British government has launched an equally reactionary campaign to construct a “Fortress Britain”. But this is also directed against workers coming from other EU countries. The policy of “capping” EU migration violates European Union law which assures the right of free movement across the 28 member countries for all its citizens.24

The Conservative government has launched a desperate campaign to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the EU. A key objective is to get EU approval of a ceiling on EU migrants. David Cameron’s high risk gamble in taking this path is a testimony to the political menace to him from the Tory hard right and to his electoral base from UKIP. Cameron fears that unless he appeases the hard right, they could together threaten his political survival.

The Tory party has been in a state of barely suppressed civil war between the leadership and its hard right for two decades. But the europhobic Tory right has never in the past been able to mobilise the numbers of MPs in favour of outright withdrawal from the EU that it can now ­(estimated at between one third and one half of all Tory MPs). If Cameron fails to rewrite the UK’s commitments under EU immigrant, social and trade union legislation, he knows that the right wing threat will only grow. The possibility of a historic split in the Tory party cannot be excluded. In such a scenario we might even see the launch of some kind of “True Conservative” party which would then seek to absorb most if not all of UKIP.

It is also possible that, with a deal from Brussels that Cameron knows will not wash with his right wing, he will make a radical about turn and recommend the rejection of continued EU membership in the referendum. However, this is very unlikely. The majority of British business interests will campaign to stay in, even with merely verbal promises of further “market friendly” reforms from Brussels.

As noted earlier, the UK is by no means the only EU country where far-right anti-EU populist and racist parties have become a serious political force. The French National Front and similar parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Austria and even Germany pose a deadly competitive threat to both centre-right Conservative and Liberal parties and also to the social democrats.25 The rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) does not yet threaten to replace the conservative Christian Democratic Union in Germany. There are reports of AfD losing activists to the more extreme Islamophobic Pegida. However, AfD has undeniably helped push the CDU—and the new “Grand Coalition” between the CDU/CSU and the SPD—significantly further to the right on European issues.

For the first time since the Second World War overtly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary proclaim their ambitions to take state power. The difference between these parties and the right wing populists mainly lies in the readiness of the new Nazi parties to wage street violence against immigrants and the left. Moreover they and the French National Front (with its eye on the coming presidential election) are now campaigning against the European Union on an openly racist basis.

The new “brutalism” in the conduct of the conservative governments running the euro-area reflects two other developments. The failure to develop a democratic federal system of governance at EU level encouraged a rampant reaction by the larger national states, which are intent on running the European Union as little more than an expression of their “national interests”.

Meanwhile the diminished political independence of the European Commission was all too obvious during the confrontation with the Syriza government. While pleading privately for more “flexibility” from Berlin in negotiations with the Greek government, the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, offered no serious resistance to the austerity strategy of Germany and its allies.

The rise of the far-right has found expression also in its increased representation to the European Parliament after the last European election. But the centre-right, Christian Democratic, European People’s Party (EPP), still remains the largest single group in the parliament, with the Social Democrats second largest. The EPP has, however, undergone a serious split with the British Conservatives who now form a smaller EP group together with a handful of ultra right wing mavericks. Their departure from the EPP has led to a marked cooling of relations between Cameron and some of his fellow conservative leaders in the EU. In Berlin chancellor Merkel has not disguised her anger with Cameron’s party which she sees threatening the political hegemony of the EU conservatives in the European Parliament. This rupture could cost him dearly in his negotiations on the terms of UK membership of the EU, which will much depend on Berlin’s goodwill.

The state of the European Union left

The past decade has not only seen a remarkable decline in electoral support for the social democratic parties in the EP. The Green parties are now significant players at EU level and have successfully lobbied for the relatively progressive EU policies on the environment and climate change. But their representation in the EP has stagnated and in some countries it has declined. The virtual disappearance of the once powerful French and Italian Communist parties has also shrunk the ranks of the European left parties. Apart from Die Linke in Germany and—briefly—the French New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), the further left has made only a very limited impact at the European level so far.

