Brexit or Lexit – the Left has its work cut out

The result of the vote by the British electorate of 53% to 46% in favour of leaving the European Union – Brexit – seemed a clear indication of where the country stood on the issue. But judging by the reaction that has played out in the country’s media, the poll has resulted in spasms of shame-faced confusion.

The reason is that some of the loudest voices for Brexit were also the most reactionary, marinated in xenophobia and racism. They tended to drown out the campaign by more rational forces on the Left for a left wing exit from the EU – a Lexit.

The vote whipped up a storm in the UK’s political establishment and among an array of political forces outside it, and as yet very little is clear on how the break with the EU will pan out.

A large chunk of opinion ranging from the left-of-centre opposition Labour Party to much of the ruling right-of-centre Conservative Party campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU. The right wing of the Conservatives through the far right United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and beyond was resolutely in favour of Brexit.

The mainstream media largely reflected this spectrum of opinion, with the small-L liberal Guardian, the pro-government Times and faux-left Daily Mirror urging the country to “remain”, while the populist right wing Sun and Daily Mail were pro-Brexit.

The view that voters favouring Brexit were largely from the right wing or in some way under its sway has prevailed in much of the analysis of the poll result. This bemoans the xenophobic and racist light in which the UK now lies exposed thanks to Brexit.

Right wingers campaigned on a ticket of narrow nationalism that drew heavily on anti-European and anti-foreigner sentiments. For many others Brexit supporters represent the lowest common denominators among the British. Philistine, devoid of the urbane sensibilities of European culture. Little Englanders clinging to a deluded sense of exceptionality amidst their own squalid, class-ridden, greedy dysfunction gearing up to rid the country of “foreigners”.

Though much ignorance of what the EU is all about continues to pervade the op-ed columns of the Guardian and other news media, cutting ties with the EU is seen as a kick in the face for internationalism, multilateral cooperation and any sense of pan-European identity. It’s as if the UK was about to engineer its own mini continental drift to the Bermuda Triangle.

Britain has always set itself apart from the rest of Europe, often quaintly referred to as “the Continent”. Much of the post-referendum hand wringing about “cutting off from Europe” hinges on a dubious equation of the EU with Europe, as if they were somehow synonymous.

This is partly due to the partial success of the EU’s self-mythologizing propaganda. It uses Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from the end of the composer’s 9th Symphony, as its anthem. Its flag, adopted in 1985 at the tipping point of the Cold War, is a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background, supposedly symbolizing completeness and unity. The blue is meant for some reason to represent the West, though the EU now incorporates the once-red countries from the former Soviet bloc.

Europe Day is celebrated on both 5 and 9 May – an awkward effort to accommodate the wishes of the Council of Europe, the human rights and rule of law organisation that is not part of the EU.

There was nearly an EU Constitution and Charter of Fundamental Rights. They were adopted in 2004 but hastily abandoned due to negative referendum results – not in the UK but in France and the Netherlands.

And there is the euro, the currency used in 19 of the EU’s 28 member states, itself as powerful a symbol of a common European identity as the coinage of the Roman Empire was of the power of the Caesars.

Despite its many institutions and programmes that reach into areas such as culture, education, overseas development aid, and satellite technology, the main focus of the EU has been on creating and running an internal market in the combined area of its member states for goods and capital. This covers agriculture and fisheries. It  provides for the free movement of labor to enable centres of production to draw on mobile labor forces, depending on what is being produced. The EU has nascent military-defence ambitions but is largely embedded within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nato.

Much of the work of the EU since it morphed from the European Community to its more integrated present form in 1992 has been on standardising the laws of member states so that they fit the requirements of the internal market. This has meant that the EU has expanded its work into all areas in any way touching on working life and the labor within the internal market.

It regulates occupational health and safety and other areas of health care, some workplace rights, some judicial and home affairs matters, immigration, and a mass of regulations concerning everything related in any way to the many areas of industrial production and manufacturing. From foods to diesel engines. It maintains lopsided trading regimes with developing countries, seen by many as compounding not tackling underdevelopment. And it runs a viciously restrictive border policy to shore up Fortress Europe that has been in part responsible for the deaths of thousands of refugees.

Most areas of EU influence appear to replicate the way states rule themselves, but EU legislation is wholly focused on nurturing the single market and its profit-generating clout, realised through the operations of private enterprises and corporations. National legislation in the member states is left untouched as long as it does not impede EU legislation. If it does, it must be subject to “harmonisation”, brought into line with the legislation created by the EU.

In some fields EU legislation has been an improvement on national regulations. The incorporation of, say, the latest developments in occupational health and safety into EU law means that it is easy to see the EU as an innovator in this area. Many of those who regret Brexit feel that the UK will lose out in this respect, and that the door will be open for government and businesses to lower their standards to the detriment of workers.

