EU referendum: the left arguments for ‘Out’ and ‘In’

March 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm (class, democracy, Europe, Johnny Lewis, left, Racism, solidarity, unions, workers)

Left wing anti-EU campaigners have, so far made little attempt to argue their case from an explicity pro-working class, or even trade union standpoint. So it is at least refreshing to see Enrico Tortolano attempt to do this in yesterday’s Morning Star. We republish his piece below, followed by a reply from Johnny Lewis:

Lets’s fight on our terms not EU’s

Enrico Tortolano (campaign director, Trade Unionists Against the EU) argues that Britain’s EU referendum on June 23 is not a choice between two bad options but rather a fundamental choice about the kind of society we want to live in


Trade union negotiators spend their lives between a rock and a hard place trying to make the best of bad options.

This can lead to a habit we like to think of as pragmatism — making the best of a bad job.

However, at key historical moments fundamental principles come into the equation. Sometimes we have to aspire above the unacceptable options we are offered.

Britain’s EU referendum is such an occasion. It is not possible to apply a limited pragmatism to such a fundamental issue that touches on our system of justice, democracy, collective rights and our freedoms as workers. We have to express our deeper interests as working-class people.

To say Cameron’s “EU deal” is just as bad as the status quo and in the next breath advocate a vote for Britain to remain in the EU in order to build “another, nicer EU” misses the point. As does former Greece finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who thinks he can reform the EU — something millions of workers over three decades have found impossible.

It shouldn’t be forgotten he advised the Greek government to accept 70 per cent of the EU austerity memorandum and is responsible for much of the present crisis. His failure to understand the system, to grasp the nature of EU institutions and neoliberalism itself, underlies his utopian illusion.

The EU is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a bastion of workers’ rights, nor to support the struggles for equality of women, minorities or young people.

The desperate plight of working-class communities throughout the EU’s 28 member states is clear. Average unemployment was 8.9 per cent in January 2016 — 10.3 per cent in euro-area countries. Incredibly, this is hailed as a sign of recovery by some EU enthusiasts because it represents a 0.1 per cent reduction from the previous month.

Workers in the EU have been trapped in a prolonged crisis of joblessness and falling real wages for over 15 years.

Since 2000 average EU unemployment rates only fell below 8 per cent — 1 in 12 workers — briefly in 2007-8 only to rise to 12 per cent in 2013, before reverting to EU “normality” of around 10 per cent today.

For millions throughout the EU this has meant their lives have been defined by foodbanks, homelessness, debt and precarious forms of employment.

The intended outcome of German ordoliberal policies applied by EU political elites in the interests of big business is to lower wages, “foster competitiveness” and increase worker insecurity.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady (M Star March 9) and some trade union leaders who attempt to put a brave face on what they see as the least bad option, unfortunately risk choosing by far the worst option.

Leaving the EU would tear the Tory Party apart. Of course there would be confrontation, but given the ruthlessness with which they are destroying the welfare state and workplace rights, exiting and taking them down makes sense on all levels. This shouldn’t be outside our movement’s cognitive mapping — the real danger for workers lies in giving up on the idea of meaningful change. EU institutions rule exclusively in the interests of corporations and finance capital and are the main drivers of austerity in our part of the world.

A vote to leave the EU on June 23 would send shockwaves through the global financial architecture and damage its austerity agenda. It would also show British people know the only way to stop TTIP, privatising our NHS and public services, is by leaving the EU. These are precisely the reasons why large corporations, the US and global capital are desperately funding and supporting a campaign for Britain to remain a member of the EU.

This referendum is about class issues, not narrow negotiating issues. If the TUC or European TUC could negotiate a favourable settlement for workers with EU institutions and their masters in the Round Table of Industrialists, why has this not already happened?

This referendum is about whether workers want a future of intergovernmental collaboration based on UN principles of peaceful co-existence and respect for self-determination of nations, or a continuation of the EU’s endless austerity where supranational super-states financialise and privatise all areas of human activity.

In this context, it is anti-internationalist to foster the illusion that Britain outside the EU would suddenly become prey to a demolition of workers’ rights.

