A version of this appeared in the Morning Star of Thursday 31 October

THE MOST contentious issue in Britain’s politics for a generation finds socialists — who agree on almost every political question of significance — at loggerheads over whether Britain should leave the European Union.

Set against the clear injunction from the British people and backed by what we might describe as the “Lexit internationalist left” — to leave the European Union — we have a spectrum of views which equally claim an internationalist identity and assert that the EU can be transformed in a socialist direction.

There has always existed a trend in Labour, on the right and centre of the party, which saw first the Common Market, and later the EU in its various mutations, as the place for a Labour government to situate Britain.

For a long period this was a minority and when, in the 1970s, the Tories took Britain into the Common Market without a referendum, opinion hardened. While MPs and others were given license to campaign for membership the settled view of the Labour Party and the trade union movement was in opposition to Britain’s membership.

As the European Community and then the EU moved towards a federal destination some on the centre and right of the party — Tony Blair was the most prominent — came to embrace the idea that Britain should become part of the eurozone.

The most prominent Labour figure opposing this was Gordon Brown and he set out his objections very clearly in his 2006 Mansion House speech to City bigwigs. He was not against it in principle concluding that “it was wrong at this stage to enter the euro.”

He argued strongly in defence of flexible labour markets, “light touch” banking regulation, opposition to a single European regulator and what he described as “new and unnecessary proposals to harmonise corporate taxation in Europe.”

Brown was probably Labour’s most finance-friendly Chancellor ever — and was fully committed to Britain as a centre of capital markets. In tune with its preference for flexible labour markets New Labour, despite undertaking to do so whilst in opposition, consistently refused to repeal Thatcher’s raft of anti-union laws.

Policy debate within Labour whilst in government is perhaps the clearest demonstration that differences in the ruling class necessarily find a reflection inside the party when it is committed to “fiscal responsibility” — the maintenance of capitalist stability. They also show that differences exist on the right as much as on the left.

Brown had a sense of the EU as the cockpit of contending trends, and he came down firmly on the side of a willing embrace of deregulated finance, globalised trade, and what he ascribed to the heritage of Adam Smith as “a pre-globalisation insight founded on our fundamental beliefs in freedom, liberty and internationalism that led a trading nation to end mercantilism, then to repeal the Corn Laws, then to reject imperial protection and to lay the foundations for an open not closed international monetary system.”

It is hard to imagine a more passionate and visceral commitment to capitalist globalisation and the power of untrammelled capital and deregulated labour markets.

The labour movement’s contemporary disputes around the EU bear little relationship to these earlier controversies. Brown’s fidelity to the global capitalist order is, of course, shared by a substantial section of the Parliamentary Labour Party — but they barely dare state it in such unqualified terms.

Instead it is dressed up in the language of internationalism, as “freedom of movement” and as the practical expression of socialist values set against a narrow chauvinism. In fact the term socialism has enjoyed a miraculous renaissance among MPs whose familiarity with the term and its basic concepts had atrophied long ago.

Where once socialism was seen as the historical project of a politically conscious working class, it is now inserted into a political discourse most frequently coupled with hostility to the expressed views of a working-class majority.

Its presence serves to mask the many inversions of truth and meaning that are necessary when the working class as the key agent of change is discounted.

The more left-wing variant of the dominant tendency in Parliament exists in a a strange half-way house where its proponents are compelled to find theoretical justification for finding themselves in alliance with the mainstream media, big business and the corporate representatives of big capital and the financial oligarchy.

The latest manifestation of this uncomfortable coupling found “Love Socialism Hate Brexit” and “Left Unity” marching through familiar Westminster streets with an unprecedented backing of the Establishment and wall-to-wall media coverage of a demonstration which, if organised by the Stop the War Coalition or the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, might attract rather less publicity.

Left-wing remainers base their argument on the assertion that, because the neoliberal capitalist order is transnational in scope and continent-wide in its institutional set-up, opposition to this order needs to be conducted at the international level — and within the given structures of the EU.

Finding themselves detached from the common sense understanding of millions of working-class people, their theorists are driven to mobilise disparaging stereotypes about working-class communities that draw on the imagery and narrow prejudices of an entitled and privileged section of the middle classes.

