British politics is being dominated by the June 23 referendum on whether Britain leaves the European Union (EU) — the so-called Brexit.
This is a question that has, over recent decades, threatened to fatally divide the British right. But left forces also hold contradictory perspectives on the question.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Green Party of England and Wales and Left Unity are calling for a “yes” vote to remain in the European Union, but are demanding an alternative to the neoliberal EU.
On the other hand, some trade unionists, including the powerful RMT transport union, along with the increasingly influential Communist Party of Britain (CPB) are calling for an exit.
Ever since Britain voted to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975, there have been powerful voices on the left against membership. In the 1970s, Labour left figures such as Tony Benn saw the European Community as a barrier to creating a socialist Britain.
Labour MP Kevin Hopkins, writing in The Morning Star, a daily socialist newspaper close to the CPB, noted: “There should be no doubt that the European Union is anti-working class, anti-socialist and anti-democratic. This has been the case since its first incarnation as the European Common Market in 1957, and the evidence is now overwhelming.”
The EU has created problems for the left across Europe. The Single European Act has promoted deregulation and the entire institution has sought to promote increased trade, investment and growth by pursuing largely pro-business and often anti-worker policies.
The RMT point to new EU legislation that would privatise all of EU railways. Others on the left see an EU exit as a way of defeating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement being negotiated between the US and EU. This would sweep away legislation protecting workers, animal welfare and the environment.
The Green Party has a history of being more EU sceptical than most other European Green parties. It has long worried that not only is the EU a neoliberal institution, but a centralising one. This is a challenge to the green principle of decentralised decision making.
So why are the Greens and others on the left — including most major trade unions, the Labour Party, Welsh left-nationalist party Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein in Ireland's north — calling for a “yes” vote?
There are a number of reasons. Some are negative — given that opposition to EU membership has largely been from the anti-immigration right, any exit would not strengthen the left, but those with a reactionary and often racist agenda.
The problems of the EU for ecosocialists and others on the left are equally — and often to a larger extent — problems of Britain too.
The EU may be too pro-corporate, but the British government of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is even more enthusiastic about privatisation, deregulation and other neoliberal solutions. Britain, with its lack of proportional representation, unelected House of Lords, political centralisation and decaying local government, makes the EU look like a paradigm of deep democracy.
Greens point to the fact that virtually all progress in environmental protection and workers' rights has, paradoxically, come via EU measures. Despite the largely neoliberal stance of the EU, it has been consistently to the left of British governments in practical policy making.
Greens are also enthusiastic about a European identity and free movement of people.
Sadly, whether for or against EU exit, so far the right has dominated the debate.
Cameron's support for retaining EU membership is based on seeking to move it in a more right-wing direction, ripping up protection for workers and seeking to reduce freedom of movement.
On the other side, the anti-EU campaign is increasingly dominated by Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Johnson's new found anti-EU sentiment is perhaps inspired by his desire to lead the Conservative Party and become prime minister after Cameron steps down. His comments have promoted a reactionary agenda with narrowly disguised racism.
Like Corbyn, the Greens say that while the EU is a flawed institution, so too is Britain. The demand is for another Europe, one which is ecological, social and truly democratic.
This call has the potential to transform the debate and is the basis for wider green and left unity throughout Europe.
The Green Party are supporting former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis's Democracy in Europe 2025 movement. The Greens continue to oppose British membership of a single currency. The austerity that eurozone membership has locked Greece into, for instance, is rejected by all on the left in Britain, whatever their position on the referendum.
Eurozone membership is distinct from EU membership. Democracy in Europe would promote greater transparency and elections in the European Union. Greens and others on the left believe that while it is going to be difficult to transform the EU, leaving would mostly help the right.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has noted that it is not the EU that is the main challenge to the left. Rather it is the strength of right-wing political forces in individual EU states. Many of the most undemocratic and neoliberal features of the EU come from the demands of individual right-wing governments, including Britain's.
Lucas says that while the EU needs to be challenged on issues like TTIP, Britain's government is more enthusiastic about destructive trade deals. “Our own government are the loudest cheerleaders for TTIP, and ministers would happily create an equally dangerous bilateral deal with the US if we left the EU,” Lucas says.
Greens are most critical of their own right-wing government. Greens, too, believe that whatever the failings of the EU, it provides a means of building a plural society that moves beyond narrow identities.
The Welsh socialist theorist Raymond Williams was, in the 1970s, a rare supporter of the EEC on the left. Williams insisted that he identified as a Welsh European. Left politics that combines regional or small nation identity with a European identity are growing.
Ultimately, while there are strong left critiques of the EU, two factors drive the position of the Greens, Corbyn and others on the left supporting a “Yes” vote. First, the European ideal can be made to work for citizens rather than corporations. Second, defeating the right, rather than leaving the EU, is essential if we are to build a better society.
Across the EU, left and green movements are building stronger links and mobilising to imagine and build a different Europe.
[Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales and a long-standing Marxist in the party. His latest book is Economics After Capitalism (Pluto).]