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Analysis #23

The Folly of “Remain and Reform”:

Why the EU is Impervious to Change

Lee Jones

5 March 2019

Remainers offering a sop to Leavers have admitted the EU's imperfections but argued Britain can reform the EU from within. This claim is nonsense. The EU's constitutional structures deliberately make change virtually impossible, reflecting the pro-business agendas hardwired into the Union from its inception.

Ever since Britain’s EU referendum was called there has been a chorus of voices calling on the country to “remain and reform” (R&R) the EU from within. Prime Minister David Cameron was the first to try this, returning from Brussels with some meagre concessions that played no part in the subsequent referendum campaign. Since the vote to Leave, R&R arguments have come from two main groups. The first comprises those who saw little fault in the EU before 2016, and some who probably still don’t, and propose R&R as a sop to Leave voters as part of a campaign to stop Brexit. In the second camp are self-declared leftists, who urge Britain to stay and fight for a socialist EU. This includes commentators like Paul Mason, various lefty academics, and Yannis Varoufakis and his “DiEM 25” movement, which seeks to mobilise reformists across Europe.


This article dwells on this second set of arguments at greater length, because it is more important to correct errors of thinking on the left than to quibble with ardent Remainers. Moreover, leftist critics point out that the object of much “Lexit” criticism – the neoliberal capitalism that the EU entrenches – is transnational in scope and so seems to demand a transnational response, not a retreat into national politics. This point deserves a proper response.


Nonetheless, it is first worth highlighting what both R&R camps share in common.


First, they both fear democracy and the demos. Typical in this regard is a recent New Statesman article by Professor Jeremy Gilbert. He maintains that Leave won due to the mobilisation of “xenophobic” working-class voters, whose “reactionary position [is] rooted entirely in misinformation and prejudice” promoted by “the Daily Mail and The Sun”:

hardly anyone voted for Brexit because they are radical socialists who believe that the EU is an institutional obstacle to the implementation of socialism. Almost everyone who voted Leave did so because they believed a narrative coming from the extreme nationalist fraction of the British ruling class (who control the press), according to which the EU and immigration are the causes of austerity, rapid social change and the crisis of liberal democracy.[1]


The similarity to many non-leftist Remain arguments here is obvious: the working classes are simply idiotic dupes, fooled by nasty, right-wing elites. This attitude is mirrored by those like Mason and Varoufakis, who clearly believe they are re-running the 1930s, repeatedly warning that the only alternative to R&R is the triumph of reactionary nationalism and the return of fascism. Such “leftists” clearly hold in contempt the very working-class citizens that the left once regarded as the primary focus and agent in political life.


The second commonality is that many R&R enthusiasts have mocked Brexiteers in the UK government for apparently failing to come up with a viable Brexit in the two-and-a-half years since the referendum, yet none of them have presented any plan – viable or otherwise – for reforming the EU. Many have written lengthy, apparently learned articles about the follies of Brexit, but curiously they never quite get around to telling readers exactly how the EU can be changed. This is not due to a failure of imagination. It is because the EU cannot be reformed along socialist lines. Indeed, it is actually very hard to change the EU at all.

Changing the EU: Mission Impossible


The EU describes itself as being “based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is based on treaties”.[2] The most important of these are the Maastricht Treaty, which transformed the European Economic Community into the EU and entrenched neoliberal regulations across the continent, and the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s de facto constitution. These treaties would have to be changed in order to effect any fundamental transformation of the EU.


How can EU treaties be changed? The Lisbon Treaty sets out the incredibly tortuous procedure:

  1. A proposal must emerge from either a national government, the European Parliament, or the European Commission.

  2. The Council then discusses the proposal and passes it to the Council of Ministers, comprised of national heads of government.

  3. The Council of Ministers must then consult the European Parliament, the Commission, and (if the proposal touches on monetary matters) the European Central Bank.

  4. The Council of Ministers must vote on the proposal, with a simple majority required for it to progress further.

  5. For any proposals suggesting fundamental change, the President of the European Council must then convene a “Convention”. This must be comprised of representatives from national parliaments, national governments, the European parliament, and the Commission, but the President has total discretion as to how many of each are included.

  6. The Convention discusses the proposal and develops, by consensus, a draft treaty text.

  7. An intergovernmental conference convenes to discuss the text.

  8. If the text is approved, it must be ratified by member-states in accordance with domestic law, e.g. through national parliaments or referenda.[3]

The barriers to any serious change of the EU treaties are obviously formidable; indeed, they are practically insurmountable.

To begin with, a majority of EU member-state governments (i.e. at least 15) must first agree to the potential change. Therefore, for R&R to work in the way leftists suggest – for the EU to be reformed in a socialist direction – socialist governments would need to have been elected in 15 EU countries, and they would have had to develop a consensus on EU reform. The likelihood of this occurring is obviously close to zero. Thanks in part to the EU treaties, even moderate social democratic parties – let alone real socialist parties – have been eviscerated across the continent, and there has been a widespread lurch to the right and towards nationalist populism. Britain only bucks this trend thanks to two unique factors: the extraordinary quirk of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, and Brexit, which has pulled the rug from beneath the main right-wing challenger party, UKIP.


Even if we ride the unicorn into a fantastical future where 15 socialist governments are simultaneously elected across the EU, at step five the Council president has the power to rig proceedings against meaningful change. There is nothing to stop him or her stuffing the Convention with unelected bureaucrats from the Commission, or with the scarcely-elected Europhiles who dominate the European Parliament.


Furthermore, at step six, our imaginary socialist governments’ representatives will be further diluted by representatives of other EU governments that do not share their priorities, with whom they are supposed to reach “consensus”. Any serious reform programme – let alone radical objectives like turning the EU into an instrument of socialism – would be considerably diluted, if any consensus could be reached at all.


At step seven, the non-socialist EU member-states would enjoy a second opportunity to veto any change, while at step eight, so would the parliaments or populations of most EU countries, depending on their domestic rules on treaty ratification. The Irish constitution, for example, requires treaties on constitutional matters to be put to a referendum; accordingly, a country of 4.8 million people could veto changes desired by up to 468.7 million people (the combined population of the 15 largest EU member-states). R&R is therefore practically impossible.

A Feature, Not a Bug


This is not accidental; the EU is designed to work in this way. It is an expression of what Professor Stephen Gill has dubbed “economic constitutionalism”: the locking-in of certain ways of organising and governing the economy as “constitutional” principles that, like all constitutions, are deliberately hard to change.[4]


All polities have some kind of constitution, even if unwritten, which safeguards particular principles and processes considered extremely important – even sacred – to the public. The American constitution, for example, safeguards freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. The German “Basic Law” outlaws parties opposed to liberal democracy, essentially outlawing communism and fascism. The US constitution cannot be changed without the approval of two-thirds of the national senate or through a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures. Amending Germany’s basic law, imposed by the Allies and never subjected to a popular vote, also requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the national parliament, with the rights underlying the first 20 articles unchangeable even through that mechanism.


The EU has constitutionalised free-market principles. As we have heard repeatedly throughout the Brexit process, where “the integrity of the single market” has constantly been invoked to rebuff British proposals, its constitutional principles, enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, are the so-called “four freedoms”: a free market in goods, services, capital and labour. Unlike many constitutions, which enshrine the human rights of individuals, typically against the state, these are freedoms for capitalist enterprises to transact without restraint across the entire territory of the EU. Governments’ hands are tied; they cannot erect any barriers to capitalists’ freedoms without violating the EU’s de facto constitution (the treaties) and, if they do, they can expect legal action in their own domestic courts and, if necessary, the European Court of Justice, followed by enforcement actions, if necessary, by their own state apparatuses.


Like all constitutions, this pro-market constitution is designed to be difficult – near-impossible – to alter. By signing Maastricht and other treaties, EU member-states have deliberately tied their own hands. Governments that have embraced the neoliberal agenda can now point to EU law as the reason why they cannot change how the economy is governed. They have created what the German political economist Professor Wolfgang Streeck refers to as

a supra-state regime that regulates its participating nation-states… so that democracy is tamed by markets instead of markets by democracy… The purpose of the whole edifice… is to depoliticise the economy while at the same time de-democratising politics.[5]

Back to the Nation-State


This brings us back to the challenge set out by self-proclaimed leftist critics of Brexit. The EU’s neoliberal project – and the wider thrust of “globalisation” of which it forms part – is undeniably transnational in nature. Does it not therefore require more than a “national” response in the shape of Brexit? [6]


Ultimately, there is no denying that capitalism is transnational in nature and, therefore, cannot be defeated on a purely national basis. The record of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” is hardly something to be proud of; Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution failed the moment that it was unable to spread to the more developed countries of Western Europe.[7]


And yet, we ought to recall Marx and Engels’ insistence that the class struggle “is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”.[8] Notably they insisted on this even while simultaneously observing the globalisation of capital: some of the most evocative lines of the Communist Manifesto, after all, refer to the bourgeoisie chasing profits “over the entire surface of the globe” and battering down “all Chinese walls”.[9] Marx thus apparently realised that, although the capitalist economy was global, or becoming so, the scope for meaningful political action, capable of transforming capitalism, remained national.


Has this changed in the era of the EU? Unfortunately, no. The near-impossibility of changing the EU’s treaties indicates that EU politics is still fundamentally inter-national in nature. The European parliament’s role is minimal, as in EU governance more generally.[10] The EU’s structure is based around insulating transnational capital from the vagaries of democratic politics. The EU offers no political structures amenable to challenging transnational capital. The fact that it very occasionally acts to regulate things we find disagreeable, like chlorinated chicken or Facebook’s privacy settings, does not fundamentally alter this reality.


