The European Left after Brexit
Germany must recognise the limits of integration for its own sake
Folke große Deters
Every party in the German Bundestag is in favour of European integration. Brexit was a shock, and prompted a debate with an overwhelmingly confrontational tone. Even left-wing and liberal journalists wanted to ensure that the UK paid for its fateful, foolhardy decision. Otherwise, they argued, more countries would be tempted to leave as well. It seemed that they wanted to confirm every bad stereotype regarding the oppressive and undemocratic European Union. European integration remains an attractive prospect many countries and regions but the Union has obviously ceased to believe in its own desirability.
Threats of a punitive reaction show Europe’s basic problem very clearly. A united Europe must offer the vision of a better life for everyone. Supporters of ‘remain’ all over the continent must not disaggregate the ideals of European unity, European democracy and social justice. This means concretely:
1. Let us accept the democratic vote! I agree with Jeremy Corbyn and others within Labour who claim that the results of this referendum have to be accepted and implemented. Real left-wing politicians respect democratic decisions even if they do not like them. Statements which doubt the legitimacy of the referendum on grounds of generational justice – the old determining the future of the young – are beside the point. Democracy means ‘one person – one vote.’ This basic principle is indispensible.
2. A vote against the European Union is not a vote against international cooperation in general. It is not a vote against friendship between our nations. Britain and Germany cannot change the fact that we are neighbours. Left-wing parties in the UK and in Europe should argue for respectful and cooperative negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The result must be a tight partnership and a fair allocation of burdens. The door must always be kept open for a return in the European Union, if one day the peoples of the UK and the European Union decide to form a closer union again.
3. Left-wing Parties in the UK and in Europe should stay in close contact and discuss an socialist vision of Europe. We must maintain and work on our vision of a democratic, social and united Europe, even outwith the structures of the EU.
4. So what is to be done to find such a vision? We should not only mention the war. Of course the European Union is a peace project. But this is insufficient justification for a project of ‘ever closer union’. For this we need the ability and the will to create a better life for every European, centred on our shared principles of freedom, social justice and protection of the environment.
5. We must not promote a ‘reason of the Union’, analagous to the Staatsräson (reason of state) of the nineteenth-century Great Powers. Of course we should not dismiss the progress which has been achieved within the European Union. Freedom of travel and European citizenship are not self-evident. But this does not mean that we have to defend any action of the current European institutions. Left politicians should not give the impression that an abstract European interest is more important than the concrete interests of their voters. The best example for this attitude was the discussion about the signing of CETA, the planned free trade agreement with Canada. Even thosewho rejected this agreement and its special courts for investors attacked the government of the Belgian province Wallonia for their ‘blockade’. Joint European action is not an end in itself, to which all other objectives must be subordinated. We must make it clear. We are in favor of European integration. In the same way, we stand for democracy, social justice and ecological responsibility. We are not willing to abandon this demand in order to speed up or facilitate European integration.
These recommendations are difficult to put into practice. All over Europe, the competing imperatives outlined above have left social democratic parties stranded. Political reality is complex and sometimes requires complex answers. The difficult task will be to ensure the re-politicization of European politics, without jeopardizing the objective of European integration.
Sweden left bemused and alienated by Brexit vote
Brexit has had a very limited effect on Swedish politics. There is no significant constituency for Euroscepticism. Traditionally in Sweden, the Left party and the Green party that have been anti-EU. The Social Democrats who are now in government with the Greens have always been split. But the contemporary Swedish critique of the EU tends to focus on how the European Court of Justice and the ECB are institutionalizing neoliberal economic policy. It has therefore been difficult for Swedish EU-sceptics to relate to the British debate, centred on questions of sovereignty and immigration.
The only party to openly celebrate the Brexit vote were the far right Sweden Democrats. They are formally in favor of Sweden leaving the EU, but do not campaign on the issue because there is so little support for leaving. The Swedish people voted in 1993 to join the EU with a narrow margin, but then voted not to join the euro ten years later. These two referendums appear to have settled the debate for the foreseeable future. Immigration is a very big issue in Sweden, but European free movement is not. Sweden’s high wage, high productivity labor market has also prevented many of the immigration related problems seen in Britain.
It is therefore very hard for most Swedes to understand why Britain wants to leave. Swedes are not very enthusiastic about their EU membership but they cannot see the sense in leaving.
