“My opposition [to the EU] from the very beginning has been on the lines that fighting capitalism state-by-state is hard enough. It’s even harder when you’re fighting it on the basis of eight states, 10 states and now 28.”–Dennis Skinner
It’s only a couple of days until the UK referendum on EU membership. The issue is a deeply divisive one, and even at this late stage there seems to be a roughly equal split across the country between those who want to remain in the EU and those who want to leave.
EU membership brings up a lot of important questions, but the political establishment and the media have largely succeeded in turning it into a single-issue debate over immigration. The Tory government, the Labour Party, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats (for what they’re worth), as well as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein, are all in the Remain Camp. The official Leave campaign consists chiefly of right-wing and ‘Eurosceptic’ Tories, like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and John Redwood, and the populist UK Independence Party, headed by the demagogue Nigel Farage. It suits both camps to centre the referendum around the question of immigration. The government wants everyone to associate a vote to leave the EU with the anti-immigrant and racially charged policies of UKIP, to poison any opposition to the EU by association with figures whose views are anathema to most of the population. The whole campaign is also massive, free publicity for UKIP and the Tory right, who speak for only a small portion of the population and a small portion of those who oppose the EU, many of who are Labour supporters. But if you follow the official narrative these right-wing cranks are the sole representatives of an anti-EU stance.
Indeed, one of the main tactics used by the government and media to mobilize support for Remain has been to foster fears that leaving the EU would embolden right-wing forces and potentially lead to an even more right-wing government than we have already. Never mind that the existing racist, anti-immigrant, economic austerity policies of the present government, and of the EU generally, already provide an environment for right-wing forces to flourish anyway. Moreover, any attempt to predict the future is an exercise in futility, and one can just as easily argue that leaving the ultra-capitalist and anti-immigrant EU would make it easier for left-wing and progressive movements to gain traction. And ultimately, anyone relying on Cameron, Osborne, and a bunch of venal bureaucrats in Brussels to stop the far-right is doomed to be disappointed.
Shamefully, the trade unions have tried to mobilize their members to get out and vote for the EU. While paying lip-service to the ‘imperfections’ of the EU, the trade union leaders make out that workers’ rights and benefits are enshrined in EU law, which acts as a barrier to aggressively anti-worker Tory legislation. Never mind that the Tories (and Labour) in government since the 1980s have enacted law after law against the unions’ right to strike and other freedoms. It’s also important to note that the ‘rule of law’ is something that’s only consistently applied to the population, not the capitalist state, which regularly flouts its own laws and regularly gets away with it. After all, who is going to hold them to account? Who honestly thinks that some unelected and uncaring officials in France or Belgium will make the difference if the government decides to go after workers or the oppressed in this country? They never have before now. History is full of lessons when working people have had to rely on their own organizations and their own social power to look after their interests, and that relying on the good offices of the rich and powerful is a doomed strategy. The trade union leaders know this, of course, but then lying to their members is the (unwritten) first item on the job description of every senior trade union bureaucrat.
Immigration has been a major theme in both the Leave and Remain campaigns, and many people are rightly horrified by the anti-immigrant chauvinism of prominent forces in the Leave campaign. But the fact remains that the pro-EU UK government and the EU itself are the main enforcers of anti-immigrant policies. Although the likes of UKIP like to portray the EU as a ‘soft touch’ when it comes to immigration, the reality is that the EU acts as an anti-immigrant militarized bloc which is known as ‘Fortress Europe’ for good reason. Although the media narrative makes it sound like anyone opposing the EU must be a raving racist, the reality is that any movement seriously opposed to racism and xenophobia actually needs to take opposition to the EU as a starting point. Fundamentally, immigration is an inevitable part of modern capitalist society, as the ruling class periodically needs sources of cheap labour and also use racism and xenophobia as a means to divide-and-rule the working population.
As well as the official anti-immigrant terror daily practiced under the EU’s auspices in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, another intrinsic aspect of the EU gains barely any coverage in most debates. This is the EU’s role as an instrument of capitalist exploitation and neo-liberal ideology (often referred to now as ‘austerity’), as well as it’s function as an imperialist consortium or cartel. Effectively, the EU serves to represent the collective interests of various European powers in their economic dealings with the rest of the world, particularly in relation to ‘developing’ or colonial countries (see this article for more details); as well as to provide support to the ruling classes of member countries in dealing with their ‘own’ working classes at home. At the same time, as history has demonstrated, the member countries of the EU often have different and competing economic interests, meaning that the bloc is inherently unstable. And, of course, not all members are equal, as the respective positions of Germany, the UK and, to pick a country at random, Greece, demonstrate.
For many people, the EU seems to embody a spirit of international co-operation which renders it an almost ethereally progressive project. The twentieth-century history of European wars and conflict, in particular the experience of fascism and genocide, loom large in the minds of most people from my generation who identify on some level with the principles of liberal humanism. Most of us who were fortunate to receive a good liberal education spent a huge amount of time studying that history at school. While that’s a good thing, and has inculcated a deep-seated intellectual belief in tolerance, I think this also makes people a lot more credulous when it comes to the EU. Instead of engaging with the EU as it is actually constituted, and looking at the role it plays in reality, people focus so much on the ‘idea’ of European co-operation that they end up effectively supporting a profoundly undemocratic, racist, anti-immigrant, super-imperialist cabal. And if you’re worried about the rise of the far-right, anyone who has studied Nazi Germany should know that bureaucratic elites will not stand in the way of fascism.
As the Sanders and Trump campaigns demonstrated in the US, and as the current EU vote and Corbyn’s election last year showed in the UK, there is profound disillusionment with mainstream politics among very wide layers of the population. Remote, elitist bureaucracies like the EU are partly to blame, and they’re rightly a major target for the anger of ordinary people, which is something I think a lot of liberal-minded people from my generation don’t appreciate. Considering some of the hysterical reactions I’ve seen from people about what will happen if Britain leaves the EU, I think a bit more reflection and self-awareness would go a long way.