By Ellen Clifford writing in a personal capacity
The majority of the DPAC steering group believes disabled people should vote to stay in the European Union.
Today we publish two pieces. The first, below, outlines a ‘no’ vote perspective, the other HERE outlines why it should be a ‘yes’ vote to stay in EU on the 23rd June.
No to the EU
With the EU referendum looming in June this year a number of articles have been published debating the left case for a no vote on the EU (1). Here I will seek to summarise some of the key left case arguments as well to as to address the question from a disability perspective. I believe the conclusion drawn by a range of anti-austerity campaigners that the capitalist monolith of the EU cannot be reformed and must be opposed, is equally applicable to Disabled people fighting oppression and the impact of austerity cuts. John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want writes: “a vote to remain in the EU is automatically a vote for the continuation of austerity and neoliberal capitalist rule” (2).
One point to make from the outset is that breaking with the EU would not impact on the ability of Disabled people in Britain to use the European Convention on Human Rights. At some stage the Tories may try to take Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and that is a fight we must be prepared for. However, it is a question that is separate from the membership of the EU.
Austerity and Neoliberalism
As an internationalist, the idea of a no vote on membership of the European Union can at first instinct feel wrong, but a no vote to the EU is not the same as turning away from Disabled people in the member states of the EU. Indeed a no vote is very much in solidarity with Disabled people who have born the brunt of austerity measures imposed on them by the EU in countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Since 2008 spending on disability services in the Irish Republic has been cut by 10% (3) with major cuts in disability-related services also occurring in Greece, Portugal and Spain (4). Bail outs given to Greece came in return for the imposition of austerity on a colossal scale. Health spending was capped at 6% with a quarter of the budget cut over just two years. In Achaia province two thirds of those prescribed drugs said they could not afford to buy them. Major depression more than doubled and suicide attempts grew by a third and yet mental health services were cut to the bone. It is estimated that the number of stillborn babies grew by 21% (5).
There can be no doubting the pressure brought to bear by the EU in imposing it neoliberal agenda. The “Fiscal Contract” signed by most EU member states in March 2012 obliges signatories to change their constitution to ensure balanced budgets under the supervision of the European Commission, an unelected EU body that acts unashamedly in the interests of big business at the expense of social or environmental rights. When the European Central Bank cut off emergency funding to Greek banks, effectively shutting them down and bringing the Greek economy to a halt, the Syriza government felt it had no option but to capitulate to the EU and sign up to a bail out package demanding austerity and privatisation. The EU thus forced through an agreement that over rode the democratic will of the Greek people who had voted against austerity. Just as the Tories have been using the financial crisis to take forward their own ideological agenda, so have EU institutions involved in the Troika (6) been using the debt crisis to impose “structural adjustment programmes” across Europe with the aim of clearing the way for multinational countries to come in and seize public assets.
Anti-austerity campaigners in Europe are clear about the role the EU plays in enforcing austerity, while nevertheless resisting its implementation by their own nation states. It is in the interests of international solidarity and resistance beyond borders to stand with our anti-austerity allies across Europe in saying ‘No’ to the EU.
A no vote also stands in solidarity with Disabled people from outside the current borders of the EU. Those borders, enforced by the EU joint border control taskforce Frontex, leave them with no escape from the poverty, wars and terrors created by Western imperialism. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented how, whenever human rights clash with the policies of racist exclusion, the EU will always prioritise the latter (7). The creation of “Fortress Europe” has seen unprecedented cooperation between countries in and just outside of the EU. A HRW report explained how in 2009 Italy began forcing migrants from Libya to return there where they would be detained by the authorities. In exchange Italy offered Libya $5 billion over 25 years in infrastructural investment. HRW collected harrowing accounts from migrants held in the detention centres including torture and rape. The EU’s response was to give Libya a further $80 million to build detention centres and strengthen its southern frontier.
Taking a principled stance in opposition to the EU does NOT mean agreeing with or supporting the nationalist, racist arguments of the likes of UKIP, while a yes position also means voting the same way as political undesirables such as Cameron (whose ‘bunch of migrants’ comment marks him as much a vicious racist as UKIP’s Nigel Farage) and Osborne.
The Disintegration of Social Europe
It is very much in the interests of British capital to stay in the EU while pushing ahead regardless with plans to curtail human rights in the UK through the introduction of a British Bill of Rights in place of the Human Rights Act. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) backs continued membership of the European Union (8) – they also dedicate a section of their website to defending the governments Work Programme from which many of its own members extract profits and Maximus UK’s managing director Chris Blackwell is ‘an active member of the CBI and regularly speaks at major events’ (9).
