The EU referendum: should we stay or should we go and does it matter?

What passes for normal bourgeois politics has been put on hold for the past few weeks as the political class gets in a tizzy over the EU referendum which is now just two days away.  We’ve seen all sorts of claims, counterclaims, lies and deception and no end of acrimony as the Tories in particular revert to almost gang warfare. Then last week came the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, blamed on the wave of xenophobia unleashed by Brexit.

Seeing the ruling class going at each other hammer and tongs always raises a smile but beyond that does it really matter? Is there anything about the debate which should engage us?

The abstentionist view is the one usually associated with anarchists. We don’t, after all, advocate voting at elections so why should the referendum be different?  In or out the ruling class will win and Fortress Europe will remain. Unless we dismantle it on sums it up: “The referendum is only a choice between two slightly different kinds of capitalism. Everything is in place for the ruling class to keep their dominance whether voters choose to leave or remain. They will continue to exploit us and attempt to divide us whilst simultaneously destroying the planet.”

Or as someone with whom I’m friends on Facebook put it, as long as there will be slaughterhouses on the day after the referendum, that means it’s going to be a complete waste of time.

Nevertheless, this isn’t an election replacing one set of rulers by another. It’s a choice between Britain remaining within the EU or leaving. Anarchists don’t believe in countries and we want a world without borders but should it be acknowledged we aren’t going to get there overnight and instead be thinking about how to use our vote to push in that direction? Or is that simply a waste of time?

This isn’t the first time there’s been a referendum. There was one in 1975 so no-one under 50 will remember much about it. In contrast to now, nearly all the leave campaigners were on the left and from the Labour Party, politicians such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle.  The one exception was Enoch Powell, an ex-Tory and by then an Ulster Unionist, who was notorious for his racist views. I recall my mum – who was extremely right wing – saying she was afraid Britain would become a communist state if it voted to leave.

The majority in favour of remaining was two to one but as Labour drifted to the left, its Euroscepticism  hardened and in the 1983 election it campaigned to come out. Losing by a landslide, its opposition gradually softened, especially after the EU President Jacques Delors wooed trades unions with the Social Chapter: workers rights under a single market. By there time of Blair’s landslide in 1997 it was solidly pro-EU and it was the Tory Party’s turn to tear itself apart over greater European integration.

Those on the left who advocate remaining fall into two camps. First, the ones who’ve always been starry eyed about the EU and who see it as the guarantor of workers’ rights and social progress that domestic electoral politics cannot deliver. For instance, former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman says: “Because we’re in the EU, people have better rights at work. The EU guarantees those rights…made our governments pass laws to ensure employers give paid holiday, paid maternity leave, rights for part-timers. So long as we’re in the EU, no Tory government can try and take those rights away.”

What she’s in effect saying is that we need the EU to act as a bulwark against right wing governments. But what about left wing ones? There is an unspoken assumption that a truly leftwing Labour government won’t ever win power but suppose it did. Would it be able to implement its radical policies in the face of the capitalist elite in Brussels? Just look at what happened in Greece where Syriza tried to fight austerity but was made to capitulate to “the troika” – the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF.

Then there are the recent converts, those on the hard left who’ve long castigated the EU but have now miraculously switched sides. A year ago Guardian writer George Monbiot said “everything good about the EU is in retreat; everything bad is on the rampage” and said he may vote to leave. Now he says “The EU is a festering cesspool” but wants to remain because Brexit would entail swapping an a European alliance for an American one.

Another “radical” who’s had second thoughts is Owen Jones, darling of the Labour left. His conversion mirrors that of his hero Jeremy Corbyn, who advocated withdrawal from the EEC 40 years ago but is now campaigning – albeit somewhat reluctantly – to stay in the EU. A year ago Jones wrote “The left must put Britain’s EU withdrawal on the agenda” but now it appears Lexit – the leftwing answer to Brexit – is off the agenda once more.

Jones castigated the EU ruling class for its treatment of Greece and other austerity-stricken countries like Spain and Portugal and for the new Transatlantic Trade Investment Protocol (TTIP) which: “Threatens a race to the-bottom in environmental and other standards. Even more ominously, it would give large corporations the ability to sue elected governments to try to stop them introducing policies that supposedly hit their profit margins, whatever their democratic mandate.”

He’s quite correct about TTIP and the devastating impact it would have on ordinary people, animals and the environment. Its affect on leftwing governments would be similarly damaging. For example, Corbyn’s promised renationalisation of energy utilities and the railways would be challenged in the courts by corporations and almost certainly overthrown. But even in the face of this, Jones cannot bring himself to support the leave campaign.

In part this probably reflects on the nature of Lexit itself, under occupation by some of the most nauseating figures on the right including Johnson, Gove and Farage. How could any left-winger bring themselves to join such a motley crew of Little Englanders? The far right has taken over leave, using it as a vehicle for its anti-immigrant prejudices, and the whole debate has been skewed around racist and xenophobic tropes on one side and threats of impending economic doom on the other if Britain tries to go it alone.

But an alternative libertarian socialist/anarchist case for saying goodbye to Brussels can be made. You won’t hear it made often for reasons given above but it has been well articulated on the site by one Mal Content. He/she begins by saying “The fewer people rulers have to rule over the less power they wield, the more powerful we are. It makes sense therefore, to cut them down to size by always devolving power to the smallest administrative unit possible.”

