Tuesday 1 March 2016

Why Greens Should Vote to Leave the EU

This is an extract from a much longer piece written by Larry O'Hara

The onward march of ever greater EU centralization and the growing (if covert) influence of shadowy pressure groups like the European Round Table of Industrialists (hereafter ERT) has been watched by me with ever growing concern, even if viewed with indifference by many in the Green Party.  In recent years, the disgraceful treatment of Greece’s Syriza government by the EU seemed to momentarily lift scales from some eyes, for here was a genuine radical government being totally crushed by the EU, who were (and are) dictating to a democratically elected government, empowered by a popular referendum even, that they had to tear up their radical programme, privatize industries, dismantle welfare provisions, annihilate pensions, all in order to appease the loan shark parasites of the international banking community.  Surely, one might have thought, the fate of this government tells us something about the nature of the EU?  That has not altered since a defeated Greece is now out of the headlines.

At its minimum, the EU is about market ‘harmonization’: code for driving down workers living conditions worldwide.  This is what Tory supporters (and even opponents like Boris Johnson) of the EU mean when they concede it has been good for trade.  One instrument for harmonization is ‘bench marking’, whereby the most disadvantageous (to workers) practices are made the norm.  Another aspect is introducing ever more competition in the provision of services hitherto provided by the public sector.  It is this that provides the backdrop to welfare state privatization, Royal Mail sell-off and the unmitigated disaster that has been the PFI initiative in the NHS, mortgaging the future for generations to come while saddling citizens with ever mounting debt.  The Campaign Against Euro-Federalism have bravely, and indefatigably drawn attention to these matters in great detail.  What a pity Europhiliacs in the Labour Party and elsewhere blithely ignore this evidence; as too have most Greens to date.  TTIP and the related Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada, which will provide a back-door for US corporations to sue elected governments as in TTIP, are both dangerous and blatantly contradict Green principles, as can be seen by perusing the excellent Leave.EU pamphlet on these subjects .  Yet both are imminently set to become EU reality.

A paradox needs explaining: the mismatch between fundamental Green principles and the EU itself, a gap so wide that the fact many Greens (and Leftists generally) do not realise it demands serious explanation.  The gap can be summarized thus:

a)            Internationalism should always be voluntary to be genuine (e.g. the 1930s International Brigades) and should never be confused with the creation of supranational institutions with imperial ambitions: which the EU has been ever since Jean Monnet’s vision took shape in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, explicit aim, ever-closer union.  Like a ratchet, every single EU development has travelled that path, whether it be majority voting, Maastricht Lisbon and the rest.  EU centralization operates like a ratchet, that only goes one way.  I fully support Europe as an idea, and co-operation between European peoples, but no way should this be confused with the EU (on this at least I agree with Boris Johnson).  This very article was started in Hamburg, indeed.  One mendacious act of many is the deliberate sleight of hand by which proponents of Empire (the EU) seek to conflate Europe as an idea with the EU as an institution.

b)            Every accretion of power to EU institutions (of whatever stripe) is a diminution of power available locally.  If any referendum produces the ‘wrong’ (i.e. anti-centralist) result, it is re-run until the right answer ensues.  Furthermore, the whole notion of ‘subsidiarity’ is a pathetic fig-leaf: the centre decides what powers to give away, and it is the centre that can rescind any concessions.

c)            It is not just beyond belief, but even comprehension, that anybody could really think that a political entity with 503 million inhabitants like the EU could be democratic.  Institutions to be democratic have to be on a scale that people can understand, meaningfully relate to, and control.  Those numbers mean that is just not possible: but is conversely why the ERT favours the EU.  How much easier to negotiate with one government than 28.  Just when did some Greens think the slogan ‘Think Global, Act Local’ became redundant?  As Tony Benn never tired of pointing out, if you don’t elect people (European Court/Commission) and you can’t remove them, they’re not accountable to you.  

