Alexis Tsipras, Democracy, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Union, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour, Nicola Sturgeon, Opinion, Pablo Iglesias, Podemos, Politics, Revolution, Revolutionary Defeatism, Syriza, The Euro, Yanis Varoufakis
[“Democracy on Trial” is a new series of occasional missives about the EU referendum.]
Why is the Left, or at least the populist, socially democratic part of the Left, always so dopey when it comes to the European Union? Is it evidence of a mature internationalism, or is this all just another capitulation, another watering down of vintage ideological juices?
Take, as our first example, everybody’s favourite Naomi Klein quoting, Che Guevara attired, political movement Syriza. Last year, it looked as if the only way that Greece could ever vanquish its unpayable debt of over €300 billion was to leave the Euro. Even the pigs in the fields could tell that Greece was going nowhere economically until it had its own currency. The reason why Greece did not leave the Euro, however, is because the Euro was never anything so innocuous as a currency. It is a mechanism which breaks economies and then promotes European political integration as the only means of fixing them. If one country had left the Euro and got rich again, the “danger” was that others might do so as well. There would be a “domino effect” – the EU’s political stranglehold would slacken to the point of no return.
Fortunately Syriza understood the significance of the Euro. Despite selling the Left’s revolutionary iconography to teenagers and the simple minded, they proved in the end to be the pre-eminent party of the status quo. Rather than overthrowing the Euro they were quite comfortable with VAT hikes for the Greek people, a ransacking of pensions, a more than 25% cut to workers’ disposable incomes, and the asset-stripping of an entire country by capitalist looters.
Spain’s populist Podemos party follows the same contemptible formula, with the same revolutionary imagery and the same deferential mentality immediately contradicting it. To see this in action, you should watch, if you can stomach it, the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias delivering his maiden speech in the European Parliament in 2014. He speaks thrillingly of Europe’s political heritage: “Not being servants of anyone, your honours, that is democracy.” This, in a speech which is otherwise never-ending pleading! Iglesias doesn’t say “I’ve just been elected and my people want this!” He instead bravely pleads with his political masters that the EU be “a little less tough on the weak and a little less complacent with the powerful.” The “honours,” unelected or else barely elected, are delighted with this dainty revolutionary who is performing for them on the carpet. Yes, he is defiant in continuing to speak after his microphone has been unplugged, but he is thankfully not saying anything which threatens their system. The Euro class can groove along to the glamour of Che Guevera, but without any of the authentic menace.
Were Syriza and Podemos motivated by sheer cowardice, or couldn’t they imagine any historical role for themselves other than as yes-men to the EU project? It is, of course, easy to criticise their cowardice and far harder to picture the political bravery which a break with the EU would have required. Nevertheless, I doubt that Syriza and Podemos subscribed to the EU project solely out of a love for international finance. Rather than being actively for the EU class, they instead instinctively looked to the EU to put a lid on the democratic will inside their own countries. Rather than pursuing their voters’ demands, they were instead only comfortable within a political system in which these demands constantly have to be negotiated, compromised, and toned down.
A socialist can appreciate this containment of democracy with a sharpness that a conservative does not possess. Because socialists have been always disappointed by the working class. The workers are never fussy about who is buying them off, even if it is Thatcherites or environmentally ruinous corporations. Human rights, social justice and environmental protection are always best served in a system such as the EU, in which democracy is kept permanently at bay. Or so goes the phobia of democracy which for many modern left-wing parties is now as natural and as unremarkable as a heartbeat.
When we turn to the UK, a nation which is embarrassing the whole of Europe by having something as archaic as a vote on the EU, we find the leadership of its left-leaning parties all indignantly for the European project. The SNP, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin are all campaigning for EU membership. Nicola Sturgeon, stammering away on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, perhaps best communicates the ideological rut which most of the Left is now stuck in:
…one of the reasons why it would worry me greatly if the UK was to come out of the European Union is that we would then have David Cameron’s majority conservative government unfettered when it came to employment rights or social protection…
Note how she shudders at the word “majority.” In an independent democracy, Nicola would be left “alone” with millions of people. She would have to do all of the hard work of convincing them to support “employment rights” and “social protection.” To those of Nicola’s mind, the EU is essentially a private contractor, which can take on the responsibility for delivering social justice without any of the democratic pressure and accountability. In exactly the same way that the Tories had used Atos to clamp down on welfare!
