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Labour should have no illusions in the EU

The successful vote to leave the European Union was working class and anti-capitalist – we must stand by it, insists ROBERT GRIFFITHS

PAUL SWEENEY MP urges the Labour left to present a “united front” on the issue of Brexit (M Star April 11).

The price he demands for such unity is the total capitulation of Leave supporters and even Remain Eurosceptics to a catalogue of illusions about the character of the EU and the prospects for reforming it.

He prefaces his argument with the claim that pro-Leavers are portraying most Labour Party Remainers as “neoliberals” who long for the pre-2016 era of triangulation and membership passivity.

As a matter of record, most of the staunchest New Labourites were and are pro-EU, anti-democratic neoliberals.

But the challenge put to left-wing Labour Remainers is not “why are you pro-New Labour neoliberals?”

That would be absurd, although not as outrageous as the charges that left Leavers are racists and fascists along with many millions of Brexit voters.

It is, rather “why do you want Britain — and any future Labour government — to be bound by the neoliberal treaties, rules and directives of the EU, policed by a powerful unelected European Commission and enforced by an unaccountable EU Court of Justice?”

After all, Sweeney himself later refers to the “neoliberal biases of the European Union single market institutions and elites.”

Entrenchment in the fundamental treaties of the EU of capitalist free markets, the unrestrained movement of capital, the corporate right of establishment, monetarist public finance limits, an open market in public-sector procurement contracts and severe restrictions on state investment or aid to industry amount to a lot more than a series of “biases.”

It also exposes the contradiction in the name of a new group — Love Socialism Hate Brexit — that Sweeney proclaims with relish, and which itself hardly seems designed to promote left unity on the issue.

This group opposes Brexit on the grounds that it is a “right-wing Tory project” which attacks the environment, migrants and working-class communities.

This is to dismiss even the possibility that there could be opposition to Brexit and its neoliberal “biases” from the left. It denies the existence of decades of Labour-left opposition to EU membership from Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot to Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner.

It’s true that only a Tory government, for its own self-serving purposes of preventing a split or mass defections to Ukip, has offered the people of Britain a referendum on the EU.

Yet many Labour MPs including Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and most others on the left demanded a referendum in order to stop the EU Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

The pro-EU Tory government denied one in order to drive through the treaty’s neoliberalising programme.

Labour promised a referendum when in office in 2004 and at the 2005 general election on any further EU constitutional changes, knowing that many Labour voters opposed further integration.

Corbyn also voted for a referendum in 2011 against the Lisbon Treaty, which the Tory government chose to adopt without a referendum.

All of which indicates that opposition to the EU and the demand for a referendum is not and never has been, in essence, a right-wing Tory project.

Yes, plenty of Tory MPs and voters support Brexit for a variety of reasons. Many oppose Britain’s loss of sovereignty and want to severely restrict immigration from eastern Europe.

Some fear an erosion of Britain’s subservient alliance with the US, despite recent EU treaty changes aligning the EU with the policies and structures of Nato.

Many Tory neoliberals oppose EU regulation of financial services, the labour market or environmental standards. They exaggerate the extent of that regulation and any restrictions it places on big business, just as many Labour, Green, TUC and other pro-EU elements join in the exaggeration — in an effort to present the EU in a progressive light.

But many Tory and most right-wing Labour MPs also understand that, ultimately, the EU and its treaties and institutions have been designed to protect free-market capitalism. That’s why they support EU membership.

That’s also why the Remain campaign was backed by Britain’s main big business bodies — the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the Engineering Employers Federation — as well as by most major City banks including the Bank of England itself.

Here are the authoritative voices of British monopoly capital and this is why the EU is a class issue.

The majority of voters defied the ruling class on June 23 2016. They included a slight majority of those (39 per cent) who are anti-capitalist and more than one-third of Labour supporters, according to the Ashcroft polling survey — by far the biggest conducted since the referendum.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond were then given the task by their Business Advisory Council of maintaining Britain’s alignment with EU rules and institutions, while appearing to honour — and therefore implement — the referendum result and keeping the Tory Party as united as possible.

Now, after three years of delay and prevarication and having negotiated that “semi-Brexit,” the ruling class senses the possibility of overturning Brexit altogether.

Unfortunately, Sweeney and many other MPs are assisting our rulers in this profoundly anti-democratic endeavour. They include many of the Tory and New Labour politicians responsible for the anti-foreigner and anti-working-class policies of the past few decades that Sweeney so rightly deplores.

His alternative is to halt Brexit, which he says has diverted so much time and attention from other vital issues. In reality, it is the obstruction of Brexit by parliamentarians and millionaire litigants that has caused the delays and blockages.

After Corbyn called on the day of the referendum result for Article 50 to be triggered to quit the EU, pro-EU Labour MPs passed a motion of no confidence in him to trigger a second party leadership vote instead. In Scotland, 300 Labour supporters including Sweeney signed an open letter demanding Corbyn’s resignation.

Sweeney has embraced unity behind Labour’s left leadership since then, which can only be welcomed.

Yet his anti-Brexit perspective is based on three misplaced assumptions. The first is that “if Brexit goes ahead we face a decade of further political disruption, with TTIP-style trade deals being negotiated and yet more austerity.”

Why the assumption that we are doomed to suffer another decade of right-wing governments? Does he have no confidence in Labour’s election prospects?

The only future that virtually guarantees TTIP-style trade deals is one inside the very body that negotiated the last one, namely, the EU and its Commission.

Sweeney’s solution is that Labour should campaign from within to “transform” the EU in the “best traditions of international democratic socialism.”

Fine words, but electoral support for almost all of Europe’s traditional social democratic parties with their pro-EU, pro-austerity orientation has collapsed. Most parties further to the left — especially the communists — reject the delusion that the EU can be transformed into a vehicle for socialism.

Finally, Sweeney believes that betraying democratic principles and general election pledges by cancelling the June 2016 referendum result and campaigning to stay in the EU is a vote-winner for Labour. He regards the fear of a pro-Brexit electoral backlash as “fanciful.”

We shall see, should an illegitimate EU election go ahead in Britain on May 23.

Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party.

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