The EU referendum campaign has been the weirdest in living memory. One day, David Cameron argues that we should stay in the EU as we “just don’t know” what will happen in the years ahead; the next, George Osborne confidently makes projections 25 years into the future. Lifelong Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn now embraces his inner Europhile in an effort to placate his MPs. Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, and Boris Johnson now, apparently, want to throw cash at public services. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon is making the argument that staying in the Union is better for jobs, trade, and investment – seemingly without a hint of irony. But perhaps it’s Alex Salmond, the most famous supporter of Scottish independence since William Wallace, making the argument that we should remain in the EU because otherwise Scotland will become independent, that takes the prize for utter ridiculousness.
However, aside from the somewhat strange positions adopted by politicians, there is a bizarre ideological contradiction at the core of both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns. That contradiction, quite simply, is that the politicians whose views are most in-line with the ideological underpinnings of the European Union are campaigning to leave, while those whose views are totally at odds with the EU’s direction of travel are campaigning to remain.
When considering an organisation like the European Union, there are essentially two orders of complaint.
The first order complaint is fairly ideologically neutral: that the European Union deprives the citizens of Member States of any direct say over matters that would usually be the subject of political discourse and division. Invariably, the main proponents of this argument appear to be drawn from the right. Complaints about the surrender of sovereignty can frequently be heard from the Conservative benches of the House of Commons, but seldom heard from the Labour benches.
The second order complaint is distinctly partisan, and from a left-wing perspective more worrisome: that having been deprived of any direct say over matters that would usually be the subject of political discourse and division, we have had imposed upon us a free-market ideology from which we are not at liberty to depart.
Though the preference for free-market ideology has been evident, in particular in judgements of the ECJ, since the early days of the EEC, the abandonment of the façade of ideological neutrality came during the 1980s. During this period we saw the entrenchment of a consensus that arose in the 1980s, when almost every Minister in the Council was drawn from the centre right. This consensus led to both the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht.
In recent years, this ideological preference has become more overt. For example, in two recent cases before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the Court ruled on a conflict between the rights of workers to withhold their labour and companies’ rights of free movement. Normally in cases such as these where two competing rights are in conflict the Court will grant a wide margin of appreciation to the Member State. However, in Viking and Laval, the Court ruled that the rights of workers were subject to the the rights of corporations, and not balanced by them. In doing so, the Court ruled that workers are only allowed to strike where it’s not too inconvenient for their employers. And there I thought the whole point of a strike was for it to be inconvenient.
The court further ruled in Viking that it was lawful for companies to discriminate between domestic and imported labour, thereby creating an incentive for companies to import workers from other Member States in order to undercut wages.
Of course, the most high-profile recent example of the EU’s ideological preferences can be seen in the treatment meted out to Member States who found themselves in fiscal trouble during the Eurozone crisis – in particular Greece. Having knowingly created artificially low interest rates in the so-called “PIGS” states, the EU institutions turned their backs on these states, insisting that “there is no alternative” to harsh austerity measures. Of course, there was an alternative – but one which would involve unpicking the ideological preferences of the EU.
The left consoles itself with the socialist scraps thrown from the EU’s capitalist table – such as directives on working time, maternity pay, and roaming charges. However, the left ignores the fundamental entrenchment of neoliberalism that the EU mandates.
Thanks to the EU, the most basic instruments of left-wing governments have been neutralised, with the exception of tax and spending (although the Commission’s coming for that next). States are no longer at liberty to nationalise, regulate, or subsidise as they see fit. A left-wing government wouldn’t blink at rescuing Port Talbot steel works – but even if Jeremy Corbyn was Prime Minister there’s absolutely no chance his government would get Commission authorisation for supporting the steel industry. In recent years, too, we’ve seen the Commission clamp-down on airport subsidies, of crucial importance to many in Scotland.
Unlike in domestic politics, this ideological preference cannot be undone by a majority, even a relatively sizable one. A similar uniformity of ideology as was evident in the 1980s would be necessary before a reversal of this ideological choice became possible, let alone likely. Such uniformity becomes less and less likely as more and more states are represented at the Council.
It is surprising, therefore, that so many on the Conservative benches are so antagonistic towards the European Union, relative to those on the Labour benches. If Conservatives don’t like that their political autonomy over the ideological direction of the country has been stripped away, they can at least console themselves with the fact that the levers of power of which they have been deprived are nonetheless being pulled in a manner that is, for the most part, to their pleasing. For example, John Major’s government actually quite liked the EU’s deficit-limitation rules because they represented the entrenchment of “good conservative values”.
By contrast, the left is usually quite at peace with not pulling the levers of power themselves provided that they are being pulled in a manner of their pleasing (the internationalisation of human rights is a good example of this). But in EU Member States control over the levers of power has been surrendered and that power is being exercised in a decidedly right-wing manner. It is astonishing, therefore, that the Labour Party should be the strident defenders of the European Union, while it is the Conservatives who are amongst its harshest critics. The Labour Party has convinced itself that the European Union can be a vehicle for left-wing ideology when sixty years of evidence has shown that the opposite is, in fact, the case.
Normally the place for debating substantive matters should be the internal democratic processes of the organisation – that is to say, European Parliament elections. The fact that these questions have dominated the referendum debate, and not the more relevant question of what power (if any) the EU should exercise is testament to just what a democratic failure the EU really is. Despite the seismic political shifts that have taken place in Member States in the past 30 years – the fall of Thatcher and Kohl, the rise of New Labour and France’s Socialist revival, the end of sixty years of Fianna Fáil hegemony in Ireland, and the annihilation of PASOK by Syriza, to name but a few – the political direction of the EU has never changed. If anything, recent evidence has shown that despite rising disquiet amongst voters, the determination of the EU’s leaders to pursue a right-wing, neo-liberal, free-market agenda has become more trenchant, not less.
So the right should console itself with the fact that they’ll almost certainly be getting their way whatever the result. If we leave there’ll be a Tory government in Westminster unfettered by the interfering busybodies in Brussels and Luxembourg. If we remain the EU institutions will be vindicated, and the free-market ideology will become even more entrenched. For the left, it’s difficult to find a silver-lining in either scenario.
This blog is adapted from an article I wrote for Grapevine – available now.