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Socialist Case for Exit

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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 May 2009

Why socialists oppose the EU

No2EU logo

No2EU logo

THE RMT-led coalition for the European elections, 'No2EU-Yes to Democracy', is receiving a very favourable response as a workers' alternative to the rotten establishment parties. But some on the left have asked: Is it reactionary, and nationalist even, to say No to the EU? Clive Heemskerk looks at the arguments.

MANY OF the fundamental problems facing workers today, from the economic crisis to planet-threatening climate change, cannot be solved in one country alone.

A united Europe, bringing together in real solidarity all the resources and human talent in the different countries and cultures encompassed in the 490 million-strong European Union (EU), would be an enormous step forward in the struggle for a new world. But can the EU unite Europe, not in an artificial or imposed 'unity from above', but in a genuine coming together of the European peoples? The answer to this question, is no.

The EU, from its inception to today, is an agreement between the different national capitalist classes of Europe, with the aim of creating the largest possible market for the big European multinational corporations. Each treaty, from the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community, has developed and enhanced a Europe-wide market, with pan-European regulations and commercial law.

The latest treaty, the proposed EU constitution, has been repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty after it was rejected, with big No majorities by workers, in referendums in France and the Netherlands. But it is still essentially the same document: a continuation and deepening of previous treaties, in particular the Single European Market Treaty, signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, and the Economic and Monetary Union Treaty signed by John Major in Maastricht in 1992.

That is why the No2EU coalition has made rejection of the Lisbon treaty one of its ten core demands. This treaty would, if implemented, unleash a new wave of the type of neoliberal policies that have dominated world capitalism in the last three decades: attacks on the welfare state and workers' rights, privatisation and deregulation, and the slashing of pensions, free education and public health services. That is reason enough to say no to it. But it is not sufficient to leave the argument there.

There are those who argue, like the Green MEPs in the European parliament, that while the Lisbon treaty is 'in many ways unsatisfactory' (Euro-Greens policy document, December 2007), it is better to support it and then fight to 'change the EU from within' rather than oppose it outright. Failure to agree new constitutional arrangements, the argument goes, could be the beginning of EU disintegration.

Saying no to the Lisbon treaty or the euro (whose membership conditions also enshrine neoliberal policies) would only lead to the redivision of Europe into power blocs and competing nation states. Many trade union leaders in Britain have an essentially similar position.

This argument has to be addressed. Heightened national tensions and greater intra-Europe rivalries would be a blow to the interests of workers in Britain and Europe. But unfortunately, exacerbated conflicts between the nation states of Europe are an inevitable outcome of attempting to create an 'ever greater union of Europe' on the basis of capitalism, especially in the period of downturn and stagnation now opening up in the world economy.

These could lead to countries abandoning the euro or even to a breakdown of the EU itself. The working class has to have its own independent position: not the bosses' EU but a socialist Europe.

Nation state

Why can't capitalism unite Europe? Fundamentally, because of the two pillars on which the capitalist system is based. Firstly there is private ownership, exercised by an ever-concentrating circle of giant corporations, of the means of producing the goods and services we consume - 'the hidden hand' of the free market guiding society, as the capitalist economic guru, Adam Smith, described it 230 years ago.

Secondly there is the nation state, the terrain on which capitalism first emerged, in Britain and then across the globe. The nation state is not only an economic entity but a social and political formation, with historically rooted features such as territorial boundaries, language, culture, etc, which are not mechanically created and changed by purely economic forces.

The EU has gone far in creating a pan-European market. The 170 EU-based companies among the world's 500 biggest listed corporations now take almost two-thirds of their revenue from outside their home country, up from 50% in 1997. But west European countries still spend 86% of their income on goods or services made or provided at home and only 10% on goods from elsewhere in the EU. Fewer than 2% of Europeans work in another EU country, a product of cultural as well as legal differences between the EU nations, markedly different, for example, to the flow between the states of the USA.

There are pressures in the world economy pushing the national capitalist classes of Europe together, economically and politically, in particular to create an economic space big enough to rival the US and Japan (and increasingly, China). But not even the Lisbon treaty would change the character of the EU away from being an agreement between the different capitalist classes of the 27 nation states of Europe.

