Do you really want the EU to break up? An open letter to Britain's left

Submitted by Matthew on 16 May, 2012 - 7:38

Dear comrades,

Do you really want the European Union to break up?

The majority of Greek workers do not. In the 6 May election, 70% voted for parties opposed to the cuts, but polls show that 80% want Greece to stay within the EU and within the euro.

The party that did best in the election, the left coalition Syriza, says that a left government in Greece should refuse the cuts, call the bluff of the EU leaders — who may want cuts, but also want to stop the eurozone breaking up — and enforce a renegotiation.

They want a united Europe without cuts. So do we. If the Greek left wins a majority, and the EU refuses to concede, then we want a workers’ government in Greece which will break with EU leaders but not “leave Europe” — which will instead fight to spread workers’ rule across Europe.

Yet for decades now most of the British left — and the left in a few other European countries, such as Denmark — has agitated “against the EU”. The agitation has suggested, though rarely said openly, we should welcome and promote every pulling-apart of the EU, up to and including the full re-erection of barriers between nation-states.

Now it’s not certain that the EU/ ECB/ IMF troika will dare cut off funds to the Greek government, and force it into “defaulting” on its debt (failing to make payments on the debt when they’re due). If Greece defaults, it is not certain that it will quit or be forced out of the euro.

If Greece quits the euro, it’s not certain that the exit will set off an unravelling of the whole eurozone. And even if the whole eurozone unravels, the underlying EU structure could remain solid.

An argument can be made — debatable, but not absurd, and not necessarily “anti-EU” — that realistically a Greek government would do better now to negotiate an orderly exit from the euro, rather than to plunge on towards a high probability of forced and chaotic exit.

The economist who has argued most strongly for Greece to negotiate an exit from the euro, Costas Lapavitsas, also insists that he is not calling for Greece to quit the EU.

Yet the possibility of a serious unravelling of the patchwork, bureaucratic semi-unification of Europe, slowly developed over the last sixty years, is more real today than ever before. The decisive push for unravelling, if it comes, will probably be from the nationalist and populist right.

And that calls the bluff of a whole swathe of the British left.

For decades, most of the British left has been “anti-EU” as a matter of faith. In Britain’s 1975 referendum on withdrawing from the EU, almost the whole left, outside AWL’s forerunner Workers’ Fight, campaigned for withdrawal. Since then the left has hesitated explicitly to demand withdrawal. It has limited itself to “no to bosses’ Europe” agitation, implying but not spelling out a demand for the EU to be broken up.

The agitation has allowed the left to eat its cake and have it. The left can chime in with populist-nationalist “anti-Europe” feeling, which is stronger in Britain than in any other EU country. It can also cover itself by suggesting that it is not really anti-European, but only dislikes the “bosses’” character of the EU.

As if a confederation of capitalist states could be anything other than capitalist. As if the cross-Europe policy of a collection of neo-liberal governments could be anything other than neo-liberal.

As if the material force behind neo-liberal cuts were the relatively flimsy Brussels bureaucracy, rather than the mighty bureaucratic-military-industrial complexes of member states. As if the answer is to oppose confederation and cross-Europeanism as such, rather than the capitalist, neo-liberal, bureaucratic character of both member states and the EU.

As if the EU is somehow more sharply capitalist, anti-worker, and neo-liberal than the member states. In Britain more than any other country we have seen successive national governments, both Tory and New Labour, repeatedly objecting to EU policy as too soft, too “social”, too likely to entrench too many workers’ rights.

As if the answer is to pit nations against Europe, rather than workers against bosses and bankers.

When Socialist Worker, in a recent Q&A piece, posed itself the question, “wouldn’t things be better for workers if Britain pulled out of the EU?”, it answered itself with a mumbling “yes, but” rather than a ringing “yes”.

Socialist Worker is against Britain being part of a bosses’ Europe”. Oh? And against Britain being part of a capitalist world, too?

Britain would be better off in outer space? Or walled off from the world North Korea-style? “But withdrawing from the EU wouldn’t guarantee workers’ rights — the Tories remain committed to attacking us”. Indeed. And just as much so as the EU leaders, no?

As recently as 2009, the Socialist Party threw itself into a electoral coalition called No2EU. Every week in its “Where We Stand” it declaims: “No to the bosses’ neo-liberal European Union!”, though that theme rarely appears in its big headlines.

The RMT rail union, in some ways the most left-wing union in Britain, backed No2EU and today backs the “People’s Pledge”. This “Pledge” is a campaign to call for parliamentary candidates to demand a referendum on British withdrawal from the EU, and support them only if they agree.

It was initiated by, and is mostly run by, right-wing Tories, but fronted by a Labour leftist, Mark Seddon. It is backed by many Tory MPs — and by some Labour left MPs such as Kelvin Hopkins, John Cryer, and Ronnie Campbell, and by Green MP Caroline Lucas.

The referendum call is a soft-soap demand for British withdrawal, based on the hope that a majority would vote to quit. (In a recent poll, 55% of people agreed with the statement “Britain should remain a full member of the European Union”, but 55% also agreed with the statement “Britain should leave the European Union”, so...)

Even the demand for withdrawal is a soft-soap, “tactical” gambit. In principle Britain could quit the EU without disrupting much. It could be like Norway, Iceland, Switzerland: pledged to obey all the EU’s “Single Market” rules (i.e. all the neo-liberal stuff) though opting out of a say in deciding the rules; exempt from contributing to the EU budget but also opting out from receiving EU structural and regional funds.

That is not what the no-to-EU-ers want. They want Britain completely out. They want all the other member-states out too. A speech by RMT president Alex Gordon featured on the No2EU website spells it out: “Imperialist, supranational bodies such as the EU seek to roll back democratic advances achieved in previous centuries... Progressive forces must respond to this threat by defending and restoring national democracy. Ultimately, national independence is required for democracy to flourish...”

For decades “anti-EU” agitation has been like background music in the left’s marketplace — designed to soothe the listeners and make them more receptive to the goods on offer, but not for attentive listening. If the music should be played at all, then it should be turned up now.

But do you really want the EU broken up? What would happen?

The freedom for workers to move across Europe would be lost. “Foreign” workers in each country from other ex-EU states would face disapproval at best.

There would be a big reduction in the productive capacities of the separate states, cut off from broader economic arenas.

Governments and employers in each state would be weaker in capitalist world-market competition, and thus would be pushed towards crude cost-cutting, in the same way that small capitalist businesses, more fragile in competition, use cruder cost-cutting than the bigger employers.

There would be more slumps and depression, in the same way that the raising of economic barriers between states in the 1930s lengthened and deepened the slump then.

Nationalist and far-right forces, already the leaders of anti-EU political discourse everywhere, would be “vindicated” and boosted. Democracy would shrink, not expand. The economically-weaker states in Europe, cut off from the EU aid which has helped them narrow the gap a bit, would suffer worst, and probably some would fall to military dictatorships.

Before long the economic tensions between the different nations competing elbow-to-elbow in Europe’s narrow cockpit would lead to war, as they did repeatedly for centuries, and especially in 1914 and 1939.

The left should fight, not to go backwards from the current bureaucratic, neo-liberal European Union, but forward, towards workers’ unity across Europe, a democratic United States of Europe, and a socialist United States of Europe.

Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

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