People across the North of Ireland have the opportunity to cast a vote on whether the United Kingdom leaves or remains part of the European Union. The consensus among parties across Ireland is to vote to stay in the EU. This needs to be challenged.
Neoliberal capitalism and austerity are hardwired into European Union institutions. The very recent humiliation and impoverishment of the people of Greece at the hands of EU bureaucrats stands as stark evidence of the policies and interests embedded in its secretive institutions. The same EU neoliberal dogma resulted in the imposition of austerity across the South of Ireland causing tremendous suffering, poverty and the ongoing burden of massive debt levels.
The EU’s elitism belongs to its origins when it was forged by Europe’s most powerful ruling classes with the goal of increasing their political, economic and military might following the devastation and instability of World War II. Today, the EU is a reactionary barrier to the vision of solidarity and social justice many in Ireland and across the UK hold – which is exactly why people should vote to leave it.
Described as a rare example of political consensus, the ‘Northern Ireland Stronger In Europe’ campaign includes Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the Green Party. The reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, the largest in the North, is supporting ‘Brexit’.
Sinn Fein, the DUP’s partner in government, are critical of the European Union’s ‘democratic deficit’ but according to party leader Gerry Adams: “Brexit will be bad for the economy on this island, bad for business and investment, bad for farmers, bad for the environment, bad for workers’ and human rights”. If you swap the island of Ireland for the island of Britain, this could have come straight from the mouth of David Cameron. Fundamentally, Sinn Fein’s position reflects their shift, long in the making now, from the politics of opposition and confrontation to those of accommodation and capitulation towards establishment institutions.
Sinn Fein have emphasised that an exit from the EU could see a return of some kind of physical border and interfere with all-Ireland trade agreements. Firstly, this simply exposes the bankruptcy of their strategy for relying on the EU to deal with partition and its legacy. The EU Commission does not care about social deprivation in border regions. Secondly, trade and movement agreements pre-date Ireland and the UK’s participation in the EU. And, in any case, the return to border checkpoints witnessed during ‘the troubles’ will be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of people, North and South, and not tolerated. This is fearmongering, pure and simple.
SDLP MLA and party leader Colum Eastwood of the SDLP argues “Europe is not perfect, but it has set out a framework for the defence of high human rights standards, it has given us significant advances in workers’ rights and it continues to invest in our fledgling recovery. It’s time we defended our European identity and our continued membership of the EU by voting Remain this week.” The notion that the EU is responsible for upholding human rights and advancing workers’ rights is simply pure fiction. EU austerity in Greece decimated workers’ rights, wages, contracts and pensions. EU organised bail-outs following the 2008 economic crisis have enforced privatisation of public services and assets. This has had a devastating impact on unions and workers access to decent affordable services.
A central project of the EU has been the deregulation of trade and finance to benefit banks and corporations. European capitalism aims to become increasingly competitive within the global economy and the political leaders of project EU see this as their priority. This is precisely why they are eager to undermine workers’ rights and gut protections won by previous working class struggles. France is a core EU power and the struggles unleashed there presently flow from its ruling classes attempt to free itself from previous commitments won by trade union and working class struggles. The attempt to undermine of hard-won labour legislation in France comes directly from EU directives.
The “Fiscal Compact” signed in 2012 obliges signatories to guarantee balanced budgets under the supervision of the European Commission. Bluntly this means, to remain a member of the EU club austerity must be accepted and implemented. This is the normalisation of poverty and inequality. For these reasons, we cannot depend on the EU to protect labour, health and safety or the environment.
Its treatment of refugees demonstrates how limited and racist the EU’s commitment to human rights and the “free movement of people” really is. Genuine solidarity with desperate people fleeing danger and poverty can’t co-exist with EU’s commitment to strengthening “Fortress Europe” with wire fences, sea and land patrols and violence.
Furthermore, exiting the EU would not make us exempt from the European Court of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since they originate from a different and separate institution, the Council of Europe based in Strasbourg.
