The conundrum of Brexit: Leave or Remain?


If you’d asked me any time in the last 43 years – in other words, since the UK joined the European Economic Community – how I would vote in a referendum on whether the country should reverse that decision, I would have told you unhesitatingly that I would vote to leave. This is how I voted in the referendum held on 5th June 1975 – as it happens, exactly a week before my 21st birthday – and I have seen nothing since to change my mind. All of the fears expressed by the left at that time have been confirmed, and in fact the development of the European Union has confirmed the worst of them.
Yet now, I hesitate. I have thought long and hard about how to vote. It’s hard to find yourself in the same camp as not just Conservatives but the Tory far right, the kind of Tory that Nye Bevin identified as ‘lower than vermin’. That isn’t, however, a good argument for voting Remain. After all, it’s also pretty difficult to swallow lining up with the European Commission, the IMF and NATO, all of whom have invoked the spectre of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a certain consequence of Brexit.  A major problem is that the Leave campaign has been dominated by the far right of the Conservative Party, the further right of UKIP, and xenophobes, fools, dupes and liars. The left seems to have gone on holiday, though the appalling state of the British media is perhaps largely responsible for this impression. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady is, nevertheless, quite right to warn that “a vote to leave is an open door for the hard right of the Conservative party.”  Though the claim her organisation makes that Brexit would lower UK workers’ wages by £38 a week is as daft as almost all the doom-laden statistics thrown at hapless voters from all sides before they are required to take important decisions, it is probably also true that in the short term the result of a Leave victory will be deepening recession.  
When O’Grady goes on to argue that EU membership protects British manufacturing jobs, however, she leaves reality behind.  Manufacturing industry’s share of UK GDP has fallen from over 30% prior to entry into the EEC in the early 1970s to 10% in 2014. This may have happened anyway, of course, but it is a direct result of the neoliberal economic philosophy on which the European Union has been constructed, and it is frankly ludicrous to present the EU as a defender of British jobs. Freedom of movement for capital is a basic principle of the European Union, one which is exemplified by the fact that of the three firms she mentions as examples of ‘British manufacturing industry’ two are German and one French. It is also a major reason for mass unemployment in Europe. One of the fears the TUC General Secretary mentions is that Brexit would lead to firms relocating outside of Britain. The claim rather contradicts the idea that wages will fall. Surely in the TUC’s limited view of the world this would mean the companies would be keen to stay. Their ability to leave almost at the drop of a hat, however, is a result of EU law. And their right to do so goes unchallenged by the TUC, which may oppose neoliberalism’s harshest manifestations, but which it has long since accepted is the only game in town.
Labour supporters of ‘Remain’ present the EU as a guarantor of workers’ rights, which is somewhat akin to presenting St George as a defender of dragons. The truth is that the few concessions given to workers in Britain have been motivated by the neoliberal drive to prevent ‘unfair competition’ in the form of low wages and poor working conditions. Well, rights are rights, whatever the motives, and in the US-style deregulated labour market which now characterises the UK, they are understandably valued. Look beyond and behind the surface of things, however, and you will see a different picture, one which confirms that the only people who can win and hold on to real progress in the workplace are the workers themselves.
The problem is that these rights must be balanced against the general political-economic direction of a neoliberal-dominated political elite whose aim is to create a federal Europe in which socialism of even the mildest kind will be a distant memory, rather than a living force. One of the means by which neoliberalism operates is the removal of social and economic decisions from the realm of politics. By putting pressure on politicians, and creating a political party that was founded to promote and defend the interests of working people, British workers fought for and won laws which contributed to the gradual improvement of their lives throughout much of the last century. That is no longer possible. If such laws can still be won, this can happen only through actions which might be termed ‘extra-constitutional’.  In plain English, what this means is that the most vital actions which could be taken in the interests of British working people – the renationalisation of rail and full nationalisation of postal services, for example; renationalisation of electricity and gas supply; an industrial policy and a regional policy based on the pursuit of full employment as its primary goal; halting the creeping privatisation of the NHS; and restoring in full the right to collective bargaining, including the right to take industrial action – are in conflict with European Union law.