This is the definition of undemocratic. It is fascinating, therefore, to hear Benn’s thoughts echoed in Michael Gove’s 20/2/16 statement on the EU “My starting point is simple. I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time. But our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country. I believe that needs to change“.  If this applies to even a Tory government, why would it apply less to a Green government or even a Corbyn-led one?

d)            As for the European Parliament, giving it even more power, which I do not favour, would inevitably (and unavoidably) be at the expense of national governments, who whatever their faults can at least in principle be removed: on this Tony Benn Michael Gove and George Galloway are all right.  Even if every single MEP (and MP) elected from the UK (or even England) favoured withdrawal from the EU or any other policy, MEPs elsewhere, if we give them power, would be able to prevent such a policy happening.  Anybody thinking that situation democratic is beyond reason, or even hope.  As too the current European Council of Ministers where the UK has voted against 72 measures, and been defeated 72 times.

e)            Sustainability is not merely an argument for more recycling bins and altering fridges: it should be at the heart of Green policies aimed at breaking the capitalist market cycle of planned obsolescence which will ineluctably mean taking on the multinational corporations who are so keen, with EU acquiescence, to push through the devastating TTIP (Transatlantic Trade Treaty).  In proper context, developing a genuinely sustainable economy is a dagger to the heart of capitalism, and the illusory religion of economic growth.

I could certainly say more, and maybe will elsewhere, but have hopefully said enough to substantiate my claim that, as I see it, there is a gap between genuine Green principles and the EU.  The paradox therefore which needs explaining is this; if these things are so axiomatic and obvious to me and the few Greens who share such views (like Jenny Jones and a minority of Green Left members) why is this the case?  This, I would suggest, requires an exploration of the political journeys undertaken by those who have arrived at a different destination to me.  In the real world, the Green project cannot advance without support from others including elements in the unions and the Labour Party.  Uncomfortable but true, which means making sense of current Labour/union policy on the EU: any progressive anti-EU coalition needs to build bridges, if not with most of the leadership, certainly the members.  This includes those who flocked to join Labour in the belief Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in Momentum intend, and are capable of, bringing about radical change.  I do not look at all tendencies within Labour, just the most important in relation to the current EU debate.

In 1990 a motion to withdraw from the EU was narrowly defeated at the Green Party (hereafter GP) conference, which I thought then was a great mistake.  Had Greens the nerve to advocate EU withdrawal, that may well have helped create the political space to make a breakthrough, conjoining radical politics with an anti-EU stance.  Instead, Greens vacated that space, some of which was later colonized by UKIP.  Since then Green policy has been contradictory: practically accommodating to the EU in many areas, contrasting party policies with others, while remaining within.  All encapsulated in the ‘Three Yeses’ policy adopted in 2013: Yes to a referendum, Yes to the EU and Yes to major change within the EU.  My contention is the first two are inconsistent with the third.

The rationale for such a policy is various.  Firstly, Greens were actually getting elected to the European Parliament, and joined a Europe-wide Federation of Green Parties (formalized 2004).  It also has to be said that the lavish wages allowances and such available in the European Parliament are inevitably corroding.  It was this de-radicalising effect that initially led German Greens to propose rotation in elected positions after all.  Dropping that policy was one more nail in the German Green’s coffin, and sadly rotation has never even been tried in the UK.  I have never agreed with Green MEPs (or any others) having the right themselves to allocate such funds, this should always be a party matter: but it never has been.  Secondly, on a more positive note, having elected MEPs allowed Greens to influence (however minutely) policy in a way denied the Greens until Caroline Lucas (a former MEP) was elected to Westminster in 2010.  The third reason is similar to that affecting Labour and the unions: a basic pessimism about getting change in the UK alone means the EU offers a better prospect.  As we shall see, this motivation still applies today.

At this point, a mea culpa on my part: while perturbed at the general pro-EU drift of GP policy, concentrating on other areas, and the fact that even in Green Left (of which I am a member) anti-EU positions are held by only a minority, I did not pay attention to the nuts and bolts of that policy.  I probably should have, but in any event rectify that now.  Before looking at pro-EU arguments by some Greens, I review GP policy as a whole, not least to substantiate my outline summary above.  

