In three months’ time, millions of Britons will vote on whether or not the United Kingdom should remain a part of the European Union. Opinion polls, for what they’re worth, suggest that the population is as divided on the issue as the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister, having failed to placate his backbenchers with his charade of a renegotiation, will of course be voting to stay. So too will his Chancellor and most of the parliamentary Labour Party. The Out camp, meanwhile, is in comic and convenient disarray, although its ranks have been bolstered by the arrival of careerist weather-vanes — like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson — who have decided to angle for Brexit.
The looming referendum places many on the Left in a difficult position, for neither possible outcome will by itself lead to any amelioration of the gross systemic inequalities which exist and are worsening in Britain today. Nevertheless a No vote — which seems unlikely at this stage — would be politically significant, and so the various arguments in favour of a British withdrawal must be weighed up.
One of the most prominent claims made by Eurosceptics in the street and by those in public office is that membership of the EU has resulted in the wholesale cession of sovereignty to Brussels. They say that the only way to wrest back sovereignty is by voting No in June. In the legal sense these Eurosceptics are far from mistaken. There can after all be no question of the primacy of European law in situations where it conflicts with the law of individual Member States; in its early jurisprudence the European Court of Justice did not hesitate to hold as much, asserting that membership of the EU ‘carries with it a permanent limitation of… sovereign rights, against which a subsequent unilateral act incompatible with the concept of the Community cannot prevail’.1
But perhaps such arcana is not as relevant to the debate as might first be thought. Where exactly does the sovereignty which yet remains in these islands reside? And where, in the event of the United Kingdom’s leaving Europe, would the sovereignty regained come to rest? Ours is a mostly bicameral parliamentary system in which only one half of the legislature is elected. Both halves are composed primarily of individuals who belong to one of two largely homogeneous political parties and who hail from largely identical backgrounds. Neither chamber and neither party can reasonably be said to represent in any meaningful sense the mass of people in this country, not least because of a voting system — first-past-the-post — that is thoroughly unfit for purpose. Yet such sovereignty as remains in Britain is vested mostly in Parliament and the judiciary. It hardly matters which set of institutional machinery — national or supranational — is sovereign, for in either case a democratic deficit yawns at us.
At any rate, it is a truism that in a so-called liberal democracy — ‘the best possible political shell for capitalism’ — Parliament and the entire state apparatus functions at all times to preserve capitalist relations of production.2 In other words, such sovereignty as the state has serves ultimately and of necessity to entrench the power of the class in whose hands the bulk of society’s wealth and the means of producing it are concentrated. It’s difficult to imagine how any of this will change should the United Kingdom leave the European Union. If what swivel-eyed Eurosceptics yearn for is really sovereignty, they could do worse than to campaign — at the very least — for serious electoral reform or against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Yet they do not seem to be very much exercised by either of these issues, let alone other more fundamental ones.
We can say then that the argument from sovereignty, so eloquently declaimed by right-wing Eurosceptics everywhere, is not an expression of anguish over the state of Britain’s constitution. One gets the impression that it is instead a smoke screen for the presence of other concerns, chief among which of course is immigration. The debate about Brexit too often descends into thinly veiled grousing about immigrants, who have the misfortune of being the most visible aspect of our membership (although, counterintuitively, not in places where support for UKIP is strongest).3 This grousing can divided into at least three categories, and all of it is utterly wrong-headed.
Firstly, it is very often claimed by Eurosceptics that the supposedly never-ending inflow of immigrants is placing great strain on Britain’s infrastructure and its public services. For instance, blame for the housing crisis is frequently laid at immigrants’ doors, and they are held responsible by many for the decline of the NHS too. Both these lazy charges betray exactly the kind of ignorance that is rife in the Out camp. It has been the case for decades that new arrivals to the United Kingdom ‘tend to live in denser households and take up less space’ than their native counterparts.4 In 2014-5, those born outside the UK accounted for only 9% of all new social housing tenancies, a figure just 0.4% up on the one from three years earlier. And of course, if eastern Europeans did not toil as they do in this country’s construction industry, homebuilding would be proceeding at an even more glacial pace. As far as the NHS is concerned, Eurosceptics would do well to shake their fires at the Tories, whose deliberate underfunding of the health service will bring it to the point of collapse, ready for the coup de grâce of complete privatisation. Those who want the United Kingdom to leave the EU seem content to blame immigrants for cuts made by the Conservatives; one wonders how much hostility they’ll reserve for the two million Britons whose return in the event of Brexit will do nothing to relieve the perceived pressures on our infrastructure.
