Europe: Tory civil war deferred
Cameron may have thrown a slab of red meat to the Eurosceptic right, but his problems are only just beginning, argues Eddie Ford
After being delayed by the Algerian hostage crisis, David Cameron finally got to deliver his ‘big speech’ about Europe at the London headquarters of Bloomberg on January 23. What he said has potentially profound consequences for British politics, both in the short and long term. Crucially, he promised to hold a “simple” in/out referendum on European Union membership after the next general election - “it is time to settle this European question in British politics”, he declared. Indeed, it would be a decision on the UK’s “destiny”. A historic moment. After all, he added, if Britain left the EU it “would be a one-way ticket, not a return” - undoubtedly a true statement.
In the speech, Cameron laid out his opposition to the pledge in the original 1957 founding treaty of Rome to create an “ever-closer union”. This is not Britain’s goal or objective, he stated, and it be would much better if the treaty specifically said so - that is, “freeing those who want to go further, faster, to do so, without being held back by the others”. What some would call a two-speed Europe. Far from being impossible, Cameron argued, a new settlement for a ‘flexible’ Europe could be achieved by fully implementing the 2001 Laeken declaration - which said power should be passed back to member-states if they desire. But instead, Brussels has been pushing for ever greater centralisation.
In the long run-up to the referendum, which will not be held until at least 2017, Cameron will be fighting to “renegotiate” London’s relationship with the EU bureaucracy - and nothing will be off the table when he puts forward demands for the repatriation of a series of powers to Britain, even if he did not spell out in his Bloomberg speech exactly what sort of powers he would like to see the UK reclaim. If successful in renegotiating membership terms, having gained major concessions from Brussels, he would then campaign with all his “heart and soul” for Britain to remain in the EU - presumably taking on the Murdoch press and those in his party who just want to get out of the EU come what may, regardless of any negotiations or the circumstances.
Cameron also spelled out his wish to extend Britain’s opt-out from aspects of the EU’s working time directive - the bête noire of Eurosceptics and British bosses. According to him, it is “neither right nor necessary” to claim that the integrity of the single market or full EU membership requires the working hours of British hospital doctors to be set in Brussels “irrespective of the views of British parliamentarians and practitioners”. British bosses should be allowed to exploit workers in Britain without any outside interference.
Naturally, Cameron will be seeking a “mandate” from the electorate for a referendum in the next election. He heavily implied too that if the Tories had to form another coalition, he would make a referendum an essential condition. As for those both inside and outside the Conservative Party who want to hold a referendum before the election, or even immediately, Cameron thought they were offering up a “false choice” because Europe was set to radically change following the euro zone crisis and it would be “wrong to ask people whether to stay or go before we have had a chance to put the relationship right”. The distinct message being that he would be working overtime to mend the broken relationship between Britain and the EU.
Wrapping up his speech, Cameron said he understood “the appeal” of Britain going it alone and was “sure” the UK could survive outside the EU. But he warned that the British people must think “very carefully” about the implications of withdrawal for the country’s future prosperity, not to mention the possible detrimental impact on British influence at the “top table” of international affairs. For him, there is “no doubt” that the UK’s continued clout in the corridors of Washington, Beijing and Delhi - despite the sad fact that the British empire no longer exists - is precisely due to it being a “powerful player” within the EU. He might have a point.
Very noticeably, Cameron has refused so far to be drawn on whether he would campaign for a ‘no’ vote if he failed to secure the desired changes in the coming negotiations. This would see him end up chasing after the same votes as the Poujadist United Kingdom Independence Party, which he described not so long ago as a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies”. Rather, the line is that failure is not an option. The plan will be fulfilled. Nothing can go wrong. As he slightly haughtily told the BBC, “Who goes into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail?” No, Cameron insists that Britain’s future lies inside a “changed” EU.
Of course, David Cameron was hailed as a conquering hero by rapturous Eurosceptic Tory MPs - you almost expected him to be carried into parliament high on their shoulders with Queen’s We are the champions blasting away in the background.
