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10 July 2015

It’s not yet time for the British Left to contemplate Brexit

Recent events in Greece have shaken the British Left's pro-Europeanism. But the Left case for Brexit is still unmade, argues Michael Chessum.

By Michael Chessum

Amid the calls for solidarity with Greece, and the celebrations over the result of the Greek referendum, there is an old drum whose banging has been audible over the past week on the British left – Euroscepticism. There has been a flurry of pronouncements using the Eurozone’s handling of the Greek crisis to pose a conclusion: that the European Union is a ‘bosses’ club’, and that we should all campaign for a British exit in our own referendum in 2016. All of this might well matter: with the right increasingly split, and with a political mainstream unable to connect to the bulk of the population, the outcome of the referendum may yet hinge the British left – in social movements, and in its Green and Labour peripheries.

There are of course some on the Greek left that have always advocated unilaterally leaving the EU. But ask most Greek activists whether the British left should, in the context of what is happening to Greece, support a British exit, and you will often be greeted with puzzlement.  That the EU is an undemocratic technocracy whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of business is a fact which, if you’re on the Greek left, is extremely obvious. But Syriza has pointedly drawn the battle lines around class and austerity, and not around membership of the Euro and EU – so much so that an entire referendum campaign has just been fought on basis of strengthening the Greek government’s position in negotiations to keep the country in the Eurozone. 

The whole idea that the British left might fight hard for withdrawal as a protest at Greece’s treatment is back-to-front: as one activist in DEA, a Trotskyist organisation in Syriza, tells me: “it’s a big problem that we are strong in the peripheries. What we need is a movement in rich countries and in the heart of Europe.” Since the beginning of the crisis, the response to questions about what the British left should do to help Greece has been almost uniformly: apply pressure on your own state as much as you can, but really what we need from you is your own political success. And from this perspective, it is difficult to imagine a less effective gesture of solidarity than fighting for Britain to leave the EU.

Cameron’s EU referendum will not be about austerity, or the Greek memorandum, or a fight to set up a new, more democratic union of Europe. The terrain for the debate will be firmly anchored in right wing rhetoric about immigration, and a renewed British and English nationalism. Nigel Farage’s problem with the EU is not that it might implement the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – it is Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. A victory for the ‘out’ campaign would bolster a deeply reactionary array of political forces to the right of the Conservative Party leadership, and the legislative mandate that such a vote would give would be equally reactionary: further attacks on migrants’ rights, and withdrawal from European conventions on workers’ rights and human rights.

The idea of a ‘left wing Brexit’ is simply not possible under these circumstances. As any decent Marxist will tell you, capitalism and capitalist institutions are contradictory, and in the process of advancing their own interests they tolerate by-products – like the welfare state, or freedom of movement – which materially benefit ordinary people. By and large, the British referendum will be about the by-products, not the substantive question of ‘who rules’.

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It would be madness for the left to join either official campaign, where its message would be drowned out and co-opted by right wing and centrist politicians competing over who can be toughest on immigration and best for business, but the logic of even an independent campaign for an exit from the EU would lend itself to a growing nationalism. During one of the defining moments in recent political history, a leftwing ‘out’ campaign would end up defining the problem in terms of a surrender of national sovereignty, and the behaviour the bureaucrats and servants of capital in Brussels. What we need is a campaign against exploitation and neo-liberalism everywhere, and if the EU is a ‘bosses’ club’, then the British state – where just 4 post-war Prime Ministers have not attended Oxford – must be too.  

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For some British groups and political tendencies, the argument goes no further than saying: “the EU is run by bosses – so we should leave it”. Syriza’s approach could not be more different in terms of its propensity to grapple with the complexities of the European project. Its election slogan in January – neither yes nor no to EU membership, but ‘no sacrifice for the Euro’ –expresses its willingness to exploit the contradictions of the EU from government, while at least in theory refusing to retreat from its programme.

With an overwhelming majority of the Greek population now mobilised in opposition to a sell-out, and Syriza’s grassroots looking over his shoulder, Tsipras may well be forced to instigate a moment of final rupture with the Eurozone if, as appears likely, the German government remains intransigent. But Syriza will have reached this point of departure by exploring the genuine limits of EU membership. When the left is in power, these limits are real: in line with the political consensus across its member states, the EU imposes all manner of neo-liberal directives on ‘liberalisation’ and ‘competitiveness’.

In order to meaningfully challenge the power of neo-liberalism in Europe we need to build a movement in Britain that is capable of convincing people, as Syriza has done, of an explicitly radical alternative. Building that movement requires hard work, but it also requires intellectual consistency and attention to nuance – and not being drawn like moths to the flame of the next opportunity to cause some great upset.