As the dust settles on the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted “renegotiation” of the terms on which he hopes Britain will remain a member of the European Union, the media have quickly moved on to the soap opera of which leading Tories will end up on which side.
Pundits can hardly be blamed for not focusing on the detail of the supposed concessions David Cameron has snatched from Brussels.
The “emergency brake” on in-work benefits for migrants who are working and paying tax in Britain is not only a demonstration of the Nasty Party’s nastiness, but is also of a piece with the Tory war on all workers, whether born here or abroad: the Institute for Fiscal Studies says 2.6 million families will be an average £1,600 worse off each year as they are moved from tax credits to universal credit.
As for the celebrated treaty amendment, stating that the commitment to “ever closer union” does not apply to Britain, this certainly does not mean Britain “can never be forced into political integration.”
Provisions in the Stability and Growth Pact preventing governments from borrowing to invest in their country’s economic future, clauses in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties prohibiting state aid for industry and demanding the privatisation of public monopolies – such rules have political repercussions.
Membership of the EU severely curtails the choices available to the electorates of individual countries. Socialism and even Keynesian social democracy cease to be options available to voters, either because the levers of economic control have been handed to unaccountable institutions such as the European Commission and European Central Bank or because socialist measures themselves such as renationalising industries or intervening directly in the economy are illegal.
Support for the European Union on the left has taken a battering in recent years. The brutal and pitiless immiseration of Greece at the hands of the EU-dominated “troika” exposed the bloc’s free-market fanaticism and contempt for democracy.
So too does its enthusiastic, if secretive, pursuit of the TTIP trade deal with the United States, over the heads of national governments and in the face of massive public opposition.
When challenged by War on Want director John Hilary, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem did not even make a pretence of caring. “I do not take my mandate from the European people,” she sneered.
But many on the left continue to defend membership.
Some argue that, rather than leave, we should campaign for a better EU – a more democratic union which protects working people’s rights rather than corporate profits. This is the position of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and apparently also of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
They must be challenged on how they intend to achieve this. The EU’s anti-democratic structures and legal commitments to neoliberalism are embedded in a succession of binding treaties which cannot be changed without the consent of every single member state. This makes reforming the bloc virtually impossible.
Others point to particular provisions of EU law which protect maternity rights or holiday pay, and argue that the Conservatives would try to unpick these if we left.
Of course they would. But it is not just the Conservatives who have it in for workers’ rights. The EU itself has demanded an end to collective bargaining agreements, the imposition of “flexible” contracts and the deregulation of entire industries.
Staying in is no guarantee that our rights will be protected, especially once treaties like TTIP further subordinate governments to transnational corporations. The labour movement must regain the confidence to fight for a better future, rather than trusting in an anti-democratic institution to shield it from the government’s blows.
Still others claim that since the loudest voices calling for an exit are on the political right, we have to vote to remain to avoid associating with them.
But the big guns of the In campaign – the Prime Minister, Sir Stuart Rose, Goldman Sachs, the US government – are not exactly friends of the labour movement.
The British Establishment is more or less united in its determination to stay in the EU. The status quo suits it down to the ground.
But supporters of radical political change should vote to leave on June 23.