Bernard Jenkin, a Eurosceptic veteran - one of the ‘Maastricht rebels’ who defied the party whip to oppose the treaty - said that Cameron’s commitment to the referendum is “historic” and praised his speech for setting out some clear principles: the “importance of national parliaments, the importance of legitimacy and the repudiation of ever closer union is very significant”. As you might expect, he said he would vote to exit the EU if there was no “fundamentally new relationship”.
London mayor Boris Johnson chirped that Cameron was “bang on”, given that what “most sensible people want is to belong to the single market, but to lop off the irritating excrescences”. Meanwhile, Stewart Jackson, who was an aide to then Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson before the Tory Commons rebellion on Europe in 2011, tweeted: “I was sacked as PPS for advocating an in/out EU referendum in 2011, but it’s now official party policy. That’s politics, folks.”
However, not everything is rosy in the Tory garden. Ian Birrell, former speechwriter to the prime minister, wrote on the Conservative Home blog that Cameron’s speech was “padding wrapped around a stick of political dynamite” and “possibly the biggest gamble” of his career. Furthermore, Birrell worried that Cameron’s pledge to hold a straightforward in/out referendum was “not throwing a slab of red meat to the right” - more like “giving them the keys to the abattoir”.
There lies the rub. Thinking purely in the short term, like most bourgeois politicians do - there is the small matter of the next election to consider - Cameron may have played a brilliant hand on January 23. For some time the UK Independence Party has been riding high in the polls and there is the frightening possibility - and not just for the Tories - that Ukip could come second in the European elections. At the very least it will beat the Liberal Democrats. Therefore Cameron’s strategy is to steal Ukip’s clothes - and their votes.
His in/out referendum pledge is clearly designed to do that. And opinion polls conducted after his speech suggest he may be having some degree of success. A range of surveys showed the Tories up by two or three percent, although they still lag behind Labour by between six and nine points.
Not only that: his speech has gone some way to ameliorating his internal problems with “the bastards” - to use John Major’s affectionate term for the Euroscpetics crowding the Tory backbenches. The problem, needless to say, is that are more “bastards” now than there were under Major. So Cameron needs to placate them by making out that he is one of them - a fellow Brussels-basher, not a cheese-eating surrender monkey. Hence the ‘big speech’. Followed by his new-found status as a Churchillian hero. Cameron has surely increased his chances of winning the next general election, perhaps even becoming a prime minister with an absolute majority - away with the irksome coalition, replaced with true blue Toryism. Cameron is not guaranteed victory, of course, but every expectation is that the printed media and capitalist class will rally behind him and the Tories at the next general election. The establishment, at the end of day, always prefers the Tories - a much safer pair of hands when it comes to defending class privilege.
But it is a totally different picture if you view things in the long term. Cameron’s problems are only just beginning. The plain fact of the matter is that mainstream politicians of all political hues in Germany and France - and the core countries as a whole - want greater centralisation and “ever closer-union”, not less. Look at the referendums that were run and rerun in Denmark and Ireland. The elites were not satisfied until they got the result they wanted - ie, support/acceptance of the Lisbon treaty. Then there was the fiscal pact which came into force on January 1 this year for the 16 states that had completed ratification. The very last the EU political elite and the Euro-bureaucracy wants is a major renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty - let alone more troublesome referendums. And will David Cameron be able to secure a radical renegotiation of EU rules? He will not be allowed to cherry-pick what he wants from Brussels, even if Angela Merkel has made conciliatory noises about being open to a “fair compromise”.
In which case, what happens in 2017-18? As Ed Miliband has repeatedly asked Cameron - if you only get what suspiciously looks like European crumbs, then how exactly are you going to vote in a referendum? If the Tory Eurosceptics do not get what they want from Cameron, they will rebel - and maybe get rid of him. Unlike Labour, the Tories have never been sentimental about their leaders.
