EU membership: a challenge for the serious left



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It is being reported that some Scots intend voting Yes in the British referendum dealing with Britain’s membership of the European Union. Apparently their decision is based on the rather shaky principle that if a significant number of English people wish to leave, they will vote to remain.

Something similar may happen in the North of Ireland as a result of boorish statements from senior members of the DUP, who prefer to criticise a hapless Taoiseach than to wrestle with austerity-inflicting Tories.

While it is possible to understand the resulting resentment, it would be short-sighted not to deliver a better-judged verdict on the real nature and purpose of the European Union during David Cameron’s “in-out” referendum. It would also be an unforgivable blunder to allow the far right to dominate an argument that socialists cannot ignore.

Moreover, the EU is in the throes of a series of crises that may well determine much of Europe for decades to come.

The European Union, from its foundation, has been a structure designed to facilitate capitalism and to promote imperialist objectives. When originally set up in the 1950s as the Common Market it had as its primary purpose the creation of economic co-operation between western European states hostile to the Soviet Union. In spite of adopting a social-democratic programme in its early phase, it had a clear but unspoken objective of curtailing socialism.

Many on the left recognised the institution for what it was and drew attention (with disappointingly little impact) to the threat posed by the presence of NATO coupled to a political bloc fundamentally committed to maintaining free-market economies.

Two main factors accounted for the left’s lack of influence. Fearing the influence of the USSR, coupled with the impact of post-war western European communist parties, the ruling elite made strategic concessions to the working class. This, together with a raised standard of living achieved by the super-exploitation of the Third World, meant that for many years Europe’s rulers were able to contain discontent.

For reasons well known to readers of Socialist Voice, the EU’s ruling elite has retreated over the past four decades from the post-war social-democratic arrangement. More recently, attacks on workers’ living standards have intensified under a neo-liberal agenda. As circumstances have changed, the widespread tolerance, if not quite approval, that once existed for the EU among Europe’s working class has come under significant challenge.

The reasons for growing disenchantment are not hard to find. Capitalist free markets bring with them the inevitability of crises, such as that triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. By enforcing the fiscal and monetary straitjacket resulting in particular from the treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon, the EU orchestrated an era of austerity as a response to the financial crash and subsequent recession.

The result for working-class communities in many parts of Europe has ranged from painful to calamitous. Unemployment rose steeply in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, and Greece, and the hard-won social welfare safety net was cut to the bone. Most hurtful is the growing realisation that this situation is not a temporary aberration but is the new standard.

Not surprisingly, the enforcement of neo-liberal policies has caused resentment, and new, though often disjointed, protest movements have emerged in many countries, including Ireland. Nor is the discontent confined to the so-called peripheral countries. A radical movement opposed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership¹ has grown in strength in Germany over the past few years and recently staged one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in that country.

Against this background of discontent with the economic management of the EU, conservatives (and not just the far right) throughout the continent are stirring up hysteria against the waves of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.

So concerned are some establishment-leaning commentators that they are going so far as to suggest that these difficulties may lead to the break-up of the European Union. Prof. Mark Mazower, writing in the Financial Times, said: “The union faces a deep crisis of institutional legitimacy.”² He listed the main areas of contention as high rates of youth unemployment, secular stagnation, and disagreement over refugees, leading possibly to a collapse of the Schengen agreement. The professor didn’t include a British exit from the EU, but he might well have.

In spite of the problems confronting EU heads of government and their bureaucrats, there is little doubt that the current European ruling class will strive to maintain an entity that has served it well for so long. Moreover, present indications are that they will endeavour to do so by moving further to the right. Using increasingly authoritarian methods, whether financial, fiscal, or armed force, they will hope to simultaneously outmanoeuvre both the populist right and meandering social democrats. There are already clear signs that leading EU governments are employing increasingly reactionary and anti-democratic practices.

In the light of this it has to be stated that the EU is not going through a temporary phase of turbulence that can and will be corrected if and when, that “better and improved policies are adopted if the right people are put in place.” The EU is not like a dysfunctional family that can be improved by the application of therapy and a measure of good advice. The EU is doing what it was designed to do, and will continue doing so unless and until it is replaced by a different construction.

The forthcoming referendum promised by David Cameron provides the serious left with a challenge that cannot be avoided. With heightened interest in the debate, it is important to avail of an opportunity to make people throughout Ireland aware of the nature and purpose of the EU and simultaneously to offer a realistic socialist alternative. It is crucial, therefore, that the debate doesn’t get sidetracked into secondary issues or become distorted by right-wing, xenophobic ranting (nor that anyone should support the EU because that might annoy the DUP).

A century after the 1916 Rising it would be timely and important to remind Irish people that control by the EU of monetary and fiscal policy, and a growing military commitment, are incompatible with the existence of a “sovereign, independent state” capable of defending the well-being of its citizens.

It might also be timely to rework an old adage from that revolutionary era and point out that the EU’s difficulties could and should become an opportunity for the working class in Ireland and abroad. As a first step we need to engage energetically in the debate, providing a left critique of the EU that emphasises its core function and worrying future developments. As always, any critique also requires the outline of the realistic alternative offered by socialism.


Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in Socialist Voice Feb 2016

 

1. Lee Williams, “What is TTIP? And six reasons why the answer should scare you,” Independent (London), 6 October 2015.

2. Mark Mazower, “Lessons from the past are key to Europe’s survival,” Financial Times, 23 January 2016.

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com