The Irish left and the European Union

Summary of the talk given by the general secretary of the CPI, Eugene McCartan, at the Desmond Greaves Summer School in September 2018

This is an important question under discussion. We certainly operate and struggle against the European Union in a complex situation in our country today. There are no simple answers, no easy or pain-free solutions to the many challenges facing our people, particularly the overarching role and control by the European Union.

Our understanding of the relationship between the Irish ruling class and the European Union should influence our strategy and tactics, and should inform our understanding when we are looking for allies and building alliances to advance our strategic goal.

The starting-point for Irish communists in evaluating any social, political or even institutional structures is a class viewpoint, a class understanding. Who stands to gain? Who benefits? Whose interests are served? Does it strengthen and advance the interests of labour (workers) or consolidate and advance the power and control of capital (bosses)?

If you remove class from your understanding, then you will not fully understand the processes that shape and influence society.

The Irish people today are caught in the triple lock of imperialist interests: British, European, and American. The Irish ruling class and the political establishment are trying to serve three masters—hence their confusion over Brexit.

We need to understand that imperialism has no friends—only interests.

The continuing and deepening economic crisis of the system is exacerbating the differences and the conflict between the main imperialist blocs, weakening the drive to economic co-operation, and may further deepen the crisis of the system. This continuing crisis is the backdrop to the Brexit negotiations between the EU and Britain.


The referendum in Britain came about because of a split within the Conservative Party, the main political party of the British ruling class. These divisions are mirrored within the wider society, including the working class and the labour movement.

The continuing pantomime that is the “Brexit negotiations” is part theatre, part internal struggle among the EU ruling forces. The theatre is about shaping how the peoples of Europe understand why the people within the British state voted to leave, about frightening the people into believing there is no survival outside the EU, that nothing exists but a black hole, which the people within the British state are about to be plunged into unless they take a “responsible” approach and do a rethink.

This is an ideological struggle against the workers of Europe, attempting to control and shape how they understand today in order to control them tomorrow. Fear is the strategic weapon of the EU, though they haven’t abandoned the honey trap of “social Europe.”

Brexit is at its heart a question of democracy and sovereignty. The divisions within British society are a reflection of real material forces and interests. I do not believe that the dominant sections of the ruling class want to leave the EU: it’s just that events have tripped them up. Time will tell whether the British state leaves or not.

While the Irish establishment present themselves as “players” on the EU stage, they are only two-bit gamblers. The question of a “hard” or “soft” border between the Irish people will not be decided by the Irish ruling class or any combination of political parties that represent their interests.

Our history shows us that this sham debate about Brexit is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that we have been pawns on the imperialist chessboard. Our people’s genuine democratic interests will be used by contending imperial interests to promote their agenda. It will be London and Berlin that will have the final say.

Lived experiences of the people

Irish communists consistently opposed this state (the Republic) joining the EEC. We have opposed the numerous treaties that have followed. Nothing over the last four decades has made us review this position.

The lived experience has confirmed our view and our analysis of the class character of the EU and the forces that determine and shape it and that decide whose interests it serves. It is the political structure needed by imperialism at the European level.

All states arose where society was split as a result of irreconcilable class interests and conflicts. The state is for protecting and advancing the dominant mode of production (capitalism), reproducing the dominant idea (ideology), managing differences within capital and controlling and managing workers. The EU fulfils that role at the international level.

The EU is for protecting and promoting the interests of monopoly capitalism at the European level but also for promoting its global strategy of domination and exploitation and hence continuing militarisation.

We cannot fully understand the EU if we we do not understand it in class terms. We need to keep asking ourselves and our fellow-workers, “Whose interests does it serve?”

Perpetual illusions

The EU has pushed forward its agenda using a number of fig leaves:

  1. that it is a “peace alliance”;
  2. that it is a social-democratic counterweight to the aggressive, crude, market-driven United States;
  3. that it is a guardian of workers’ rights;
  4. that it is the protector of “social Europe”;
  5. that it is a benign political force in the world.

Why and how did it come about?

The EEC came about primarily because of the economic priorities pertaining after the Second World War. European monopolies had to combine and co-operate in self-preservation, to halt the advance of the left across Europe and to counter the advance of socialism. Class interests drove them together, encouraged by the United States—despite the fact it was encouraging a potential competitor. For the United States the threat from the Soviet Union was greater than the fear of building up a competitor.

What has been the strategy contained in subsequent treaties?

The strategy of the EU was and is to close down at the national level the capacity of people, in particular working people, to effect real change. It was to neutralise the capacity and the impact of national class struggle, to hollow out democracy, to enshrine within the legal structures of the EU the primacy of the market, binding on member-states. Economic and social policies were defined and presented as mere technical issues, supposedly devoid of any specific class-political or sectional economic interests.

Sovereign power was voluntarily transferred by member-states. This was not the actions of stupid, corrupt or incompetent individuals or a naïve establishment but a coalescence of shared interests between the EU and the Irish ruling class, in mutual support. It was a strategy for limiting the potential of the people’s struggles to effect change at the national level.

In Ireland this coalescence of interests stretches right back to 1921 and 22, when the Irish capitalist class—too weak and dependent, because of its subservient relation to British imperialism—settled for partition.

Things have not changed. The Irish ruling class is still subservient, still parasitic and dependent upon its relationship with imperialism. It is a comprador ruling elite.

A special form of neo-colonialism

The relationship between this state and the EU—as indeed with all the peripheral states—is a special form of neo-colonialism. We see this in the debt imposed on the peripheral states by the core states—all former colonial powers—and in the imposition of various “programmes” to facilitate the transfer of wealth from peripheral to core countries.

This understanding is vital, for it shapes the forces in whose interests it is to win back powers from the EU to the member-states.

Who needs to win back powers and establish national sovereignty and national democracy? We have to ask the question, Which class needs the tools of national democracy and sovereignty to advance their interests? And which class is subservient to and will collaborate with the EU and imperialism?

Is it not the Irish ruling class that is the beneficiary of the handing over of powers to the EU? It was in their class interests to do so, because of their dependence and their subservient relationship with the European Union. It is this relationship with the EU and imperialism that they require in order to continue to rule, dominate, and exploit.

Are the political forces that are subservient and are the handmaidens of the ruling class not also doing very well and benefiting from the largesse dispensed by the EU?

Has national democracy and national sovereignty no class aspects? Is this not what James Connolly spoke about when he stated that “only the Irish working class are the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish Freedom”?

Are not national democracy and national sovereignty the essential tools needed for advancing the interests of the Irish working class?

So appeals to these forces to break with the EU are simply a waste of time and can only fall on deaf ears. True national sovereignty and national democracy can only be established by a radical government anchored in a mobilised, politicised working class. Radical change can only be brought about by the conscious actions of a political and class-conscious working class.