By Ben Soton
Communists have been the only political grouping in Britain consistently to oppose both the European Union (EU) and its forerunner, the European Economic Community (EEC). The old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as well as the New Communist Party took a principled stand against this neo-liberal, pro-capitalist entity from the start. The same can be said of the CPGB’s successor, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) of which the author of this pamphlet is General Secretary.
This is not the case with other political groupings. The far-right were actually the first to champion the idea; one of the first British politicians to champion post-war European integration was former fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. The Tories, who initially favoured membership of the EEC, are now heavily divided on the issue whilst Labour contains many of the ‘Remainiacs’ demanding a second referendum. Although the Labour left once took a similar position to that of the Communist Party, now it seems largely to have swallowed the pro-EU line.
The Liberal Democrats have always been the most consistently fanatical supporters of European integration, whilst the Greens take a similar position and consider any attempt to leave the EU on a par with the abolition of clean air legislation.
In this pamphlet Robert Griffiths clearly lays out the reactionary, un-democratic nature of the EU. In a section entitled The Cold War Origins of the European Union, he cites Lenin’s opposition to a United States of Europe. Lenin stated that such an entity would only exist as an anti-socialist venture. Opposition to a United States of Europe was, incidentally, a major difference between Lenin and Stalin on the one hand, and Trotsky, who favoured the idea. For this reason, some Trotskyist groups oppose Brexit.
Robert Griffiths fails to mention that the expansion of the EU in the 1990s was only possible with the counter-revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which took place as a result of treachery by the clique around Mikhail Gorbachov. This may emanate from the CPB being, shall we say, a bit slow to recognise the reactionary nature of Gorbachov’s policies.
Griffiths goes into some detail about how the political fault lines have changed around the issue of EU membership. In the 1975 referendum on EEC membership the Tory Party was overwhelming in favour, as were the Labour right, the Liberals and big business; whilst Communists, the Labour left and the TUC were against, as were the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. Things changed in the 1980s.
On the one hand the labour movement suffered a number of defeats and in 1988 the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, offered the carrot of the very short-lived Social Chapter. The end of the decade saw a wave of reaction resulting from the counter-revolutions in Eastern Europe. Then some viewed the EU with a degree of false hope. This is still the case with some trade unions such as Unite, the GMB and Unison campaigning to remain in the EU. However not all the unions swallow this line; both the RMT and the Bakers Union supported the Left Leave Campaign.
The author also demolishes this argument that the EU is some kind of panacea of workers rights. EU legislation has done nothing to reverse the anti-trade union laws introduced by the Thatcher government. He points out that legislation has been won as a result of class struggle, not given by some benevolent official either in London or Brussels. For instance, the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced as a result of the strikes that took place that year. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings favour employers.
What is missing is an explanation for the split in the Tory Party. The British Conservative Party is probably one of the most successful reactionary organisations in the world. Its success is due to the dual role played by Toryism. On the one hand it exists to represent the economic interests of the British ruling class. At the same time, its success comes from being able to appeal to a much broader base than those who actually benefit from it; this has been done with appeals to God, Queen and Country, and at times racism. It has been able to create a political hegemony that has dominated British political life for over a century. Often these two functions diverge, hence the Tory party split.
Some Tories, such as Cameron, Osbourne and May, played the role representing the interests of big business; whilst those around Boris Johnson and Gove took up the cause of right-wing populism. Meanwhile, what of the Left?
There are still some in the Labour party who understand the reactionary nature of the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time opponent of the EU, is to a certain extent a prisoner both of reactionaries with the Labour Party and of naïve elements of the left, in particular many in Momentum who regard the EU as progressive. Part of the success of Labour’s 2017 election campaign however, was the decision of Corbyn and McDonnell to honour the referendum result. This resulted in the almost total collapse of the UKIP vote. Demands for another referendum however, could see the revival of UKIP and the far-right.
Recent developments include the anti-Brexit demo on 23rd June, referred to as the “Marks and Spencer March”. Thousands of well-heeled individuals took to the streets demanding a ‘People’s Vote’, perhaps not aware that we already had one in 2016 – called a referendum. At one point during the protest some of these spoilt malcontents were shouting “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”.
We have also seen the launch of the so-called ‘Left Against Brexit’ campaign, which claims that Brexit will make socialist policies harder to implement. I’m not sure what planet these people are on, but EU membership ties British and other members’ economies to an effective neo-liberal straight jacket.
Robert Griffiths’ pamphlet is, however, a useful tool for anyone wishing to counter right as well as left arguments in favour of the EU. The time for a Marxist understanding of the EU is now more important than ever. Meanwhile, the Remainiacs continue with ‘project fear’, claiming that this country will have no one to trade with after Brexit. One only has to look at the number of Fiat, Renault, Citroen, Volkswagen, Volvo or Audi cars on the road, all made in the EU. Surely a post-Brexit trade deal can’t be that difficult to negotiate?