"Say No to Austerity Europe"

15 Jun 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Jun 2016

John Hilary

There is more to the Euro debate than a row between nationalist Conservatives and neoliberals. Scope has commissioned pieces outlining very different arguments, for leaving and staying. 

We hope this is a useful contribution to what has been to date a confusing debate. Our first is from John Hilary, executive director of War on Want. This piece is written in a personal capacity. 

On New Year’s Day 1973, the UK joined the European Union – or, as it then was, the European Economic Community (EEC). Two years later, in June 1975, a national referendum confirmed the UK’s membership. Now we are just days away from the 2016 referendum. So which way are you going to vote?

War on Want took the decision early on in the debate not to run a campaign for the UK to leave or to remain in the EU. We hold to the principle of internationalism that unites social movements across borders, and we remain actively committed to the task of building a People’s Europe from below, whatever the institutions imposed from above. 

At the same time, on the basis of our close engagement with EU policy over many years, we have been keen to dispel some of the myths that have been put out concerning the true nature of the EU institutions, particularly by those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU. A more balanced assessment looks like this.

The years following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 saw the introduction of a number of positive social and environmental directives at the European level. Framework agreements were negotiated that guaranteed the right to parental leave; rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers; a maximum 48-hour working week; and rights for workers being transferred between jobs (TUPE). On the environmental side, EU directives were adopted to improve air quality, wildlife protection and standards of bathing water around the continent’s beaches.

For some on the Left, EU membership has therefore been regarded as a defence against the downgrading of social standards by the UK’s ruling elite. Yet the EU has long ceased to be a source of progressive legislation, and any talk of ‘Social Europe’ has been relegated to the sidelines. The institutions of the EU have embraced the sinister programme of ‘better regulation’ that seeks to downgrade social and environmental rules to the bare minimum. The social dialogue has failed.

If there was any doubt as to the EU’s true nature, the contempt shown to the people of Greece in 2015 confirmed that there is zero tolerance in Brussels for any challenge to the fiscal compact that underpins neoliberal capitalist rule. ‘Austerity Europe’ is the brutal regime imposed by the institutions of the EU on its peoples, just as ‘Fortress Europe’ is the face presented to those fleeing disaster on its borders. There is no alternative.

The Greek debt crisis also showed how democracy itself no longer has any meaning within the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, cautioned against any romantic belief in democracy at the time of the elections which swept the anti-austerity party Syriza to power in January 2015:

“To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” 

While it is appealing to call for EU reform, experience shows that there is no realistic chance of diverting the EU institutions away from the principles of capitalist rule that lie at the heart of the European project. Those of us who have fought for years against EU policies on trade and other issues have regularly pointed out that, for all our victories, we are never able to alter the basic ideology that drives forward the neoliberal programme. Like it or not, a vote to stay in the EU means a continuation of the status quo.

At the same time, a vote to leave the EU will bring the British people face to face with the reality of life in a country which has traditionally backed the programme of neoliberal capitalism more forcefully than any other in Europe. The difference is that, despite the best efforts of the current government to close it down, we still have a democratic space at the national level in which to rally the opposition. The upsurge in popular anger and political enthusiasm since the May 2015 general election has shown that there is a genuine hunger for an alternative to the Tory project of permanent austerity.

We need a new union that gives people’s rights primacy over and above the interests of transnational capital, and that defends the free movement of migrants not just within Europe but also from outside it. Whatever the outcome of the coming UK referendum, War on Want will continue to join with others from across the continent (and beyond) in the project to develop this new European reality from below.

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