A statement arguing for a “left exit” from the European Union (EU) appeared in the Guardian on 17 February, signed by several trade unionists, a smattering of Stalinists and a number of others.
The statement contains a collection of mostly true claims about the EU. It is true that the EU is an undemocratic institution wedded to neoliberal capitalism and complicit in attacks on workers’ rights and social conditions. It is true that “Fortress Europe” discriminates, often murderously, against non-European migrants, and that the EU has imposed brutal austerity on Greece and other European states. Yet, as is often the case, a collection of true or half-true statements can be used to paint a skewed picture of reality — and to draw conclusions which are radically false.
All the claims made against the EU are also true about Britain. Pulling out of the EU will leave us with a profoundly undemocratic British capitalist state, with a monarchy, an unelected second chamber, and a wholly unaccountable state bureaucracy — not to mention its police, army and “secret state”. This would be Britain committed wholly, as now, to austerity and to trade agreements such as Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In what sense is this a step forward for workers?
Exit will not be a blow for democracy. Just as the British working-class fought the ruling-class over two centuries for the very real yet still limited democratic rights we have today, the workers’ movement across Europe needs to unite to extend democracy across the continent. Pulling out of the EU is to seek the short-cut of national solutions and can only cut us off from our potential allies in Europe. Worse still, the shameful “Fortress Europe” we have today will be augmented by a “Fortress Britain”, with the residency status of European migrants in Britain placed under threat.
The statement rightly says that “without labour rights and an alternative to austerity, migrants will be prey to hostile xenophobic forces with or without the Schengen agreement”. It fails to explain why the solution is to erect more borders and not to unite workers across Europe to fight collectively for their rights and against racism! We should not fatalistically accept the “irrevocable” or “irreversible” nature of the EU’s commitment to neoliberal capitalism in order rationalise a relapse back into national capitalist states — which will be no less rapacious in their attacks on workers and thirst for profits. Rather than roll history backwards, we need to push through the capitalist semi-unification of Europe towards a genuinely democratic workers’ Europe.
We are agree on a the need for “a positive vision of a future Europe based on democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability, not the profit-making interests of a tiny elite.” But it just does not follow that the left should therefore advocate “a vote to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum on UK membership”. This will take us further away, not closer, from the Europe that we need. We should call for a vote to stay in the EU, and argue for an independent labour movement campaign to defend migrant and freedom of movement, and fight for the levelling up of wages, conditions, services, and rights across Europe.