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Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Brexit: Time to Correct the Error
member Irish Labor Party
Member, Executive Committee of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions
The leaders of the British labour movement, and unfortunately much of the ‘left’, are being led blindfold into a cul-de-sac. The proposed exit of Britain from the European Union has generated a procession of pilgrims that is shuffling slowly into the outer dark chanting meaningless phrases about ‘soft Brexit’, ‘hard Brexit’, ‘hard Border’, ‘soft Border’ and respect for ‘the decision of the people’.
There is no ‘Tory Brexit’ or ‘left Brexit’. There is only Brexit – a thoroughly reactionary movement, in every respect. The foundations of the process lie in a split within the British Tory Party. Some of the leaders on the left in Britain – including Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn – have always been confused on the question of Europe. It was their belief that being opposed to the EU was an essential component of being on the left. This confusion has only given succour to the right-wing Tories in their endeavour. It is time now to correct that error.
When the so-called ‘gang of four’ brought about a split in the British Labour Party more than three decades ago the issue was presented then as a dispute about the European Economic Community. In fact the principal aim of Jenkins, Rogers, Owen and Williams was to prevent the election of a left Labour Government. The question of Europe was but a dust jacket designed to present these individuals as people of principle who believed in internationalism and to conceal their essential purpose which was to facilitate a further victory for Thatcher as the better of the two options then available, an objective that they achieved. Jenkins himself went on to become President of the European Commission, which only added to the confusion allowing form and substance to be intermingled.
Jeremy Corbyn and co. now find themselves hoist on a hook about a phony democratic principle. ‘The people have spoken!’ Well the last time that the British people ‘spoke’ was last May when a Tory Government was cobbled together with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Does anybody seriously argue in that case the ‘decision of the people’ on that occasion should remain inviolate for a period of five years? Or what about Trump in the US! The people spoke there last November. Is that decision also beyond bounds! People can change their minds, and they do all the time.
The Tories say that they will get some agreement following their discussions with EU bureaucrats. Well, let them bring that deal back for a fresh vote by the British people. And the next time that such a vote comes around hopefully the discussion will be on such issues as pay, conditions, protections for workers, employment opportunities and public services. And internationalism! The necessity for the organised labour movement to unite across national boundaries in a common endeavour against the depredations of capitalism, especially in its current destructive phase, is obvious. It is high time for a common programme of demands to be presented by trade unions across Europe in all of these policy areas. The campaign must start now with a series of international conferences of the labour movement.
There needs to be a public discussion, illuminated by socialist internationalism, on the issue of the free movement of people in Europe. Preventing workers of other EU countries from coming to Britain in search of work is the intent behind the drive to leave the Single Market.
The issue of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to escape the horrors of despotic rule and military dictatorship is not the consequence of EU actions as such but reflects centuries of colonial rule by European and other world powers and the continuing series of proxy wars cynically fostered by today’s major capitalist powers. This urgent matter of saving the lives of millions of impoverished people has to be addressed immediately but whether or not Britain leaves the EU will not itself be a determining factor in this. The cynical use in the anti-EU campaign by Farage and UKIP of photographs of masses of impoverished migrants is but a further illustration of the need to revisit the Referendum.
As far as countries of the EU are concerned there are two issues to be tackled. People should not be driven from their own countries because of poverty and underdevelopment. A socialist programme of public works and industrial development with the aim of raising living standards is essential across all the countries of Europe. Privately-owned banks and finance houses were principally responsible for the impoverishment of so many of the peoples of Europe in the most recent recession. They must be brought into public ownership. At the same time as fighting for the socialist transformation of society as the only alternative to poverty, trade unions in the advanced countries must insist on establishing minimum standards for all workers. Rates of pay, hours of work and safety conditions should be established in such a way as to eliminate super exploitation of poor immigrant workers in the metropolitan countries.
There is no doubt but the drift within the EU has been towards a consolidation of the power of capitalist industry and a diminution of the power of public bodies. But the same is true of every capitalist country. However within the EU such policies are the consequence of a series of Treaties that have been enacted since 1957. All of these Treaties have been voted upon by national parliaments or by popular vote. The European Court of Justice is charged with the legal enforcement of the terms of these Treaties. The Treaties must all now be reopened for public discussion and renegotiated. All measures that weaken public ownership and control must be repealed, as well as any legislative measures that weaken the power of trade unions to fight for improved working conditions.
Political clarity is essential in the EU debate in Britain. Even the term Brexit is problematic, as concealed within this esoteric term is the real process. It is being proposed that the United Kingdom leave the European Union. That has not happened yet. In what ways can it be argued that the UK leaving the EU will be of benefit to workers and their families? Better wages? Better and safer working conditions? A better and more sustainable environment? More jobs with long-term security and decent pay? A key phrase in the right-wing campaign against the EU is ‘restoration of sovereignty’. The Treaties of the EU have ceded sovereignty from national governments in certain areas such as health, safety at work, working hours and the environment. So when the Tories speak of the restoration of sovereignty, in which areas of endeavour do they want to reverse the process? No doubt they are not concerned about reversing measures that facilitate capitalist accumulation or inhibit the expansion of public services, ‘sovereignty’ or not. And what about the ‘sovereignty’ of their own Parliament which they have ceded to an unelected multimillionaire family that resides in Buckingham Palace, or the ‘sovereignty’ that they accord to a bunch of unelected bishops and hereditary peers in their House of Lords!