The Swedish government is worried about EU becoming more protectionist without Britain; free trade is an important principle for Swedish social democrats, who have long prioritised adaptation over protection as their preferred response to globalisa-tion. Swedish business enjoys strong ties with the UK. In theory, Sweden would therefore naturally want Britain to get the best possible trade deal with the EU. They are not, however, willing to bend over backwards to secure a good deal for the UK. Sweden did not want Britain to leave the EU in the first place. How can it then be our responsibility to make sure Britain gets a good divorce?
The single biggest policy issue for Sweden is what will happen to the many Swedes living in the UK. There are 150,000 Swedes in London alone – making the British capital one of Sweden’s larger cities.
The response of the British left to Brexit has been unremittingly disappointing; indeed the British left seems to have too many internal problems even to have something that can be called a response. The problem is at least partly one of intellectual and institutional exhaustion. It’s obvious that the left in Europe needs new platforms to meet, discuss and share experiences. Even if Brexit is hard to relate to for the Swedish left, the threats of far right populism and the controversy surrounding immigration are not. The starting point must be that none of us really understand either economics or politics any more. We’re in a new paradigm. If we don’t make a joint effort to understand this new paradigm, we will never deserve the trust of European publics again.
Referendums and the challenge to Italian democracy
Italy’s reactions to Brexit, which have occupied a central position in the national media, need to be framed within the context of Italy’s complex relationship with the EU.
Long perceived by Italian voters as either a benevolent deus ex machina or a structure of incentives and opportunities that constrained the country to behave virtuously, the European Union has witnessed a dramatic decline in its popularity after the 2008 financial crisis. Euroscepticism has become central to the discourse of Italian parties on both sides of the political spectrum. Even mainstream politi-cians, including former Prime Minister Renzi, have alternately used the EU as either a scapegoat or a source of legitimacy, notably modifying their rhetorical strategies depending on their audiences.
With this in mind, it is easier to understand the ways in which British voters’ decision to leave the EU reinforced the position of Italy’s strongest Eurosceptics (the Northern League and The Five Stars Movement). These parties, which now explicitly call for a referendum on Italy’s EU membership, follow the latest French and Dutch political developments attentively. As a result, Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD), a mildly progressive organisation that has come to occupy the centre of the Italian political space, appears increasingly under pressure.
Finally, one should not forget that Italian citizens were called to vote on a proposed constitutional reform not even six months after Brexit and just a few weeks after Trump’s election as US president. The nature and the results of the Italian constitutional referendum were quite complex, and the comparisons that national and especially foreign media drew among these three events were often inappropriate and misleading. However, it can certainly be argued that Brexit, even more than Trump’s success, consolidated the claims of those Italian political actors that prefer referenda and other instruments of direct (according to many, plebiscit-ary) democracy to mechanisms typical of representative democracy. This include, of course, the Five Stars Movement, which has made these principles the very core of its political vision. Yet it also encompasses specific tendencies within the PD and leads to many tensions within the centre-left.
In other words, not only the outcome of the British vote on Brexit, but also its procedural aspects have been used instrumentally by Italian political actors.
There are few points of contact between the Italian and British lefts on the question of Brexit. Always a Euro-sceptic, as epitomised by his half-hearted ‘Remain’ stance, Jeremy Corbyn declared in his first speech of 2017 that the UK could be better off outside the European Union and once the free movement of European workers in Britain is abolished. This may be seen as a tactical attempt to reconnect with disenfranchised voters, by flirting with populist claims. However, Labour appears more than ever on the defensive, passively suffering the initiatives of the Tory’s government and unable to frame a coherent narrative on the post-Brexit future.
Matteo Renzi’s position, of course, is very different from Corbyn’s. Having resigned as Prime Minister after the majority of the Italians rejected the constitutional amendments he had proposed, he still leads the Democratic Party and is a credible candidate for the next elections. The new cabinet, led by fellow Democrat Gentiloni,
includes most of his allies and former ministers. Even though Renzi’s popularity has significantly declined and he currently faces an internal upheaval within the PD, his grip on the party’s core electorate is probably stronger than that of his Labour equivalent.
At the same time, the two politicians have often be said to pursue rather dissimilar goals. For instance, it has been argued that Corbyn’s main objective is not necessarily to attract new (predominently middle-class) voters in order to win the next General Election, but rather to reshape left-wing politics, and gradually but permanently change the Labour Party. Renzi, by contrast, has been mostly portrayed as a master of Realpolitik and an admirer of Blair, ready to compromise even on core identity issues in order to make his party more electable and secure power. These two leaders can be actually seen as representing the two extremes on the current Western European progressive parties’ political spectrum. Despite their differ-ences, they both struggle to find effective, sustainable strategies to contain the populist right.
