EU debate: “The road to defending the right to migrate cannot go through restricting migration rights”

Charlie Hore kicks off debate and analysis on the rs21 site in advance of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, set to take place before the end of 2017. Charlie argues for support for a yes position in the referendum, and tomorrow we will be publishing an article that argues for supporting a no position.  

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Sometime between May 2016 and the end of 2017, voters in Britain will vote in a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union (EU). But even though the vote is at least a year away, the debate has already started.

For an organisation like rs21, getting the debate over the EU referendum right means a proper understanding of two related questions The first is simply: what is the argument actually about? The second is: who are our audience? Who will we be talking to about it, and what do we want to say to them?

It seems obvious that the primary arguments are over migration – whether the right to migrate should be limited, and whether there are too many migrants in Britain. In other words, the tone and terms of the debate are being set by the xenophobic right. That should be no surprise, given that the referendum has been called as a sop to the racist right, and is the product of a defeat for our side in the re-election of the Tories in May.

The last fifteen years have seen a rise in racism in various forms – both anti-migrant and Islamophobic – which both Labour and the coalition governments have fuelled, but which also finds expression in the rise of UKIP as a populist right party. But it becomes particularly important given the circumstances that have given rise to the referendum.

Cameron wanted it for two reasons – firstly because it is a sop to the Eurosceptics inside the Tory party; and secondly because the promise was a key part of Cameron’s (largely successful) strategy of wooing back enough UKIP voters to win a majority.

So the referendum is taking place in the context of a clear swing to the right among voters in England and Wales. This is fundamentally different to 1975, when the opposition to Harold Wilson’s referendum was led by left-wing Labour MPs and union leaders. The content of the anti-EU argument then was essentially economic – EU membership will be bad for workers’ living standards. The content now is fundamentally different.

That fundamental difference derives in part from the particular impact of EU membership on Britain. Across southern Europe, the EU is an obvious driver of neoliberal austerity – in Spain, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere the EU is driving austerity further and deeper than national governments have wished to go. There, the EU is very obviously the enemy of working people.

In Britain, it’s hard to point to a single attack on working people that has originated with the EU and that a British government opposed. If anything, the EU has been seen as something of a shield against attacks from successive governments, which from Thatcher onwards have been more neoliberal than the EU. That pattern has continued in the recent negotiations about Britain’s place in the EU, with one of Cameron’s conditions being that the EU should speed up its acceptance of TTIP.

So on the huge People’s Assembly demonstrations in London and Glasgow, for instance, there were almost no placards referring to the EU, and none of the publicity for them referred to the EU. Campaigns against library closures, health services cuts, the lack of decent housing provision or attacks on education provision do not target the EU, because none of these attacks stem from the EU. I think this very different perception goes a long way towards explaining why opposition to the EU has come primarily from the right.

If the essential argument is going to be about migration, then we have a very clear idea of where we stand and what we want to say. We are for the right to migrate, against restrictions on migrant workers’ rights, against a racist discourse that blames migrants for austerity, and for extending the existing rights to migrate – all summed up in the slogan ‘They’re welcome here!’ And it is extremely difficult to see a line of argument that starts with defending the right to migrate, and ends with recommending a vote that will have the practical effect of further restricting that right.

Defending the limited rights to migrate that exist inside the EU doesn’t at all mean defending the EU, or seeing the EU as somehow more progressive than the British state. On the contrary, developing our arguments in favour of migration will involve contrasting freedom of movement inside the EU with the barbarity of ‘Fortress Europe’, and centring our arguments on the need to defend and extend workers’ freedom of movement.

But it’s wrong to see the free movement of labour inside the EU as somehow a part of that repressive apparatus: allowing the free movement of people from Poland, Hungary or Spain is not what prevents the free movement of people from Eritrea, Palestine or Syria. If Britain leaves the EU, and there are greater restrictions on European migration, that harsher regime will also be applied to people from outside Europe.

