Workers Hammer No. 243
Down with the EU!
Brexit and the fight for a socialist Europe
The following is an edited version of a Spartacist League public forum given by Kate Klein in London on 26 April.
One of the notable things about the gazillions of words moaning about Brexit that are flooding the press and social media is how none of it deals with the reality of what the EU is. The EU is popularly portrayed as some sort of warm and happy haven of cultural interchange, welcoming immigrants and promoting peace. Sort of like the Disney version of political reality.
The pro-EU talking heads portray Brexit as simply xenophobia and economic calamity. In fact we are against the EU because it is a racist and anti-worker cartel created by and for the imperialists of Europe. It exists not to “promote peace”, not to “overcome borders”, but to strengthen the economic might of the bigger powers, centrally Germany and France, and Britain as well. It squeezes the life out of the smaller, weaker countries, fattens the bankers and throttles the trade unions.
We in the Spartacist League/Britain and the other sections of the International Communist League welcomed the vote for Brexit. In a statement the day after the 2016 referendum we noted it was a stunning defeat for the bosses and bankers of Europe and of Wall Street and “an expression of hostility from the downtrodden and dispossessed not only to the EU but to the smug British ruling establishment, whose devastation of social services and industry has plunged whole sections of the proletariat into penury” (“Brexit: defeat for the bankers and bosses of Europe!”, Workers Hammer no 235, Summer 2016).
We have also noted many times since that Jeremy Corbyn, who has the allegiance of millions of workers and youth up and down the country, could have provided a lead for those who oppose the rapacious EU and reject the vile, racist anti-immigrant chauvinism of UKIP. He could have done — it’s his own historic position — but he did not. Instead Corbyn let UKIP and their ilk carry the leave baton while he campaigned for remain, thereby linking arms with the Blairites, the City of London and the wider bourgeois establishment. Our placard “Shame on Jeremy Corbyn for supporting the EU” has been drawing both support and hostility on sales and demonstrations ever since.
In the last several months Corbyn has elaborated that Labour is for Britain remaining in the single market during a transition period and in a permanent customs union after that, which would pretty much gut Brexit of its purpose. He’s sending a message to the capitalist class: clearly the Tories are divided and chaotic, but Labour under my watch can be relied upon to protect your interests. Hence our front-page headline in Workers Hammer no 241: “Corbyn puts lipstick on EU pig”.
Part of the reason for the huge popularity of Jeremy Corbyn since he’s led the Labour Party is his recognition that the working class has been taking it in the neck, and that public infrastructure has been starved of funds and looted by the capitalists. The irony is that in supporting the EU Corbyn is going against his own stated vision of what’s necessary to rebuild Britain’s infrastructure. The EU is all about “market competition”, which demands privatisation. For example any renationalisation of railways and utilities, such as Corbyn talks about, would go against EU regulations. The EU mandates forced competitive bidding in the provision of public services, which undermines trade union protections and safety and drives down wages.
The EU strangles Greece...
The euro is an instrument by which the dominant EU powers, especially the German capitalists, lord it over the weaker states like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The EU big players aim to increase their competitiveness against their imperialist rivals in the US and Japan. The euro and EU are proof that tanks and missiles are not the only way imperialism conquers and enslaves. It doesn’t get clearer than the case of Greece, where a series of so-called bailouts imposed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank (the “troika”) have come with conditions which amount to a takeover by the German banks. Greece’s creditors demanded the reorganisation of the judiciary and government administration, and have dictated economic, social welfare and labour policy. The result has been years of crushing austerity: mass joblessness and people unable to afford food or medical care. Youth unemployment in 2017 was 43 per cent. And with some 60,000 desperate refugees locked up by the capitalist Syriza government in squalid camps, immigrants are offered up as scapegoats. The fascists of Golden Dawn have been growing in the atmosphere of economic crisis and despair. We say: Cancel the Greek debt! Greece out of the euro and the EU!
