Au revoir et bon débarras

29th December 2020

Bunker mentality – Boris Johnson negotiates with the EU from 10, Downing Street

Goodbye and good riddance.  The UK has left the European Union (EU) and, in spite of the hand wringing on sections of the Left, whose opposition to Brexit was instrumental in bringing about Labour’s General Election defeat in 2019, it is no bad thing.

The split is the latest chapter in a protracted tale of inter-imperialist rivalry which has shaped post Second World War Europe and highlighted the fault lines in the UK political establishment for half a century.  Under the banner of creating a peaceful post war Europe the six original founders of what has become the EU, West Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands and Luxembourg came together to form the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950 before creating the European Economic Community (EEC), popularly known as the Common Market, through the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

While the UK struggled to come to terms with its declining global power and the gradual breakdown of its imperial empire in the post war period, the EEC formed a protective bloc fuelled by generous aid from the West’s newly established global power, the United States, through the Marshall Plan.

The United States provided $15 billion in aid through the plan, officially the European Recovery Programme, which also invested significantly in the UK, but in mainland Europe was seen as a tool to shore up Western economies against the advance of the perceived socialist threat from Eastern Europe.  West Germany was a particular focus, as the capitalist ‘shop window’ aimed at demonstrating the superiority of the Federal Republic over its neighbours in the socialist German Democratic Republic.

The creation of the military bloc NATO in 1948 and the establishment of a network of US bases across Europe, as quid pro quo for economic aid, was crucial in shaping the Cold War politics of the post war period.

The wave of independence successes in the post war period, from India in 1947 onwards, underlined the decline of the UK’s colonial empire, although the post-colonial grip of UK corporations, in terms of economic engagement and military presence, remained strong.  However, having ceded its dominant global role to the United States and with the increasing might of the Soviet Union and its allies becoming evident, fissures in the political establishment concerning the future role of the UK became sharper.  

The debate over whether the UK should join the Common Market, or not, was a feature of the political narrative of the 1960’s, with pro and anti EEC trends emerging in both of the major parties, Labour and Conservative.  The broadest consensus across both parties was sufficiently pro-European Community, as it had then become, to lead to the 1975 referendum result being a yes vote and the UK membership of the European club which it had formally joined on 1st January 1973, being confirmed.  

Concluded in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty brought the, by then, 12 European Community states into the European Union, with the goal of ever greater “economic and monetary union”.  The treaty was concluded at a point when defeat had been inflicted upon the Soviet Union, nationalist governments of various hue were emerging in Eastern Europe and the annexation of the German Democratic Republic, sold as the unification of Germany, was being celebrated as symbolic of the end of communism.   

German capital moved swiftly to extend its orbit into the former socialist states, by investing heavily in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the former GDR.  The attractions of a highly skilled but relatively low paid workforce proved to be too great an attraction not to exploit.  German pressure upon Europe to recognise the breakaway states of Slovenia and Croatia effectively fired the starting pistol for the civil war in Yugoslavia.  A network of relatively weak states dependent upon German capital, while also providing new markets for German goods, was quickly established.

German economic dominance of Europe by this time had been built largely upon investment in manufacturing and production.  The UK had taken the path, upon which it continues, of being a centre for international speculation through the City of London, with manufacturing and production capacity remaining sadly under invested.

For British capital the choice has been between going with the flow of European integration and flexing its economic muscles, as one of the bigger fish in an ever expanding pool, or building upon the UK’s global economic investments and challenging the might of Germany to be the dominant economic force in Europe, implicitly and more recently explicitly, outside of the EU.

These fault lines have largely played out in the Conservative Party, traditionally the UK party of ruling class interests, but are reflected in a slightly different form in the Labour Party and wider labour movement.

The British Labour Party, whether in government or opposition, has rarely if ever broken with the post war consensus on economic and foreign policy.  Those voices that have opposed the economic neo-liberal straightjacket of the EU, or opposed wars of intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, have been sufficiently marginalised by the Party leadership, not to be deemed a threat. 

After years of battering by the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher sections of the labour movement were ready to cling on to any apparent lifeline by the time Maastricht came along.  The Social Chapter provisions of the Treaty became the rallying point for those hoodwinked into thinking that the EU could provide a defence against the ravages of British capital, something it had signally failed to even attempt throughout the Thatcher years.

The Social Chapter provisions did not outline anything that could not have been enacted by a reasonably progressive social democratic government in the UK, in terms of limits on working time, access to parental leave and access to health and social services.  Quite how well any of this stands up to scrutiny in the zero hours, low wage, underinvested and austerity ridden world of the UK in 2020 is a moot point.

In short, the EU was never going to provide a defence against the excesses of capital because its whole raison d’etre is to act in the interests of capital.  Sending in the vampires to save the bloodbank was never going to work.

The legacy of this illusion however has had toxic repercussions within the Labour Party.  The call for a second referendum for example, with Kier Starmer leading the charge, was the product of just such misjudged thinking.  Better inside the EU than out.  It was not the only factor undermining the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but it was a significant one, and Labour went into the 2019 General Election with a policy that was neither fish nor fowl, but smelled worse than both, as a result.

The liberal Left are currently outraged that the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital will cease on 1st January 2021.   The reality is that none of these so called freedoms have benefitted the working class in the UK.  Goods and services will continue to move and various forms of tariff control will ensure that trade continues in the interests of business on both sides of the channel. Capital will roam within the boundaries imposed by international trade agreements and the limits of inter-imperialist rivalry, as one competitor seeks to gain advantage over another.  No change there.

Restrictions on the movement of labour may stem the flow of low paid workers from eastern Europe in the short term but without sustained trade union pressure to increase wages British capital has been relatively adept at driving down terms and conditions to suit its interests in recent years.

A few prospective university students may find the opportunity to travel Europe in a gap year a bit more difficult but for most working class children the prospect of even getting to university, let alone enjoying the luxury of a ‘gap’ year, is something of which they can only dream.

The interests of the working class in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter, are not served by having to fight on more fronts than are necessary.  Tackling the cronyism, entitlement and economic power of the British ruling class is a big enough task.  Adding a European layer to that only serves to divert attention from the real sources of exploitation and inequality that need to be addressed.

The EU is not ally of the British working class.  It is a wolf struggling to look good in ill fitting sheep’s clothing.  It was created in the interests of capital and will act in the interests of capital.  The focus here in the UK remains the same, to build mass opposition to the Tory government; to tackle all forms of racism and prejudice; to argue the case for a society which can truly realise the creative potential of every individual; and to build a future which does not allow for billionaire property speculation while thousands sleep on the streets.     

Capitalism cannot deliver these things.  Experience has shown that, time and again, capitalism delivers only mass unemployment, racist violence, increasing poverty, an inability to tackle the climate crisis and, at its worst extreme, war.  The solution lies not in tinkering with the system, inside or outside the EU, but with the system itself.  The solution is the demand for socialism.

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