This is simply untrue. Decades of EU neoliberal economics have depended on its denial of the most basic of workers’ rights — the right to work. The equivalent of Britain’s entire full-time working population (22.98 million) are unemployed across the EU. It is a low-growth area worsened by EU institutions attacking collective bargaining rights.

Accession states, or countries with odious debt like Greece, have been forced to demolish collective bargaining arrangements as conditions for EU bailouts. The EU as a bastion of women’s rights? Try speaking to working-class Greek, Spanish or Portuguese women resisting the aggressive EU austerity agenda.

The European Court of Justice upholds fundamental EU principles of “free movement” of capital, labour, goods and services. That’s why its rulings automatically trump workers’ rights.

The Viking, Laval and Ruffert cases demonstrate this beyond reasonable doubt. The economic crisis of 2008 was used to push through a raft of policies giving the unelected European Commission the power to veto member governments’ budgets and spending plans.

A concrete road map has been articulated by the EU around an assault on workers’ rights that has led to mass protests in Bulgaria and general strikes in Portugal.

Because some on the left have been starry-eyed about the long-dead myth of “social Europe,” the task of organising real international solidarity with these struggles has been neglected.

Let’s revive the deep internationalism of Britain’s trade union movement. Vote to leave the EU. Make a new world possible.

REPLY:

The left Brexiters are putting workers’ rights in danger – and playing into the hands of the right

By Johnny Lewis (a leading trade unionist)

Comrade Tortolano opens his piece by noting that there are situations for socialists in which fundamental political principles must take precedence over the day to day pragmatism of trade union-style negotiations. In principle, I can agree: I’d argue that getting rid of Trident – even before we have an alternative jobs plan in place – is a case in point. Getting out of the EU most certainly isn’t.

At most, it could be argued that the argument over Brexit v Remain is a dispute between different factions of the ruling class over two alternative strategies for British capitalism, in which the working class has no interest one way or the other. In the past (during the 1975 referendum, for instance), some of us have argued just that, but I will now go on to explain why that approach does not apply in the present referendum campaign, and why trade unionists and the left should argue to remain.

I have argued in a previous piece that those on the left wishing to leave the EU need to be able to answer two questions: whether Brexit will benefit unions and workers in any practical sense, and whether the “left exit” campaign will help develop workers’ consciousness and the left politically. When leaving is put in such sharp terms the idea of a left wing exit rapidly falls apart, particularly around the consequence for unions.

Unions can only progress member’s interests in two ways: industrially and through legislation. As unions’ industrial power has declined so the importance of pro-union and pro-worker legislation has increased. Such legislation creates a floor below which unions and workers’ rights cannot fall. With one major exception (TU recognition) all such post- 1980 legislation originates from the EU.

It is the case our floor of rights is weaker than many other European counties – the result of the way European laws have been introduced in the UK – the Posted Workers Directive being a case in point. Comrade Tortolano cites the Viking, Laval and Ruffert cases as demonstrating “beyond reasonable doubt” his case that  the ECJ’s rulings on the implementation of the Directive is anti-worker: in reality the Directive gives member states latitude to determine what constitutes the minimum rate of pay. The Blair Government set the rate at the minimum wage creating a two tier workforce while in Ireland they linked the Posted workers rate to the ‘going rate’ set by collective bargaining. While we may blame many things on the EU the vast majority of problems unions have with EU legislation is a consequence of how successive UK governments have enacted EU legislation – and in directing their fire at the EU people like Comrade Tortolano in reality let the Tory government and its Coalition and New labour Predecessors off the hook.

However weak the present floor of rights may be, post-exit the Tory Government would have the ideal conditions in which to set about dismantling our present laws, further eroding unions’ abilities to defend members and further worsening workers’ terms and conditions. And the consequence of this dismantling of the floor would almost certainly start a European wide race to the bottom as E.U. countries are forced to compete with the rock bottom wages of UK workers. What possible benefit can unions and workers derive from such a development? On this fundamental level of workers’ rights those who wish to leave do not have a leg to stand and so tend to keep quiet on this pivotal matter, unlike the populist right. In fairness to Comrade Tortolano, he does at least address this crucial issue, but only by denying reality and obscuring the real issues with empty rhetoric (“it is anti-internationalist to foster the illusion that Britain outside the EU would suddenly become prey to a demolition of workers’ rights” etc).