Those in favour of staying in the EU often cite the reforms that came in through the social chapter of the Maastricht agreement in 1992 including parental leave and working hour directives. However the idea that the EU continues to offer some kind of “social Europe” to protect against the ravages of neoliberalism is a myth. The European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said in a 2012 interview that “The European social model has already gone”. Recent years have shown the EU repeatedly undermining trade union rights in favour of business. Employment barrister John Hendy QC has written, “The EU has become a disaster for the collective rights of workers and their unions. It is essential that the international institutions of human rights law be upheld, it is yet more vital that working people and trade unions across Europe achieve the solidarity necessary to prevent the further depredations of the EU” (10).
How should Disabled people vote?
On the question of what is in the best interests of Disabled people in the UK, firstly it is a false division to treat the interests of Disabled people as an entirely separate entity from those of the rest of the 99%. Wider social issues such as workers’ rights and the racist myths used to justify ill treatment of migrants also impact on our lives and are important to us. Secondly the argument that Disabled people in the UK have too much to lose by leaving the EU is insufficiently convincing to justify voting in favour of an institution that acts so clearly in the interests of the 1%, that forces Disabled people to suffer under austerity to keep the bankers’ bonuses piling in and that condemns refugees (many of whom are Disabled or children) to drown in the sea.
With regards to the situation in the UK, where has the EU been in stopping the Tories from their relentless attacks on Disabled people? If we look across Europe we see routine treatment of Disabled people that would be considered unthinkable here, even now following the dramatic regression we have experienced since 2010. An expose by French newspaper Liberation in 2014 revealed the terrible conditions suffered by thousands of Disabled people sent to live in institutions in Belgium (11) while caged beds are still routinely used in areas of Europe (12).
Advances in disability equality and inclusion are not the result of EU policy, they are the product of struggle by Disabled people. Sweden, a country considered for a long time to be a world leader in independent living, did not join the EU until 1994. Demands made by STIL, the Stockholm Co-operative for Independent Living, set up in 1983 and inspired by the Independent Living Movement in California, forced the introduction of Direct Payments, using demonstrations and actions that gave them a “radical reputation” that they “exploited in our dealings with the authorities” (13). In Norway, which is not an EU member, disability benefits are a universal right, while in EU member states including Sweden these are increasingly limited. There is no automatic link between EU membership and higher standards of support and inclusion for Disabled people.
Key successes in the fight against Disabled people’s oppression have not been handed down from EU bodies but won by grassroots Disabled people and our allies. The independent living movement was formed by Disabled people breaking out of residential care; the social model of disability was developed by Disabled socialists; Atos was driven out of the contract running the WCA by Disabled campaigners.
Illusions in the EU are an obstacle to building the movement we need. The force to effect real change lies with the struggle from below and that will remain the case whether the UK is in or out of the EU. However losing the referendum would be a blow to Cameron’s government and the businesses that profit from our misery, and this can help our struggle break new ground.
Reasons to vote No to the EU:
* The EU is negotiating secret trade deals such as the Transatlantic and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US. TTIP threatens to introduce a new wave of privatisation in key sectors such as health and education. It also seeks to grant foreign investors the right to sue governments for loss of profits resulting from public policy decisions.
* The strict criteria of Economic and Monetary Union limits public sector expenditure and government borrowing. Euro member states now face fines if they fail to enact “implementation law” to cut spending deficits.
* The EU promotes zero hours contracts, casualisation and low pay as part of its structural adjustment programme.
* The EU promotes privatisation. Various EU directives, regulations, policies and the EMU criteria are forcing public services into the private sector. Large parts of the conditions to obtain further “bailout” loans are to sell off public sector institutions.
* The EU seeks to undermine trade union rights. The suspension of trade union collective bargaining is a strict condition of EU “bailouts” in Ireland, Portugal, Romania and Greece. A number of European Court of Justice rulings have found in favour of business over workers’ rights to defend themselves.
* The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy has allowed the development of armed drones, economic support for the arms trade and an armed European Gendarmarie Force (EGF).
* The EU is the antithesis of democracy. The EU government is the unelected and unaccountable European Commission which legislates and proposes policy to the Councils of Ministers. The European Parliament only has very limited powers of “co-decision” with the Commission.
War on Want: www.waronwant.org
Human Rights Watch: www.hrw.org
- Choonara, “The EU: A left case for exit”
- Slorach, “A Very Capitalist Condition: a history and politics of disability”
- The Journal, 15 September 2015. See http://www.thejournal.ie/vigil-dail-protest-anger-disability-2331523-Sep2015/?utm_source=shortlink.
- I B Portero, “Are there rights in a time of crisis?” Disability and Society, vol 27, no 4 (2012).
- J Choonara, “The EU: A Left Case For Exit” (available from bookmarksbookshop.co.uk)
- The Troika consists of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission and the European Central Bank, two of which are institutions of the EU.