This is the first in a series of articles that The Project will carry debating issues around the EU referendum. Here, Dave Landau and Will McMahon set out the case for an active abstention.
What should socialists be saying about the European referendum? Are we for in or for out? We face a carnival of reaction in the lead up to and during the referendum campaign with the central arguments being driven by xenophobia, racism and hostility towards migrants, with immigration taking a centre stage, and a debate about how to free up labour markets and reduce red tape in order to make the European Union more competitive.
We argue here that socialists should not accept the terms of the debate as set by different right wing forces, as both alternatives presented are inherently reactionary. If we look at the protagonists in this battle we have one side led by Cameron and the other by Farage, UKIP and the far right of the Tory party. A victory of either of these would make the world a worse place: we are for neither the devil, nor the deep blue sea.
Against a Yes
The European Union is a capitalist institution with the forces central to it having the project of building a unified imperialist block in the global struggle with the United States, Japan and China for market share. It presents as neo-liberal with a rhetoric of ‘free markets’ as opposed to protectionism, but like all such imperialist powers it aims to protect a particular set of interests in the world at the expense of the most economically deprived of the world’s people. It is in essence anti-working class at a global level as well as in Britain and in Europe.
The EU’s antipathy to the global nature of working class interests is most immediately highlighted by migration policy. While the No campaign will use hostility to migrants as a central platform socialists should not, in opposing the xenophobia and racism of that campaign, foster an alternative illusion that the EU is a pro-migrant institution. The EU has developed a ‘fortress Europe’ against migrants coming from outside Europe. That is why people are drowning in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, trying to get through the EU border controls. If socialists are opposed to immigration controls for Britain how is it possible to call for a yes vote for an institution that is building immigration controls that will divide continental Europe itself and build a fortress against those escaping the carnage generated by the inter-imperialist rivalries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe?
Of course, as in most bourgeois parliamentary institutions, the class struggle will have forced concessions by capitalism – gains for the working class. So there are, for example, directives on health and safety, maximum hours of work, funding for progressive and often anti-racist projects – but these are precisely the kinds of initiatives which Cameron wants to reverse or opt out of in his negotiations. The existence of such legislation, produced by a certain balance of class forces, in certain historical periods, does not constitute a winning argument for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, any more than the reforms won through a national bourgeois parliament mean that 21st century socialists would argue for the building of bourgeois democracy.
Calling for a yes vote alongside Cameron and the likes of the European Trade Union Confederation that has advocated for Greek austerity, will send a message that the European Union is a progressive project that the working class should support. Yet, if it were not clear before the global crisis that emerged in 2008, it must be self-evident now, that any gains made by the working class through the EU are outweighed by its capitalist essence. If the severe austerity imposed on Spain, Portugal and Ireland offered clear evidence about the anti-working class nature of the European Union through the not-so-velvet glove of national parliaments then the EU has shown its iron fist most dramatically in its brutal treatment of the Greek working class and the bourgeois democratic forms it claims to defend.
In the battle between the EU ‘institutions’ and the Greek working class, the left-Europeanist ideology supported by Tsipras and others led, in the last instance, to them blocking with the capitalist forces at the centre of the Union and with the domestic capitalist class against the material and historic interests of the Greek working class, and almost in passing overturning the democratic mandate given to it by the Greek working class to resist the austerity. How is it possible to call for a yes vote after this demonstration of the dictatorship of capital at the heart of the Union project?
Against a No
The No campaign is and will be dominated by a toxic wave of hostility against migrants and refugees as the core argument within the right is around ‘freedom of movement’ of EU citizens. Whatever presentational gestures the EU may make in response to Cameron’s arguments there no prospect of this being overturned by negotiations.
Cameron’s failure to achieve this during the negotiations and during the referendum itself will make opposition to freedom of movement the central narrative of the No campaign. UKIP and the Tory right, alongside the The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, will lead a carnival of reaction to regroup the right around Europhobic politics.
The No Vote campaign whether on the right, or in its manifestations in parts of the left, inevitably points the finger at the EU as the main cause of the problems of the British working class, but anyone living in Britain is living in a heartland of imperialism and capitalism. A no vote to the EU will be inevitably be characterised as a return of sovereignty to ‘this island race’, ‘its’ history and ‘its’ historic mission based on Commonwealth relations and an alliance with the United States.
