Those on the left who supported the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union have made a disastrous mistake. As a direct consequence of the Referendum result, right-wing forces within UK politics have received a considerable fillip. The further right of the Tory Party are now in the ascendant, and Farage’s UKIP, which in last year’s General Election won only a single seat, has found itself centre stage in this current jamboree of nationalism, xenophobia and delusionary imperial grandeur. And this consequence is not confined to Britain. Already LePen in France and Wilders in The Netherlands have expressed their enthusiasm for what they see now as the potential break-up of the EU; and Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland has welcomed the UK result as a defeat for what he called the ‘quasi socialist’ measures of the EU. A second direct result of Thursday’s vote is a serious attempt by right-wing Labour Party MPs to now remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
There can be no argument about the scandalous role of the EU bureaucracy during the crisis in Greece. And it was not just in Greece that they insisted upon punitive austerity measures. The same thing happened in Ireland, Portugal and Spain as financial and industrial capital tried to make workers’ pay the price for sustaining their system of exploitation. But to argue that the way to defeat this programme of austerity is the leave the EU altogether is wrong on many counts. The institutions of the EU reflect the interests of the conservative and right-wing political parties that currently predominate in Europe. These parties have to be fought on home ground. Some of the institutions of the EU are bureaucratic and do not reflect the needs of Europe’s citizens, but it is not in the best traditions of the labour and socialist movement to walk away from a battle for democratic accountability.
When the question of Brexit was raised I would have thought that any socialist would firstly have considered what forces were lined up in this combat and what class interests these forces represent.
The campaign to leave the EU was always driven by the forces on the right of politics. For example the basis of Thatcher’s opposition to Europe was her anxiety to prevent measures that protected workers’ rights from being forced on British employers by the European Court of Justice. It is true that some organisations on the left also argued that Britain should leave the EU, but the left perspective was never more than a minor aspect of it all. Focussing on the issue of national sovereignty some left MPs argued that progressive legislation was being impeded as a consequence of EU membership. This is a gross oversimplification.
The failures of the Blair and Brown Labour Governments to carry through a socialist programme, or for that matter those of Wilson or Callaghan in earlier years, cannot be blamed on the European bureaucracy. Incidentally, the seven hereditary monarchies in the EU (including Britain until yesterday) are hardly the result of directives from the ‘unelected’ European Commission!
Some within the British Labour and trade union bureaucracy have tended to use the EU as a scape goat to cover their own failures, just as Johnston, Farage and Gove use it as a lever to elevate their own right-wing agendas. It is foolish to argue that, now that the UK is out of the EU, these three Musketeers – and others like them – will be exposed and their politics discredited. Last Thursday a train has been set in motion that will not be easy to stop. A lot of damage will in the coming period be visited upon workers, immigrants, minorities and the poor.
The Tory Government will probably begin the process of withdrawal from the EU by repealing the European Communities Act, and then by another Act of Parliament that will enable them to filter all EU laws, directives and recommendations. Does anybody have the slightest doubt about which legislative provisions of the EU the Tories will keep and which ones they will discard! Or which decisions of the European Court of Justice will be incorporated into British law and which ones will be consigned to the dustbin!
The Westminster Parliament will shortly witness the farcical situation where Labour MPs, who believed themselves to be on the left by campaigning for Brexit, fighting to maintain legislative provisions that were introduced by the hated EU.
It is probably the case that those small left-wing organisations in Britain that supported Brexit now realise their serious mistake. A few such organisations in Ireland made a similar error. But all is not lost. Recognition of past mistakes, difficult though it might be to admit them, is not a hanging offence. What is essential is that trade union, socialist and labour organisations across the continent unite to fight austerity, xenophobia and the rise of nationalism.
Unfortunately the UK is now outside the EU, or will be shortly. Consequently some obstacles have been created in terms of building an effective Europe-wide opposition of progressive forces, yet that is what must be done. There are no short cuts. It is also essential that socialists argue now that separation of Scotland from the UK will not solve Scotland’s problems either. One of the conundrums that could cause a political hernia to those socialists who argue now for Scottish independence is that such independence will be predicated on Scotland remaining within the EU, itself apparently the source of all evil!