In July 2015 Greeks voted down more EU-dictated austerity in a referendum called by the Syriza government. But Syriza stabbed them in the back and agreed to new EU starvation terms anyway. Our comrades in the Trotskyist Group of Greece (TOE) issued a call to build workers action committees to repudiate Syriza’s capitulation to the EU by fighting to get out of the euro and the EU, and for demands that address the burning needs of workers and the oppressed. The TOE call, headlined “Enough!” (reprinted in Workers Hammer no 232, Autumn 2015), called for workers defence guards to smash the fascist threat of Golden Dawn and to defend immigrants against racist attacks. It was aimed at rendering the working class conscious of its own social power and raised the call for common class struggle of Greek, German and other European workers against all the EU imperialists.
In addition to oppressing countries like Greece, the EU is also dead against self-determination for oppressed nations within EU member states. For the Catalans or the Basques or for that matter the Scots if they opted for independence, the EU is their enemy. That was dramatically brought home when exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was arrested in Germany in March on a European arrest warrant issued by Spain, which demanded his extradition and that of other exiled Catalan officials. Among them was Clara Ponsatí, who was arrested in Scotland where she teaches at St Andrews. They faced long jail sentences if tried and convicted in Spain, for what the Spanish government and the EU see as the crime of having organised the independence referendum last year. [In July the Spanish government withdrew the extradition warrants against Ponsatí and Puigdemont, though they both still face arrest if they return to Spain.] We are unambiguously for the independence of Catalonia as well as the Basque country, both north and south of the French-Spanish border.
We welcome Brexit because it will destabilise the EU. For instance, by removing a key financial centre from the EU — the City of London. This destabilisation is to the advantage of the working class across Europe, and we would welcome the break-up of the imperialist cartel. Of course after Brexit or, if it happens, Grexit or Italexit, the working class will still face its enemy in its own bourgeoisie. But the weakening of the EU will put the workers in a better position to fight.
...and oppresses German workers
A look at conditions for the working class in Germany is instructive. Contrary to myths about the good conditions for workers in the EU’s most powerful economy, Germany has a huge low-wage sector. The policies of the EU have impoverished working people. Precarious employment through agencies and two- or three-tier wage systems abound. German workers often need state benefits to top up their meagre wages. Frequently people have their benefits sanctioned for the slightest alleged infraction; pensioners have to take part-time jobs to live; welfare recipients are stigmatised as “parasites”. This is all too familiar in Britain but it is also the case in Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse.
Much of this dates back to the time of Gerhard Schröder’s SPD government, a contemporary of the Blair governments here. They both signed a 1999 manifesto, “Europe: the Third Way”, which pledged to “transform the safety net of entitlements into a springboard to personal responsibility” ie, get shot of the welfare state. Schröder brought in the Hartz IV reforms in 2005, resulting in a 25 per cent increase in the number of workers in Germany who cannot live on their wages — more than three million people.
An imperialist project from the outset
The EU and its predecessor, the Common Market, were imperialist designs from the outset. After World War II the overriding political concern of the United States, which had emerged from the war as the world’s dominant imperialist power, was to shore up European unity against the Soviet degenerated workers state. The Soviet Union had defeated the Nazi scourge, and its prestige was greatly enhanced among workers across Europe.
But there was also France’s determination to prevent a resurgent German dominance in Europe. Washington had to deal with this, which to a certain extent was at odds with the US aim of beefing up West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. As we wrote at the time of the 1975 British referendum on Common Market membership: “Stability in West Europe required that the French bourgeoisie have a degree of control over German industry and a share of German wealth” (“Britain and the Common Market”, Workers Vanguard no 71, 20 June 1975).
Out of this cauldron came the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. This agreement gave France a portion of control over coal and steel production in the Ruhr, which, like the rest of West Germany, was then occupied by the Allied powers. (If you control coal and steel you control the economy, at least back then.) This was the embryo that would become the EU.
