The autumn 2015 issue of International Socialism contained two extremely important and erudite articles concerning the issue of the European Union and which way socialists should vote in any potential referendum. In order of appearance they are: “The EU Referendum: The Case for a Socialist Yes vote” (John Palmer), and “The Internationalist Case against the European Union” (Alex Callinicos). Both of these contain a great deal of empirical and historical detail and repay careful consideration.
Having said that, I found myself wondering whether in responding in simple “yes or no” terms we are missing the opportunity to resist what is at best a silly question and at worst a poisonous question. I will do my best to elaborate below.
Taking the latter article first, Alex offers a comprehensive political history of the development of the EU illustrating its neoliberal and imperialist nature. In essence he puts it like this:
The EU does not represent the transcendence of nationalism, but rather has provided a framework in which the larger European capitalisms could pursue their interests. Secondly, for the past 30 years the EU has functioned as an engine promoting neoliberalism both within and beyond its borders (p104).
The EU today is best understood as a dysfunctional would-be imperialist power. We can see its imperialist character most clearly in its promotion of neoliberalism—through its expansion to incorporate Central and Eastern Europe, in its policies towards neighbouring states in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe and now, within the EU, through the disciplinary mechanisms enforcing permanent austerity. But the dysfunctional nature of this imperialism is evident both internally (the eurozone) and externally (Ukraine) (p105).
Clearly, if one accepts this analysis then it would be contradictory in the extreme to vote yes in any referendum on the subject. How could any socialist possibly actually vote for this? Of course they couldn’t. As Alex puts it: “Yes supporters must either refute this analysis or abandon their position” (p131).
However, rejecting a Yes position need not mean adopting a No position. There is a problem with a No position that John Palmer puts very clearly. It is that our politics, as part of the No campaign, would simply (in the main) be unheard. He suggests that:
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 (p95).
This point concerning our campaigning being simply “drowned out” if we are part of the No camp is a vitally important one.
An Alternative Europe is Possible
If the Yes campaign wins, the main beneficiary will be David Cameron who will have negotiated an even more neoliberal EU. If the No campaign wins, the main beneficiaries will be UKIP, right wing Tories, and racist nationalists. Neither of these scenarios could reasonably appeal to us.
In the current political situation the main responsibility of the Socialist Workers Party is to grow, while remaining principled and honest. In other words we tell the truth as we see it. This is what we do week in and week out on our stalls on the streets around the country. How we campaign in the referendum is a tactical question.
In the past year we have run spirited campaigns against UKIP under the banner of “Stand Up to Racism”; our stalls have often been surrounded by well-wishers and people prepared to work with us. Will such people understand us if we become part of the No campaign? If we have stalls campaigning for a No vote, our stalls will be approached by UKIP supporters and assorted little Englanders and racists. Are these the people we wish to attract?
If, in contrast to the above, we were inviting people to join us at public meetings with a focus on the alternative Europe that we envisage we would be clearly differentiating ourselves from both camps while maintaining an internationalist focus. If we were saying clearly: “A plague on both your houses”, then most people would understand us saying no to neoliberalism and no to UKIP and racism. Of course we would also explicitly support Antarsya in their policy of support for the withdrawal of Greece from both the EU and the eurozone.
The referendum question is too closed and restrictive a question and offers only an illusion of choice. Do we want neoliberal Tweedledee or a racist Tweedledum? Of course we want neither because a better Europe is both possible and necessary—a plague on both their houses!