Foundering on Brexit Rocks

Foundering on Brexit Rocks

The recent conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) dealt with a motion which called for an active campaign for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in the upcoming referendum. Members of the RMT transport workers’ union, the Socialist Party, and the Socialist Workers’ Party (3 of TUSC’s four participating organisations) all supported the motion, which was carried overwhelmingly.

The Independent Socialist Network (ISN) was the only organisation opposed to the motion. Instead of using a veto to block TUSC’s involvement – the issue was referred to conference, where attendees voted after hearing a panel debate and contributions from the floor. This is an edited version of the speech given by ISN delegate Ed Potts.


On the question of the EU referendum, it seems clear that the left often talks at crossed purposes and in so doing avoids some of the crucial issues. Let us not forget that the key question we are faced with is not whether we are pro- or anti-European – nor even whether we are for or against the European Union. What we must decide is how we should vote in a specific referendum with a specific question, which relates not to the existence or character of the EU as a whole but instead deals only with whether Britain should unilaterally separate itself from the EU.

Some socialists perennially raise the idea of an “exit with socialist policies” – by which they mean that the EU is the single most important barrier to the pursuit of “socialist”” policies like renationalisation etc. – and that leaving the EU is part and parcel of building support for those policies. This is fundamentally misguided. First of all, such an “exit stage left” is simply not one of the choices on offer. Although it is welcome that the motion passed at TUSC conference contained within it a commitment to distinguish itself from the reactionary “No” campaign led by UKIP et al, it is also sadly inadequate. We need only look at the votes received by UKIP as compared to No2EU in the last European elections to see where the real momentum and force lies in the Eurosceptic sphere. Moreover, for all that UKIP are a reactionary force, we cannot ignore the surveys which report that their voters are predominantly working-class (in line with the Labour Party). “Left-wing” Euroscepticism barely makes a dent in competing for much the same support base.

So if the country votes “No”, it will be a victory for UKIP and the hard right whose motivation for withdrawal is precisely because it will enable them to ratchet up their campaign of hatred against migrants, and of course do away with the few but significant protections guaranteed to workers by the EU. To claim any credit for TUSC or for socialists more generally in the event of a “No” vote, would be like stowaways congratulating themselves for having managed to sneak aboard the Titanic at Southampton. Discussing an “exit with socialist policies” is an exercise in wishful thinking, and nothing more.

If our concern is for the rights and welfare of our class, then arguing for separation implies that we think there is a national solution to austerity; and beyond that, a national road to socialism. But we only need to look at the experience of Syriza in Greece to see how wrong this is. The contradiction that Tsipras and many of his critics never resolved was that they agonized over a potential break with Europe, whereas what was needed was a break with capitalism.

If we say that the EU is in its own right a significant barrier to Britain or any other nation state adopting so-called “socialist” policies – why does it necessarily follow that we should give the ruling classes an easy ride by quitting before trying to implement our own programme much less at a time of weakness for our movement, in the shadow of Nigel Farage? After all, the logical conclusion we can draw is that if Britain began implementing socialist policies it would be driven towards expulsion from the EU. Our response should be so be it – as socialists and internationalists, in such a scenario we should take that fight to the highest level, forcing the ruling classes and bureaucrats into a corner, exposing their disdain for democracy, and making clear that we will not sacrifice our commitment to freedom of movement and social protections – we will not give up these things lightly or concede even an inch just to spare our ruling classes the trouble of forcing us out. More importantly, we will not leave without a fight and thereby weaken the cause of our comrades in struggle across Europe. This is an important point, comrades – as much as the face of oppression in Greece is one of European institutions, their victory ultimately depends on the rest of us building a united movement to defend them. Separation would make that immediate task of ours much more difficult.

There are also advocates of separation who counterpose their plans with our supposed desire to “reform the EU in workers’ interests”. This is something we have never advocated – and it is a false choice. We do not ultimately think that either the nation state or the EU can be made to serve our interests – but there are other objectives which can be pursued and furthered by staying in the EU to fight, not least the building of a continental and then global movement to transform society.

