Europe, the UK and the Left
By Peter Rowlands
Once again, a European election has come and gone, with marginally more interest having been paid than usual by the left in the UK, mainly due to the rise of UKIP and its likely effect on current and future British politics. Along with the French Front National, they did exceedingly well and media comment on the rest of Europe, such as it was, gave the misleading impression that there had been a general move to the nationalist/populist right. This was true, but only in relation to the centre-right, mainly Christian Democratic parties, who lost out heavily to them. On the left, the Social Democratic parties more or less held their own, while the parties of the left made substantial advances, although not as spectacularly as those of the right. (It is interesting how the right occupies different positions: UKIP was not prepared to go in with the FN, who equally wanted to distance itself from open Nazis like Golden Dawn or the dreadful Jobbik.)
The parties of the left in the EU, mainly grouped under the umbrella of the Party of the European Left (PEL), are a substantial force in a number of countries, where, along with Green parties, they often gain 15% of the vote or more, but this is much less true of countries which do not have a developed system of proportional representation, particularly the UK, where it has proved difficult for parties to the left of Labour to establish themselves. Countries where left parties are strong are Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece. These are constitutional parties in that they stand for election and are to be distinguished from the revolutionary left, which is much smaller and has its own European organisation to which the SWP et al in the UK belong. Some parties are members of both. It is generally true to say that the policies of the left parties, as outlined in the manifesto of the PEL, are more in line with the outlook of most of those on the left of the UK Labour Party than with the Labour Party itself or similar social democratic parties in the EU.
Historically, it was the left, in the Labour and Communist Parties in the UK in the 70s and early 80s who were most strongly opposed to the EU in Europe but, while few now want to leave, there is little enthusiasm for the EU within the Labour Party or its supporters and correspondingly little interest. This is borne out by the very limited response to Kate Hudson’s article on the EU elections (in Left Unity, reprinted in Left Futures), and very little other coverage. Similarly Kate’s book, ‘The New European Left’, published in 2012, was largely ignored, as was a review I wrote of it in ‘Chartist’ magazine.
There is no positive perspective on the EU on the left in the UK. A minority still cleave to the outright withdrawal line of NO to EU, but there is plenty of indifference and hostility short of that. The previous Labour policy of withdrawal in 1983, which would probably have been disastrous, still casts its appeal, combined with an older , insular tradition of ‘building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’.
But of course it is, since the 1990s, the right that has taken the lead in opposing the EU, witnessed by the growth and flowering of UKIP and of Euroscepticism among Tory MPs and MEPs and what remains of their local parties.
It is interesting to consider what interests are being represented here, because they certainly aren't those of big business, who are terrified at the prospect of a British exit from the EU (Brexit), particularly the financial sector which fears that it may lose its place as Europe’s financial centre.
They are undoubtedly correct in terms of their apprehension, although many small businesses believe they could benefit from less regulation and employment rights. However, a misplaced and xenophobic nationalism, born of World War Two triumphalism and nostalgia and aided by decades of lies and distortions promoted by the right wing press, has persuaded many that membership of the EU is now our key problem. UKIP’s appeal, as some commentators have pointed out, goes beyond this, although it is about nostalgia for a mythical past rather than policies, which remain incoherent, and would appear to be most potent for a group who are among those who have arguably prospered least in recent years, notably the older white working classes, particularly those who had previously voted Tory. This, combined with a virulent xenophobic nationalism among sections of the more right wing, and often small business middle classes - well represented on the Tory benches at Westminster - makes for a considerable force. It is no accident that the UK is more hostile to the EU than almost any other member state, as measured in many polls. What UKIP represents is a form of populist nationalism, or ‘Poujadism’, although its appeal is to the same social groups attracted to fascist and neo-fascist movements in the past. But its neoliberal economics and desire to present itself as non-racist differentiates it from other right wing groupings in the EU, although how it develops remains to be seen. Its simple policies of leaving the EU and ‘taking back control of our country’ have gone largely unchallenged by the Tories because so many of their supporters agree, and only in muted form by Labour, for the same reasons.
It is worthwhile looking at this for a moment, because there does appear to be a large amount of misunderstanding of what is entailed in ‘Brexit’. There are essentially three options: to remain an EU associate through the EEA, like Norway; to negotiate individual trade agreements, like Switzerland; or to completely sever links with the EU. The first two involve some freedom from EU regulation, including agriculture and fisheries, but would presumably be unacceptable to UKIP because they would involve accepting most EU regulations, including - crucially - the free movement of people, without any say in their formulation. This would mean a complete break, which would not necessarily mean the retention of a trade agreement, as UKIP says it wants. Most commentators think that this would result in a huge rise in unemployment, as markets in the EU are lost and inward investment falls as firms, including banks, which established themselves in the UK because it was a gateway to the EU market, leave because it no longer is. The UK would become vulnerable to the favours of international capital over which it would have little control. A formal recovery of sovereignty would in fact mean its real decline.
Yes, there are huge problems in the EU, primarily related to the Euro, but a break up of the EU, made much more likely by the recent success of the right wing parties, can only benefit the nationalist right, probably leading to competitive devaluations and increased division between the states of an ex EU, with little or no collective voice in the world. The only viable alternative is a strong, and eventually federal, EU - the only basis, because of its size and strength, for the establishment of a social-democratic, and eventually socialist system that will be able to successfully challenge and control at least a sizeable chunk of international capitalism. Socialist, or at least social-democratic, traditions, weakened and compromised though they have become, are still stronger in Europe than in any other part of the world, but can only be realised through a radically reformed EU.
The left should accept this, rather than continue with its detached attitude towards the EU. It should decide to actively engage with the left in the EU, to look at the policies of both the PEL and the PES and to seek to develop some positive policies for Labour on EU issues rather than wishing that it would all go away!
Whoever wins next year’s election, and it could be close, there is a possible scenario which might allow both Labour and the pro EU-Tories to claim that the UK’s position is far more satisfactory than hitherto, even from a mildly Eurosceptic point of view. This is because of the ‘banking union’, due to come into effect next year and which effectively creates a far more centralised control over banking and finance than before for Euro member states and those obliged to join, which includes all members, and any new members, except for the UK, Sweden and Denmark. The latter might therefore be able to retain EU membership but without many of the controls that would apply to those within the ‘banking union’. Such a change would require a referendum as it would mean a treaty change, although the Tories are committed to one anyway. UKIP and their supporters would still campaign for a ‘Brexit’, but a majority would probably accept a renewal of membership on these terms, particularly as some of the Eurosceptic newspapers are likely to move to a position more sympathetic to that of big business as the referendum neared.
But none of this is certain and there is now a need for the left in the UK to campaign against Brexit and for a reformed EU, alongside parties and groups in the EU with a similar outlook.