Referendum: The Future of Europe. Part 7. Remain and Reform

Remain and Reform

What have the Romans ever done for us?

On 14 April Jeremy Corbyn made a major speech on the Tory referendum – ‘Europe needs to change… but I am voting to stay’. Remaining in the EU is supported by the majority of socialists in the Labour Party along with the TUC and the majority of the trade unions. (Europe needs to change… but I am voting to stay 14 April 2016). The right wing of the Labour Party, represented by Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson, are more enthusiastic for remaining in the EU.

Corbyn’s critics say he is half hearted on the EU and that “he has mostly sat out of the debate until now” (Sky News 14 April 2016). The Mail claimed that “Corbyn considered taking a neutral stance on the EU after becoming leader in September”. (Mailonline Jason Groves 14 April 2016). But it was claimed he had to back EU membership when key members of the shadow cabinet threatened to resign. He has been subject to regular press attacks that he is only lukewarm about membership. (Telegraph 14 April 2016)

This Tory referendum has been characterised by Cameron’s Tories creating a broad popular front of pro-capitalist forces, starting with the majority of the Tory Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, the Green Party, the SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, the official Unionist Party and as far left as Left Unity to campaign to Remain in a “reformed EU” which rejects closer union, has less rights for European workers, more for the City and the Banks and an extension of neo-liberal competition.

Reformism and the EU

The British Crown represents the interests of the City of London and the major Corporations as part of the world imperialist system. The UK is committed to the European Union, NATO, the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, support for Israel and Saudi Arabia and opposed to democratic and working class movements across the world. The referendum is whether these powerful interests can be overthrown by voting.

The EU is a cartel formed by the ruling classes of Germany, France and the UK plus the other states in the Union. It has been called a capitalist club in which the various ruling classes co-ordinate and co-operate to organise the exploitation of wage labour more profitably. It is not a democracy and does not exist for the benefit of the working class. Pretending otherwise is reformism not reform.

As an exploited class, the working class ‘naturally’ and inevitably needs and demands reforms, that is improvements in their economic and social conditions. Since the working class is a significant majority, then in a parliamentary democracy this desire for improvement is a real factor in politics. Reforms are promised by the right and left, by all political parties. The promise of reforms is the staple diet of bourgeois or capitalist politics. Many of these ‘reforms’ are reactionary not progressive and worsen conditions for the working class.

Parliamentary politics is thus a market place where various political traders offer their wares. The electorate have to choose between the programmes marketed by the party political spin doctors. Like all markets, power is knowledge and the political class have a monopoly on real information. Like all rigged markets, financial, housing, energy, or labour, the political market does not work for the people.

Socialist “Reformism” is not simply about reforming or improving the conditions of the working class. It is a particular and indeed peculiar theory about how to achieve real improvements. It bases its ideas on a liberal view of the world which accepts the political market place as the most important means of achieving reforms. Reformism is ‘constitutionalist’. It accepts and agrees to work within the political laws of the land which limits the scope of class struggle to what is peaceful and legal.

Socialist “Reformism” presents itself as realistic and practical. But in fact it is utopian or idealistic. It is anti-capitalist without the political means of carrying this out because it is committed to constitutional legality. It promises much but cannot deliver because it is compromised by its liberal foundations. It is part of the superstructure of the ideological enslavement of the working class to the interests of the state and capital. This is not simply a problem but a danger for the working class.

Reformism and the Tory Referendum

Jeremy Corbyn set out an alternative, “socialist” vision for the UK in Europe to the one presented by Cameron. In reality this socialist vision is not on the ballot paper. Nobody can vote for it. People will be voting for Cameron’s reformed EU. Indeed the Prime Minister’s future depends on Labour delivering its working class supporters to win the referendum. It is crucial for Cameron, the Crown and the City that Labour delivers its nine million votes. (Independent 3 April 2016)

Naturally Cameron was quick to welcome Corbyn’s speech. He said: “I absolutely welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s intervention. There are lots of things we disagree about, between Labour, Liberals, Greens and others, but the fact is we all come together to support the idea of Britain staying in a reformed European Union.” (Belfast Telegraph 15 April 2016)

The key words here are a “reformed European Union”. We are not simply voting to stay in the current EU but giving democratic endorsement to Cameron’s negotiated deal. It is a Tory referendum on proposals emanating from the general election. Corbyn recognises “The move to hold this referendum may have been more about managing divisions in the Conservative party”. (Europe needs to change… but I am voting to stay 14 April 2016).The working class movement are a stage army who will freely, without charging a fee, win it for Cameron.

