No exit from the Brexit crisis

December 20, 2018

The British political system has been thrown into a deep crisis since the summer of 2016 when a narrow majority of voters supported a referendum in favor of Britain leaving the European Union (EU). The Conservative Party government headed by Prime Minister Theresa May has been negotiating with the EU over the terms of “Brexit” for the last two years, but has been unable to come up with a deal that stands a chance of winning a majority of votes in parliament.

May is now squeezed by the fast-approaching deadline of March 29, 2019 — when, if she is unable to get a Brexit bill passed, the UK will leave the EU without a deal in place. Mired in this impasse, May narrowly survived a challenge to her leadership of her party and the government — but only on the condition that she step down by 2022. She is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie prime minister at the head of a crisis-ridden state.

Neil Davidson is a member of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century across the UK and RISE within Scotland, and the author of numerous books, including How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? and We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions. He talked to Ashley Smith about the Brexit crisis and what it means for British politics and the European Union.

BREXIT HAS thrown the whole establishment into a mess. How did we get here, and what are the latest developments?

THE FIRST thing to say is that the situation is so feverish that some unexpected development could happen at any time. But as of December 18, this is the situation.

The immediate cause of the crisis is a gamble by Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016. He faced dissent within his own party from right-wingers who wanted to leave the EU and even more pressure from the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which was beginning to take seats from the Conservatives in their core areas of support.

British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a negotiating meeting on Brexit
British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a negotiating meeting on Brexit (Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 | flickr)

Cameron thought he would be able to smash these Brexiteers by staging a referendum on EU membership that he assumed he would win — misunderstanding how the far right could use popular anger over austerity and migration to win a “leave” vote. The right was very successful in deflecting class anger onto migrants, who had — particularly since the accession treaties with the former Eastern Bloc — come to be associated with the EU.

In most respects, this was a displacement from the real issues people face. Many of the areas that voted most heavily for leave had the lowest levels of actual migration.

So Cameron gambled, just like he did with the Scottish referendum two years previously in 2014, which he nearly lost. With Brexit, he did lose, and it has thrown the British capitalist class into a crisis, as the overwhelming majority definitively do not want to leave the EU.

But it is the Conservatives, the capitalists’ historic party for over 300 years, that has gotten them into this mess. After the referendum, the government invoked Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which means that the UK has to leave by March 29.

According a European Court of Justice decision, it would be legally possible for parliament to revoke Article 50, but — and this is a phrase I’m going to use quite often — there isn’t a parliamentary majority for that.

So the Conservative government headed by Theresa May — who succeeded Cameron and who was herself for remaining in the EU — is now stuck in a position of trying to orchestrate a leave in the interests of British capital, which does not want to leave.

May spent the last two years negotiating with the EU. The irony is that Britain had really enjoyed a privileged position in the EU, with all sorts of opt-outs and exceptions. These won’t be available under even the most favorable Brexit deal — nor would they even if the UK now attempted to crawl back into the EU. Obviously, there are no circumstances under which the EU would allow an ex-member to enjoy equal status with actual members.

So the deal May has come back with is highly problematic and unpopular for different reasons with almost everyone in the ruling class and parliament.

It insists that there will be an open border between North Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — which, of course, is totally opposed by the pro-British and sectarian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is currently propping up May’s government with its support for the Conservatives in parliament.

The deal she’s come back with is unlikely to pass, which is the reason she refused to even bring it to a vote. Now she’s gone back to Europe to get some kind of face-saving formula, but it’s almost impossible that she will be able to work one out because of the Irish question.

The Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU, and the EU won’t agree to closing what is currently an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, which remains part of Britain. The DUP won’t accept an open one if Brexit occurs. So as long as the Irish question remains unresolved, there will be no deal — and there’s little to no possibility of that being solved. So we’re at an impasse.

It’s very difficult to see what May’s alternatives are, and the crisis has undermined her rule as prime minister. She survived the vote challenging her leadership of the Conservative Party earlier this month, but she said she will step down before the next election in 2022, so she won’t be prime minister again.

