On Tuesday the 14th June I had the opportunity to speak at a debate on the European referendum in Queen’s Students’ Union in Belfast, hosted by the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland). Over 150 people packed the room to hear arguments which were completely different from those reported every day in the mainstream press. The “Brexit” debate has been correctly described by filmmaker Ken Loach as a squabble between between “those who wish to exploit workers.” Our debate was a coming together of those on the left who are opposed to austerity, racism and war.
All the speakers - the Green Party’s Ross Brown, the British Labour Party’s Philip Kelly, and President of NIPSA Carmel Gates and I, want to see a Europe that is run in the interests of the millions, not the millionaires. We differ however as to how this will be achieved. The Greens and the Labour Party believe it is best to stay in the EU but Carmel and I believe that there is a strong left case to leave the EU (sometimes called the “Lexit” argument).
Carmel and I argued that the lessons of the last decade of crisis are clear. The unelected European Commission was the most aggressive arm of the ‘Troika’ which imposed destructive austerity on the working class of Europe in order to bail out bankers and bondholders. The unelected European Central Bank was the central actor in the silent coups in Greece and Italy in 2011, imposing ‘technocratic’ governments of bankers for bankers. The European Central Bank deliberately brought the Greek banking system to the brink of collapse to try to force a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum last year. The Syriza leadership’s failure to prepare for this reality that resulted in their capitulation and subsequent implementation of more austerity.
At the moment in France, millions of workers and young people are protesting against a new law attacking workers’ rights, including making it easier to sack workers from permanent jobs. The EU has been central in pushing for these changes and European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi has just declared that European countries must press ahead with “structural reforms” without delay.
These events show how the politics of austerity has been institutionalised into the EU by successive treaties and pacts. This was summed up by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who reacted to the election of the Syriza government in Greece by saying: “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” Restrictions are placed on government deficits, public spending and national budgets are “monitored”. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) the world’s biggest free trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and US, amounts to a charter for corporate rights and will allow governments to be sued by multinationals when labour, health and environmental regulations interfere with their profits.
This will have real consequences for left governments elected anywhere in Europe, including a Corbyn-led government in Britain. If Corbyn was to implement the popular policies which saw him elected as Labour leader – such as nationalisation of the railways and energy companies – he would find himself in a confrontation with the EU, whose laws and directives forbid such actions.
Many people are worried about human rights and the EU portrays itself as a guarantor of our rights. However, its “Fortress Europe” immigration policies have turned the Mediterranean into a floating graveyard. Its latest dirty deal is to pay human rights abuser Turkey €6 billion to effectively become a prison camp for refugees trying to come to Europe.
Many at the debate on Tuesday agreed with my criticism of the European Union but argue it is better to stay in and reform it. I don’t believe this is possible. The Parliament we elect cannot initiate its own legislation, it can only tinker with the laws put forward by the right-wing, unelected European Commission. Power is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of unelected technocrats who act in the interests of big business and they are contemptuous of democracy. Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s attitude to anti-TTIP campaigners sums this up: “I do not take my mandate from the European people”.
Not only is the mainstream debate dominated by right wing and racist politics, it is dominated by politics of fear. It includes scaremongering about the peace process in Northern Ireland. In fact a ‘Brexit’ will not mean a “hard border” between the North and the South. The relative peace that exists in the North is because the overwhelming majority want peace and don’t want to return to the Troubles- public pressure from ordinary people was crucial in pushing for peace and is crucial today in stopping any attempt to drive society back to the Troubles. It is the fact that the peace process rather than overcoming sectarian division has actually institutionalised it means there is a real threat of a return to conflict in the future. This will always be the case until a political alternative that can unite people is built. The alternative we need is a new political party which is anti-sectarian and anti-austerity, and which genuinely seeks to build its strength in both communities.
A new way of organising society-in Northern Ireland and across Europe-is entirely possible. Socialists and trade unionists who advocate leaving the EU, say we should, reject racism, vote against the fear-mongers, break with the EU and join the fight to build a democratic and socialist federation of Europe run in the interests of the 99%.