Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s tousle-haired answer to Donald Trump, came into office promising to leave the European Union by October 31. He declared that he would rather “die in a ditch” than stay in the EU past that date. But by mid-October he had to ask the EU for an extension and, while not dead, Johnson may be lying in a ditch of his own making.
Britain and the EU have extended the deadline for their divorce, known as Brexit, this time to January 31. Parliament, meanwhile, voted for national elections to be held on December 12. Johnson hopes to win a majority, ram Brexit through parliament, and then implement his party’s anti-worker, conservative policies.
Britain’s Labor Party, led by unabashed leftist Jeremy Corbyn, strongly criticizes Johnson’s Brexit plan as hurting working and middle income people. Corbyn promises to negotiate better terms with the EU and then put the agreement up for a popular referendum. While polls show Labor trailing the Conservatives in the upcoming elections, Corbyn could pull out a surprise victory given widespread hatred of the conservatives.
But it will be tough sledding. Brexit has deeply split British society and presents a serious conundrum for left and progressive forces. Leftists who have long opposed EU membership because of its neoliberal policies seem to be in the same camp as ultra-right wingers who advocate leaving the EU based on xenophobia and racism.
Liberals and social democrats, who favor staying in the EU because it provides some worker and environmental protections, find themselves in bed with Britain’s largest capitalist corporations.
Robin Hahnel, an economist and professor emeritus at American University who now lives in Portland, Oregon, puts it in perspective: “Brexit is a clusterfuck for everybody.”
EU and neoliberalism
The European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, began in 1957. The EU was formally established in 1993, and it became an economic and political bloc competing with the United States. The EU eliminated tariffs among member states and created common rules for everything from naming cheese to environmental protection. In 1999, Europe issued a common currency, the Euro, which further consolidated EU power.
While paying lip service to helping Europeans improve their quality of life, in reality, the bloc’s biggest powers—Germany, France and Britain—imposed neoliberal policies on its weaker members in the interest of greater corporate profits.
Left and progressive forces have opposed EU for good reason. Like NAFTA and similar trade agreements dictated by Washington, the EU has benefited certain corporations to the detriment of workers. Bankers in Berlin and bureaucrats in Brussels made decisions that couldn’t be changed by elected governments.
For many years, as a leftist backbencher, Labor Member of Parliament Corbyn opposed British membership in the EU.
“He knew EU membership prevented democratic control of the British economy,” Hahnel tells me. “The EU was the brainchild of neoliberal corporations.”
During the 2008 world recession, conservative German bankers wouldn’t allow member countries to create significant, budgetary deficits. While the Obama Administration primed the US pump with federal spending—and not nearly enough of it—the EU was constrained by fiscally conservative policy.
“The EU institutionalized austerity and draconian budget cuts in countries such as Greece,” Costas Panayotakis, a sociology professor at the New York City University College of Technology, tells me. “That created popular discontent, and contributed to far right and anti-immigrant sentiment. Boris Johnson is part of that wave.”
While the EU has been a disaster for working people, it’s policies aren’t easy to reverse. The EU has created a vast web of trade agreements, regulations and economic interdependencies.
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There’s fierce debate within the European left about how to proceed. The communist parties of Britain and Ireland, for example, see the EU as a capitalist institution that can’t be reformed. They want Britain and Ireland to leave the EU as a first step towards unraveling it altogether.
Social Democrats, including a significant number of Labor Party members, advocate joining with other European leftists to reform the EU by adopting environmentally and worker-friendly policies.
But that’s not the debate that dominates British political discourse.
Brexit has exposed long simmering divisions within the Conservative Party, split between those big capitalists who make money with European trade and those who think they can make more going it alone. Johnson, for example, claims once the UK has left the EU, he will negotiate more favorable trade deals with the EU and the United States.
Meanwhile, Britain’s ultra-right wing has adopted leftist rhetoric to denounce the EU for increasing unemployment and spending billions of pounds that could have been used to fund the country’s National Health Service. (Yes, the right wing in Britain supports a single payer health system.)
The right wing then demagogically blamed immigrants as the source of the problem, although attitudes have changed since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
As if the debate wasn’t complicated enough, voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland strongly support staying in the EU. People in both areas want closer ties with Europe as part of their resentment of rule by London.
Scotland has a strong nationalist movement, and if the British government pulls out of the EU, it would strengthen calls for independence. Similarly leftist Irish republicans in Northern Ireland favor staying in the EU. If the UK pulls out, that could lead to a reinstatement of a hard border between the north and the Republic of Ireland, something that was abolished years ago.
In mid-October, Boris Johnson negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU. It contained unpopular provisions, such as 39 million pounds ($50 billion) to make up for British revenues that would have been paid to the EU. Additional divorce payments would be due after the end of next year if a final agreement isn’t reached. It also avoided creating a hard border with Ireland, but angered right-wingers in Northern Ireland who called the plan a “betrayal.”
But Boris’ plan, like the one proposed by his predecessor Theresa May, mostly leaves key issues unresolved. Once outside the EU, Britain, and Europe would have to negotiate a new trade agreement, which could take years. Would the UK abide by existing trade rules in the meantime, racking up billions of pounds of new divorce payments along the way?
The Labor Party is split between trade union and traditional leftist opponents of the EU on one side, and centrist members who favor EU membership on the other. So Corbyn has forged a compromise.
Corbyn hopes that with a Labor victory, he could negotiate a better agreement with the EU and then submit the plan for a national referendum. Corbyn says he will remain neutral and allow voters to decide whether to accept the new withdrawal plan or stay in the EU.
But, that’s seriously risky, says sociologist Panayotakis. People are exhausted by all the Brexit delays, he observes, and Johnson may continue to be seen as the champion of people on the right and left who oppose EU membership.
“It may seem wise for Corbyn to move to the center,” Panayotakis says, “but it may be more risky than people realize.”