Questions for the left: whether [i] the EU is in principle historically progressive and [ii] whether the argument for ‘in’ or ‘out’ opens up (or closes down) political space for the left.
It might be worth noting what the argument isn’t, or shouldn’t, be about: will ‘we’ be better off in or out; the fact that the EU is neoliberal, has imperialist ambitions, and is busy outsourcing democracy to technocrats are also beside the point since all of this is familiar within the nation state.
The argument that the EU is historically progressive depends on two key arguments: (a) the scale of the market encourages the international organisation of production in an increasingly international/global world; as such it contributes to the development of the productive forces and thereby humankind’s potential command over nature and the satisfaction of human needs, and (b) capital is in any case organised internationally even if international companies still depend on their ‘home’ countries to a significant extent; it follows that workers must be organised internationally too. The state has long been a significant site of struggle for control over capital; the EU provides a potentially important arena of struggle to control international capital.
Is this still true (assuming it once was)? I think, it is but only just. Today the emphasis is rightly less on the development of the productive forces than the need to limit the capacity of the productive forces to destroy nature (the environment); less on increasing the number and variety of commodities than limiting the endless multiplication of so-called ‘needs’ to be satisfied. If the EU is still progressive on ‘productivist’ grounds, it is so only because the nation state is no better placed to address these new questions and only if the debate includes what we want the EU for.
Even if the EU is in principle historically progressive, is the EU we have actually got capable of delivering even modest historical gains? It appears to be fundamentally dysfunctional. The Euro is the core of the problem. Instituted above the heads of the people, without the economic convergence that was supposed to narrow the gap between more and less developed parts of Europe, and without the political commitment to treat different areas as common participants in a joint enterprise rather than competitors chained together in a common market. The Euro threatens to break up the EU and in more ways than one. First, the weaker brethren go to the wall à la Greece. Secondly, to survive the Euro zone must increase the degree of monetary and fiscal union which will not only exacerbate the differences between the 19 Euro economies but pose real issues for the 9 countries outside the Euro zone, only two of which, Denmark and Britain have exemption from eventually joining. Sweden is currently manoeuvring to avoid its commitment to join. Others currently outside include Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. The currency, while having the specific attributes of a difficult technical problem, is only part of a broader failure to create a popular European politics and European identity instead of structures designed by and for the elite.
The second argument is about what does, or does not, open up political space for the left. Tariq Ali, in the London Review of Books, is in favour of Brexit ‘for good socialist reasons’, identified in a Guardian letter as a lack of democracy and an apparently irreversible EU commitment ‘to privatisation, welfare cuts, low wages and the erosion of trade union rights’. Actually, this sounds a lot like the UK. The serious point is that neoliberalism is written into the EU treaties making even a Keynesian-inspired social democracy impossible. But this was certainly not the original treaty vision, nor was the it guiding principle of the Delors Commission and Maastricht. If neoliberalism has entrenched itself that is in part at least because social democracy in Europe and Britain have drifted in this direction themselves. The EU as a barrier to a newly reinvigorated social democracy would have to be tested by a European-wide movement; if it proved to be so, the argument might be about the breakup of the EU rather than exit. The Guardian signatories ‘stand for a positive vision of a future Europe based on democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability’ though how they will bring that about having left the EU is a mystery.
Are the prospects for a social-democratic socialism better outside the EU? They could be but the context would be everything. A ‘vote leave’ in June would be a victory for the Tory right, with ‘the nation’ then locked in battle for ‘its interests’ against the perfidious foreigner. Even if a united Corbyn-led Labour Party emerged victorious over a divided Conservative Party – and that is a stretch – the prospects for a social democratic Britain without allies in a global economy would have to be grim.
Voting to stay in the EU seems the inescapable, though hardly overwhelming, conclusion. And it could yet be challenged by events on the horizon. If the EU promises membership to Turkey in return for keeping refugees out that might even tip the balance. Turkey membership with a deeply undemocratic regime, and an economy at about the same level of GDP per capital as Romania and Bulgaria, would increase the all the tensions at once. And it would raise the question whether there are any boundaries to Europe and its unmanageable ambitions.
For now the more important question is the argument to be made for the Europe we want. That can’t be the accidental Europe that Cameron is hoping to bring into being: an increasingly integrated but still dysfunctional Euro zone with a fractured semi-detached periphery. It could be an ‘ever closer union’ driven by democratic politics with the Euro and economic policies made to match. If that sounds utopian that is because any sensible argument the way this debate has been structured is utopian.