Global capitalism, including within the EU, is still organised on the basis of nation states as economic and political entities, and that creates counter-pressures to the drive for European unity. Even multinational companies, as they stride the globe, are still linked to their national base and often reliant on it.

The financial meltdown has revealed the limits of cross-border banking, with national governments intervening to prop up domestic banks at the expense of their rivals. The British government threatened to use anti-terror legislation to compel Icelandic banks to guarantee UK-held deposits!

This economic persistence of the nation state is linked to its political role. As even capitalist governments don't control their economic destiny - when faced with the 'hidden hand' of the market making workers redundant, for example - they have to find other ways to maintain a social and political base within their respective nation states.

Moreover, the treaty negotiations aimed at 'equality of competition' throughout the EU have sometimes meant that the interests of one or another section of the capitalist class in a particular country have not been met, provoking some capitalist politicians to speak out against 'Europe'. Such objections have been ridden out in times of economic growth, but they will not be so readily overcome in an era of recession.

Given the reality of the existence of nation states there will always be some pro-capitalist politicians who will appeal to nationalism against the EU to build their support along with companies seeking their 'own' government's protection against foreign rivals.

And if workers, and middle class voters, feel powerless, subject to 'market forces' they cannot control, they will be open to ideas of 'putting our country first', 'British interests', or even the slogan of 'British jobs for British workers', unless a viable force can offer a real alternative of workers' solidarity and decisive socialist action against big business.

This would have to include a programme of nationalisation, for example of all companies threatening redundancies, under democratic working class control and management.

But even public ownership of large sections of the British economy, in the hostile climate of a capitalist world economy, would only be a first step towards breaking the power of the multinational corporations.

International solidarity and international planning are necessary. But that does not mean support for the EU! 'Internationalism' does not mean workers supporting 'their' ruling class in whatever agreement is made with the capitalist classes of other countries. If it did, then supporting agreements like NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, would be 'internationalism'.

Such an independent class approach is especially vital in the period opening up, with last week's Eurostat figures showing France and Germany, Europe's economic motors, suffering the most prolonged economic contraction since the second world war.

Workers' parties

It is necessary to warn of the consequences of attempting to unite Europe 'from above', in the interests of capitalism, and instead say 'No to the EU constitution and the euro', while arguing the case for a real collaboration of peoples that can only be achieved on the basis of a socialist Europe.

In an era of economic and political crisis there will be a recoil from the EU. Forces that have promoted it will face the wrath of workers and big sections of the middle class.

Instead of being urged to support the EU, 'with reservations' or otherwise, workers in each EU country should demand that their government defy the pro-market, anti-worker EU directives and rulings. In Britain, for example, that would mean refusing to implement EU directives to 'liberalise' postal services, of which the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail is another step. Why couldn't the EU transport directives be defied and the railways re-nationalised, and other privatisations reversed? Why couldn't the 'race to the bottom' under way in the EU be resisted, with European Court rulings on the posted workers' directive defied, as the construction workers who struck for their jobs at the Lindsey oil refinery did?

What could stop the introduction of a 35 hour maximum working week, with no loss of pay, and a minimum wage of 8 an hour -the European 'decency threshold' - and the taking into public ownership of any company which threatens to withdraw from Britain as a result?

But such struggles, which would come up at each stage against the capitalists' control of the economy and society, would raise the need for new mass parties to represent the working classes of Europe, given the 1990s transformation of the Labour Party, and the social democratic parties of the EU countries, into completely capitalist parties.

No2EU-Yes to Democracy is a coalition for the European elections, with a limited programme. While it has drawn around it representatives of the most combative workers in Britain today, from the Lindsey and Visteon workers to the RMT, it is a more tentative step towards independent working class political representation than, for example, the Left Party in Germany, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France, or Syriza in Greece.

But working for the biggest possible vote for No2EU can be a first step towards building a force that can unite, in genuine international solidarity, with workers in Europe and across the world to fight for a better future.

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The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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