There is a progressive case for voting to leave the EU at the referendum in June and the Communist Party backs it. It relates to recognising what the EU is really about. The treaties creating the Union are bereft of aims to enhance democracy and promote the interests of working people. They are concerned about granting businesses four Fundamental Freedom, the freedom to:
establish new businesses;
move capital; and
within the Union. Nothing of comparable importance attaches to workers’ rights, nor is there much emphasis on improving democracy across and within the EU. In consequence the European Parliament is toothless and is likely to remain so and there is no pressure on national governments to democratise what remains of their powers or to devolve them to local government. Thus the scandal of media ownership, corrupt representative democracy and the absence of workplace democracy in the UK has continued unchallenged and unabated.
In a thoughtful piece by John Hendy QC The terrible tale of the EU and Trade Union Rights he describes the limited scope of social measures in EU treaties and what little they do for trade unionists in particular and workers in general. The Community Social Charter for the Rights of Workers adopted in 1989 proclaimed, amongst other things, the right to freedom of association, to negotiate and conclude collective agreements, and a right to resort to collective action including the right to strike. Mrs Thatcher duly called it a “Marxist Charter” (as if!) and, after much bitter opposition, it was afforded no more status than that of a “solemn proclamation”. A Social Charter Action Programme was subsequently adopted which led to modest Directives on workplace safety, work equipment, personal protective equipment , VDUs, manual handling, proof of the employment contract, posted workers, pregnant workers, young workers, and working time. The Maastricht Treaty in 1992, gave greater prominence to what was called the Social Chapter to which the UK Tory government promptly secured an opt-out. Amongst other things the Social Chapter provided for European level collective agreements between the “social partners” to be enforced as EU law. In fact very few such agreements have ever been reached because of resistance by employers. By the time Labour was elected and the UK opted back in again only four Directives had been adopted under the Social Chapter: on European Works Councils, parental leave, part-time work and burden of proof. The Treaties underpinning the EU were tweaked by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2000. As John Hendy concludes, they gave the illusion of a greater social dimension but little of substance.
This is thin gruel for those of us seeking more power and a better deal for ordinary working people. But we are nevertheless confronted with two problems in voting Out at the forthcoming referendum. The first is the right wing element dominating the Out campaign. A more unsavoury bunch than Nigel Farrage, Ian Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson would be hard to find, and their appeal to latent racism is difficult to stomach. The second is that a vote to leave the EU would probably lead to the break up of Great Britain if, as seems likely, the Scots and possibly the Welsh voted to stay. It would surely have been much better for the referendum to have required unanimity across England, Scotland and Wales and for the referendum in Northern Ireland to have been about whether to remain an appendage of Great Britain (whatever the result of the other referendums) or to join the Republic.
All, however, is not lost for the progressive Out campaign. There is no need yet to throw our lot in with the Corbyn Labour leadership and accept that the potential loss of jobs means that we must stay in the EU and campaign inside it for reform. As appealing as that that may appear to some, it won’t halt the EU’s continuing secret negotiations with the USA over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment (TTIP). The impact of this could be worse that those predicted if we leave. TTIP will cost at least one million UK jobs, undermine our most treasured public services and lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in food, environmental and labour standards. For the first time, huge US corporations will be able to sue the UK government over democratically enacted laws. A vote to leave the EU should enable us to escape TTIP, although a Tory government might still try to sign the UK (or just England) up to it. With a barrage of scare stories expected such as the headline in the Observer today (“Brexit would spark decade of ‘economic limbo’ claims top Tory”), perhaps the best response would be a slogan along the lines No Vote for In if it means a vote for TTIP. Let the In Campaign chew on that.