Exit Left: the Socialist Case for Britain Leaving the EU


Since the announcement of the date for Britain’s In-Out EU referendum (June 23), the liberal media has been flooded with misinformation about what would happen if we were to leave. We are told that a Brexit would mean massive job losses, the closure of factories, and the collapse of the country as we know it.

It’s a new version of the fear campaign that took place in Scotland in 2014 to convince workers that they had to stay part of Britain.

Unfortunately, under pressure from right wing of his party, Jeremy Corbyn has come out in support of the “In” campaign. This is a massive blow for the British working class. Corbyn has been one of the fiercest critics of the EU for the past forty years, but it seems, once again, that internal party pressures have forced him forced him to back down.

One of the consequences of this U-turn has been to allow Tory Eurosceptics and the far right UKIP to dominate the “Out” campaign, thus perpetuating the idea that a vote to leave is a vote for protectionism, nationalism, or even racism.

Although principled socialists such as those within the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) have taken an anti-EU stance, many of the smaller parties have also succumbed to the “better together” logic, trumpeted by the Tory and Labour leadership. Even parties which exist to promote localism and the devolution of power, such as the Greens, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru, have fallen in with the pro EU group – despite the fact that the EU serves to centralise power.

The reason, it seems, is an assumed association between the EU and ideas of internationalism. Many, particularly young people, see the EU in terms of their own feelings of internationalism, of solidarity with workers and young people in other countries, supporting the right of themselves to move to other countries in Europe to work, but also of other people to move to Britain in order to work.

Although this internationalist sentiment is admirable, it is nevertheless built upon certain (false) assumptions about the nature of the EU.

For socialists, by contrast, membership in the EU is not judged according to romantic ideas of unity, but on whether it concretely furthers the interests of the international working class. As Clive Heemskerk argues:

The starting point cannot be one of supporting alleged ‘British interests’ or the equally illusory idea of the ‘ever closer union’ of the capitalist states of Europe, but of supporting the working class against the capitalist class… nationally and internationally.

The question of whether or not we should remain within the EU is based on whose interests the union serves.

Free Movement For Workers? 

I want to start by pointing out that open borders have undoubtedly benefitted certain groups of workers, especially those from countries ravaged by multinational corporations. It has also contributed greatly to the enrichment and diversification of European cultures.

But the idea of a borderless Europe seems to have blinded people to the shortcomings of the EU. In many respects, this is unsurprising given the horrors inflicted between competing power blocs in the twentieth century. The allure of a European-wide union, no matter how flawed, is understandable in this context.

We should not, however, be fooled by such idealised images. After-all, the EU exists within the capitalist mode of production – an economic model which, because of its emphasis on competition and private property, tends toward disunity and division, as well as the concentration of wealth and power.

A good illustration of these tendencies can be seen in the Posted Workers Directive. This directive is one of the principal tools which allows workers to float from country to country within the EU. Although in theory this looks like a positive contribution to internationalism, in reality it has played a pernicious role in undermining pay and conditions for existing workforces and also in fuelling racism.

In Rotherham, South Yorkshire, for instance, there is an ongoing dispute between construction workers and a Croatian firm called Duro Dakovic TEP, who were subcontracted to build a biomass power station. Duro Dakovic have been able to avoid paying industry rates to workers (£16 to £64 per hour) by utilizing a foreign labour force which they are only required to pay at minimum wage in the host country (roughly £7 per hour).

The EU report concerning the Posted Workers Directive states that “Member States shall… guarantee workers posted to their territory the terms and conditions of employment… which, in the Member State where the work is carried out, are laid down… by law, regulation or administrative provision.” Amongst other things, these regulations concern maximum work periods and minimum rest periods; minimum paid annual holidays; and the minimum rates of pay, including overtime rates.

In other words, posted workers only need to be paid at the legal minimum wage of the host country.

Those concerned that exiting the EU is a rejection of internationalism would do well to look at the ongoing dispute in Rotherham. EU directives such as that concerning posted workers actually fuel racism by pitching workers against one another.

In contrast to this destructive role, it is the construction workers in Rotherham, not the EU, who are currently trying to unionise the migrant workers to better both of their conditions.

This is what real internationalism looks like – an alliance of workers against the bosses. (Far from being an isolated case, this has been repeated around much of the country.)

But even if historically some workers may have benefitted from relatively free movement between countries, the rug is quickly being pulled from under their feet as the political economic conditions which made the EU possible begin to crumble.

Across Europe, the refugee crisis has led Germany and Denmark to re-impose internal border controls; the internet has been awash with videos of the Macedonian military/police/militia (who can tell?) mercilessly beating unarmed Syrians with truncheons as they attempt to cross the border from Greece; and in France, thousands of Syrians are currently living in tents in Calais, hoping to gain entry to the UK.

This is a far cry from a borderless Europe.

In a further parody of internationalism, if the “In” vote should win the referendum the Tories have negotiated an “emergency brake” for a seven-year period to stop new migrant workers claiming benefits. The effect that this would have on xenophobia would be severe.

