Europe. The very word conjures up pictures of unelected bureaucrats and no-mark politicians sitting in a distant parliament passing laws on how much a banana can bend and imposing dodgy things like human rights on us. The European Union (EU) is also a construction through which the poorer countries are strangled for the development of the core States. Detention centres, barbed wire fences and gunboats keep the desperate masses from Africa and the Middle East getting in. Inside neo-liberalism is enshrined and austerity rules the roost whether voted for by member states or not.
Europe also conjures pictures of cosmopolitanism and social progress. It is no accident that the ideas of equality and justice are strongest in the cosmopolitan cities of Europe. As I sit writing this in Manchester I am surrounded by families and students from east Africa, southern Asia and eastern Europe. From my room I can hear the Islamic call to prayer, the bells of the Catholic church and young men playing cricket,shouting at each other in Urdu. We live in a historic moment where different cultures and languages overlap, intersect and interrupt like never before. This cosmopolitan Europe is the process of immigrant and anti-racist struggles that arc from former colonies to Brixton in London, Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris and Raval in Barcelona. It is this Europe that the xenophobic establishment and the right seek to divide and undo – whether through anti-muslim bigotry, anti-semitism or the demonisation of migrants fleeing war, poverty and pestilence.
In Britain there is widespread unease with the EU which is often expressed by the eurosceptic right and left as demands for legislative and judicial sovereignty or in defense of British identity. The British parliament and state is held up as democratic and the cosmopolitanism that has deepened with the development of capitalism is rejected for a politics that hark back to a mythical golden age. For the right it is imperial Britain and for the left it is some post-war chimera of working class power and culture. For both it is about turning the clock back and undoing globalisation.
Janus in Europe
As the second world war came to its conclusion in Europe everything had changed. Britain was exhausted and only the edifice of empire remained and would soon fall. France had been the scene of a catastrophic war for the third time in less than 100 years and would see its remaining foreign possessions slip away. Germany, defeated and divided was in ruins and to the east the Red Army and its partisan auxiliaries had swept aside the Nazis and replaced them with state socialist administrations. In Britain and western Europe the left partisans and the workers’ movement made it impossible for conditions to return to the inter-war period. On the back of this, and with the unfortunate acquiescence of official communism and many of the socialist parties, Europe would be rebuilt along capitalist lines but new social rights would be extended. Social security, nationalisations, the enshrining of collective bargaining and the guaranteeing of ever-safer workplaces meant that the post-war Europe would have two faces.
Abroad European powers fought tooth and nail to hold on to imperial possessions and encouraged the violent suppression of popular and socialist movements. Whilst at home living standards increased, democratic norms became entrenched and legal equality for women and minorities were slowly won. The working class and social movements demonstrated their power over and over. Yet a Europe that faces two ways was never going to last. It is impossible to secure the wellbeing of all under a capitalist system. Capitalism breeds social discord through the exploitation of one class by another. There could be no harmony and as the ruins of the war receded the painted over fractures burst to the surface once more. As soon as social harmony was attempted through historic compromises and agreements with so-called leaders of the working class, social discord erupted.
The Europe of the working class and the Europe of the capitalists can never live quietly together. It is out of this struggle that political Europe is born – with all its institutions from the EU, to the European Court of Human Rights, to Europol. It is out of this struggle that we have a political Europe where workplace safety has never been higher yet attacks on unions and collective bargaining are increasing. It is out of this struggle that women have fought for and achieved legal, though not social, equality. Yet we still have women held in detention centres and turned back from our borders when fleeing violence and abuse. It is out of this struggle that austerity has become the new norm whilst popular left movements advance electorally, armed with anti-austerity politics.
We can see this struggle being played out clearly in Greece. Despite voting against the policies of austerity and being subjected to humiliation and immiseration the Greek masses find themselves within a monetary and political union where the former great powers weather economic catastrophes by pushing the crisis out to the periphery. Only this time the periphery is not south America or the Middle East but southern Europe. Food banks and soaring homelessness are the bitter fruits of austerity in Britain but the harvest in Greece has been the pauperisation of large sections of the working class. At the end of all of this pain the offer from the EU and the IMF was more pain, more cuts and more humiliation. So it fell to the Greeks to be the first to defy the status quo, to send a warning shot to Merkel, Hollande and the gangsters who manage the IMF. The election of Syriza has pierced the veil of austerity and, quite rightly, Tsipras and his government argue that what is at stake in Greece is the direction of the European Union. It seems, however, that Syriza has now been bullied and bludgeoned into accepting more austerity.
Peace in our time?
