Divisions in Britain’s governing Conservative Party have forced a referendum on 23 June over whether to continue membership of the European Union (EU). The EU is a capitalist institution with neo-liberalism hard-wired into it that the left should not support.
The major institutions of British capitalism from the Confederation of British Industry to the Bank of England and the Institute of Directors all want to remain in the EU.
The heads of the International Monetary Fund and NATO, as well as US President Barack Obama, have all backed Britain remaining in the EU. The governments of France, Germany, Australia and even China demand the same.
Reflecting the interests of big business, leading figures of the ruling Conservative (Tory) Party such as the Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, also support remaining.
But the Tory Party is bitterly divided over the issue. While Prime Minister David Cameron and 16 of his ministers are for staying the EU, five are not, as well as about half of all Conservative MPs.
These Tory Eurosceptics have been joined by racist xenophobes like Nigel Farage’s UKIP party in calling for “Brexit”, a British exit. Opposition to the EU is strong on the ideological right of the Tory Party, driven by hardline nationalism and the longing for a bygone era of Britain as an independent world power.
Some of those campaigning to leave the EU, like former London Mayor Boris Johnson, are using it as a platform to make a run for deposing Cameron as PM.
Britain has always had a more detached attitude to membership of the EU than the core states like France and Germany.
British capitalists invest more overseas than they do at home—some 39 per cent of the UK›s direct investment abroad is in the US and almost 31 per cent in Europe.
Britain has much higher foreign investment than other European countries, and big firms from the US and Japan have based operations in Britain as a bridge into the Eurozone. The City of London has built itself into a global financial centre partly as a base of operations in the EU for banks from around the world.
Many on the left support EU membership, seeing its Europe-wide scope and measures like the abolition of internal border controls as a blow against nationalist prejudice. There is a hope that the EU can somehow be reformed into a supra-national state that can impose progressive labour and environmental regulations and end conflict in Europe.
But in practice the EU is a bosses’ club that enforces austerity on working class people.
This is shown clearly in the ruthless measures the EU has imposed on Greece, including privatisation, massive cuts to the public sector and pensions. The EU institutions took no notice when Greeks voted against these measures by electing Syriza and rejecting a bailout deal in a referendum—simply imposing further austerity anyway. Similar measures have been imposed on Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
The EU was established in order to form an enormous free trade bloc, designed to give European businesses access to a market and labour from across Europe.
While allowing free movement inside its borders, the EU has become responsible for Fortress Europe policies against refugees, with the murder of migrants in the Mediterranean through cutting back rescue operations, whether those arriving are from North Africa or feeling the civil war in Syria. The EU border force, Frontex, is now organising to turn back asylum seeker boats to Turkey.
Despite the EU’s brutal austerity assault on Greece, many union leaders and left wingers claim the EU guarantees workers’ rights in Britain.
In fact the EU supports the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade deal with the US being negotiated in secret. It would boost the interests of corporations through attacking environmental regulations and allowing them to sue governments that act to hurt their profits. The EU also imposes restrictions on renationalising the railways or the steel industry, which is currently sacking thousands of workers.
The socialist Left in Britain is calling for a “No” vote in the referendum, forming the “Left Leave” campaign to argue to exit the EU on an anti-racist and pro-worker basis.
A vote to leave the EU would be one in favour of workers and migrants and would destabilise the Cameron government, which is pushing austerity and attacking workers’ rights with anti-union laws. That’s something the left should support.
By Tom Orsag