The Europe policy (part of the ongoing ‘Policies For a Sustainable Society’) can be found on the Party web-site at http://policy.greenparty.org.uk.    Numbering refers to policy sections therein. 

Early on they sort of grasp the subsidiarity nettle, saying “many issues currently decided at the EU level should be dealt with at a more appropriate level for effective action, which might be local, national or global” (EU120).  Which begs the question: who decides which is which, and how is this to happen?  There is no unequivocally clear answer, in that the areas they outline are ambiguous and open to interpretation and contestation.  It is not as if the GP does not know the reality of “subsidiarity in the European Union at present, a top down distribution of a fraction of power accumulated at the centre” (EU390).  They state the ‘European level’ should “safeguard basic human social and political rights” (EU121), indeed “high standards of human and civil and social rights” (EU212) and “cooperation to regionalize the industrial base, services and resources” (EU212).  All these beg definition because not only is there no universal agreement about rights, in the real world, rights often conflict.  Who, exactly, is to decide what ‘high standards’ are? There is the unproven assertion that air pollution “can best be resolved at the European level” (EU121), but this is not obvious, and a basic confusion of Europe-wide with European, which in this case means imposed.  

The European level is supposed to “promote sustainable, non-exploitative, self-reliant local and regional economies” (EU121).  Yet this does not happen currently, indeed as we shall see such economies will be resisted at the ‘European level’.   This is the reality which confounds the GP recognition that “subsidies are sometimes necessary to protect local, regional and national economies and the environment, and we will support them in these instances” (EU413).  The contrast between what the GP supports and EU reality is at times staggering: try telling Greece that “each member state government should be entirely free to set its own levels and methods of taxation, public spending and public borrowing” (EU425).

Conversely, do the GP really believe that EU members will “initiate programmes to support local economies against market centralization” (EU426)?  I don’t, but if they did, they’d get the Greek treatment. 

I find many GP policy aims appealing (just as well given I’ve been a member for 28 years!), the problem is that they have no realistic transitional strategy to get there other than the implicit mirage of a Green majority in the EP.  In parallel with this, exhorting current national governments to do things they have no intention of doing, or, if they did, would be stamped on.  In this context, GP policy is inappropriately abstract and unrealistic while appearing otherwise.  I agree wholeheartedly that “tariff barriers and quotas should be gradually introduced on a national and/or regional bloc level, with the aim of allowing localities and countries to produce as much of their goods and services as they can themselves” (EU443).  My objection  is simple: this will not and cannot happen within the EU.  I have no problem up to a point with “a democratically accountable and controlled European Confederation of Regions, based on Green principles” (EU302).  

Though the problem is that confederations by definition are voluntary, so where does this word ‘controlled’ come from?  Unless you mean control by the regions, but as we shall see this is not consistent with other aspects of GP policy.  It is na├»ve to imagine any of this can arise if you “reconstitute the EU” (EU302).  How, exactly, does the GP imagine the EU will ‘reconstitute’ itself, liquidating its own power?  We are told “regions should also have the right to define themselves, where appropriate across national frontiers…through referenda” (EU393).  Dependent on the approval of who?  For example is Spain really going to accept Basque independence, or France Corsican?  

A further contradictory policy is belief the European Council of Ministers “should seek to make decisions by consensus” (EU320), immediately followed by support for non-consensual Qualified Majority Voting (EU321).  While the European Commission’s powers are to be reduced (EU310) potential conflict between the European Parliament and Council of Ministers is made more likely by supporting “the extension of ordinary legislative procedure with the European Parliament…to all issues where the Council decides by Qualified Majority Voting” (EU326), indeed the “powers of the European Parliament should be extended to give its members greater oversight of the work of the EU” (EU333).  Oversight and more voting will inevitably be at the expense of national parliaments and governments, how could it be otherwise? 

