While Syriza's appeals for solidarity across Europe didn't get much of a mass echo, the shoddy and stupidly self-destructive way they've been dealt with by technocrats and politicians from Germany, Italy, and Spain will have a lasting impact among left wing activists. What the ceaseless negotiations and brinkmanship have unveiled is an unyielding cruelty at the heart of the European Union, where a member state can see its population reduced to further penury at the stroke of an accountant's pen. It could be, as far as British politics are concerned, just the spur a new left wing Euroscepticism needs. Yet why is it that prior to the Greek crisis coming to a head (again) this was barely a ripple in the political pond? Where are the left wing Eurosceptics?
In one sense, they've never really gone anywhere. Some remnants of the old Bennite left cling to Euro-critical positions. The 'official' Communist Party of Britain believe the EU to be a neoliberal project that circumvents the democratic checks nation states can exert on capital (kinda hard to dispute after this weekend's display), and my erstwhile comrades see it as a "capitalist club" with no progressive content whatsoever. These are very much fringe positions that are unlikely to gain much traction in our in/out referendum campaign unless the Greek crisis rumbles on/flares up again. Yet why should they be on the margins of political life? Why does the mainstream left fight shy of being overly critical of the EU?
Brainstorming a few reasons, there are the very good reasons why, as a rule, the trade unions are supportive. Originally the bastions of left Euroscepticism themselves, the course of industrial struggle in the 80s and 90s helped mold their views. As the Thatcher and Major governments pared back workplace rights and imposed ever more restrictive regulations on trade unions, 'Europe' with its social chapter and enhanced protections for employees was something to aspire to: the labour movement had a stake in the EU. That stake materialised when Tony Blair signed Britain up shortly after the 1997 general election and has since then acted as a guarantor of certain rights. While not all trade unions are pro-EU (the RMT for instance), the majority see the EU as a convenient ally in the protection of their members. What purpose is served by being critical?
The municipal left, primarily the Labour group in the Local Government Association, but also councillors for the SNP, Greens, etc. are also unlikely to take a critical view. Starting in the late 80s where the economic regeneration of towns and cities came to the fore as pressing local political issues, where government was reluctant to stump up the monies the EC/EU were an alternative funding provider - especially via the European Regional Development Fund. There are thousands of buildings and community facilities that now exist become local authorities applied for and were granted monies, and even today there are various cash streams that can be applied for for similar purposes. If the EU was seen as more willing to invest in post-industrial communities than the right wing government of the land, on what basis can the municipal left be critical?
From the perspective of the Parliamentary left the EU was a realisation of social democratic values. Even while neoliberalism was written into EU documents often at the urging of our New Labour government, the EU was the repository of an internationalist ideal (albeit from above) in which European citizens benefited from continent-wide social-democratic policies and do-goodery. By pooling sovereignties Europe had more kick on the world stage. Rather than being pushed around by the winds of global market forces, it was large enough to make weather in its own right in clear contradistinction to those on the right who prattled on about national character and national sovereignty. For British centre left MPs, the EU was a bastion of progressive, modern, and forward-looking politics - everything Britishness, and particularly Englishness, isn't. These were components of the European Idea, a shining beacon of cooperation across borders and solidarity between peoples divided by war in the recent past - even radical MPs see it this way. How then can the left be critical?
Then there are the simple practicalities of governing. The free market may bring perceived social problems, but on inflating GDP, tackling climate change, cracking down on organised crime, and being able to strut around the stage like a senior world figure. All of these are very good reasons to not be outside the EU. Anyone willing to argue the moves to mitigate climate change would be better if Britain acted alone?
And last of all, there's the simple matter of positioning. The most regressive and boorish elements in politics have made anti-EU tub-thumping their cause celebre. Who on the left would want to be politically associated with Boris Johnson, Peter Bone, Melanie Phillips, Nigel Farage, and Nick Griffin? Doesn't a critical attitude vis a vis the EU also entail lining up with them?
These are the props that have kept the mainstream left EU-friendly. Putting aside the awful way Eurozone leaders have acquitted themselves over Greece, the biggest threat to any of these are Dave's negotiations. If he reverts to type and "unsigns" the social chapter, what vision of the EU is being sold to the British public? A big market and that's it? If that's the case, there's every sign more unions could become alienated from the EU project, and f they go tens of thousands of activists will too. Yet if the member states tell Dave no because they won't be bounced into an arbitrary timetable set by the Tory manifesto, it's very unlikely mainstream left support for the EU will unravel.
Of course, it's ridiculous that this is the case. Sensible socialist politics surely means having no sacred cows and understanding that the EU is simultaneously progressive and regressive, that it could become something so much more but is always in danger of sliding into something less than the sum of its parts. Our comrades in Europe raise the idea of a 'Social Europe', the struggle for a continent that strives to imbue the rarefied values of the European project with the flesh and blood of real social content. That should be the socialist starting point - neither Euroscepticism nor Europhilia but Euro-realism, Euro-solidarity, and Euro-internationalism.