Cameron’s chauvinist chicanery
The forthcoming EU referendum is a contest between reactionary forces, argues Paul Demarty
Talk about chickens coming home to roost.
When David Cameron first started talking about a straight-ahead, no bullshit, in-or-out referendum on continued British membership of the European Union, we were astonished. Momentarily under pressure from the UK Independence Party, and more insidiously from his own Europhobic right, our Dave somehow considered it wise to offer what they really wanted, rather than the usual handful of reactionary gimmicks and sops (which a Tory prime minister must periodically fling at his more overtly chauvinist camp followers, as if they were hungry hounds). But this? An actual referendum, with actual (and potentially disastrous) consequences for British capitalism?
It made a limited amount of sense, granted, when it appeared that Cameron’s best outcome in 2015 would be a renewed coalition government with the Liberal Democrats - he would never get his little scheme past that gang of fanatical Europhiles. Yet the crushing defeat of the Lib Dems - whose MPs may not fit into a London taxi, but would get into a larger minicab if you booked well enough in advance - along with the Scottish National Party’s equally crushing victory north of the border, handed Cameron his slim majority, and left him denuded of excuses for putting off his referendum any longer.
Carried along by such an unstoppable momentum, then, it is fitting that Cameron is busily looking for an “emergency brake”. Everything hinged, after all, on his much touted ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s obligations to the rest of the EU; which is not to say that he was ever likely to get significant concessions (we weren’t born yesterday), but that he had to find a way to sell it as a success. He needed to return, as the odious David Mellor has put it on his talk radio show, “borrowing Chamberlain’s overcoat, stumbling down the plane’s steps waving a piece of paper signed by Juncker”. And European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker duly obliged.
And so the “emergency brake” (a mechanism whereby a member-state could appeal to the others that its welfare system was overloaded, and with the collective say-so suspend certain in-work benefit entitlements for all migrants) was indeed included in the package, along with the misnamed “red card” system, whereby the (extremely limited) powers enjoyed by member-states to force a ‘review’ of EU Commission measures are extended a little.
The whole sequence of events, of course, is political theatre, and the staginess of it is plain to see for the least interested spectator. On January 31, Cameron was to be found aggressively pitching his proposals to all who would listen, but the following day the negotiations reached a rather dramatic pitch, with inescapable rolling news coverage everywhere. And by February 2, European Council president Donald Tusk had made his proposal to Cameron. There are dramatic speeches, races against time ... No expense is spared to make it look like something important is being decided. If you close your eyes, you can almost convince yourself it is not a stupid gimmick.
Upon Tusk’s proposal, announced with a suitably hammy flourish in a paraphrase from Hamlet, the narrative divides, depending on your point of view. The re-entry of Star wars to our cinemas has granted new life to the neo-conservative meme that, contrary to the narrative thrust of the original films, those from the Galactic Empire are the good guys. Likewise, the meaning of Tusk’s proposal depends rather on what pre-existing opinions the reader brings to the proposal. He acknowledges all of Cameron’s concerns, while watering them down still further from the already pretty lean proposals they were to begin with. The “emergency brake”, as originally proposed, could only be exercised with the consent of the various EU bodies and member-states; but now it would be reduced not to a simple turning off of the tap, but instead seeing child benefits reduced to the level appropriate to the migrant’s country of origin.
The Conservative ‘in’ camp has hailed this as a great victory, and Cameron is using it as an excuse to browbeat wavering Tories - notably home secretary Theresa May and supposed leader-in-waiting Boris Johnson - into acquiescence. Hard-core Eurosceptics lack the required imaginative faculties to see this in Churchillian terms, however. The substance of the “emergency brake” proposal is so timid, even in its original version, that doubts were raised before Tusk’s proposal as to whether it even represents a break with the status quo at all. Cameron was fighting for the right to convince every other member-state to allow him to do something which surely is already in place.
Thus, on February 1, John Redwood branded the proposal a “sick joke”. It was not only “an insult to the United Kingdom”: it was not even “a serious offer”, he fumed on the BBC’s Today programme. “Parliament has to decide ... how many people to let in, not 27 other member-states on the continent.” To put it mildly, he is not impressed; and nor will be Mellor, or any other Tory chauvinist, let alone Ukip.
Indeed, the theatrical character of proceedings does not stop with this particular mummer’s farce of a showdown. As is the tendency with referenda - which are by their design Bonapartist imitations of democracy - the battle is really over the terms of the thing. Cameron wanted to get his piece of paper from Juncker soon-ish, so he can slot the vote in for June, in advance of an expected surge in migration into Europe (he has picked up the date of June 23 from Jeremy Corbyn). Others are not so keen: the SNP and some in Labour want it pushed back further away from May’s elections. That, of course, is before we even get to small matters like the question on the ballot.