The Labour party is in a more complicated position, because one of its most inspiring politicians, Tony Benn, had thoroughly detested the EU. Here is Benn on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992:
The best way to get round democracy is to pass the real power to someone who is not elected and cannot be removed. This treaty is an anti-chartist, anti-suffragette campaign. We have been told for years that this nation is not good enough to govern itself, that it has to be governed from Brussels. We have been told that we cannot defend ourselves but must have NATO, and that we cannot organise our economy and must have the IMF. We are told that this is a nation of lazy workers—militant shop stewards, inefficient managers and football hooligans—a nation waiting for discipline. Of course, the discipline will come from Europe.
The tragedy of today’s referendum is that nobody is providing any leadership of this voltage. There is a sprinkling of Labour backbenchers, including Kate Hoey and Frank Field, who are still stroking Benn’s wrath to keep it warm. There are energetic politicians on the right, such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who share Benn’s fervour for democracy. Yet the greatest tragedy of all is that Labour, the biggest left-leaning party, is being led by a man who is Bennite in many respects but not on Europe. And Europe is the biggest issue of our day – it is the only issue!
What does Jeremy Corbyn really think about the EU? What did he think about it in the past? You are hampered from the very beginning in trying to mine the man’s ideas, because he is a hopeless speaker and a woolly writer. You’ll notice that commentary in the media about Labour’s position on the EU never features any quote from its leader about the subject. In an article from 2007, Corbyn generates a mild negativity towards the EU, but you can never pin him down to actually wanting to leave it. This is as straightforward as it gets:
What is also explicit in both the Maastricht Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty is the imposition of a market economy on Europe, a control on borrowing made by any member states’ government and serious control on the political choices open to any one member state. Thus, the British government had to explain to the European Union why it proposed to take Northern Rock into public ownership, for how long it intended that to be the case and give assurances about the bank’s future. EU law makes it almost impossible for a government to take any industry into public ownership of its own free will because it would be accused of giving it illegal state subsidies. There is a strong socialist argument against the Lisbon Treaty and the economic consequences that flow from it.
There is a strong argument against the Treaty, but it has to be weighed in the balance and taken into consideration.
He dislikes the EU because it is a neoliberal construct, not because it is an undemocratic abomination. Perhaps if it was more democratic, Jeremy would be happier, but this is only ever thinly implied. You can see it if you are looking for it. Somebody else, who was looking for a passion for European integration, might see that instead.
Can Labour continue to be led by Corbyn in the coming months? Is his position now untenable? On the ultimate constitutional decision about our democracy, his stance is a PR calculation rather than a moral imperative. He wants to gain a passing political advantage by contrasting Labour’s unity to the Tories’ disunity. The cynicism is stupendous.
Tony Blair’s government was a dense web of political calculations, but this “spin” normally concerned day-to-day politics. Blair wanted to send a subliminal message about crime, or to manipulate us into assuming something about terrorism. Corbyn, on the other hand, has publically switched off his critical faculties in respect of one of the most immense constitutional decisions of our age. He wants to pretend that his beliefs about democracy and sovereignty are just private views, which should be left at home, in a cupboard, before shadow cabinet meetings.
Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis are currently pursuing a line of thought which stipulates that we should remain in the EU, but aspire to reform it democratically. Clearly, though, the most important part of this is the bit about remaining in the EU. Varoufakis has set up a new cross-party European movement called DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) which aims to:
…convene a constitutional assembly where Europeans will deliberate on how to bring forward, by 2025, a fully fledged European democracy, featuring a sovereign parliament that respects national self-determination and shares power with national parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal council.
This is the same trend that we had observed earlier in Syriza and Podemos, the same subdividing of the democratic will between different, powerless political institutions until it has reached a safe level. But the irresponsibility of Varoufakis’ proposal does not just issue from this casual evasion of sovereignty. It is in the fantasy that you can walk into EU buildings and somehow negotiate more power for the people. That you can look in the eye politicians who have previously stripped Greece of everything and plead lamely for an increase to workers’ protections. There is a laziness to this thinking which comes across as callow, even debauched.
The EU is unreformable. It remains unrocked by any pressure from the masses not only because there is no institutional way for the masses to get any grip on it, but because most people will wisely have nothing to do with it in the first place. Reforming the EU to secure more democracy would firstly require turning our faces away from the national parliaments which provide the only existing bases for mass democracy. Are we really falling for that?
If Labour wants to be for the EU, it should produce a leader who can articulate a sincere defence of it. If Corbyn is sceptical of the EU, he should resign and follow his scepticism wherever it takes him. He had said back in September that he wanted “to change our party, change our country, change our politics and change the way we do things. But above all, straight talking.” It is impossible for him to talk straight about the EU without terminating his current leadership.