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On Thursday, June 23, the citizens of Britain will vote in an historic referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. While right-wing arguments for a “Brexit” tended to prevail in the British mass media, many on the left are also making the case, albeit on different terms.

Neil Davidson, professor of sociology at the University of Glasgow, says the European Union is “an institution which is extraordinarily difficult to actually reform or change in any serious way” with the principle goal of “reinforcing neoliberalism.”

He also disagrees with some arguments put forward by the left for remaining in European Union.

One argument says existing workers’ rights would be protected by remaining in the EU.

“A lot of things tend to get credited to the EU that actually were achieved by individual nation- states and their labor movements, which the EU sometimes picked up,” said Davidson. “And as we see the greater depth of neoliberalism take hold, I think these rights are under a lot of attack from within the EU itself.”

Davidson also objects to the argument that the dissolution of the EU would lead to greater conflict within Europe. He points to the experiences of austerity in weaker nation-states like Greece, which he thinks show “what it means to be subject to power of an unaccountable bureaucracy, and of the stronger nations that want to impose its rule.”

“I think there’s a very strong argument for saying the EU has to be broken up, and that any serious coming together of peoples or states to form a progressive socialist union has to be a different project altogether. It can’t happen by using the existing relationship of states that exist in the EU just now,” says Davidson.