The major argument put forward by the exit camp which directly purports to have workers interest at heart comes from UKIP, though it is hinted at in Comrade Tortolano’s piece, where he complains of the European Court of Justice upholding the principle of “free movement” of labour: that foreign labour has reduced wage rates, hence ending immigration will resolve low pay. Such demagogy shifts the blame for the decline in wages from the employer and government to ‘the foreigner’ it also writes out any role for unions in bidding up wages.

We can see from the floor of rights question to the populist right’s emphasis on immigration of the decline in wages there are no trade union based reasons for exit, unless someone wished to contend the floor of rights was irrelevant or believes (like, incredibly, Comrade Tortolano) the Tories will leave it intact. As for those wishing for a left exit, it is b – to put it mildly – worrying that they come close to blaming migrants for low wages.

Unable to put forward any coherent or convincing trade union-based rationale, those left wingers advocating Brexit can only do so from a political perspective. While it’s quite permissible to claim, as does Comrade Tortolano, that  “It is not possible to apply a limited pragmatism to such a fundamental issue that touches on our system of justice, democracy, collective rights and our freedoms as workers”, he is unable to present any such case, and neither has any other left Brexiter.

The comrade’s rhetoric about “our system of justice, democracy, collective rights” is simply empty guff: as I have stated (above), every single aspect of pro-worker and pro-union legislation in the UK since 1980 (with the exception of TU recognition) originates from the EU. As for “justice”, the EU has forced successive British governments to introduce legislation on parental leave, age discrimination and transgender rights that almost certainly wouldn’t exist otherwise; and in other areas – equal pay, maternity rights, sex, disability and race discrimination, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights has improved and extended existing laws, making it more difficult for a reactionary UK government to undermine them.

Comrade Tortolano then puts forward the further argument: that “A vote to leave the EU on June 23 would send shockwaves through the global financial architecture and damage its austerity agenda.” Although it is impossible to say what level of destabilisation exit will have on capital we can say with certainty it will have a detrimental impact on unions and the working class. Moreover the impact of a serious downturn caused by exit is likely to have precisely the opposite effect to what people like the comrade believe will happen. Rather than helping the fight against austerity, attacks on unions and workers will be intensified while the labour movement will be divided and unable to respond as a direct consequence of the political chaos exit will sow within its ranks. In truth such chaos will not be down to the left’s intervention, rather an exit victory will build an insurgent populist right and it is that which our movement, including the Labour Party will have to contend with.

The comrade, like all anti-EU leftists, no doubt believes that measures such as renationalising industries or intervening directly in the economy are made impossible by EU membership (I am surprised that this argument is only hinted at in his article): but this is simply not the case – see Article 345 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which states: ‘The Treaties shall in no way prejudice the rules in Member States governing the system of property ownership.’

http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:12008E345

All across the EU states have majority shares or own and run their own transport and energy sectors. This is confirmed in this 2013 Estep report, commissioned by the EU: http://www.esparama.lt/es_parama_pletra/failai/ESFproduktai/2_UM_valstybes-valdomos-imones_2013-03.pdf

In particular the report states: ‘SOEs are entitled for public services provision, which can be broadly observed in utility sectors such as transport, telecommunications or energy.’

While nationalisation may be restricted it is not banned or illegal. This is a widely-believed  myth, promoted by the anti-EU left. But, for the sake of argument, say it were true: are we seriously suggesting that a Corbyn-led Labour government, elected on a clear democratic mandate and manifesto pledging public ownership of the nation’s railway system and ‘Big Six’ energy companies, would be deterred by the objections of EU bureaucrats? This, incidentally, is where analogies with Greece, Spain and Portugal fall down: the UK has the fifth-largest national economy (and second-largest in EU) measured by nominal GDP: the idea that a left wing UK government could be bullied in the way that Syriza in Greece was is simply preposterous.

