12 minutes reading time (2387 words)

Gary Tedman: the Communist case for remaining in the European Union

Gary Tedman: the Communist case for remaining in the European Union

Professor Tim Congdon, a senior UKIP member and academic, in a short BBC online article entitled Brexit puts UK on new economic path, has probably written the clearest expression of the Leave campaign in terms of its economic ideas and plans post exit. This is a critique of those ideas.

In the wake of the Leave campaign winning the vote to exit the European Union, the main figures supporting the idea seemed to row back on their promises and to be far more sober and even strangely crestfallen by their victory. There were many reasons for this. Opportunists such as Boris Johnson, with perhaps an eye on the future of the Conservative Party leadership, might have wanted to present a more inclusive image to potential future electors. Or, perhaps they (the more clownish elements of the political landscape) were never meant to win in the first place. Nevertheless, they won.

But what had been won exactly? The right to control UK borders? The freedom to control the shape of bananas?

Professor Congdon claimed that "... with the UK again able to tailor financial regulation to its own needs, the City of London can prosper outside the EU".

Did Leave voters really share this concern about the City of London rather than austerity policy, the state of the country and the economy as a whole? We just don't know. Let us look at this more closely.

In what way has the EU fettered financial regulation for the City? Was the EU, a champion of neoliberal austerity, privatisation and free markets, really a damper on the City? Quite the reverse. The EU promoted its shared rightist neoliberal economic values of extending the free market and deregulation in every sphere. This is why many big companies, notable in the City, were pro-Remain. The claim that the City will prosper outside the EU is just an empty assertion. Whether it prospers or not will have nothing to do with this but depends on other factors.

Professor Congdon: "The EU Single Market sounds appealing, but supporters of Brexit tend to be suspicious. They see it as an area of common and "harmonised" regulation, with the harmonisation intended to facilitate the free flow of goods, capital and people… The free flow of people means unrestricted immigration from the EU, which Brexit is intended to stop. Of course, when they export to the EU, British companies must comply with EU regulation, whether the UK is in the EU or not. But is there any reason why the UK should not seek an arrangement with the EU like that of, say, the US, Australia or Canada? They flourish without belonging to the Single Market."

This argument touches upon an economic fact: the UK must trade with Europe, and so with the bloc that is the EU. The prospect of taking as long as Canada did to get a trade deal with the EU bloc is rather intimidating, but I have heard it said by Brexiters that making such deals will be quicker. Clearly it might be, but only with nations not already in a big bloc like the EU, or those big enough to call the shots. Trade between nations and especially between a single nation and a big bloc does not usually come without strings attached. But in any case, given our history, this trading with the EU will mean a part of the deal will be that the free movement of people corresponds to the free movement of trade and finance.

Cutely, Congdon refers to the US as an example of a nation that can negotiate with the EU etc on its own terms. He is right, the US can do this. But what he forgets is that the US is itself a very large federal unity of states, like the EU might want to become one day, and because of this it is a very big trading power that can push its own economic interests. As such, it is a very bad example for his argument.

OK, Australia and Canada may be models. Are they flourishing? No, not exactly. These nations are also suffering from the global economic crisis.

Congdon: "Arguably, the UK does need special deals with the EU in such areas as cars, aerospace and food, but it should pursue its own interests. On no account must the UK pay any money to the EU for access to the Single Market, as Norway and Switzerland do. Nations benefit from free trade. The acme of free trade is indeed the absolute, unconditional and unilateral free trade pursued by Singapore and Hong Kong."

Here we get to the crux of the matter: free trade. The author, like all the EU leaders and finance ministers, wants free trade, but also admits that the UK needs special deals with the EU. The only proviso to this is that it pursues 'its own interests'. He does not specify what these interests are, and he is also merely assuming that hitherto it has somehow shirked pursuing its own interests (whatever they were).

Despite this vagueness, he is adamant that we must not become like Switzerland or Norway, because they 'pay' to have this autonomous status, and this would obviously mean that the Leave vote would amount to next to nothing if we end up still paying for access to this market. So, in this argument, we are intended to set out our UK conditions to the EU for our free trade with it to get our 'special deal', somehow. Evidently, he must expect to have some excellent economic bargaining chips to secure what we want (no conditions on our access) with such a big bloc.

But the key element of this argument actually comes later: Congdon wants such free trade arrangements to be like Singapore or Hong Kong, to him the 'acme' of free trade nations.

Now, this kind of absolute free trade is unlikely to help such workers as those in the steel industry, who will be (and have been) undercut by Chinese industry, but nevertheless this is presumably what the Leave campaigners have voted for.

This argument about Singapore has surfaced before through the UK media and is a hobby horse of Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who loves the country as a model of capitalism. It is no surprise that, for example, the tabloid Sun came out for an exit from the EU.

But, can the UK become like Singapore or Hong Kong, and is this what Brexiters wanted? Is this the model that the Leave voters wanted to copy for the future? It is doubtful, because during the campaign nobody made a big issue out of wanting to be like these nations. Nobody in UKIP shouted slogans like, "We must copy the example of the great Singapore!"

In conclusion, we have merely found that the Leave vote has been led by various people with diverse and ill thought-out (or very sneaky) and opportunist political and economic aims, but what else is new? Votes are almost always like this.

