Moving forward after the EU vote

On my way to work, I walk past a house where someone has put up in the window a hand-written sign about the referendum. It calls on us all to reject petty nationalism and regard ourselves as Europeans. Certainly, I’m very happy to reject the racism of Nigel Farage. I strongly suspect that if I met the poster’s author I’d get on better with them than with someone who had put a UKIP poster in their window. But immediately I saw the poster, I also felt wary of embracing “Europe” in the name of the fight against racism. For one thing, when I get to work most of my colleagues there are people of South Asian, African or Caribbean heritage. I’ve had the great privilege of discovering from them – as we chat about a family funeral in Nigeria or floods in Gujarat – a world much wider than Europe, which is the world that most people on the planet live in.

“Europe” is an odd and relatively recent notion. It’s plainly an arbitrary designation. Looking at the map, you see that Africa, Australia or the Americas are separated from other continents by the ocean. The western end of the Eurasian landmass is regarded as a continent in its own right, yet its eastern boundary consists of a cobbled-together mixture, as Wikipedia puts it, of “the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways of the Turkish Straits.”

Greek colonisation in the 8th century BCE
Greek colonisation in the 8th century BCE

From a historical perspective, we are often encouraged to see Greece as the heroic founders of European culture. It’s generally known that Athenian democracy was available only to an elite of citizens and excluded up to ninety per cent of the population. But it’s just as problematic to see ancient Greece as “European”. As early as the eighth century BCE, as shown in the map on the right, Greeks had emigrated to countries around the Mediterranean, including locations in what is now Italy, Turkey and even Ukraine. The key conflict of the fifth century was a series of wars between allied Greek city-states and Persia. Alexander the Great had established by the time of his death in 323 a series of territories which stretched as far as what is now Afghanistan, and which were later absorbed into the Roman Empire. In all this, Greece is at the Western end of a group of civilisations located between the eastern end of the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is not at the south-eastern corner of something called Europe.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE
The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE

If the Greeks weren’t Europeans, how about the Romans? On the one hand, a map of the Roman Empire at its height includes land which today forms Spain, France or England – on the other hand, Ireland, Scotland, much of Germany and all of Scandinavia are excluded. More importantly the Roman Empire was essentially based around the shores of the Mediterranean, including North Africa, what are now Palestine and Turkey, and stretching as far as the Persian Gulf.

Chaucer's intellectual world in the 14th century
Chaucer’s intellectual world in the 14th century

As late as the Middle Ages, then, for “Europeans” civilisation was essentially a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern affair. For example, in the fourteenth century Chaucer includes in his description of Canterbury pilgrims a learned physician: he lists all the authors this man has read. If you mark on a map where all these people come from, you see that, apart from two token Brits, it’s the shores of the Mediterranean – including the southern shore – and the Middle East. One of them is Ibn Rushd, known in Europe as Averroes, born in Córdoba in what is now Spain but what was then the Muslim territory of Al Andalus. Córdoba was at this point by far the largest and most developed city in what became Europe, with Muslims, Jews and Christians living together and sharing facilities such as street lighting and public baths. The library of al-Hakam II, the caliph from 961 to 976, was said to include some 400,000 volumes at a time when the library at the monastery of Ripoll in Catalonia held a comparatively miserable 192.

The state of affairs that had continued for two thousand years – that the countries of northern Europe were peripheral to the development of human civilisation – came to an end around the eighteenth century. Historians continue to debate how such a momentous change occurred. But there can be little doubt that the rise of Europe was a disaster for large numbers of people around the world. The enslavement of over twelve million African people was conducted at the instigation of European businesses, a business on the back of which Liverpool and Nantes, among others, grew into great cities. As Mike Davis records in his book Late Victorian Holocausts, famine in India led to the deaths of up to 29 million people between 1876 and 1902 – yet in 1877 over 17,000 tons of grain were exported from India to the UK. Not, of course, that European rulers killed only non-Europeans. Britain continued to export food from Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-52, in which around a million people died. The Nazis killed six million Jews and millions more people in an industrialised mass murder without parallel in history.

We have to bear all this in mind when we read the following, from the speech Michael Cashman gave yesterday, Saturday 2 July, at the end of the pro-Europe demo in London:

We need to uphold the values of democracy and inclusiveness which are at the heart of the EU and this country. We must not let rightwing, narrow-minded nationalism nor xenophobia define us. We are better than that. I honestly believe the disinformation in this campaign has undermined our democracy. Decent British values are also the values of the European Union.

