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Socialist Internationalism Against the European Union

by Neil Davidson on October 10, 2019

Those on the left generally take one of four attitudes toward the European Union (EU).1 These are, of course, rarely found in absolutely pure form and there is inevitably some overlap.2 The first, which was central to the Remain vote in the United Kingdom, sees the EU as a largely beneficent organization (“although of course it is not perfect”), which exists primarily to prevent war in Europe, protect the environment, ensure workers’ rights, counter U.S. influence, facilitate free movement, and resist the populist far right.3 When anti-Brexit demonstrators hold up banners proclaiming “We Love EU,” it is this imaginary institution that they have in mind, not the actually existing EU.

The second attitude is narrower, almost entirely fixated on the rise of the populist far right, which in the United Kingdom was partly responsible for calling the referendum on EU membership in the first place and which has grown as a result of the ensuing political chaos. In this perspective, Brexit is purely a project of the right, premised on antimigrant racism, and should be opposed on those grounds alone—the actual nature of the EU is almost irrelevant. Indeed, some proponents of this position are critical of the role the EU plays for European capital and argue that, if Brexit had been on the left’s terms, the dismantling of the EU would have been on the agenda.4 But given the absence of the left, we must adopt a lesser evil approach in the face of the imminent threat of fascism.

In response to these attitudes, it is worth asking why far-right parties—the majority of which are not in fact fascist—have arisen across the EU, including in the supposedly social democratic wonderlands of Sweden and Denmark. What both positions ignore, of course, is the symbiotic relationship between the embedded social neoliberalism of the EU (and the governments of the member states) and the rise of the populist far right, particularly the way in which the social conditions created by the former are a breeding ground for the latter. Remaining or rejoining the EU would not in itself alter these conditions and would simply further enable the far right to justify its betrayal.

The third and by far most widely held attitude is more realistic than either of these. It starts precisely from an understanding of the way in which the EU has helped sustain the neoliberal order and, in some cases, even acknowledges the democratic deficit within its institutions. Often, the focus of critique is not the EU itself, but the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the euro, the establishment of which is seen as a disastrous wrong turn in a hitherto commendable internationalist project. Nevertheless, the political conclusions drawn, although varying in their radicalism, all tend toward a remain and reform agenda that, at most, would involve withdrawal from and perhaps even the dissolution of the EMU.5 Possibly the most powerful statement regarding this position has been given by former Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, whose autobiographical account of how Greece was subjected to an austerity regime of unparalleled savagery by EU institutions, above all the European Central Bank, nevertheless concludes with a plea for “constructive disobedience” within the EU.6

The fourth and least common attitude overlaps in many respects with the third, particularly in relation to the EMU. It is, however, far more pessimistic about the possibility of reform in a left-wing direction. Consequently, adherents argue that radical governments must be prepared to leave the EMU and even the EU itself as a prelude to the establishment of new alliances based on a radical, democratic alternative to begin the transition to socialism.7

The latest addition to this small body of literature is The Left Case Against the EU by Costas Lapavitsas. Like Varoufakis, Lapavitsas is Greek and represented Syriza in the Hellenic Parliament between January and August 2015 before leaving to form Popular Unity in disgust at his former party’s capitulation to the troika—the consortium of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund. Unlike Varoufakis, however, he has no illusions in reforming the EU and demonstrates this with reference to the qualified majority voting procedures within the European Council, the body charged with outlining the EU’s overall direction and tasks.8 Lapavitsas has also studied and worked in the United Kingdom for nearly thirty years, and is currently Professor of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In other words, he has firsthand experience of the states occupying wildly contrasting positions within the EU. Despite Greece being subjected to extreme suffering at the hands of EU institutions, the majority of politicians and—more to the point—people still want their country to remain a member. The United Kingdom, in contrast, has been allowed exceptional levels of indulgence, involving a number of opt-outs and special arrangements, but nevertheless contains a (small) majority who voted to leave. Yet, as Lapavitsas writes, although the EU is unable to treat a powerful (but noncore) state like the United Kingdom in the same way as Greece, the negotiations over Brexit have nevertheless been “instructive”: “The EU has assumed an implacable attitude, particularly with regard to the power of the ECJ [European Court of Justice] and the power of the acquis communautaire [the body of EU law].”9