A new kind of left party has emerged, however, with the election of Syriza in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain. These parties represent complex alliances of radical protest, civil society groups (inspired by the Indignado movements), militant trade unionists and an array of far-left ex-Communist, Maoist, Trotskyist and unaligned Marxist groups. Their support base reflects not only anti-capitalist militants from a much diminished and fragmented labour movement but also a wide spectrum of young radicals drawn from what some call “the precariat” and see as a rising new subaltern class in late capitalism.26 Something of the same kind of social base may be being reflected in the recent remarkable upsurge of support for the left wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn, as the next Labour Party leader.

Whatever the final outcome of the confrontation between the Greek Syriza government and the hard line pro-austerity (mainly German) leadership of the euro-area powers, the mere election of a radical new left government in Greece has frightened the right. The enforcement of further discredited austerity policies on the Syriza government, or the prospect of being forced out of the euro-area, reflects their fear that Syriza’s election victory could be emulated by other left forces in the EU in the future.

Syriza itself has had little option but to play for time. It knows that leaving the euro and restoring the drachma would trigger a potentially drastic devaluation and, as a result, an even greater slump in living standards than has already been imposed on the Greek people. In such a repeat of a 1933 in the 21st century, the risk of even worse social desperation leading to massive new gains for the Nazi Golden Dawn party is obvious.

Socialists will judge the complex and changing tactics followed by the Syriza government during this crisis in different ways. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the shock that Syriza’s very existence has given the EU establishment. This was given remarkable expression earlier this summer by Donald Tusk, no less than the president of the European Council (which brings together the 28 heads of government of the EU states). Drawing attention to the growth of the new radical left movements against unemployment and poverty among the young in particular, Tusk said that “the febrile rhetoric from far-left leaders, coupled with high youth unemployment in several countries, could be an explosive combination. For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe.” He went on: “I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions”.27

Tusk was alarmed at the degree of support in the European Parliament shown for the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, when he addressed them in July. He was particularly “appalled” at Tsipras’s argument that, whereas Germany was shown “solidarity” and given debt relief after the Second World War, Greece was denied similar treatment. But most of all he was shocked at the way the Greek prime minister was loudly cheered by a large number of MEPs. “It was the first time I saw radicals with such emotion, in this context anti-German emotion. It was almost half of the European Parliament. This is why I think nobody, but in particular Germany, are political winners in this process”, Tusk declared.

Of course it was ludicrous for Tusk to describe the Syriza opposition to austerity as being motivated by “anti-German” nationalism. In campaigning to radically change EU economic strategy, Syriza ministers always point out that, thanks to the policies implemented under the last Social Democratic government’s “Hartz IV Agreement”, German workers have suffered a significant reduction in their wages and living standards.28

Any emergence of a reconstituted left will need to take European level organisation and policy a great deal more seriously than it has done in the past. The EU institutions—most obviously the European Parliament—offer limited but important opportunities for the left to present a programme for an “alternative Europe”. As at least some Greens have shown, it is possible to forge effective links between campaigns and struggles at the national level and those being fought elsewhere in Europe.29

It is far too soon to draw a final balance sheet on Syriza’s record. At the time of writing there is evidence of deepening splits among the EU creditors and between the euro-area and the International Monetary Fund, notably over the IMF’s insistence against the euro-area leaders on the urgent need for a substantial write-down of Greece’s debts which threaten to reach 200 percent of its GDP.

Within the euro-area worried voices are now being heard from the French and Italian social democrat-led governments about the cavalier manner in which Angela Merkel and especially her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, tried to engineer a “Grexit”—forcing Greece out of the euro. Of course the German conservative hardliners would not have been able to pursue their brazenly aggressive policies but for the supine weakness of their German social democratic coalition partners in Berlin.30

In Paris, President Hollande has even raised the question of a “euro-area economic government” with a budget of its own and new powers to come to the aid of ailing euro-area economies.31 Berlin has yet to respond. The Cameron government, for its part, might welcome this initiative since it would require a major new EU treaty to create such an authority as well as a system of accountability to the European Parliament. Cameron might then threaten to veto any treaty unless he gets big concessions on British membership terms.

