The European Union: workers’ solidarity for a socialist Europe


Finn Geaney from On The Brink magazine argues that Brexit is “reactionary in all its aspects” and must be fought from a perspective that foregrounds a pan-European socialist alternative.

In the current political context, if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union that will represent a significant victory for right-wing forces in Britain. And it is not just in Britain that the Right will experience a lift. A similar effect will be felt across Europe. The debacle of the Brexit process shows up the deep divisions within the Tory Party. However, the one thing that unites them is their common determination to keep the British Labour Party out of government.

Theresa May’s June decision to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn was but an endeavour to save her hugely unpopular Brexit deal and to remain in office as Tory Prime Minister. Seeking common ground around a demand that originally emerged from the far-right of the British Tory Party will damage the Labour Party and could yet become a major factor in diminishing Labour’s popularity across the country.

Critical Juncture

The European Union is currently a major political issue, not just in European countries but across the world. The Brexit process has wreaked havoc. On a global scale political forces on the right are salivating at the prospect of Britain leaving the EU. Reactionary movements are trying to gain traction amongst an increasingly disenchanted working population, and opposition to the EU is their bridgehead. In France, Le Pen looks to Brexit as an inspiration. Likewise, in Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Germany and other countries, the right is advancing behind an anti-EU banner. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) has joined forces with Lega in Italy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Swedish Democrats in the run-up to the next European elections.

Trump has for a long time proclaimed his wish to see to break-up of the European Union along national lines. Shortly after his inauguration he invited Nigel Farage to a big welcome at the White House. Steve Bannon has spoken at anti-EU meetings in Europe. Nigel Farage addressed a similar meeting in Dublin. Lest there be any lingering doubts about the alignment of the right around hostility to the EU, a recent statement by Trump, where he encouraged Theresa May to get on with the process of Brexit, promising her immediate discussions about a trade deal between the UK and the US, post-Brexit.

It is essential that socialists be principled and consistent in this volatile atmosphere. To underestimate the economic and political damage inherent in the Brexit process would constitute a serious error. The future of the EU has many implications in terms of living standards and working conditions. But in addition, racism, right-wing nationalism and xenophobia are advancing under the cover of the Referendum decision of June 2016.

Today 510 million people live within the EU, 6% of the world’s population, which is more than the combined populations of the United States of America and Japan. The EU stretches from Helsinki to Lisbon and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Together the 28 countries of the EU represent the largest economy in the world, the biggest importer and exporter, the leading investor and recipient of foreign investment and the biggest aid donor. So, it is no small question if Britain leaves the EU.


Brexit is a right-wing reactionary movement in all its aspects. The leadership of the Brexit project are from the Tory Party far-right, and the very demand itself to leave the European Union has long been a badge of identity for them. Countless forlorn has-beens of the British Tory Party have received a fillip of new energy from the Brexit process. The Tory Party has become the new UKIP. The other wing of Toryism, starting with Macmillan who decided in 1961 to apply for entry to the European Economic Community (EEC), then Heath who signed the Accession Treaty in 1973, and their successors including John Major and David Cameron, were no friends of working people either. It is noteworthy that in the run-up to the 2016 Referendum Prime Minister David Cameron used the renegotiation process to try to undermine workers’ rights, such as are contained in the European Union Working Time Directive and the Temporary Agency Workers Directive, as well as to foster division on issues such as migration. All this was part of an attempt to make the EU more supportive of the interests of big business and finance.

For her part, Thatcher used her supposed hostility to Europe as a demagogic prop in her endeavour to atomise the Welfare State, denationalise publicly-owned industries and destroy the trade union movement. None of this attack on workers’ living conditions was in response to EU Directives. On the contrary, Thatcher secured derogations from EU measures that would have improved conditions at work. And, it was Thatcher who attracted the major Japanese car manufacturers to Britain in the 1980s based on the competitive advantages that membership of the Single Market would confer on them. Honda recently announced that it will close its factory in Swindon. This closure will cost thousands of jobs, as it is not just Honda workers themselves that will be affected. Small and medium-sized engineering companies will be devastated by the consequent disruption of supply chains following Brexit. A similar situation will face many other manufacturing companies in Britain.