The fact national parliaments get no positive mention in this policy is telling.   The European Parliament itself is to decide on the wording for referenda on a future European Constitution defining “the values, objectives powers, decision-making procedures and institutions of the EU” (EU356/352).  The only area where the policy wholeheartedly (if transiently) accepts national level democracy is in the area of having referenda on Monetary Union (EU423) and a new European Constitution (EU354).  But given the European Parliament decides the rules, question, and even date, of any referendum we can see where power lies (EU356).  Ironically, not only does this undermine national parliaments, being serious about decentralization would mean regions being the voting basis, surely?  Yet they are not.

Looking at all this in the round, leaving aside pressure/interest groups, there are six potential competing centres of power within the EU: the European Parliament, European Commission, European Council of Ministers, the Regions, national Parliaments and finally the European Court of Justice (ECJ).  While adding the meaningless qualification that “care should be taken not to duplicate the roles of existing courts in member countries”, the nub is this: “the role of the CJEU should extend as appropriate within the competencies of the EU” (EU342).  Not only can these judges not be removed by nation states, the policy states that judicial “candidates should be nominated by the Committee of Regions…Appointments shall be made by the European Parliament” (EU346).  The blatant intent is to undermine nation states, not really to give real power to the regions (else power would be genuinely decentralized elsewhere) but undermine the nation state in favour of supranational EU institutions.  Technically, decentralization as a function of centralization.

Above I have concentrated on areas where I either disagree with the principle, or am sceptical about the practice.  Opposition to NATO for example, or a European Army, and European Monetary Union, I fully support.  If the GP was arguing for decentralization and self-sufficiency as part of an anti-EU programme aimed at seeking mass support across Europe for undermining/bypassing the EU, I would not demur.  Yet the simultaneous support for EU institutions, particularly the EP, is intended to give the EU legitimacy it does not deserve.  Internationalism does not mean the liquidation of nations, but voluntary cooperation between them and also groups within those nations.  A simple point, but one that seems to have eluded those writing GP policy. 

I am equally unimpressed by the absence of explicit anti-capitalism, for me such is integral to Green politics.  Despite this important absence, policies like genuine decentralization and self-sufficiency would genuinely undermine the EU if implemented, but the fact the GP don’t either realise or accept this is unfortunate.  Though hardly accidental: one reason I define myself as Left/Green rather than just Green is the traditional far left understood only too well the necessity of confronting powerful interests, and mobilizing support to do so, within a strategic context that does not see the state (any state,including the EU) as a neutral instrument.  Which is where Lukacs and Lenin (or indeed Henri Weber’s famous interview with Nicos Poulantzas ) come in.  The point is not to disavow GP policy on the EU, but to keep the attractive bits and help them become reality.  Which will mean leaving the EU, using the momentum of that departure to galvanise sympathisers within the EU to make genuine decentralisation and confederation come about.

Given the above policy framework, it is little surprise that GP luminaries have lined up to support the EU.  Caroline Lucas makes the point that the Tory “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” .  I agree: but of course if/when we leave the EU we can tear up this treaty with a change of UK government, something we cannot do while staying in the EU.  She also makes the same point many Labour supporters do “exit would leave many of the things we hold dear—be it maternity pay, the right to join a trade union or providing refuge to those seeking sanctuary—in peril”.  Quite possibly: but only if you think a progressive government could never be elected in the UK, which is again unbridled pessimism.

A draft letter circulated by Caroline Lucas’ office to be sent to papers (19/2/16) is even more vacuous.  It says that “in a fast-changing world we need international rules to control big business and finance”.  Indeed: yet TTIP which the EU is covertly negotiating is all about big business and finance controlling governments.  Then there is the non-sequitur that “only by working with our European neighbours can we tackle climate change, protect wildlife and reduce pollution”.  Really?  What would stop an independent UK doing all this?  Nothing at all.  Then we have the canard that EU countries have agreed to “share sovereignty”—yet not only is such not possible, the GP policy above as we have seen involves ceding such.  How being in the EU helps the UK to meet the challenge of “international terrorism” is asserted, not explored.  After all, the US cooperates with the EU while not formally joined, and while indelicate, it has to be mentioned porous EU borders both externally and internally made it easy for ISIS murderers to travel to Paris from Belgium (and back in one case).   Is that not why France moved to suspend Schengen border arrangements? Or are we supposed to forget this?  The letter concludes by saying a “better EU is possible: where corporate influence is curtailed, where more power is held locally, and citizens have a real say”.  Yet this is not the content, or thrust, of GP policy: Lucas evidently hopes voters do not know this.  Understandable, but dishonest.

