Magazine article Monthly Review

Learning from Brexit: A Socialist Stance toward the European Union

Magazine article Monthly Review

Learning from Brexit: A Socialist Stance toward the European Union

Article excerpt

The Political Problem of the European Union for the Left

In assessing my book, The Left Case Against the EU, Neil Davidson and Andy Storey posed crucial questions for the left.1 Both agreed fully that socialists should take a critical approach toward the European Union (EU) and even more so toward the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). But they also, separately, asked several questions: Should a left government with a transformative socialist program choose to exit these transnational behemoths? Assuming that exiting is a valid choice for EMU members, is this also true for countries that are only EU members? If states were to exit the EU, would national concerns and aims dominate socialist internationalism? And if a key aim of exiting is to regain national and popular sovereignty, would that be tantamount to immigration controls, thus in practice negating working-class internationalism and strengthening racism?

These are burning issues for the United Kingdom caught in the grip of withdrawing from the EU (Brexit). For three years after the referendum of 2016 that resulted in a narrow majority of votes in favor of leaving the EU, the Conservative Party (Tory) government fell into a state of near paralysis, failing to implement the decision to leave. In 2019, the political mechanisms of Britain spectacularly misfired as former Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to push her proposed deal with the EU through Parliament and eventually had to resign. The turmoil led to the meteoric rise of the new right-wing populist Brexit Party that triumphed in the European elections of May 2019, while both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, the main parties of government, performed poorly. Boris Johnson-ex-Mayor of London, ex-Foreign Minister, informal head of the Leave campaign during the referendum, and arch-political opportunist-subsequently emerged as new leader of the Tory party and British Prime Minister. The prospect of the United Kingdom exiting the EU without a deal suddenly looked plausible.

During this period, much of the social democratic left of England and Wales moved toward the position of Remaining and Reforming the EU on the grounds that exiting would be disastrous for workers and the poor. Confusion about the nature of the EU was enormous and the rhetoric deployed at times almost Manichaean. Indeed, the social democratic left was often reminiscent of Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, who thought of the EU as the embodiment of "Western political civilisation" no less.2

Remarkably, even some of the radical left in England and Wales adopted a position close to Remain and Reform on the grounds that exiting the EU is a right-wing project. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the bulk of both the social democratic and the radical left have long supported Remain and Reform in the hope of delivering a blow to English nationalism and loosening the grip of the British state. In this environment, the radical left supporting a left-wing Leave has lacked fire and failed to gain a foothold in the national debate. Such has been its political weakness that some radicals, desperate to leave, have even sided with the new Brexit Party.3

The travails of Brexit are thus of first importance for the European left. The dilemma of Leave versus Remain and Reform is widespread across a large number of countries, shaping other major questions, including migration, austerity, and inequality. Brexit poses the most important political challenge for the European left since the debacle of Syriza in 2015. The issue of the EU is likely to get harder in the immediate future as the European elections of May 2019 confirmed the strong presence of the right and the far right in a range of countries, including Italy, Germany, France, and Britain. They also confirmed the complete disarray of the left.

To answer Davidson's and Storey's questions, Brexit must be considered in some detail. The first step is briefly to sum up the current state of the EU, bringing out the implications for sovereignty, democracy, and radical social change. …

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