In 1957 this European unity venture produced the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market, signed up to at first by Germany, France and four other countries, not including Britain. Part of that deal included massive subsidies to French agriculture, the Common Agriculture Policy, to piece off the rural electoral base of the right-wing parties. The Common Market was set up as the economic adjunct to the US-dominated NATO. But where the British bourgeoisie was divided over the Common Market and Britain took a long time to join it, there was no hesitation about NATO. Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in the 1945-51 Labour government, was one of its architects and founders. The first general secretary of NATO, Lord Ismay, described its purpose as: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.
Labour’s Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964. He had an undeserved reputation for being a “left”, having been associated with Aneurin “Nye” Bevan in the 1950s. Wilson was committed to Britain entering the Common Market but, when out of office, postured as being opposed to it on the basis of protectionism, in tune with the trade union bureaucracy. Wilson opposed entry in 1962 while in opposition, but fought for it in 1967 when in government. He later denounced Ted Heath’s Tory government for leading Britain into the Common Market. When Britain joined in 1973, Workers Vanguard pointed out that “Wilson’s ‘opposition’ to Market entry is designed solely to recoup the popularity the BLP [British Labour Party] lost while governing and to prevent the anti-Market campaign from being dominated by the Labour left and reds” (“Labor and the Common Market”, Workers Vanguard no 15, January 1973).
Serving in Wilson’s cabinet was Tony Benn, who consistently opposed the Common Market. Benn was the quintessential Labour Party left who gave flair to the myth of “parliamentary socialism”. Loyal to British imperialism, he opposed anything threatening the sanctity of the Mother of Parliaments. In the lead-up to the 1975 referendum on Common Market membership, he wrote a letter to his constituents explaining his objection to the Common Market. He declared that staying in it would increasingly remove “the power the British people once enjoyed to govern themselves”. He praised Parliament for having “protected us in Britain from the worst abuse of power by government
[and] defended our basic liberties” — an ode to bourgeois parliamentary democracy. In fact, as Lenin described in The state and revolution, bourgeois democracy is always “a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich”.
It’s important to remember that while Benn differed with the overtly pro-NATO, CIA-connected right wing of the Labour Party, he did not explicitly oppose NATO. He agreed with Labour’s right wing in seeing the Soviet Union as the enemy of “democracy”, but he wanted a less slavish relationship with the US. The young Jeremy Corbyn was Benn’s protégé in Parliament.
Britain came out of World War II a victor but economically a basket case. Heavily indebted, its industry clapped out and in the process of losing its empire, it was reduced to the role of junior partner of US imperialism, which it remains today. The City of London plays second fiddle to Wall Street, and Britain’s armed forces join in nearly every US military operation, from Korea in 1950 to the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Within the EU, Britain has long been the agent for US interests, so the US imperialists were furious that David Cameron in their view recklessly gambled with the EU by holding the Brexit referendum. You could see it in the run-up to the referendum when then-president Barack Obama came over to frantically “reach out” to British voters to try (unsuccessfully) to prevent the unthinkable.
The EU in the post-Soviet world
Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92 was a historic defeat for the working class worldwide. The Soviet workers state, product of the first, and to date only, successful proletarian socialist revolution, was undone after decades of imperialist pressure from without and Stalinist betrayal from within. We Trotskyists defended the Soviet workers state to the last, while fighting for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy that was undermining the gains of the October Revolution.
We had fought for the same perspective in the DDR (East Germany) in 1989-90. However, an incipient political revolution there was overwhelmed by the forces of capitalist restoration and the West German capitalists annexed the East German deformed workers state. That defeat was an ominous prelude to the end of the Soviet Union and it laid the basis for the resurgence of German imperialism. In opposing the Maastricht Treaty, which founded the European Union, in 1992 we noted that it signified that “West Germany was transformed from a Cold War ally of American imperialism into an aggressive Fourth Reich seeking mastery of Europe” (“Fourth Reich bankers detonate...Euro-chaos”, Workers Vanguard no 560, 2 October 1992).
French imperialism supported German unification on the condition that Germany accept a common European currency which Paris thought would rein in the deutschmark. So what became the euro was included in the Maastricht Treaty. What a miscalculation by the French imperialists! The euro has not weakened German imperialism but has strengthened it, including against France itself.
