Whether Britain should remain in the European Union or not is, without doubt, a very complicated question. The consequences are difficult to predict and neither a remain or leave vote takes into account all that is required to fix both the EU’s or Britain’s problems.
But in debating that question, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you lie, one thing can be agreed: mainstream political discourse has failed us. Both in and out campaigns have been filled with surface-level debates filled with so much spin and deception that ordinary people have been left with a lack of trust. As a result of this – and following from years of dishonest austerity politics – a dangerous and palpable populism has been born. Despite Labour, a majority of Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party all campaigning to remain (equal to 83.7 per cent of the vote at the last general election), most polls show that the result is split down the middle or that Brexit has the slight lead. Though we have learned not to trust the polls so religiously, the contrast is still worth bearing in mind and where that populism can be seen most vividly is the outer fringes on both the Left and the Right of the spectrum.
Thankfully, the far Right’s populism has been well documented and the xenophobia, racism and hatred within the UK Independence Party and the British National Party are clear to see. However, what I want to argue is that the populism of the far Left, in socialists and activists, can be just as dangerous and it has manifested itself in a Left for Exit campaign – known as Lexit.
Firstly, it is worth noting that – unlike their adversaries on the right – socialists have developed a genuine critique of the EU and its problems. They recognise that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic as has been shown on numerous occasions with Greece. They recognise the threat that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the United States causes and how it subverts workers’ rights and rule of law. And they recognise that the EU – with member states having to adhere to principles of “free competition” and the “laws of the market” – as it stands, is a failed neoliberal project.
As such, I’m extremely grateful for socialists and other Leftists that have debated and raised awareness of these issues with intelligence rarely seen elsewhere.
However, it is in finding solutions to these problems and in advocating leaving the Union, I fear that socialists have turned their back on their own principles. I say that because true socialism has always been about an internationalist struggle for worker’s rights. But regardless of how you argue it: Lexit is neither internationalist nor does it advance workers’ rights – a view which I will now try and explain.
Firstly, those voting for Lexit have deluded themselves into thinking that they are taking part in a referendum vote that is totally isolated from the rest of the country. If they were to win, they believe that result will be theirs and theirs alone. The fact is, regardless of how you face it, socialists voting Lexit will be on the same side of the ballot as the parties of the far Right and every vote Lexit accrues will also be a sign of legitimacy to the parties of fear and loathing. That is hardly internationalist.
Another selling point of the Lexit argument is that it will lead to the collapse of the EU – that hated monolithic bureaucracy that imposes capitalism in the ways described earlier – but are the consequences of that truly understood? Breaking up the EU would have a far-reaching impact that I do not think most liberals have taken into account. Yanis Varoufakis – the only economist I can ever recall trusting and one of few politicians with genuine principle (probably why he did not last long in politics) – argues that European collapse, in short, would entail a deflationary spiral for every EU country that has depended on Germany’s economy. Not only would such a consequence have reverberations here at home, it would lead to such a gigantic economic depression on continental Europe that it is hard to imagine how xenophobic and right-wing politics would not take over. It is worth bearing in mind 1930s Germany and why political unions such as the EU were created in the first place.
What of workers’ rights? By leaving the EU, the UK may be able to establish a more socialist government at home, but is it realistic to think that the UK standing alone (ignoring the likelihood of another Scottish referendum) will be able to regulate global capitalism? Tax evasion is a good example. It is simply not possible to tackle an international web of zero-tax jurisdictions without a democratically elected cross-border authority that has the power and mandate to do so. The EU is not the full solution, but its punching power is far greater than a solitary Britain.
Lastly – and this is where the Leftist populism is at its laziest – a successful Lexit campaign, the argument goes, would be disastrous for the David Cameron and the Conservative Party. It would split the party, leave them without a majority, leading to a vote of no confidence and usher in a way for Jeremy Corbyn to become the country’s leader in a general election. That may be entirely true, and I would like to give David Cameron kick in the teeth as much as the next person, but the Brexit vote has much larger consequences than getting rid of a largely discredited leader on the brink of collapse. The referendum vote has an impact that will last a legacy much further than Cameron’s already tenuous career.
The EU does need serious reform, but why not reform it? I have yet to hear one argument from the Left as to why that is not possible. The EU’s effective constitution, the Treaty of Lisbon, was only signed in 2007 and came into force in 2009. Even institutions like the International Monetary Fund have started to question the effectiveness of neoliberal policy and there are already cross-border Leftists movements, such as Diem 25, that are trying to make the EU more democratic. Instead of turning our back, why not be centre stage in making those improvements happen?