The debate around Britain’s membership of the European Union has been dominated by two ideologies, but unfortunately for leftists like myself both of these are abhorrent. The pro-EU camp is largely comprised of neoliberal capitalists that are more concerned with corporate profits than the lives of ordinary people. On the other hand, the anti-EU campaign is largely consisted of xenophobic Little Englanders who are still ambivalent towards imperialism. Obviously there are notable exceptions to this caricature, for example Labour leader and actual socialist Jeremy Corbyn has come out in favour of continued EU membership, but the media’s focus has mostly dominated by the arguments around economics and immigration. I have avoided writing this piece because I was swinging back and forth on the issue for a long time but now I’m going to lay out why I believe that Britain should leave the European Union.
As a committed internationalist I have always considered myself as not belonging to any specific nation-state, and so the right-wing identity politics that have been put forward by groups like UKIP have also repulsed me. Indeed many aspects of the European Union should be applauded but there are a few fundamental ideological and philosophical reasons behind my endorsement of leaving the EU.
Firstly I want to look at the issue of power, specifically how power is concentrated in the European Union. I am a passionate supporter of the decentralisation of power and letting communities decide as much as possible, indeed this has been why I have support many secessionist movements in places like Catalonia and Scotland. In my view power, when concentrated in the hands of the few, can corrupt people and leaves these people far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. I am not of a conspiratorial nature and don’t believe that EU leaders are actively trying to concentrate power in their hands, but I think that the idea of European federalism is so pervasive that the continued concentration of power in Brussels is inevitable. From a view purely based on decentralisation, the EU must be opposed
Whilst remaining on the subject of power, the European Union has institutionalised the political influence of certain member-states due to their economic strength. Just as institutions like the IMF and WTO have preserved the economic and political clout of countries like the United States, the EU has institutionalised the influence of France and Germany. It is not hidden information that in order for members of the Eurozone to get anything done, Angela Merkel has got to be personally consulted. Furthermore, in the Greek bailout saga, one of the points often made by figures in SYRIZA was that the reason that the previous bailouts had failed was that large amounts of the money went to prop up French and Germany banks. Although Britain is not a member of the Eurozone, most of the European Union is and, despite the rules surrounding qualified majority voting, can make policy in some areas solely based on the interests of the Eurozone.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at this process of qualified majority voting. In order for decision in the Council of European Union to be taken three conditions have to be met: at least 15 member states agree (or 18 if the proposal isn’t from the Commission); at least 260 out of 352 weighted votes; and at least 313.6 million people represented by the member states in favour of a proposal. At the moment the Eurozone cannot dictate to the rest of the EU what to do but this will not last forever. Only Denmark and Britain have permanent opt-outs of the Eurozone and all other non-Eurozone countries in the EU must join it at some point. Even if other countries join the EU that have a permanent opt-out, the acceptance of Sweden, Poland, Czech Rep., Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania will give Eurozone countries the ability to win votes on an array of interests. This is not inherently a problem but because France and Germany have essentially written the rules of the Eurozone, the ability of the Eurozone to force through policy is an extension of French and German power. With this in mind, I do not see the Eurozone as a mechanism for European co-operation, but of some nations institutionalising political and economic advantages.
We then get onto the issue of democratic accountability. Tony Benn used to to make the argument that you cannot hold people accountable if they haven’t been democratically elected and/or you don’t know who they are. For example people can hold their local MPs to account because they voted for them, and they can hold members of the Cabinet to account because they are well known. However this is not the case with the European Union. In what conceivable way can the President of the European Commission or the President of the European Parliament be held accountable? Unless you are a political junkie like myself, you don’t know who they are, what they do, or why they are in charge.