Secondly, many Eurosceptics object to immigration on the ground that immigrants are somehow failing to ‘pay their way’. It is believed, for instance, that as the main beneficiaries of the ‘something-for-nothing culture’ which the Tories so despise, immigrants profit from the beneficence of our welfare system but contribute nothing to the economy in return. Let’s leave aside the hypocrisy of the Tories so far as ‘something-for-nothing’ is concerned; here, after all, is a government which is committed to corporate welfare and has whacked up the threshold on inheritance tax. Let’s also overlook the fact that Member States are ‘not obliged to confer entitlement to social assistance’ to new arrivals, who indeed must not become an ‘unreasonable burden’ on the public finances of the countries to which they emigrate.5 Let’s look instead at the figures, which demonstrate unequivocally that over the last decade the net fiscal contribution of EU migrants to the UK economy has amounted to tens of billions of pounds.6 It is at this point, as the old joke goes, that the most intelligent among us will see fit to propose the existence of Schrödinger’s immigrant — the one who is simultaneously idle, growing fat off state benefits, and stealing all our jobs.
Thirdly, support for Brexit has arguably intensified in recent months, as millions of refugees flee bloodshed in Syria and other desolate places in search of safe haven. Eurosceptics accuse governments across Europe of ‘mismanaging’ the crisis — that is, allowing too many black and brown folk into or within proximity of Britain. Their squawking, besides being faintly racist and appallingly devoid of empathy, is objectionable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we in Britain are morally obliged to accept into our midst and provide for those whose lives have been destroyed by the policies of our own elected representatives. The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq was just one such course of action. Ideally, the mansions and second homes (not just the spare bedrooms) of those who authorise and profit from the terror we perpetrate abroad would be requisitioned for the purposes of housing refugees.
But they won’t be, say the Eurosceptics, so why should the burden fall on communities of ordinary Britons? As alienated as the members of those communities might be, and as disinclined as one is to hierarchise impoverishment and misery, we must never forget that the obverse of our relative prosperity in the West is and always has been the exploitation and suffering of those in the Global South. One shouldn’t need to employ such an argument when vast numbers of people are driven from their homes by war and persecution to seek asylum on these and other shores. But in the face of Eurosceptics’ brutal lack of empathy one is forced to.
Of course, there is no argument that can prevent their bleating about social cohesion. All we can say is that if Eurosceptics really gave a flying fig for such cohesion they would spare their rage for the neoliberal economics that have resulted in a de-unionised, demoralised and thoroughly unequal Britain. They would direct their anger at those institutions of late capitalism which continue to atomise and alienate all of us. (For obvious reasons one probably wouldn’t have much luck enjoining them to read the Frenchman Debord’s La société du spectacle in this connection.)
All this means that we should feel profound discomfort at the thought of voting No in June. Brexit, if of course it comes to pass, will have been arrived at for all of the wrong reasons. It would serve only to empower the likes of UKIP and embolden bigots the whole country over. Surely the Left in Britain should be reluctant to admit of these developments.
At the same time it is extremely important that we all seek to grasp the true nature of the European project. Indeed, such understanding is precisely what puts the Left in a bind ahead of June’s referendum. We know that, beneath the heavy cloak of high-flown verbiage about peace and social harmony, the hallowed objective of European federalism has, since the end of the Second World War, since the foundation of ECSC and Euratom, been the achievement of a single market.
Thanks to the mechanics of capitalism in its neoliberal phase, the consequences of the march towards such a market have hardly been favourable ones for most European citizens. The removal of barriers to trade has facilitated capital mobility on an unprecedented scale, making it much easier for corporate-financial elites to consolidate their power by pursuing profit, unhindered, anywhere on the continent. Economic integration as a whole, which is based on the principle of mutual recognition, has led to widespread deregulation, which of course also operates in the interests of private capital. The EU’s ostensibly innocuous commitment to competition has resulted in the privatisation of industry after industry in country after country, and perversely in the creation of oligopoly after oligopoly. The free movement of workers, moreover, has brought about wage stagnation across Europe. Meanwhile, as international capital continues to makes a killing, institutions like the European Central Bank accelerate the upward redistribution of wealth by insisting on austerity for the citizenries of EU Member States.
The disillusionment that Eurosceptics feel here in Britain is traceable to many of the policies and principles that underpin the European Union, but capitalist relations of production would remain in place if this country were to leave. The institutions which administer such policies are insufficiently democratic and inherently unreformable, but so too is the domestic state apparatus with which we’d be left in the event of Brexit. One wonders whether perhaps the Eurosceptics, deprived of all their scapegoats, would be roused from false consciousness after five or ten years of an ‘independent’ United Kingdom. But one is inclined not to allow these Eurosceptics so much time. One is inclined to think, rightly or wrongly, that a No vote come June would represent a victory for xenophobia. And knowing that change must in any case come from outside established channels of power, one will therefore probably vote to stay.