His earlier cowritten book, Against the Troika, was more focused on the eurozone, although it raised the possibility of left-led member states “tak[ing] the path of confrontational exit” that required “political legitimacy and active popular support, if it is to be handled successfully by a government of the left.” However, the book also contained a warning: “Note that a confrontational exit could also be managed by a nationalist and authoritarian government, but this would be disastrous for working people because it would involve taking oppressive political measures, and it would probably shift the bulk of the costs on wage labour and the middle class.”10 Some of the new book repeats arguments from this earlier work, but now, in the aftermath of the Greek debacle, his critiques of left responses to the EU are sharper.

The book begins with a brief chapter setting out the problems associated with the positions held by a majority of the left, in which Lapavitsas makes a central point: “The EU and EMU are not a neutral set of governing bodies, institutions, and practices that could potentially serve any socio-political forces, parties, or governments, with any political agenda, depending on their relative strength. Rather, they are structured in the interests of capital and against labour.”11 The second chapter summarizes the development of the EU and its predecessors. Like earlier authors such as Perry Anderson and Wolfgang Streeck, he sees the current incarnation of the EU as approximating the model of interstate federalism drawn up by Friedrich von Hayek in 1939—not because it has been consciously modeled on his work, but because of the structures that have grown up with the EU are intended to have the same effect. On the one hand, there are rules, which forbid certain economic strategies and make others mandatory (except, of course, for the most powerful core member states like Germany and France) in order to prevent politicians from deviating from the neoliberal path for electoral reasons. On the other hand, there are institutions, the most democratic of which (the Parliament) have the least power and the most powerful of which (the Council, the Commission, the Court of Justice, and the Central Bank) are not democratic at all, meaning that decision-making is unconstrained by the need to pander to electorates.12

The main focus of the book is, however, more recent developments and, in particular, three main themes, each with a dedicated chapter of their own: the ascendancy of Germany, replacing France as the hegemonic power, increasingly through the neoliberal era, but especially since reunification; the way in which the EU used the specific form taken by the financial crisis of 2007–09 (the Eurozone Crisis of 2010) to impose an intensified form of neoliberalism, especially on the periphery; and the fate of one of those peripheral countries, namely Greece, used as an example of what would befall “delinquent” member states that failed to behave in a so-called disciplined and efficient manner.

These chapters are perhaps the most concentrated and clearly written expression of the left-wing anti-EU position currently available, but in the final chapter, where Lapavitsas sets out his perspective on what the left needs to do, even those in broad agreement with his position (like the present reviewer) might begin to feel a certain uneasiness. Lapavitsas has made a powerful case against left illusions either in the existing EU or some putative reformed version, but he undermines it with some of his concluding arguments.

One of these concerns the attitude that any left government would have to take to the EU if it is seriously committed to implementing its program in a way that Syriza was not. The problem here is not that Lapavitsas fails to call for the immediate revolutionary overthrow of global capitalism, or even just the Greek variety. He quite rightly dismisses the position taken by the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which rendered it “irrelevant”:

The party failed entirely to propose a political program that would confront the key class questions of the crisis, that is, the debt and the Euro. Instead it sought refuge in ultra-leftism, largely implying that the Greek crisis could be dealt with only by overturning capitalism, a step that would naturally take the country out of the EU and the EMU. The party was quick to add, however, that leaving the EMU, or even the EU, without “popular power” would be disastrous for Greece.13

The rhetoric of the KKE was simply a way of avoiding any actual engagement in the here and now. Clearly, any serious strategy would have to involve a series of measures to give strength and confidence to the working class and the oppressed while preparing for a showdown that might be some way off—a real transitional program, in other words. The problem is rather with the components of such a program that Lapavitsas sets out:

Faced with EU hostility…the Left should reject the single market and its institutional and legal framework. It should argue in favour of controls on the movement of goods, services, capital, and people, in the absence of which it would be impossible to apply a radical programme in the direction of socialism.

