Prior to the 1992 General Election the ostensibly socialist journal New Left Review No 191 carried an article titled ‘The Ruins of Westminster’ by Robin Blackburn. One of the central themes of the article was to argue for the progressive development of the European Union through a social democratic/left programme and to compare this favourably with the monetarist ravages of Thatcherism and the backwardness of the British state. The article then went on to call for a tactical Liberal Democrat vote where they were most likely to defeat the Conservatives. It is hard to imagine now, but at that time some on the left did actually believe that the Liberal Democrats might be a progressive force.
The progressive social democratic and liberal bloc would then turn Britain to the heart of a progressive and social democratic Europe. The implication being this would be both a bulwark against a revanchist attack on the post war settlement following the collapse of the Soviet Union and represent a defeat of the euro-sceptic nationalist forces that were developing a head of steam on the right wing of the Conservative Party. The argument that the European Union represented a progressive social force was carried in the main by the TUC bureaucracy, both Kinnock and Blair and the Financial Times.
This analysis, while wrong in all aspects, also had a huge attraction for many on the left who were despairing of ever breaking the Conservative strangle hold on Parliament – especially after the 1992 general election. For others, the advocacy of a single European state was because of a belief that it would bring a broader unity of the working class against capital. This analysis was undermined to some degree by the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty and its monetarist criteria in 1992, but the excitement of the newly launched ‘Euro’ project as part of Maastricht meant many on the left still felt able to argue that the European Union was an open project with a contested class content.
These days, with the troika smashing up the welfare state across the European Union and carrying out a massive attack on working class living standards, the argument that European Union has the possibility of being a progressive bloc against Anglo-American neo-liberal capitalism is not often heard and with good reason; the collapse of the social democratic project has revealed that at heart the EU project is being governed by the demands of capital at the expense of labour and that the essential argument over the direction of the EU was between neo-liberal and social democratic capitalist ideologies – an argument that the pro-market social democrats have now comprehensively lost. The progressive light has gone out in the European Union as class war rages across the continent.
In fact, from the European Coal and Steel Community, through the Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, the European Union has always been a project of European capital. The popular glosses deployed to win mass favour for the project were built upon an understandable popular desire to prevent another continental war, the fact that the British Isles are geographically part of the continent and therefore some form of social and economic co-operation seemed both sensible and necessary, a genuine desire to reject the narrow nationalism of the Tory right and to find a path diverging from the British imperialist tradition, and the oft cited and patronising argument that no one would have to bother visiting the bureau de change ever again before getting on the ferry, boat or train to the continent. However, the popular reasons were not the real reasons.
The European Union was constructed partly as a bloc against the Soviet Union and, following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, it broadened out into the attempt to create a European capitalist super power that might have a hegemonic influence on a global scale in a three way power struggle with the United States and China. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain (which alone seemed to have the alternative of hitching its wagon to the US train) would either have to form a bloc or be torn apart by much larger imperial interests. There was nothing progressive in either of these driving forces so it should be unsurprising that in the 21st century the European Union emerged as a ‘bosses union’, a fortress against the global free movement of labour, and an imperialist project being built to counterweigh Chinese and US power in the contest for global resources. It is impossible, from this perspective, to argue for the strengthening of the European Union.
The problem of UKIP
The recent rise of UKIP, alongside the capitalist offensive and resistance to it across the continent, has once again placed the question of The European Union at the centre of the left’s concerns. There is the worrying prospect that in May 2014 UKIP’s populist stance on the European Union may lead a section of working class voters to vote UKIP on the European ballot and then to also vote UKIP in the local council election ballot and for some to then jump ship permanently.
UKIP has made headway in the polls through a combination of four factors: first, by playing on fears of mass migration from Eastern Europe and stoking up racism; second, by appealing to the not insignificant band of English nationalists, backed by the Daily Express and on occasion the Daily Mail; third, by highlighting the massive democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union project and fourth, by becoming the new party of the protest vote: pint in hand, Farage presents himself as one of the people, and with media backing it has had impact so far. Farage argues that there is a British solution to the economic and social crisis and an exit from the EU on neo-liberal policies will enable that solution to be put in place. The nationalism underlying this position and the racism and xenophobia that supports it should be fought on all fronts by the left without concession.