Free trade for whom?

A significant one of these aims has not been to protect the UK from the bad effects of free trade in the EU (a restriction on the free movement of labour will be matched by restrictions on capital and trade movement), but to head towards a more extensive and bigger free trade situation, an absolute free trade, with even less protection, social or economic, for UK workers.

So, this vote seems to have come down to an argument between two different, rightist, visions of global free capitalist trade. The UK Remainers were voting for free trade within a protective bloc of other nations, the EU: something like the US, but without the necessary fiscal sharing to make it work fairly, and were opposed by the Brexiters who apparently wanted even greater free capitalist trade without being part of a protective bloc that might hamper this with regulation about bananas (a myth, but it was a good angle).

Yet, the strange thing is, none of these economic arguments were put forward clearly at the time. This vote, understandably, was a protest that wanted to punish the big interests for imposing austerity unfairly and for losing touch with the working class and their problems. It was a vote to punish the governing party, which was pro-Remain, for not paying enough attention to its problems.

Such results are not without real economic consequences. Whichever way the working class voted, they were bound to lose out, since they are the object of the capitalist free trade that every politician sought, just in different ways. They are the commodity that is to be exploited in this free trade, not the ones who move the commodity around freely and reap the benefits.

It may seem progressive to fight the forces of globalization, which is essentially the expansion of capitalism into every sphere of life. Moreover, not only do huge international corporations make huge profits, and are wealthier sometimes than entire countries, but those who are rewarded by them can squirrel their wealth away in tax havens, protected by various interests in various nations. There is no international force that can touch these havens, because the interest in doing so does not exist among the powerful in those nations.

Given this, should a progressive person therefore fight for the narrower interests of national capitalists over those of the big international capitalists?

One argument sees the source of austerity and fascism as stemming from the EU, and this is muddled in with the anti-immigrant argument that jobs are being stolen and wages undercut. But austerity is obviously also a policy of the UK governments, of both flavours, and has been for a long time. Immigrants from the EU are likewise just as exploited as UK workers, and so should usually be treated as friends.

You can see that fighting for either side in this argument, from a socialist point of view, is foolish, so it is necessary to have an alternative position. For example, in Europe this alternative would include the uniting across European borders of the unions and workers for their interests, under a common socialist banner.

The latter has, of course, not happened, and the campaign for leaving the EU or remaining in the club has been conducted in the UK solely via the media, as an exercise in support of your local capitalists and rightists against the EU capitalists, or vice versa. The result was a temporary victory for the local capitalist. And yet, narrow national interests are ultimately doomed to fail against big capital, and retrograde struggles are at best prolonging the pain and suffering in this fight of the majority of those who are subject to it.

The problem on a global scale is that there are no real global institutions with the same ability to check capitalist monopolies and abuses as they usually exist in the national context. Even the capitalists recognize this, but their partial solution is to club together in quasi-federated states with quasi-federal law like the EU, as well as supporting the few supra-national organizations like the IMF, which are in any case directed by big international capitalist interests.

What is also telling is that, in Europe, their heart is not really in the European project as far as a real federation is concerned, which requires at least a small degree of socialism: they are too happy with the ways and means that capitalism can reward them for the looseness and anti-socialism of their confederation, which allows ever freer reign to capital (privatisation, deregulation etc).

Because of these factors, we can project that a fully global capitalism will have similar characteristics to untrammeled early capitalism as it was at its genesis (in any advanced capitalist nation state), but of course on a global scale. The scenario for those nations on the receiving end is nightmarish, and we have already seen indications of this. It is therefore essential (even to the point of saving the planet from global warming) that socialists need to oppose this not by supporting narrow concerns and retreating into their shell, which will fail or at best prolong things, but by at some stage globalizing their own struggles.

Obviously, this was the original aim of classical international socialism, and it has a history of struggle to learn from. The capitalists say to us that this path is a dead one, gone forever. Of course, they would say that.

Therefore, as a Communist, I believe it is a mistake to support leaving the EU. Not because I love the EU, far from it, but because it is the bigger platform for the working-class struggle. If the EU is to fail anyway, due to its many internal contradictions, then let it not be because of the internationalism and friendly ties of workers and socialists across Europe, who may even be able to take over the reins of progress where the bourgeois classes failed.

After this vote, at best all the Leavers can achieve by the victory is a political illusion of separation. The island of Britain cannot sail off into the middle of the Pacific. While it might seem to leave the EU, it will always be European and be affected by Europe and a need to trade with Europe. The big bourgeois class of the UK, who make big profits from European trade and like to move their finances around freely, will probably not allow the vote to be put into any real effect. So, as you can see, in this sense there is no choice, and it is better to recognize the actual struggle that lies ahead than fall for divisive fictions and retrograde steps.

Because of these factors, we can project that a fully global capitalism will have similar characteristics to untrammelled early capitalism as it was at its genesis (in any advanced capitalist nation state), but of course on a global scale. The scenario for those nations on the receiving end is nightmarish, and we have already seen indications of this. It is therefore essential (even to the point of saving the planet from global warming) that socialists need to oppose this not by supporting narrow concerns and retreating into their shell, which will fail or at best prolong things, but by at some stage globalizing their own struggles. 

Gary Tedman has been a Professor at the Faculty of Design and Art at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy.

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