Three weeks from today, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether to leave the European Union. The so-called Brexit referendum fulfills Prime Minster David Cameron’s 2013 promise to Euroskeptics in his own Conservative Party that he would hold an in-or-out vote if his party won reelection two years later. Despite numerous polls indicating a victory for Labour, the Conservatives won a majority government in the May 2015 election. Now comes the reckoning.
In the last two months, the Remain campaign—backed by Cameron and other mainline Conservative politicians, as well as the new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (albeit tepidly) and much of his party—has run slightly ahead of Leave. The Leave campaign is being led by two of Cameron’s possible successors, former London mayor Boris Johnson and current Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and has the backing of the hardcore anti-immigrant far right, led by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, whose rise in the last five years prompted Cameron to put the question to voters. In recent days, however, Leave has edged slightly ahead of Remain, 52 to 48 percent. But because of last year’s polling imbroglio, those numbers only mean so much. No one can say for sure how it will turn out.
For progressives in Britain, in Europe, and, in a certain sense, around the world, the stakes could not be higher. Yet there is no consensus, even on the left, as to whether the ideals of liberty and equality would be best served by a radical restructuring of the European Union’s terms or their annulment, by marriage counseling or a divorce. Alarmed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign, some fear what the xenophobic English right might be able to do in the absence of European protections. Others, identifying EU guardianship as primarily in the service of a political and financial elite unaccountable to any democratic polity, believe the only hope for rescuing the UK from the grip of austerity lies in separating the country from those institutions that have so ruthlessly enforced it. Here, four writers and thinkers of the British left consider the case for each side and, by extension, whether progressives in the United States should be rooting for Leave or Remain.
The Sun Has Set. Get Over It
Until recently, I found it difficult to care about the Brexit referendum. If Britain left the European Union, would anyone really notice the difference? On a recent visit to Norway, a country that never joined the EU, I still had the privilege of using the special queue for European-passport holders, and I still benefited from the cheaper mobile-phone roaming rates brokered by Brussels. For me, and presumably for many others, those two perks mean more than any number of stirring arguments about sovereignty or misty-eyed invocations of Winston Churchill.
But then I realized that when the Brexiteers say they want us out, they mean all the way out. On May 8, Justice Secretary Michael Gove admitted that the Leave campaign thinks Britain should leave the European Single Market, too. Because the right of free movement is guaranteed by the single market, leaving it would be the only way to cut immigration as drastically as voters desire. I applaud the Leave campaign’s honesty—for not promising that voters can have everything at no cost—but that prospect is horrific. Leaving the single market would require giving up all of Britain’s trade deals and visa waivers and starting negotiations over again from scratch. Moreover, immigration has brought huge economic benefits to Britain. The failure to tackle its downsides—school classes where children struggle with English, long queues for social housing, wages being undercut—is entirely a political decision. We do not need to leave the EU or the single market to address them. We simply have to decide to do it.
There are sound progressive arguments against the EU. Its institutions are too remote, too bureaucratic, and too hard to hold to account. The euro has been a better deal for countries with strong, export-led economies, like Germany, than for basket-cases like Portugal and Greece. Very few people consider themselves “European,” making it hard to sell policies that require solidarity, such as a coordinated response to the Syrian-refugee crisis.
Nonetheless, there is an inherent conservatism in most of the arguments for leaving. Rather than forging a new Britain, the Brexiteers seem to anticipate the revival of an old one—the return to a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. There’s a certain Koh-I-Noor gleam in Nigel Farage’s eye when the UKIP leader talks about the Commonwealth, for example—a sense that we’re happy to be in a confederation of states as long as we’ll always be the top dog.
Meanwhile, other Brexiteers talk about the “Anglosphere”—or did, until Barack Obama used his visit to London to quash the idea that the United States was desperate for a bilateral trade deal with Britain. They hanker for a “special relationship” that has long since withered away. The reality is that Britain is far closer, politically and culturally, to Europe than it is to the United States, despite our shared language and you guys nicking our best actors to be in the latest Avengers installment. How many people have the British police killed so far this year? One. How much did our six biggest parties spend fighting the 2015 election? £39 million. Would anyone here eat Cheez Whiz? Hell, no.
The European Union has increased workplace protections, enshrined universal human rights in our law, and created institutions to resolve international issues through tedious bureaucracy rather than bombs. With an increasingly aggressive Russia to our east and an indifferent America to our west, Britain needs friends and allies close to home. That’s why I’m voting to stay in Europe.
Jon Cruddas, MP
It is a strange reflection on the state of the contemporary left that a socialist Labour Party in the United Kingdom appears committed to an unreformed European Union—one whose viability is increasingly predicated on the subordination of democratic politics to markets and constitutionally bound to a Hayekian utopia in which the free movement of people, money, and things fundamentally undermines the substantial achievements of postwar social democracy. Above all, there is a widespread inability to distinguish between internationalism and globalization, so that the progressive left of Europe—in Greece, for example—appears at the vanguard of a project without any real hope of resisting the domination of capital by building a robust social democracy.
How did we get here?
The roots of the current situation can be found in the breakdown of the Keynesian consensus in the 1970s and the further breakdown of a constructive vision for political economy on the left. Gone was the political philosophy that placed labor and labor value at its heart; gone, too, the belief that democratic politics could resist and constrain the domination of capital. Instead of robust ideas about politics and political economy, cultural issues of identity and civic equality were instituted as the sole basis for a broad coalition of democratic resistance to the domination of capital. But it was a poor substitution—one that left uncontested the idea that capital was and ought to be an interest and a power that maximizes returns to itself, while treating human beings and nature as mere commodities to be exploited and discarded.
At the high tide of Thatcherism in the 1980s, Labour lost faith in its own people, its own voters, and its own national role. The party retreated to a progressive European politics in which the EU would deliver workers’ rights, paid holidays, civil equality, and justice, whether or not Labour won national elections. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, the party became the leader of a political project that would protect the European Central Bank from democratic interference and intensify the institutionalization of the free market and the free movement of people as the defining features of the EU.
It is only out of weakness and timidity that Labour supports the European Union. There is little vision of how, if Britain remains a member, the EU would be reformed; there is no challenge to the manner in which it engages with a dispossessed, abandoned, and often despised working class. There is merely resigned approval of a system that can only be described as a force for liberalization because it is the underwriter of continental peace. Meanwhile, social democracy is in free fall, and the anti-immigrant right is everywhere on the march.
Leaving the EU, however, would arguably make everything worse. This is a referendum without a choice.
Resist the Sirens
In the 1975 referendum on UK membership in what was then called the European Economic Community, 67 percent of British voters decided that their future lay inside Europe. The campaign was notable in that leading figures from the British left staked diametrically opposite positions.
More than 40 years on, the progressive left is again divided. Yet there are clear reasons to stay in the European Union: protecting the universal values of human rights, and rejecting the far right’s toxic mix of neoliberalism and xenophobia.
Inside the workplace, the EU’s “social chapter” has transformed working conditions for British employees with a raft of measures: guaranteed minimum paid leave, maternity and paternity leave, and equal rights for part-time and full-time workers. These would be stripped away soon after Brexit—in fact, leading advocates, such as former London mayor Boris Johnson, are campaigning on the basis of scrapping that social chapter.
In other areas of society, the EU has had a similarly beneficial effect. The European Court of Human Rights has promoted a series of basic reforms, including enabling prisoners to have the right to vote and protecting the rights of refugees who face deportation. It has also provided a space for families to bring cases against hospital negligence and for disability groups to campaign against draconian welfare cuts. Here, too, Brexit will be regressive: Proponents seek to reduce the powers of the ECHR by instituting a British Bill of Rights as the ultimate arbiter on human-rights violations.
No issue has galvanized the extreme right in the UK and across Europe more than increased levels of immigration. More than 1 million people have entered the EU since 2015. Cultural and economic insecurities have driven much of the Brexit rhetoric, which argues that the EU cannot control immigration into the UK.
Progressives need to challenge these Brexit sirens. Immigrants to the UK add to rather than take from the public coffers. They play an increasingly important role as doctors and nursing staff in cherished institutions like the British National Health Service. And immigrants are needed to support an aging population at a time when British workers are largely unwilling to undertake these low-paid jobs.
This should not really be a dilemma for progressives. The campaign to leave the EU has been led by extreme right-wing voices that openly advocate eroding the social rights of workers. An “out” vote will embolden Brexit campaigners to end important reforms and initiate even more xenophobic policies against immigrants and communities of color in the UK. As progressives, we cannot let this happen. We must campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.
Goodbye to All That
Looked at from virtually any direction, the EU is a mess. The recently much-vaunted “revival” is supported neither by the statistics—debt-logged stagnation, decreased production, and investment yet to reach pre-crash levels—nor by the growing anger in the streets (mostly from the left) and at the ballot box (symbolized by the huge growth of extreme-right parties and xenophobia). The political crisis is now on par with the economic failure.
The exception is the vantage point of financialized capitalism. From that angle, the EU is working extraordinarily well. The tightened structures of continental integration, in fact, serve only this single interest. The European Central Bank, dominated by Germany, favors austerity and deflation rather than real growth. Even the type of mild stimulus initiated by President Obama to help the ailing US car industry in 2009 is banned under EU laws. The troika—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission—has brutalized Greece, reducing the country to the status of an EU colony, with all key decisions taken in Brussels and Berlin. As I write, Greece is being further punished and its abject leadership is looking for an artificial-spine implant in, of all places, Israel. Spain is politically paralyzed. The outflow of young people from Ireland and Portugal is wrecking the future of both countries.
As for taking in refugees, the German chancellor has been ignominiously forced to retreat by her own party and by the Social Democrats who adorn the coalition in Berlin. A squalid deal with Turkey is in progress, whereby for the requisite billions the Turks will be asked to take refugees back; the Turkish autocrat, Recep Erdoğan, has shamelessly demanded more money as well as the freedom to continue committing atrocities against the country’s people. He has also been promised visa-free rides to the EU for Turkish citizens. Most of the EU will reject this on the grounds that it would open the gates to “terrorism.” Meanwhile, an unnamed Belgian minister has publicly suggested sinking refugee boats in the Aegean Sea. European innovators want to speed up the process of expulsions.
Relations between the rulers and the ruled are at a low ebb in every European country. France is on the edge of the first mass general strike since 1968. Nor is too much time allowed for interstate niceties. Reunified Germany rules the roost: It has the money, and NATO has the weaponry. The EU has rarely been closer to Washington. A question being seriously discussed in the chanceries of Europe is this: Can capitalism coexist with any meaningful form of democracy?
A British exit will make very little difference in the UK, but it might benefit Europe by opening up a new debate as to its future. The EU bureaucracy and its bosses need a kick in the behind. True internationalists should not see a Brexit as good or bad for the UK, but should ask whether it might benefit the larger community. The only choice is between contemptuous abstention or a vote for exit. I was undecided at the beginning of the campaign, but now I believe a tactical vote to get out would benefit all and could permit even a mildly radical Labour government to carry out its policies.