Whatever happens in the short term, the longer-term impetus towards still further economic and political integration in the European Union continues. In reaction to the euro-area crisis, plans are already being discussed for a full-scale banking union, some kind of EU social insurance scheme and as already mooted a euro-area (if not a full EU) economic government. There is nothing irreversible about any of these trends. An election victory for the Front National in France, for Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece—or similar fascist forces in any other EU country—could trigger a crisis even leading to the eventual break-up of the European Union. But short of such an apocalyptic development, some kind of evolving European political union still seems more likely than any break-up.

The question: “What kind of other Europe?” remains to be answered in any concrete detail. But, in the meantime, how should socialists respond to the question that will be asked in the forthcoming EU referendum in Britain?

Britain’s EU referendum: Yes or no?

The political character of the coming British EU membership referendum campaign has already been clearly signalled. The campaign terrain has been marked out by the right wing eurosceptic Tories and by their outriders in UKIP. The British electorate has been told in increasingly strident terms that British “national sovereignty” is at stake.32

Another, slightly less subtle, message is also being delivered. Unless “Britain” rejects continued membership of the EU, the ethnic and cultural integrity of the nation will be threatened—the argument goes. The UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has warned us of the dangers of waking up and finding Romanians have moved in next door.33 The implications, we will be told, are clear: for as long as the country is part of the EU, “the swamping” of the indigenous British population by alien migrants from the other EU countries cannot be halted.34 The noxiously chauvinist tone that has ­characterised so much of the debate about immigration invariably takes on an openly racist colour particularly when applied to the Roma people from EU states in Central and Eastern Europe.

I should put “British” in quotation marks for obvious reasons. The dramatic rise of the Scottish National Party has put an inescapable question mark over the future survival of the current UK as a viable, unitary political state. The Edinburgh government will demand a further independence referendum if “English voters” override the desire of a majority of Scottish voters to remain in the European Union in the forthcoming referendum. A No vote referendum outcome could end up leaving England—perhaps with Wales and the Northern Ireland statelet—outside the EU but with Scotland inside. The implications of a British exit from the EU being followed by a Scottish vote for independence in a new referendum include questions over the very viability of a rump British statelet outside the EU and vulnerable to powerful right wing populist forces.

For socialists voting in the EU membership referendum the question then is simple—which vote would encourage and strengthen the racists and ultra-chauvinists most, a Yes or a No?

The second major platform for both the Cameron government and the eurosceptic right in the referendum is equally clear. They want to liberate Britain from the shackles of overbearing EU social legislation.35 This is code for scrapping a range of European Union laws introduced in the last 20 years relating to working hours, employees’ rights to be consulted, equal pay for women and a range of equal opportunities measures. No one can portray the EU as some kind of occluded workers’ state. Some profoundly reactionary interests dominate the EU institutions and the left must oppose any EU concessions on immigration or social policy that might be offered to Cameron in return for continued EU membership.

But there can be no doubt that if Britain leaves the EU many European regulations restricting working hours and other employment and social reforms will be scrapped. Again the question for socialists is clear—which referendum outcome will most threaten the interests of women’s equality and those of the organised labour movement—a Yes or a No?

The anti-EU right also demands a rolling back of the powers of both the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) and—more urgently—of the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR). The British Tory establishment has been outraged by some of the rulings of the ECHR in particular—for instance to give prisoners in jail the same voting rights they have elsewhere in the EU. Even more objectionable to the Tories have been ECHR rulings to protect the human rights of immigrants at risk of being deported by the UK.36 The ECHR is itself outside the remit of the European Union. But the ECJ is bound by the overarching decisions of the ECHR when ruling on matters of specifically EU law. The Tories want a “British” convention on human rights to replace the European convention. Anyone doubting this would deliver a serious blow to civil liberties and human rights in Britain is not living in the real world.

So a third question for socialists is—which referendum outcome would represent the greatest setback to human rights in Britain—a Yes or a No to continued EU membership?

