View from the European left

Josef Weidenholzer says the UK departure from the EU should not be the start of blame games

From its early beginnings, the European project was following the mode of an ‘ever closer union’. Gradually, more and more national responsibilities became common competencies shared by a growing number of member states. It was commonly embraced as an obviously irreversible process. 

For Eurosceptics this was always hard to take. David Cameron particularly focussed on this issue when he negotiated his ‘EU reform deal’ ahead of the referendum. ‘Remain’ was to mean yes to the EU, but not on the ‘ever closer’ ticket. Mission impossible: too vague and not a good enough argument to convince people against Brexit. ‘Leave’ promised a clear and final cut. As it turned out, this was not achievable. The impact of being a member in the bloc for almost half a century could not be undone with one stroke. As a result of its EU-membership the UK’s DNA had become substantially European. It took over four years to finalise Brexit and the solution reached was unsatisfactory.     

Even the Brexit hardliners had to realise that this common heritage could not be conjured away. They are, meanwhile, caught in an ‘ever looser’ trap. Brexit has not always followed pragmatic arguments, and this fight against the UK’s EU past is veering into the irrational.

The future of relations between the EU and the UK should not follow these pathways. Unfortunately a series of blame games is looming, as the vaccine battle already shows. Progressives on both sides should do our utmost not to fall into this habit. Nationalists and right-wing populists will use every shortcoming to fuel their political business model with distortions, some merely satisfying the interests of their foreign donors who are primarily interested in weakening European co-operation based on shared values.

The Left must concentrate on solving problems, in contrast to the populists deliberately fabricating them. Our driving force is hope not fear.          

The European Left – no matter whether inside or outside the EU – has to become seriously engaged with real issues: an environment securing the survival of mankind; an international order respecting multilateralism and non-violence; safeguarding equality and non-discrimination at all levels; a just society caring for everyone; and, of course, universal appreciation of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.  

This requires international co-operation – on a global level and obviously in our geographic neighbourhoods. On a European level, the progressive family provides a set of well-established institutions and think tanks, such as PES, ETUC, FEPS and Solidar. These bodies should be used as platforms for the exchange of ideas, and to develop joint activities such as tackling the rising global threat of the far right, developing new and fair mechanisms to manage migration, combating tax evasion and the undermining of social standards. 

Regardless of being a member of the union, ‘Social Europe’ must be at the core of every progressive. Not having delivered on this essential issue was one of the most deplorable shortcomings of social democracy when it was determining EU politics at the turn of the century. This failure contributed substantially to the rise of the far right over the last decade. The Left lost significant parts of its electorate because people felt neglected and ignored.  

To bring about Social Europe means engaging in new answers to the fundamental technological changes which have entirely transformed working conditions and labour relations. Solidarity is always needed, but it has to be organised in a different way. One of the consequences of the coronavirus crisis is that we need more and efficient public services. Progressives have to deliver in this respect and build on the experiences made throughout their own history. Europe offers a wide range of good practices that even the US Left is looking upon. Answers to the new challenges cannot be found through the nationalistically biased attitude of exceptionalism; they have to come from cross-national endeavours appreciating diversity and otherness. 

Our common history – having the UK as a highly valuable member of EU – should not be in vain. It makes us ready to master the truly historic tasks ahead of us. Identifying common problems and trying to find progressive answers could bring us even closer than ever. 

After Brexit, the EU did not break apart as its enemies were forecasting. Although its membership decreased, the union became closer and the level of integration became deeper even, moving towards common debt issuance. It is getting more and more evident that the EU is a long-term project with good prospects. It can prevail without the UK. Vice versa, it is not really that clear. 

Nevertheless, Europe will always be a torso without Britain. It has been decisively shaped by the UK’s contribution and this will not vanish.

The Left should take the lead in learning from the mistakes.

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