JOHN ELLISON on why some of the left-wing fears about Brexit aren’t as strong as might first appear
IN yesterday’s article I weighed up whether an EU referendum vote would hinder a future Corbyn-politics Labour government from putting its policies into effect while remaining inside the European Union. My answer was that it would be a hindrance.
But if Britain leaves the EU and joins other European countries outside, what will happen to its EU trading?
The bald answer is that, as explained by John Foster in his detailed pamphlet Britain and the EU: What Next? a relatively strong economy like Britain’s, could, if leaving the EU, trade with EU countries on the same terms as the US, Japan, China and Russia — all of which export to them at present on a large scale.
To imagine that the EU would, out of pique following British withdrawal, bar access to British exports, when its exports to Britain are a valued part of its lifeblood, is absurd.
Less straightforward, perhaps, are some arguments raised in sympathy with Corbyn-politics but out of sympathy with a vote to leave the EU now.
One such viewpoint was advanced in the Guardian on May 17 by broadcaster and writer Paul Mason (in his own words “a radical social democrat,” latest book Postcapitalism).
He feared that Boris Johnson and the Tory right would, given a leave vote, “stand ready to … turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island,” with less employment regulation and lower wages, and to “reshape the UK’s de facto constitution” before the next election.
Again, a booklet published earlier this year by the group Socialist Resistance equally supports a Remain vote, though with a different emphasis, asserting: “The campaign for exit is entirely a project of the xenophobic right and will play into the rise of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe.”
Specifically, the fear is expressed that EU citizens living in Britain would be put in “a difficult and vulnerable situation.”
Both these well-intentioned positions seem to visualise Britain’s present EU membership as akin to a placement of someone in a secure unit which, prior to discharge, provides some guarantee against extreme anti-social behaviour. The extreme anti-social behaviour of the EU in breaking the economy of Greece, and severely damaging the economies of other member states, thereby fuelling the rise of the far right, producing a more right-wing and nationalist EU Parliament, seems to count for little in these assessments.
They express no confidence in the ability of the labour and progressive movement to resist such developments — a movement now strengthened by the “real Labour” Corbyn-McDonnell leadership.
Neither viewpoint considers that if a more xenophobic and austerity-minded Tory Party leadership replaces the present xenophobic and austerity-minded leadership, it is unlikely to have things all its own way.
Not to be overlooked is that the EU, as well as punishing its weaker members for their weakness, does the same for weaker economies outside.
Sixty per cent of Africa’s exports are into the EU, but African and other developing countries wishing to have access to EU markets can only do so by complying with the same conditions as member countries.
This means opening up their economies to EU companies, which move in to take over mineral and food production, contributing to the destitution that drives migration.
So if we, as socialists, are serious about our analysis of the anti-socialist, anti-progressive character of the European Union, we cannot with consistency argue for a vote to Remain now, and for a vote to Leave in the future.
If the EU has itself become a neoliberal Frankenstein monster, we should be striding away from it in a planned way as soon as we can.
The EU’s institutionally dysfunctional arrangements, of course, are under threat from causes other than the British referendum.
Tensions between the strongest eurozone members and the weakest threaten to rip the eurozone apart, and hugely to undermine the cohesion of the union as a whole.
As dramatic as it is tragic is the case of Greece, where unemployment is at least 25 per cent, and whose debt burden is around 180 per cent of the country’s annual economic output.
After repeated “bailouts” by the EU (and the IMF), ie more loans with bigger hooks, it is required by enforcers to repay, at enormous social cost, €3.5 billion of its bailout debt in July.
Formal default may be finally unavoidable, with serious consequences. Meanwhile Italy, whose economy has hardly grown since joining the single currency, is in grave danger from its own massive debt time bomb.
But what of the Labour Party’s present pro-EU position? The currently circulating Labour In pamphlet is in the name of former shadow chancellor Alan Johnson, personally unencumbered by anti-austerity advocacy, and his bland justifications contain no criticism whatever of the institutions and policies of the EU.
All is sunshine there, and he claims, offering no evidence, that our jobs depend upon it, as it provides us with growth and investment. He passes over its nominal overall growth.
But, as John Foster explains, EU policy has brought about the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Britain already, and continued membership will mean more of the same.
A painful example is the steel industry, categorically denied state aid or public ownership by EU rules.
Another job-destructive EU contribution lies in the freedom it has given over the past three decades to investment banks, increasingly in control of industrial concerns, to put their short-term profits ahead of the needs of industry, helped by the over-valuation of sterling — which damages exporting — and by shifting production abroad to cheaper bases.
Johnson avoids mention of the sinister fact that David Cameron, cock-a-hoop after conciliatory noises from EU leaders in response to his demand for special treatment of the City of London, lowering the burden on business, and for welfare benefits’ discrimination against migrants, can be expected to use a Remain vote as a ringing endorsement of his pro-business plans.
Johnson’s least weak point is that the British, through membership, are protected with maternity and paternity leave, equal pay and minimum paid holiday, and that all such rights are at risk if Britain leaves.
A short answer to this was given lately by Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott, introducing his forthcoming co-authored book Europe Isn’t Working.
He says: “Given the obscene level of long-term unemployment, the idea of Europe as the guardian of labour rights is laughable.”
The “social Europe” labour rights protections, inspired historically by Jacques Delors, contained soft words which have, since inception, turned away to a degree trade union suspicions of the EU.
But these protections have been battered, while the EU’s acceptance of the right to strike was rendered valueless by the principle of “subsidiarity,” allowing individual countries to qualify the right at their discretion, so that Britain’s severe strike-prohibition laws take precedence.
Unimpressive too is the EU’s current goal of employment “flexicurity,” better expressed, perhaps, as “flexi-insecurity.”
On the EU’s employment rights directives, Queen’s Counsel John Hendy (for Trade Unionists Against the EU) has a sharp commentary.
Pointing to their limited scope, he says: “They have little application to most terms and conditions of employment to protect or encourage good pay and decent jobs. They say nothing about pensions, nor about dismissal (save in particular circumstances such as in a transfer of undertaking).
“They neither promote nor protect collective bargaining. They do nothing to protect the right to strike … The Agency Workers Directive appears helpful but in fact has led to a massive increase across Europe in the number of workers employed through agencies and hence without the full rights of directly employed workers.”
Increased xenophobia, whether in a Remain or an Exit situation must, of course, be fought hard; and in fighting it we must be conscious that to exploit is our rulers’ primary joy; and that to confuse, distract and scapegoat are supportive ploys.
To make the EU’s bread and water diet regime for Europe’s peoples more acceptable, the EU’s shapers have tried to give it the appearance of a large but affectionate animal, hoping that we will overlook the small fact that its teeth are sunk deeply into us.
A vote to Remain is self-harming, and will not help those undergoing still more serious injury both inside and outside the European Union.