The idea of internationalism is something that socialists should endorse whole-heartedly, but not on the EU’s terms.

Far from benefitting workers, legislation like the Posted Workers Directive actively encourages racism within the workforce. Far right groups such as UKIP, Golden Dawn, and the Front National are direct consequences of EU austerity and ongoing attempts to use migrant labour to sow fictitious divisions within our communities.

Stripped of its ideological mask, open borders are designed principally to, on the one hand, help big business to circumvent existing workers’ rights through the use of underpaid migrant labour, on the other, to provide the super-rich with easy access to foreign markets.

Or Free Movement For Capitalists? 

According to a series of YouGov polls, in 2013 68% of the British public believe energy companies should be nationalised; 66% believe Royal Mail should be taken back into democratic control; and 66% demand the re-establishment of British Rail.

Any future government hoping to make good on these demands, therefore, would do well to consider the EU’s unwavering commitment to liberalisation and competition.

One such commitment comes through the First Rail Directive. This directive was introduced by the EU in 1991 with the aim of creating a more efficient rail network by breaking up “national monopolies.” Its effect has been to undermine the economic basis for a nationalised railway system, run for human need rather than profit, by selling off contracts to the lowest bidder. This has led to spiralling customer costs, deteriorating services, and an environment hostile to workers’ rights.

More recently, what remained of the national rail network has been carved up for private interests through the Fourth Rail Package which, as the document details, plans “to remove the remaining barriers to the creation of a single European rail area. The proposed legislation would reform the EU’s rail sector by encouraging competition and innovation in domestic passenger markets”… whatever this means.

In 2013, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) Union described the Fourth Rail Package in plain English as a “set of regulations… that aims to impose privatisation on domestic rail passenger services in every EU member state.” They continue:

“Currently, on the whole, every EU state has the freedom to choose which way it wants to run its passenger rail services. These measures will remove that freedom, imposing a model of fragmentation and privatisation that has been an abject failure in the UK.”

Under the auspices of this package, we have already seen East Coast Rail, one of the most profitable nationalised rail lines in the country, being sold off to Virgin Trains.

Not to worry though, because within the EU there are supposed to be safeguards (Public Procurement regulations) that stop publicly owned industry being sold off to the lowest bidder. The most recent (2014) form of these regulations state that “to prevent a ‘race to the bottom’ in outsourcing public services” contracts are awarded on the basis of social criteria such as commitments to living wages and energy efficiency.

And yet, as a 2016 UNISON union report explains, “the UK government… decided not to take the EU opportunity to mandate the use of social (employment) criteria and ‘price only’ still remains in the UK public procurement regime despite its detrimental effects to quality service provision and workers.” The government is free to do this because of “opt-out” clauses.

In addition to this, the depth of the EU’s commitment to environmental issues was demonstrated last year when it was revealed that Volkswagen had fraudulently fitted eleven million diesel engines with “defeat devices” to rig pollution tests… with the full knowledge of the EU regulators! This has caused nearly one million tonnes of lethal air pollution a year – equal to the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, agriculture and industry.

So much for safeguarding!

There are many other examples of the EU’s obsessive liberalization of markets. Most recently, the privatization of Royal Mail was carried through with the backing of EU Directive 2008/6/EC, which called for the postal sector to be fully open to competition by 31 December 2012. This has already led to the, now private, 400-year-old company cutting staff and service in efforts to boost profits.


One of the biggest threats to publicly owned industry in Britain and Europe, however, is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Although many will no doubt already know about TTIP, the facts, terrifying as they are, bear repeating.

TTIP is a multi-billion-dollar agreement between the US and the EU guaranteeing access to public services for giant corporations to make vast profits – irrespective of the destructive impact on these services. The project has been under negotiation behind closed doors since July 2013. The European Commission (the unelected executive body of the EU) initiated “public consultations” only after a draft of its text was leaked in March 2014.

According to the European Commission website, TTIP “aims at removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.”

Probably the most dangerous aspect of the TTIP is the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).

The European Commission defines ISDS as a system that “allows an investor to directly bring a claim against the authorities of the host country in front of an international tribunal.”

This means that corporations could bring claims against states whenever they feel that their business interests have been affected by national laws or policies. For example, the Tories’ NHS privatisation agenda would be accelerated as US private healthcare companies could demand access to run NHS services and, if denied, be entitled to legally claim against a government.

Although some on the left have argued that the Tories could independently broker such a deal if we were to come out of the EU, it would undoubtedly be easier to pass this deal off if we remain within the EU. The reason for this is the abject lack of democracy within the structure of the EU (a subject I deal with later).

The EU and Workers’ Rights

On the related issue of how the EU treats workers, last week Jeremy Corbyn tweeted: “EU gave us rights to paid annual holiday, paid maternity/paternity leave, equal pay & anti-discrimination laws.” This has also been repeated by the Unite the union.

This is, at best, misleading.

