EU referendum: how should the Left vote?

1 January 2016 - 8:45am

John Hilary, Executive Director, War on Want

On New Year’s Day 1973, the UK joined the European Union – or, as it then was, the European Economic Community (EEC). Two years later, in June 1975, a national referendum confirmed the UK’s membership. At some point before the end of 2017, the British people will again be given the chance to vote in a referendum on whether we wish to remain in the EU. So which way should the Left vote?

War on Want will not be running a campaign for the UK to leave or to remain in the EU. We hold to the principle of internationalism that unites social movements across borders, and we remain actively committed to the task of building a People’s Europe from below, whatever the institutions imposed from above. 

At the same time, on the basis of our close engagement with EU policy over many years, we are keen to dispel some of the myths that have been put out concerning the true nature of the EU institutions, particularly by those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU. To this end we present here a brief and balanced guide to the European Union: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

The Left’s stance on EU membership has fluctuated since the UK first entered the Common Market back in 1973. Dismissive of the ‘capitalist club’ that had been created by the Treaty of Rome, the TUC threw its weight behind the ‘No’ campaign in the 1975 referendum. At its April 1975 conference, just two months before the referendum, the Labour Party voted against continuing EEC membership by a margin of 2:1, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson was forced to allow cabinet members to campaign on either side of the debate. Seven of the 23 members of cabinet joined the Labour Left in pressing for a ‘No’ vote, while those on the right of the party joined the Conservatives and Liberals in the victorious ‘Yes’ campaign.

As workers’ rights and trade union freedoms in Britain came under sustained attack from the Thatcher government during the 1980s, Left opposition to the EU came under review. The promise of a ‘Social Europe’ made by Jacques Delors to the TUC’s 1988 Congress convinced many trade unionists that the EU might act as a bulwark against further Tory onslaught. While the 1992 Maastricht Treaty championed by Delors was primarily designed to deliver the business-led agenda of economic and monetary union, it also contained a social chapter that would balance out some of the negative effects expected from transition to the single European market. In addition, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) would be granted the right to be consulted as a partner in a new ‘social dialogue’, along with business, on any future social legislation to be introduced at the European level.

The years following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty saw the introduction of a number of positive social and environmental directives at the European level. Framework agreements were negotiated that guaranteed the right to parental leave; rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers; a maximum 48-hour working week; and rights for workers being transferred between jobs (TUPE, in the UK). On the environmental side, EU directives have been adopted since Maastricht to improve air quality, wildlife protection and standards of bathing water around the continent’s beaches.

For some on the Left, EU membership is still regarded as a defence against the downgrading of social standards by the UK’s ruling elite. The tendency towards deregulation in favour of business has traditionally been more pronounced on this side of the Channel than elsewhere in Europe, and right-wing Eurosceptics openly speak of Brexit as a means to achieving an even more extreme neoliberal settlement than is possible within the EU. While there is little talk of our environmental standards being immediately at risk, workers’ rights are an explicit target of Conservative and UKIP supporters seeking to leave the EU. This would be a strong argument for remaining in the EU, were it not for two factors.

The first is that EU membership offers no guarantee that UK citizens will enjoy its social benefits. John Major’s Conservative government negotiated a full opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, excluding British workers from its positive elements while exposing them to the worst impacts of the single market. Having demanded a special protocol in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights to ensure that it could not apply fully in the UK, Tony Blair then secured an opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive so that British employees are allowed to disregard its 48-hour weekly limit. David Cameron’s efforts to negotiate further opt-outs from EU employment laws underline that the British people will remain vulnerable to this erosion of social standards, whether or not we stay in the EU.

The Bad

The second, more compelling factor is that the EU has long ceased to be a source of progressive legislation. In Brussels, indeed, any talk of ‘Social Europe’ has now been relegated to the sidelines. Since the adoption of the Lisbon agenda in 2000, and even more so since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the institutions of the EU have devoted themselves to the business mantra of ‘competitiveness’, code word for an all-out assault on the European social model. 

Rather than enhancing labour rights and raising standards in order to protect the peoples of Europe, as we might wish it to do, the EU has now embraced the sinister programme of ‘better regulation’ that seeks to downgrade social and environmental rules to the bare minimum. ‘Social Europe’ was replaced in 2006 by ‘Global Europe’, an explicit reengineering of the internal market for the benefit of transnational capital and a hard-nosed imperialism on behalf of European business abroad. Even the ETUC concluded that the social dialogue had failed.

No one on the Left claims that the EU is currently fit for purpose. If there was any doubt, the contempt shown to the people of Greece in 2015 when they called for a fair renegotiation of their debt confirmed that there is zero tolerance in Brussels for any challenge to the fiscal compact that underpins neoliberal capitalist rule. ‘Austerity Europe’ is the brutal regime imposed by the institutions of the EU on its peoples, just as ‘Fortress Europe’ is the face presented to those fleeing disaster on its borders. There is no alternative.