We need to be alive to the ways in which the terms of debate have shifted on both sides. Just as anti-EU arguments are now predominantly anti-migrant arguments, there is an anti-racist ‘common sense’ that equate support for Britain staying in the EU with support for migrant workers. That comes across in a Populus poll, which shows 56% of 18-24 year-olds opting to stay in the EU with just 16% being for leaving.

That shift is paralleled by the support for staying in the EU expressed by many trade unions, the SNP, the Greens, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru. For what it’s worth, that is also the position taken by Left Unity and by much of the far left. There is a sense that the ‘progressive option’ has shifted, and that the arguments of a generation ago no longer fit. One of the things that has propelled that shift, of course, has been the very rapid integration of workers from other EU countries into workplaces, colleges and communities across the UK, especially in the cities.

There is still a substantial anti-EU left, but too many in that camp argue in a nationalist way that makes concessions to the right’s arguments about migration. So Kelvin Hopkins, a UNISON-sponsored Labour MP likely to be one of the leaders of the left anti-EU campaign, can write that “For Britain, EU membership means that we have had to accept free movement, the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Common Agricultural Policy”

The Socialist Party argues that “The alleged benefits of the ‘free movement of labour’ are in reality a device for the bosses to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour, which can then be used to cut overall wage levels and living standards.”

The only anti-EU argument coming from a clearly internationalist position are those put by Socialist Worker and Counterfire – and in recent weeks Socialist Worker has published a number of letters from long-standing members challenging the paper’s position.

Voting against leaving the EU in this referendum would not mean that we are in any sense pro-EU, or that we line up with the Blair/Cameron-led official campaign to keep Britain in. This is not an argument for staying in the EU under any conditions – we are against leaving for racist reasons that will make the lives of migrant workers significantly worse. The official pro-EU campaign will talk about the advantages to business of EU membership, and will make concessions to racism rather than challenge it. But the exit campaign will be even worse.

To the very valid question ‘how can you vote the same way as David Cameron’ the answer has to be that the options are either voting the same way as Cameron, or voting the same way as Nigel Farage, the EDL and the BNP. It’s understandable that people should want to abstain in disgust at the options on offer. This is an argument inside the ruling class about how their interests are best served, and on that plane we are indifferent. But often arguments inside the ruling class have implications for the working class, and our question has to be ‘what’s best for our class’?

In Greece, this week, the answer to that is very obviously ‘break with the Euro, and break with the EU.’ And if the referendum was happening now, we would have to put solidarity with Greek workers against the ravages of the EU at the heart of our arguments. But that does not alter the fact that the context and the timing of the debates of the debates here and in Greece are fundamentally different. We cannot read off from the present crisis what our attitude should be to a vote here in 18 months or two years time.

We also need to understand that a key part of the debate now involves European migrant workers – including large numbers of Greek migrant workers – asking what the referendum might mean for their future in this country, and where we work, study or live alongside them we are expressing our sympathy and solidarity. When we do that, we are to some extent already taking a position on how we will vote in the referendum. The same reasoning applies to our defence of EU migrants’ right to vote in the referendum itself – if we are for their right to vote in the referendum, why would we then vote for an outcome which could take away future voting rights?

And so we have to put the human consequences of an exit vote at the heart of our argument – a vote to leave will be experienced as a vote for ratcheting up racism and restrictions on migrant workers’ rights, and as a rejection of people’s right to live and work here. Every racist would take heart from it. That’s why abstention is not an option – even though this is an argument between two ruling-class camps, one outcome would have more severe consequences for working people, and we oppose it on that basis.

The last question is about our audience. What a group like rs21 says will not shape the debate, or even how the left approaches the debate. Where we matter is what we say as individuals at work, at college, in our communities, in pubs and in cafes – wherever the debate is raised. A clear revolutionary position will involve no concessions at all to racism, or to any of the pro-business arguments for staying in the EU.