Across the border, Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail have also weighed in on the side of the UK remaining within the EU. Brendan Smith, Fianna Fail’s spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Trade, argues “Ireland would be one of the countries most negatively affected by a Brexit as Britain is our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner.” That Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail, the decrepit twin parties of Irish capitalism, join the establishment chorus talking up the values of the EU is no surprise. Both parties have backed and imposed EU driven austerity in Ireland even though it caused immense misery and has saddled Irish people with bankers debt for decades.
For the most part, political parties across Ireland have lined-up behind the British, European, US and corporate establishment in making the case that the UK and Ireland are better off within the EU. Much of the Irish ruling class has benefited immensely from being in the EU club. Going against the EU here means going against the ruling class interests.
In Britain, both wings of the EU debate, Remain and Leave, are led by factions of the Tory Party. At its core, the split in the Tory Party reflects a disagreement among the British ruling class about what strategy best serves higher profit rates for British capitalism. Beyond talk of trade, borders and identity, this is the main concern of the Irish ruling class, North and South, as well.
UKIP and Nigel Farage have rose to prominence based on bashing the EU’s bureaucratic structures and by making racist hysterical claims about the threat of immigration to jobs, public services and ‘culture’. There is no doubt that the main popular message of the mainstream Leave campaign is racist opposition to immigration. This must be systematically challenged and is best done by explaining Cameron’s and the EU’s culpability in scapegoating migrants and refugees.
The Remain campaign led by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has legitimised and fuelled the arguments of Farage and others by promoting similar claims and a racist immigration framework. The fact that the British Labour Party agreed immigration was a ‘problem’ in the last general election demonstrates how politics have been pulled to the right in Britain. Therefore, the policies of Blair’s Labour and the Tories over the last twenty years that have led to increased inequality, underfunded public services and an acceptance of racism are directly responsible for the growth of UKIP.
There is an understandable fear among many on the organised left and among the broader population that voting to leave the EU will indirectly assist the most racist elements of UK politics and allow it to feed the growth of the right across Europe. Following from this, voting to remain in the EU is viewed as a lesser evil. However, this logic has allowed the utterly reactionary character of the EU to be obscured. Instead, we hear how great the EU is for human rights, for workers’ rights, for investment, for peacebuilding, for identity and so on. Our side will be strengthened by understanding the function of the EU and who actually benefits from it.
Left-wing commentator Paul Mason has come to accept a version of the lesser evil argument but he recently wrote what is probably the most convincing case for leaving the EU. Cutting right through Remain camp lies Mason writes:
The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgments, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right do business freely.
Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.
Since its foundation, the EU has acted as a vehicle for the ruling classes of Europe to strengthen their political, economic and military power through integration. With opposition to austerity mounting across Europe, the EU is a central mechanism for driving neoliberal capitalism forward.
Building on this kind of analysis, NIPSA, the north’s largest public sector union, voted to campaign for a Left Exit from the EU. Their recent annual conference passed the following motion:
“NIPSA notes that the big pro and anti EU campaigns represent the various wings of pro-austerity big business and that both campaigns rely on jingoism, fear and bigotry to force people to vote. Conference believes that NIPSA and the wider trade union movement must develop an independent campaign that promotes real and meaningful discussion and calls for a UK exit from the EU because it remains a club for the rich and provides no meaningful assistance to workers. Conference notes that the EU:
● Implements pro-austerity economic policies.
● Advances anti-public service policies such as TTIP.
● Has introduced anti-worker policies that have undermined hard earned terms and conditions of employment and employment rights.
● Is engaged in diplomatic and military manoeuvres that are destabilising other regions.”
NIPSA should be commended for taking such a clear stand. Similarly, People Before Profit calls for support for a Left Exit vote and is committed to campaigning in the South for a Left Exit.
Across Ireland and Britain, whether we are ultimately in or out of the EU, the struggle against austerity and injustice will continue. For people embittered by poverty, frustrated with underfunded public services and the unavailability of social housing we must build a movement based on genuine internationalism that exposes and targets the rich and powerful who are responsible for the growing crisis. Dispelling illusions in institutions such as the EU by voting for a Left Exit can help develop the kind of politics our struggles need to succeed.