Why debating Brexit is still vital for the left

John Palmer says a Schrodinger’s Brexit, neither in nor out, is the likely outcome from the May government unless Labour forces a General Election while keeping a people’s vote on the table 

The debate about Britain and the EU is not new, but the proposal to sever the links that have bound Britain to most of the rest of Europe for more than 40 years is vastly more radical than anything envisaged by the British state since the end of the Second World War. The context in Europe then is hardly recognisable today. So much has changed. We have had the great financial crisis. We have seen the undermining of many of the political structures and alliances that were forged during the Cold War. We have seen the rise of a hard right wing populism, above all the Trump Presidency and its imitators in Europe and globally.

This is not, as yet, an irreversible trend throughout Europe. It is not going unchallenged. But political reaction and economic protectionism is on the rise. The familiar international political and security architecture created in the post-war settlement is now subject to political rupture. The fragility of the global capitalist neo-liberal consensus based on unchallenged US power and the collapse of the Soviet Union is obvious. The fragmentation of that consensus represents in part a profound backlash against acute economic and social inequalities exacerbated by the 2008/9 global financial crises. Dramatic decline of electoral support has punctured the arrogant complacency of the centrist political consensus linking centre-left Social Democracy and centre right Conservative and Christian Democrat parties across the EU.

There is – in some EU countries – a growth in support for more radical left socialist and Green parties as well as of course for the Corbyn leadership of the UK Labour Party. But there are the stronger currents of support for hard right wing, and even some extreme right racist and authoritarian parties. Apart from Trump there is the rise of authoritarian regimes like Putin in Moscow, Orban in Budapest, and Erdogan in Istanbul who openly challenge existing democratic, civil liberties, racial and gender equalities standards. These trends give the Brexit debate a significance it could not have had 40 years ago.

A very early declaration in support of a United States of Europe was written in 1941 by left wing socialists and dissident Communists held captive in Mussolini’s notorious Ventotene prison in 1941 and then circulated by Italian anti-fascist partisans. For socialists the EU has become an indispensable terrain for radical, democratic, anti-capitalist economic, social and political transformation – for the class struggle itself.

The European Union is more than ever an essential arena in which the battle against monetarism, austerity, authoritarianism and bigotry has to be fought if it is ever to be won. The notion that Britain can win these battles on its own is risible. To doubt this is to fundamentally misunderstand the deep structural integration of the capitalist economies on this continent.

Quoting from Marxist thinkers can look like theological piety. But Marx did argue for the unification of Germany (even under Prussian militarism) because it provided an essential national framework in which capital was organising and in which workers urgently needed to organise. Leon Trotsky wrote after the First World War that the time was right for a united states of Europe, something he said even under the capitalist trusts would be “a massive step forward.”

It is impossible to conceive of a successful socialist strategy for sustainable growth and a reduction of gross inequality, implemented in isolation from those with whom we are so embedded in shared economic structures. There is no independent British car industry left that could take the UK in a totally different direction: there is only a German, French, Italian and US car industry in Britain – a reality duplicated across many other sectors. Even those suffering from illusions about a socialism in one country must realise that confronting the Googles and Amazons (and all big time corporate tax cheats) means action at EU level (if not immediately at a global level) or no effective action at all.

To urge a solitary (actually an isolationist) path is also to grossly overestimate the coherence of the UK as a ‘national’ state structure. We are seeing incipient signs of the disintegration of this state. Since Brexit, Scottish independence is again very much back on the political agenda. In Northern Ireland, the bastion of the old imperial union, the hard-line unionists are very worried that they’re losing the argument to those who say in a post-Brexit situation we need gradual integration with the Republic. The British state is hollowing out.

Labour’s Brexit policy and ‘Schrodinger’s Brexit’

Some of the things Corbyn said during the referendum are a big break from his past views and were very positive.  For example, at the launch of Labour’s remain campaign he said:

There is a strong socialist case for staying in the European Union… You cannot build a better world unless you engage with the world, build allies and deliver change. The EU, warts and all, has proved itself to be a crucial international framework to do that. 

The six tests that Labour has set for judging May’s eventual Brexit deal are a messy compromise between different wings in the PLP. But do all Labour MPs mean it when they say that if the tests are not fully met they will vote against the bill? It is not easy to see May securing a Parliamentary majority for anything but a de facto continuation of staying in the EU for years to come – but minus any democratic, law making or decision-taking powers. We are heading for what I have long been calling a ‘Schrodinger’s Brexit’: one where the UK is both IN and OUT of the EU at the same time (like Schrodinger’s quantum physics cat – alive and dead at the same time).

The Tory hard right and DUP rightly suspect she will come back with a deal whereby the UK will remain in the single market and customs union for an indeterminate period ahead (maybe past even the last date for the next general election) following a legal Brexit next March. The UK will be subject to all the related EU regulation across the economy, the ECJ will have ultimate legal authority and payments into the EU budget will continue.

This will certainly look to most people, whether Remainers or Leavers, as though we’re still in the EU. None of the much vaunted future global trade deals can come into force during this extended time in the Single Market and Customs Union. But we will have given up all our democratic and decision making rights in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. When Rees-Mogg says this is a “Vassal State” relationship he is right. But only if – and it’s a big if – May can secure a Parliamentary majority.