Nor is this dogma simply a reflection of the political tendency of the EU member states, as some have argued. The institutions of the EU are themselves deeply committed to the twin agenda of competitiveness and austerity – and none more so than the European Commission, whose unique powers render it far more influential than any normal civil service. The Commission is known for its close collaboration with the business lobbies that swarm around Brussels, and through its ‘right of initiative’ takes the lead in promoting the most extreme pro-corporate policies for adoption by other EU bodies. It was the European Commission that joined forces with industry lobbyists to promote the infamous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently under negotiation between the EU and USA, which threatens to wipe out any positive social gains won at the European level. At the same time, the Commission is pressing ahead with a unilateral, business-friendly agenda of deregulation that has already seen the downgrading of key environmental directives on fuel quality, air quality and waste recycling.

The European Commission is not the only EU institution dedicated to promoting this extreme neoliberal agenda at the expense of social and environmental rights. The European Central Bank, the core institution tasked with upholding EU economic and monetary union, has joined with the Commission in imposing the harshest discipline on those European states that sought debt relief in the wake of the 2008 financial and economic crisis; small wonder that its Frankfurt headquarters have become the regular target of angry protests by Left forces from across the EU. The European Court of Justice, final arbiter of all disputes arising from EU treaties and legislation, has issued a string of judgements that have effectively overturned the most fundamental rights at the heart of the EU’s single labour market.

This institutional commitment to neoliberal capitalist discipline over and above any social or environmental agenda must be a central consideration in deciding whether to vote for or against continuing EU membership. Is there any genuine possibility of submitting the institutions of the EU to the kind of radical reform needed to convert them to a progressive social agenda? Or must we accept that those institutions, unelected and unaccountable as they are, will never be amenable to the change necessary to make them serve the people of Europe? If that is the case, a vote to remain in the EU is automatically a vote for the continuation of austerity and neoliberal capitalist rule.

The Ugly 

This brings us to the final element in the equation: the democratic deficit that lies at the heart of the EU. Expressing concern at the “power of Brussels” in his final speech to parliament back in 2001, Tony Benn listed the five democratic questions he had developed over a lifetime in politics: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” He added: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

The European Commission is unelected and acts unashamedly in the interest of big business. Even if the European Parliament were to flex its muscles and call for the resignation of the full cabinet of 28 EU commissioners, as it is theoretically able to do, the executive power holders within the Commission’s directorates would still remain to do the bidding of the business lobbyists who give them their orders. The European Central Bank, for its part, is governed by the heads of the central banks of the Eurozone countries, who in turn appoint the president and other members of the executive board. The judges and advocates-general that make up the European Court of Justice are all appointed, and choose their presidents among themselves.

As regards the balance of power between Brussels and national governments within the EU, the Lisbon Treaty that came into force at the end of 2009 affirmed that EU treaties have primacy over the national laws of EU member states. Yet it was the Greek debt crisis that showed how democracy itself no longer has any meaning within the EU, as the will of the Greek people was bulldozed by the demands of the central EU elite. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, had already cautioned against any romantic belief in democracy at the time of the elections which swept the anti-austerity party Syriza to power in January 2015:

“To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” 

More disturbing still was the intervention of the President of the European Parliament, German social democrat MEP Martin Schulz, who called for the removal of the elected Syriza government and its replacement by a technocratic dictatorship that would impose the full will of the EU institutions on the Greek people until a new and more compliant government could be installed. The anti-democratic force of Schulz’s comments revealed just how complicit the social democratic parties of Europe have become in the EU’s programme of neoliberal rule.


Even those who defend the EU concede that it now faces a crisis of legitimacy. Brussels has abandoned any last vestiges of the European social model in favour of its regime of austerity, privatisation, competitiveness and the erosion of fundamental rights. The battle lines are now clearly drawn between those who defend such a system and those who oppose it. There is no third way.

While it is appealing to call for reform from within, experience shows that there is no realistic chance of diverting the EU institutions away from the principles of capitalist rule that lie at the heart of the European project. Those of us who have fought for years against EU policies on trade and other issues have regularly pointed out that, for all our victories, we are never able to alter the basic ideology that drives forward the neoliberal programme. Like it or not, a vote to stay in the EU means a continuation of the status quo.

At the same time, a vote to leave the EU will bring the British people face to face with the reality of life in a country which has traditionally backed the programme of neoliberal capitalism more forcefully than any other in Europe. The difference is that, despite the best efforts of the current government to close it down, we still have a democratic space at the national level in which to rally the opposition. The upsurge in popular anger and political enthusiasm since the May 2015 general election has shown that there is a genuine hunger for an alternative to the Tory project of permanent austerity. That is why commentators such as War on Want patron Owen Jones have made the case for Lexit: a radically different, Left variant of Brexit based on “building a new Britain, one of workers’ rights, a genuine living wage, public ownership, industrial activism and tax justice”.

Only a rupture with the institutions of austerity will create the space necessary for the development of a People’s Europe. We need a new union that gives people’s rights primacy over and above the interests of transnational capital, and that defends the free movement of migrants not just within Europe but also from outside it. Whatever the outcome of the coming UK referendum, War on Want will continue to join with others from across the continent (and beyond) in the project to develop this new European reality from below. 

An edited version of this article was published on

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