The EU: Do we stay or do we go?

A left case to leave by S.F

06/05/16

Introduction

Some on the Left are for Remain. Some are for Leave. These positions are held with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I would describe my position as a borderline Leave. I understand why people want to Remain.

JC and some on the Left have decided to compromise in connection with the In/Out Referendum and support Remain. I understand the reasons for that. However, the effect of the decision on the Left to support Remain has been that the Left case for Leave is not as prominent as it would otherwise have been. I personally think at the moment that this has more likely than not ensured a vote in favour of Remain. However, that is not a reason for these arguments not to be made.

I believe it is important that the Left’s case for Leave is explained. This is not because I am personally passionately in favour of Leave. I am not. It is important for the following reasons:

1 People need to understand that there is a Left case for Leave. This is based on the principles of democratic socialism. The absence of this perspective distorts and degrades the quality of the debate.

2 A failure to make the Left case for Leave is creating a vacuum that the Right are filling. It is only the arguments of the Right that are being heard. This is providing the Right with a platform. The Left vision is not that of Gove, Johnson and UKIP. There is no reason why their vision should be the prevailing vision of an alternative to the EU. The choice does not have to be between that unholy trinity and the EU. That is a false premise.

3 In focusing on the arguments in favour of Remain the impression is created that a vote for Remain is a vote for the EU as it presently is. This distracts from the fact that many of those in favour of Remain have serious concerns about the EU. It distracts from the fact that there are significant concerns about the EU amongst other people in other EU countries as well. It also distracts from the pressing need for change and reform within the EU.

4 When many of the arguments in favour of Remain are deconstructed they are often not as compelling as they might appear. Without a Left case for Leave these arguments are not being subjected to scrutiny from a Left perspective. We should not make the mistake of being seen to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories on this subject.

5 The unity of the Labour Party on the In/Out referendum appears to be superficially attractive when compared with the disunity of the Tories. However, the consequence of this is that it might have the effect of creating the impression amongst those in the electorate who are for Leave, some of whom are traditional Labour voters, that the Labour Party offers them nothing. One might acknowledge their concerns, challenge them, confront them or agree with them. However, we should not ignore them.

Our membership of the EU

It is important to clarify: (a) exactly what our status within the EU is and (b) exactly what we are being asked to Remain in. Indeed, it is something of a misnomer to frame the Referendum question as to whether we Remain or Leave the EU. We are not being asked whether we want to Remain or Leave the EU as it is actually and presently constituted. Apparently, the reality is that hardly anyone in the UK wants to be a member of that EU.

The U.K. has therefore devised it’s very own version of membership of the EU. The government refers to this as a ‘special status’. The reality is a membership ‘lite’, an a la carte, associate membership. It is inevitable that our limited membership status will lead to an ever declining influence in connection with the future direction of the EU.

At the moment my understanding is that we have opt outs in connection with: (a) Economic and Monetary Union; (b) The Schengen Agreement; (c) The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (sadly negotiated by the Labour Party because of concerns that UK citizens might be able to enforce their social and economic rights and because of concerns about costs to business which it would appear were considered more important than citizens social and economic rights); and (d) Justice and home affairs matters arising from the Lisbon Treaty. In addition to that we now also have Cameron’s further recently negotiated opt outs.

We are not a full member of the EU. We are not at the heart of Europe. Furthermore, the government tells us we have absolutely no commitment to further European political integration. The government also tells us it has a commitment to reducing what it refers to as ‘EU red tape’.

This demonstrates that a vote to Remain does not protect those workers rights set out in the Social Chapter. John Major secured an opt out from the Social Chapter in 1992. In 1998 the Labour government opted back in. However, even if we were to remain in the EU it would not prevent the Tories from seeking further opt outs, for example from the Social Chapter – a commitment Cameron made as long ago as 2007 – if they were so minded to do. Cameron repeated his intention to seek an opt out from the Social Chapter as recently as July 2015. Let us not be under any illusions about this. Remaining a member of the EU does not necessarily guarantee or protect any social rights at all.

Democracy within the EU

There is a significant democratic deficit in the UK. We cannot elect our head of state (which still effectively operates on the basis of divine right and the hereditary principle); we cannot elect our upper house (and the arrangements for appointments to the upper house always have been and remain a shameful disgrace in what purports to be a 21st Century democracy); the executive is too powerful in relation to the legislature; we have an electoral system that does not allow our Parliament to properly reflect the spectrum of political views of the people of the country; and the current government is likely to succeed in removing significant numbers of people from the electoral register as a consequence of its new voter registration procedures.

The EU yet further adds to this democratic deficit. The EU taken as a whole is not democratic and it is not accountable to the people of Europe. The unelected Commission is too powerful and the elected Parliament is too weak. The EU appears to be committed to continuing to alter the balance of power within Europe still further away from democracy and accountability and towards the vesting of still further power and influence in corporate and commercial interest. The EU has demonstrated no commitment to achieving democratic progress. The Commission has never really addressed the issue of democracy in the EU. It is not on its agenda. This will continue to undermine EU legitimacy and EU institutions and processes will decline. An example of this was the all time low turnout in the Euro elections in 2014 of 42% compared to 61% in 1979.

