Almost three months before the scheduled Brexit date (28 March), and while political passions run extraordinarily high, the shape and scope of UK’s leave from the EU seems to be more uncertain than ever.
In the aftermath of the confidence vote against Theresa May, the Brexit Deal, presented by her cabinet, may look dead in the water but it still provides a likely basis for a controlled Brexit. Safe for the unlikely possibility of a hard Brexit, the EU does not seem willing to modify the parameters of the negotiation, leaving little room for manoeuvre.
In the history of diplomacy, a deal that leaves the extremes in both negotiating camps dissatisfied, is usually considered a decent compromise. This is not the case with Theresa May’s plan as it leaves the UK economy and society significantly worse off and uncharacteristically makes both the businesses and the working classes feel rightly worried.
The proposed deal in effect ‘keeps’ the country in the EU (regulatory alignment) without allowing it to influence decision making. For a transitional period of undetermined duration, the UK will retain access to the single market and ensure 'frictionless' trade of goods and services without being able to co-shape EU policies. The country also loses access to preferential 'opt-outs' it enjoyed in the past.
In short, the deal has been designed to a) provide short-term and fragile reassurance to business bosses and b) reinforce the point that any country that chooses to leave the EU cannot be seen to be better off. No doubt, under this deal, the UK will not be better off.
The most alarming point, however, is the suspension of the freedom of movement of people; the only one of the four fundamental EU freedoms that the UK will not abide by in the long term. Ironically, this is also the only 'win' for UK negotiators, showing that their priority had been to contain electoral disaster and satisfy the 'take control' brigade which dominated the Brexit camp.
It is interesting that the EU conceded this and allowed the UK to eventually suspend freedom of movement despite the obvious risks. With Angela Merkel's power in decline and the rise of right-wing populism perhaps this agreement is a prelude to internal migration restrictions.
The proposed deal has also managed to expose and consolidate deep divisions that cut across the whole political spectrum. The contradictions that shake the Tory party can be attributed to two main factors:
· Conflicting interests and ongoing antagonisms between different sections of the ruling classes. Despite the fact that the financial and banking sectors are overwhelmingly supportive of the current state of affairs, owing to the dominant role of the City in the UK and globally, it is not a secret that there are sections of the capitalist class that would welcome and possibly benefit from Brexit. These sectors include the petro-chemical industry and much of the food industry. The history of the capitalist class suggests that although big businesses are united in their interest to maximise profit and supress workers’ rights, they are also profoundly divided and prepared for a fierce internal competition. Restoration of customs checks and abolition of EU regulations will evidently damage sectors that rely on the European market and benefit others that primarily focus on domestic or extra-EU global markets. Inevitably, the competing interests of the ruling class are reflected in the battle lines formed within their own political Party (ie the Tories) and manifested through the relentless infighting for the control of its leadership.
· Imperial nostalgia. Much of the debate that preceded the Brexit vote focused on the rhetoric of taking back control and sovereignty, usually enriched by the revival of desperately banal, yet toxic and dangerous, neo colonial lexicon.For if the political economic pillar of the Brexit front has been based on the ruling class calculations mentioned above, it is the ideological pillar, founded on imperial fantasies and delusional grandiosity, that “won the argument”. Decades of right-wing Euroscepticism and consistent portrayal of the EU as a totalitarian endeavour which threatens the British identity, coupled with the politics of “hostile environment” provided a fertile soil for populism and outright racism. Although, it would be an oversimplification to claim that the majority of Brexit voters are xenophobes, study after study have helped us now understand how migration was the single most important factor informing people’s vote.
It is the latter element that has sadly been suppressed and grossly underestimated by much of the radical left in the UK. For all the straightforwardness of the reasons behind the Tory divisions, it is the tensions engulfing the radical left that leave the observer of British politics baffled. In trying to make sense of the stance of the broad radical left, and its intrinsic antinomies towards Brexit, it would be important to emphasise that both main approaches to Brexit that have emerged since 2017 (Lexit and Radical Remain) are well meaning. I have no reason to believe that disagreements among groups, platforms and networks consisting of committed anti-racists and socialists represent more than differing views on tactics and strategies. Any suggestion that either the Lexiters intentionally support arguments articulated by right-wing populism or that Radical Remainers promote the interests of the capitalist classes are ludicrous and spurious.
It would not be an exaggeration, however, to suggest that the British Left has been disappointingly unprepared to deal with the complexity of the Brexit referendum. Part of the problem has been that for decades the anti-EU campaign within the UK, unlike most European countries, had been dominated by sections of the political Right. Since the 1975 European Communities referendum, the Labour party as well as most parties of the far-left (with the exception of the CPGB) demonstrated a notable reluctance, or avoidance, to develop a consistent and militant narrative against the neoliberalisation of the EU. This was partly because they did not want to be seen aligned to the dominant and reactionary euro-scepticism of “colonial nostalgia”. A more substantial reason, however, must have been that in comparison to the neoliberal hurricane that was Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s the European Community seemed to be at the time much less malicious and aggressive. A quick skim through the left-wing literature of the last 40 years would easily persuade anyone about the lack of any kind of debate about the EU.
When David Cameron -much to the surprise of his own party, let alone British society- declared his intention to go ahead with the EU referendum, little did he know that he had opened the Pandora’s box that would eventually not only shake his own party but would also force the Radical Left to hastily articulate a view on the referendum. As all activists know all too well, the ability of the movement to exploit a temporary situation of social turmoil relies heavily on the political and educational work that preceded the event. It is exactly this need for consistency and continuity of grassroots political work regarding the EU that the Lexit campaign desperately lacked. In this sense, the Lexit campaign rode somebody else’s wave; the euro-sceptic agenda had been set from the Right all along and any expectation that this could be reversed only few months before the referendum was proved to be wishful thinking.
References to the 1975’s referendum as a starting point for the Lexit movement seem to be purist and anachronistic at best, for they ignored 40 years of EU integration, its internal contradictions and the popularity of aspects of such process among the younger generations which overwhelmingly backed Remain.
This situation nominally left the movement with two options: either go ahead with a demand for a militant rupture with the EU or focus on a radical remain agenda that would help agitate and inspire movements across Europe. In reality, as we explained above, the lack of preparatory work rendered the first option unworkable, if not dangerous. The recent emergence of the yellow vests, as a reminder of the widespread discontent across Europe (a manifestation of which has been the movement behind Corbyn in the UK) allows room for a much more proactive and confident politics of internationalism, which could focus on the need to collectively re-imagine and re-invent an alternative Social Europe.
The recent conference of the Labour Party accurately captured the dynamics of our times and sensed what’s at stake across Europe. It is for this reason that Jeremy Corbyn advocated for an approach that does not offer a life-line to the Tory Party, but prepares for a Radical Remain calling for a general election and -in the absence of an election- a second referendum. As the spectre of discontent is haunting Europe, a proactively internationalist and anti-isolationist movement stemming from the biggest left-wing Party in the continent, could be a game changer.