One of the key arguments used by those advocating Brexit from a left wing viewpoint is that the EU is institutionally bound to thwart the policies of democratically elected socialist governments. The example of Greece is often cited to underline the irreformably neoliberal character of the EU’s institutions and policies.
But is this inevitably the case? An illuminating new report by Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright examines the experience of Portugal and reaches a very different conclusion.
Portugal’s socialist government- an alliance of the Socialists, Communists and Left Bloc - has had major success in delivering a radical anti-austerity manifesto while retaining EU membership. Elected in 2015, it united the country around a positive alternative to austerity and inequality and stood up for these policies within the EU.
Privatisations were reversed. The minimum wage was raised 20%. Axed public holidays were reinstated. Pensions were unfrozen. Collective bargaining for public sector workers was reinstated. Taxes imposed on labour income, pensions and restaurant meals were cut. Foreclosures on long-term vulnerable tenants were ended. The economy, which had contracted severely under the austerity regime, began to recover quickly.
The government’s success in reversing austerity hinged on a number of factors, most notably a climate of popular resistance to the previous government’s measures that maintained pressure for reform on the new coalition. Additionally, the post-Revolution constitution helped: on several occasions, in 2013 and 2014, the Constitutional Court intervened against austerity measures agreed by the parliament under pressure from the EU, because they violated fundamental constitutional rights.
Wainwright concludes: “The Portuguese experience illustrates how individual countries can work in a direction contrary to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties. Moreover, it also opens up the possibility of a longer-term strategy aimed at changing the EU treaties themselves, by creating a critical mass of national governments acting as Portugal has done to negotiate a minimal level of protection against austerity within the EU rules.”
In short, the more countries in the EU that have left wing governments, the greater the potential for resisting the neoliberal orthodoxy.
The implications for Labour are clear: continue to lead the broadest anti-austerity movement, win a large mandate for a fundamental change of course and be ready to take the battle into the EU itself to help create what Jeremy Corbyn has called an “anti-austerity Europe”.
Writing in the Introduction, Clive Lewis MP comments: “‘In and against’ is such a powerful idea: one can be loyal, even faithful to the project, while trenchantly critical of its shortcomings. It’s how many of us felt about the Labour Party for the first part of this century, and the change in that institution is testament to how creative and transformative this position can be.”
He concludes: “You do the EU no favours by ignoring its faults, but it is not a fixed entity, and what look to be its longterm strategic goals are subject, always, to the will of its members. It can only realise the ambitions of its founders, of peace, reconciliation, solidarity and broadly distributed prosperity, if its component nations are fighting for those ends.”