The referendum on 23 June is not just about the EU but is also an opportunity to pass verdict on Cameron and his rotten government.
An ’out’ vote would strike a mortal blow at the government. It could lead to the calling of a general election and the downfall of the detested Tories from power. So voting ’out’ is particularly important.
In this battle between the pro and anti-EU forces, Cameron has placed his fate at stake and that of other cabinet ministers in the ’in’ camp, including George Osborne and Theresa May. Even if they score a victory, if it is narrow their authority would be severely damaged. Also, the massive infighting in their party is tearing it apart, whatever the result.
With the announcement of the referendum, the gloves came off. London Tory mayor Boris Johnson took the ’out’ side - a significant rebuff and setback for Cameron. The overwhelming majority of the Tory party’s grassroots want ’out’, plus around 120 Tory MPs - a number barely short of the 129 reported by the Daily Mirror as wanting to remain in the EU.
It is wrong and a serious mistake for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to be supporting an ’in’ vote that could inadvertently lead to an escape for this Tory government on the ropes. They should reverse course and help to bring down Cameron and Co so a general election can be called.
As the four-month campaign develops, Cameron will pull out all the stops he can - including calling in more support from government leaders across the globe, from the US to China.
Capitalist politicians on both sides of the debate are whipping up fear and threats and this will reach a fever pitch. The spectre of greater vulnerability to terrorism has been raised by ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove if EU membership remains and by Cameron in the event of Brexit. But all of them support the bombing of Iraq and Syria which feeds the scourge of terrorism.
Working class people have no shared interests with pro-big business, cuts-inflicting right-wing politicians, whether they are for or against EU membership. While strongly distancing itself from the nationalist, pro-capitalist positions of anti-EU Tories and Ukip, the workers’ movement needs its own voice against the EU in this referendum, to oppose the bosses’ club that the EU is, and to fight for the interests of ordinary people in Britain and across Europe.
With alarm growing among many British capitalists at the prospect of their interests being undermined by Brexit, Cameron desperately pursued last minute concessions in Brussels that could aid a pro-EU vote. But the political posturing there and the very limited deals he gained from the other 27 EU government leaders did little to change the lines of battle.
He gained partial agreement on attacking benefit payments for workers from EU countries working in Britain and claimed that the UK will now have ’special status’ in future EU treaties, in addition to the existing opt-outs.
But German chancellor Angela Merkel was reported as warning Cameron that exemptions for Britain in future treaties might never in practise happen.
And French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reasserted: "There will be no revision of treaties, no veto for the UK over the reinforcement of the eurozone and no calling into question the principle of free movement".
However, the referendum won’t be primarily focused on Cameron’s deal, but on the EU as a whole. Across Europe, the tensions between the ruling classes are about a lot more than the exemptions sought by the UK government. The 19-country eurozone economy is stagnant, despite low energy prices, a negative interest rate and massive Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank.
This impasse has led to increased nationalism and division over the extent and distribution of the brutal austerity measures the EU has tried to enforce and more recently over the huge refugee crisis, among other issues. Far from being a vehicle for improved workers’ rights, as many Labour Party and trade union leaders in Britain are arguing, the EU is more and more an apparatus for imposing vicious austerity that destroys public services and increases unemployment, as people in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal bear witness.
EU rules that are of any benefit to ordinary people were adopted chiefly to even out the playing field for big business rather than from an intention to improve lives. This includes the EU’s free movement of labour rules - which have helped the bosses to inflict a ’race to the bottom’ in wages and conditions, rather than stemming from workers’ interests and a raising of living standards across the board.
The by-product benefits serve as a smokescreen, to better hide the fact that EU policies are designed for corporate interests, to counter public ownership of industry and services, trade union collective agreements, regulation and other state interventions.
In essence the EU is an association of the capitalist classes of Europe, based on treaties that reduce barriers to their profit-making and aid their competition with other trading blocs globally.
However, Europe’s economies have not been - and will not be - able to overcome the limits of developing capitalist production on the basis of private ownership within nation states; and at the same time they are meeting the intractable obstacle of a world economy suffering everywhere from overcapacity.
Corbyn... and the GMB
Jeremy Corbyn and others on the left were wrong to succumb under pressure from Labour’s right wing to the argument that the EU is advantageous for workers and so advocated a vote to stay in it. One of the consequences of that mistake is that his referendum campaigning will be improving the chances of a victory for Cameron and the continuation of Tory austerity.
Also, the trade union leaders are mistaken in looking to provisions from a "social Europe" as a way to counter the anti-union and anti-worker attacks of a right-wing government like Cameron’s. A future UK government elected on the anti-austerity programme Corbyn stood on in the Labour leadership election would soon be confronted with the anti-working class character of the EU.
The GMB union sent out a press release declaring its support for remaining in the EU. Its grounds included that corporate exploitation "is completely stoppable. Not by voting to leave the EU, but by demanding a return to [a] vision of a social Europe." But who will this demand be directed at and how will it be achieved? There is virtually no democratic accountability in the EU. Decisions are taken by the European Council - composed of the heads of government of the 28 countries - and the European Commission that is largely appointed rather than elected. The elected European Parliament of 751 MEPs is almost powerless.
Rather than entering into struggle to attempt a futile task of ’democratising’ the EU, the attitude of working class people across Europe lies increasingly in the direction of rejecting and escaping from that distant, bureaucratic and unaccountable institution.
As Andrew Rawnsley wrote in last Sunday’s Observer, attitudes are now far removed from what they were when government politicians won the 1975 referendum on Europe: "Much of the old deference towards ’authority figures’ has evaporated. This is an age of rage characterised by a widespread and deep seated alienation from ... the establishment". He added: "The referendum could be a stick with which to give a satisfying thwack to the backsides of the political elite".
The Financial Times reported that some pro-Europe politicians are debating whether to raise the spectre of a domino effect of Brexit - ie, rapid disintegration of the entire EU - in case it spurs people on to vote for that!
The old saying ’lies, damned lies, and statistics’, will likely be very apt during the next four months. One early disgrace is the way in which some anti-EU Tories are feigning concern for people hit by austerity. For instance, Gove, who as education secretary was detested by teachers for pushing ahead privatisation and attacks on their pay and conditions, said this week when making his anti-EU case: "Whoever is in government in London cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed", and: "The euro has created economic misery for Europe’s poorest people".
The only way this kind of monstrous duplicity can be fully exposed and countered is through building an independent, working class based campaign against the capitalist EU and fighting for media coverage of it.
While calling for an ’out’ vote, the Socialist Party recognises that for the working class and middle class, Britain being inside or outside the EU is no solution either way. Neither are these choices a solution for any population across Europe.
Only international workers’ solidarity with each other’s struggles and fighting for a democratic socialist confederation of the continent can create the ground for societies that would transform the lives of the overwhelming majority of people.