The unavoidable question of the EU

Socialist Voice has arguably been the most unwavering of English-language socialist periodicals in its analysis and exposition of the European Union as an inter-state structure of monopoly capital, under German hegemony.

In the December issue Eugene McCartan outlined the role played by the EU, and in particular Germany, in burdening working people and families in Ireland with 42 per cent of all European banking debt during the crisis, for which we are still paying today. That article also highlighted the “fiscal brakes” the EU applies from the European Fiscal Compact, which leave public services in Ireland permanently under-funded and are a further set of handcuffs, leg-cuffs, straitjacket and gag on any Government elected in Ireland, whether progressive or not.

This is a further reminder—as if we needed it (but sometimes it feels that some “leftists” do)—of why the question of the EU is unavoidable to anyone with an ambition to strive for a socialist Ireland and a socialist world.

The actually existing European Union

When dealing with the question of the EU it is important to look at what it actually is, not what its propaganda (of which there is no short supply) says it is, or—what is more common on the left—people want it to be.

The European Union is a set of inter-state institutions designed to legally maximise the freedom of movement of capital, goods, services, and labour. It is the embodiment of capitalist reproduction and accumulation, monopoly-finance capitalism in more recent times (M–C–M′ and M–M′, in Marx’s terms). These four freedoms are freedoms for capitalism to maximise profits and reproduce itself. They are embedded and backed up by many treaties (Maastricht, Rome, Lisbon, and the Fiscal Compact). They are extended and imposed by legislation from the unelected EU Commission and given force by the Council of Ministers (indirectly elected, that is, elected or appointed in their own member-state).

These laws are interpreted and applied by the—again unelected—European Court of Justice, and take priority in most areas over domestic law. Its foreign policy and its pooled army are unaccountable to people.

To rebuild and secure a position in the new world order (US and USSR) after the Second World War, Germany and France, underpinned by US financial and military support, were willing to cede some sovereignty in order to create these institutions over time. States that join the EU, or single market, cede some sovereignty; but the bigger the state the less it has to cede.

So for Germany, it essentially was willing to cede some sovereignty in return for having hegemony over Europe, a Europe that was strong enough to be part of what Samir Amin calls the triad of imperialism: the United States, the European Union, and Japan.

To suggest that it is somehow possible to reform such an institution, to rewrite the treaties and create a democratic legal and executive structure over a different and dispersed grouping of peoples living in extremely uneven economic and political conditions, is utopian in the extreme. To seek to redefine the single market, customs union and economic and monetary union to take due consideration of uneven development and the creditor-debtor dynamic of economies in Europe is naïve beyond belief.

It is far more practical and more achievable to recognise the EU for what it actually is and to accept that breaking up the EU is actually a better route towards building socialism throughout the world than seeking to reform it towards socialism.

A transformative strategy for socialism

The Communist Party has called for, and integrated in its work, a strategic transformative approach to fighting for socialism. This can be loosely described as making demands on such issues as water (constitutional amendment) and housing (build public housing), which seek to expose the contradictions between the popular demand or right and the capitalist system, the state, and the EU.

In addition, transformative demands should seek to rebalance power towards labour and working people and away from capital and its cronies. In that sense they are not merely reforms: they are, if you will, “revolutionary reforms,” which lead on to a path to socialism rather than a nicer capitalism.

So in the area of workers’ rights, rather than calling for an increase in the minimum wage of, say, €2—which is good but doesn’t rebalance power—we call for repeal of the Industrial Relations Act (1990) and for the right of access to organise workers. The former is a quantitative change; the latter is a qualitative change.

Pursuing this strategy, an actual strategy of moving towards socialism, will inevitably bring any government into conflict with both the Irish state and the EU and its laws and courts. It will inevitably break EU fiscal, monetary and competition laws, to name a few. Truly tackling climate change means challenging corporate activity and power in a way that EU laws simply will not allow.

We must be honest and open about this strategy. It does not mean calling for Ireland to leave the EU, as we have to be conscious of the subjective conditions that exist and the general levels of political class-consciousness, which are extremely low at the present time in Ireland. But a demand for nationalisation or public investment, for example, should make clear the conflict with the EU and the possibility that leaving it will be required in order to implement a programme of rights and welfare for the people of Ireland. This places an exit from the EU in a very real context and for real popular reasons, as opposed to an abstract and unpopular demand in and of itself.

The long revolution and internationalism

We are in the midst of a system crisis on many levels: environmental, political, ideological, and economic. Yet capitalism persists and will continue down its path of horror and destruction, leaving our children and grandchildren in a very real dystopia. Samir Amin has pointed to the global south as the weak link in the chain of imperialism, to paraphrase Lenin; and he suggests that workers in the global north need to give priority to solidarity and support for a revolution in the global south against imperialism and environmental destruction, as they face the harshest and most extreme consequences of actions emanating from here.

We need to fight against the Irish state and the EU in their destructive actions against the global south and people here. A continuation of capitalism in the global north, in whatever form (social-democratic, neo-liberal, or neo-fascist), will continue to do harm to the people in the global south.

This is going to be a long revolution, which, because of uneven development, will have stops and starts and bursts in different parts of the world at different times. We need to be prepared to support and build alliances with workers, the poor and oppressed all over the world in our common struggle, even if sometimes we cannot understand or see the full facts.

The long revolution will not always be clear and clean—just like our own history—but we must be part of it or else we obstruct it. The system crisis demands a united international response that leads us on a path to socialism, which inevitably means the breaking up of the EU.