By Paddy Quick
On June 24th the British will vote on whether or not to withdraw from the European Union (EU). The two “sides” to the debate cannot be understood using the terms “left” and “right,” since both the capitalist class and the working class of Britain are split on the issue. Instead it is necessary to place this current moment within the history of the development of the EU.
The project now described as the “European Union” began as part of the post-World War II construction of the Cold War, with the United States providing economic, military, political and ideological resources to build up Western Europe against the Soviet bloc. But by the early 1980’s, the US, or to be more precise, US capital was no longer in control of the entire project. By then the larger, more powerful sections of European capital had recovered enough to be able to develop a strategy that would enable them to act independently of US capital. This required an accelerated development of cross-national/multinational unity of European capital and the corresponding development of multinational political institutions.
The overall process was well understood by Marx and Engels over 170 years ago, and laid out clearly in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff
John Van Oudenaren, an excellent, mainstream historian of the European Union, provided a straightforward account of how this actually took place:
In 1983 the chief executives of seventeen of Europe’s largest companies formed the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) in order to generate ideas and mobilize, government, parliamentary, and public support for creating a more favorable market climate in Europe. The stated goal of the ERT was to revitalize the EC [which became the EU] by preparing a blueprint for completing the single market.” (Uniting Europe. 2005)
The ERT’s success was apparent when Jacques Delors became president of the European Commission in January 1985. In his inaugural speech he announced a program to eliminate, by 1992, all barriers to the “internal market” and thus the “free movement” of goods, services, labor and capital within the EU. This would, it was understood, require that an increasing proportion of decisions to be transferred from national to multinational bodies with the authority to over-ride national decisions by (qualified) majority vote. A bare six months later, the Delors Commission presented to the European Council a detailed plan including no less than 300 measures that had to be accomplished to complete this “single market.” (The role of the ERT in the development of these measures must be assumed.) One indication of the “success” of this program, as it was put into place, was the increase in the value of cross-border mergers and acquisitions from $8 billion in 1984 to $167 billion in 1989, an astounding acceleration of the formation of European multinational capital.
Left behind in this process were large numbers of single-nation capitalists for whom the non-tariff barriers targeted for destruction in the “single market” had provided protection from European multinational corporations. These national capitalists would go on to provide the capitalist “backbone” for the anti-EU movement in the various countries – a clearly reactionary movement, attempting to move backwards, to reverse the tide of capitalist expansion.
Thus today, throughout Europe, including Britain, the capitalist class is divided on the “EU” project. While multinational capital has been dominant, national capitalists has been able to appeal for support from the workers of their own nations, using increasingly xenophobic language in support of “national independence” and thus in defense of their own “national” product markets.
The European working class was and is divided, and again this has to be understood in terms of the EU project. Working class political parties have been organized, historically, at the national level. The continuous transfer of political decision-making to the EU level meant that their influence was eroded, while capital, and in particular multinational capital, was strengthened. Thus decision-making within the EU moved increasingly further away from popular/democratic control. (The directly elected European Parliament is allowed only a minor role in the making of EU policy.)
Thus over the past forty years, opposition to the EU has grown. EU political authorities could no longer count on majority support for the passage of the treaties and the various measures necessary for expanding the reach of the EU into formerly national decision-making. These measures included the formation in of Schengen Agreement, providing for free movement of labor within the EU, and the establishment of the euro together with the transfer of control of monetary policy to the European Central Bank. Popular opposition to the EU acquired a name in the publications of the European Commission, namely the “problem” that became known as the “democratic deficit.”
Today unemployment in the EU is stuck at over 10%, and there is little expectation of a significant recovery from the crisis in the next few years. More recently, the refugee crisis has exacerbated fears within the working class of unemployment and the shredding of the safety net. National capitalists have played on these fears and combined with the xenophobic sections of the working class to develop fascist movements within many European countries. Britain has always been less integrated into the EU than other countries, retaining, for example, its own currency. But the vote on whether or not Britain should remain a member of the EU will indicate whether the British working class can understand the need for a progressive, European-wide working class movement. The alternative is to succumb to the appeal offered to them by national capitalists for an impossible return to the supposedly “good old days” that preceded the development of multinational European capital.