We must bear in mind that we are not primarily interested in symbolism or gesture politics – we deal with the material realities as they stand, and with the consequences of our actions. So however much it might be satisfying to cast a symbolic vote against the many injustices and inadequacies of the EU as presently constituted – our overriding concern should be for the actual real-world consequences of us doing so.

Not the least among these would be the palpable threat to EU migrants currently living in the UK. Over 2.25m nationals of other EU countries currently reside in the UK. A vote to withdraw from the EU would nullify the basis of their right to remain. Are we seriously suggesting that we should stake the livelihoods, prosperity and happiness of over two million people – most of them part of the working class just like us – on little more than a wild goose chase?

The entire strategy of the ruling class and especially the establishment media has been to delegitimize the presence in this country of minorities: whether through questioning their motives for immigration, claiming that they steal jobs from British workers, or even through outright and simple racism. In addition to the potential for deportations, we must be clear that a vote for Brexit – which would place UKIP and the Tory right in the ascendance – could easily lead to a carnival of reaction directed against minorities in this country. It could mean heightened oppression by the state and its border authorities; increased exploitation at work as the bosses press home their new advantage in the climate of fear and uncertainty; and even direct racist attacks by fascists. Comrades, this is such a serious threat that I would argue it should be foremost in our minds as we consider our policy.

However, it must also be noted that Britain voting to leave the EU would immediately jeopardize the livelihoods of up to 1.8m UK citizens currently living in other EU countries. If Spain should choose to begin deporting the predominantly older “expatriates” currently living there, what would be the consequences for our NHS, for the housing crisis, for the system of social care? These are not abstractions, they are concrete and serious consequences.

Even if these consequences for the domestic situation weren’t enough to make us pause for thought, we need only look beyond our borders to see what a step backwards separation would be. Socialism is international, or it is nothing. There are those in our movement who say that freedom of movement only benefits the bosses – or worse, that it is pure and simple an invention of the bosses to drive down wages and conditions. We must reject this sort of thinking as simplistic and blinkered. If a student chose to study in Scotland in order to take advantage of free tuition, we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Why then should we not also support all those many Europeans who want to live and work in the UK, in search of a better life? The answer, comrades, is to support and integrate their struggles and aspirations into our own. There are many experienced trade unionists in the room who will not need me to tell them that a strong, well-organised and united labour movement – including migrants as well as those born here – is the best possible protection we can have against so-called “social dumping”. To assist our ruling class in charting an isolationist course into the North Atlantic is no protection at all.

We must recognize that this is what’s being proposed – the detachment of the British capitalist class off from their European allies. Notwithstanding the carnival of reaction against migrants and other sections of our class vulnerable to scapegoating, what sort of trade and labour market policies could we expect the establishment to pursue in such a scenario? In my view the most likely outcome would be an immediate headlong rush to exactly the same sort of Free Trade Area agreement with America, as those which have been used in the past to obliterate social protections and reforms in countries from Korea to Latin America. Only unlike our current struggle against TTIP where we have seen united action across the continent, we would be all but alone in such a fight.

More than that – separation ignores the material reality of international relations, in favour of yet more symbolism. Whether we vote in or out, Britain is part and parcel of Europe. The states of the European Union are and will remain this country’s principal trading partners. But in order to continue this economic relationship, we will still have to submit to all of the agreements on trade, regulations, industrial standards and so on that being a member of the EU would entail. Such has been the experience of countries like Norway, who in any case usually end up acquiescing individually to all of the various agreements which have been collectively agreed in Strasbourg without them. Why should we care? Well, there are no prizes for guessing which kind of agreements the British government would opt in or out of: into arrangements promoting competition and business, out of those such as the Working Time Directive. I challenge advocates of Brexit to tell us how piecemeal association with the EU could possibly be any better for us than full membership.

In conclusion, a vote for Brexit, in this referendum and at this very particular point in our history, would leave our country a more isolationist, more inward-looking place. The supposed benefits to the working class are a mirage; the costs to our struggle, and the setbacks to our goal of a united movement which can fight for a socialist Europe, are potentially irrevocable. If we are to see the world and see politics as it truly is, we must not vote “No”.

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