Left must avoid anti-EU trap

Submitted by martin on 13 May, 2013 - 5:37

Bob Crow and the leadership of the RMT rail union have joined the chorus for British exit from the EU led by Nigel Lawson, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer for Margaret Thatcher.

Crow argues the right-wing anti-EUers "are now only raising the issue of withdrawal out of pure political opportunism". Lawson, at age 81, is a bit beyond careerism and vote-catching. He lays out a straightforward pro-capitalist case for EU exit.

He values free trade with Europe, but dislikes EU social regulation. He thinks British capitalism could fare better as an offshore site with lower social overheads and weaker unions than the EU itself.

Lawson's case makes sense in his (capitalist) terms, which Crow's doesn't in his.

Britain already has harsher anti-union laws and weaker social provision in most areas than the main EU states. It has resisted the Social Charter, the Working Time Directive, and the Agency Workers' Directive. Given free rein, British governments would reverse their limited implementation of those EU provisions, and scrap other limited measures of worker protection such as TUPE.

In the meantime, the workers' movement would have been weakened by the nationalist demagogy accompanying EU exit - the nonsensical claims that British workers' difficulties are due not to our capitalist bosses but to this or that official in Brussels - the replacement of worker-versus-boss agitation by Britain-versus-Brussels.

Crow claims to set out a "left-wing, pro-worker case". But when Crow, with the Socialist Party, ran a "No2EU" slate in the 2009 euro-election, that slate denounced "the so-called freedom of movement of labour" in the EU - in fact, the real, and welcome, freedom for workers in the EU to work and live where they wish.

Another phrase it used to denounce EU migrant workers was "the social dumping of exploited foreign workers in Britain". It was only a phraseological variant of the right-wing Ukip's rants against Bulgarian and Rumanian workers.

No2EU folded fast after its ignominious showing in 2009 (1% of the vote, less than the 1.1% for the practically-defunct Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill, despite large part of the RMT's political funds being spent on No2EU). However, we understand Crow now talks of resuscitating it for the Euro-elections in May 2014.

Presumably the proposal would be to fold TUSC, the electoral front run by the Socialist Party and supported by Crow, into No2EU at least for the duration. We will have to wait to see what the SP thinks of that. It was evidently embarrassed by No2EU in 2009, but stuck with it.

The left needs a rational assessment of what is going on among the Tories.

The economic crisis since 2008 has forced the eurozone to integrate further or to break up. It is moving hesitantly and slowly towards further integration: banking union, regulation of member-governments' budgets, etc. The move may turn out to be too little, too late, to avert break-up, but evidently people like Lawson think not. They think the eurozone will hold together and become more integrated.

Since 2010 Cameron and Osborne have oddly combined demands for a renegotiation to loosen Britain's ties with the EU with support for closer eurozone integration.

From a capitalist point of view, the question of Britain joining the euro or remaining out of it is a balance of costs and benefits. There is a British bourgeois argument of some substance for remaining outside the eurozone, namely that Britain has closer economic ties with the US than other EU states do and so benefits from the pound being able to track between the euro and the dollar rather than its money being exclusively Euro-linked. The flipside of those considerations is the USA's outspoken opposition to Britain quitting the EU: the USA wants its close ally to be on the inside.

Cameron and Osborne, and probably the majority of the British capitalist class, don't want Britain in the euro any time soon. They want a two-speed EU with a more closely-integrated eurozone core and Britain in an outer circle.

Lawson and others doubt that's possible, and doubt it's worth trying. Other Tory figures have shifted halfway towards Lawson - ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont, London mayor Boris Johnson, education minister Michael Gove - and so has former Thatcher minister Michael Portillo, who says he is no longer a member of the Tory party.

The option of a capitalist Britain outside the EU is now no longer what it was in the 1960s and 70s when minority bourgeois voices envisaged a Britain which would be a big economic power in its own right, or via links with the Commonwealth (ex-Empire).

The options now would be Norway or Switzerland. Norway is part of the European Economic Area, which means that it is engaged to follow all the EU's economic regulations without having a voice in them. It pays no contribution to EU budgets and receives no subsidies from EU funds.

Switzerland is an inch less integrated. Rather than having a once-and-for-all agreement to economic integration with the EU, it negotiates that integration step by step. The result is not hugely different.

Despite the desires of Ukip people and right-wing Tories (and apparently some left-wing No2EU people), the Norway or Switzerland options would not mean a halt to European migration. Norway and Switzerland are both inside the European free movement, no-passports-needed Schengen area, though Britain isn't. Fully 25% of Switzerland's entire workforce are migrant workers.

British withdrawal from the EU would probably lead to a more hostile environment here for workers from the EU, and greater difficulties for them in getting social provision - and thus to worse divisions in the working class - but it would be unlikely to reduce migration much unless it led to a sharp economic slump in Britain.

That sharp slump would be a possibility if British withdrawal happened in conditions of great economic turmoil and it became impossible to negotiate a Norway-type or Switzerland-type deal with the EU.

The priority for socialists, in all the variants, must be for workers' unity across the borders and across national divisions. Attempts to construct an imaginary "left" version of Lawson's and Ukip's programme can only harm that priority.


Submitted by TB on Wed, 22/05/2013 - 11:42

Bob Crow's article demands a fuller reply which I don't have time to write but I posted this response to it on an RMT Facebook page.

The article which is linked from the text “movements in other countries that are critical of the EU are led by the left” shows no such thing. In 4 out of the 6 EU countries specifically mentioned there is no indication of which side is the critical one. Of the remaining 2 countries: in France it mentions 2 parties being critical, one from the left and one from the right; in Germany it mentions a right wing party. I guess that article was linked to defend against accusations that anti-EUism is a right wing policy. That accusation still stands.

In the recent local council elections UKIP (a right wing party critical of the EU) got ten times as many votes as TUSC (a left wing party critical of the EU). In Eastleigh that figure was 185 times. We should criticise and fight EU policies when they act against the workers but we should also understand that paying too much attention to the EU will help the right much more than the left if it helps us at all.

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