EU debate: “We will have to be making strong and principled arguments against immigration controls and for open borders whichever side we end up on”

Luke Evans discusses some of the term of debates that revolutionary socialist should hold in mind when debating the EU referendum

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There will be a referendum on EU membership, as a consequence of the Tory majority victory in the UK general election. This referendum is going to be staged as a direct vote between choosing to leave or choosing to stay in the EU.

The Yes to staying in campaign is likely to be led by Chancellor George Osborne. The Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru, most of the trade unions, the charity/third sector/NGOs, and significant parts, if not the dominant forces, of the ruling class will also back continued membership. The basis for continued support by the political establishment will be that it is in the interests of business. This side in the referendum will not be uniformly pro-immigration, nor will it act uniformly in defence of migrant access to benefits, healthcare and other aspects of the welfare state. The dominant political forces within the campaign will be the pro-business, anti-immigration Tory/Labour leaderships.

Those opposed to continued membership will be typified by the visible dominance of the hard Right, led by UKIP, offering hard-line racism in response to cross-European immigration and a proposed alternative national business strategy orientated on the US rather than the EU. There will be a minority Left current in the vote to leave campaign – but they are very likely to be pulled by anti-freedom of movement arguments and will more than likely be made up of old, orthodox Leftist groups.

There is no position in this referendum that advocates a clearly pro-immigration position. Both sides are led by political forces that use populist political rhetoric against immigration in order to hegemonise a cross-class collaborative politics in favour of the interests of business.

The difficulty faced by those who advocate for a class based, pro-immigration, anti-racist politics is that this appears as a lose-lose situation. There is no side in this argument that, without contradiction, expresses the interests of the working class. We expect this kind of scenario in a bourgeois election. What is different in this situation is that it is also the case that neither campaign will be rooted in a “progressive” bourgeois reformism. Both sides are led by ardent, and unapologetic, neoliberal politics forces. The role that the revolutionary Left can play in this is therefore minimal. In either campaign, we are two steps removed from the forces comprising it’s leadership.

This means that we cannot replicate the model set up around the vote for Scottish independence. We can’t act to deliver the victory of our side without also placing ourselves at a radical distance from the forces with we find ourselves siding with. The problem is, it was possible for the revolutionary Left to take a principled political position in favour of Scottish independence rooted in an analysis of the break-up of the UK state being against the majority interests of British capital and the subsequent constitutional crisis that would fragment and disorientate the British ruling class. It is neither progressive to vote to leave the EU when the right to freedom of movement is under threat, nor progressive to vote to continue to remain a part of an institution that ritually imposes austerity across it’s weaker members and transforms it’s own border into a murderous gauntlet.

When the SNP, as the hegemonic political force in the pro-independence movement became viewed as a political threat, the ruling class sought to demonise them. The general election of 2015 was in some senses won on the back of unionist politics through the Tories efforts to tarnish Labour as too close to the SNP, and with Labour distancing themselves from the SNPs rhetorical anti-austerity position losing them support on the Left. In the context of the EU referendum we have a larger range of establishment institutions and political forces siding against withdrawal. This will be the ‘Better Together’ campaign on steroids. The political forces backing withdrawal will be weaker and led by the hard Right, making them less capable of political triangulation.

There are very real, and very present political risks with taking either side in this debate. Siding with those to stay in risks minimising the reality of ruling class interests at the heart of their reasoning for staying in, and will mean revolutionaries voting in line with ruling class interests. Siding with the vote to leave risks emboldening an already confident racist Right, strengthening their position within domestic politics.

There is also the risk that the character of the campaign will be both sides arguing against immigration, and for the logic of business. This may result in the pro-immigration majority being ‘turned off’ from voting in the referendum, increasing the likelihood of a vote to leave winning. What this could also mean is that the vote to stay will be increasingly dominated by pro-business voices, rather than pro-migration ones. We would then see the vote polarised between a political centre ground arguing for pro-business politics, and a radical Right arguing for an anti-immigrant position. This mirrors the wider political development across the EU in nations where no viable Radical Left electoral/social democratic formation exists.

The complicity of the political centre and the Radical Right in shaping and reinforcing one another’s political projects is a genuine threat to the health and meaning of democracy across Europe. We are also seeing a moment where the ascendant Radical Left (Syriza, Podemos…) is struggling to achieve, or are shrinking back from, unequivocal anti-austerity and pro-working class policies and politics. The rightward pressure on Syriza and Podemos is not just a product of national politics, but is also a direct product of trying to maintain political commitment to the EU and Eurozone project.