The EU

For their part the leading bodies of the EU have in recent years been pursuing policies that worsen the position of working people and their families. The institutions of the EU intensified the crisis in Greece by demanding increasing austerity and privatisation, while undermining the policies of Greece’s democratically-elected government. The EU bureaucracy protected the interests of the large banks and insisted that workers pay for the economic crises also in Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy. They tried to get a trade agreement with the United States (TTIP) that would have undermined working conditions, as well as previously-established health and safety measures. They advocate a policy of privatisation and facilitating large corporations.

The problems of the EU are the problems of the member States. Decisions by the ruling bodies of the EU should be challenged in the individual countries as well as by democratic and civic bodies across Europe. The European Parliament is directly elected by its citizens. The largest political party in the European Parliament is the conservative European People’s Party (Christian Democrats). Rather than cower in the shadows moaning about the right-ward shift in EU policies trade unionists and socialists should bring all EU decisions to centre stage and campaign forcefully for socialist policies during the EU Parliamentary elections.

In the Member States they should make the various nominees on the EU governing bodies accountable.  The decision of the EU leading bodies to humiliate Greece and its people in the negotiations with SYRIZA’s leaders on the country’s economic crisis was supported by finance ministers from the Member States of the EU.

The European Commission is composed of nominees of the various governments and is headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, candidate of the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) Group and a past Prime Minister of Luxembourg. The Commission has a lot of power, such as being the executor of the EU budget and the originator of much legislation. But it is not a behemoth. It is essentially a type of civil service with a similar staff to a large local council in one of the member countries. In the often-frenzied attack on the institutions of the EU sometimes the Commission is singled out for opprobrium. The Commission, and other bodies such as the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, often step beyond the powers conferred on them by the EU Treaties. Yet the Commission can be overthrown by a decision of the European Parliament. In 1999 the entire Commission was forced to resign following allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
The European Council consists of the Heads of State of the member states. Its President is former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

The Treaties

The European Union (EU) is a product of political processes that span a period of more than sixty years. On 25th March 1957 the founding Treaty of Rome was adopted. Article 2 established ‘a common market….and a harmonious development of economic activities’ among the six countries involved i.e. France, Italy, Belgium, Germany (West), Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Article 3 called for ‘the abolition…. of obstacles to freedom of movement of persons, services and capital.’ An earlier Treaty, agreed in Paris in 1951, merged the management of the coal and steel industries of these six countries in the immediate aftermath of World War II, thereby establishing the European Coal and Steel Community. Britain’s application in 1963 to join the Common Market, as the EU was then known, was rejected as a result of a veto by Charles De Gaulle. Ten years later Britain joined the Common Market following a decision in the Westminster Parliament. An attempt in 1975 to overturn that decision by Referendum was defeated by a vote of two to one. A series of other Treaties modified and developed the EU since its foundation, among them the Single European Act in 1986, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2000 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. These Treaties, which inform the corpus of EU law, were agreed either by referendum or parliamentary decision within the member States. The European Single Market, which allows citizens to live, study, shop, work and retire in any EU country, was enshrined in the Single European Act, which came into force in 1987. That Treaty similarly allowed for free movement of people, goods, services and money. A legally-binding Charter of Fundamental Rights was proclaimed in Nice in 2000. The European Court of Justice was established to ensure that Member States abide by commitments in the Treaties. The EU is not just a free-trade area, like for example. the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).  The EU encompasses legislation in such areas as health and safety, human rights, working conditions, animal husbandry and environmental protection.

The EU budget is but a small part of total public expenditure in the EU and constitutes about 2% of public expenditure across all Member States. The EU Regional Aid and Cohesion Policy allows for an investment of €325 billion, or 34% of the EU budget, in the regions and cities of the Member States. The European Social Fund is used to finance vocational education and to combat youth unemployment.

