I intend to vote Remain in the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s EU membership and as a lefty, of course, I gravitate toward the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign rather than the generally awful mainstream Britain Stronger In Europe campaign – that simultaneously grotesque and incredibly tedious lash-up of Tories, Lib Dems, right-leaning Labour figures and multinational CEOs trumpeting their ‘patriotic arguments’ for Britain’s EU membership. I have to say though, that while basically a supporter of AEiP, I’m not particularly convinced by arguments emanating from that camp in relation to the possibility of transforming EU institutions in a leftist direction.
Writing for AEiP, Hilary Wainwright and Mary Kaldor articulate one of the clearest arguments for a strategy of leftwing reform of the EU in their essay ‘So You Think the EU Can’t be Reformed?’. The thrust of their argument boils down to a vision of the EU as a basically neutral institutional terrain that neoliberalism currently dominates on a merely contingent basis. I think they do hit on something when they imply that there’s something crudely ‘essentialist’ about the ‘Left Exit’ (Lexit) argument – or, actually, the assertion as it’s never fully explicated – that the EU is absolutely unreformable because of something or another inherent in its DNA. Actually, as Wainwright and Kaldor argue the EU – like any institutional complex – is a constantly battled-over terrain of struggle and never inherently or absolutely one thing or another. Indeed precisely because it’s a ‘project’ rather than a ‘finished’ and stable set of institutions the EU, constantly in a state of becoming, is a particularly contested site of contestation. We know for example that different national states joined this project for different reasons and projected their own particular class inflected national imaginaries onto it. Some of these had concrete institutional effects beyond mere interpretation. We know that key architects of the European project (as Wainwright and Kaldor point out) such as Jean Monnet seem to have been driven by a genuinely internationalist and cosmopolitan vision of a future ‘United States of Europe’ that was born out of the destruction and killing of WW2 and the determination that this should never be allowed to happen again – and we know that this really was a motivating force driving the early construction of European institutions, at least to some extent. We know that the EU is traversed by conflicting ‘supranational’, ‘federalist’ and ‘intergovernmental’ logics – the institutional matrix as a whole expressing all of these things simultaneously. It is a body that is constantly pulled and pushed in different directions. It is many things at the same time but never fully any of them.
But what Wainwright and Kaldor downplay or miss is the necessary structural predominance of particular logics/interests. It seems to me revealing that they refer merely to the domination of ‘corporations’ and banks as the apparent explanation of the less pleasant facets of EU policy rather than ‘capital’ – or indeed ‘capitalism’ – as if there is nothing systemic about the pressures exerted on and within these institutions or the all pervading context in which it is rooted and grows out of. While the EU bears in some ways the traces of Monnet-type cosmopolitan optimism – at the very least rhetorically in the trumpeted ideological self-image of the ‘project’- this is certainly not a dominant logic. As the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions at the European level as Poulantzas might have pointed out – though a particularly indirect, second-order condensation, filtered and refracted first through national condensations of relations of social force – the EU is absolutely and inseparably bound up with national and trans-national capitalist accumulation imperatives and strategies (how could it be otherwise?)
They miss, too, the way in which the structures and practices of the EU manifest and express the unequal power of particular member states – the power of some states over others and relatedly the (super?)exploitative power of particular national capitals over foreign economies. In addition they overlook (given for example the huge power of the unelected European Commission, the virtually ornamental function of the European Parliament and indeed the absence of a European demos to speak of) the way in which EU institutions are relatively insulated from popular pressures in a way that national states are not and cannot be if they are to maintain their popular legitimacy – and indeed the way in which the EU might well function, partially, as a bolster to national state legitimacy, taking responsibility for neoliberal reforms ‘imposed from without’ that can be disavowed by the state elites that helped draw them up in the first place. So, while it’s got to be true that the EU can be reformed, there are structurally embedded limits to any possible social democratic/leftist reforms and they’ll be extraordinarily difficult to push very far.
The pro-Remain left is on weak ground, in my view, when it campaigns on the basis of a vision of a transformed, progressive, leftish EU. I think the strongest arguments for Left Remain lie elsewhere – not least in the evident delusions of Lexit. Our argument should pivot on an assessment of the political and social balance of forces at play here in the UK, and to a lesser extent those across the continent, and the simple observation that the actually existing Brexit campaign is dominated by particularly reactionary and dangerous arguments, ideas and political forces – and that, as such, Lexit is simply not on the agenda. This is, unfortunately, a ‘lesser evil’ argument. But that’s the reality.