In some respects, the modern-day Conservative Party has been haunted by the European question in the same way that they were haunted by the Corn Laws throughout the 19th century - a running sore. True, deeply rooted political parties are only destroyed by big movements in history. But with the formation of the EU, the euro, Lisbon treaty, the fiscal pact etc, we are witnessing a major shift - the reorganisation of world capital. In other words, we are not dealing just with an ideological phenomenon generated by a historic memory of two world wars - though that is certainly an important factor. Rather, the driving force is hard-hearted economics - Germany needs to keep the euro project going. Therefore it needs more political, financial and fiscal centralisation (and less democracy), otherwise the crisis will come home to Germany. To prevent working class resistance breaking out on the streets of Berlin, Hamburg and Dusseldorf the German ruling class need to impose financial discipline and ‘fiscal consolidation’ upon Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, etc - not let them hang out and do their own thing, Cameron-style.
And Britain’s relationship to the US is crucial when it comes to understanding the European question. The UK is a sort of transatlantic power - playing Sparta to America’s Rome, helping to fight its wars (Vietnam excepted). When Britain entered the original European Economic Community, it naturally promoted the US agenda for Europe, which was to expand the EEC/EU, but only on a confederal basis - effectively leaving it weakened and unable to challenge US hegemony. But, of course, this was not in the interests of France and Germany. Yet, however history eventually spans out, the European question is essentially about the geopolitics of a declining, but still hegemonic, US - not just Nigel Farage, loonies and “bastards”.
Frankly, the left in Britain has a dismal record when it comes to Europe. Yes, the International Socialist tradition which spawned the Socialist Workers Party briefly flirted with the idea of a united Europe. ‘Official communism’, on the other hand, can do little better when it comes to ‘theory’ than cite Lenin’s 1916 polemic against Karl Kautsky’s ‘united states of Europe’ slogan. Not unreasonably, viewing the horrors of imperialist carnage, Lenin argued that to advance such a slogan at that time was either ridiculous or utopian. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the Communist International had no problems adopting Trotsky’s slogan of a ‘united socialist states of Europe’ in 1921 - only abandoned by the Soviet bureaucracy as it increasingly embraced national socialism.
The bulk of the British left notionally reject the ‘Stalinist’ doctrine of socialism in one country, but actually advocate it on an operative level. Therefore most left groups, Trotskyist or otherwise, look around the world and think the solution is to be found in a left or workers’ government coming to power in one country or another - whether through elections or a spontaneous upsurge by the masses - and implementing a left Keynesian programme. One idiotic expression of this left nationalist outlook is the slogan, ‘Take the power!’ - directed towards Syriza in Greece. Luckily, Syriza did not win the election.
For orthodox Marxists, as opposed to ‘official communists’ and many supposed followers of Leon Trotsky, the problem remains the same - capital exists on a global level and has to be superseded at its most advanced point. Meaning that we need a revolutionary strategy that takes into account history, political consciousness and also the reality of material/economic wealth. Without such a perspective, we are doomed to failure.
Yes, of course, revolution could first break out in a Mexico, Brazil, Iran or India - you would almost expect it. But that would not decisively tilt the world balance of forces towards the working class. They would still remain trapped in poverty and this would hardly convince US workers to emulate their example. While such a workers’ revolution in a ‘weak link’ could act as a spark, Europe would be a totally different story. Workers in Europe will probably not be the first to make revolution - though looking at Greece, Spain and Portugal you do wonder - but an all-EU, continent-wide revolution, would turn the world upside down. Become a beacon. The EU is the largest economic bloc on the planet and a revolution in Europe would probably see capitalism finished within a decade or less.
The left must break from national socialism - and the belief that what is bad for capitalism can only be good for us, so the break-up of the EU must be desirable. Sorry, comrades, this is a foolish and potentially disastrous illusion. To stand any chance of winning the prize, we need to constitute the working class as a conscious, independent, class - a future ruling class.
Concretely, we do not fall for either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice in Cameron’s “simple” in/out referendum. We say no to the capitalist EU bureaucracy and to British nationalism. Our call is for European working class unity around a programme for extreme democracy, socialism and communism.