THE BLOG

The Left and EU Exit: Some Common Threads

06/01/2016 08:58 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The debate about the upcoming EU referendum has mostly been framed as a debate about migration, national sovereignty, and security. Eurosceptic Conservatives have argued against the loss of power parliament has suffered, whilst UKIP has argued that British borders are porous for as long as the UK remains in the EU. However, paying attention to prominent British left wing intellectuals reveals a similar theme - the desire to leave based on a range of left-wing arguments. I will sketch out the views of three respected thinkers here - Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, and Owen Jones - revealing strong left-wing opposition to the EU.

After noting that he "hadn't been thinking of voting in the EU referendum," Tariq Ali wrote that he had finally decided to vote to leave. What prompted this decision, judging from his essay in the London Review of Books, was the capitulation of the Greek nation, which had "voted overwhelmingly to give up its sovereignty and become a semi-colonial appendage of the EU" - a capitulation which "means more suffering, but... has also led to questions being asked more widely about the EU, its structures and its policies."

EU policy, Ali argues, has been to bail out the rich whilst "crushing the political alternative that Syriza represented." German and French banks received help from their governments, the richest in Europe, and Greece was stripped of its national assets and forced to beg for scraps, all the while being forced to punish its own population with savage spending cuts. The EU "has turned out to be a pretty dysfunctional family" at the end of the day.

Opposition to the EU on the left, on purely principled grounds, was always strongly argued by Tony Benn, who opposed joining and continuing membership of the common market. Benn's vehement opposition was based on the authoritarian structure of the EU. As opposed to some who see the EU as a progressive force, Benn noted to the House of Commons in 1991 that he has never taken the view that "a good king is better than a bad parliament." Surrendering democracy to the EU would mean a complete reversal of the achievements made by the Suffragettes: "all your struggles to get control of the ballot box were a waste of time. We shall be run in future by a few white persons, as in 1832." This argument is not "about sovereignty. It is a democratic argument." In Benn's view, then, even if the EU were more progressive than the UK, it would not matter for strictly principled reasons: democracy is too important.

Recently, in The Guardian, Owen Jones has argued for a British exit, or "Lexit," as he calls it. Again, as with Ali and Benn, it is over concerns with the EU's treatment of Greece and its thoroughly undemocratic structures that Jones argues in favour of withdrawal. "The destruction of Greece's national sovereignty was achieved by economic strangulation," drawing the same thread of thought between himself and Ali - Greece has been destroyed; its democracy is in ruins.

What is interesting about Jones' article is that he notes that a British exit "may be seen as a betrayal of solidarity with the left in the EU." The left is often proud to be internationalist, supporting integration and standing in solidarity with those in need - in this case, the vast majority of southern Europe. Jones notes, correctly I think, that solidarity in this case requires the UK to step outside of the EU. If Germany believes that it is "causing the break-up of the EU, it will strengthen the hand of those opposing the status quo." That is, the threat of a UK exit brought about because of German behavior may give strength to anti-austerity parties in Europe. As it currently stands, however, without withdrawal "Germany has little incentive to change tack."

In any case, this is an argument based on tactics: what can we do that will help? Ignoring the issue - pretending that the EU is some progressive force - will do nothing to strengthen anti-austerity parties in Europe. If the question is asked, then the left must provide an answer.

The answer is clear, as far as these lines and strands of thought are concerned: leave.