Almost the entire political establishment, from coalition and Labour leaders to the TUC, may all unite to hold back the tide of opinion demanding a referendum. We must stop them...
Thanks to the rare success of a private member’s bill (304 to 0 – Labour and Lib Dems largely stayed away), Cameron has been forced to offer a conditional referendum on the EU in 2017: conditional on his party getting back into power in 2015. The question will be “Do you think Britain should remain in the EU?” Cameron himself made it clear he would vote to stay in.
The headquarters of the European Commission, Brussels
In fact almost the entire political establishment from coalition and Labour leaders to the TUC may all unite to hold back the tide of opinion demanding a referendum. Those who have their snouts in the EU trough don't want to take the risk of losing their tasty pigswill.
Some try to say we have had the debate on Europe ever since 1973 after Heath took us in. But how many people under 55 feel they have had the chance to say what they think of the EU now? There are many ways of closing down debate and one is to say we have talked about that enough.
Unions in their sights
The unions managed to put off – for the time being – the EU-inspired recommendations in the Beecroft Report, welcomed by Vince Cable, for collective bargaining at a national level to be terminated and for unfair dismissal rules to be abolished, to be replaced with simple notice of redundancy.
But the EU’s sights are still fixed on our trade unions. In Brussels they call it “High Noon for Social Europe”, the moment of truth. In the Eurozone as a whole, according to the Eurobarometer poll, the number who do not trust the EU has doubled, including 68 per cent of Brits. Only 15 per cent in Britain support the euro. The Spanish minister Barroso calls us “political extremists” and “populists”. All the Commission can respond with is more proposals for wage erosion, copying the Irish and the Latvians – such a success story with their wage cuts, job losses, low growth!
So long as we remain in the EU – whether in the euro or not – we will be subject to the same pressures as those in the eurozone. Ideas which have flowed from Europe include automatic wage indexation controlled by employers, the discouraging of workers from comparing wages with company profits, local pay setting, the notion of the “working poor”, tax breaks for living wage employers, living wage cities, living wage zones sponsored by Christian charities, and Fairness Commissions promoted by Labour and lazy trade unions...
Non-working class organisations have sprung up in the vacuum left by the unions, and the implication is: don't bother with unions, we’ll get you a minimum wage (though it will have no legal force), and no more bargaining, no more fighting for what you collectively decide you are worth.
These patronising ideas are alien to British working class traditions. They are designed to eradicate class consciousness and struggle, and encourage dependency, fulfilling the aims of the Commission as set out in various papers. Who is to say what we need to live on, other than workers banding together? We are allowing ourselves to be taken back to the 1800s.
The European Council, Brussels, where ministers meet to rubber-stamp decisions.
Photo: European Council
There is no longer any excuse for refusing to acknowledge that the so-called freedom of movement, including move-ment of labour – immigration, economic migration – is essentially about suppress-ing wages, the first and most primitive attack of capitalism on the working class.
No wages, maximum profit, is the logic of capitalism. No one should be surprised at the revelations of zero hours contracts. The lowering of wages is not just incidental to membership of the EU, not merely an unfortunate spin-off – it is deliberate, it is one of the things the EU was created for.
Proclaiming itself above the nations of Europe, the European Union is a mechanism for maintaining a perpetual army of cheap foreign labour to add to the British pool of unemployed, which historically was always engineered from time to time to restore profits.
In the process, standards are lowered, including professional qualifications. Higher national standards than the EU norm are regarded as anti-competitive. Distance learning rather than hands-on training, is a tool to normalise cross-border activity.
“Freedom of movement” is actually a myth. The movement is real enough – but the freedom is an illusion!
Why stick with it?
With all this evidence before them, why do our unions stubbornly cling to the EU?
Opinion polls during the year show a majority may vote NO should there be a referendum – but not a big enough majority to enable us to rest on our laurels. If anything the polls show that we have much work to do to convince a significant minority. And at TUC conferences no union, even the RMT, has yet dared risk defeat by proposing an exit from the EU.