This study in contrasts has its own significance. Labour’s and the PD’s challenges are the same as those faced by the European left as a whole. Innovative progressive narratives as well as guidelines for action cannot be developed exclusively at a national level. Left-wing parties should not only cooperate with each other within international networks and platforms, but should also formalise and increase existing forms of policy transfer and lesson-sharing at all levels, including that of electoral strategy.
Europe’s not going away. So what now?
Throughout the saga of Britain’s referendum on EU membership, ever-harsher circumstances have bred ever-more unrealistic hopes. First, the EU hoped that the stunt of two days of heavy negotiations on the special deal for Britain would help keep the referendum on hold. It didn’t. Then, there was the hope that ‘remain’ would hang on, despite polls that were heading in the wrong direction. It didn’t. Last but not least, the losing side have hoped that Theresa May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ would, in the end, translate into a hybrid construction, half-way between full membership and participation in the Single Market. This is not the direction Britain’s Conservatives have chosen.
There is no easy answer as to what the European left should do now. As far as UK is concerned, the referendum’s effects on Labour have been devastating. This is not only because it placed itself in the losing remain camp. That is a standard political risk, which any party has to accept articulating any political position. The real problem is that, regardless of the official line, the age-old inner conflict between Europhiles and Eurosceptics remained unsettled. Since the referendum, disagreements have only escalated, as the party battles over questions of free movement, single market access, and the recovery of its Eurosceptic working-class vote. There was therefore no way that the Labour Party could have credibly presented itself as a platform for all those hoping that 23rd June had been nothing but a bad dream. The internal divide over Labour’s response has been resulted in a narrow perspective on the opening negotiating position: seeking the ‘Best deal for Britain’. This focus detracts attention the fact that the best – or for that matter any – deal will depend not only on the UK, but on what sort of EU will be at the other side of the negotiating table.
It would be naive to think that after Brexit happens, the European Union will lose its raison d’être. Rather, one should understand that the UK referendum came as one blow too many during the existential crisis of the European project, which has been going on for nearly a quarter of a century. It is therefore likely to provoke a debate about potential future scenarios for European integration. At this point three major positions are being debated in European capitals.
The first is the simplest. It builds on the argument that the UK is more or less unique in never having been entirely committed to the EU as a project. Brexit opens a chance to create a closer Union. In that spirit, the negotiations should be as tough as possible to become a warning for all those, who would think of N-exit (The Netherlands), Öxit (Austria), or Frexit (France).
Secondly, there are those who say that, alongside the Greek crisis, this development proves that the European Community only functioned well at its the outset. Hence it would be desirable to retreat to the Union of core and peripheries; Britain should not be the last country to leave.
Thirdly, there are those who claim that it is the European Monetary Union that is the truly indispensible element of integration. Brexit is a sideshow. Britain should be let go with minimal drama, and effort should instead be focused on resolving the crisis of the Eurozone and enhancing cooperation within it.
These three possible scenarios – which are not mutually exclusive – attract a range of supporters within European social democracy. There is no consensus as to which outcome would be most favourable. The situation is complicated further by the large number of European elections that will take place in 2017: in the Netherlands and Bulgaria, shortly followed by France, Germany and Czech Republic. At this point, one hesitates to believe in any polls. Those available show that the situation is dynamic. The rise of diverse populist and radical movements, opposed to EU integration, will make any negotiation process difficult.
Social democrats cannot solely focus their electoral and strategic efforts on these anti-systemic, skeptical, rejectionist movements, however. But their success is an indication of our vulnerability. In the UK the result of the referendum was interpreted as the major rejection of European free movement. Yet it was not Poles or Latvians, or indeed any other Central and Eastern European workers, who invented zero-hour contracts, or any of the other plagues afflicting the British and European labour markets alike. The changing nature of work has taken welfare states, and the social-democratic parties that defend them, by surprise, leaving them vulnerable to new political threats. Brexit is unlikely to resolve these problems for the UK. Even if there was a limit put to the freedom of movement of people, or even the deportation of European workers, the problem will not be solved. Indeed, the breakdown of a Europe-wide system of labour regulation might lead to the further marginalization of foreign workers. These would become a shadow workforce, removed from the scope of employment regulations and social security. This would create further disastrous social, economic and political effects.
Whatever happens after Brexit, the English channel cannot insulate Britain from Europe’s political, economic and social challenges. Together in the EU or apart, these will remain of the same magnitude. We must jointly draw lessons from the referen-dum, and regenerate our collective potential to shape the future of our continent.
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