The Equal Pay Act in the UK has its roots in a 1968 industrial dispute between women sewing machinists and the management of Ford Dagenham, where women workers took three weeks of strike action because of pay inequalities; and the Holidays with Pay Act was introduced in 1938 as a result of massive pressure from trade unions.

Similarly, in France, the government only signed the Matignon Accords in 1936, which mandated 12 days (2 weeks) of paid leave for workers each year, following a General Strike.

Whilst it is true that once the UK joined the European Economic Community (forerunner of the EU) in 1973 these principles were reaffirmed through articles in the Treaty of Rome, to suggest that the EU is responsible for establishing these codes is utterly irresponsible.

Attributing workers’ rights to the EU only serves to further reconcile workers to their own sense of powerlessness.

It is surprising that Corbyn, a self-identified socialist, chooses to take such a top-down view of social change. If his association with trade unionism should have taught him anything it should be that progressive change invariably moves from the bottom up.

In any case, it’s easy to appear generous when riding the crest of economic growth; the real face of the EU is not revealed when the economy is going through a period of expansion, but contraction.

To argue that the EU works to the benefit of the working class when Greek, Spanish, and Italian workers have seen their living standards smashed mercilessly since the onset of the 2008 recession; and Irish workers have been subjected to draconian water charges as well as massive cuts to public services, is absurd. Far from protecting workers from these austerity measures, the EU, alongside the unelected European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, has played a leading role in ensuring that they are implemented.

Back home, the Tories are currently showing how little regard they have for workers’ rights by forcing through exceptions to the European Working Time Directive, which protects employees from working dangerously long hours. But all this is perfectly legal within the EU, despite their ostensible commitments to workers’ rights. The decision to unilaterally impose dangerous new contracts on Junior Doctors, for instance, breaks no EU rules.

After seeing what the EU has done to the Greek anti-austerity movement, it is more than a little worrying to see Labour’s anti-austerity leader campaigning to remain within the EU.

But Can’t We Reform the EU?

There has been a lot of talk about reforming the EU, to build a so-called “social Europe.” This is a line that has recently received the support of Greece’s former Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, who Corbyn claims is now working in an advisory capacity to the Labour Party… although Varoufakis denies this.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

As the late Tony Benn persistently pointed out throughout his career, because most the key positions within the EU are appointed, not elected, the EU is not democratically accountable to the people of Europe. Executive functions in the EU are carried out by the unelected European Commission.

By contrast, the 751 MEPs we elect to European parliament have almost no authority. Approving the appointment of the Commission every five years is almost the only real power the parliament has.

EU reformists argue that more powers should be demanded for the EU parliament. A not unreasonable request by any means. But why would the holders of those powers – the lead political representatives of the 28 capitalist nation states in the European Council – cede them to another group of capitalist politicians, second-class ones at that, in the European parliament?

If the demand for more effective power in the European parliament is to have any meaning at all, especially if it is used to defend workers’ interests, then it must be undergirded by a popular progressive mass movement being built across all the EU countries. How else would it be possible to put sufficient pressure on the commission?

History has taught us time and time again that genuine parliamentary negotiations between workers and capitalists can only take place when supported by grassroots pressure exerted in the workplace and on the streets.

But this also raises the question of why, if millions of people were successfully mobilised across Europe, the demand should be to democratise the upper echelons of the EU? Surely if there was a movement large enough to achieve this, we might be able to ask for a little bit more. Control over the means of production, perhaps.

Another related problem, then, is that the desire to reform the EU once again demonstrates an inverted view of social change, where power is given to people from up high. Varoufakis even states explicitly that he has “been campaigning on an agenda founded on the assumption that the Left was, and remains, squarely defeated.”

But if the left is squarely defeated, then the conditions which would enable meaningful reforms to take place within the EU – i.e. a mass revolt of European workers – cannot take place.

It is for these reasons that, of those who argue for staying within the EU, none have put forward a viable strategy for carrying out the reforms necessary to democratise its structures.

Vote Out the Tories

The referendum on 23 June is not just about the EU, however, but is also an opportunity to pass verdict on the Tories.

In the battle between the pro and anti-EU forces, the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has wedded his fate to the “In” camp. But even if this campaign is victorious, a narrow win would still severely damage his authority.

To give an idea of the potential split that could occur, around 120 Tory MPs, as well as the majority of the party’s grassroots, are currently campaigning for “Out”. Against this, 129 Tory MPs are reported as wanting to stay “In.”

An “Out” vote would strike a mortal blow to the government, as well as the EU. It could lead to the calling of a general election and the removal of the detested Tories from power.

But whilst calling for an “out” vote, socialists recognise that for the working class and middle class, Britain being inside or outside the EU is no solution either way. The same is true for the rest of Europe.

Only international workers’ solidarity with each other’s struggles and demands for a democratic socialist confederation of the continent can create the conditions necessary to transform the lives of the overwhelming majority of people.

This means joining a democratic union in your workplace, exiting the undemocratic EU, and waging the international fight-back.

Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker