Brexit from the Left

politics eu, brexit

It’s hard to say anything new about Brexit; over the last two and a half years it’s been hard to avoid the deluge of every possible shade of opinion. But there’s a particular aspect I’d like to address, that of support (or otherwise) for the EU from the left.

In the last ten years or so it seems like the opposition to EU membership has been monopolized by the right, most notably UKIP. It therefore seemed to come as a shock to some on both the centre-left and centre-right when left-wingers like Jeremy Corbyn were lukewarm in their support for continued EU membership. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though; in the previous referendum for membership of the EC, the Conservative and Liberal parties supported membership (though the Conservative membership in particular was divided), while the Labour party did not take an official position, having voted slightly against membership at conference (a ⅔ majority would have been required to take an official position either way). Within Labour, some of the most prominent left-wingers, including Tony Benn and Michael Foot, opposed EC membership.1 It’s only since the 1990s, with the Labour right in ascendancy under Blair and Brown, that the ‘left’ became so strongly associated with support for the EU. Of course, it’s not that the left changed its position, but that the Overton window moved sufficiently to change the general perception of the ‘left’.

The problem now facing both the pro-EU and the anti-EU left is that their position, in each case, involves a tradeoff, but one which they attempt to resolve by denying rather than acknowledging. Supporters, for example, must draw attention to the positive aspects of the EU (the freedom of movement, the internationalist ideal) and overlook the economic policies that have done so much harm in Greece. (This is easier for the centre, of course, for whom free-market economic policies are not a significant flaw.)

I find myself much more sympathetic, in theory, to the socialist critique of the EU. It was founded as the European Coal and Steel Community in quite open pursuit of free-market goals, in the belief that this would reduce conflict. While the goal of free movement of people is an important one,2 there are valid criticisms of its current implementation: namely, that increased freedom within the EU comes hand-in-hand with increased restriction at its border. Moreover, it has been this which the centre-left has been most willing to compromise on—for the Labour right, internationalism means using allusions to the International Brigades to advocate for bombing Syria, rather than providing a safe haven for the refugees created by that bombing.

The remaining three of the ‘four freedoms’ of the EU are even harder to defend from a left perspective. While there has been debate over the extent to which EU membership would prevent the implementation of a left-wing manifesto (for example, around nationalization of rail and industry), there can be no doubt that in many cases they have been interpreted in ways unfavourable to the left. For example, a Finnish trade union, striking against a company’s threat to relocate from Finland to Estonia in order to cut wages, was found to be violating the company’s right to freedom of establishment;3 according to a recent article in Tribune, similar issues have faced Norwegian unions, suggesting that membership of the EEA would be no better.

And yet, I voted to remain in the EU, and if another referendum was held4 I’d still vote to remain. Despite all the genuine issues with the EU, the pro-Brexit left, supposedly good Marxists, continually falls into the trap of thinking in terms of abstract principles rather than concrete historical circumstances. The EU, they have concluded, is Bad; therefore opposition to it is Good. All it would take, according to this line of reasoning, is for the UK to leave the EU and elect Jeremy Corbyn to establish a golden age of socialist utopia. The relative strengths of right and left in the UK at present are ignored; Labour’s chances in a general election, while not negligible, are far from certain; indeed, it is not unreasonable to think that leaving the EU will be perceived as a victory by, and further embolden, the far right—as can be seen by the increase in hate crimes immediately following the 2016 referendum. Moreover, Labour’s own internal conflicts make it far from guaranteed that a Corbyn-led government would be able to implement all the policies favoured by the left of the party. Even if, by some miracle, the party did unite behind Corbyn, McDonnell, and Abbott, it would then have to face significant opposition within the country from those with vested interests in the status quo (a point which should have been clear since the 1970s, if not before). And assuming these (very significant) issues could be overcome, the UK would still have to address its role in the world as, in the best-case scenario, the junior partner in a trading arrangement with the EU or the US. In the worst case, it would mean WTO rules—and once again, this is something the left should be well aware of the flaws of.

Where does that leave us? While I share the goal of a socialist republic, and doubt very much that this would be possible within the framework of the EU, that does not mean that it’s any more possible outside of the EU at the current time; sometimes, things just aren’t possible under given circumstances. To a significant extent, the problems that faced the Soviet Union arose out of its isolation; in the absence or failure of the predicted pan-European socialist revolutions at the end of the First World War which would have provided allies and trading partners, it was forced to industrialize rapidly, becoming inward-looking, paranoid, and nationalistic. This is not to say that the desire for a socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 was misguided—but desirable is not the same as probable or even possible. The Russian left in 1917 was forced to make the decisions it did by the circumstances of the war; the British left, on the other hand, is significantly weaker than the Russian left was; nor is it in circumstances that force it to gamble. Support for Brexit by the left, in the current climate, is utopian, and any gains made by the left will be more likely due to luck than any positive impact that departure may have.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852