Although she also said that she wasn’t going to call a snap general election in 2017, and then she did. So this could mean nothing at all.

So May remains in office, if not exactly in power. But her government is rudderless and confused about how to resolve the crisis over Brexit.

THIS SEEMS to be an untenable situation. What are the government’s possible options to solve the crisis?

THIS GOVERNMENT is about as unstable as any in British history since about 1846. Comparisons are being made with crises as deep as those over the Suez Canal or the Munich Agreement. Since the EU won’t seriously renegotiate the existing deal, the options they have are really decorative tinkering.

They could call a second referendum. But it’s difficult to imagine what you would ask in a second one. Would it be over the EU all over again? Would it be over the Brexit deal itself? Regardless, May has said for now that she opposes a new referendum. In that case, there are three possible alternatives to the existing deal.

First, there is what is usually referred to as “Norway Plus.” That would allow Britain to stay in the EU Customs Union and European Single Market. But crucially, it would also mean continuing freedom of movement between the UK and EU, with the UK having no say in making the rules.

Those conditions make it completely unacceptable for most Tories and — for reasons which I guess we’ll come to later — for the Labour Party. Apart from anything else, the Norwegian government has said that it will oppose the UK being granted comparable conditions to those Norway has with the EU.

Second, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s what is usually called “Canada Plus Plus.” This would require Britain to accept World Trade Organization rules for its relationship with the EU. This would basically be as hard a Brexit as you could get while still having some trade agreements in place.

Third, there could be no deal at all. Britain would crash out of the EU without any agreed terms whatsoever.

The Treasury has prepared two models of the impact of a “No Deal” Brexit. One of them they call “shock,” which would involve a fall in GDP of 3.6 percent. Another called “severe shock” would involve a GDP drop of 6 percent. As you can imagine, the British capitalist class is now beginning to panic as the full reality of what its representatives have done is beginning to emerge.

We are thus in uncharted territory. What May seems to be trying to do is delay the “meaningful vote” on her deal in parliament for as long as possible — it’s currently scheduled for mid-January — while ramping up the fear of what will happen if a “No Deal” Brexit goes ahead.

May announced that 3,500 troops will be deployed at the end of March to prevent complete social breakdown, for example. In this way, she probably hopes to frighten even those opposed to her deal to support it because the alternative is even worse.

HOW CAN the May’s government survive this mess? Is there a possibility that it could fall?

TRADITIONALLY IN such situations, opposition parties would bring a vote of “no confidence,” which the government is constitutionally bound to act on. If that passed, it would trigger a new election.

But the Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that he won’t bring forward such a motion unless he’s sure he could win it. What he did do earlier this week was table a motion of “no confidence” in Theresa May herself. But as he surely must know, there is no obligation for a government to hold a vote on a motion of “no confidence” in a particular person.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has led the other opposition parties (Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens) in tabling a motion of “no confidence” in the government, but because none of them are the “official” opposition, the Conservatives aren’t obliged to respond to that either.

Corbyn is clearly reluctant to bring this to a vote because he’s balancing between several forces within and outside the party. Time is slipping away, and he isn’t making any moves to do anything.

It seems that Labour’s position is to let the Tory bastards destroy themselves, which they obviously are doing. But Labour isn’t doing anything to increase support for their position — or even to make clear what that position is, other than wanting a general election.

Corbyn’s refusal to take a clear stand is eroding his popularity at a time when the Tory catastrophe should mean that Labour is well ahead in the polls. He hasn’t made the case for how leaving the EU would make easier all sorts of popular social reforms, and because he hasn’t done that, there is no positive case for a Labour Brexit.

The reason for this is that the Labour Party is deeply divided — although not, obviously, as divided as the Tory Party. The Blairite wing of the party, which dominates the parliamentary wing, either wants to stay in the EU or go with the Norway Plus option.