Any left campaign for a No will be drowned out by this narrative and a victory for a No vote would mean a fortress UK anti-foreigner regime coming to the fore. This regime would not simply change the situation with regards to EU migrants, but will – the pro-Commonwealth rhetoric of the campaign being sidelined – be pitted against migrants and refugees across the world.
The effect of the No campaign is already a factor in racheting up the Government’s war against migrants in Calais and in the Government’s response to rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Policies on benefits and landlords, with more draconian measures announced nearly everyday, are designed to make the UK so hostile and unwelcoming as to make up for not being able to overturn the European ‘freedom of movement’.
If a No campaign were to be successful the UK would become a dramatically more insular, racist, nationalist and xenophobic country. A regime further to the right than this Cameron government would ensue and the working class would be pushed back even more viciously than it is now.
What should socialists do?
Should we simply sit back and say “a plague on both your houses”? No – doing nothing isn’t an option. People should have the right to have their voices heard and make real choices.
The problem for socialists is that the EU referendum only presents reactionary alternatives – protectionism versus neo-liberalism, British and English nationalism versus Euro-centrism. It is down to socialists to try and change the terms of the debates and argue for progressive alternatives – this should not boil down to a lesser evilism position, whether from a Yes or No perspective.
In short: we must argue for what we believe in. Socialism is defined by a rejection of the profit motive and labour exploitation and a rejection of borders. The kind of world we believe that lies beyond the twin illusions of socialism through referendum exit and the progressive character of building a capitalist EU, and we should argue for it.
The first duty of socialists is to oppose the poisonous propaganda which will be imbued in the referendum debate. We must defend migrants’ rights, challenge the validity of ‘illegal’ immigration and immigration controls and call for the border with Calais to be opened. At the same time we must defend the right to freedom of movement internationally and extend this to all migrants, not just the movement of those living in the European Union: we must fundamentally challenge the social mass murder that the EU migration policy border controls represents as evidenced by the migrants’ graveyard in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.
Second, we should rally to the defence of the working class in countries which are being battered by the EU, calling for the dropping of the debt in Greece and other countries and argue for an international socialist alternative to the British state and the European Union. If the Greek working class once again say ‘Όχι’ to the EU austerity and Greece is forced out of the Euro and the EU as a result then socialists should welcome this as a victory for working class democracy over the dictatorship of EU capital and a triumph over its own domestic ruling class.
At one and the same time we should also argue that the institutions of austerity at home and across Europe need to be swept away by the workers movement, not ‘broken up’ in the sense of countries splitting from each other, but for entirely new relations to be built on the basis of people before profit, for a society and economy based on need.
Third, we should challenge both the militarism of the British state and its historic role as an imperial power, and also the ongoing project of the EU to build common policing, security and military institutions. Socialists should argue for leaving NATO, against the renewal of Trident as well as the emergent EuroCorps army that the capitalist EU integrationists need to present as a true imperial power on the world stage.
Not sowing illusions in a British or an EU road to socialism means socialists should call for an abstention in the referendum. But this abstention should be active by building a campaign that says we want neither the UKIP devil nor the mass murder of the deep blue sea of EU border controls, and that another Europe and, indeed, another world is possible. We should mobilise people both against the xenophobic garbage that will be pouring from the right but also against the EU austerity assented to by social democracy. As for the ballot paper we should ask people to write ‘For a socialist Europe in a socialist world’ and a cross next to it.
Will socialists get an echo through such a campaign? It may be the case that it will only be faint, but if we listen carefully we will hear the response of voices of the internationalist working class: the voices of those EU migrants working in Britain who resent the racism they face and see a border, whether British or EU, as the enemy of human solidarity it is; and also the voice of the non-EU migrants and refugees who have been able to make a life in Britain and understand the argument we make. We will also be able to hear the voices of those trapped in Calais and those who have lost loved ones to the watery graveyard between Africa and the European mainland.
It is these people who socialists should make central to building an alliance for socialism as part of a campaigning abstention strategy that challenges Fortress Britain and Fortress Europe. Our referendum campaign should stretch across the whole of Europe, not just the EU, and be international in purpose by building solidarity with those facing the hostility of EU capitalist strategy outside its borders. It is the market and the border that are dividing and separating our class and we want away with both of them: socialism is international or it is nothing.