The risk of May succeeding in getting her way does not come from the left of the Labour Party or from the SNP, Plaid Cymru or the one Green MP. The potential threat comes from ‘moderate’ Labour MPs who already hint – like Lisa Nandy – about a duty to support a very ‘soft’ Brexit to avoid a No Deal outcome.

May could, however, still fall at the last stages in the negotiations. She may not be able to guarantee no hard border in Northern Ireland without having to accept the Vassal State option way into the next decade. That might be too much for the hard right and she might be removed as Tory party leader. But the EU is determined to secure an indefinitely guaranteed open border for as long as there is no agreed post-Brexit Treaty of Economic Cooperation with the UK.

So May’s strategy is to come back and say “Don’t worry, a formal Brexit will begin now but a Real Brexit is going to take a little longer.” The planned post-Brexit ‘transition’ is currently set to last from 30 March next year to December 2020 during which nothing really changes. But the government has now signalled this may have to last to the end of December 2021. There is even talk about extending it into 2022 (the year in which a new general election must be held).

Precedents suggest that negotiating such a massive new comprehensive free trade agreement usually takes around 5/6/7 years. May’s problem is how to dress this in ways that won’t lead to the complete collapse of the government and a historic split in the Tory party. This has the potential to sunder the Tories in a similar way to the Corn Laws issue, which left the Tories unable to achieve a majority government for decades.

The threats of hard Brexit are mostly bluff. Is there a possibility of no deal? It is conceivable, but British and EU capital desperately want to avoid that. The recent closure of the motorway to Dover while the authorities look for sites to build giant car parks and avoid the disruption of cross-Channel trade was propaganda. Like talk about no medicines, and planes not flying after a No Deal, it is designed to put pressure on the hard right not to vote down what May eventually puts to Parliament. A No Deal might happen by accident. But the final stages of the Brexit negotiations are being choreographed very carefully to avoid that.

Labour is right to say to May that unless you produce a deal that meets the six tests we will vote it down. Corbyn can also say that Labour is in a much better position to negotiate a much more satisfactory relationship. Labour is far more supportive of EU-proposed reforms on workers’ rights, anti-discrimination measures and tougher environmental controls than any Tory government. The EU knows this too and would likely allow more time and offer more negotiating concessions to a British government led by Jeremy Corbyn to get an agreement leaving the UK in the EU.

Labour, however, needs to spell out its willingness to be more positive in any new negotiations if it wins an early general election. It is worth remembering the ‘renegotiation’ of Harold Wilson in 1974/5 after Labour rejected the Heath Tory government’s EEC Accession Treaty. It is not unprecedented for Labour to go back and renegotiate with Europe. There is little in Labour’s programme to provoke hostility from the EU. No EU opposition has been expressed to the  proposed nationalisation of rail, energy and utilities, contrary to what Lexiteers have alleged.

The rest of the EU wants the UK to remain – renegotiating a completely new relationship after the past 45 years, post-Brexit, would be a nightmare. If Corbyn wins an election and says to Brussels ‘we would like urgent talks with you’ he is likely to meet a weary but a positive response. You don’t say ‘No’ to a newly elected government. The need for more time might require some extension of article 50. There may soon not only be a new government in the UK. There will also be a new European Commission taking office next year and also a newly elected European Parliament.  So any new negotiation will take time.

In terms of how Labour should approach a people’s vote, I have some sympathy with John McDonnell in not wanting to risk everything on a referendum – if we got anything like the same result as in 2016 the right would be on a rampage. The question is what happens if Labour cannot force an election? In that event, a People’s Referendum should remain on the table. There was a strong consensus on this issue at the party conference. The questions will be set by Parliament not by Government. It would make sense to have tripartite options: ‘support the package’, ‘reject the package’, or ‘reopen negotiations on membership.’

The problem with a referendum is that it can only be indirectly couched within a broader context of policies and arguments on inequality and social justice. I believe the best time for a referendum would be after a new Labour government had returned with its reform and remain package from Brussels. If that has to take place after March next year when we leave the EU, it should include an option to re-apply for membership on the terms negotiated with Brussels.

Meanwhile it will be crucial to work with progressive political forces elsewhere in Europe. Who might they be? Think of the Portuguese left coalition government, Podemos and its allies in Spain, France Insoumise (which has rejected any desire to leave the EU or even leave the Euro), the SDP left, Die Linke and the Greens in Germany, the very successful Green Left and its social democratic allies in the Netherlands and many social democratic and socialist parties from Greece and Italy to Sweden and Finland.

Now is the time for the British Labour party to call for more collaboration with the European left and centre-left parties on a common programme of EU reform and further democratisation. The Labour leadership could call a conference in London to debate the common threats we face and to prepare a common fighting platform to tackle the far right, corruption and climate change across Europe.

Labour should make it clear that following a Labour victory it will prioritise a Reform and Remain strategy for the UK. For now Labour should coordinate with the SNP, Greens and Plaid to ensure a progressive vote against the May deal.

John Palmer was in conversation with Mike Davis

John Palmer

John Palmer is a writer and campaigner on European affairs and a member of Greenwich & Woolwich CLP. He was the Guardian’s European editor from 1975 to 1996, and Political Director of the European Policy Centre from 1996-2006.