So the great Euro referendum debate has finally started and with the opinion polls pretty evenly balanced. I suspect in actual fact the chances of Brexit are relatively low but that the fight will be long and hard none the less.
One of the major problems faced by the Leave campaign is the perception that most mainstream political positions are in favour of remaining within the EU. The Leave campaign is seen as populated mainly by the right with the levels of enthusiasm for leaving increasing the further to the right one goes. On the other side of the political debate, this is balanced only by opposition to Europe from a small minority mainly on the harder left.
The Remain camp have so successfully monopolised the centre and especially centre left ground that they have reduced the political space for Leave.
In reality perfectly valid arguments for both positions (Leave / Remain) can be presented from almost anywhere on the political spectrum. From a Remain position one could argue the standard centre position but one could, albeit with difficulty, in the current setup argue for the EU as a prototype for a putative centrally controlled international socialist state on the hard left. At the other extreme one could argue for to a largely white European state on the extreme racist right.
As an aside the lack of discomfort or embarrassment when “European values” are mentioned as an unalloyed positive is interesting. Over the centuries and even in the last one hundred years the continent of Europe has been home to both some of the most progressive and liberal but also most regressive and repugnant values and actions in world history.
Amongst the most interesting – because they are rarely aired nowadays, of mainstream views, are the left of centre arguments against Britain’s membership of the EU. Once these were actually the default values of the left in British politics but during the long years of Thatcherism the left gradually surrendered opposition to the EU along with most of its other real left wing policies. Now, whilst Corbyn and his supporters may be reinvigorating many traditional left wing positions, he has (actually in what might be seen as a rather hypocritical stance) played down his and the left’s honourable anti EU credentials. It is interesting that Corbyn has changed his views on practically nothing since the 1980s but either has changed his mind on the EU or else is not prepared to state his actual views.
One of the leading political thinkers of the anti EU tradition of the left in relatively recent times was Peter Shore (once described thus by a Tory journalist: “between Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”). Shore was one of the few who might have been able to take the fight to Thatcher and ironically for the Tory Eurosceptics and phobes would have campaigned for Brexit whilst she would have supported Remain.
Shore’s argument was made in detail in “Separate Ways” but he did warn that deepening European Integration and that the nature of the Euro would lead to an erosion of democracy, the imposition of austerity and mass unemployment long before almost anyone else on the moderate left saw it.
Some of the left argument against Europe is shared with others from the centre and right: that Britain’s economy and interests are too divergent from the rest of the EU to make a fit work. Similarly the argument that all the different EU states are too diverse can be made with validity by many political positions. In addition both left and right can share the honest concern that however far removed from direct election Westminster’s power brokers are they are positively local and immediately answerable as compared to EU potentates.
Much of the traditional left scepticism towards the EU and indeed much of its inherent problems can be traced back to the EU’s foundation. People tend to focus on the idea that one of its aims was somehow to avoid demagogues, wars etc. but actually the beginnings of the EU and therein the problem for the left is far more prosaic.
Initially the progenitor of the EU was a confederation of Iron and Steel manufactures on the continent. This, the genesis of the “European Project” was actually a cartel of steel making big business. The EU has never lost that bias in all its activities towards big business which helps explain the tendency of large corporations to support it. It is that pro big business position which has helped underpin many developments. The power of the German manufacturing industries is helped by the Euro and much EU legislation.
The ability to threaten to move to cheaper EU countries helped the likes of the German car plants massively increase productivity during the 1990s and 2000s. This productivity gain was often about freezing workers wages and reducing overtime, benefits etc. For all the much vaunted worker and union representatives on the boards of German manufacturing businesses the fact remains that they are run to benefit their shareholders. Amongst the most important of these share holders are a small coterie of oligarchs such as would make their Russian counterparts green with envy. As examples: the Porsche family own 30% of the vast Volkswagen conglomerate whilst two individuals: Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten between them personally own 46% of BMW.
The increases in profitability of VW were driven in large part by the threat that unless its workers accepted erosion of their position, VW would move more of its manufacturing to other parts of the EU.
To change tack: It is extremely ironic that despite being set up to support Iron and Steel production EU rules now prevent a perfectly reasonable left wing approach to the crisis facing the steel industry in the UK. Steel being such a vital part of manufacturing it might be considered in the national interest to discriminate in favour of British steel in construction or indeed to offer state aid up to and including nationalisation of the steel industry. That again would not be permitted under current EU rules. Those rules might also place stumbling blocks in the way of the renationalisation of GB railways which has consistently been shown by polling to be a popular policy amongst almost all shades of political opinion.
It is true that the EU has also supported some workers rights legislation much of which has been objected to by the political right in the UK. However, as compared to the support for parts of big business the workers of the EU states have received thin gruel indeed. Furthermore the net effect of migration from poorer EU states has been to hold down wages for those in the richer nations. Prior to the Eastern Europeans working in the fields, the turnips were still harvested in Norfolk but the farmers and businessmen simply had to pay more. There is a debate to be had by both left and right about levels of benefits and incentives for work but the simple fact is that migrant labour from poorer parts of the EU has kept down the wages of the working class in richer countries such as the UK.
There is also a specifically internationalist argument on migration (the left often being internationalist). Although freedom of movement has been granted to all EU citizens it is a sad day for the left when it supports discrimination in favour of Europeans (largely white people along with previous out of EU migrants) and against workers from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Pulling up the drawbridge on the vast majority of the world would usually sit ill with the left. That is seems wrong if the border is at Calais or Dover and manned by British guards but somehow fine if it is at Lesbos and personned by a pan European force is hypocrisy of the first order.
The most overarching argument against the current EU status quo, however, is simply the lack of ability to enact radical left wing democratic change inherent in the EU. This has already been seen in Greece where a left wing government was gradually beaten down to surrender to a centre right or even right wing austerity agenda despite winning two back to back democratic elections. One can argue the toss about who owed whom money in that relationship going back to the Second World War but the reality is that the Troika enforced a change from democratically chosen policies. Closer to home we have also seen in Ireland Europe’s unwillingness at an institutional level to tolerate countries disagreeing with its chosen direction and simply deciding countries need to keep voting till the get the “right” answer. All too often that “right” answer is also to the right of the economic spectrum.
The nature of the EU is both a centripetal force pulling all countries towards its right of centre pro multinational business policies and an gravitational pull resisting change antipathetic to its views. This combination makes enacting true left of centre polices as opposed to minor dilution of a centre right big business friendly ones extremely difficult. As such attempts to create not a Communist State nor even a Venezuela style socialist state but simply a mixed economic model like Britain had from the 1940s to 1970s is practically impossible within the current EU.
There are of course arguments from a left of centre position in favour of remaining within the EU just as there are right wing arguments in both directions. Therein lies the point. This is a national question for the UK and one can adopt almost any position on the left right spectrum and simultaneously hold to either Leave or Remain. The Remain camp is unlikely to want the leftist Leave argument to be heard: that is what political campaigns do – try to reduce the political space open to their opponents. Furthermore since most of the Leave camp is to the right they are unlikely to be able to make the Left Leave case convincingly – pulling George Galloway out of a hat does not really count.
Whether this will sway the vote is unlikely: when all is said and done I suspect the Remains will have it but the position of Shore, Foot and their intellectual successors on the centre left Leave case should not go unrepresented.