The writer then goes on to give a number of reasons to anarexit the EU. Amongst them are:

  1. The ruling class squarely stands for remain – Cameron, Osbourne, the CBI, TUC, NATO, IMF. If they’re telling us to stay, it must be wrong. There’s even China, “a one party dictatorship which presides over sweatshops in which 70,000 die at work annually.”
  2. Workers can’t rely on the EU for protection. The rights of ordinary people are under attack due to deregulation and the TTIP. We have to organise and fight back against the bosses, like in France, not ask them for favours.
  3. Freedom of movement is an illusion. Britain never joined the Shengen Zone and “they won’t even let you on the channel ferry without a passport any more. Anarchists want a world without borders but Brussels is building Fortress Europe to stop  people from outside the 28 EU states from entering. Many of them are refugees fleeing war zones created by nations like Britain and France.
  4. “The EU is nothing more than a bourgeois cartel”. A vote to leave is an opportunity to attack not only that institution but the UK as well as Brexit would reopen the Scottish independence debate and even the north of Ireland might be reluctant to follow Britain if the latter decides to go it alone.
  5. “The EU can’t by any stretch be considered a buffer against fascism. Xenophobic parties, including Neo-Nazi ones, are represented in the EU parliament and the bourgeois state has used fascist parties to protect its interests when threatened by leftwing uprisings, e.g. in Italy in the 1920s.

These are pretty persuasive points but could they persuade me to go into a polling booth for the first time in my life and cast a ballot say au revoir? Before coming to that I’d like to look at the issue of animal rights. Does the EU do anything to protect animals from exploitation.

The answer depends on who you ask. Most of the mainstream, establishment  groups and charities such as the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming are for remain. These are groups who don’t believe in animal rights or liberation, only what they term “welfare” which is in fact exploiting animals but in a supposedly kinder way. They place their faith in Brussels to ameliorate some of the worst forms of animal abuse by regulation.

Animal Aid, which is an animal rights organisation, see things differently. It says: This is a very complex issue and, in short, we cannot make a confident judgement of the consequences.”  They raise the question of the Common Agricultural Policy, the mechanism by which Brussels subsidises farmers – especially the meat and dairy industries – to the tune of billions each year.  The affect on millions of animals is devastating. Animal Aid also says:

Because so many states and commercial vested interests are involved in the haggling process, new laws can take literally years, even decades, to emerge. And inevitably they get watered down, as did the recently introduced regulation on the welfare of egg-laying hens [Directive 1999/74/EC], which saw ambitions for a complete ban on battery cages reduced to mere tinkering with the design of the cages.

In other words, although the EU pays lip service to animal protection, inevitably it usually puts interest of profit and capital first.

Kent Against Live Exports say they are supporting the leave campaign. The reason for this is successive UK governments have said they cannot outlaw live animal exports due to EU free trade rules. The same goes for the importation of fur products into this country despite fur farming being banned here in 2002. However we have to be cautious in taking what politicians say at face value. Just because Brussels won’t allow certain forms of animal abuse to be banned doesn’t mean doesn’t mean UK governments will ban them. Too often the animal rights movement has been hoodwinked by the state.

One area animal abuse you won’t find mentioned much is vivisection. True the EU did ban cosmetics testing in 2013 but it’s also been responsible for a massive increase in animal testing due to its REACH law. REACH stands for  Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals and was introduced in 2007.

Companies are required to provide information about the health effects and environmental hazards of almost every chemical in use in Europe. The law demands the results of animal tests, and if companies don’t already have that, they are required to perform new ones. As a result, hundreds of thousands of animals are being used in painful and lethal tests with millions more expected to be used in the coming years. According to PETA: “REACH is the largest animal-testing programme in the world, and it’s happening right here, right now in Europe.”

Official reports show that by 2013, more than 800,000 animals had already been used in tests to meet its requirements. Those tests included painful skin and eye tests and acute toxicity tests in which animals were given massive doses of chemicals, leading to terrible suffering and death even though reliable non-animal methods exist for many of these tests. Mice, rats, guinea pigs, fish and rabbits have all been used.

The EU is no friend of animals. True it has provided some degree of environmental protection in the past but even that is now being downgraded in the name of deregulation, for example the soil directive. When TTIP is adopted this will only get worse. The only way to stand up for defenceless animals and to protect the planet isn’t by trusting politicians and bureaucrats at home or in Brussels. It’s by campaigning for human and animal liberation on the streets and in our communities.

And as for me, I have never voted once in my life. I have never been inside a polling station. On Thursday I might just go along to take part in the referendum. My natural inclination is to get out of the EU: one less set of bosses and bureaucrats. But of course as an anarchist I know this isn’t going to change the system or make capitalism less exploitative. The ruling class will still be in charge whether we stay or leave. Also I wouldn’t wish to associate myself with the racism and xenophobia of Brexit. So although there are allowed just “yes” or “no” as answers I will probably spoil my ballot paper in protest.


  1. Thanks for taking the trouble writing this. I know what you mean when you say nothing much will change whatever happens and I think spoiling a ballot paper is a good way of making a point because they’re looked at. I’m voting to come out because I’m one of those over-50’s who never wanted to be in in the first place. In or out, it’s unlikely to be good for animals. However, I feel the fewer fingers in the pie the better and we will have more control over out own affairs.

  2. Capitalism and its unending growth with total disregard to the depletion and destruction everywhere can only lead to the whole planet collapse. If we leave the EU and are forced to go back to smaller, we could have quite a crisis which would bring us back to the 1950’s or before and force us to think smaller and stop the ego trip (British Empire, etc), while Europe, having also a crisis because we left, might go through a similar story. Which might save the planet and everyone and everything on it as everyone would have to revise their ideas and think for the first time. Nobody seems to be interested so far by my ideas. You are the first that might just…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.