Whatever position we take, it is certain that we will have nothing at all to do with either of the official campaigns. But it seems just as certain that the two camps will not be equally balanced – the anti-EU campaign will be driven above all by racism and xenophobia, and the other will not. And a victory for the anti-EU campaign will be experienced as a victory for racism and xenophobia. The choices are between something that’s bad and something that will make the future worse – and in that situation, our voices should be with those who do not want the future to be worse. The road to defending and extending the right to migrate cannot go through restricting existing migration rights, which would be the practical outcome of a vote to leave the EU.


  1. You know how the land lies when UKIP’s Louise Bours opportunistically supports the Greek NO vote on Question Time while Labour’s Chuka Umunna opportunistically sides with the Troika and gives the audience a lecture about Greek fiscal responsibility.

  2. For the same reason that the Scottish referendum failed to achieve independence – the UK ruling class will put everything into a YES vote campaign with Labour and a significant section of the left outside Labour backing it. Although now that the Syriza leadership has squandered the recent NO vote and is acquiescing to even harsher terms to stay in the EU perhaps some of the left outside Labour will wake up and acknowledge what a YES vote actually means in practice. Pigs might fly though!

  3. There is an odd disconnect between ‘in the unlikely event of a NO vote’ and ‘If we don’t use that opportunity to challenge austerity and leave the field open to the racists by supporting a discredited pro-austerity EU oligarchy which the Tories are part of then I can guarantee the UK left will become even more irrelevant. We will have failed to address the nationwide demoralisation with the established parties and lost an opportunity to put the issue of austerity centre stage.’

    if the referendum is going to be the focus of anger against austerity, why is a ‘no’ vote unlikely?

  4. The argument you made that we should vote YES because it might be possible to salvage the EU by reforming it along social democratic lines is reformist and has historically failed as a political strategy. It doesn’t take an ultra-left anarchist to point that out. Simply counterpoising with the phrase “ultra-left” without addressing the substantive argument doesn’t legitimise your position in any way.

    A “NO” to the EU is a vote against the austerity politics of the Troika. The left needs to clearly differentiate its position to that of UKIP and the OXI vote in Greece is the prefect example to campaign around. If we don’t use that opportunity to challenge austerity and leave the field open to the racists by supporting a discredited pro-austerity EU oligarchy which the Tories are part of then I can guarantee the UK left will become even more irrelevant. We will have failed to address the nationwide demoralisation with the established parties and lost an opportunity to put the issue of austerity centre stage. The boos that greeted Tsipras in Brussels today are the arrogant and dismissive attitudes toward anyone challenging the EU that the YES campaign will represent. We saw what happened to Labour in Scotland when they supported the establishment. Let’s not make the same mistake.

  5. Thanks RayB. I think it’s really dangerous to regard a No vote as so unlikely it’s safe for the revolutionary left to advocate it. We have to look at the consequence of the outcome and take our position from that. A majority or even a strong No vote will strengthen the forces of reaction and lead to (more or less) immediate greater restrictions on migration.

    A Yes vote solves nothing about the crisis. It doesn’t prevent the left arguing for withdrawal in future, on our own terms. In any case, we don’t generally go along with government by referendum. We should remember that in 1983 the Labour Party Manifesto advocated withdrawal without a referendum, but that was coupled with unilateral nuclear disarmament and some (very moderate) defensive measures for the working class. We rightly advocated a Labour vote then, but that didn’t make us reformist except in the eyes of the most ultra-left anarchist.

  6. Initially, before joining the EU, Commonwealth citizens were allowed to live in the UK without restrictions despite later immigration controls as you point out. And since joining the EU, those controls have grown stronger despite your claim that the EU democratises freedom of movement for workers. That’s why I completely disagree with your assumption that in the unlikely event of a NO vote this will lead to a worsening of the situation and a festival of reaction. What evidence is this based on – UKIP propaganda that the UK PLC can function without labour from abroad? Even Cameron isn’t that daft which is why the Tories will campaign for a YES vote. Not because they give a toss about workers but because they care about the free movement of capital. Free movement of labour for the rulers of the EU is part of the pursuit of profit and for no other reason. If the left can’t even reform capitalism in the UK what chance has it got with the whole of the European continent? A YES vote is a vote for a reformist strategy that has failed miserably which is why, if that’s their current position, Left Unity has got it wrong.