The imperialists moved to quash any meaningful opposition to their capitalist club on the part of the trade unions. They needed a skilled salesman for the job and that role has long been played by the Social Democracy. The social democrats — including the leaders of the Labour Party, the German SPD and the French Socialist Party — have been useful to the imperialists, serving to keep the working class of Europe under the capitalist yoke.
Social Europe con game
In 1988 French Socialist Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission, came to address the union bureaucrats of the TUC. These are the guys aptly termed “labour lieutenants of capital”: agents of the class enemy within the workers movement who tie the workers to their exploiters. Delors, like all sleazy second-hand car salesmen, made a load of dubious promises. He promised the integrated European market would develop backward regions, fight unemployment and provide jobs.
The union bureaucrats were waiting for a Labour government that they could pressure for crumbs, because they sure weren’t going to get any from Margaret Thatcher. Delors promoted the EU as a counterweight to Thatcherite attacks on the trade unions. Among the assembled class traitors was Ron Todd, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), who during the heroic 1984-85 miners strike had twice sent the dockers back to work when they’d come out alongside the miners. Delors’s speech did the trick. Todd said: “In the short term we have not a cat in hell’s chance in Westminster. The only card game in town at the moment is in a town called Brussels.”
As you can see by Corbyn’s use of it, the “social Europe” swindle gets trotted out when support for the EU needs bolstering. Brian Denny, who writes for the Morning Star and shares the Communist Party’s opposition to the EU from a protectionist perspective, wrote about how Keith Richardson of the European Round Table of Industrialists did his bit to win over hesitant trade union types. Agreeing to the inclusion of Delors’s European Social Charter in the 1987 Single European Act, Richardson said: “If politicians feel it is important to get the chapter referring to the desirability of full employment and they think it will help public opinion, we don’t really object — providing of course that it remains related to aspirations” (“The strange death of social Europe”, tuaeu.co.uk).
Enemy of workers and immigrants
So what does the EU really mean for trade unions and workers struggles today? The “social Europe” crowd will tell you the EU does or can protect workers’ rights. But look at dock workers in Spain, a highly strategic sector of the proletariat. A few years ago the EU Court of Justice declared that Spanish ports where dockers were unionised violated EU rules on “free enterprise”. The EU’s objective is to get rid of unions in the ports. The dockers have fought this with strike action. And look at the recent rail strikes in France. The workers were fighting against French president Emmanuel Macron’s decrees preparing to privatise the railways in accord with EU directives, the first step in going after all public sector workers’ conditions.
I read some exceedingly boring accounts of European Court of Justice cases and the essence of many rulings is this: the highest right is that of capitalists to make a profit; if a union is “interfering” with that by striking or by demanding contractual rights it can be held to be breaking the law. But the trade union bureaucrats continue to churn out nonsense about the gains for unions under the EU. For example the TUC practically swooned over the Agency Workers Regulations, which the EU adopted in 2010, hailing them as a big advance. These regulations supposedly give the millions of workers, including some one million in Britain, who are employed via agencies and labour brokers — pure parasites — equal pay and conditions to permanent workers doing the same job. This is laughable: bosses have a get-out clause known as the Swedish Derogation which allows workers to be paid less under certain conditions! The EU exists to promote the “flexible labour market”: casualisation, privatisation, zero-hours contracts, pay freezes, savage cuts to pensions and benefits.
When you look at the response from the so-called leaders of the trade unions, it’s clear that the working class needs a class-struggle union leadership. Forging such a leadership must be linked to the fight for a multiethnic revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with the capitalist system of wage slavery through socialist revolution.
And as for “free movement” of people in Europe, the actual overriding principle for the EU capitalist cartel is free movement of capital. The bourgeoisies decide where to put the capital and then manipulate the movement of labour to suit their needs. Migrant workers from poorer EU states like those of Eastern Europe are used as a pool of low-wage labour.
