What is the Single Market?

What is the Single Market?

corbyn and starmer

Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn

The announcement over the weekend from Keir Starmer has caused controversy over the position that Labour and the trade union movement should take towards Brexit, the Single Market and the European Union. This is a key question for the left – we are publishing this article from Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary of the Socialist Party, originally carried in the current issue of The Socialist newspaper. In this article Hannah spells out the socialist analysis of the EU and Brexit, and importantly the policies and programme that we think need to be fought for.


The Single Market: a neo-liberal tool of the bosses 

Fight for a socialist Brexit

Theresa May’s four-week holiday is drawing to a close. She is returning to an autumn of watching her party tear itself apart over the EU. Following her humiliating general election campaign she really is a ‘dead prime minister walking‘; powerless to be more than a passive bystander in the Tories’ civil war.

According to the capitalist media the only Brexit choices on offer are the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ visions offered by the two wings of the Tory Party. Unfortunately, many leaders of the workers’ movement, including the leadership of the TUC, also paint the issue in the same terms: supporting the ‘soft Brexit’ wing.

None of the variants of Brexit on offer from the Tory Party, however, are in the interests of working and middle class people.

Reactionaries

The right-wing nationalist ‘hard Brexiteers’ represent the view of a small minority of the British capitalist class, if even that. They are full of utopian dreams of a return to the days when Britain was the world’s biggest imperialist power, and of resentment at their nation’s inexorable decline.

Their growing dominance in the Tory party, exacerbated by the collapse of a section of Ukip into their ranks, means that the Tories can no longer be relied on by the capitalist class to act in their interests. The idea, however remote, that the ultra-reactionary toff and ‘MP for the eighteenth century’ Jacob Rees-Mogg could become leader of the Tory Party sums up the dire state it is in.

It is clear that the nationalist ‘little Englander’ Tories offer no way forward, but nor does the ‘George Osborne’ wing. It is criminal to suggest, as Polly Toynbee has in the pages of the Guardian, that we should be looking to the likes of Osborne, responsible as chancellor for inflicting the worst austerity since World War Two, for a Brexit in the interests of the majority.

Osborne and his ilk represent the view of the majority of the capitalist class in Britain, which would prefer no Brexit, and are fighting for as ‘soft’ a Brexit as possible.

They aim to remain within the single market and the customs union, if not in name at least in substance.

They are driven by what is in the best interests of their system. In essence the EU is an agreement between the different capitalist classes of Europe in order to create the largest possible market.

The different national capitalist classes within it remain in competition with each other but cooperate in order to maximise their profits.

For the weaker economies of Europe – above all Greece – it has meant virtual neocolonial exploitation by the stronger powers.

Inevitably, since the start of the global economic crisis in 2009, there has been a rise in national tensions within the EU which will, at a certain stage, lead to a fracturing of the Euro and major crisis within the EU. Nonetheless, the majority of Britain’s capitalists think they can make fatter profits inside the EU than outside.

It is ludicrous to claim, as the Blairite Labour MP Chuka Umunna has, that the single market is, “uniquely, a framework of rules that protects people from the worst excesses of globalisation and unfettered capitalism.” It certainly doesn’t protect those fleeing war in the Middle East and largely kept outside of the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’; horrendously often left to drown in the Mediterranean.

But nor does it protect those already inside the EU’s borders from the ‘worst excesses’ of capitalism. On the contrary, the institutions of the EU have inflicted terrible hardship on the workers of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and elsewhere.

The pro-EU majority of the capitalist class currently has no party they can rely on to act in their interests. Instead there are politicians in all the major parties, not least the right wing of Labour, collaborating together to try and defend the interests of the capitalist elite.

According to the Financial Times, before parliament shut for the summer they came together in a meeting in the office of Blairite MP Chuka Umunna. Also present were Anna Soubry from the Tories, Stephen Gethins from the SNP, Jonathan Edwards from Plaid Cymru and Jo Swinson from the Liberal Democrats.

This alliance is not only about Brexit. It is also part of a conscious attempt to undermine Corbyn and help to prevent something that the capitalist elite fear even more than a ‘hard Brexit’ – a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. Also over the summer rumours have abounded of a new supposedly ‘centrist’ party being formed for the same reasons. This may not seem to be posed immediately, but is inherent in the situation.

It is naïve for shadow chancellor John McDonnell to suggest, as he appeared to in the Guardian on 19 August, that it is no longer necessary to push for urgent constitutional changes to democratise the Labour Party because, “the nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has changed”.

Measures like mandatory reselectionrestoring trade union rights within Labour and readmittance of expelled socialists are more urgently needed than ever. Unfortunately, the majority of the PLP remain pro-capitalist and opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, even if his popularity means that some of them are currently holding back from saying so openly. Instead they are mobilising against him on the issue of a ‘soft’ Brexit.

It is urgent that Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the workers’ movement launch a major campaign – not for a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit – but for an internationalist Brexit that is in the interests of the working and middle class, both in Britain and across Europe. Otherwise it is inevitable that the different wings of the capitalist class will succeed in confusing and dividing working class people.

Our starting point is the diametrical opposite of the starting point for all sides of the Tory Party: we have to support what benefits working class people and cements their unity, and to implacably oppose that which undermines it.