Story Transcript

GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Thursday, June 23, the citizens of Britain will hold a historic referendum on whether or not Britain should remain or leave the European Union. Arguments for Britain to remain or leave the EU have not divided up nicely along ideological lines, but as both the left and the right in Britain are each divided on the issue. The right’s arguments, though, which have centered on the referendum’s outcomes for immigration and the economy, have tended to prevail in the mass media in Britain. So with us to present the left’s arguments for leaving the EU is Neil Davidson. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Glasgow, and is the author of Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition. He joins us from a town near Edinburgh. Thanks, Neil, for being on the program. NEIL DAVIDSON: Glad to be here, Greg. WILPERT: So let’s begin with your arguments on why Britain ought to leave the EU, and then we’ll talk about your response to some of the arguments on the left for remaining. So first, why do you think Britain should leave? DAVIDSON: It’s to do with the kind of organization the EU is, which I think has tended to get a bit lost in some of this discussion. It’s obviously always been an institution for linking up capitalist economies. But over the last, say, 25 years, since the 1980s, it’s turned decisively towards neoliberalism. It’s also an institution which is extraordinarily difficult to actually reform or change in any serious way. Although there is a parliament, it has very little power, and most of the institutional power lies with the commission, which is unelected bureaucrats, or with the council, which does consist of elected leaders of states, but these people were elected by their own countries, not by the European population as a whole. So it’s very little democratic control. And what’s more serious, I think, about it is that it contains sets of rules which are binding on all participants in the union, which are intended to prevent governments doing certain things which are against the interests of the neoliberal order. So you’ve got unelected bureaucrats on the one hand, a set of unbreakable rules on the other. Or at least, rules which can only be broken by the most powerful states, like Germany and France, which [have this aim] to box in certain things. Privatization, the amount you can spend on public sector compared to debt, and so on. All of that is a way of reinforcing neoliberalism. Now, of course, we’ve seen recently in Greece what that can lead to in terms of the weaker states, within the eurozone in particular. And the Greeks will be going back, of course, for a further loan in a couple of months’ time, and we can expect further brutality from the commission towards them, and the Central European Bank, in terms of demands of more privatization, more cuts, and so on. Britain, to a certain extent is outside that. Because it isn’t in the eurozone. But it is still subject to some of the rules the EU has. And I think that we have to look beyond, however, simply how this affects Britain, and think about the other countries involved here, and what we think of the EU as a whole. So my real argument is that it’s not a friend to the workers, or to anything that people on the left would normally look to. And I think that the main reason why people, as we probably [inaud.] to, the real reason why people want to stay in is actually because it’s seen as the lesser of two evils rather than because they positively endorse the EU itself. WILPERT: Well, that’s certainly–I think that’s exactly one of the arguments. I mean, when you hear some of the arguments coming from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, they focused on the social benefits that the EU helps guarantee in the face of a Tory government, perhaps, such as equality for women, or guaranteeing the right to strike. And so also the unions seem to have supported, to a large extent, remaining in the EU. And then some also have argued for remaining, in terms of the argument about, that it’s [inaud.] prevent the rightward drift of the EU, or even the dissolution of the EU. So let’s look at each one of these arguments one at a time. You seem very skeptical about the argument that there’s any kind of social benefits, that there’s some kind of protection for workers that the EU provides. What’s your response, exactly? I mean, is there really no protection? Or is it just not worth it? DAVIDSON: There are some, but you’ve got to look at how the different aspects which do relate to worker’s rights came into being. Like everywhere in the capitalist world after World War II, the overall tendency of the predecessors of the EU now was broadly social democratic, Keynesian, state interventionist, and so on. But as the world economy has shifted towards neoliberalism, it’s shifted with it. So you’ve got historic rights built in, [really] established very early on, in the ‘60s and very early ‘70s. You have some rights which were used to kind of lure in the labor movements and the socialist parties in the 1980s, particularly under the [inaud.]. And then you’ve [inaud.] established by Germany, at the behest of the Germans particularly, in the early part of the 21st century, to establish a so-called level playing field, although it told us that worse conditions was [inaud.] weaker states. But this is over. There’s no more rights coming down the pipeline, and many of the legal decisions of the European court, the so-called [inaud.] of all decisions, have prioritized the movement of capital and the movement of services across state borders to those of the workers’ rights to collectively organize. What you get now is a sense of a very basic level of rights, which in many cases–including Britain, actually–the individual nations have superior rights to the ones offered by the EU, including things like holiday pay in Britain, for example. It’s also true that in many cases these rights were established by [inaud.] workers well before the EU picked them up. I mean, equal pay for women in Britain was established by striking women at the Danforth plant in 1968. It wasn’t established by the EU. So a lot of things tend to get credited to the EU that actually were achieved by individual nation-states and their labor movements, which the EU sometimes picked up. Sometimes it didn’t. So there’s a lot of exaggeration about this. But even the right to exist–these are not what the EU exists to do. I mean, these are, some of these [peripheral] rights are things that, of any state, are things that any state gives some concessions to workers at some point. That isn’t the central core of what the EU’s about. And as we see the greater depth of neoliberalism take hold, I think these rights are under a lot of attack from within the EU itself. You also have to remember that in many ways the EU acts as an excuse for individual nation-state governments to do what they would want to do anyway in terms of attacking workers, and they say we’ve got to do it because the EU tells