Does any socialist really think that the British left can make a more effective contribution to the organisation of a Europe-wide struggle to defeat austerity and fight for an alternative genuinely democratic, federal and social Europe, by withdrawing from the European Union? Leaving the EU would mean a vastly reduced influence for British trade unions within the European Trade Union Confederation which is led by EU based unions and almost exclusively aims to influence the wider policy debate within the EU. It would mean organisations fighting for the rights of pensioners being outside the equivalent EU wide movement. It would also mean that a wide range of British NGOs fighting on issues ranging from human rights, gay rights, women’s equality, climate change would no longer be members of the parallel European bodies. Solidarity can be offered from outside. But its practical expression would become much more difficult.

So a fourth question must be answered: Which referendum vote would best strengthen future working class unity, a No or a Yes? I think the answer to all the questions posed above is clear: Vote Yes. Then let the struggle for a different Europe redouble.

Of course socialists will want to campaign on a wide range of other questions, while voting Yes in the referendum. They will campaign for the broadest possible opposition to EU austerity policies and campaign for a different, socialist Europe. But, as part of the No camp, these politics would be rendered virtually inaudible in the cacophony generated in the referendum debate by the campaign of the Tory right and UKIP.

I cannot believe that the answer serious socialists would give to the four questions above can be anything but “Yes”. To give a No response can only be rationalised on the basis that the hard right would not emerge as the undoubted winners of the referendum. To abstain, in these circumstances, would be to say that the hard right might emerge winners but it would not have dangerous consequences. Either way, for me a “Yes” vote is the only principled response.

Writing in this journal in 1997, Alex Callinicos made these passing references to my track record on EU affairs:

John Palmer, European editor of the Guardian, has been a bell-wether in this shift of attitudes. Originally a fierce opponent of British entry into the EEC, by the late 1980s he argued Europe “must become the ‘citizens’ Europe’, the ‘workers’ Europe’.” Acknowledging that “[t]he Treaty [of Rome], and in a more qualified way the EEC decision-making institutions, at heart reflect the values, priorities, and prejudices of a capitalist, predominantly free-market economic system”, he nevertheless appealed to “an increasing recognition that it would be folly not to use the existing institutions to achieve such reforms as can be won and also as a public springboard to campaign for more radical change”.37

I have outlined the reasons for my mistaken decision in 1975 to switch and support a No vote. But what Alex writes about my subsequent views remains true of my position today.

In another article in International Socialism in 2010 Christakis Georgiou wrote of the offensive against organised workers throughout Europe:

that pressure is now far stronger and the attacks will be far more brutal. Likewise the fault line will grow deeper and deeper. The job of the left in Europe is to both make sure it grows as deep as possible and exploit the political possibilities that will be thrown up in this situation. The instability generated by the attacks on the euro and the squabbles between the European ruling classes will only open up more spaces in which the left can intervene.38

This also remains my position today. Indeed the split within the EU and between the IMF and the EU over the need for a massive reduction in the Greek debt is deepening. These divisions may already be working in favour of Syriza’s campaign for a Greek debt write-off. To judge by what is written in some parts of the German media it is even possible that Wolfgang Schäuble might lose his job as Germany’s finance minister before Tsipras loses his as Greek prime minister.39

Socialists will want to use the debate about Britain and the European Union to build the widest possible campaign to force a break with the prevailing austerity policies of the euro-area powers. They will want to defend parties on the left—such as Syriza in Greece and possibly Podemos in Spain later this year—from further strong-arm policies designed to undermine their democratic credentials. If the socialists, including Syriza and Podemos are to succeed in radically changing the direction of European Union policy, the left will need to develop much more integrated, supranational forms of political organisation at the European level. This will require profound changes to the almost exclusively national framework in which such parties have traditionally thought and acted. Big capital, for its part, ­certainly understands this.

After 1848 the nascent socialist movement in Germany was confronted with a not entirely dissimilar question: For or Against the proposed unification of Germany. Many progressive democrats in the princely German statelets argued for No. Marx and Engels insisted on a Yes—even to what would, initially at least, be a united Germany under the domination of the Prussian militarists. They argued that with capitalism now operating at the level of the German nation—and no longer the semi-feudal princedoms—it was essential for the working class to be organised at the same state level as the German ruling class. This meant they had to take advantage of any opening for socialists and the trade unions to function at the national level.40 The same logic applies today in the debate about the future of the European Union.

