The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a fervent critic of the European Union for the majority of his political career. He backed the No campaign of 1975 and has consistently opposed European integration throughout his backbench parliamentary career. Corbyn voted against ratifying both the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. He disobeyed the Labour Party whip and voted for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2011. This should not be entirely surprising because Corbyn describes himself as a democratic socialist and his political outlook seems to follow in the tradition of the Bennite left.
However, since becoming the Leader of the Opposition Corbyn has softened his stance and is campaigning, albeit half-heartedly in many respects, to remain in the European Union.
For Corbyn to campaign to remain in the European Union is a betrayal of his democratic socialist principles. This should be obvious given the authoritarian structures which govern the European Union but Britain’s continued membership also makes it impossible to fulfil the programme for which he was elected to lead the Labour Party on.
A key policy of Corbyn’s platform is renationalisation of the railways. Should a future British government attempt to nationalise the railways, European Union law would prevent it from proceeding. A 2012 Directive mandates the separation of track management from the management of railway services and opens up private companies to bid for track access. While it is true that the rules do not dictate that the railways must be fully privatised it makes it illegal for them to be fully nationalised as Corbyn wishes. The Directive is quite clear that private companies must be allowed to bid for the right to operate railway services.
Nationalisation of public utilities, notably electricity and gas owing to public outcry over high levels of fuel poverty, is another policy of Corbyn’s which cannot be fulfilled while Britain remains a member of the European Union. Competition laws laid down by Brussels prohibit public monopolies from exercising exclusive rights. If a British government were to pass legislation to bring the gas suppliers and the national grid into public ownership a private company could simply flag up their legal right to competition and the European Court of Justice would uphold it. It is unlikely that Britain could change European Union law on these matters. All previous British attempts to reform the European Union have been scuppered so nationalisation of public utilities will remain a pipedream.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), being negotiated by the European Union and the United States, may also open up the National Health Service to further privatisation, something which Corbyn and his supporters are undoubtedly against. Furthermore, the agreement could potentially stop any democratic socialist reforms in their tracks because multinational corporations would be able to sue national governments if any policies impinged on their profits. Corbyn has pledged to veto the agreement but that is a worthless pledge because trade deals are ratified by Qualified Majority Voting in the European Council. The only way for Britain to abrogate such a trade deal is to leave the European Union.
Workers’ rights are a cornerstone of Corbyn’s political programme and in the past he has repeatedly stressed how the European Union harms workers’ rights. For example, the policy of a worker’s right to strike goes against European Union law because ultimately courts have the power to decide if a strike can proceed rather than trade union members. Corbyn has not explained how he would implement this policy if Britain remains a member of the European Union.
Corbyn also promised to clamp down on tax avoidance which again is impossible while Britain remains in the European Union. The European Union is a single market with free movement of capital so it is perfectly legal for companies to move around and set-up in a tax jurisdiction that is more favourable to them. Any attempt to stop companies from doing this would be in direct contravention of European Union law. Indeed, the European Court of Justice has frequently overruled attempts by the governments of member states to clamp down on tax avoidance. Examples include the Cadbury Schweppes and Sandoz cases. Tax avoidance will remain a fact of life while Britain remains in the European Union and it is pointless for Corbyn to protest against it if he will not back Brexit.
Corbyn also has grand plans for alleged investment into public infrastructure projects financed by what has been dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing’. This is basically money printing by the Bank of England to fund various projects. Corbyn could fulfil this pledge as long as Britain retains the Pound Sterling. However, remaining in the European Union inevitably means having to join the Euro, perhaps by 2025, resulting in monetary policy being hived off to the European Central Bank. Without control over the currency, quantitative easing to fund any project is impossible.
So why in light of all this has Corbyn suddenly reversed his position on the European Union when it is clearly an obstacle to achieving his political goals?
It could be because the hard left who support him think that to oppose European integration is xenophobic, although that is unlikely because organisations such as TUSC and the RMT all favour Brexit.
A cynic might suggest that he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Neil Kinnock and land a well paid job in Brussels when his parliamentary career is over, although that seems rather out of character. A plausible explanation is that he fears a Blairite rebellion if he supports the Leave campaign.
However, I doubt such a rebellion would get anywhere because Corbyn has overwhelming grassroots support. Furthermore, we are in the middle of this parliament’s term so any fallout will have blown over by the next general election.
I suspect the real reason is that those who bankroll the Labour Party have threatened to withdraw their financial support should he back the Leave campaign.
The main donors to the Labour Party are public sector unions such as Unite the Union, UNISON and others who support the European Union. There are a multitude of reasons why they support the Remain campaign. Amongst them is labour protection legislation such as the working time directive which they fear could be threatened in the event of a Brexit. There is probably also amongst the public sector unions a subconscious recognition of affinity with a large and cumbersome bureaucracy.
If fear of upsetting some public sector unions is indeed the real reason why Corbyn does not back Brexit then it shows how he lacks political will and is therefore simply unsuitable to hold high office.
Corbyn should of course just call their bluff and support the Leave Campaign. If he did so the leftists would turn out in droves and vote to leave making Brexit a near certainty.
In the event of a Brexit the public sector unions would still support the Labour Party because they need a foothold in parliament to lobby and they are unlikely to find sympathetic supporters in the Conservative Party.
Corbyn is realistically in a position of enormous strength but does not have the courage to exercise it. It is probably too late now but Jeremy Corbyn really should come out and back Brexit.