The Treaties lay down the objectives and rules of the EU. To that extent the EU is a site for conducting class struggle. In May 2005 the French people in a referendum rejected an EU Constitutional Treaty. The following month the people of the Netherlands made a similar decision and the Treaty was dropped entirely. A referendum in Ireland in 2000 rejected the Nice Treaty, which was then modified somewhat and subsequently adopted in a new referendum. Not all Member States participate in all areas of EU policy. Only nineteen have adopted the Euro, and twenty-two are members of the Schengen area, which allows passport-free movement between countries. EU taxation policy must be agreed by all member states.

Although the EU has incorporated the Western European Union, a close ally of NATO, as a step towards building its military capabilities, military defence remains in the hands of national governments. Under the rules of the EU individual countries can opt out of any military actions. Direct military intervention can only be engaged upon following separate decisions by each member state. Denmark has rejected support for EU militarisation, although it is the only EU country to have done so. But that does not alter the chosen current alignment of the current EU leaders with the United States of America in terms of global political and military activity. Recent calls by the EU for increased military spending under PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defence) aim at 2% of GDP being devoted to military spending.

It is not alone in the area of defence that Europe’s right-wing leaders have asserted their will. The Fiscal Stability Treaty of 2009 placed obstacles in the way of governments wishing to rely on Keynesian-style budgets and borrowing in order to stimulate domestic economic activity.


The EU provides an opportunity for pursuing alternative socialist policies on an international scale. Trade unions and political parties within the EU operate in joint organisations across national boundaries. The primary requirement for any serious political process is to link policies that are being pursued within the EU with what is happening in the member countries. The right-wing political parties understand this. Of course, the EU will not be transformed into a Socialist Federation. But that does not mean that socialists should not pursue within the structures of the EU policies that serve the interests of workers and their families.

Because of the dominance of Conservative Parties within the EU at the present time, disillusionment with the EU is growing apace, and, in the absence of a clear socialist alternative, this facilitates the growth of right-wing forces. The failure of trade union and socialist leaders to seriously confront and oppose policies of austerity has contributed to this process in a significant way. Since the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 turnout has consistently fallen, such that in the last elections in 2014 only 42.6% of potential voters cast a ballot. Elections to the European Parliament are generally seen as mere harbingers of impending national elections. But these elections should instead be fought around a common international manifesto of socialist measures. Political disenchantment is always a danger for progressive forces. That is why the Right looks to EU elections as their springboard into the political arena.

The European Peoples’ Party, which brings together the CDU of Angela Merkel, Hungary’s Fidesz, Spain’s Partido Popular and other conservative political Parties, is the largest political bloc in the European Parliament. But that was not always the case. For a long period, the mass parties of the labour movement had a majority. Parties on the Left must now unite around a programme of demands that represent the interests of working people and their families. The self-styled bloc of Socialists and Democrats needs to wake up from its long torpor and recognise its responsibility to its electors. Right-wing forces must be confronted not just in the European Parliament but in national Parliaments and in a European-wide movement on the streets also.

Trade unions throughout the EU should present a common programme and mobilise around that programme. The European Trade Union Confederation brings together trade unions from across Europe. The big employers are multinational and exploit divisions amongst workers along national lines. But just as the capitalists are united across national boundaries so too should workers’ organisations be united.  Anything that weakens that unity should be resisted. Britain leaving the EU now is an example of such division and would represent a weakening of solidarity between workers of different countries.

Demands must be advanced for improvements in pay and working conditions, better health and safety provision, environmental protection, improved public services without cost at point of delivery, nationalisation of the banks and finance houses and publicly-owned industries run efficiently under workers’ control and management and defence of migrant workers and of minorities. A universal living wage for all workers in the EU should be fought for. Such an approach could combat the forced economic migration of workers who decide to leave their home countries and their families in order to secure an improved standard of living. A Europe-wide campaign against the capitalist system should have a secure foothold within the institutions of the EU, as much as within individual countries. Countries that are outside the EU should also be part of this campaign. There are forty-eight countries in Europe, twenty-eight are in the EU.