One last quotation from an editorial in the spring 1962 edition of International Socialism about how the employers were preparing for eventual EU entry:

What business is doing now, the leaders of the Labour Movement should be doing for the European working class… This is a task which is urgent if it is to be ensured that the levelling of conditions, wages and social services is not to the lowest prevailing standards. The struggles which lie ahead for the European Labour Movement demand the maximum cooperation and coordination between the different national sections—the price is defeat and further depoliticisation.41

This remains true today.

At a time when the crisis of capitalism is driving the political right to risk derailing the historic project to unite and integrate the countries of Europe, the working class movement has every interest in frustrating this ambition. The “Balkanisation” of Europe would represent a historic defeat for human progress and would carry terrible risks of conflict and war in the nuclear age. By developing a Europe-wide movement against austerity, racism and xenophobia, the foundations for a very different Europe can be built.


1: My thanks to Nigel Harris, Hugh Kerr, Richard Kuper, Moshe Machover and Stephen Marks, for helpful discussions on these issues. The final responsibility for this article rests with me alone.

2: The Socialist Review Group changed its name to the International Socialists in 1962. However, the paper continued under that name for some years—sometimes as a monthly and occasionally as a fortnightly paper.

3: “The 1975 Referendum on Europe” by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Gresham College Publications.

4: Mitchell, 2006.

5: Kidron, 1961.

6: This was said by Gaitskell during his speech as Labour Party leader during the 1962 Labour Party conference during which he insisted that the Commonwealth preference trading system was more important than that in the Common Market.

7: For details see Higgins, 1997.

8: Duchêne, 1994.

9: Monnet always took a more pragmatic line on federalism and how it might be achieved in stages while Spinelli had a more ideological approach.

10: The private papers of Max Kohnstamm.

12: Newman, 1983.

13: See Denman, 1996.

14: Evans, 1973.

15: See Palmer, 1988.

16: Grant, 1994.

17: Grant, 1994.

19: This was contained in the Delors Committee report on the euro, June 1988

20: An ambitious European Constitutional Treaty (2004) had to be abandoned when it was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands. It was replaced by a more limited integration Treaty of Lisbon (2009).

21: The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has given eloquent voice to this fear in recent articles and speeches.

22: Balzli, 2010.

23: In Denmark the Danish People’s Party and in Finland the True Finns hold the balance of power while the Swedish Democrats have also won significant representation. Similar developments have taken place in the Netherlands with the rise of Geert Wilders’s so-called Party of Freedom.

24: These provisions were codified in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, 2007.

25: The rise of the far right parties in the Nordic countries—the Sweden Democrats, the Progress Party in Norway, the True Finns and the Danish Peoples party—has been particularly menacing.

26: Standing, 2014.

27: Spiegel, 2015.

28: The Hartz agreement, named after proposals by the personnel director of Volkswagen, was introduced in 2002 and legislated over the following ten years. It included sweeping reductions in unemployment benefits and other related compensation agreements negotiated by the German trade unions at plant level. Introduced by the Social Democrat/Green coalition it led to the most radical concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich seen in Germany since before the war. It has created an ancillary labour market dominated by low wages and reduced social rights.

29: The most obvious case has been the Green-led campaign for tougher EU pollution standards and demands for the EU to push for similar targets in global climate change negotiations.

30: See Wendlandt, 2015. This reflects both the split between the EU and the IMF and the growing rift between the German government and most other EU states about the final deal with Athens.

31: Schwarzer, 2015.

33: BBC News, 2014.

34: See this speech not by a UKIP extremist but by the Tory defence minister, Michael Fallon—Syal, 2014.

35: Wintour, 2015.

36: Travis, 2015.

37: Callinicos, 1997.

38: Georgiou, 2010.

39: Stelzenmüller, 2015. Even if Merkel feels obliged to keep her finance minister in post, the attempt to force a “temporary” Greek exit from the euro has triggered a fierce debate within Germany about a return to “an ugly Germany”.

40: Draper and Haberkern, 1990.

41: Kidron, 1962.


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