Across Europe and North America globalisation is causing a rising level of hopelessness among large sections of the working classes who are being galvanised into activity by the demagogy and programme of the populist right. The common denominator across all these movements, and what roots them in workers consciousness is the appeal to their respective nationalism. That’s why the left Brexiters like Comrade Tortolano are so badly – and dangerously – mistaken. It’s also why people like myself , who in 1975 argued for abstention, now say that in the forthcoming referendum, class conscious workers and all progressive people, must argue, campaign and vote to remain.

The referendum is not simply a matter of being about in or out: it is also an episode in the formation of this new, populist right-wing. Not least because the working class base of the Brexit campaign are not concerned with which model of capital accumulation best suits the UK, or for that matter the recent decline in workers’ rights within the EU: rather the referendum is a lightning rod for hitting back against their real and imagined grievances – politicians not listening, growing impoverishment, or the belief that exit will reverse Britain’s decline – not least by stopping immigration. In voting for exit these workers will not have been influenced by the incoherent arguments of the left rather they will cast their vote bound hand and foot to the reactionary leaders of the Brexit campaign.

The above is not to endorse the EU as it is today – far from it: the one convincing claim that Comrade Tortolano makes against the EU is about its undemocratic nature. In fact those on the left and within the unions who advocate Remain not only largely agree about the limits of the EU but also know what to do about its shortcomings; our problem is we have not done it.

Organising industrially and politically is our answer, it is our answer to the limitations of the Posted Workers Directive, it is our antidote to blaming foreign workers, and on a pan-European level it is our answer to the present limitations of the EU. For those of us who wish to remain we need to use the existing European wide union and political institutions and networks to campaign not only to democratise the EU but also to fight for our Europe a social Europe. Our starting point however is to ensure we stay in.

2 Comments

  1. Political Tourist said,

    Interesting that the Leave campaign in Scotland have picked Tom Harris, a former failed Labour MP as the public face.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    I’ve just received this:

    *Unite News Release*

    *For immediate release: Friday 18 March 2016*

    *Unite to campaign for the UK to stay in the EU as ‘the best hope for
    workers’*

    The UK’s biggest union, Unite, has today (Friday, 18 March) announced that
    it will campaign for the country to remain a member of the European Union.

    The union’s 63-strong executive council, drawn from workplaces across the
    UK, agreed that while the EU needs urgent reform to restore the project to
    its original mission of solidarity between nations, continuing membership
    is still the best hope for the jobs and rights of Britain’s workers.

    Announcing the union’s support, general secretary Len McCluskey said:

    *“It cannot be denied that the European Union has a great deal of work to
    do to convince its peoples that it is functioning in their interests. The
    punishing treatment meted out to Greece when it needed assistance not
    austerity, the enduing indulgence of austerity even though this is
    eliminating Eurozone growth, and the EU’s gross failure to address the
    urgent humanitarian crisis on its borders – these all illustrate the need
    for this union of nations to urgently rediscover its original mission of
    solidarity and shared prosperity.*

    *“It is undeniable, however, that for millions of UK workers and their
    families, the EU is the best hope for their jobs and fundamental rights.
    Our communities clearly benefit from the investment and trade links that
    come with being part of the EU. And our working people are in increasing
    need of the employment rights that flow from membership. Rest assured that
    outside of the EU, left at the mercy of a Conservative government, these
    protections will be swept away. That probability is reason alone to
    campaign to remain in the EU.*

    *“The EU cannot be run as a superhighway for corporates without a thought
    to the wider social consequences. So Unite will be saying that this
    referendum campaign is also an opportunity for political leaders from all
    parties to heed the warning signs from the electorate; they want reform,
    they want a people’s EU.*

    *“We are fully aware that we face a difficult task – our members are in no
    mood to listen to David Cameron and a Conservative party that has
    systematically denounced decent trade union members as the ‘enemy within’.*

    *“But the rights, jobs, prosperity and security of our members come first,
    which is why this union will be urging our members to vote remain this
    June.”*

    Unite, with over 1.4 million members in 23 different industrial sectors, is
    the UK’s biggest union.

    *ENDS*

    For further information please contact Pauline Doyle on 07976 832 861.

    Notes to editors

    Twitter: @unitetheunion Facebook: unitetheunion1 Web: unitetheunion.org

    Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million
    members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is
    Len McCluskey.

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