By John Hilary
At some point before the end of 2017, the British people will be given the chance to vote in a referendum on whether we wish to remain in the EU. As the executive director of War on Want, we will not be running a campaign for the UK to leave or to remain in the EU. We hold to the principle of internationalism that unites social movements across borders, and we remain actively committed to the task of building a People’s Europe from below, whatever the institutions imposed from above.
At the same time, we are keen to dispel some of the myths that have been put out concerning the true nature of the EU institutions, particularly by those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU. To this end we present here a brief and balanced guide to the European Union: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and then ask: which way should the left vote?
For many on the centre-Left, EU membership is still promoted as a defence against the downgrading of social standards in the UK. The EU is positively associated with the social and environmental directives negotiated in the wake of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, including the right to parental leave; rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers; a maximum 48-hour working week; and rights for workers being transferred between jobs, or TUPE. On the environmental side, EU directives were adopted to improve air quality, wildlife protection and standards of bathing water around the continent's beaches.
It is undeniable that the tendency towards deregulation in favour of business has traditionally been more pronounced on this side of the Channel than elsewhere in Europe, and right-wing Eurosceptics openly speak of Brexit as a means to achieving an even more extreme neoliberal settlement than is possible within the EU. While there is little talk of environmental standards being immediately at risk, workers' rights are an explicit target of Conservative and UKIP supporters seeking to leave the EU. This would be an argument for remaining in the EU, were it not for two factors.
The first is that EU membership is no guarantee that UK citizens will enjoy its social benefits. John Major's Conservative government negotiated a full opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, excluding British workers from its positive elements while exposing them to the worst impacts of the single market. Tony Blair secured an opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive so that British employees are allowed to disregard its 48-hour weekly limit. David Cameron is currently trying to make the UK's membership of the EU conditional upon the further downgrading of social and labour protections.
The second, more compelling factor is that the EU has long ceased to be a source of progressive legislation. Over the past two decades, the institutions of the EU have devoted themselves instead to the business mantra of 'competitiveness', code word for an all-out assault on the European social model. During Peter Mandelson's time as EU commissioner, any talk of 'Social Europe' was replaced by 'Global Europe', an explicit reengineering of the internal market for the benefit of transnational capital and a hard-nosed imperialism on behalf of European business abroad.
No one on the Left claims the EU is currently fit for purpose. If there was any doubt, the contempt shown to the people of Greece in 2015 when they called for a fair renegotiation of their debt confirmed there is zero tolerance in Brussels for any challenge to the fiscal compact that underpins neoliberal capitalist rule. 'Austerity Europe' is the brutal regime imposed by the institutions of the EU on its peoples, just as 'Fortress Europe' is the face presented to those fleeing disaster on its borders. There is no alternative.
Nor is this dogma simply a reflection of politics in the EU member states, as some have argued. The institutions of the EU are deeply committed to the twin agenda of competitiveness and austerity – and none more so than the European Commission, whose unique powers render it far more influential than any normal civil service. It was the Commission that joined forces with industry lobbyists to promote the infamous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently under negotiation between the EU and USA. It's the Commission that is pressing ahead with a business-friendly agenda of deregulation that has already seen the downgrading of key environmental directives on fuel quality, air quality and the recycling of waste.
The final, crucial element in the referendum is democracy – or, to be more precise, the democratic deficit which lies at the heart of the EU. The Lisbon Treaty which came into force at the end of 2009 made explicit that EU treaties have primacy over the national laws of EU member states. Yet it was the Greek debt crisis that showed how democracy no longer has any meaning within the EU, as the will of the Greek people was bulldozed by the demands of the central elites. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, cautioned against any romantic belief in democracy at the time of the elections which swept the anti-austerity party Syriza to power in January 2015:
"To suggest that everything is going to change because there's a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties."
Even those who defend the EU concede that it now faces a crisis of legitimacy. Brussels has abandoned any last vestiges of the European social model in favour of its regime of austerity, privatisation, competitiveness and the erosion of fundamental rights. The battle lines are now clearly drawn between those who defend such a system and those who oppose it. There is no third way.
Is there any genuine possibility of submitting the institutions of the EU to the kind of radical reform needed to convert them to a progressive social agenda? If we are honest about this, the answer is no. Those of us who have fought against EU policies for years have learned that its institutions, unelected and unaccountable as they are, will never be amenable to the change necessary to make them serve the people of Europe. Like it or not, a vote to stay in the EU means a continuation of the status quo. Only a rupture with the institutions of the EU will create the space necessary for the development of a People's Europe.
John Hilary is the executive director of War on Want
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.