There’s a case for Lexit — but not this year!
What I wrote to German readers in Die Zeit
This article appeared in Die Zeit 9 June 2015. It’s the last time I’ll restate the strategic case for a left-wing exit. In the next 10 days I will be concentrating on the concrete, tactical case for why we should stay in the EU now.
Watch this blog for regular updates.
As I write Leave is six points ahead in a Guardian ICM poll. I think we can turn this round but only if we are brutally honest with working class people about the EU’s failures, and the conditions for staying in…
The left wing case for Brexit — known as “Lexit” — starts not from what has happened to the EU but what happened to capitalism: it has become globalised, favours finance over production, and in its current form makes the rich relentlessly richer and more powerful.
What the global 1% want, above all, is a political space where corporate influence can outweigh democracy. And that is what the EU’s structures offer.
Against the power of global corporations, hedge funds, and investment banks we need:
- parliaments with the sole power to legislate;
- a press with the power and will to scrutinise;
- a rigorously apolitical civil service;
- and a legal system tilted in favour of the citizen. \
For the pro-Brexit left, the problem is Europe’s institutions fail on all counts.
In addition, the Lisbon Treaty embodies an economic doctrine that is both disastrous and unjust. The treaty mandates austerity in the face of economic crisis; it mandates a deflationary preference at the ECB and prevents the Bank acting to monetise debt; it mandates a neoliberal market economy.
But neoliberalism is broken. If, as central bankers fear, we now face prolonged global stagnation, then the EU is the institution least capable of enacting policies to restore growth. While Britain has an opt-out from the Stability and Growth Pact it would be logical, under a Labour government committed to ending austerity and pursuing growth, to look beyond an Europe whose economy and social stability are being destroyed by Treaty-enforced stagnation.
If the EU could be reformed there would, of course, be a strong case for staying in. My conditions would be:
- scrapping the Stability and Growth pact,
- reversing the Viking and Laval judgments of the ECJ,
- placing the ECB under democratic control,
- ending restrictions on nationalisation and state aid and scrapping the Commission.
In addition the political centre — including the CDU/CSU and SPD in Germany — would have to abandon austerity, siding with the radical left against the growing threat of ultra-right wing politics across the continent.
If you cannot imagine these things happening, then do not ask the British left to commit strategically to the EU.
For left wing internationalists in the UK the problem is not migration; nor is it even “sovereignty” — which is always pooled in a multilateral world. It is that the EU is programmed by Treaty to destroy the core values of Europe.
The Commission’s demand that the Greek people should vote Yes to austerity in the referendum of July 2015 was the ultimate betrayal of Europe’s founding values.
It revealed that, on top of an irreformable structure there is a new problem: that Germany’s elite — and some of its people — are content to use the Euro system for their own differential advantage, even if that means crushing the democratically elected government of another country. As a result, after July 2015 Europe became a system based on force, not rules.
So I want Britain to take a controlled, strategic side-step from the EU project. Lexit is not an “all or nothing” demand.
Britain should negotiate to remain within the EEA, and maintain free movement — albeit with new micro-economic policies that eradicate the business models based on migrant exploitation. But it should revert to being an essentially national parliamentary democracy.
Like Nye Bevan, the left-wing Labour politician who set up the NHS, I believe a democratic parliament, an impartial civil service, and a judiciary answerable to the moral values of its people are, taken together, the most powerful weapon working class people possess against elite power.
However, in the short term, I am unlikely to vote Leave on 23 June.
First, because the right will claim this as a mandate against inward migration. I think Britain needs more migrants, has the duty to take more refugees, and I am appalled at the lack of generosity shown by the Conservative government to the refugees.
Secondly, because the rebel right-wing faction within the Conservatives, led by Boris Johnson, are aiming to portray a Leave victory as a mandate for a return to Thatcherism: They will use a Leave victory to rip up the already inadequate protections for workers and consumers the EU has provided.
Functionally, a Brexit vote now means handing power to a right wing coup inside the Conservative party. It gives a fundamentally illiberal group of politicians the right to re-set the relationship between citizen and state. They have offered no new general election if they win, and no second referendum to rubber stamp the results of any exit negotiations.
That is why, for now, large numbers of Labour supporters will, reluctantly, vote Remain. We did not agitate for a referendum now; nor can we influence the negotiations if Leave wins.
The left-wing case for Brexit is not urgent — it is strategic. It is likely a left-wing Labour government elected in 2020 would clash with the EC, just as Greece did under Syriza.
If it could not defeat the power of corporate interest inside the EU, Labour should be prepared to call a new referendum and lead Britain — in an orderly, internationalist and responsible way — out of an experiment that did not work.