The democratic deficit is not just a catch phrase. It has very real effect. The real effect is that it cedes power and influence to undemocratic and unaccountable interests. I do not think that can ever be a good thing. The less democracy and accountability there is the greater the vacuum and the greater the scope there is for those with wealth, power and influence to maximise, promote and protect their own particular interests at the expense of those who do not have that wealth, power and influence. This will not protect and promote the civil and political rights of all citizens. It will not protect the social and economic rights of all citizens. It will not protect and promote equality and justice for all citizens. It will not protect and promote a social Europe.

I am aware that we can try and democratise the EU from within, but if one takes as a convenient starting point for the early seeds of democracy in our own country, the English Revolution in 1642, it has taken us about 370 years just to try and democratise our own country and look how far we still have left to go. The EU has not demonstrated any significant commitment to democratic progress within the EU. It does not appear to me that there is any commitment to or any realistic prospect of democratic progress within the EU in the foreseeable future.

Austerity

Following the global economic downturn in 2008 the Troika (the Commission of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) imposed austerity measures on several heavily indebted European countries.

This was based on a belief that the debt problems within those European countries were due to unsustainable government spending required to maintain overly generous welfare states, excessive public sectors, overly generous pension levels, state subsidies and low user fees for services.

The proposed solution was to implement stringent austerity measures with the intention of disciplining debt ridden governments by cutting public budgets, reducing public sector workers, curbing welfare and social benefits and narrowing the scope of the welfare state. This was based on a belief in expansionary austerity – that it is possible to cut your way to growth. This was a repudiation of the Keynesian principle for dealing with recession which prescribed the use of government spending to pursue growth and full employment. As the economists Stiglitz and Krugman have reminded us – imposed austerity at a time of recession makes no sense. Stimulus and growth are what we need.

These cuts in public spending have disproportionately affected those on low incomes, the poor and the vulnerable. In March 2015 a European Parliament report found that austerity policies in the EU had eroded the poorest citizens access to education and healthcare. The economic crisis and the austerity measures, adopted by various eurozone EU governments imposed by the Troika, to cut public spending had serious consequences for fundamental rights in connection with education, health care, child poverty, employment, pensions and justice. The consequences are a continuation of the widening gap between the richest and the poorest.

The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (‘TTIP’)

Many people will be aware of TTIP. It is a proposed new trade deal between the EU and the USA. TTIP is important for 2 reasons: (a) because of the consequences that will flow from the proposed trade deal itself and (b) it provides a useful illustration of the neoliberal principles upon which the EU is based and to which it is committed.

Those consequences and principles are:

Deregulation

Tariffs between the EU and the US are already at minimal levels. TTIP is not a traditional trade agreement designed to reduce border tariffs on exports. The stated aim of TTIP is to remove regulations that act as ‘barriers’ to corporate profits. However, these ‘barriers’ are in reality important social standards and environmental regulations such as labour rights, food safety rules (including on GMOs), regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

Documents in connection with TTIP negotiations were recently leaked. Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace EU, said: “These leaked documents give us an unparalleled look at the scope of US demands to lower or circumvent EU protections for environment and public health as part of TTIP. The EU position is very bad, and the US position is terrible. The prospect of a TTIP compromising within that range is an awful one. The way is being cleared for a race to the bottom in environmental, consumer protection and public health standards.”

Privatisation

The aim of TTIP is to maximise private profit by opening up public services and government contracts to the private sector and ‘locking in’ privatisations that have already happened. Health services are included in TTIP. The intention will be that NHS privatisation is irreversible if the deal goes through. The same principle will be applied to education, water, environmental services and our railways.

Legal advice has been obtained by the Unite trade union from one of the UK’s leading QC’s. The advice provided to Unite was that the effect of TTIP would mean that the privatisation of elements of the NHS could be made irreversible for future governments wanting to restore services to public hands. The advice further concluded that the deal poses “a real and serious risk” to future UK government decision making regarding the NHS. TTIP’s procurement rules could force the NHS to contract out services it wants to keep in house.

Commercial dispute resolution

TTIP will grant US companies a new power to sue any future government in corporate courts for loss of profits. This ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ mechanism (ISDS) threatens to undermine the most basic principles of democracy.

Similar provisions in other treaties have allowed, for example, tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris to sue Uruguay and Australia for enacting anti-smoking legislation, and a Swedish energy company to take legal action against Germany for phasing out nuclear power.

Conclusion

The debate on Europe is very complicated. There are many shades of grey. It is a debate that crosses the political divide. It is in very many ways finely balanced. I am a democratic socialist. In my heart I am a European and an Internationalist. I appreciate that the EU has addressed some progressive issues within Europe.

However, one then has to weigh against that the democratic deficit which is at the centre of the EU, its commitment to austerity and the ultimate primacy of corporate and commercial interests the EU is committed to protecting and promoting as evidenced by TTIP.

It is difficult to reconcile these competing positions:

I find it difficult to want democratic progress within the UK whilst supporting an EU that is not in my view committed to democratic progress.

I find it difficult to oppose austerity on the part of the Tories in the UK whilst supporting an EU that has been equally committed to imposing austerity within the EU.

I find it difficult to oppose neoliberalism, deregulation and privatisation in the UK whilst supporting an EU that has been committed to this framework and remains committed to this framework – the very framework that provided the environment in the first place in which the banks plunged the world into financial meltdown in 2008.

It is for these reasons that, with a heavy heart, I am currently a reluctant borderline Leave. However, I am open to argument and further review. I am not wholly incapable of being persuaded that a vote for critical Remain is the way to go in the Referendum.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s