Cashman’s attempt to conflate the struggle against racism with “decent British values” and European “democracy and inclusiveness” are completely unconvincing in the context of both history and the present. That’s true of Britain, where Prevent seeks to demonise Muslims, but also valid when you consider what the EU means in practice. Médecins Sans Frontières reported last month, for example, that 2,800 people have lost their lives in 2016 alone attempting to enter Fortress Europe via the Mediterranean, and that 50,000 people are stranded in Greece, 8,000 of them in camps with inadequate facilities. Three months ago, Turkish border guards, acting as the agents of the EU, were reported to be shooting dead Syrian refugees attempting to enter Turkey.

The involvement of Turkey in EU borders policy is part of a broader pattern. In 2013, for example, the Moroccan government signed an agreement with the EU which, according to the European Commission press release, was “designed to ensure that the movement of persons is managed as effectively as possible.” The deal allowed European visas to be issued more easily for certain Moroccan citizens, such as “students, researchers and business professionals”, while also paving the way for “an agreement for the return of irregular migrants.” The European ruling class is using its economic muscle to do deals which allow it to select the migrants it wants – the students and business professionals who it hopes will contribute to the profitability of European capitalism – while kicking out the people seeking to travel to Europe out of desperation to live better lives, and making neighbouring non-European countries into its proxies. The agreement reached in March between EU heads of state and the Turkish government also involves the EU’s leverage of its economic power – in exchange for Turkey acting as a proxy EU border guard, more European visas will become available to Turkish citizens. So, if we are to assert freedom of movement for migrants as well as capital, we must demand an end to borders – and we cannot do so while supporting the EU.

The identification of support for the EU with internationalism recalls a pattern which has developed in the last twenty years, that of the misuse of such goals as internationalism, democracy or the liberation of women in the name of the imperialist powers that be. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were promoted as “humanitarian” interventions that supported democracy. Back in 2001, American First Lady Laura Bush made a high-profile statement condemning the treatment of women in Afghanistan as part of the justification for war in that country. Fifteen years on, the gap between rhetoric and reality there is striking. But there is a similar gap between reality and rhetoric when it comes to the EU ruling class. These are the people, after all, who pushed neoliberalism to the point where Greek hospitals have lacked even cotton wool and paper towels. In that context, it’s startling to read  the rhetoric about relatively benign European rulers – that the TUC supports EU membership because “workplace rights [are] underpinned by EU law” or claims in the LGBT press that “the EU has transformed the lives of the LGBTI community.” Perhaps what’s most alarming in such claims is that they downplay what we’ve won through struggle – marching on Prides, for example, campaigning against Clause 28, building in trade union groups and, at a personal level, coming out at work and to family and friends – in favour of the assertion that we can rely on people committed to neoliberalism and imperialism to bring us liberation.

There is something, as it happens, distinctively European in this gap between rhetoric and reality: it  goes back in the culture of the European ruling class to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. There is much in the Enlightenment to admire – a belief in the possibility of changing and improving the world, the stress on the use of human reason, the rejection of such barbarities as the execution of witches and sodomites. These ideas found their political expression in events such as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. Yet, when Thomas Jefferson writes that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” the claim that all humans are of equal worth is not translated into reality. It does not apply to women, who did not have equal rights with men in the newly independent United States, and it did not apply to slaves, including those Jefferson himself owned.

This is not to reject the Enlightenment, but it is to say that there remains an ambiguity in its claims of universal freedom and equality – do they really apply to all, or only to elite, white males? – and that the debate remains open as to what those values mean in practice and how they can be truly realised. On the one hand, the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” is today mobilised as ideological support for a French state which forbids women with covered faces, mostly Muslims, from walking in the street (a racist prohibition which the EU did nothing to oppose). But a better understanding of the slogan appears in Robespierre’s response to French revolutionaries who worried that if they clarified whether the revolution had liberated slaves or not, France would lose its colonies – “Perish your colonies, if you are keeping them at that price.”

