The Tory media and the Labour right will spend the next four months claiming that the most important question facing Britain and people within it is whether Britain stays in the EU or not. It is not. The most important question facing people in Britain is whether economic, social, and political policies are pursued which defend their living standards. This requires the rebuilding of social services, increases in wages, a state led investment programme focussed on green and other infrastructure, opposition to Britain’s wars, opposition to the forms of racism whipped up every day in the media and numerous other policies.
Neither staying in nor leaving the EU will by itself deliver policies solving these most important questions. It is precisely because neither membership nor leaving will by itself deliver progressive policies for the British people that the Tories and the Labour right want to claim EU membership is the most decisive question – because they want to avoid discussion of any policies that will actually solve these problems. The EU referendum, in short, is in part a pure diversion from the most important issues required to defend living standards and achieve social progress.
Cameron’s ‘agreement’ with the EU is of course purely a squalid camouflage for this reality. It introduces a few more reactionary rules on benefit payments but does nothing to change the fundamental character of the EU.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that it is most definitely not the most important issue facing working people in Britain it is necessary to have a position on EU membership in the referendum. Given present economic and social policies withdrawal from the EU would make the position of working people somewhat worse. Probably trade with the EU would not be greatly affected but inward investment would fall and restrictions on immigration would certainly become much stricter – the automatic right of EU citizens to enter Britain would be ended. The most extreme proposals even envisage restrictions on movement in Ireland guaranteed by the Good Friday agreement. For these reasons the living situation of working people both in Britain and the EU would worsen if Britain left the EU in present circumstances. It is for similar reasons that across the EU the majority of left wing forces agree on maintaining EU membership.
As against that some on the left argue that the EU is a fundamentally capitalist and anti-democratic body that would be used to block any left wing government implementing nationalisation and other policies necessary for really defending living standards and solving key social issues. The answer to that is: Yes that is true. As a simultaneous arrival at an attempt to create a progressive or socialist regime across the whole of Europe is extremely implausible, and any such struggle would begin in a minority of countries, any seriously progressive left government would almost certainly be forced to leave, or would be excluded from the EU – although this situation would also depend on conditions at that time across other countries in Europe.
If a progressive or socialist government were confronted with the choice between implementing the measures necessary to defend living conditions and achieve social progress or remaining in the EU it should leave the EU. To adopt the reverse position, and to say EU membership must be maintained even in conditions where it was a direct obstacle to economic and social progress, would be to make such progress impossible.
But that is something which hopefully will develop in the future. It is not the present situation. It is a wrong method in politics, which will therefore not be understood by the working class and mass of the population, to take a position on current problems on the basis of what may (but may not) develop in the future under conditions which will necessarily be different at that time.
Some on the left argue that the experience of Greece and Syriza shows even now EU membership is a total obstacle to any progressive anti-austerity policies in Europe. This is based on a confusion. Syriza was not defeated on the progressive policies on which it was elected by blackmail over its EU membership, it was blackmailed over its membership of the Euro. Britain is not a member of the Euro – nor should it be. This gives greater room for economic manoeuvre.
Given this concrete situation:
· that with present policies the living conditions of the population would be worse if Britain left the EU;
· that the situation if a left progressive government exists should be considered in the precise conditions in which it came into existence, the correct position to take in this referendum on EU membership is to vote to REMAIN.
This vote in the referendum is the one taken by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Cat Smith, Clive Lewis and other Labour figures, by trade union leaders such as Steve Turner, by Caroline Lucas and other leaders of the Green Party. The correct practical orientation in Europe at present is to link up left forces across Europe.
Membership of the EU is not a principle nor will it by itself deliver progress. A progressive left government in Britain might well be forced to leave, or be excluded, from the EU. But the position to take in this referendum, for the reasons outlined, is to vote to REMAIN.
Meanwhile the most important task is that, in or out of the EU, the left in Britain must build support for seriously progressive economic, social and political policies.