Capitalist ‘freedom’

What attitude does that mean taking to the single market? The single market finally came into being in 1993, following negotiations that began with the 1986 Single European Act; something that Maggie Thatcher claimed credit for initiating!

From the beginning it has been based on the so-called ‘four freedoms’, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. It is policed by the European Commission (made up of one representative from each EU state), which takes infringements of market rules before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). From its inception it has aimed to drive through neoliberal, anti-working class measures in order to maximise the profits of the capitalist elite.

The single market compels the privatisation of public services, prohibits nationalisation, and makes it easier for employers to exploit workers in numerous ways. For example, the ECJ rulings in the Viking and Laval cases, which put corporations’ ‘rights of establishment’ before the right of workers to strike. Or the EU posted workers’ directive, which does not recognise agreements between unions and employers, and has been systematically used to undermine the rights and conditions of workers. The posted workers’ directive was at the heart of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike in 2009. Jeremy Corbyn was right, therefore, to say shortly after the June general election that Brexit should not mean remaining part of the single market. Nor should it mean remaining part of the customs union which means handing the right to negotiate trade deals to the European Commission alone.

In his Guardian article John McDonnell expressed it as: “The bottom line for me, is the new relationship we have with Europe should be designed on the basis that we can implement our manifesto.”

This is not a bad starting point. A Corbyn-led government should pledge to enter the negotiations declaring that all EU laws which hindered this would immediately be annulled. This is not a question of fighting for British ‘sovereignty’, as Labour’s shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner unfortunately put it when correctly arguing to leave the single market, but fighting in the interests of the working class not just in Britain but across Europe.

There are, of course, aspects of EU law – such as various environmental and health and safety protections – which the workers’ movement should have no objection to keeping other than a desire to strengthen them.

And no one wants to see what the ‘soft’ Brexiteers paint as inevitable outside the single market – economic crisis, job losses and price increases. On the basis of a Tory ‘hard’ Brexit, all of that would be posed – but nor does continuing as part of the crisis-ridden EU offer a way forward for working class people in Britain.

Socialist measures

A socialist Brexit, by contrast, could be the start of building a society that was able to provide everyone with the prerequisites for a decent life: a high-quality secure home, a good job, free education, a top class NHS, a living pension and more.

In doing so it would act as a beacon for workers’ and young people across Europe to take the same road, opening the path not only to mass opposition to the EU bosses’ club but also to a democratic socialist confederation of Europe.

A starting point for a workers’ Brexit would be to implement the demands at the end of this article, all of which would require a complete break with the single market.

At the same time, doing so would inspire the 450 million workers remaining in the single market to fight for similar demands in their own countries. It would also terrify the capitalist class, not just in Britain but globally, who would see their rotten profit-driven system under threat from a mass movement for a new democratic, socialist society.

Without doubt the world’s ruling elites would do all they could to sabotage the implementation of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme, including attempting to use the rules of the single market if Britain remained inside it.

But, provided a determined mass movement was mobilised in support of the government’s programme, they would not be able to succeed. The reteat of the Syriza government in Greece over fighting austerity was not pre-ordained. If the government had shown the courage of the Greek people and refused to capitulate to the capitalists and their EU institutions, the outcome could have been very different.

However, to effectively prevent the attempted sabotage of the capitalist class – inside or outside the EU – will pose the question of taking socialist measures in order to remove control of the economy and finance system from the tiny unelected minority who currently hold it in their hands. Pleading with the City of London “to stabilise the markets before we get into government”, as John McDonnell suggests to the Guardian, will never prevent the financial markets trying to attack a government which threatens their obscene profits.

Nor will it work to beg multinational corporations to stay in Britain if they think they can make a bigger profit by moving to a country with cheaper labour.

Instead, socialist measures – bringing into democratic public ownership the 125 or so big corporations and banks that control around 80% of Britain’s economy – would be posed. This would provide the possibility of developing a democratic, socialist plan of production that could very quickly transform the lives of millions.

For workers continuing to suffer brutal capitalist austerity in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – indeed to workers everywhere – it would act to show a way forward to a new, socialist world.


  • Not a penny to be paid in a ‘divorce bill’ to subsidise the capitalist elites of Europe
  • Ban zero-hour contracts. £10 an hour minimum wage for all
  • Abolition of all anti-trade union legislation. For the right of all workers to freely organise and when necessary strike, in defence of their and other workers’ interests
  • No ‘race to the bottom’! The ‘rate for the job’ for all workers. For democratic trade union control over hiring new workers
  • For the right of all EU citizens currently in Britain to remain with full rights, and to demand the same for UK workers in other EU countries
  • Immediate scrapping of all rules demanding ‘competitive tendering’, limiting state aid and opposing nationalisation. This would remove the legal obstacles to councils bringing all local services back ‘in house’. It would enable the immediate renationalisation of all privatised public services such as rail, energy and water. It would remove the obstacles to renationalising the NHS, throwing out the private multinational companies that are bleeding it dry
  • For a socialist society run in the interests of the millions not the billionaires. Bring the 125 major corporations and banks that dominate the economy into democratic public ownership

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