There are few illusions about the reformability of the EU on the left, even amongst those campaigning for Remain. Paul Mason has stated that “it is impossible for the EU to be a democracy”. The ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has described the “point blank refusal” of Greek creditors to “engage in economic arguments.” He explains, “you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken.” No doubt fuelled by these experiences, Varoufakis has since expressed serious doubts about the prospect of his own campaign succeeding – “It will probably end up in failure like all the best intentions.”
In this respect, they are in harmony with the left opposition, who argue that the prospect of reform will inevitably fail because the EU lacks a democratic structure.
But this has not been the main focus of the debate. Instead, the main issue has been less the objective political qualities of the EU than the fear of those leading the Leave campaign.
Mason states, “I am very unlikely to vote for Brexit on the day because I do not want to hand power to a bunch of crazed right wing conservatives.” Similarly, Varoufakis warns of the growth of fascist forces across the EU, and argues that Brexit “would make a bad thing far, far worse.” Owen Jones describes how a “vote to leave… has more to do with… opposition to immigration” and that he is now campaigning for Remain. Six months earlier he was stating that it is time for the Left to “reclaim the Eurosceptic cause.”
The idea of deserting the Leave vote because of its association with the far right has resulted in some truly spectacular U-turns. (See Jeremy Corbyn for the flip flopper par excellence.)
In their rush to abandon the Leave vote, however, Left Remainers have ironically contributed to the very conditions they rally against. Vacating the Leave argument has, in effect, meant abandoning huge swathes of the working class, who will be voting to leave, to the forces of reaction.
But maybe this is to overstate the case.
Certainly the position of the main Leave campaigns (and Remain, for that matter) have been racist in character, but the one-dimensional ideas put forward by the corporate media are never straightforwardly adopted by the majority of the 50million people voting in the referendum. To suggest otherwise is deeply patronising.
In reality, one of the main reasons so many people will be defying so-called “expert” advice is that the EU referendum has come to be seen as a stick with which to beat the establishment politicians, whether in Brussels or the UK.
People are understandably angry at the lack of principles in politics, fed up with lies and doublespeak of those elected to represent them. This referendum has become a way of passing verdict on the status-quo.
In this respect, Left Remainers have made a huge miscalculation.
By sidling up to the forces of world capitalism – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Confederation of British Industry, and bourgeois economists, as well as all the leaders of the pro-austerity parties – the Left Remainers have lined up alongside the enforcers of the oppressive status-quo.
The counter argument to this has been that the Left Leave campaigners have gotten into bed with the far right. Of course, the only thing that socialists have ever shared with the far right is the belief that there needs to be fundamental change in society – and it seems that the majority of the working class now feels the same way. Such accusations only reveal the extent to which Left Remainers have misunderstood this referendum.
Furthermore, the implication that the Remain camp is somehow more “credible” than the Leave groups misrepresents the central role played by capitalist politicians, and their ideologues, in making fascism possible.
Fascism does not emerge in a political vacuum, but breeds on conditions poverty, despair, and disillusionment – conditions which the EU has transparently done nothing to curtail. In fact, in cases such as Greece, forced-immiseration of the working class has been carried out at the EU’s behest. Add to this the capitulation of the Syriza government to EU austerity and it is little wonder that the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has gained so much support.
This does not mean that we do not unite in broad coalitions to keep fascists from gaining power – although this issue is not presently on the cards in UK – but that we must approach referenda and electoral issues with a program that gets to the root of its causes.
This brings us to another factor driving the grassroots Leave vote: the way that the EU has treated its less wealthy member states, particularly in southern Europe. Although not on the scale of Greece, the consequences of austerity – food banks, declining services, and lowering wages – are faced by the people of Britain on a daily basis. But to see it imposed so brutally across the trading bloc has undoubtedly contributed to feelings of fear, lest we suffer the same, and of solidarity.
Undoubtedly, the question of immigration control has been at the centre of the EU debate. And there are sections of the Leave campaign that are undeniably racist, particularly the official campaign – although contrary to what some Remainers suggest concerns over immigration are not in themselves racist. There are also many overtly racist groups that support Leave.
It does not, however, follow that the majority of those voting Leave are racist or xenophobic… but even if this were the case, much of the responsibility would have to be borne by Eurosceptic Remain campaigners such as Varoufakis, Mason, and Jones for failing to cut across these arguments with a principled Leave campaign; a campaign which points the finger at the real cause of human misery in contemporary society: capitalism.
In lieu of such a mass campaign, the job has been left up to smaller parties like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) as well as some of the more militant trade unions including the Bakers Union, RMT, NIPSA, and ASLEF.
Such groups have refused to cede control of Euroscepticism to right wingers, and in doing so have refused to write-off millions of working class voters.