Corbyn himself is a soft leaver — a position that has long been held on the left. But his popular base — particularly among the youth, which voted for him to be party leader — in general supports remaining in the EU. At the same time, Labour’s older working-class supporters, especially in the North, are eager to leave.

So there’s a real tension among the membership. This is one of the reasons that Corbyn is so cautious. He’s not eager to risk division disrupting the Labour Party or its electoral base.

But his position has been worse than inaction and indecision. He’s made unforgiveable concessions on the question of migration. This is disastrous because it gives ground to the right’s strategy of displacing class grievances into racism.

The rest of the left is also quite divided on how to respond to the Brexit crisis. Much of left is reluctant to adopt an internationalist position against the EU because almost all arguments against the EU are associated with or are drowned out by the right.

So they conclude that they have no option but to support the EU. This is a completely mistaken position, and the problems with it are coming home to roost. So in this moment of crisis, sections of the radical left are caught flat-footed, unable to clearly articulate a way forward.

WHY DO young Corbyn backers support membership in the EU? Is there any merit to their case? What is the real function of the EU?

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the younger you are, the more in favor of the EU you are. It’s a reaction to the right-wing opposition to the EU. But in opposing the right, young activists, Guardian columnists and some of the radical left accept completely fantastical ideas of what the EU stands for.

They claim that the EU stands for workers’ rights and environmental protections. In reality, the EU enforces neoliberalism throughout Europe. It patrols its borders, denying refugees and migrants access to “Fortress Europe.”

The EU has legislated some absolutely minimal workers’ rights, but these are often inferior to those in member states. In fact, I heard a Tory member of parliament on the radio this morning claiming — quite correctly — that some workers’ rights, over maternity leave for example, are actually stronger in Britain than those upheld by the EU.

And remember what the EU has done to Greece and Portugal, and what it’s currently doing in Italy. It has used financial blackmail to enforce the most barbaric austerity measures on countries. In the case of Greece, these measures tipped the country into the equivalent of a Great Depression. Even Italy isn’t immune from the enforcement of neoliberal norms, as the current pressure on the country demonstrates.

The only two countries that don’t get pressured into such neoliberal attacks are Germany and France. Why? Because they run the EU. That’s the structured unevenness of power in the EU.

This is not a democratic institution. The most powerful institutions — the Central Bank, the European Commission, the Court of Justice — are the least democratic, and those with a semblance of democracy, such as the EU parliament, are the least powerful.

If the left doesn’t challenge the EU as a reactionary, neoliberal and anti-migrant institution, it opens the door to the far right as the only opposition to the EU. The left has no choice but to oppose the EU with a left-wing program. You have to come down very clearly.

The sad predicament for Corbyn is that his inclination is toward leave. He should really come clear and say: Look, the EU is a neoliberal and anti-immigrant institution, and if we break, we could implement a socialist program. That would be an infinitely better approach than what he’s doing now because he’s not pleasing anyone.

One final point: Supporters of the EU, even those who do so on a “lesser evil” basis, often claim that EU rules wouldn’t stop a left government from carrying out its program.

This is totally disingenuous. Take nationalization. It’s true that this isn’t completely forbidden, but state-run services — unless you’re Germany or France, obviously — are only allowed under market conditions, meaning in competition with private providers, which means they have to be run on a commercial basis, not as a public service designed as a public good.

In other words, if you are planning to implement a right-wing social democratic program of minimum reforms, then it is just about possible to do so under the existing rules. But surely we’re aiming higher than that. Otherwise, what’s the point of a future Corbyn government?

SO BRITISH politics is in crisis, and it’s not clear how the parties in parliament are going to resolve it, if they even can. What is the EU going to do in this situation?

THE EU obviously doesn’t want Britain to leave. It weakens the whole project and causes all sorts of problems for trade and movement, not least for France. So they want to cut the best deal in a bad situation. But there are less obvious reasons.

