As David Cameron clashes with party backbenchers over Britain’s relationship with the European Union, it’s likely that an in-out referendum on British membership will be held before the end of the year. Twelve months ago the prospect of Britain leaving the E.U. seemed remote, but after a year of tense disputes over labor law, migration, security and many other issues, there has been a marked increase in those advocating “Brexit.”
Euroscepticism in the U.K. is normally associated with the political right, in particular the anti-immigration agenda of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader, Nigel Farage, has described the referendum as a chance for voters to “reject open borders” that have made Britain “unrecognizable.” On the back of the Troika’s violent suppression of Greek democracy, however, and the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations in Brussels, which if passed would allow large corporations to sue national governments, the case to leave is finding increased support on the left.
Aaron Bastani, founder of Novara Media, a popular left-wing site, is skeptical that the E.U. is the best means of furthering internationalism. “Any political union which allows the privatization of migrant detention centers and the militarization of borders is clearly very dangerous and antithetical to cosmopolitan norms,” he told il manifesto global. His case for Brexit is founded primarily on the intransigence of the current institutions: “If we stay in, we need to say things like, ‘Let’s get rid of European Commission,’ which they would never accept. Today, the left’s defense of Europe comes from a position of failure. Until we change our attitude we can’t get anywhere. As Europeans we must take the step to leave the E.U.”
Marcus O’Reilly, a long-time Labour Party member and trade-union activist, also advocates Brexit on the basis that it is the most pragmatic means of confronting global capitalism. “When weighing up the practicalities of creating a better society — investing in public services, renationalizing industry and so on — the E.U. limits the opportunities of the labor movement in favor of business and massive corporations.” He sees leaving the union as “necessary for the restoration of popular sovereignty and for actual implementation of social-democratic policies that benefit the working class.” Like Bastani, O’Reilly does not see this as a nationalist position and is insistent that Brexit could offer “hope, solidarity — and potential collaboration — with the workers of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.”
Perspectives such as these are common among the Labour grassroots, though as of yet there is no national campaign for a “Left-Exit.” Nevertheless the proliferation of groups such as Trade Unionists against the E.U. and the Campaign against Euro-Federalism demonstrates that the left is anything but unified on the question of the referendum. Indeed, a coordinated movement by Euroskeptics would prove a headache for the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who made it clear at the start of his leadership that he favors “a social Europe” and has pledged to support his party’s campaign, Labour In For Britain. Rumors of internal discontent regarding his decision were confirmed earlier this month as one of the party’s most prominent activists, Owen Jones, retracted his public call for an exit vote, declaring that “Labour will not profit unless it finds unity.”
Yet the debate within the British left is hinged on two more fundamental questions that resonate across the whole of Europe.
Could a British exit from the European Union really be anything other than a retreat into nationalism, vindicating the right-wing agendas of figures like Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Heinz-Christian Strache? And could voting to remain in the E.U. ever be part of a radical rejection of the status quo?
The launch of two high-profile initiatives may be decisive in answering the second of these questions.
On Feb. 9, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis plans to unveil his Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 in Berlin, the aim of which is to unify existing transnational initiatives and articulate an alternative to “those who wish to return to the nation-state and those who accept Europe’s undemocratic institutions.” He will be joined by representatives from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and the Balkans in the hope of inaugurating a “new beginning” for trans-European activism. While the U.K. has been largely absent from such discussions in the past, supporters, including Owen Jones, hope that the launch of a new international movement by a household name will help to popularize such a perspective in Britain.
Of course, the immediate result of the U.K. referendum will be determined primarily by groups already active within Britain.
Until now the pro-European case has been dominated by a soft nationalist campaign called Britain Stronger in Europe, led by small businesses who support the E.U. in something close to its current form. In opposition to this a group of activists including Caroline Lucas, ex-leader of the Green Party; Marina Prentoulis of Syriza London; and Abdulaziz Almashi of Syria Solidarity U.K. will formally launch Another Europe is Possible, a “radical in” campaign seeking, like Varoufakis’s program, to build a Europe of democracy, human rights and social justice, and to do so from a specifically British perspective.
Michael Chessum, an organizer with the campaign, is clear about its remit: “The fundamental issue with the E.U. is with the governments that comprise it. Any pan-European institution existing in the neoliberal era would reflect neoliberal values.” While he emphasizes the “very real benefits” of E.U. membership such as freedom of movement, migrants’ rights and environmental protections, he insists that the starting point of the “in” case cannot be to defend the current institutions. Instead, the task as he sees it is to build a radical European movement while rejecting a perspective that is intrinsically tied to right-wing populism. “The dividing lines at this referendum are not about a right-wing elite in Brussels constraining a radical British government,” he said. “A vote to leave is a vote to leave on UKIP’s terms, not ours.”
[do action=”citazione”]The question for the British left is not “if” but “how” to oppose the authoritarian institutions of the Troika.[/do]
Advocates of Brexit must demonstrate that such a result would not fuel the right-wing populism that is spreading across the continent. Those advocating an alternative Europe, meanwhile, must move beyond rhetoric and articulate a real plan for how to achieve this. Without a coherent strategy for change, those fighting for an alternative Europe are unlikely to engage a general public that increasingly sees the E.U. as beyond reform.