Kelvin Hopkins writes:
Just as Britain's future membership of the European Union seemed to become less certain with Prime Minister David Cameron's mooted referendum it was predictable that forces in big business, the media and the political class would start a counter-campaign of propaganda and myth. We have seen millions of workers and trade unionists on the continent of Europe opposing austerity and making the connection between the EU and their struggles against unemployment, falling living standards and poverty. But the voice of the British left in opposition to the EU has so far been muted. This needs to change.
It is important first of all to lay to rest those tired myths which have been trotted out by the pro-EU conspirators. The first of these myths is that Britain's trade would be damaged by leaving the EU, which is complete nonsense. Britain has a massive trade deficit with the rest of the EU, with imports greater than exports to the tune of almost £1 billion a week. The last thing the EU is going to do is impose trade restrictions. That would be an enormous own goal, Britain's trade with the EU being broadly equivalent to a million jobs.
Had Britain joined the euro currency, our economic crisis would be far worse. It is likely that Britain could have been another Spain, perhaps writ even larger. Spain's current unemployment is the equivalent of eight million on the dole in Britain, damning evidence if it were needed that EU and eurozone economics are massively deflationary. The second myth is that Britain would not have the benefit of EU employment law. This is a pathetic argument as there is nothing to prevent the next Labour government restoring worker and trade union rights, and indeed advancing beyond EU law. We simply need to exert the political pressure on the party to make it happen.
And what use have those protections been in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere? They have not stopped the savage attacks on workers' jobs and welfare provisions in much of the EU. Nor have the EU protections counted for much in crunch battles with employers at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Its Viking line and Laval judgements over the use of imported labour at cheaper rates went in favour of the employers, making it abundantly clear that trade union and workers' rights are secondary to employer rights and profits.
The reality is that the European Union is a neoliberal capitalist construct, imposed upon most of the peoples of Europe. It is not Europe, which is a continent of great peoples and countries, of cultures and energy. Being anti-EU is not being anti-European. Europe is suffering terrible damage at the hands of an economic model which does not work and is in crisis - a model being imposed by the EU. If it were not so tragic the so-called Growth and Stability Pact, allegedly a key component in the EU's economic arrangements, would be laughable. In Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere there is no growth, no stability and no-one is laughing.
The EU from its origins as the Common Market has been a mechanism for advancing the cause of markets and progressively dismantling the post-war consensus designed by Keynes and others at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference. Among other things, Keynes was concerned to counter trade imbalances and indeed with the ability to devalue or revalue currencies to appropriate levels, something which is impossible inside the straitjacket of the euro.
For 30 years after 1945, western Europe saw near-full employment and workers' living standards rising at an unprecedented rate. Poverty receded as economic growth and income redistribution took hold, and hard-won rights to welfare and social security transformed the education and health of millions. In Britain, unemployment was typically a 10th of what we see today. Millions of high-quality council homes were built and workers for the first time had access to health care free at the point of need.
The utilities and much else were in public ownership, accountable ultimately to Parliament and with any financial surpluses going to the Treasury and kept in public hands. Governments managed their economies using all the fiscal and monetary levers at their disposal and with the beneficial constraints of exchange controls. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led the way to privatisation, "liberalising" and marketising Britain's economy. The EU is driven by the same ideology. It is puzzling and bizarre that many of the Tory right who believe most passionately in laissez-faire capitalism, in privatisation and markets are so anti-EU.
But in most of Europe it is the working class which is threatened by the EU. Amid the current suffering of job losses, tanking economies and sweeping cuts to public services, more people than ever are aware of the role the EU plays in their privations. We need to wake up the left and the working-class movement in Britain to those realities and begin to campaign once again for a democratic socialist future.
Kelvin Hopkins is Labour MP for Luton North.