Britain’s membership in the EU has been very useful, not only for commerce, but also for political and economic policy. In the 1980s, the EU used Prime Minister Margret Thatcher’s rule in Britain as an alibi to adopt even more extreme neoliberal measures. That’s why they gave Britain so many exceptions and options compared to other member states.

From their point of view, Norway Plus would be the best thing for the EU. It’s as close as they can come to Britain being inside the EU. It would also preserve as much of the integrity of the EU as possible while Brexit goes ahead.

The EU is concerned to stem any further exits. Right now, weaker countries are complaining about austerity measures, but no one is threatening to leave. If conditions worsen, other countries could start threatening to leave — or demanding the type of concessions which the UK used to enjoy.

For this reason, the EU will make no concessions to Britain because it doesn’t want to seem weak. It has to show that it’s willing to protect its interests.

GIVEN THIS dynamic around Brexit, what should the British left do?

THIS IS difficult to answer because the left is so divided on the question of the EU. But I think we must be clear that the EU is an obstacle to advancing the struggle for socialism. Breaking with the EU will make it easier to achieve.

I don’t need to be told that “socialism in one country” is an impossibility — whether that country is Scotland or the UK — but some country has to start, or else we will be left clinging to the imaginary comfort blanket of the EU forever more. If we don’t, then what we’re saying is that the left is so pathetically weak, it’s incapable of taking advantage of the greatest crisis in the British ruling class for over a hundred years.

The first thing is to do is understand more clearly why people voted for Brexit. The key thing to grasp is that it’s a distorted response to unemployment and austerity. The leave vote is the form of opposition, which is susceptible to the right. But those voters are not lost to the right.

The left can and should address their grievances and turn them into a left-wing argument for leaving the EU. In Scotland, we set a precedent for this approach with the independence referendum in 2014, which narrowly lost.

Much of the vote for independence was similarly rooted in unemployment and poverty. It could have gone in a right-wing direction. But we in the radical independence campaign shifted the entire discussion onto a left-wing basis. We’ve come up with a socialist program that addresses the same grievances in the rest of Britain.

The second thing is to unite the left beyond the question of Brexit on questions of austerity and migration. We have to work toward agreement among Greens, the revolutionary left and the left in Labour, regardless of our position on Brexit, to fight austerity and defend the free movement of people across borders.

Above all, we have to show that free movement doesn’t have to be dependent on the EU’s “four freedoms,” which is the capitalist reasoning — but that it should be argued for as a human right, which a left government could introduce on its own terms.

None of this will be easy — especially figuring out how to position the left on Brexit. Of all the issues I’ve been faced with in my political lifetime, this is the one that is least possible to boil down to a simple set of slogans or demands to solve the problem.

But the basis of a coherent socialist position must be opposition to the EU, a commitment to fight austerity and support for open borders.

But we’re headed into a period of intense crisis in British politics. I’ve talked about Ireland being an obstacle to agreement. The other development on Ireland — and really one of the few positive ones right now — is that people are now beginning to talk again, for the first time in my lifetime, about unification.

This is good, but the Irish left will have to fight for independence from the EU against the illusion that any master is than the British one.

The Brexit debate is also provoking people in Scotland to discuss organizing a second referendum on Scottish independence. Everyone is asking: “How we can extract ourselves from this British mess over Brexit?”

The trouble is that an awful lot of the left in the SNP and the Greens are pro-EU. But it would be a disaster to tie a new independence referendum with staying in the EU. Generally, the left has to argue that there should be two referenda, one on independence and then another on EU membership.

So the whole integrity of the British polity is at stake in the Brexit crisis. The situation can go in any number of directions. I genuinely don’t know where the crisis will end up.

March seems to be a hard deadline for things to come to a conclusion, but it will be a conclusion that will provoke even more problems. At the same time, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of May asking for an extension beyond March for further negotiations. This could result in a staggered messy process that could drag out for years.

But the last thing I would want to do is make predictions. Instead, the left must begin carving out an analysis and an argument for a way forward — against the EU, against austerity, for migration and for socialism.

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