The European Left after Brexit
An international discussion of the impact of Brexit and the prospects for the left.
From the Editors: the dangers of parochialism
Like that of Britain as a whole, Labour’s debate on Brexit has been strikingly insular. It has not recognised the impact of Brexit on European sister-parties, is not interested in the nature of our neighbours’ varying commitments to the European project, and has consequently not even begun to reckon with likely responses to British negotiating positions. As we argued in our previous editorial, this represents a missed opportunity to resist the gathering forces of right-wing nationalism and steal a march on the farcical diplomacy of the Conservatives. Renewal has since sought to open a dialogue with younger left thinkers and activists from across the continent, regarding the future of Europe and Britain’s place within it. This is very much a work in progress. We would welcome responses from any of our readers who would like to continue the conversation.
James Stafford and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite are co-editors of Renewal.
Other than the UK, Ireland has the most to lose
Other than the UK, the country that will be most directly affected by the UK exit from the EU is Ireland. 250,000 UK citizens live in Ireland, second in Europe only to Spain, and 380,000 Irish citizens live in the UK, the number one destination in the EU for Irish citizens. The volume of trade between Ireland and the UK runs at over €1 billion a week, making Ireland the UK’s 5th largest market, and the UK exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined. Up to 6.7 million people in the UK could be entitled to an Irish passport as many in the UK seek to secure their status as EU citizens, a significant number given Ireland’s population of 4.8 million. Given these strong, centuries-old connections between these islands, it is clear that the consequences of ‘Brexit’ for Ireland are potentially enormous.
Particularly from an Irish perspective, even the term ‘Brexit’ is itself problematic, as the ‘exit’ relates to the entire United Kingdom, which includes both Northern Ireland (which voted 56-44 per cent for Remain) and Great Britain. The only land border that exists between the UK and another EU country is 500km long, and at its closest point is 95km north of Dublin. Since 1923, a common travel area has facilitated free movement across this border, and on average, more than 20,000 people cross it each day. This unique international arrangement, which pre-dates the Schengen zone by decades, is central to business, tourism, and the social fabric for people on both sides of the frontier. The re-establishment of a hard border would be a backwards step towards the dark days of the Troubles, and could negatively impact the fragile peace-process. What is at stake is the reversal of two decades of careful progress. This situation is further complicated by the recent collapse of the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive, and the calling of fresh elections in March.
Meanwhile, the potential damage posed by the UK-exit is taken seriously by politicians in Ireland, and in 2015, Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny created a government unit dedicated to developing contingency plans for a potential exit. The prospect of Brexit, and its significance for Ireland is also covered extensively in national media. It is easy to understand why. A 2015 study by the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute warned that a UK-exit could reduce bilateral trade between the two countries by 20 per cent, with every 1 per cent drop in UK growth hitting Ireland by 0.3-0.4 per cent. Consequent lower economic growth may have implications for Irish public finances for years to come.
Nonetheless, there are those who welcome the potential positive spillovers of ‘Brexit’, with the prospect of attracting jobs from the UK, particularly in financial services, given that Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU, and given its young, educated workforce, stable government, and property prices that are far lower than London and many parts of the UK. Given the recent unveiling by Barclays of Dublin as its post-Brexit EU headquarters, such optimism may not be without foundation. As well as this, the Taoiseach is now fending off demands for a border poll from nationalists who see Brexit as an opportunity to reunite Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Every major party in the Houses of the Oireachtas (Irish legislature) is in favour of European integration, and the Irish electorate remains the most pro-European in the EU. While traditional mainstream parties, including the Irish Labour party, are losing ground to alternative parties of the left and Sinn Féin, Ireland is almost unique in Europe in not registering increased support for right-wing populism, despite the devastating consequences of the economic and social crisis since 2008. This is partly explained by Sinn Féin attracting the disaffected vote, with their message having been described as both ‘populist and leftist’. While remaining steadfastly anti-racist and eschewing anti-immigrant sentiment, Sinn Féin focuses instead on anti-elite, anti-establishment messaging, and support for the party has surged from 7 per cent to 14 per cent, between the 2007 and 2016 general elections. However, even Ireland may not be immune to the rise of grievance-based right-wing populism, given the instability and insecurity that has been created by Brexit.
