The British public is gripped by the campaigns around the EU referendum and the question of whether to stay in the EU or leave European integration behind. In this blog post, I will argue from a left perspective that this debate asks the wrong questions. EU membership is made into a big issue, while the real problems in British society are not addressed.
The first major problem for the left is that both positions imply rather dubious allies. On the one hand, the campaign for remaining in the EU is dominated by David Cameron and his friends in large corporations. They want to retain the advantages of EU membership in form of easy access to the Internal Market, while using the re-negotiations of the terms of the UK's membership to undermine further workers’ rights and welfare policies. Restricting access to in-work and out-of-work benefits to EU migrants has been one of Cameron’s main negotiation goals.
On the other, those on the left who campaign for leaving the EU are in danger of joining forces with xenophobic, anti-immigration groups around UKIP and on the right-wing of the Conservative party. There is clearly the danger of nationalism in a No to the EU campaign, which can quickly turn into an anti-immigration, xenophobic course. Especially in times of crisis, people under pressure with their livelihoods threatened can be won over by discourses against immigrants, who are alleged to steal jobs of British workers and to ‘abuse’ the ‘generous’ British welfare system. Especially UKIP has linked anti-EU arguments to immigration and is likely to emphasise this in its No campaign.
The second problem for the left is that either outcome in the referendum will not challenge neo-liberalism. Restructuring has been driven by developments in the EU and Britain alike. Since the mid-1980s, first the Internal Market programme followed by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991, establishing amongst other things Economic and Monetary Union and the single currency, put the EU firmly on the road towards neo-liberal economics with a focus on price stability and low inflation at the expense of high employment levels. Processes of neo-liberal restructuring have been strengthened in response to the financial crises and Eurozone sovereign debt crisis since 2011/2012 with the introduction of new monitoring powers for the Commission, including the right to issue financial penalties to those countries, which do not comply with the general course of austerity.
And yet, even though the UK has not been part of the Eurozone, austerity policy reigns similarly supreme in Britain. As soon as the coalition government of Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats had come to power in 2010, savage cuts to welfare spending and the public sector were implemented, affecting the weakest in society most. Now in power on their own, the Conservative government continues on the same policy course. Historically, in fact, the UK has been a driving force of neo-liberal restructuring in the EU. Many policies of privatisation and liberalisation had been tested in the UK first, before they were exported to the rest of Europe. Margaret Thatcher, a keen protector of British sovereignty, supported the Internal Market programme strongly, as she realised that this was the best way of opening up continental EU members in line with British neo-liberal policies.
Real issues avoided
Against the background of the global financial crisis and austerity policies, British society is slowly falling apart. There has been a significant increase in inequality over the last 30 years (see The Equality Trust) and food banks are proliferating since the first austerity budget in 2010 (The Trussell Trust). Young people find it increasingly difficult to get proper jobs and good training. In 2012, the TUC reported that ‘20.4 per cent, or one in five, young people are neither working nor studying full-time – the highest level since October 1994’ (TUC).
At the same time, the deregulation of the labour market has intensified the general exploitation of the workforce. Zero hour contracts are increasingly widespread, the working environment in companies such as Sports Direct (see Unite, the Union) becomes harsher, the exploitation of workers is being intensified across the economy. While the government emphasises the importance of cutting welfare benefits (BBC, 22 March 2016), it intends to spend more than £167 billion on the renewal of Trident, the British nuclear weapons system (The Independent, 25 October, 2015).
None of these issues is affected or addressed by the referendum over British membership in the EU. In fact, the real issues concerning working people are drowned out by an increasing media-hype around the referendum. Perhaps from a left perspective it is best to stay clear of these futile discussions?
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
23 March 2016