  7. RayB, the 1971 Act was a consequence of the Conservative manifesto of 1970 which promised to introduce such an Act to ensure that “There will be no further large scale permanent immigration.”. It was introduced into parliament before the Heath government knew that Britain’s application to join the EEC would be approved. The 1962 and 1968 acts clearly predate EEC membership, which is contrary to what you stated.

    Never mind. Yes of course membership of the EU and its predecessors since 1973 has not prevented successive British Labour and Conservative governments passing anti-immigrant restrictions – it was Labour who introduced the 1968 Act, the Points Based System with its caps, and who proudly offered a mug to the British electorate in May stating ‘Controls on Immigration’ as one of its five central policies.

    However the point is that such immigration controls are currently limited to the nationals of countries outside the EU, now expanded to include 28 countries, together with the two countries (and one microstate) of the European Economic Area and the EU-Switzerland agreement,. This means that nationals of 31 states have the right to enter Britain, and the British government is unable to do anything about it.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the original formulation over the right of movement in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 applied only to workers. It was only over a long period of time that rights of movement were extended to others, eg family members, students, retired people. It was the 1992 Maastricht treaty that consolidated the right to free movement to include any national of a member state.

    Of course for the xenophobic right, this is a horrifying position. Enoch Powell, fresh from the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, was among the strongest opponents within the Tory Party of a move to EEC membership for precisely this reason – opposition to immigration. The then six countries of the Treaty of Rome are a far cry in terms of population size from the 32 states covered by the EU free movement arrangements currently. Both UKIP and the Eurosceptic Tory right want no more of it and it will be at the centre of their campaign in the referendum.

    Of course while revolutionary socialists defend free movement, we are opposed to the EU’s attempt to build ‘Fortress Europe’ by keeping out those from outside. We can see in their response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterannean and Hungary’s construction of a 170km wall against Serbia, examples of where this leads. So we should equally oppose the EU’s policies against those from outside the EU as we defend free movement within it and oppose British immigration controls.

    Sadly, there are many on the left who support immigration controls, both within the trade unions, even radical ones like the RMT, and from Labour Party and Communist traditions. Even the Socialist Party (ex Militant) has succumbed to this reactionary sentiment in its alliance with the RMT and CPB in TUSC and ‘No2EU’. The task of revolutionary socialist is to join up with those who do support open borders and defend migrant communities – such as black and anti-racist activists, anti-deportation campaigns, campaigns against detention centres, the movement against xenophobia. Left Unity has taken a strong and principled position on this and it is somewhere RS21 activists should consider being active.

    However we do ultimately come back to the issue that in terms of practical effect, a No vote will give the ability to a Tory government to massively restrict immigration and this will come almost immediately. It is the task of revolutionary socialists to fight this and this means a tactical ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, and a campaign independent of the reactionary forces against xenophobia and racism.

    Standing with Greek workers battling austerity is a key task, but the effect of a No vote would prevent EU workers coming to Britain for all the wrong reasons.

  8. Mike, the Immigration Act 1971 came into force the day the UK joined the EEC. The point I’m making is that EU membership has not prevented further immigration controls so the ‘YES’ argument that EU is a bulwark against anti-immigration and racism is evidently untrue. The rise in racism across the EU is a result of racists exploiting the discontent caused by EU austerity. Greece shows an alternative to that conclusion. The left needs to stand with Greek workers not romanticise about socialism in one economic region.

  9. Sorry some words fell off my first sentence:

    This is a travesty of a description of the situation. The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and 1971 Immigration Act (still in force by the way) created and increased restrictions on Commonwealth citizens entering the UK and predated British membership of the EU. They were strongly opposed by migrant communities and the revolutionary left.

  10. “RayB July 5, 2015 at 3:34 am
    Before the UK joined the EU all Commonwealth citizens could enter and stay in the UK without any restriction. Since membership of the EU, immigration has become increasingly more restrictive despite less restrictions for certain EU members.”