In addition to this action programme, the trade union and labour movement across Europe should also initiate a campaign to examine all the Treaties of the EU with a view to creating conditions for a new Treaty that would protect public services, expand public ownership of key industries and service provision, facilitate public control of banking and finance and expand educational and cultural provision on an equal basis for all. There is no legal provision within the EU that cannot be reversed. No European Treaty is set in stone. An international conference of the organisations of the European labour movement should be convened for the purpose of examining this issue.

Changing balance within the EU

The balance of forces within the countries of the EU has been changing since its foundation. Spain, Greece and Portugal were admitted to membership in the 1980s, having spent decades under dictatorial rule. The EU structural funds that were allocated to these countries assisted them in the growth of their GNP. Ireland for nearly fifty years since the creation of the Free State in 1922 stagnated with mass emigration and underdevelopment. It joined the EEC in 1973 and, while it experienced a collapse in some of its industries, nevertheless through the European Common Agricultural Policy, the Regional Fund and a policy of encouraging foreign investment the country experienced a general improvement in living standards. Smaller countries were attracted towards the EU because of their increasing isolation in the face of the growing, globalised economic power of the multinationals.

A significant change in the composition of the EU occurred after 2003 when individual accession treaties were signed with several countries emerging from the Stalinist Eastern European bloc, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia. The ruling elites of many of these countries were anxious to align themselves with NATO and the United States. Donald Rumsfeld, during the US and British invasion of Iraq sixteen years ago, referred fondly to this group as ‘new Europe’. The balance of forces has shifted rightward for a period. The left across Europe must unite in combat against the right-wing and conservative forces that dominate European institutions at the present time

Nature of the EU

The EU is a construct of the capitalist system and serves the interests of banks and big business. How could it be otherwise! It was founded following agreement between capitalist States – initially six – and was supported and encouraged by the United States, anxious to prevent the growth of socialist movements in the post-War period, such as occurred in 1918. A few European-American organisations came into being following World War Two, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and NATO. The European Economic Community (the Common Market) emerged in that context.

In order to facilitate free movement in commodities, services, labour and capital and to prevent as far as possible any one capitalist enterprise from seeking unfair advantage over another, a series of international Treaties was agreed within the EU and its predecessors. Over time the EU Member States voluntarily surrendered aspects of their sovereignty in areas such as environmental protection, food safety, working conditions, agriculture, animal husbandry, consumer rights and health. EU laws in these areas have the same force as national laws in individual states. For example, the prohibition on discrimination, as set out in various EU directives, takes precedence over conflicting national law.

In addition, Regional and Structural Funds were established to assist in such projects as and road and rail construction, particularly in the less developed countries of Europe.

Balance of Class Forces

The predominance of right-wing governments across Europe today does not mean that all progressive measures at EU level are blocked off at source. A Charter of Fundamental Rights was incorporated into the Treaty of Nice in 2000. EU rules prevent discrimination on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. A series of Regulations, Directives and Decisions, some beneficial to workers and others against the interests of employees, has over the years been enacted by the EU. That is no different from what happens in individual states. These questions are decided on the basis of the balance of forces in society, not by any legal or moral imperative.

Trade union pressure has led to the EU Commission taking action against ‘wage dumping’ which largely affects workers from Eastern Europe who are employed in areas such as construction and harvesting. In the past these workers had been entitled only to the minimum wage in the host country but now they are to be given the right to the same bonuses and allowances as ‘national’ workers. This follows changes to the Posting of Workers’ Directive. The Working Time Directive was adopted in 1993, and since then the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled on more than fifty working-time related cases.

Maximum weekly working time must not exceed forty-eight hours on average according to a Directive in 2003. The Directives also provide for rest breaks and rest periods.  A Directive in 1997 established equal rights for part-time workers and in 2008 equal treatment for temporary workers became the law. The Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that emergency workers fall within the scope of protection of the Working Time Directive. Equal treatment for men and women in employment became the law within in the EEC in 1976.

Europe has high food standards and the EU regulates food labelling, not just in terms of food content, but also in the case of meat country of origin. Water cleanliness and air purity are similarly regulated.