And there is no free movement for you if you’re a refugee fleeing one of the hellholes created by the US and European imperialists’ wars, when you try to scale the walls of Fortress Europe. A few years ago when the number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean spiralled into the thousands, what was the response of the European powers? Britain, France, Italy and Germany dispatched warships to the Libyan coast to stop people coming to Europe.
Marxists are against deportations and for full citizenship rights for everyone who has made it to this country. That democratic demand is a key element of the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party which stands as a tribune of all the oppressed. Our programme is for international proletarian revolution to overturn the imperialist order that forces millions of people to flee their devastated homelands.
For a Socialist United States of Europe!
More than 100 years ago Bolshevik leader VI Lenin wrote:
“From the standpoint of the economic conditions of imperialism — i.e., the export of capital and the division of the world by the ‘advanced’ and ‘civilised’ colonial powers — a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary....
“Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capitalists
but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America.”
— “On the slogan for a United States of Europe” (August 1915)
That’s a good description of the EU. Today the bourgeoisie and its social-democratic lackeys push the EU as purveyor of “peace”. But that’s a big lie though it isn’t a new one. Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1916) was a polemic against the Social Democrat Karl Kautsky. He ridiculed Kautsky’s theory that, as Lenin put it, “imperialism is not so bad; that it stands close to inter- (or ultra-) imperialism, which can ensure permanent peace”. Lenin debunked this and showed that imperialism is not a policy adopted by a capitalist class but the final stage of capitalism in which monopoly predominates and industrial capital is submerged into finance capital. This inevitably means wars among the competing imperialist powers as they fight to redivide resources and spheres of exploitation.
The nation-state long ago became an obstacle to the expansion of productive forces. But that obstacle can’t be overcome by some combination of capitalist states, each of which relies on its own military might to advance its interests. The whole basis of capitalism is competition between the national bourgeoisies for the maximum exploitation of the working class at home and abroad. The bigger fish will dominate the smaller ones. That’s what the EU is about.
The Marxist conclusion is that the working class must come to power, replacing the capitalist state with a workers state and expropriating the bourgeoisie. The establishment of working-class rule internationally will lay the basis for a socialist world order.
However, talk is cheap. So you might hear the slogan “socialist united states of Europe” from, say, the Socialist Party. But they pin their hopes on Corbyn’s Labour becoming the vehicle for socialism through elections and votes in Parliament. When Corbyn made his big speech in February for staying in the single market and the customs union the Socialist Party endorsed it even though they’re on record opposing the EU and the single market and supporting Brexit. As I said, talk is cheap.
The Socialist Party’s “opposition” to the EU is from a “little England” nationalist standpoint, like Tony Benn’s. Other leftists who oppose the EU from this perspective include the Communist Party and Trade Unionists Against the EU, and did include the late Bob Crow who headed the RMT union. Such a perspective necessarily leads to anti-immigrant chauvinism like the reactionary strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery in 2009 where the call was “British jobs for British workers”. The strike committee included a member of the Socialist Party. We opposed those strikes against foreign workers. They could only benefit the bosses, who thrive on the divisions they sow in the working class. The migrant workers at Lindsey were employed under the EU Posted Worker Directive, which allows migrant workers to be hired on sub-standard, temporary contracts. The unions need to organise immigrant workers, with full union pay and protections.
We’ve defended Corbyn from the relentless attacks by the bourgeoisie and by the Blairites in his party. We reject the slanders about him promoting anti-Jewish bigotry — it’s a witch hunt. But we need to be clear that Corbyn’s betrayal on the EU is emblematic of left Labourism, left-wing social democracy: coming to the aid of the bourgeoisie when it really counts. Labourism has been the main obstacle to building a revolutionary workers party in Britain for over a century. We are of a counterposed tradition, that of Lenin. We fight to build a vanguard party that can bring to the working class the political consciousness that will allow it to mobilise all the oppressed behind it in the struggle to end the capitalist system of wage slavery. The first step is clarity on who are the friends and who are the enemies of the working class. So we say down with the EU, and shame on those who in the name of the oppressed would defend it.