Finally, how does this broader context relate to the current situation? It means that we have to clearly distinguish ourselves from both the mainstream Leave and the mainstream Remain campaigns. The mainstream Leave campaign was racist, and the victory of the campaign it dominated has seen a five-fold increase since last Thursday in the levels of hate crimes. But standing up against racism, asserting a genuine internationalism, cannot mean standing with the EU ruling class, which is what the mainstream Remain campaign invites us to do. We need to recover the vision which existed in the anti-capitalist movement which regularly brought together workers and campaigners from across Europe to stage militant protests outside EU summits between 2000 and 2004, protests which made clear the need to link causes up from below and develop a vision, that “another world is possible”, which included issues from defending the environment to fighting racism.

One straightforward starting point is that we can build campaigns against racism and in support of migrants. We need a lively campaign, in the spirit of Rock against Racism, which not only opposes racism but makes a positive assertion of the value of a multicultural society that includes people from both Europe and all over the world. The pro-migrant protest in London the day after the referendum, and the coalition of groups that built it, could play a role in developing such a movement, which can bring together anti-racists whatever side they voted on.

A second point is that we need to discuss Europe more. The days following the referendum saw a banking crisis erupt in Italy. The Italian government’s desire to support banks saddled with bad debts came into conflict with EU rules forbidding such cash injections. By Thursday, the European Commission had retreated, allowing the Italian government to provide guarantees of up to €150 billion for its banks, plainly a colossal sum. I take it that the story reflects both the EU’s continuing attempts to limit intervention by state governments – in effect, Germany’s imposition of neoliberalism on Italy – and its eventual retreat from that stance. Or I could be mistaken. But what’s really striking is the almost complete failure of the British media to cover the story as it unfolded, in a week where the EU was making the headlines. British views on Europe on both sides of the Leave-Remain divide thus remain ill-informed and parochial.

Finally, what attitude do we take, not to those who led the Leave or Remain campaigns, but to those who voted either way, or supported those positions by going on demos like the one yesterday? The truth is that the radical left is small, and left campaigns had little traction on either side of the debate. Partly because of that, it feels as if we don’t have the information we’d need to analyse either group of voters – to what extent was the Leave vote a racist vote, to what extent an anti-elite vote, and to what extent a mixture of the two? to what extent was yesterday’s demo middle-class in composition – and is this really the key point, when anti-war demos in 2003 included plenty of middle-class folk with pious home-made placards? It seems to me, for example, that the meaning of the different votes varies from place to place. I live in London, where it can feel that almost all of the left voted Remain – but comrades who work or live elsewhere report that they saw a large, and non-racist, Leave vote.

The view of the EU and what you could call “European nationalism” that I’ve set out here led me to vote Leave last Thursday. I still think that was the best available option. I appreciate that other people, who share both my opposition to racism and my rejection of the EU ruling class, voted Remain or abstained, and of course they remain my comrades. We need to debate these issues, to struggle to make up for a decades-long failure to discuss the EU and what it actually means: fudging our genuine disagreements will get us nowhere. But it seems to me we can also agree, without fudging, on what we have to say to Leave and Remain voters. To Leave voters, we say, in effect, “if you voted as a protest against the neoliberal political class, we agree with you. But if you allow that protest to become mixed up with racism, you divide the opposition to the elites on ethnic lines and so make it easier for the powerful to continue to rule. Consistent opposition to the ruling class must involve consistent anti-racism.” To Remain voters, we say “if you voted as a protest against right-wing bigotry and racism, we agree with you. But if you allow that protest to get mixed up with an identification with the European ruling class, you’re siding with neoliberal forces that maintain a racist fortress Europe, and promote an austerity which forms the context for the growth of racism across the EU. Consistent anti-racism must involve consistent opposition to the ruling class.”

It seems to me that this is a principled basis both for activity – for beginning to build the anti-racist and pro-migrant movement we need, but also for socialists to come together around opposition to both racism and neoliberalism. The referendum divided us, by its nature, into two opposing camps, often bitterly hurling at each other the accusation that our opponents were siding with revolting forces. With much of the world’s ruling class in one camp, and UKIP and fascists in the other, there was a grain of truth in the claim on both sides. But only a grain of truth – what’s more worrying is that the left as a whole failed in the referendum to take the debate to a higher level than mutual accusations. Having those debates, as we campaign alongside voters whether they voted Leave or Remain, is the task before us now.