Democracy in Europe · Post-Brexit Britain

‘Welcome to the poisoned chalice’: The Challenge of Brexit to Corbyn’s Labour

The sensational election results from last Thursday have presented us for the first time with the possibility of a committed, social democratic government in Britain, willing to govern, as Labour’s manifesto says, for the many, and not the few. However, conspicuous in its absence from the debates of the past few weeks has been the ever-present, looming issue of Brexit. Corbyn was highly successful in drawing the debate away from this troublesome affair to subjects he and his party were much stronger on; the issues of inequality, economic growth, housing, public services and social justice. Brexit didn’t fit in anywhere here, except perhaps the argument that people’s problems with overstretched public services has less to do with lazy immigrants and more to do with deliberately underfunded public services, a policy at the heart of Tory austerity since 2010.

From a political point of view, Corbyn played it perfectly: why discuss an issue which you are not particularly strong on either way, which you want manoeuvrability on rather than the constraints of dogmatic mantras, and which seems distant and less relevant for voters now than it will be later. Instead, present voters with strong arguments on what is important now; something that will give them hope, and clearly restore Labour to the throne of champion of social justice in Britain. However, as I began with, this has made the likelihood of a Labour-led government once more a distinct possibility. Which means we on the left, and Corbyn’s team more importantly, have to turn to the brooding, omnipresent elephant in the room – that Brexit has to be dealt with in some way by the next government, whoever that ends up being.

Labour’s position is by all definitions the moderate one – likely the one which commands the most support. Committed to a fair and comprehensive deal, wanting neither a complete break with potentially no deal, nor annulling the letter and spirit of the Brexit vote. As Corbyn and McDonnell said on Sunday, this means leaving the Single Market, the laws of which are written in Brussels, and likely also some restrictions on migration to Britain from Europe. Nevertheless, Labour is hoping to preserve full access to the European market, as trade deals between the EU and third-party countries have achieved. What they want more than anything is to preserve their flexibility, so as to get an agreement which doesn’t damage the British economy. There is a problem with this stance though, reasonable as it may seem. Neither the hard-Brexiteers nor the unrepentant, remoaning Europeanists have any interest in seeing a Labour government succeed. On the one hand, you have people who hate the fact that Brussels has had the power to write laws, the fact that Europeans have been able to move to Britain freely, and are determined to give the EU a bloody nose before we leave. On the other, you have people who hate the idea of Britain isolating itself from the continent, loath the rhetoric which inevitably comes with the national egotism Brexit invokes, and are determined to preserve their lifestyle and the idea of Britain as a part of Europe, both of which require it to stay as close to the Union as possible.

Then there’s the matter of the EU. Many of the more centrist remainers like to paint a very rosy picture of the EU, with its human rights commitments, its openness and the spirit of internationalism which seems to imbue it. However, we cannot forget its past actions. Despite evidence that such a course is harmful to both parties, the EU will be looking to crush any British government, and perhaps especially a radical leftist one intent on rewriting the rules of the economic game and getting a sensible agreement (remind you of anyone?). The EU, especially since 2010, has not shown itself much interested in sensible agreements which look to the long-term, thinking strategically about solutions and sustainability. The Athens Spring in 2015 was the last clear example of this, with Greece’s leftist SYRIZA government led by Alexis Tsipras. There’s a good argument that the Migrant Deal with Turkey is another. The question remains then, why would they have changed? And why, indeed, for Perfidious Albion, bane of Brussels technocrats and Europhile federalists alike for decades?

In short, nothing good lies on the way ahead for a potential future Labour government run by the Corbynites. Looking to history helps us clarify this issue further, particularly in the context of Britain’s economic relationship with Europe. All successful and orderly separations have included protection of economic ties. Compare the division of Germany in 1945 with the division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1920. Or better, closer to home, take Ireland for example. Trade was maintained through 0-tariff barriers, the Irish pound was tied to the British pound, customs were never introduced, the area of free movement between the two islands was preserved. The one period of economic nationalism in the 1930s proved to be harmful to the Irish economy, and were not returned to, with the last vestiges of protectionism ditched in 1958. Hence Ireland’s interest in joining the Union at the same time Britain did, to ensure economic ties were not disrupted. Ireland chose political independence from Britain over economic independence, an arrangement which has worked stably ever since.

Therefore, if we extrapolate these lessons to relationship between Britain and Europe, we’d be looking at an EEA/Norway-style agreement, or something closer to the Swiss model perhaps. Here, we see the problems arising. Firstly, I’m not certain the EU would be willing to give Britain the kind of freedom the Swiss had in constructing their deal. Then there’s the EEA itself. This, Europe would certainly accept. The problem is, Brexiteers don’t want this. It amounts effectively to annulling the referendum in spirit and letter. The crucial idea of British political sovereignty is still in doubt with a key element of an EEA agreement being Britain would have to match all of Europe’s regulations – ‘government by fax’ as the Norwegian government puts it. It also means accepting freedom of movement; something I would be in favour of but many Britons are apparently not. Naturally, many would ask why Britain tried to leave the Union at all, instead opting to throw away all of its political influence whilst being bound to follow the same rules. In truth, it would not feel like taking political independence in return for economic dependence; and certainly not for hard-line Brexiteers.