I think that there is a significant emphasis placed on rs21 members as revolutionary socialists to act with intellectual self-discipline. This means avoiding a sloppy position based on intuitive or instinctive responses to the threat of the Right, as well as avoiding empty, abstract rhetorical points about the EU as a ‘bosses club’. Any path we tread will be fraught with political risks, and the direction we take has to be able to be both an effective tactical position, but must also carry theoretical and analytical weight. This will futureproof our politics against the fallout from any risk associated with backing either side in the referendum.

How we engage with the referendum is also not the end of our engagement with the EU as a political question, nor does it replace the necessity of building a viable and longer term project aimed at shifting the politics of the UK against the anti-immigrant sentiment that is close to becoming a consensus.

In terms of the parameters of the debate moving forward, I believe that we start from these points. I do not see these points as necessarily a wholesale package, and the order does not represent priority or importance:

  1. That it is significantly less likely that there will be a successful vote to leave the EU, given the range and power of those backing the vote to stay in.
  1. That both sides of the argument will be led by pro-business, anti-immigration forces.
  1. That whichever side a revolutionary chooses to take, it will be on the basis that we will have to do so with clear and unambiguous distance from the dominant political forces of that side.
  1. That the right to migrate, including not just freedom of movement but access to welfare and healthcare, will be key political issues that may only be raised throughout the campaign by the Far Left. This will mean consistent and constant criticisms of the dominant anti-immigration forces in both campaigns.
  1. That we have to raise meaningful criticisms of Fortress Europe not just defend migration inside the EU. This means pointing out how the EU as an institution is responsible for creating Fortress Europe.
  1. That criticism of the EU is a significant responsibility of both sides of this debate, with an extra emphasis placed on the responsibility of those calling for a vote to stay in to develop a sharp and unequivocal critical assessment of the EU.
  1. That defence of immigration, not just as an economic benefit, but as a principle of social progress and human dignity will be integral to any revolutionary position in the referendum. There is a extra emphasis placed on any of those calling for a vote to leave to develop a clear and unambiguous reason for how this can be made consistent with supporting a defence of immigration.
  1. Siding against the vote to stay may to some extent be rooted in our opposition to the Right, but we should base our collective publications on our pro-immigration and anti-borders political traditions, not only on our anti-Ukip politics. We will have to be making strong and principled arguments against immigration controls and for open borders whichever side we end up on, and with relative autonomy to the political discourse of the referendum debates. Therefore, this is an important point of political unity and clear and unambiguous political agreement inside rs21.
  1. That taking a position for leaving the EU should not degenerate into abstract rhetoric about business and a ‘bosses Europe’, but has to also engage in a detailed analysis of the effects on workplace rights, freedom of movement, migrant rights and other potential dangers for the Left.



  1. There is a danger of sectarian ‘armchair-socialist’ fence-sitting, if we believe that the revolutionary left cannot take a position if both sides in a debate are dominated by bourgeois ideas and leaders. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) has just committed a classic case of this kind of political suicide in advocating a spoiled ballot in the referendum yesterday, in the context of a much more critical situation than anything we face in the British referendum.

    Someone with much better thinking once put it as follows:

    “In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat.”

    Learn to Think

    The question that the author fails to establish is: in what way, in the concrete circumstances of Britain in 2016/17, will a vote for EU withdrawal help the working class?

  2. The thing is is that the debate on whether or not to leave the EU is more often or not, about free movement and immigration, as seen in the two articles written on the blog. The problem with that is that we restrict ourselves to one factor, albeit a big one, that will influence the referendum vote. Other factors also can impact that vote, more purely fiscal and EU policy based. For example, on its own, the UK is unlikely to have enough economic power in order to be significant in trade. This may mean that we would lose out on trade with big powers such as China. However, if we remain in the EU this ceases to be a problem. The EU attracts investors into the UK; currently, big companies and manufacturers see us as a good place to invest in, because of our links to the single European market. Without the EU, instead of being a leading partner in one of the biggest, most significant economies, we would just be a tiny island with no links to anywhere and a floundering economy. Not quite so appealing to a multinational firm that could invest and trade anywhere. Although these firms might not be quite so appealing, more regulation can be implemented.

    However, some policies from the EU such as the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) which swallows up £30bn a year – half of the EU’s annual budget – are less beneficial per se. The aforementioned CAP also has caused overproduction, resulting in many crops being sold off to different countries at a reduced rate, where the local farmers cannot compete with the low prices; not so good.


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