This is, incidentally, not the same as indirect elections of heads of government. For example in Scotland the First Minister isn’t directly elected, the Scottish Parliament votes on who should become First Minister. The reason that I make this distinction is that the political groupings of the European Parliament are formed after each election and therefore the people haven’t even indirectly consented to the leaders of those political groups. Returning to Scotland, although the First Minister isn’t directly elected, many people may vote for a political party based on who the leader is, but people don’t vote in European elections based on who the leaders of the political groups are.
The other aspect of democracy is the contempt that European institutions have for the democratic will of the people. Europe is run for the benefit of a class of international capitalists which includes transnational corporations, technocrats, and neoliberal politicians. The Eurozone Crisis has clearly demonstrated this. In Greece the people elected a government that is explicitly anti-austerity and European institutions ignored SYRIZA’s mandate and imposed crippling austerity onto the Greek people. Indeed people who were involved with negotiations between the Greek government and European leaders noted that this was done to prevent referenda on bailouts in other countries, thus further stifling democracy.
On a more normative and abstract note I would like to talk about the ideological justifications for leaving the European Union. As a believer in historical materialism I would like to see socialism and eventually communism being established. Through this prism the question arises: will the European Union facilitate this or prevent this from coming about? Here’s why I think the latter.
The European Union is explicitly a neoliberal trading bloc. The ‘four economic freedoms of the EU’- free movement of goods, services, peoples, and capital- are not promoting workers rights, preserving the environment, or enabling for countries to make autonomous decisions regarding state-involvement in the economy. They are a series of measures that enable the growth on neoliberal capitalism and they primarily benefit a class of international capitalists.
The Eurozone is a mechanism designed to facilitate the speedy movement of capital across international borders, and is therefore a tool of business. Furthermore the economic self-sufficiency that should be the goal of any country that seeks to establish socialism is discouraged by free trade policies. It for these reasons that I believe that any member state cannot achieve socialism whilst being a member of the EU.
Now that I’ve outlined the key reasons that I will be voting to leave the EU, I would like to address some of the arguments that have been put forward by other people on the Left, namely: solidarity, reformism, and security.
On the issue of solidarity, pro-EU activists from the Left argue that the EU is, in effect, a mechanism for solidarity and as fellow internationalists, people like myself should support remaining in the EU. Although solidarity is one of the six founding principles of the European Union, I would query these activists’ definition of both solidarity and internationalism.
In my opinion solidarity is both an outlook on the world and a practical means to an end. As an outlook on the world, solidarity is the fundamental principle that you stand alongside the downtrodden and oppressed irrespective of their race, religion, cultural background or nationality; for example, a rural agricultural labourer in Paraguay should be treated in the same way as someone working in a shop down the road from your house. As a means to an end, solidarity, especially in a socialistic context, is a way of bringing about class consciousness and eventually socialism. If left-wing activists are standing in solidarity with an institution that supports neoliberal capitalism, and sometimes enforces it upon people undemocratically, I fail to see how I am the one being ideologically inconsistent.
In regards to internationalism, this is also something that can be adopted intellectually and practically. As I said in the introduction to this piece, I am clearly not a UKIP-style xenophobe, and I often speak in solidarity with people from across Europe. I have written articles about exploiting divisions among fascists in France to the benefit of the Left, the Spanish Left’s attempts to outlaw bullfighting, and left-wing figures in across Europe fighting for same-sex marriage. I did so because I am an internationalist, and not because I was identifying with a neoliberal trading bloc. Also, I stand in international solidarity with people all around the world, but that doesn’t mean that I want the EU to go global. The internationalism argument is irrelevant because the whole point is that national borders aren’t important because what unites us is our common humanity. From this premise, how is Britain establishing a border with the rest of the EU going to prevent international solidarity?
Reform is the answer according to these left-wing pro-EU activists but I would also question that. On a more abstract level, you would have change the raison d’être of the EU to make it into what socialists want. The EU doesn’t support socialism and not only this, it doesn’t even allow most its members to achieve socialism autonomously because a common currency has been instituted under the watchful eyes of capitalists.
