Sunday, 23 October 2011

An anarchist perspective on an EU referendum

On Monday, MPs are set to debate and vote on holding a referendum over Britain's membership in the European Union. This has quickly become the focus of mainstream political debate, with rightists furious that the three main parties are whipping their MPs for a "no" vote and liberals debating what approach would best benefit the Labour Party. But should those of us outside the political class care?

If I had to pin myself down to a position on the matter, I would say I'm anti-EU. Not because I'm concerned by myths about straight-banana regulations or the absurd notion that Brussels is trying to wipe England off the map. Nor am I concerned that Europe is imposing a "yuman rites [sic]" culture on us that "gives criminals more rights than victims." This is clearly bollocks and, as I have argued before, legislation such as the Human Rights Act - though far from perfect - is a necessity as long as we have the state and capitalism to contend with.

No, I am against the European Union because it is a neoliberal, capitalist enterprise. The eurozone was established as a monetary union to facilitate the free flow of capital, and in the wake of the financial crisis quickly took on a role similar to the IMF by demanding economic reforms in exchange for emergency loans. The most prominent culmination of this policy is Greece, where the country is being battered by austerity measures as the workers rage against the system. More generally, measures such as the liberalisation programme which applies competition law to the public sector and support for pension reforms and increasing retirement ages that are the focus of industrial disputes in Britain illustrate that the EU serves the demands of capital just as all states do.

On top of this, we might look at how the stated aim of "free movement of goods, capital, services, and people" is applied to the latter. I've written on this before, and it is evident that the creation of a multi-tiered system renders those on the outside desperate and entirely dependent on the goodwill of others before pitting them against workers on the inside. Thus you have an "open labour market" which as a result of both the harsh external migration system and the inconsistency internally forces workers to compete in a race to the bottom, exacerbating the normal issues created by a reserve army of labour.

This is just a quick glance at the problems I have with the European Union, from an anarchist communist perspective. All of which, surely, points to the need for a referendum on the subject? Well, not exactly.

The case for a referendum (without getting into which way we vote) is essentially that the citizenry gets to decide the course of policy. It is direct, rather than representative, democracy and so is arguably far more democratic than choosing who will lead us for the next five years. However, this falls down when you consider just how limited such a notion of "direct democracy" is. The masses aren't debating and discussing the subject openly, before putting a number of choices on the table. We are essentially being offered up as a focus group, to choose agreed in advance by those who rule us. Even then, as the Irish know too well, the vox populi is in no way binding upon our political masters.

The choices on offer are "whether the UK should: (a) remain a member of the EU on the current terms; (b) leave the EU; (c) renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation." But whilst we know that the status quo (a) is unacceptable, are we to presume that pulling out would be better since those leading that call would use the opportunity to scrap the human rights act and annihilate health and safety protections? At the same time, the only compromise (c) is that we push for an Anglo-Saxon capitalism (PDF) to take precedence over a European one.

Even the fourth option suggested by Caroline Lucas is inadequate. It offers that we "seek to build support for radical reform of the EU, increasing its transparency and accountability, refocusing its objectives on co-operation and environmental sustainability rather than competition and free trade, and enabling member states to exercise greater control over their own economies." But this is little more than the "nice" capitalism illusion writ large, presuming that "member states" wouldn't simply continue to be capitalist if "greater control" passed to them from Brussels. Even if the idea weren't to be watered down by the fact that those enacting it wouldn't be Greens, the Green Party's own approach is still not genuinely radical.

This isn't an argument for things to stay as they are. My only point is that we should hold no illusions in the "reforms" handed down to us from above, especially when driven by the agenda of rightists who are aggressively pro-capitalism and anti-working class. If this referendum comes to pass, the only choice we will get is between them and a status quo which we know to be equally fucked up.

The real answer to the problems described above is workers organising as a class, across Europe, to take direct action in our own interests. Not to make the choice dictated by those who are at the top of the political power structure and at least as much of an enemy as those in Brussels.