The Scottish referendum is a salutary warning of the consequences of popular front. Gordon Brown led Labours Scottish campaign to remain in the UK. By all accounts it was Brown who won it for Cameron. Yet the real victor was Cameron and the real loser was the Scottish Labour Party. The Labour base was pulled in two directions. Some stuck with Unionism but many broke with Labour and that break continued. In this referendum Labour may save Cameron and end up losing significant ground to UK.

Defending the EU

Jeremy Corbyn, like Tony Benn, has long been opposed to the EU. He has changed his mind as indeed has trade union movement. Much has changed since the 1970s. During his campaign to become leader, he said it was possible that under him, the party would campaign for Britain to leave the EU in the referendum. But on winning he was put under pressure from Hilary Benn and the Labour right to support EU membership. (Independent editorial 3 April 2016). The Labour right remain worried that Corbyn still thinks the EU is an undemocratic capitalist club.

Corbyn says “There is a strong socialist case for staying in the European Union”….and “a powerful socialist case for reform and progressive change in Europe”. However this is not the same as voting for Cameron’s deal in the Tory referendum. Cameron is presenting the anti-working class policy of the British Crown on behalf of those with real economic power. This can only be done is by justifying it in terms of higher ideals.

The working class is not served by obfuscation and confusion. Indeed the closer these distinct and different objectives, reactionary and progressive the more important it is to sharply distinguish them. This is not matter of using different arguments, Tory or socialist, to justify acting in the same way on polling day. A socialist case for staying in the European Union is distinct because it must emphasise extra parliamentary struggle, not voting for a reactionary policy in a Tory rigged referendum.

Benefits of the EU

The reformist case for remain has two parts, a cost-benefit analysis, and a programme of EU reforms and means to achieve it. Corbyn begins with the business case that the EU provides the best conditions for British business to prosper. “Britain” [he could and should have said ‘British business’] “needs to stay in the EU as the best framework for trade, manufacturing and cooperation in 21stcentury Europe. Tens of billions of pounds-worth of investment and millions of jobs are linked to our relationship with the EU, the biggest market in the world”. (Europe needs to change… but I am voting to stay 14 April 2016).

Second he turns to the workers. He says “In contrast to four decades ago, the EU of today brings together most of the countries of Europe and has developed important employment, environmental and consumer protections”. The EU has “guaranteed working people vital employment rights, including four weeks’ paid holiday, maternity and paternity leave, protections for agency workers and health and safety in the workplace”. (Europe needs to change… but I am voting to stay 14 April 2016).


Social Europe is the idea that the EU provides protection and benefits for the working class. Social Europe, if it ever really existed, died in the 1990s as the EU steadily adopted more neo-liberal policies, a trend accentuated with the accession of the former Soviet bloc countries of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic states.

The idea the EU is some kind of Father Christmas bearing gifts for the proletariat gained ground in the British trade union movement when Jacques Delors addressed to the TUC in 1989. No capitalist state protects the working class and there is no reason to think an “undemocratic capitalist EU club” is any better. The recent experience of the Greek and French working class currently defending their rights, with no help from Brussels, shows the reality.

The EU provides a common set of laws and regulations to provide a level playing field for business competition. German business does not want to be undercut by other countries with lower social rights. This is protecting business not protecting workers. In those countries where neo-liberalism has undermined trade unions with low pay and long hours the EU might appear as a ‘protector’ but only because workers are on their knees looking up.

