It is truly lamentable that socialist arguments for the UK to remain in the EU cannot be more optimistic. As I am about to expound upon, however, the problem with many left-wing arguments to leave is that they are often too optimistic, ignoring many of the awful realities that leaving the EU would entail.
It is completely valid to say that it is grassroots action, not EU bureaucracy, that afforded women in the UK the rights we have today. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 was the victory of the women that led the Dagenham Ford strike of 1968, not the Labour politicians who enshrined equal pay in their 1959 manifesto promises, nor the Trade Union Congress, which vowed to support the right to equal pay in 1965. The fact that the gender pay gap continues to persist today in spite of this legislation is testament to how little bureaucrats care for gender equality even now. As far as the EU is concerned, its supposed dedication to equal pay has not warranted any substantial progress either, a testimony to the fact that the EU is an organisation primarily concerned with furthering the agenda of the ruling class.
Austerity measures disproportionately affect women, as domestic violence services and childcare benefits are attacked alongside other public services that women are more likely to need. Does voting to leave the EU really offer a tangible alternative to austerity, though? Voting to remain in order to alleviate the possibility of a Boris Johnson government is ludicrous – Cameron is no less right-wing than Johnson, even if he is somewhat more tactful – but it is equally ludicrous to vote to leave in the hope that they can be overthrown as a result. The Tories are already rapidly losing public support, and it is extremely unlikely that the government could collapse immediately as a result of a majority vote in favour of leaving the EU. If the dispute over the NHS has not compelled Hunt to resign, and millions of protestors against the Iraq War could not force Blair to do the same, why would a majority in favour of ‘leave’ push Cameron that far?
In addition, when we are told that Corbyn would be unable to nationalise the railways under the EU, we are often presented with a glaringly incomplete analysis. The argument is valid to an extent – it is true that EU laws are supposed to prohibit ‘public monopolies’ – but it is important to note that nationalisation has been possible throughout the EU anyway. While the NHS is currently under attack in the UK, a public monopoly on healthcare continues to exist in the EU states of Denmark and Sweden, which provide education completely free of charge as well. Corbyn wishes to renationalise the railways – how could the EU stop him, when it has failed to stop France, Italy, and Spain? In Sweden, full nationalisation of the banking sector has been hotly debated since its partial nationalisation in 2009, and in Germany, talks about the nationalisation of energy are still ongoing. It is perfectly fair to say that what we, as socialists, ultimately want is for an end to any EU prohibition of public monopolies, but if other EU states have done it, then there is hope for reform. In the meantime, nationalisation is possible within the EU, and EU legislation presents no truly tangible obstacles for Corbyn in this regard.
Thus far, I have only discussed why voting to remain in the EU is the lesser of two evils. The most important facet of this debate to me, however, is the argument that, in spite of its long list of flaws, the EU’s freedom of movement policy is something that can only be celebrated. As socialists, we must advocate the prohibition of restrictions on the right to move, live and work on the basis of nationality. Freedom of movement within the EU is an extremely important step towards a world in which all national borders are dissolved, in which people have the right to live as citizens of the world, not of nations. If we leave the EU, what will become of EU and non-EU migrants living in the UK? Tories in support of the vote to leave want to limit the rights of EU migrants even further, and to use the excuse of no longer being subject to EU policy to withdraw even further from the duty to aid Syrian refugees. In the UK today, countless women of colour are held in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis on account of their citizenship. The EU may be an organisation which exists primarily to further the interests of the ruling class, but we cannot allow this to blind us from the fact that leaving the EU would devastate working class women from other countries. The erection of borders is an act of violence, and while left-wing arguments to leave the EU may not come from a place of xenophobia, we cannot believe those who say that leaving the EU is somehow more internationalist than remaining.
Having listed some of its facets above, I sincerely believe that there is a strong critique to be made of the EU from a socialist feminist perspective. However, I do not believe that critiquing the EU should entail the desire to leave it, especially when one takes into account the devastating effects that this would have on working class women living in the UK, especially women of colour. Leaving the EU would not advance equality for people of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and so on – it would be an enormous step backwards.