    This is a travesty of the situation. The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and 1971 Immigration Act (still in force by the way) created and increased restrictions on Commonwealth citizens entering the UK and predated British membership of the EU. They were strongly opposed by migrant communities and the left.

    Interestingly, the Labour Party opposition under Hugh Gaitskell strongly opposed the 1962 Act in parliament and de facto opposed immigration controls from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Despite being seen by some as ‘on the left’, when Harold Wilson became Labour leader on Gaitskell’s death and, subsequently, Prime Minister in 1964, he reversed this policy and Labour supported and increased restrictions on Commonwealth immigration. See Paul Foot’s contemporaneous and excellent books on the topics of immigration and Wilson in the 1960s. The Labour left and CP’s campaign against membership in the EEC referendum in 1975 included strong support for immigration controls.

  11. This is a useful discussion and do strongly agree with Charilie’s overall premise in the original article. I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make in disagreeing with my comment that Europe predates global imperialism.

    Of course the concept of what exactly constitutes ‘Europe’ has changed over time and is still changing eg in relation to the post WWII settlement at Yalta, and in the Caucasus (Turkey applying for EU membership, Baku hosting the ‘European Games’ and let’s not get started on the Eurovision Song Contest …).

    But there is clearly a core of distinctly ‘European’ states that has existed over many centuries.

    The word, ‘Europe’, is believed to be Ancient Greek in origin and it’s geography derives from the Ptolemaic view the then ‘known world’ of nearly 2,000 years ago dividing it into the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. This also entered Islamic thinking around 1,000 years ago.

    Fast forwarding,the opening words of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto in 1848 were:
    ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.’.

    It’s clear that to Marx and Engels at the time that the Russian Empire of the Tsar was part of Europe and that the concept of a broader European entity was well-established (hence the reference to ‘the powers of Old Europe’). Lenin makes similar references to Tsarist Russia being part of Europe in his twentieth century writings. The conquests of the Ottoman Empire were just that, conquests of parts of Europe by another power. But in the same way that the occupying army of the ‘Roman Empire’ did not consist purely of Romans (most of the so-called ‘Romans in Britain’ were conscripts from Spain as I understand it), there has been intermingling, forced movements, wars and conquests etc.

    We must not apply these ideas in a rigid way and setting issues at the European level does not mean endorsement of the ‘high Europe’ of the elites claiming the nonsense of a common European culture (of the ruling classes) with its theme tune from Beethoven, or a rejection of national questions or minority ethnic rights (for example defending the rights of Russian-speaking minorities within EU member states doesn’t mean we accept the notion of a Greater Russian state).

  12. Before the UK joined the EU all Commonwealth citizens could enter and stay in the UK without any restriction. Since membership of the EU, immigration has become increasingly more restrictive despite less restrictions for certain EU members. So the argument from the ‘YES’ camp that Brexit will lead to more restrictions and associated racism is far from assured.

    The position of socialists in this case should be that a divided ruling class is a weakened ruling class. EU splits will weaken the Tories and their CBI mates and Cameron knows this which is why he wants to stay in the EU. Just look at the growing concern over a possible Grexit. The argument that at the last referendum the left backing the ‘NO’ campaign was much stronger doesn’t change that position now. Hopefully those on the left who want to stay in the EU will come to their senses and not make the mistake of siding with the Tories like some of the left did over Scottish independence. If anything this will further weaken and discredit us.

  13. Hong Huar’s contribution is a very interesting one, and a useful corrective to those who speak of ‘Another Europe’ or a ‘social Europe’, as both concepts do assume that binary opposition between Europe and the rest of the world.

    But I would add that the notion of who is ‘European’ has shifted over time, as shown in the debates over the accession of eastern European countries as well as over the 1880s Balkan wars. In both cases there were serious voices arguing that people from such countries ‘weren’t really European’. And of course for 19th century British imperialists, Ireland was not really part of Europe.