Social rights incorporated in EU laws are a result of struggle by national working classes. The few minimal social rights appear like a banquet to someone starving. The rights are transient and defended by working people themselves. In 2008, for example the European Court took decisions in the Laval and Viking industrial disputes which subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right do business freely. The weaker a national working class movement the more hope is invested in an external ‘white knight’. It is doubly important not to feed the myths but bust them.

The brutal austerity measures imposed on the Greek working class shows the reality of Social Europe. The Labour Party peddles the official story that the EU is a welfare state. Hence Corbyn says “the European Union has brought: investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment”. Profit has brought investment and jobs not the EU. ‘Protections’ for workers, consumers and the environment are too little and too late.

The recent Volkswagen emissions scandal uncovered they had programmed their turbo charged direct injection diesels to activate emissions controls only during testing. This affected eleven million cars. These cars were emitting up to forty times more toxic fumes than allowed. (Guardian 23 September 2015). In London air pollution is responsible for estimated 9,500 premature deaths. The German car maker was caught out in the US not the EU. The Financial Times says “The EU’s softer approach may have initially helped the diesel industry flourish in Europe, but it also appears to have contained the seeds of its current woes”. (Financial Times, Pilitia Clarke and Andy Sharman 22 September 2015)

Jam tomorrow

Corbyn knows that most sensible people do not believe the exaggerated claims about the benefits of EU ‘do-gooding’ on the UK. He acknowledges that “Over the years I have been critical of many decisions taken by the EU, and I remain critical of its shortcomings; from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services”.

The harsh truth is that the EU exists for the benefit of business, especially big corporate Capital, not the working class. Let us not be hypocritical or patriotic by forgetting that the United Kingdom operates on the same business rational, but with the City of London having special privileges. So talk of reforming the EU is a Labour promise of jam tomorrow. Corbyn says “we also need to make the case for reform in Europe – the reform David Cameron’s Government has no interest in, but plenty of others across Europe do”.

Corbyn spells out Labour’s reform programme. He calls for “democratic reform to make the EU more accountable to its people. He demands “Economic reform to end to self-defeating austerity and put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy, labour market reform to strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real social Europe”. He seeks “new rights for governments and elected authorities to support public enterprise and halt the pressure to privatise services”.

He says that “Labour is determined to deliver further progressive reform in 2020, the democratic Europe of social justice and workers’ rights that people throughout our continent want to see”. A British Labour government will not be able to deliver this without support across the EU. He draws the conclusion that “Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It’s perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member.”

The reformist case for remaining in the EU is in reality about waiting for Labour. Hence he says “we need a Labour government, to stand up – at the European level – for industries and communities in Britain, to back public ownership and public services, to protect and extend workers’ rights and to work with our allies to make both Britain and Europe work better for working people”.

Reformism is simply mapping British parliamentary politics onto the EU. It fails to recognise that the EU does not work in a democratic way or the scale of the democratic revolution needed to transform the EU into a European federal republic. This is what makes Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed seemingly attractive reforms a utopian. There is no means of carrying this out. The reformist programme is no more than a fig leaf for Cameron’s reactionary anti-working class EU negotiated reforms.

Campaign fear

The lack of real benefits today and the promises of jam tomorrow win not entice people into the voting booths. So Labour will have to drive them there out of fear. His best argument is to ignore Cameron’s mean and nasty reforms and think “there could be a ‘bonfire’ of workers’ rights if the UK votes to leave the EU in June. (Reported BBC 14 April 2016).

For good measure he adds “Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June”. “They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU”.

Just as the Tories and their press blame the bad results of their policies on the EU or international problems, so as a mirror image, Corbyn says “It is not the EU that is the problem, but a Conservative Government here in Britain that doesn’t recognise the strategic importance of steel, for our economy and for the jobs and skills in those communities”.

Unfortunately whichever side of the Tory Party wins or loses the referendum the same rules apply. In or out the Tories will get away with what they can, as quickly as they can, and make off with it in a smokescreen of confusion or under cover of darkness.

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