If the transnational political structures for challenging neoliberalism do not exist, that leaves us with only one option: a return to national structures, however imperfect these undoubtedly are. There is nothing inherently “reactionary” about this at all. In fact, the national scale is the only one where ordinary working people have managed to exercise any political influence whatsoever, through their own political parties. Indeed, it is for precisely this reason that the left traditionally prized the principles of popular sovereignty and national democracy. That most self-professed leftists now revile these things, seeing them only as tool of nationalists or even fascists, speaks to their profound confusion and their abandonment of fundamental left-wing principles.


None of this is to suggest that Brexit will automatically lead to the building of socialism.[11] This is precisely because of the ruination of the left’s social and political organisations, which allowed the Thatcher government and its successors to lock-in neoliberalism at the European level in the first place. But it is a recognition that, if we are ever to achieve socialism, we require an institutional context that is at the very least amenable to popular control. The EU does not provide this, and never will. The institutions of national democracy, whatever their many shortcomings, are infinitely more accessible and responsive to popular impulses.


This does not in the slightest imply an inward-looking retreat into “socialism in one country”. Building socialism in Britain would necessarily involve rediscovering genuine internationalism, as opposed to the phoney cosmopolitanism of the EU (see Analysis #8 - Phoney Cosmopolitanism versus Genuine Internationalism). In the EU, the only solidarity that exists is between national ruling elites, who develop policies in secret that they then impose on their own citizens, backed by the “moral support” or effective coercion of their peers and EU institutions and in the shadow of the EU’s ‘economic constitution’. This is the solidarity of the Holy Alliance, not the Communist International. The EU expresses no solidarity between peoples; indeed, as Streeck observes, the exact opposite is produced: EU structures set European peoples against one another.[12] Witness German workers bemoaning the “laziness” and “corruption” of their fellows in southern Europe whom they are forced to “bail out”, while the Greeks – facing mass unemployment, a collapse of their welfare state, and an epidemic of suicides under EU-mandated austerity – compare Angela Merkel to Hitler. Witness the rise of national populism in response to neoliberal economic constitutionalism, pitching European peoples against one another and prompting diplomatic clashes unprecedented in the post-war period. Witness the horrendous treatment of migrants desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean: the collapse of basic human decency.


We should not, therefore, confuse socialist internationalism with the EU. The EU is an internationalism of capitalist enterprises and their allies in state apparatuses. Genuine internationalism barely exists in Europe today; it has to be rebuilt, bottom-up, by working-class organisations and parties committed to a genuinely transformative agenda.


In short, R&R is not a serious socialist or democratic agenda, but a dangerous liberal fantasy, distracting from the real work of rebuilding social and political movements capable of challenging capitalist domination. Fighting neoliberal hegemony in Europe cannot be done using the very instruments of that hegemony. The fight must be taken to a more promising terrain. The only institutions still potentially open to popular control remain those of the nation-state. The task for socialists is not to waste their energies trying to harness a machine designed for completely neoliberal ends, but to re-energise the only institution through which they have ever exercised meaningful power: national parties, national parliaments, and national states – and international, class-based solidarity with one another. If the left does not seize the challenge of returning from the neoliberal-transnational to the democratic-national, there are plenty on the populist right who will do this instead, and they will certainly steer politics in a right-wing, nationalist direction. But there is nothing inevitable about this. It depends entirely on the choices that political leaders and activists make at this critical historical juncture. But make no mistake: if the left makes the wrong choice, and cleaves to the institutions of transnational capitalism, they will be lost for decades to come.



[1] Jeremy Gilbert, “Labour cannot ride the Brexit wave to socialism, it must fight the nationalist right”, New Statesman, 11 February 2019.

[2] European Union, “EU Treaties”, 4 June 2016.

[3] See Peadar ó Broin, “How To Change the EU Treaties: An Overview of the Revision Procedures under Treaty of Lisbon”, Centre for European Policy Studies brief 215/ October 2010. As ó Broin notes, a simplified process exists for basic changes, but this would be the process for more meaningful reforms.

[4] Stephen Gill, “European Governance and New Constitutionalism: Economic and Monetary Union and Alternatives to Disciplinary Neoliberalism in Europe”, New Political Economy 3(1), 1998.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Politics, 2nd edition (London: Verso, 2017), p. 116.

[6] See Gilbert, op cit.

[7] See Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017 (Winchester: Zero Books, 2017).

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ch.1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Christopher Bickerton, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (London: Pelican, 2016).

[11] This position is advanced by a few so-called “Lexiteers” and then caricatured by their opponents. See Gilbert, op cit., for an example of the latter.

[12] Streeck, Buying Time, ch. 4.

About the Author

Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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