At the 2018 Labour Party Conference, the left campaign for a second referendum on Brexit, Another Europe is Possible, claimed a major success in rallying Labour members behind the cause of ‘Remain and Reform’. Renewal co-editor (and Hamburg resident) James Stafford caught up with two of the group’s leading activists, academics Marina Prentoulis and Luke Cooper, to discuss their responses to some of the hard questions raised by their campaign. Why do they think another referendum can stave off the accusation that it is designed to frustrate ‘the will of the people’? And why should we believe that the EU is capable of being reformed from within?
James Stafford: The biggest argument against a ‘people’s vote’, in the PLP and more widely, is very simple: to having another referendum on Europe, before we leave the EU, would give the far right a powerful new grievance. It’s really difficult to justify in very simple democratic terms. The mandate from the 2016 referendum has not yet been implemented. What’s your answer to that?
Marina Prentoulis: I have three different points related to this argument. First, the fascists are already out of the bag. This whole situation created a very xenophobic and racist environment, which gives fascists the license to be out, to be visible, to be heard. No matter what happens with a second referendum, this is not going to change. We will have to confront and face fascists, in Britain as in Europe.
Second, in order to think about how democratic a people’s vote would be, we first of all have to think about how the previous referendum happened. You cannot say that suddenly the Tories became very democratic and they gave us a referendum on a plate in order to help or support democracy. This happened for the reasons that we all know: it had to do with division in the Tory party.
In order to have a referendum and in order to have a mandate, you have to have a discussion first. You have to have a civil society which is active. There is information, there is debate—and then you have a referendum. And we know not only that we didn’t have any of that, but that there were lies told and that the Leave campaigns acted illegally. So we cannot say that this was a democratic referendum, and now there is a mandate from that.
Third, people support referendums because they feel that this is a way to engage with democracy and to have direct involvement with democratic processes. If we take this argument seriously, then this cannot be a one-off. It will mean that there is continuous engagement.
There should be continuous engagement with what is happening with Brexit. This is why I believe a referendum on the terms of Brexit, is the real democratic option. It keeps people involved in the process when they know what deal is going to be brought back.
JS: How do you get around the ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’ problem? ‘We voted Leave, get on with it’ has the advantage of simplicity.
Luke Cooper: Get on with what, exactly? You have to try to raise the horizons of the public discussion, and just be honest with people about the actual solutions to the social problems that Britain faces. I believe that these can be outlined in simple, clear, and popular terms. That’s the lesson of the 2017 election—a fantastic moment that contributed to the current situation with Brexit by denying Theresa May her majority. 2017 demonstrated that if you go into the British public debate with an optimistic narrative, if you build enthusiasm, if you draw in huge numbers of young people into campaigning, the public will respond to a positive message.
You have to have the outward facing campaign, with all of those persuasive conversations. One of the things we’ve done over the summer is a ‘Left Against Brexit’ speakers’ tour. Now your average Leave voter is not going to come to that. But the point is to pull in your activists, educate them, develop them, and push them into outward-facing activity.
JS: What would the ‘People’s Vote’ question be? Would it involve multiple options—No deal, deal, Remain? Would it involve ranking preferences? Does Another Europe have a position on this?
MP: There is not a single position: Another Europe is a cross-party alliance. The Liberal Democrats have proposed a three-option referendum. There is a point in relation to that: it was meant to split Leavers between supporters of a deal and supporters of no deal.
I think that this is too complex; it will make for a difficult campaign. I would go for a two-option referendum: deal or remain.
JS: The issue then would be that the far-right will claim that the people really wanted no deal.
MP: Since when do fascists get to dictate democratic processes? You have to face them down. What you don’t do is fuel far-right discourse by echoing demands for border security and crackdowns on ‘illegal immigration’, which is what the British Labour party is currently doing.
JS: When Another Europe say your position on Europe ‘Remain and Reform’, it’s often unclear what’s meant by that. It seems to me that there are three possibilities:
(i) Within an EU that is still primarily intergovernmental, a socialist Labour government in Britain on the Council of Ministers could have a big impact even without major institutional change. Simply keeping us in the room is worth something.
(ii) Treaty change to transform the whole orientation of the bloc towards Keynesian social democracy; which seems far-fetched at this point.
(iii) The paradigm of resistance or disobedience, where not unlike the right-wing governments of Poland or Hungary, left governments pursue policies that are in conflict with those of the EU and wait to see what the consequences are, but don’t withdraw entirely.
Where does Another Europe stand on this? How do you counter the Lexit argument that Europe is impervious to democratic pressure to reform?
LC: For me treaty change is the end of the story. The strongest argument that Lexit has is the ‘scale’ or unanimity issue. My view is that the left needs coalitions of the willing among different states in Europe. That will have the effect of deepening fragmentation, at least in the short term. But you can deepen fragmentation without promoting rupture with the entire bloc. You can do it within the context of cooperation.
I would be totally in favour of progressive governments, four, five, as many as possible, unilaterally signing up to a progressive immigration policy and building humanitarian reception centres, financing thousands of case workers in their own countries, as an alternative to the current talk of detention centres and border guards in Libya.
Geopolitics and the international are messy things. There’s no reason why having a Europe of multiple federalisms, even different currency areas for northern and southern Europe, needs to be the end of the project. In a world defined by the aggressive nationalism of Trump or Xi Jinping, Europe has the opportunity to promote soft power in the world as an alternative way of doing international politics. It’s done that relatively effectively so far and it should continue doing so.
My starting point is that the European Union is in crisis; I’m working on a book that outlines why it’s at risk of collapse. That necessitates a very critical Remain stance. The forces of fragmentation in Europe are incredibly strong. One is the rise of authoritarian nationalism; the other is the unsustainability of the Eurozone. So it’s hard to know what is going to happen.
What we can say with some certainty is that, for the left, in Britain and in other European countries, we will have to have a socialism that supports some version of multilateralism. And that version of multilateralism must be as democratic as possible. That means that the European Parliament is a wonderful, beautiful thing; it’s very unusual for an international organisation to have such a body, it has a lot of power these days and we probably don’t take it seriously enough as political parties.
Leave voters are not naive but they have been misled. Global organisations in the 21st century create rules and the rules tend to be set by the biggest players. If you remove yourself from one powerful bloc and you go it alone then it’s extremely likely that you have to accept rules that you have no control over. That’s not a good outcome for the left if you value, as we do, a multilateralism that has a democratic component.
So when you’re thinking about European or global order, about international relations, you need to have a set of political values that are rooted in understanding how globalisation works and how you tackle financial capital in the 21st century. That’s then going to inform your particular tactical assessments of what you do.
Luke Cooper is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Anglia Ruskin University and a member of the organising group for Another Europe is Possible.
James Stafford is Co-editor of Renewal and a Postdoctoral Researcher in World Politics at Bielefeld University.
Marina Prentoulis is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Media at the University of East Anglia. She is a member of Syriza London and of the organising group for Another Europe is Possible.
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