Unfortunately for the Irish left, there are few positives to be taken from the handling of Brexit by the UK Labour party, particularly the party’s incapacity to put-forth a clear vision of what the UK’s future relationship with the EU should look like.
The left in Ireland wants to see strong leadership and opposition from UK Labour in representing the interests of all of Europe’s working people in the ‘Brexit’ negoti-ations. As the process will ultimately involve representatives of all 28 member state governments and the European institutions, there is clearly an opportunity for UK Labour to take steps to coordinate efforts across the European left to present a clear vision of how European workers and citizens can be best served in the upcoming negotiations. In the absence of leadership from UK Labour on this front however, the politics of ‘Brexit’ in Ireland will mostly likely remain – like most politics in Ireland – local.
Greece shows no signs of following the British example
There is a small part of the Left in both Greece and Britain that has traditionally held a Eurosceptic position, arguing that the EU enables international capital and hoping that the dissolution of the union will enable working-class emancipation. In Greece this position is primarily held by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and some smaller organizations, some of which were part of the Syriza coalition until the second return of the party to power in September 2015.
One would expect this position to have gained wider popular support after the catastrophic lending agreements imposed on Greece since 2010 and the refusal of EU institutions to abandon divisive neoliberalism. This assumption was falsely communicated in the British media throughout the negotiations between Greece and the Troika in 2015 (negotiations that, in spite of a lack of international media interest, are still ongoing). In some cases, British observers attempted to ‘OXI’ vote in the referendum of July 2015 as evidence of Greek Euroscepticism.
In reality, ‘OXI’ implied only the rejection of the bailout proposals supporting severe austerity and increasing the Greek debt. By extension, it rejected the neoliberal domination within the EU economic and political centres, a domination that failed to offer real solutions to the financial crisis of 2008 or to recognize the structural deficiencies of the Eurozone. British misconceptions regarding Greek ‘Euroscepticism’, however, also fail to recognize how the idea of ‘Europe’ (used in many cases interchangeably with the EU) functions within differing national imaginaries and left trajectories.
History and geopolitics go a long way towards explaining the resilience of Greece’s attachment to the EU. Due to its strategically significant position, the Greek state has always been subject to the influence of the European powers and the US. It has also faced constant threat from neighbouring Turkey, the enemy which has defined Greek nationalism. The formation of the Greek nation-state, became possible only after Britain, France and Russia intervened in the Greek War of Independence (1821-32), putting an end to four hundred years of Ottoman occupa-tion. Despite subsequent, shameful interventions in favour of the right-wing forces at the end of WWII, the fate of Greece and the fate of Greek democracy have always been associated with Europe; not only by Greek political parties but also by the general public.
Greek identity is defined first and foremost in terms of Greek nationalism (rein-forced by claims to the ancient Greek contribution in forging European civilization and democracy) and only secondarily, and with some ambivalence, as ‘European’. Ultimately, however, Europe remains for the Greek public the guarantor against Turkish expansive aspirations and some guarantee of democratic stability.
This explains why the position of the KKE and of some small factions of Syriza never gained widespread support In Greece. While the neoliberal logic of the EU institutions is held in contempt, both by Syriza and by public opinion, the political identity of Syriza was never defined by Eurosceptism. Indeed, the main formation within Syriza is the offspring of the Communist Party of Greece Interior, which split from the KKE in 1968, establishing bonds with the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and adopting a Eurocommunist outlook. Syriza hoped that after the financial crisis the European conjuncture would change, and that left-wing and progressive parties would come to power across Europe. This would enable the formation of a left block able to challenge neoliberal domination within the EU institutions. This aspiration – to say the least – is a long way from reality. It remains, however, the only plausible course of action for a Greek left constrained by our nation’s economic profile, history, position, and identity.
