David Trussler

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The EU Referendum: why the “bosses’ club” argument fails

June 16, 2016

I have written previously on why the left are mistaken in their call to back a Leave vote in the forthcoming EU referendum.

That post dealt with the argument that backing a vote to leave the EU would deepen the crisis in the Tory party and open up possibilities for socialists. Of all the arguments put forward by the left Brexit enthusiasts (the “Lexit” option) that is the weakest.

But if you don‘t like that position, the organisations that back it—largely the Socialist Party (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—have others. I humbly suggest they are just as mistaken.

Most commonly, they propose that the EU is a “bosses’ club” and socialists have no interest in staying within it.

What do they mean by a “bosses’ club”?

The argument is quite simple, and well expressed by Clive Heemskerk in a piece last year in the SP‘s theoretical journal, Socialism Today. The EU, he writes, is fundamentally “… only an agreement between the different national capitalist classes of Europe, with the aim of creating the largest possible arena for the big European multinational corporations to conduct their hunt for profits with the least possible hindrance.”

He continues that the “… neo-liberal core of the EU and its pro-market, anti-worker directives and rulings—compelling the privatisation of public services, prohibiting nationalisation, opening up collective agreements to legal challenge and so on—have real consequences for workers.”

Whilst he acknowledges that the EU has brought in “some environmental regulations, free movement protections and social provisions … that is no reason for the workers’ movement in Britain to give a vote of confidence—a Yes vote—to the EU.”

Though for most on the left these basic premises are unarguable, he fails to acknowledge the consequences of that fact that in a referendum we only have two choices: for or against.

We don‘t have the luxury of nuance. As he rightly points out, “referendums are not the ‘normal’ method of struggle of the workers’ movement, compared to collective actions like demonstrations, strikes and occupations, or a workers’ party participating in an election.”

So our choice is between two bad options. But the context is critical. The Leave option is dominated by the interests of the right, such that a successful outcome for them would immeasurably strengthen their hand in the UK, the hand of more privatisations, more cuts and more austerity. In this context a vote to remain is indisputably the least bad option.

Socialists don‘t have to love the EU to back remain. We should never be blind to its many faults, particularly the neoliberal policies it currently promotes. But we should remember that as socialists we are in favour of fewer and weaker borders and barriers between peoples. To retreat to old national borders is totally reactionary and should not be supported by the left. It will engender greater reactionary nationalism, rather than the internationalism we should all be supporting.

So when we come to vote in this referendum we face a situation that is far from ideal. But looked at from the perspective I have outlined for socialists to support the Remain position is not, as Heemskerk would have it, a “vote of confidence” in the EU. On the morning of 24 June, if the UK chooses to leave the EU, it will be of no consequence that some—a tiny minority—were choosing to leave “on a socialist basis”. The shift to the right in British politics will be sealed and the fight against the “bosses’ club” here in the UK and against austerity will have got that much harder.