In January 2015, the radical left party Syriza was elected, with its leader Alexis Tsipras declaring “Greece is leaving behind destructive austerity.” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, baldly responded that “To suggest that everything is going to change because there's a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
The economic warfare unleashed on Greece by the Troika has seen living standards slashed, services privatised and workers' rights dismantled as part of what the Jubilee Debt Campaign has called “The Never-Ending Austerity Story”.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis laid bare the callousness of Europe's rulers as thousands drowned fleeing war and instability. The EU deployed gunships despite criticism from aid groups such as the Red Cross and then made the deal of shame that saw the forced relocation of migrants from Greece to Turkey. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein argued that “resources currently deployed for ineffective border control systems could instead be invested in maximizing the benefit of regular migration channels.”
And yet old habits die hard. After opposing membership of the EEC in the 1970s, the mainstream left in Britain made peace with European institutions in the 1980s, when Jacques Delors' promise of “social Europe” seemed a defence against the worst ravages of Thatcherism; better a dented shield than no shield at all.
The more the free-market consensus solidified its hold over the governments of Europe, however, the more thoroughgoing was the transformation of the EU into an instrument of neoliberalism. By 2012, European Central Bank head Mario Draghi declared “The European social model has already gone”, as was clear from the EU's role as the enforcer of austerity, particularly in southern Europe and Ireland, since the onset of the economic crisis.
Yet still Britain's labour movement clung to the EU. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign offered a tantalisingly brief glimpse of an alternative when he refused to rule out backing exit from the EU, while Labour left activist and journalist Owen Jones called for a left wing exit, or “Lexit”, campaign, but both retreated in the face of a pro-EU and anti-Corbyn Parliamentary Labour Party.
Much of the radical left toed that line, opting to campaign for a more-or-less critical vote to remain in the EU. While a handful of unions and Dennis Skinner MP have made principled cases for leave, and Lexit has held rallies around Britain, a left-critique of the EU has been marginal to the referendum.
However, many people voting to leave this week be will be doing so because they want to inflict a blow against a project that attacks workers in Europe and violently excludes those beyond its razor-wire borders, and against the crisis-ridden government and establishment that are defending it.
Whatever the result, the challenge for the left remains to unite with anti-racists and opponents of neoliberal austerity, regardless of the positions they took in the referendum, in struggles for a better world.
The last eighteen months should have settled the question of the European Union's progressive credentials.Reuse content