Corbyn will have the terrible choice between alienating those who voted for Brexit on this crucial issue, or following through with the more extreme separation which will lead to economic ties with Europe being severed, and will no doubt damage the British economy severely. I fear that Corbyn thinks his domestic agenda will distract from the on-going Brexit issue, another reason for Labour to have left the issue alone during the election. But he’d be wrong to assume that. Choosing the hard route would damage the British economy, which would make enemies not only of Europeanists in Britain but also those hit by the economic fallout. The opposite would be to effectively surrender (that’s certainly how the right-wing in Britain would see it) by opting for the EEA or worse, abandoning Brexit altogether as the more sensible option of the two, hence alienating not only nationalists but also the vast majority of sensible Brexit-voters who wanted change. It’s worth remembering that Brexit-voters were not just crying out against the British elite but the general European establishment, which has been running Europe the way it wants to for far too long, which in fact has convinced itself that the people have no right to question them at all. Given the middle ground of real political independence and economic dependence will be ruled out by Brussels aiming to make an example of Britain, images of SYRIZA are returning.

What Paul Mason tweeted on Saturday brings further clarity to this slowly materialising nightmare-scenario of Corbyn’s Labour: being lumbered with the responsibility for the most impossible negotiation in British history in which chances of victory are slim and chances of escaping unscathed to implement his real mandate even slimmer. Mason said

Mason had seen the coming difficulties for an already embattled Conservative-led government. Of course, right now, he is right in his take on this. But the potential Labour-led government which could replace them will also have to face facts a) and c), that the EU is pushing us towards an exit which I believe the majority of Britons do not want – and especially not after the economic impact of such an exit is upon them. In response to Mason I wrote: ‘You know what will happen then. We’ll get crushed like Greece in 2015. Between the same, a new deal and Grexit, Greece were forced to accept much of the same. How that translates to the British context, we’ll see. If Britons don’t want hard Brexit & EU won’t give us a soft one – we’ll have to choose between staying and staring into the abyss.’ Juncker, Tusk, and more importantly, the technocrats who surround them, have no interest in reaching a fair and amicable deal with Britain. The EU doesn’t want us to appear happy outside the EU; for them, this can’t be a viable option. Similarly, in 2015, the option of expose the Troika’s contradictions and failings, and in doing so strike a new, sensible deal, was off the table. The technocratic inhabitants of the halls of power in Brussels cannot bear to have their power challenged, and hence will crush any uprising or even slight questioning of their authority. This is not rational, and will damage both parties in the long run. It is a symptom of this Europe’s slow disintegration and willingness to embrace authoritarian measures to protect its power. They are in charge and will use every opportunity to show this, regardless of the long-term cost.

If I’m right and this is the future we are facing, then perhaps a coalition of the radical left is indeed the best government we can hope for (Corbyn’s Labour, as social democrats, will have to do). SYRIZA did not preside over the transformation of Greece into a debt colony, and so they offered a clean break from the past. Tsipras did not take the chance he had to break with the past. Corbyn, though he would be in a different position, must not submit to the EU’s diktats, or embrace them. Or it will break his government irreparably. Instead he must take the chance to break with the past, and force the EU to accept change. That Britain is technically leaving will make this task even more difficult. In this way, we see that government will be, in the shadow of Brexit, a poisoned chalice. It will be the position from which Britain’s likely defeat will be presided over. Escape from being crushed on both sides will be a tall order. There are few ways out. Unless Corbyn can engineer a majority for remain again, and for a genuinely reformed Europe at that, he’s going to have to show the people that Europe is pushing them towards the cliff, and that he’s not leading them there. At the same time, the EU has to realise that if it wants to salvage the respect and support of the majority of Britons (and by extension, Europeans) and maintain the economic links with its renegade province, it will have to stop pushing Britain towards that cliff.

Whatever government is in power for the duration of these negotiations, they will be facing an impossible situation. There are almost no ways one can win. And yet in the scenario outlined above, it seems Varoufakis’ recommendation of being ‘in and against‘ might just be possible somehow from the outside; the constructive disobedience he advocated while in government in 2015. You might think it better for Corbyn to remain in opposition the whole time to escape such a fate of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. ‘Simultaneously resist hard Brexit and egotistic destructive nationalism, whilst not accepting total surrender to the status quo and trying to engineer a new majority in favour of EU membership with the objective of re-entering a radically transformed, democratic Union? And at the same time implement a domestic programme of redistribution, social democracy and justice in one of the most neoliberal states in Europe? Impossible.’ And yet I will continue to support a potential Corbynite Labour government, for the fight against this Europe of Offices has to start somewhere, and progressive democrats are the ones to win it.



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