By Pieter Cranenbroek
In 1975 Britain overwhelmingly voted in favour of staying in the European Economic Community in a referendum organised by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Forty years on, the British people will soon face the choice of renewing their vows or filing for divorce. In many ways it looks like a rerun of those past events: there’s a divided governing party, a prominent right-wing populist campaigning against Europe and a left that looks increasingly likely to campaign on both ends.
Part of the British left never fully embraced the European project and Brussels’s austerity regime, the treatment of Greece in the euro crisis and a potentially harmful trade agreement with the US, TTIP, has caused many on the left to rethink their position. But supporting a Brexit presupposes that leaving the EU would benefit British society and it is here that we find the crux of the matter. Britain in 2015 is hardly a socialist paradise; leaving the EU would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
David Cameron has wasted no time implementing his hardline Thatcherite policies as soon as he had the chance. It has been a little over two months since the Tory leader no longer has to concern himself with the Liberal Democrats and he has already announced cuts to tax credits, housing benefit, the Independent Living Fund and student maintenance grants. In addition, the Human Rights Act, workers’ rights and trade unions are currently under threat. Does Britain really need a Tory government bounded by fewer rules?
Add to this that independence referenda in Scotland and Northern Ireland loom if they are made to leave the EU against their will, while it is highly doubtful Britain’s economic growth would continue as forecast since it highly depends on the country maintaining a high rate of immigration.
Still, the left shouldn’t rely too much on economic arguments and avoid framing Britain’s relationship with the EU as a shotgun marriage, which is what more or less happened with the Scottish referendum for independence. There is a positive case to be made for staying as well and for that we only need to look at the times the EU opposed the Tories.
The EU made Britain accepts a cap on bankers’ bonuses, required the UK government to improve the air quality in British cities, which saves lives, and it is going ahead with a Robin Hood tax, a financial transaction tax that seeks to redistribute wealth from Europe’s richest to its poorest, against the wishes of Cameron and co.
A Brexit won’t do Britain any good and so the only progressive option is to campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote while being vocal about what needs to change. The EU will only improve if the British left takes charge of the renegotiation agenda. A separate, left wing campaign has to be set up and take advantage of the fact that Cameron has yet to formulate a ‘wish list’. Now is the time for progressives to list their demands for a better Europe and poll them so that, if supported by a majority of the British people, Cameron will have no choice but to include them. This is presuming that the Prime Minister still wants to keep Britain in the EU, of course.
Progressive movements are being formed all over Europe but they need support from people in other member states if they are to overcome the present elite holding the EU to ransom. The best chance of this continent ever achieving social justice is for its people to stand together. People are right to be outraged about the way European leaders are treating Greece, but, as Caroline Lucas wrote in the Guardian this week, ‘what’s happening in Greece should drive us towards greater solidarity, not less.’
It is important that this debate is being had at the moment though, because no one’s loyalties should automatically lie with one side or the other. At the same time we should recognise that, despite all its flaws, the EU does protect Britons from the Tories’ most regressive policies. The progressive idea of Europe may currently be drowned out by right-wing voices, but the British left shouldn’t mistake that for a cue to leave. It’s a cue to speak up.