Amelia Womack, Green Deputy Leader, heading the Green Yes campaign, is equally unimpressive.  Claiming that “just as Caroline Lucas has been working to shake up and democratize parliament, the Green MEPs have been doing the same at the EU level” .  If the EP is democratized, how does that affect national parliaments?  No answer.  There is also the claim that as an internationalist party the GP believes in working with like-minded people.  Indeed, but why restrict this to the EU?  Then pessimism kicks in: “by exiting, we’d be facing a whole new raft of deregulation and slashing of…workers’ and environmental rights”.  Maybe: but this could be resisted locally, whereas very real proposals/policies to undermine those rights at the EU level cannot.  Speaking of TTIP, Womack is at her most dishonest, saying this “deal is signed at both European and state level—it’s down to our own Parliament to accept it, or not”.   The idea this would be voluntary is incredible: no way would the UK be allowed to ‘opt out’, Qualified Majority Voting would ineluctably apply.

Rather more honest is Green Left’s Mike Shaughnessy, who admitted that “probably the vast majority of the political left will campaign to remain in the EU…with the vague idea promoted by the more radical elements of changing the system from within.  It is not clear to me how this will be achieved, and I doubt it is really possible anyway, given the anti-democratic nature of the EU beast. ‘A People’s Europe’ is the slogan, but this is just a pipe dream at best, dishonest at worst”.  Couldn’t have put it better myself!  Shaughnessy will vote to stay because the No campaign is dominated by the Little England/nationalistic/racist tendency.  Which need not necessarily be the case.  He concludes by saying “in the end I’m going to go with my emotions….I am going to vote to remain, although I have to say, with not much enthusiasm for the EU of the corporates” .  These sentiments should, logically, lead him to vote no, but as he says, it’s an emotion thing.

What Lucas and Womack have to say on the other hand hardly convinces, interestingly neither spell out the full centralist thrust of GP policy, preferring instead to emphasise a supposed correspondence with some Green principles.  I prefer to stick with those principles, in their entirety, and follow Green/decentralist aspects of GP policy to their logical conclusion.  Exiting the EU.

Larry O'Hara is a Green Party member who lives in Suffolk, and is a Green Left supporter.


  1. If and when a left-green government achieves power in the UK, if the EU remains obsessed with corporate interests and shows no sign of increasing democracy, there is nothing to stop the new Govt from calling another referendum to exit the EU.

  2. I am a Labour member and will vote leave for all the reasons you have outlined and many more. I was surprised to see Caroline Lucas say, when asked about how reforming the EU might work, that we need to campaign to get left-wing governments in Europe which will then reform the EU. Much of her argument has been that the EU is an antidote to right-wing governments so doesn't make much sense to me. Also we need to talk more about the environmental impact of the EU in much broader terms. I don't see how it's been such a success story at all. What has happened to the courageous, radical left?

  3. I am a Labour member and will vote leave for all the reasons you have outlined and many more. I was surprised to see Caroline Lucas say, when asked about how reforming the EU might work, that we need to campaign to get left-wing governments in Europe which will then reform the EU. Much of her argument has been that the EU is an antidote to right-wing governments so doesn't make much sense to me. Also we need to talk more about the environmental impact of the EU in much broader terms. I don't see how it's been such a success story at all. What has happened to the courageous, radical left?

  4. Larry
    Be great to involve you (and others) more fully in the campaign that some of us are running against the GP official policy. Mark Hill convenor of Green-Leaves.org (Note we are an officially registered campaigner with Electoral Commission).