Those who argue that a British Parliament would be no more likely to enact such legislation than is the European Union are arguing from a short-term, defeatist position. The British Parliament is currently dominated by the right, but it has not always been so and it need not always be so. Labour at last has a progressive  leadership, but under the rule of the EU its victory in a general election could lead only to disappointment, further strengthening the far right. Of a programme likely to be put forward by a genuinely social democratic  leadership, very little would be compatible with EU law. Some environmentalist measures might pass, and certainly the rights of ethnic minorities and LGBT people could be strengthened, but anything which touches the interests of the employing class, its right to control political decision-making, would be vetoed. It is unrealistic to think that, short of continent-wide chaos leading to a dangerous collapse of social and political institutions, this European Union can ever be reformed in the direction advocated by Jeremy Corbyn, the Green Party, Yanis Varoufakis or the editors of Red Pepper. The EU is a straightforward instrument of class power, and not a terrain of struggle. A terrain of struggle does certainly exist at European level, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the European Union, except in that it is the European Union which is the principal instrument of those against whom we are struggling. Those who accuse the progressive EU-critical movement of being nationalistic should ask themselves whether they ever make the same criticism in response to attacks on the IMF, or the World Bank, NATO or the G8. The EU, like them, is a device to remove political decision-making in the realm of economic policy from any popular influence. In the view of the ruling elite, democracy is an experiment which failed, and they want rid of it, while retaining its shell for purposes which are purely propagandistic.
The immediate policy effects of this class rule are known as ‘austerity’. They involve cutting public spending, particularly in relation to anything which might be termed ‘solidarity’. They are the politics of meanness, whose only answer to unemployment is to argue that if we make workers cheaper, and jobs less secure, there’ll be more jobs to go round. Quality of employment, and the quality of life which a decent job on a decent wage can afford, play no part beyond lip-service in EU policy-making.
Again, the objection will come that the British government often doesn’t even bother with lip-service. And again I reply, perhaps not, but we can change the British government. We can vote against it and in favour of another. The structures of power in the EU are designed to be immutable, or to be changeable only from within, or rather from on high.
International cooperation is vital in the world of 2016 and beyond. Only the seriously out-of-touch, imagine that Britain can ‘go it alone’. We must cooperate to decide how best we can help people fleeing wars in the Middle East, to address climate change and other environmental problems, to settle our differences without resort to violence. The European Union has, however, proved itself incapable of addressing any of these issues. That is because it isn’t about international cooperation at all, not in any sense that a socialist could approve. It’s purely and simply about international cooperation amongst elites. There are many forms of international cooperation; this authoritarian variant has been designed by and for the benefit of corporate capital, and for no other purpose. The left has a huge job on its hands in Britain, where political ignorance is routinely encouraged by the media. But it is not to persuade people to vote to stay in the European Union, which is tantamount to accepting that democratic politics no longer offers any possibility of a solution to our ills. Remaining would also be a decision to tie ourselves to a system in permanent crisis, presided over by people who in the case of Greece in particular have shown that they have no respect for democracy, or even any understanding of what it means.
How would you get rid of the present European Commission, or transform it? What can be done to influence a Council on which Britain holds a small minority of votes? A Court of Justice whose interpretation of EU labour law increases its reactionary effects? A European Central Bank which, unlike even the US Federal Reserve, does not count employment as one if its priorities?  I defy you to tell me.
How can we get rid of David Cameron? By voting for someone else and not leaving it there, but going on to put pressure on a more progressive parliament and government to take actions of the kind I outline above, all of which enjoy widespread support and most of which are already supported by a majority.

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine and a former official of the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) in the European Parliament. He is the author of a number of books on the European Union.