UKIP are on much stronger ground with regard to the democratic deficit in the European Union. Farage’s very public attack on Herman Van Rompuy on Rompuy’s accession to the leadership of the Union highlighted the fact that unlike, for example, Obama, most people who live in the European Union do not know who their president is, do not have the slightest idea how he gained his post and would not know how to remove him. Rompuy is a career bureaucrat who has risen to the top of the EU pile because he is very well adapted to that particular environment. Farage’s attack was gross populism but did highlight a real issue.
The troika’s attack on the Greek working class and application of massive pressure to Greek society to vote for a neo-liberal solution to the crisis, in addition to the installation of a technocratic government in Italy, represents the dictatorship of capital slowly coming into view – and it is the European Commission and its President that is leading the process. The accretion of powers to the EU over three decades, that allows such an attack on democracy to take place, has very little democratic mandate in Britain.
Greece and Italy show that socialists must not abandon the democratic argument simply because UKIP have made the running so far. The working class is the only class that has the potential to create a thorough going mass democracy across the whole of Europe. The key question is how to properly frame the argument that both challenges the dictatorship of capital and imperialist essence of the EU and also the idea that a simple exit from the EU and a nationalist ‘capitalism in one country’ is a viable option. Not to address this fundamental democratic question would be to leave the field to UKIP.
However, the attack on UKIP must be a combination of challenging its reactionary pro-austerity pro capitalist policies as evidenced on its website (e.g. it is comprehensively in favour of smashing the NHS and the welfare state) as well as on its nationalist position on Europe and racist platform on immigration. In fact, an attack on its domestic policies is central to beginning to destabilise the electoral bloc it is trying to solidify. To this degree having the broadest socialist challenge for the 2014 metropolitan elections, where UKIP and the Tories will be indistinguishable, offers the best conditions for breaking any working class illusions in the exit strategy that UKIP have.
Come the European elections what do socialists argue for?
Socialists do not want to build a project that is attempting to create a new imperialist bloc. It is important to challenge the existence of the European Union as a political project of forces hostile to the working class across the whole of Europe (note: this is not just the EU) and internationally. Equally, and at the same time, socialists need to challenge the underlying xenophobia and English nationalism that underlies UKIP’s exit position.
By arguing for a continental Europe working class alliance and programme that can create a political counterweight to the EU project, one that is socialist and anti-imperialist, is against a fortress Europe and does not envisage a national solution to the problems that face the working class, socialists can challenge the UKIP national solution and also the dictatorship of capital in Europe, posing an alternative that would, if enacted, destroy the European Union.
Whatever the detail of such a programme, election times are summed up by central election slogans, key campaign points, with a few bullet points attached to each platform. So what is it that socialists are for and what is it that socialists are against?
In the European Union elections we are ‘For a Socialist Europe’. For me this is the central slogan of the campaign. The key campaign points that follow this slogan should be bullet points of an alternative programme. Obviously each person will have their own preferred positive slogans that sum up what a socialist Europe might be but in essence any combination of serious anti-capitalist measures would operate to break up the European Union because they would not respect the boundaries that make up the European capitalist fortress either legally or geographically. This is not something that we should hide from voters – we are in favour of the break-up of the European Union and its replacement by a wider socialist anti-capitalist project for the European continent.
What socialist are against is both the nationalism and xenophobia of UKIP and the Tory right and also the austerity offensive that is a Europe wide phenomenon – whether a country is a member of the European Union or not. So the oppositional slogans should focus on saying no to European austerity – an austerity that is supported by both UKIP and the Commission – and no to racism and xenophobia – given UKIP’s racism the Commission’s desire to build a fortress.
By advancing slogans for a socialist Europe and against austerity and racism socialists neither promote the illusion that there is a British way out of the crisis nor suggest that the existing political structure that dominates Europe offers a solution either.