The European Union, the common market and all the treaties that have brought about ever closer political union has always been a capitalist endeavour. For once the unification of nations in Europe was done by strokes of the pen and not blood and iron following the second world war. The European powers and the United States stepped back from imposing a Carthaginian peace as they had after the first great war. This leads many in social democratic and liberal circles to conclude that the EU is a guarantor of peace, where diplomacy solves conflict. For these people the idea that war is the continuation of politics by other means is as dead in Europe as the Prussian who coined the phrase.  There is some truth in this, no longer are grand coalitions and ententes battling within Europe. Yet the Europe that came out of the second world war, whilst subordinate to the United States, played a revanchist and conservative role in defending imperial possessions from national liberation movements and as the eastern bloc broke up old Europe helped along the Balkanisation of eastern Europe with arms and airstrikes. In the new century alone European powers have demolished Libya, encouraged war in Syria and helped bring Iraq to a state of near constant warfare and bloodshed.
On Europe’s eastern border the shrivelled Russian state surprisingly went on the front foot after two decades of diminishing territory and political domination over its near neighbours. After popular demonstrations removed the Russian client state in Ukraine it seemed that the EU and NATO would have just a six hour drive to Moscow if war ever began. A nightmare scenario for Russian military planners. In response Putin under the cover of resistance to the new government in Kiev seized Crimea and enabled an insurgency across the Donbass region. Cue the phalanxes of retired generals in the media with exhortations towards a renewed militarism. The British parliament is almost certainly set to agree to a multi-billion pound programme to renew its nuclear arsenal. In response Russia is set to do the same and from the Atlantic to the Dnieper Europe is re-arming with political confrontation being played out on a small scale with the war in eastern Ukraine for now. So far from being a guarantor of peace the project of a unified capitalist Europe has given us war yesterday, today and the promise of a devastating great war tomorrow.
Britain: Out of Europe and into the world?
So let’s leave shall we? Let’s get out of the EU and restore power back to the British state. A state that has always had our best interests at heart, is democratic and does not engage in the anti-union and neo-liberal antics of those grey blurs in Brussels. It would really be a finger in the eye for capitalism if Britain dropped out of the political institutions of the EU but kept up all of its trade agreements. Further, getting out of Europe would mean we, the masses, would have greater control in what our legislature and politicians get up to wouldn’t we? Dream on.
Large sections of the left will argue that we should leave the neo-liberal capitalist Europe because it attacks the living standards of the working class. Yet leaving wouldn’t really improve things. The first thing the EU referendum campaign is going to do is unleash a wave of nationalist flag waving in whose wake the racists and far-right will make headway. Whether it is the little Englander nationalism of UKIP or the beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism of the SNP you can bet arguments for genuine democracy or improving working conditions won’t get a look in.
The far-right and the xenophobic establishment bristle when the EU adopts anything vaguely progressive. For example the freedom of movement for EU citizens has given the opportunity for millions to live, study and work outside of their home country. This has been a real gain of the EU and we see the arguments for leaving the EU again and again come down to keeping the Poles out, keeping the Romanians out and pulling up the drawbridge. Few will argue for such a policy on explicitly racist lines but some on the left will meekly fall in behind the right in attacking freedom of movement on swivelled-eyed notions about immigration lowering wages and living standards. Even the right who wish to stay within the EU are using the opportunity to renegotiate Britain’s membership. Cameron is attempting to get Britain out of legislation and statutes within treaties that British capitalists decry for limiting exploitation, ensuring safety at work and sick pay. In short everything that puts a downward pressure on their profits but increases our living standards.
Defeat the nationalists, build an alternative
So there is a choice before the internationalist left. Do we join those who look backwards or those who defend the status quo? Or, can we, maybe, plot a different course that defends progress and cosmopolitanism whilst fighting for a Europe of equality, freedom and sanctuary?
In a referendum the left must not line up with the xenophobes and nationalists in campaigning for Britain to withdraw from the European Union. Regardless of claims to be against “racist” immigration controls or for workers’ rights those on the left who back withdrawal from the EU will only strengthen racism, hostility towards migrants and weaken civil and workplace rights. We also can’t line up with the political centre, who want to keep us in the EU as it exists, but with Britain being able to opt out of progressive legislation in order to attack workers and migrants further.
The internationalist left must be prepared to campaign for a different Europe whilst resisting the reactionary attempts to reverse integration and the decay of borders. We must build the case for a United States of Europe, a socialist Europe, that is built on solidarity, extreme democracy and internationalism. Such a case can only be built if we defend the gains of European unity whilst laying out the inherent contradictions. That means whenever Cameron calls the referendum we need to be prepared to campaign independently from the capitalist parties to make clear we don’t think the future is behind us, we don’t think strengthening nationalism and immigration controls is positive but our vision of European unity is not the same as Merkel’s, Hollande’s or Cameron’s either. At the referendum we must say yes to a cosmopolitan Europe, yes to European integration, yes to the dismantling of borders and yes that the alternative to capitalism can only come through unity.
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832)