Our Party says “Referendum Now!”, sooner rather than later. It is a long time to wait till 2017 and a lot can happen in that time – the Scottish referendum, and both European and British elections. All who want independence for Britain, the restoration of Britain’s borders, manufacturing, and housing that young people can afford, are allies in this referendum, and should not be denigrated. There are waverers too, frightened by dire warnings of loss of jobs and trade – for which there is no evidence. Although the phrase is “trade with Europe”, we still trade with individual member states.
As for loss of employment rights enshrined in the Social Chapter, or protective directives such as the Working Time Directive, these have been shown to be an illusion, or at best problematic and unsuited to the particular situations British workers and service providers face.
We must seek to inspire confidence that there can be a future outside the EU. We should think carefully about all the different sorts of people that make up the working class, and why they think the way they do, including small manufacturers fighting for survival in the teeth of the transnationals. Many SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) want to leave the EU, then negotiate a trade deal with it.
Contemplating the stages people go through towards grasping the implications of the EU, and how hostility to it has deepened over the years, we get a mental flash of the EU as a 21st-century version of Dante’s Inferno, with its nine Circles of Hell.
Dante is taken on a journey of increasing political awareness of the greed, fraud, treachery and violence among the politicians of his day. He is accompanied by his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, who first shows him a roomful of uncommitted people, including philosophers, writers and academics – the chattering classes of the ancient world. They are in Limbo, a sort of anteroom to Hell, unable to make up their minds which side they are on, if any.
Is that still the state of half the working class? Are people cynical, inured to corruption everywhere? At home they see MPs, police, judges, bankers. But how much more difficult it is to root out corruption thousands of miles away.
Are some sections still uncommitted because they see the EU merely as a bureaucratic irritant rather than a serious danger? Those early bureaucratic directives – the size of the British pint, the precise curvature of bananas – were really the opening salvos in the attack on our sovereignty. (And no laughing matter for one greengrocer, the so-called metric martyr, who was driven to suicide.)
Do workers believe that the more unpalatable aspects of the EU can be sweetened, reformed?
It is clear already from Hague’s Balance of Competences Review that the government will get the answers it wants. It’s obvious that if they only consult big corporate groups like the CBI, or the Russell Group of universities, or the TUC, they are bound to get broad support for staying in. But this exercise does not reach the worker in the street, or the rank and file union members trying to protect their jobs. It is intended to obstruct and reconfigure popular opinion before the referendum.
The TUC questions Hague’s methodology, but clings to the old illusions: More Social Europe please. Please sir, can we have some more? Pathetic supplication! Frances O’Grady at Congress says: “Stick together and neoliberalism will take its last gasp.” What do they think the EU is about?
Cameron’s renegotiation and repatriation of competences will yield negligible results. He will return from Berlin waving a piece of paper. There will be protection for bankers, nothing for workers. Immigration, crime and red tape will be mentioned, but not resolved.
Re-negotiation will not touch the fundamentals of overarching EU power such as free movement of labour. We may yet need to consider ways of leaving without a referendum. Labour and the Lib Dems will be able to oppose a referendum on the grounds that there has been no material change in our relationship with the EU.
This masks the fact that the material change took place years ago, with the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties intended as the definitive blow against the concept of a sovereign nation. This should be the referendum on the EU Constitution, the referendum we never had. It should be the British people’s judgement on the weasel way our governments have wriggled out of consulting their people.
The legacy of Thatcherism, the lifting of exchange controls, paved the way for EU liberalisation, for Germany’s success. The EU with its rules on state aid and procurement did the opposite of liberating Britain. It has attempted to force the break-up of British industry – war by other means.
In the real world (as opposed to Dante’s vision) it is not the rich and greedy, the warmongers, the fraudsters, the traitors who are suffering, it is the exploited working class.
So, where are we today? We know that democracy plays no part within the EU. Britain should take a leaf out of Iceland’s book, where both parties recently campaigned and voted against EU membership. Their foreign minister said: “This is how democracy works.”
We are now out of the comfort zone of Hell's waiting room, but not so far down the pit that we can’t get out. However, first the working class has to recognise how grim the alternative will be. Make the connections. Not see just a little piece of the jigsaw and think the other pieces don't matter. To vote out, they have to want to get out.
We have a duty, in our unions and other organisations, to act the guide like Virgil to show the doubters why they must get out. ■
This article is an edited version of a speech given at a CPBML public meeting in London in September.