Thus the most far-reaching mobilisation of working-class opinion in a generation and the conscious acts of millions of workers is denied agency — while working-class voters are castigated as dupes or worse: the conscious bearers of racist and xenophobic ideas.

It is, of course, necessary to recognise the connection between the rabid campaign strategy of the bourgeois Brexiteers and the persistence of such reactionary ideas throughout British society.

But equally, no understanding of the reality of British political life is possible without accommodating to the uncomfortable truth that such reactionary ideas have a wide distribution and, as the Ashcroft survey of referendum voters showed, are found as deeply embedded among those who voted Remain as they are among Leavers.

The most productive area of discussion on the left should be around the issue which left-wing Remainers assert is the foundation of their belief that the European Union should be transformed and that this is possible.

The complete failure of any of the “Remain and reform” tendencies to engage with this question frustrates productive discussion. Normally we would designate a belief strongly held but without theoretical or practical substantiation as an illusion, the emanation of a cult or perhaps as the expression of false consciousness.

In this case we can perhaps more charitably describe it as a symptomatic absence.

We should not question the good faith and sincerity of people who accept that the EU is a neoliberal construct but think it can be changed. It is good practice to try to see controversial questions from the standpoint of one’s opposite numbers and thus we should, equally in good faith, take a cool look at the terrain on which our socialist transformation of the European Union must take place — and work out what is possible and what is not.

The EU decision-making process is conditioned by a series of treaties that are binding on all member states and their emanations must be incorporated in domestic law. The centre for European Policy Studies has a useful summary of the procedures — framed as Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union — that must be gone through to modify an EU treaty.

It seems that modifying the EU treaties is complex but the simplest option involves the Council of Ministers — made up of heads of government — considering a proposal that can emanate from either a national government, the European Parliament or the Commission.

This proposal is then passed around the each of these bodies and, if money is involved, the European Central Bank. The council gets to vote on the proposal with a simple majority deciding.

The president of the European Council then convenes a so-called convention composed of, at his or her discretion, representatives drawn from national parliaments, governments, the European Parliament itself and the Commission. Such a convention has the task of discussing the proposal and, if a consensus is found, drafting a draft treaty.

The next stage is for an intergovernmental conference to be organised to discuss the text of the draft treaty and if it is approved, then send it to each of the national parliaments to be dealt with under the national laws of each country — in Britain’s case by decision of Parliament or by a referendum organised in conformity with an Act of Parliament.

Thankfully for the prospects of our EU Road to Socialism only a simple majority of EU states is required to agree a treaty revision.

Set aside the parlous state of European social democracy and the equally patchy situation of the socialist and communist left, and let us imagine an ideal situation in which a majority of member states have signed up to our socialist prospectus.

We will need to count on the European Council president, presently a right-wing German Christian Democrat, to exercise her discretion in the deciding the composition of the Convention in a fair and balanced way, and count on an equally fair-minded and non-partisan approach by the anti-socialist minority of heads of government who are then drawn into the consultation process.

We will need to rely on a co-operative attitude by the European Parliament. This is important because one of its few powers lies in its consultative role in such a situation.

Nevertheless, our revolutionary project, a decisive shift of power and wealth from a capitalist class with unparalleled command of the EU apparatus, depends on the governments opposed to our revised treaty to concede to our arguments and reach a consensus.

Having negotiated this process the revised treaty must go to each member state for ratification.

Our prospects for socialism now hinge on each state agreeing the treaty.

Of course, one or more states may reject the proposal which then falls. We can perhaps draw some small comfort from the fact that so far when the population or parliament of any EU state has failed to endorse an EU treaty they are given unlimited opportunities to reconsider the question.

One thought on “So how would you actually ‘remain and reform’ the EU?

  1. Hiya

    Very good article. Im wondering whether I can get away with using at least some of it as an IER blog. Authors on Brexit might not like it. But more important, Im tending to downplay EU now during GE campaign. But its bound to come up again in New Year!

    It would need to be shorter – 900 words max, and less targeted at ‘socialists’.

    Have a think


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