On a practical level, EU treaties would have to be amended along left-wing lines. There are three ways to substantially amend treaties; all of these require a unanimous vote from the heads of government of member states, and two of these three methods require the additional support of national parliaments. In order for the EU to be reformed down socialist lines, leftists need to make up every head of government in the EU along with having majorities in every chamber of every national legislature. That will clearly not happen ever.
I’m not necessarily against the concept of international organisations, as long as all nations are treated equally and such an institution does not tacitly or explicitly endorse an economic philosophy that I oppose they can be very useful. An international institution comprised of European countries working collaboratively to solve humanitarian problems is something that I support, and if Britain left the EU I would suggest we create such a forum. However it must be separate from the EU. The EU has enabled large corporations to increase in size to such an extent that many are now more powerful than nation-states, and this process should have a firewall between it and desires to improve the environment, or enhance the rights of workers, because otherwise these goals will not be achieved.
Also international agreements can occur without the involvement of trading blocs. One of the areas that left-wing activists that support the EU talk about is tackling climate change, and I agree that agreements needs to be signed on a global basis and that a forum to get all of Europe on the same page can help. However if a separate institution was established to deal with such problems, the EU could be bypassed and Britain wouldn’t be constrained by the same ideology that in many ways causes environmental crises.
Finally, the debate around security has been thoroughly annoying because the people whoa re making it are ignorant of international political history and political theory. As I said in the introduction to this article the Eurosceptics are mostly right-wingers and as a consequence are unaware of many things. How can I make such an assertion? Because when pro-EU figures say that the EU has kept Britain safe, they respond with something along the lines of ‘No, NATO has’. I’ve made my feelings clear on NATO but let’s make one thing clear, even if you accept that NATO kept Britain safe during the Cold War, the ‘enemy’ wasn’t the same. When pro-EU people talk about peace in Europe, they are talking about war between European countries like in WWI and WWII, and not about Russia. Also intelligence sharing between countries would continue as Britain would remain a part of Interpol, and the universality of countries’ opposition to terrorism makes co-operation inevitable.
By saying that NATO has kept Britain safe implies that if NATO didn’t exist but the EU did, France and Italy would still randomly bomb each other. The EU has kept Britain safe through two ways: the democratic and commercial peace theses. The EU promotes free trade between member states, and a result these countries don’t need to go to war with each other in order to ascertain resources. Free trade does prevent countries from going to war, but as leftists we shouldn’t support unfettered free trade; we should seek to be economically self-sufficient and generate economic activity based on existing resources.
Similarly, democracies are less likely to go to war with each other because the citizenry, who vote in elections, are the ones who fight in wars and also citizens in democratic countries identify with each other rather than their political elites. Democracies have gone to war in the past but the co-operation element that arises because of trade means that this unlikely eventuality becomes even less likely. Although these two arguments are straight out of liberal philosophy, I still believe that they have a certain amount of validity in this realm.
My argument is that rather than make stupid points about NATO, left-wing Eurosceptics need to avoid this right-wing mentality and say that co-operation and democracy would continue if Britain left the EU. In the short-term trade would continue and if a country eventually became totally self-sufficient, co-operation in relation to many other issues would remain. Capitalism encourages competition and confrontation, and NATO entrenches a militaristic outlook. Both NATO and the EU should be dissolved, and replaced with an institution to deal with humanitarian issues.
To conclude, my vote in the European Union has now been set in stone as a combination of ideological rationalisations and practical realisations about the nature of EU institutions. I hope that Britain leaves the EU and seeks to achieve socialism. However, polling suggests that Britain will most likely remain. If polling is correct then I shall retain my view that the EU is preventing its member states from achieving socialism and is actively stifling democracy. This being said, I shall also be loudly shouting about how the institution needs to be reformed to become more democratic and give member states more economic autonomy. But until the final vote is counted I shall be passionately making this left-wing case for Britain’s exit from the European Union.