    So i would disagree with Mike that ‘Europe as a geographical and political entity predates the period of imperialism’. Was Kievan Rus Europe? Was the Ottoman Empire? Europe as a political construct is one that we should be wary of, but we should also understand that who it has excluded has varied over the years.

  14. Mark gets to the nub of the problem. We have a Tory government. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act there cannot now be a ‘normal’ general election until 2020. The referendum will take place before the end of 2017 and there is a two year notice period to complete EU withdrawal, ie withdrawal by 2019 at the latest, most likely much earlier. This gives the Tory government all manner of options for implementing alternatives to EU membership, all of them extremely reactionary but the most important would be to restrict completely migration from EU countries. In the event of a ‘No’ vote the right in the Tory party would be encouraged to demand more and more say in the direction of government policy and it would become more right wing. Getting rid of the EU doesn’t mean, for example, getting rid of TTIP – it means that the Tories would introduce a reactionary free trade deal directly with the USA either by one of the EU associate schemes (EEA, EU Customs Union), a bilateral deal, or even by the UK joining NAFTA (as some on the right of the Tories seriously suggest).

    Europe as a geographical and political entity predates the period of imperialism. It is certainly true that during the nineteenth and twentieth century, the major European powers became synonymous with colonial exploitation. It is that which led Lenin and the early bolsheviks to reject, probably incorrectly, the slogan of the ‘United States of Europe’ by socialists, though it was later adopted by the Communist International under Trotsky’s influence.

    However the weakening of direct colonialism and the growth of American economic influence (and increasingly that of China though from a much lower base) means that we are now a long way from that period – the majority of Europe’s population no longer live in centres of colonial domination; we only have to look at the current situation in Greece and Spain to see that. The slogan of an alternative ‘United Europe’ to that of the EU institutions – a Europe of solidarity, social justice, peace and free movement has a real purchase. While it is right to oppose a ‘No’ vote as a reactionary turn and hence support a tactical ‘Yes’ vote, that doesn’t mean that we give up the fight for a socialist alternative to the EU.

    There’s an article arguing a similar position to Charlie’s here:

  15. Hi Hong Huar. Your ideological framework seems to prevent you from seeing the real world.
    If the UK votes for withdrawal then you will not implement the decision, people on the right of politics will implement it. They will restrict migrants’ rights to work here. Racism and xenophobia will get a massive boost.
    Europe is defined by what is not Europe? Really?
    Surely you can see Europe is also defined by a (substantially) common economy, shared peaceful recent history, common political institutions, substantial intermingling of populations etc. Non of that is “colonialist”.
    Moreover what you have on offer – a tiny, isolated, capitalist UK out of Europe is hardly better, is it. Less racist? After a referendum victory for the Tory right and UKIP, an isolated UK would have the most right wing and racist government in Europe. And you are proposing the left helps the right to win. Not a very sensible strategy.

  16. “On the contrary, developing our arguments in favour of migration will involve contrasting freedom of movement inside the EU with the barbarity of ‘Fortress Europe’, and centring our arguments on the need to defend and extend workers’ freedom of movement.”

    There is no such contrast or contradiction – or, any contradiction as such makes sense within the logic and ideology of the EU. The concept of Europe itself, at the most fundamental ideological level, irrespective of what particular institution expression might be given to that concept, in the form of the EEC or the EU or anything else, is indebted to colonialism and racism, because Europe is only defined by its radical difference from everything that is not Europe. The historical event of being able to think Europe as a category happened in conjunction with the colonial expansion of European states. Within that logic, it makes perfect sense that the EU would enable freedom of movement within the states that have the privilege of being admitted not the ideological and social category that is Europe, at the same time as the combined might of the European states being used against non-European peoples at its borders, because that so-called contrast simply enacts the concept of Europe itself, which relies on non-European others for its historical and theoretical cogency. The migrant workers and professionals enjoy free movement within Europe not in spite of the fact but *because* Africans are left to drown in the Mediterranean.

    What is missing from debates on the left about the EU is a radical anti-colonial position that starts from the historical origins of Europe as concept. Watch this space.


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