So timing is everything, and Cameron picked a good time to go around the core European countries touting a ‘relaxation’ of the rules around free movement. European countries are in great tumult over the question of migration, prompted most immediately by the influx of refugees from the ever-increasing number of failed states that US imperialism and its increasingly uncontrollable clients are manufacturing. People in Syria are looking at the chaos in their home country, the filth and desperation of nearby refugee camps, and - if they have the material resources - alighting upon Europe as a more satisfactory destination for themselves. Who can blame them?
This is, on the face of it, a separate issue from free movement within the EU, whose extension has always been accompanied by the strengthening of borders at the EU periphery - the phenomenon we call Fortress Europe. At present, 22 countries participate in the Schengen area, within which borders are all but unpoliced, with no passport checks. Of the six countries outside Schengen, only two - the UK and Ireland - are not obliged to join.
Yet it is difficult to deny that the Schengen agreement is fraying. The proximate cause is the aforementioned flight of refugees, who cross the Mediterranean from North Africa or Turkey, landing primarily in Greece, Italy and Spain. None of these countries are exactly in rude economic health, with things especially bad in Spain and Greece; so the migrants move on. They can do so easily, after all, since passport checks stop at the outer borders of the Schengen area (local laws about identification papers and so on aside).
There is a rule that asylum-seekers who make it to Europe must apply for asylum in the first country they reach, but this is entirely unenforceable, since it would mean that Greece and Spain, who have no interest in taking on 100% of all the desperate people fleeing Libya, Syria and so on, would be obliged to do so. So now people in the core EU states are talking about shrinking the Schengen area, and moving the ramparts of Fortress Europe to the nearer side of Greece.
All of which explains the rather slender nature of what Cameron was asking for. After all, he is hemmed in by some fairly comprehensive treaties, which require consent from 27 other governments to change. While his proposals may elicit tacit sympathy in Paris and Berlin, he is nevertheless wading into a major source of tension, demanding favours at a time when several weaker states are getting special treatment of a very different kind.
But a deal will at least benefit his domestic agenda. Incursions on in-work benefits, as noted by many sceptical Europhobic politicians, will not significantly deter migrants from coming to Britain, but it will exert downward pressure on the living conditions of a section of the working class; and it is plain that such benefits are more broadly in government crosshairs, with little or no attention paid to the fact that decades of wage stagnation have left many thousands reliant on top-ups from housing benefit and tax credits to live any kind of tolerable life.
At the end of this road, ultimately, is a sort of return to the 19th century, with workers packed like sardines into filthy accommodation. Those bourgeois ideologues who believe that we are simply too civilised nowadays to return to the time of cholera epidemics should observe the pace with which we are proceeding in that direction.
Those on the left who imagine that a British withdrawal from Europe is in the interests of the working class ought to note that the ‘out’ camp’s principle objection to continued membership is that we are impeded in our progress to high-tech Victorianism - by all that meddlesome Brussels ‘red tape’, by our inability to wall out migrants, by the few tepid restrictions imposed on finance capital by concerned European policymakers.
We note that ever fewer of such comrades, however, are inclined to this view; instead, there has been a marked loss of nerve among many, such as the leadership of Socialist Resistance, which previously had taken a ‘left Ukip’ line. More illustriously, of course, there is the small matter of the Labour front bench: both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have recently been at best ambiguous in their attitudes to the EU, but now appear to have sided definitively with the ‘ins’ under pressure.
Faced with the possibility of Britain actually leaving, many previously sceptical leftwingers surmise - no doubt correctly - that a victory for the ‘outs’ will unleash a carnival of reaction, leaving the most rightwing of the significant forces in British politics rampant. Cameron will fall, and his replacement will not be so terribly concerned about appearing nice as he is. More sophisticated left support for an ‘in’ vote seeks to make it an issue of internationalism: that the limited unity of Europe even on a capitalist basis is objectively progressive, whatever the horrors of its lived reality.
This line is certainly preferable to the reactionary nationalist utopias peddled by the remaining left Ukipists. Yet what is an ‘in’ vote actually for? We do not know exactly, but something close to the status quo ante: British membership of the EU on its old terms, plus a couple of reactionary tidbits, so that Cameron could say he had something to show for his ‘negotiations’; for Fortress Europe; and, above all, a vote of confidence in Cameron himself, in his stupid and contemptible political chicanery. It is scarcely easier to use this as a platform for proletarian internationalism than an ‘out’ vote.
If ever there was a ballot that deserved to be boycotted, this is surely it.