The case for reform in the EU

By Harry Nathan

Socialism is nothing without internationalism. Our movement was built upon solidarity; we seek to build a better and brighter future for all our brothers and sisters, at home, in Europe and across the globe. Thus, our ultimate aim is to change the world, but how can we change the world when we refuse to even try and change Europe?

Brexit is an English nationalist project. Although there are many legitimate left-wing criticisms of the European Union (EU), the so-called Lexit argument, these do not justify running away from Europe. By supporting Brexit we’re not addressing any of the issues the Lexiteers identify; instead, we’re simply leaving the rest of Europe to deal with them, while we disappear into our splendid isolation What we should be doing is working collectively with our fellow European progressives and socialists, within the EU, for the benefit of the many, of Europe.

Despite near-constant coverage of Brexit in the almost four years since the 2016 referendum, the debate has hardly moved on. Very few high-profile figures on the Left have made a convincing case for a better Europe, a post-Brexit Europe. The ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ grouping of left-wing MPs is making headway in this area, as are ‘Another Europe is Possible’, but progress has been slow. With Boris Johnson in Downing Street, determined to force Brexit whatever the consequences, a third referendum (the second in 2016, and the first in 1975) seems increasingly likely; however, Remain groups, such as the People’s Vote Campaign, as well as the Liberal Democrats, have thus far failed to convince many Leavers of the case for Remain. Instead of reaching out to Leavers, they have done nothing but isolate themselves. In order to reach out, we’ll need to build a compelling case for a Europe post-Brexit.

Remain and Reform has long been the sound-bite position on Brexit that many on the Left give. But what does Reform mean? And how can such a position be achieved?

Before we can answer that there is another important question to address. The case for Remain and Reform set out in this blog is very much in-line with fellow European socialists, so why should non-socialists, such as the Liberal Democrats or Remain Conservatives back this position? The answer is really quite simple; because it is the only way Remain can win another referendum. In order to win, Remain will have to convince one of two groups, left-wing Leavers or right-wing Leavers. Both groups are eurosceptic, but for very different reasons. For right-wing Leavers, Brexit is about regaining ‘lost sovereignty’, but this displays an acute sense of xenophobia; there is very little that can challenge this. Indeed, we’ve seen in recent polling that a vast majority of Conservative members (right-wing Leavers) would sacrifice almost anything for Brexit. On the other hand, left-wing leavers, Brexit is very much about a dislike of EU neo-liberal institutions; it’s about challenging a capitalist institution which puts European capital before people. The good news is that these concerns are the concerns that can be addressed by the Remain and Reform position. What is the ultimate aim of Reform: uniting across borders to build a new social order, a people’s Europe, a worker’s Europe.

Despite a lack of discussion among the British Left on the topic of reform, there are notable continental sources to draw from. For me, the most influential has been Yanis Varoufakis, and his new, pan-European, reformist movement Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25). Varoufakis has long-standing theories for reform. The position put forward by Varoufakis, in his books The Weak Suffer What They Must? and Adults in the Room, and DiEM, and which we should now adopt, is that the issues with Europe are derived from, on the one hand, a lack of integration, and on the over-centralisation. Reform must seek to address these issues. The question of reform is not just about policy, about leaders, or about which political grouping controls the European Parliament, it’s about systematic, structural reform, the democratisation of Europe.

On the Left, our plan for the reform of Europe is one of increased integration as well as decentralisation; a policy of radical federalism. You simply cannot have more democracy without more integration. The programme follows a neo-functionalist route – integrationist policies leading to eventual federalisation. The main difference between this and what some within the liberal EU establishment want is that we don’t seek a federal European super-state, with a technocratic, democracy-free Brussels at its centre; what we seek is a federation of European states. What we’re building is a socialist Europe, a Europe of social and economic rights and solidarity across borders. What Europe requires is further integration of pan-European policy, but decentralisation of wealth and power, and clearly defined rights and responsibilities for both federal and national authorities.

Let’s begin with integration. Many eurosceptics, mistakenly, argue that the EU is already “too powerful” and that integration, especially the common currency (the euro), is the cause of many of the issues in Europe at the moment; sky-high debt, crippling austerity and insane levels of unemployment. For them, integration has become a dirty word, expressed as “Brussels taking away our control”. But, the reality could not be further from this which is that the failure of the eurozone is the result of a lack of integration. After the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 set in motion the common currency, the eurozone states began to integrate their monetary policies, but failed to do the same with fiscal policy – the problem was compounded by the lack of integration in the banking system as well. What is required is more integration, especially of the banks. The European Central Bank (ECB) currently has no real power to improve Europe, it merely inflicts more misery on us. This must change if the ‘European Dream’ is to survive. Instead of inflicting austerity on states like Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland, the ECB will become a redistributive mechanism – diverting surpluses from exporting nations, such as Germany and Sweden, to importing nations, such as Greece and Spain – thus readdressing the balance of economics within the EU, creating equality and stability.

Another vital area which requires integration is pan-European transport. In the age of climate crisis, it is vital that we address the way we travel. We need to drastically cut the number of flights over Europe, and the number of cars on the roads of Europe. An integrated European transport network, publicly owned by the European people, could provide efficient, effective and cheap transport across the entire continent by high-speed rail. Moreover, we should and can begin to replace inner-city roads with monorails and trams, further cutting pollution and our environmental impact. While some of this could be achieved through individual states, it is far more effective to approach it from a European perspective, especially when considering high-speed railways crossing national lines. A uniform, continental system would benefit everyone. So, maybe integration isn’t so bad after all?

