The urgent need to resist Boris Johnson does not mean we should be uncritical of elites in Brussels. As Kieran Allen explains, we can oppose both.
In 2008, the Irish electorate voted by 53% to 47% to reject the Lisbon Treaty of the EU. The campaign against it was mainly shaped by the left. True, there was a vocal right-wing critic, Declan Ganley, who featured prominently on the media. But his arguments focused on loss of sovereignty and democracy rather than a Farage style campaign on immigration. The left argued that the lack of democracy created a greater space for corporate rule. It also highlighted the threat to Irish neutrality from a common defence clause and warned against the prospect of an EU army.
Ten years later and the tables appear to have turned. Sinn Féin now openly speaks of the EU as a progressive block, with one MEP, Martina Anderson, referring to the EU as ‘our gallant allies’. A similar pro-EU sentiment from the left is also evident in Britain. The campaigning group Momentum, for example, has pushed Jeremy Corbyn into advocating a second referendum, effectively aligning themselves with the Blairite wing of the party.
Why has this shift occurred? The most obvious reason is the way a Tory Brexit is linked to a re-assertion of the ugliest features of English nationalism. The new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, imagines himself as a modern day Churchill extending the far shores of his empire while stirring up the racism at home. His want to rebuild political support for British capitalism by restoring a traditional upperclass leadership based on bluff ‘confidence’. His aim is to open a free trade agreement with the US, cut taxes on corporations and turn the country into a de-regulation haven.
These politics appear to make the EU more ‘progressive’. The problem, however, is that the term ‘progressive’ is a vague concept which does not signify being more left wing or right wing. It just looks a little better. It avoids any fundamental question of the nature of the EU.
The EU was initially founded on the basis of a Franco-Germany Coal and Steel pact in the early 1950s. It was an alliance created under US hegemony to guarantee that the former combatants of WW2 would fight together against Russia. France was to guarantee coal to the German steel industry and Germany was to open its markets to French goods. The EU was formed in the Golden Age of capitalism when the system was showing continuous healthy growth rates and was able to grant more concessions to working people. By the late 1960s, it was also clear that the relative balance between the economic strength of the US and former war time opponents such as Germany was changing. From producing half of all manufactured goods just after the war, the US produced only a quarter by the late sixties.
From this dynamic there arose an ambition to create a larger economic zone to help EU corporations grow into major competitors of their US and Japanese counterparts. Any serious analysis of the EU’s developments after 1970s indicates that this was its primary aim rather than any mission to spread liberal values. (The notion, that there is something inherently progressive about ‘European values’ needs to be viewed against a dark history of war in a continent that produced both the Holocaust and the Enlightenment). We can illustrate the overwhelming focus of the economic ambition of the EU by a special protocol that was added to the Maastericht Treaty in 1992 at the behest of the Irish government.
At the time pro-choice campaigners wanted to use clauses in EU Treaties concerning freedom to trade in services to establish legal access to a commercial abortion services in Ireland. The logic was impeccable. After all, private companies could supply abortion for a price in most EU countries so why not Ireland? The Fianna Fail government, however, approached the other EU leaders for a special protocol to insulate Ireland from any such ‘interference’. They readily agreed.
A more modern example of the limitation of EU liberalism is its policy on migration. While many praise the freedom of movement within the EU, there is also a deadly strategy in play to let thousands of migrants drown in the Mediterrain each year as a deterrent to others. The EU prevents rescue ships from groups like Medicins San Frontiers picking them up and has even funded the Libyian regime to detain migrants in slave camps. Here is how MSF describes what is happening:
Since May 2015 we have provided search and rescue operations with boats in the Central Mediterranean Sea. For seven months, between December 2018 and July 2019, we had no search and rescue activities when we were forced to terminate search and rescue activities on the boat Aquarius, which we operated in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE. In July 2019, we returned to search and rescue operations, again with SOS MEDITERRANEE, with the boat Ocean Viking. During our Search and Rescue operations, MSF has been shot at by the European-funded Libyan coast guard and repeatedly accused of collusion with traffickers.”
As global capitalism entered a period of instability, the EU moved quickly to embed neoliberal measures into its legal structures. State aid to any commercial activity was defined as ‘distortion’ of the market and effectively banned. When the then publicly owned Aer Lingus wanted to borrow money from the government to expand its trans-atlantic fleet, the Minister responsible, Martin Cullen stated
In all likelihood, however, there would be opposition from other airlines alleging state aid and a likely investigation by the European Commission. Liberalisation is the polite term for privatisation and these directives were used to give cover to local politicians who wanted to sell off state assets.”
The upshot was that Aer Lingus was eventually privatised. The EU also issued a series of directives to promote the privatisation of key economic sectors. These included those for telecommunications (1990) railways (1991) electricity (1996) postal services (1997) and gas (1998). The introduction of the Euro as a currency was accompanied by a Stability and Growth Pact which limited a state’s ability to borrow. These effectively outlawed the Keynesian measures that were once prized by traditional social democratic parties to reflate an economy.
In order to give cover to these brutal neo-liberal policies, the EU accompanied them with a form of window dressing which spoke more explicitly about championing of human rights. However, while the economic measures were clear and implemented through directives, the rights agenda was ambiguous and aspirational. The Charter of Fundamental Rights was much praised by EU liberals but they failed to mention that it explicitly stated that;
The Charter does not extend the field of application of Union law beyond the powers of the Union or establish any new power or task for the Union, or modify the powers and tasks defined in the Treaties.”
Moreover, while there was an acknowledgement that, for example, workers had a right to strike, this was also balanced with a claim that employers had a right to take collective action, including locking out workers.
One of the difficulties the EU faced was that it was composed of individual countries with conflicting interests. As German economic power grew, for example, they were able to impose on other EU countries their philosophy of ordo-liberalism. This in effect set up metrics and rules to limit the ability of any state to take measures that could offer an alternative to austerity policies. Clearly, this did not help countries like Italy or France—and so tensions within the EU elite have grown. Thus, while there was a common interest in embedding and extending neoliberal measures, particularly after the 2008 crash, this was accompanied by growing conflicts within the members stated.
The EU is thus best regarded as a dysfunctional would-be empire. It has a clear imperial agenda as is evident in the intervention by EU states in war zones as diverse as Mali, Libyia and Syria. It is also evident in a series of bilateral Economic Partnership Agreements with African, Carribbean and Pacific states. Here the EU uses its overwhelming power to lock in neoliberal measures. But while having imperial ambitions, the EU will remain riven with national conflicts in a way that the US is not.
Brexit should, therefore, be regarded as both an expression of a resurgent English nationalism AND the outcome of growing conflicts between the big imperial powers in the world. The clash between the British ruling class and its EU neighbours is paralleled by a deepening of trade conflicts between the US and China. We have entered a world of capitalist decay which has more than a few parallels with events in the 1930s.
In this situation, Irish socialists need to start by opposing the Tory agenda of strengthening partition in Ireland with a no deal Brexit. We should support popular mobilisation to tear down any border infrastructure and demand a border poll on partition itself. But that should not lead us to into a defence of the ‘progressive’ EU. To do otherwise is to embrace part of a vicious system that is endangering our living standards, the environment and even future peace.