Why would supporters of public ownership wish to stay in an organisation which is clearly hostile to the idea of state providers of services and which is pushing member states to privatise and not nationalise, asks NEIL CLARK
IT WAS a news story which didn’t get too much coverage in Britain, but it was one which should give progressives and socialists who are planning to vote Remain in June’s EU referendum food for thought.
On December 14 2015, the British profiteering train and coach company National Express (which has been taking us for a ride for some time here in Britain) began operating two regional lines in Germany — taking them over from the state-owned DB Regio.
“The German rail market presents significant further opportunity,” enthused NX chief executive Dean Finch.
“Germany is Europe’s largest rail market and is an important part of our strategy. We are working on the start-up of our next two German rail contracts on the Rhine-Ruhr Express.
“These bring our already secured revenues from German rail to €2.6 billion.”
Finch foresaw an “active pipeline of attractive opportunities throughout 2016.”
He’s right to be optimistic — because EU policies are driving the privatisation of rail services throughout the continent.
The EU, in its own words, is committed to “opening up national freight and passenger markets to cross-border competition.”
In the same way that “open skies” led to the demise of historic state-owned airlines in the continent, so “open rails” will mark the end of historic, nationally owned railways.
But whereas in the air industry, extra competition could — and did — lead to lower fares for consumers, the same does not apply to rail, which is a natural monopoly.
As we’ve seen in Britain, privatised rail services mean more expensive rail services.
Last year, the Financial Times could hardly conceal its excitement at the “opening up” of Europe’s rail market.
The paper talked of the “big growth opportunities for operators such as Stagecoach, Go-Ahead and National Express of the UK, and Keolis of France.”
Now here’s the deal: public ownership may not be explicitly prohibited by Brussels — but the combined effect of the various “pro-competition” articles will be to gradually eliminate state-owned companies and make it extremely hard, if not impossible, for governments to embark on a programme of renationalisation.
If you think that’s bad enough — and it is — we haven’t even got on to the subject of TTIP, and the powers it would give multinationals to sue nation states for measures, such as nationalisation, which would be detrimental to its profits. The EU is currently negotiating TTIP with the US.
Which brings us back to the vote on June 23. The official Labour position is to support continued EU membership. But at the same time, the party has pledged to renationalise the railways.
Jeremy Corbyn has also said he supports “the public ownership of gas and the National Grid.”
Would such policies be possible under current EU rules?
“The facts are simple: the EU creates real legal problems for any nationalisation agenda and will bind the hands of a future Labour government that attempts to deliver on such a manifesto policy,” says Labour’s Kate Hoey, a Leave campaigner.
If Labour’s renationalisation is piecemeal and does not seek to establish a public-owned monopoly, then it might get away with it — but why take the chance?
Put another way, why would supporters of public ownership wish to stay in an organisation which is clearly hostile to the idea of state monopoly providers of services and which is pushing governments of member states to privatise and not nationalise?
There are other practical reasons for supporters of public ownership to vote Leave on June 23.
At present, Britain pays around £9 billion a year to be a member of the EU. Think of the good that money could do if were spent instead on publicly owned, public services.
Our once excellent library service — now teetering on the brink due to Tory cuts — could be rescued.
The money could also be used to buy back assets which previous governments have privatised, such as Royal Mail. There’s also the domestic political repercussions of a Leave vote to consider.
Almost certainly, if Britain says No to the EU, David Cameron would be out of a job — and George Osborne too.
“Call Me Dave” knows that to stay at No 10 he desperately needs Labour votes, which is why this week he took to the pages of the Daily Mirror to plead with Labour supporters to support Remain.
How absurd it would be if Labour voters — the vast majority of whom oppose privatisation — do indeed save the bacon of the most fanatically pro-privatisation prime minister in our history — by voting to stay in a pro-privatisation organisation!
Labour voters have it in their power to topple Cameron and Osborne and they should take it.
The claim that a post-Cameron Tory government would be even more right-wing doesn’t really add up to much — as it underplays the extremism of the present gang, who make Margaret Thatcher look like a social democrat.
Only a few weeks ago, the government announced its plans to privatise the Land Registry — in public hands since its inception in the days of Queen Victoria.
That’s after having sold off the Royal Mail and NHS Blood services — a move which gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “vampire capitalism.”
In any case, if Leave does win on June 23, the Tory Party is likely to implode into a brutal no-holds barred civil war, which would greatly increase Labour’s — and Jeremy Corbyn’s — chances of victory in 2020.
However, if Remain triumphs, Cameron will be strengthened and it will be “business as usual.”
Osborne, the man who by the end of last year had sold off nearly £40bn of public assets and who wants to flog off even more — will be the favourite to be his successor. What a dreadful prospect.
We heard this week that Tariq Ali, a long-standing friend of Corbyn’s and fellow anti-war campaigner, said that privately the Labour leader is “completely opposed to the EU.”
That would make a lot of sense because if we were free from having to obey Brussels’s neoliberal directives in 2020, it would make a left-wing Labour programme easier to implement.
We only have to look at Greece to see what happens when a government puts a commitment to being “good Europeans” before its commitment to progressive policies.
Syriza was elected in January 2015, promising not just to end austerity, but to halt privatisation, including of the Piraeus port. It did neither.
Last December, Greece’s government sold off 14 airports to a German company, while the controversial sale of Piraeus has gone through, leaving dock workers who voted for Alexis Tsipras’s party feeling utterly betrayed.
“It’s the same things the old governments told us: Lies, lies, lies, lies!
“Syriza told us that they will not sell the port. We had a lot of meetings with the minister and now after the third memorandum they have told us that ‘we can’t do anything,’” dock worker Christos Tzimovaslis told Red Pepper magazine in March.
Britain is unlikely to have the same debt problems in 2020 as Greece, and we won’t be in the euro — but even so, if we’re still members of the EU, Corbyn will come under enormous pressure not to renationalise and indeed to water down his anti-austerity programme.
What a crushing disappointment it would be if, having overcome all the obstacles put in its path by Rupert Murdoch and the neocon Establishment to regain power, Labour is prevented from carrying out important parts of its programme by neoliberals in Brussels and lawsuits brought before the ECJ.
A Syriza-style let-down here in Britain can’t be ruled out, but the best way to reduce the chances of that happening and to further the cause of public ownership is to put your cross by “Leave the European Union” on June 23.
Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership @PublicOwnership. Follow him on Twitter @neilclark66.