For Lapavitsas, this will inevitably lead to a break with the EU and the possibility of “re-establishing national jurisdiction” and “recoup[ing] popular and national sovereignty.”14 Why the concern with “national sovereignty”?

For the plebeian classes of Europe, sovereignty has never been anathema. On the contrary, it is understood as the power to make and apply laws, to design and implement social and economic policy, and to elect and hold to account those who administer those laws and policies. For workers and the poor, sovereignty has a popular dimension representing the right to be consulted but also to refuse government policies. Popular sovereignty goes directly against the fetishism of the economy as a technocratic entity, while also protecting a cultural and political community from the will of another.15

Lapavitsas is not alone in emphasizing the need for a return to national sovereignty.16 My difficulty with these arguments is not—in his case, anyway—because I suspect that they involve consciously collapsing into a left nationalist position, or worse, a version of socialism in one country. On the contrary, Lapavitsas is quite clear in his concluding passages that “exiting the EU need not necessarily be a nationalist step.… On the contrary, it could signal the emergence a radical internationalism that would draw on domestic strength and reject the dysfunctional and hegemonic structures of the EU.”17 But by making immigration controls (“putting an end to free movement”) part of the restoration of sovereignty, it has effectively conceded and thereby legitimized part of the right-wing argument that migrants are the problem. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has done this in the United Kingdom and it was a disastrous mistake for, quite apart from any moral considerations, the right will always be able to outbid the left on this issue.

The left should certainly reject the EU’s four freedoms (of capital, services, goods, and labor), not by rejecting freedom of movement altogether, but by widening it to encompass everyone who wishes to move and then arguing for this internationalist position among the working class. One of the problems of the British radical left is that it was not large enough to do so in a way that could have made the Leave vote expressive of a socialist perspective. Unfortunately, Lapavitsas simply claims that antimigrant racism was not a key driver behind Brexit:

There is no doubt that the working class and the plebeian strata have generally tended to support Brexit. The vote to Leave became a vote against the dominant wing of the British historical bloc, which had clearly expressed its preference for Remain. It was a vote by proxy against austerity, poor jobs and the decline in welfare provision, particularly since the great crisis of 2007–9. Moreover, far from representing a surrender to racism, rabid nationalism, and right-wing authoritarianism, the referendum facilitated the radicalization of British politics in an unexpected way. The Conservative Party barely won the general election of 2017, and the real victor was a revived Labour Party, with a manifesto based on a social democratic programme opposing austerity and even calling for nationalization of the railways and other resources.18

However, as Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson have shown, the majority of Leave voters were not “the working class and plebeian strata,” but middle-class people living in the south of England outside of London. Many of these voters cited migration as a reason, even though the areas involved had relatively few migrants compared to the actual working-class urban areas that largely voted Remain, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Glasgow.19 In other words, there are two issues here that Lapavitsas avoids confronting and that make the situation highly complex. One is that many—certainly not all—Leave voters did do so for racist, antimigrant reasons, although the majority were not members of the working class. The other is that this unfortunately also means that at least a section of Remain voters who are working class have illusions in the EU. Any serious strategy for the left has to begin by recognizing these problems as a precondition for addressing them.

The final criticism I wish to make concerns the expectations Lapavitsas has of the nation-state itself. It is true that, even after forty years of neoliberalism and ten years of resurgent right-wing populism, virtually any European state is more democratic than the EU, partly because the latter is not (and never will be) a state, but mainly because of the structural impediments to democracy that Lapavitsas explains so clearly. Nevertheless, the classical Marxist argument about capitalist states is that there are very definite limits to how far they can be used to undermine the capitalist mode of production itself, regardless of how radical any one government may be. Seeking to leave the EU and implement left social democratic reforms, let alone beginning the transition to socialism, would almost immediately find itself blocked by the state apparatus—another reason why national sovereignty is largely illusionary, so long as the sovereignty of the bourgeois state is unimpeded. In any event, a break with capital could not be successfully attempted in a single state, or even several acting serially. Pierre Dardot and Christian Lavall argue that what is required is “an international democratic bloc”:

Not a cartel of parties, like the Left Front in France or Syriza in Greece—forms that have revealed their limits—but a bloc composed of all political forces plus trade union, community, ecological, scholarly and cultural organisations.… The international dimension would not be subsequently added to the national struggle, but would be co-extensive with it. The second lesson to be drawn from Alex Tsipras’s capitulation is precisely that we must beware the illusion that a national electoral victory, even one derived from massive social mobilizations, is enough to change the situation. Once again, the weakness of that government was that it let itself be trapped in a face-off with the Eurocratic oligarchy, without seeking to construct a balance of forces at a continental level.

As these authors insist, it will be necessary to counterpose Europe to the EU:

No left-wing government in one country can break out of the monetary and normative iron corset on its own. It can create and widen rifts, lead the way—but it will soon require the support of other governments and the backing of social movements in other countries. The point is therefore to construct the conditions for such solidarity now, rather than cultivate the illusion of a return to national sovereignty.20

For me, these arguments complete those of Lapavitsas and point to a way of overcoming some of the weaknesses in his conclusions. In spite of these, his work is a major contribution to the literature of the anti-EU left, the central chapters of which set out with compelling clarity the realities of the European project.


  1.  In order to avoid littering the text with initials and acronyms, I will refer to the EU throughout, although I am obviously aware that it has gone through several incarnations and name changes.
  2.  By the left, I am excluding centrists who admire the EU precisely because it embodies social neoliberalism; see, for example, Mark Leonard, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (London: Fourth Estate, 2005).
  3.  See, for example, Will Hutton, The World We’re In (London: Little, Brown, 2002), 237–351.
  4.  See, for example, Neil Faulkner with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right (London: Public Reading Rooms, 2017), 16.
  5.  For a selection, see: Ulrich Beck, German Europe (Cambridge: Polity, 2013); Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson, Europe Isn’t Working (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Susan George, We the Peoples of Europe (London: Pluto, 2008); and Claus Offe, Europe Entrapped (Cambridge: Polity, 2015).
  6.  Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (London: Bodley Head, 2017), 485.
  7.  See, for example, Guglielmo Carchedi, For Another Europe: A Close Analysis of European Economic Integration (London: Verso, 2001).
  8.  Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), 121–22.
  9.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 139.
  10.  Heiner Flassbeck and Costas Lapavitsas, Against the Troika: Crisis in the Eurozone (London: Verso, 2015), 80, 81. Interestingly, the preface to this book was written by Paul Mason before his retreat to the Remain and Reform position.
  11.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 11.
  12.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 14–19. See also the discussions in Perry Anderson, “Origins” and “Outcomes,” in The New Old World (London: Verso, 2009), 30–32, 64–66, and in Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), 97–103. For Hayek’s original position, see Fredrick von Hayek, “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism,” New Commonwealth Quarterly 5, no. 2 (1939).
  13.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 106.
  14.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 137.
  15.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 130.
  16.  See, for example, Streeck, Buying Time, 177–81, 185–89.
  17.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 140.
  18.  Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against, 139.
  19.  Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire (London: Biteback, 2019), 28–35. There are some problems with Dorling and Tomlinson’s categories of social class, notably the C1 occupational category that they treat as “lower middle class,” but which (in Marxist terms anyway) is part of the working class. However, this is not significant enough numerically to undermine their overall assessment.
  20.  Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy (London: Verso, 2019), 166–67.

This post was first published in Monthly Review, Volume 71, Number 5 (2019) and carried a rejoinder from Costas Lapavitsas, ‘Learning from Brexit: A Socialist Stance Toward the European Union’, which is also available HERE.

Neil Davidson
Neil Davidson was for over two decades a career civil servant with the Scottish Government and its predecessors; he now lectures in Sociology with the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000); Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003), for which he received the Deutscher Memorial Prize and the Fletcher of Saltoun Award; How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012); Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014); and We Cannot Escape History (2015). Neil is a supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign and a signatory to the Scottish Left Project.
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