And yet the majority of big business wants the UK to remain in the EU. EU legislation on the free movement of labor allows bosses to pay workers lower wages. Trade union rights are highly localised, easy to marginalise and do not cover workers coming from other parts of the EU.

Businesses import cheap labour from poorer parts of the EU when manufacturing or sales take place in wealthier countries where local workers are used to better wages and conditions. Conversely, they shift production or processing to poorer parts of the EU, especially the South and East, where local wages are bad and conditions poorly regulated.

The EU’s occupational health and safety regulations have scant leverage in such areas, all the more so as the EU favours tough “austerity” policies that depress pay and conditions even further. For big business, the EU means big profits and zero labor union interference. One effect has been to generate conflict and xenophobia between workers from different countries and regions, something that the right wing Brexit supporters capitalised on in their anti-EU campaign.

It is also extremely difficult for social movements, labor organisations or EU citizens (the citizens of EU member states are automatically EU citizens) to have any influence on decision-making in the EU.

The EU resembles an oligarchy. All its top executive positions are filled by appointment. The EU Commission is the main executive body, with commissioners appointed by member states. Its president is appointed on approval of the European Parliament on the basis of a nomination made by ministers from the member states.

The EU parliament, the only direct link to voters in each country, has no legislative decision-making powers or right of veto, nor can it influence the work of the Commission. The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) represent large wholly unreachable constituencies in their own countries. There are 73 MEPs for Britain’s 65 million people.

A key EU institution is the European Central Bank, run by appointees for eight-year tenures. The ECB has been the main player in imposing public spending cuts on Greece, and imposing further austerity policies on the country in return for cash ‘bailouts’.

These are some of the reasons why communists and others on the Left in the UK ran the campaign for a left exit – Lexit – from the EU. This campaign sought to inject progressive politics into the arguments for leaving the EU. It’s a stance that meshes with that of communist and workers parties in other EU member countries.

The Lexit campaign argued that a vote to withdraw from the EU would lead to the collapse of the Conservative government in London, and that the replacement administration will probably be short lived. The impetus would be for calling an early general election, which in turn would create the conditions for a Labour government to be elected “on a programme of progressive taxation, public investment, public ownership, industrial regeneration and ecological security.”

Communists in other parts of Europe have welcomed the Brexit/Lexit poll result as a great opportunity for the Left. The Communist Party of Finland, for instance, stated that most of those in the UK who voted to leave the EU were from working class communities hit hardest by EU policies that had destroyed their livelihoods.

The Communist Party of Spain echoed these views, sensing a chance for “the complete abandonment of the neoliberal strategy that for more than three decades has ruled over Europe, and the adoption an anti-oligarchic vision that has as its center the interests and aspirations of the social majorities.”

The Communist Party of Ireland stated “Throughout the EU, millions of workers will welcome this vote to leave, which may well mark the beginning of the end of the EU itself. Project Fear, masterminded by the EU, has been used to bully the Greek, Spanish, Italian, Cypriot and Irish people into accepting debt slavery, that there was no alternative but to bail out the banks and speculators over the rights of the people. But not only them: this strategy has been used against all working people right throughout the EU, using fear to impose the feeling that there is no alternative, using it to mask savage attacks on workers’ rights and conditions, and the further erosion of democracy and national sovereignty.”

For these and other communist parties, the Left has a chance to reshape Europe into an entirely different entity, unified by socialist values and policies. Or rather the chance to do this is closer now than it has ever been before. Some see the beginning of the end for the EU as its popularity plummets and it loses it grip with the deepening capitalist crisis. Others on the non-communist Left in Europe, including some of the socialist parties that belong to the European Left formation, see Brexit as simply a knee-jerk protest vote that points to the need to reform the EU.

In the UK, the Labour Party is in the throes of an intense class struggle between right wing Labour MPs and the party’s burgeoning grassroots left wing membership.

The issue is ostensibly about who will lead the party, whether the Left incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn, or the right’s candidate Owen Smith. The core issues, though, are to do with what direction the Labour Party should take, whether to work on a Left platform of social and economic transformation or to return the party to the sort of neoliberal profile it had under Tony Blair and his likeminded successors.

If Corbyn and the wishes of the party’s ordinary members prevail, there may be a chance for the Left to seize the initiative in the wake of the post-Brexit vote, which has thrown the ruling Conservatives into disarray. The appointment of the new Prime Minister, Teresa May, and her efforts renew the government will succeed or fail depending on the ability of the Left to get its act together. If it doesn’t, Brexit could turn into everything that its right wing supporters have dreamed of.

Mark Waller

First published in People’s World

Photo: Flickr (CC)


Mark Waller
Mark Waller

Originally from Helsinki, Mark Waller lives in the City of Tshwane, South Africa. He writes on events in South Africa and other countries on the continent, and translates from Finnish to English.