Although the motivation of the executive and policy-making bodies of the EU is not to serve the interests of working people or the ‘ordinary consumer’ nevertheless, political pressure in 2016 led to the European Commission imposing a fine of nearly €3 billion on a lorry cartel involving Daimler, IVECO and VOLVO for price-fixing. Action is currently underway in the European Court of Justice against Apple Corporation over its failure to pay €13 billion owed in taxes. The giant multinational Volkswagen recently had to pay around $24bn in penalties and compensation over its manipulation of figures for diesel emissions following action taken by the European Union. Over the past two years Google has been fined more than €8 billion by the EU for breaching its antitrust rules and for abusing its dominant market position. Fines totalling €824 million were imposed on a number of banks for manipulating interest rates.

The Euro

The Euro was established following agreement on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Twenty-one years earlier US President Nixon broke the link between the dollar and the official price of gold, thus abolishing the international system of fixed exchange rates, that had been in operation since the end of World War Two. The Bretton Woods international monetary system ended in 1972. Prior to the introduction of the Euro the EU made a number of attempts to create currency stability, such as the Snake, the European Monetary System and the Exchange Rate Mechanism. For a variety of reasons none fully succeeded. In a continuing endeavour to underpin the Single European Market and the free movement of capital, people, goods and services, the Euro was launched in 1999 and became fully operational in 2002.

When the Euro was introduced in 1999 there was no accompanying central fund that could be drawn upon to assist members of the new Monetary Union. The banking system remained under national control. There were no bail-out rules. Both Germany and France in 2003 broke the budget deficit rules that had been set by the Stability and Growth Pact, but neither country faced any sanction. It was the economic crisis of 2008 that brought to the fore many of the contradictions of the capitalist system that had been building up. A bail-out fund was established then, with the support of the International Monetary Fund and the so-called European Stability Mechanism. Bail-out measures, involving austerity budgets and cuts in public sector spending, were forced upon Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus. The approach of the leading bodies of the EU was to defend the assets of the big banks and finance houses at the expense of the living standards of working people and their families.

Yet, despite the difficulties inherent in its structural base, the Euro remains the world’s second most-used currency and accounts for one quarter of the world’s foreign currency reserves. Three hundred and forty million Europeans in nineteen Member States use it on a day by day basis. Clearly the use of the Euro greatly facilitates travel and trade.

Class Struggle

The dominant forces that are now arraigned against the EU and that are calling for exit from the Union are of the far-right. There is understandably continuing criticism of EU policies coming from the left. But there is a particular problem amongst the left in Britain. For many years some left-wing leaders, such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, mistakenly argued that opposition to the EU and its predecessors, regardless of context, should be an essential aspect of the socialist movement. There are even some small left groups in Britain today who argue that the current Brexit process should be supported. Such an approach is not only blind to reality, but it discredits socialism.

The principal drive for Brexit constitutes a uniformly reactionary, right-wing process. Campaigns against the EU are leading to an increase in nationalism and division amongst workers. In Britain there is an attempt to re-generate the right-wing Tory Party around xenophobia, racism and illusionary imperial grandeur, using Brexit as the rallying call.

The issue of the European Union today presents an arena where the right-wing must be confronted and defeated. The British Labour Party should avail of every opportunity to highlight the essential nature of this right-wing movement and to build up the opposition in Westminster and throughout the country around an internationalist and socialist alternative to Brexit. The principled class argument is not between a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘soft Brexit’. That false dichotomy shifts the terms of the debate into right-wing Tory territory. There has to be a new campaign to combat the lies and false propaganda that littered the Referendum of 2016, and there must be a new Popular Vote in which the Right can be confronted and defeated.

The outcome on the issue of the future of the EU is not neutral. However, the socialist approach to the EU must be critical and must be based on class issues and class demands. In this climate, where jobs are being destroyed and living standards are being undermined, and where racism and xenophobia are securing roots, the organised labour movement has an opportunity to present an internationalist and socialist alternative, a Socialist Federation of Socialist States in Europe



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