Moving onto decentralisation, there can be no doubt that migration is having a massive impact on Europe, stoking fear and hate, promoting the rise of nationalism and nationalist-parties; most significantly, migration was a key factor in the Brexit vote. But have you stopped to consider why both external and internal migrants are flocking to western and northern Europe? It’s the same reason that hundreds of people move to London every month in the UK – wealth, jobs and power are all disproportionately located in these areas. The answer is not to dismantle free movement. We must fight for free movement, not just to preserve what we’ve got but to extend it for all; free movement for the masses, not just the ruling classes. The answer is not to stop migrants moving to these areas, but rather to stop their moving being necessary in the first place. Instead of people going to jobs, let’s bring the jobs to the people. This is the decentralisation aspect of radical federalism, spreading wealth, jobs and power more evenly across Europe, away from the confines of western and northern Europe.

The integration of the banking system, and beefing up the ECB, will have a vital role in decentralising wealth; shifting surpluses to where they are needed, not where they can be hoarded. The ECB will also be assisted by a European Investment Bank (EIB) which will use these surpluses to increase infrastructure across the continent; a pan-European high-speed railway has already been mentioned and should be among the first pan-European infrastructure projects to be undertaken. However, investing in infrastructure won’t be the only responsibility of the EIB, it will also invest in national ‘services’. The goal shall be a Europe of fully publicly owned Universal Basic Services (UBS), the 21st-century answer to nationalisation – which will provide for social rights, including housing, education, health care, etc.

In relation to health care, what UBS would seek to create is essentially the NHS on a continental scale, with advanced health care services free at the point of use and available to everyone. It is critical that we understand that the liberal ends of personal fulfillment cannot be achieved without socialist means. The role of the ECB and the EIB in this will be to help ensure that this is funded across the continent, using surpluses from richer areas to help fund services in poorer areas. However, both new institutions will also have requirements to encourage local development. Instead of a Europe dominated by a few large transnational corporations, we would seek to construct a Europe of many worker-led cooperatives, a European economy with continental oversight and local fulfillment.

Within this new Europe, there will be two main sources of authority – the European federal Authority and the member-states national authorities. Moreover, the European Parliament will become the primary federal institution. It is important to stress that we do not seek to create a state through radical federalism, but a federation of states. So, what this means in practice is that although more powers will flow upwards to a federal authority, these will largely only be powers over areas which should be Europe-wide – a continental transport agency, foreign policy, international trade, etc – while national policy will largely remain in the hands of national authorities. Nonetheless, it is still important for federal authorities to have some level of influence over national policy in order to establish uniformity across member-states. For example, how is it fair for the retirement age to be 65 in one member-state but 57 in another? Thus, while allowing for some leeway, federal authorities should be able to set standards which member-states should stick to as much as possible, while still allowing for room to ‘manoeuvre’ depending on the domestic situation… Another example would be the minimum wage, which should be set as a standard by federal authorities. Looking beyond reform, however, I’d also like to suggest that radical federalism should be taken further within each member-state, creating regional and municipal authorities to deal with regional and municipal issues – although this is an issue for another day.

People may point to previous attempts to change the EU, David Cameron prior to the 2016 referendum, Greece in 2015, Ireland and its referendum over the Lisbon Treaty, and ask: is it even possible to reform the EU? While the answer is that reform is indeed possible, this cannot be achieved by single states, or indeed, individual parties within states. If we are serious about wholesale reform within the EU, then what we require is a pan-European movement. We must pool our national resources to support a continental movement. We need cooperation and organisation at a level that has never been seen within the EU before. We need to forget our national party allegiances and build a United European Socialists and Progressives movement – incorporating parties, trade unions and, most importantly, dedicated activists. Politicians won’t change Europe, mass-movements will.

You don’t have to be a europhile to recognise the benefit of a united Europe. You don’t have to be a socialist to recognise the benefit of a Europe that works for everyone. The rise of right-wing populism across the continent – from Farrage and Johnson to Salvini – should act as a wake-up call for us all. If we don’t act to save Europe from itself, then we surrender it to the advancing Right. While Britain may wish to run away, mistaken in the belief that Brexit can shield us from this fate, what would that future hold? How could we ever look another European in the eye when they remember that we abandoned them. There is only one option for Britain: we must stay and fight. Remain and Reform is the answer, not splendid isolation.

I don’t have a problem with being labeled, as I have been on occasion, a eurosceptic; I’m highly critical of the EU and its technocratic leaders, as I hope all reading this are. This clique of self-obsessed careerists has driven the European Dream into the North Sea with no life vest to keep it afloat. Technocrats in Brussels have sought to ‘de-politicise’ the political – conflating their own broken ideology with simple ‘common sense’. They stubbornly reject the reform which our continent so desperately requires because they know it will end their cozy club of bureaucrats and their hegemony over privilege and influence. But Europe is bigger than several hundred pampered careerists in Brussels. Europe is larger than the Labour Party, or any political party across Europe. Europe is home to 500,000,000 people – they deserve a brighter future. We must fight for that future; in the corridors of power and on the streets of Europe. It’s worth recalling the words of Leon Trotsky:

“Before the revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable”


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