us to. It isn’t obvious to me how the EU is protecting workers in France, for example, at the moment, who are being attacked by police [wielding truncheons] and so on, how their rights are being defended in any serious way by that. So I think there’s just a lot of exaggeration to do with the question of worker’s rights. WILPERT: What about, then, the argument–and this has been more presented on the right for remaining, but I’ve seen some people on the left also making this argument, that Britain also enjoys economic benefits from being, from its benefit in the EU, particularly trade and the jobs that are created by the trade, and would lose those jobs because of a lack or the reduction in trade that would happen if Britain leaves the EU. Is that at all an argument that you would–or how would you respond to that argument? DAVIDSON: Well, I certainly think that the majority of British capitalists want to stay in the EU, which would make you wonder why socialists want to defend that. I mean, they see it as in their interest to be in the EU, partly for ease of access to markets, partly because the city of London is used as a kind of offshore [vaulting] point for many capitalists to invest in the European Union from London. So there are lots of interests here, but I don’t think it’s the interests of socialists to say, well, this is good for capital. I mean, the problem with the British economy is that it’s weighted so far towards the financial sector and all its services, and in which our real problem is you can’t export services in the same way you can cars, or [inaud.] or whatever. So there’s a problem with the British economy, but it’s not particularly with the EU. It’s about the way in which it’s now dominated by the city of London, and the financial sector more generally, where there hasn’t been a total [loss] of manufacturing or any kind of economy that would be able to sell [inaud.] the world. But coming out of the EU isn’t going to automatically resolve any of that. I think some of it, the arguments both for and against it, are massively exaggerated, by the way. It isn’t going to be an apocalypse just because, economically, because Britain comes out of the EU. But I think that that’s not a question that I think we should get sucked into arguing for. I mean, the lining up of one gang of capitalists as opposed to another one. And in this sense clearly the majority see their interests as being in the EU, though I assume they know what they’re doing and they’re accurately reflecting their own interests. So that’s another reason I think points towards out, rather than towards staying in. WILPERT: And finally, the third argument that has been presented, also from the left, is that the, having Britain leave would mean, or contribute towards, a rightward drift to Europe as a whole, would basically strengthen the right, both in Britain but also in Europe, and contribute towards the complete dissolution of the European Union, and thereby potentially undermining one of its reasons for being. I mean, one of its main reasons, of course, was the whole trade issue. But the other reason being to reduce the possibility of inter-European conflict. And if there’s a rightward drift that might potentially increase that kind of conflict. So what’s your view on that? Is there any validity to that argument? DAVIDSON: I think, again, the argument about the EU being the reason why there’s not been war between the major European states is, again, massively exaggerated. The reason why there hasn’t been war is because most of the Western European states were lined up with America in the Cold War, and their war [tensions] were directed outwards at the Eastern Bloc rather than turmoil. Clearly the French-German rivalry has been a huge problem in Europe for the previous 100 years or more. But the reason there has been war isn’t because of the EU. It’s because of the rivalry across two social blocs rather than within the nation-states themselves. Since the Stalinist bloc collapsed in ‘89-’91, what you have seen is war coming to Europe in which the individual nations of the EU have backed different states almost by proxy. The [inaud.] in Yugoslavia, [inaud.] that’s happening in Africa now, particularly with French interventions in Central Africa, and [inaud.] in the Middle East. So the war’s been externalized, if you like, rather than internalized. In the same way, it hasn’t done away with power relations within the EU itself. Clearly the German-French bloc, which used to include Italy as well, to some extent, dominated the EU, and now it’s essentially Germany that dominates it all. And that means there’s a structure of unevenness and power within the EU from the top down in which the weakest states, like Greece most obviously, but also Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, are essentially [hammered] by the European Union’s bureaucracy and by its German leadership, and about the [inaud.] line, which is the [inaud.] neoliberal structures and so on. So that, okay, that’s the war. It’s economic power exercised by the stronger states against the weaker ones. So I think there’s a very strong argument for saying the EU has to be broken up, and that any serious coming together of peoples or states to form a progressive socialist union has to be a different project altogether. It can’t happen by using the existing relationship of states that exists in the EU just now. I think a lot of countries who were either ruled by fascists, Spain and Portugal, Greece to some extent, [or the] Eastern Bloc, look toward the EU as kind of a civilizing influence. And coming from where they come from, that’s understandable. But nevertheless, they’re now experiencing–and again, the Greek experience is the most stark example of this–what it means to be subject to power of an un[inaud.] bureaucracy, and of the stronger nations that want to impose its rule. So I don’t buy this. It’s true there hasn’t been war, and I don’t expect France and Germany to go to war, you know, in the near future. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t relations of power within it, and the stronger power exercising that over the weaker ones. WILPERT: Just to summarize briefly the argument on the left and on the right, I mean, particularly on the left, it seems to be to a large extent about whether or not it’s possible to either reform the EU from within, or to completely let it dissolve and start something new, which is what seems like basically what you’re arguing for. Is that correct? DAVIDSON: Yeah. Yeah. WILPERT: So thanks again, Neil, for joining us. This is a really interesting conversation. We’ll see what happens tomorrow in the vote, and we’ll probably come back for further analysis. Thanks so much, again, for joining us. DAVIDSON: Thanks, Greg. Thank you. WILPERT: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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Neil Davidson teaches sociology at the University of Glasgow and is the author of Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Haymarket Books, 2016).