Brexit rubs salt into France’s Euro wounds
It should not surprise anyone that Brexit has resonated heavily in France, and is likely to be prominent in the 2017 Presidential campaign. If anything, the referendum’s result exacerbated the malaise which has been present in France; not only since the 2005 referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty, but also since the near-rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. With both far-right Le Pen and far-left Mélenchon advocating a form of ‘Frexit’, a good 40 per cent of the French electorate is expected to choose an anti-EU candidate in the first round of voting in April.
France might be Britain’s longstanding rival in Europe, but it is in many respects its twin. A proud nation with a glorious – and imperial – past, its elites and people have always been wary of Europe’s encroachment on their sovereignty. Yet while the British dragged their feet into the EU and always remained sceptical about its direction of travel, the French decided to take a gamble. French elites long sought to compensate for the country’s loss in power and status by ‘uploading’ their preferences – e.g. a strong-state and tough regulatory instincts – to the EU level. But the promises of a more protective Europe, indeed of a ‘social Europe’, have not materialised in the eyes of the public.
The specific reasons for France’s anti-EU mood are different from what led to the Leave victory on 23 June. Deflationary Eurozone policies, and (perceived or real) tax or social dumping, are blamed for an economic and social situation that has markedly deterioriated since the trente glorieuse. Instead of EU migrant workers, free movement anxieties are related to posted workers, which are three times more numerous in France than in the UK; as well as the porous border of the Schengen free travel zone. Nonetheless, the political conclusions are similar: France has ceded too much power to Brussels. It has been striking to hear several presidential candidates, including the conservative François Fillon and socialist Arnaud Montebourg, offering to ‘take back control’, even if by that they do not necessarily mean leaving the EU.
Only one candidate is rejecting the temptation of EU-bashing: Emmanuel Macron. Like the Liberal Democrats in Britain, the centrist rising star is making unambiguous pleas for the EU and trying to capture the idealism of all those who, on the centre-right and the centre-left, put European stability and solidarity above any other consideration. This is certainly a smart political move for the first round of voting; but it risks putting him at odds with vast swaths of the electorate.
Unfortunately for the French left, the way in which the British Labour party is handling Brexit offers few positives. What is manifest is the party’s incapacity to formulate a clear position on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The political dilemma facing Labour is one facing the whole European left: how can European integration be reconciled with a sense of economic and cultural stability? Jeremy Corbyn has struggled to articulate a coherent and simple message on how much Europe and how much control Britain should have. He might be wary of putting off either of Labour constituencies: educated young city-dwellers on the one hand, and low-earning, less-educated voters on the other. Confusion, however, is never good politics.
To overcome their shared predicament Europe’s left parties can learn and draw inspiration from each other. First, Brexit Britain offers a useful counterfactual for the French left. An important lesson is that there is no easy way out. Left Brexiteers (or ‘Frexiteers’) might hope to see the UK becoming a better place after Brexit, but there is no guarantee of this.
A second, more profound lesson is that left parties should not corner themselves as the last pro-EU force standing. As John Gray recently pointed out, liberalism risks falling victim of its own excesses. Chris Bickerton, likewise, denounces the logic of individual rights which too often takes over from common good considerations in left circles. A major problem facing all pro-Europeans is that EU institutions and fundamental principles are the very embodiment of this liberalism, and are perceived as benefitting the few, not the many.
A firm commitment to European stability and solidarity cannot mean adopting a hands-off approach to the EU any longer. Left parties could usefully work together on what another type of EU, more respectful of national sovereignty and political preferences, could look like. This includes the difficult question of how the Eurozone could be made more breathable, including possible exits from it, and what this means in term of different circles of integration. In his last book, Loukas Tsoukalis argues that some sacred cows, like free movement, might need to be slain in order for the EU to stand on firmer ground. Saying that a pause in integration is necessary for now, as former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine advocates, would be a good start.