By Eva Nanopoulos
On the 23rd June 2016, 52% of the UK population voted to leave the European Union (EU). This is the first such referendum in the history of European integration. Several Member States have voted, sometimes twice, on the ratification of various EU Treaties and the Greeks were called to decide on an austerity package that, for many, implied an exit from the Eurozone. But no Member State to date has considered, let alone voted against, its continuing membership of the EU. The result has been unsettling for many, including on the left. But there is little time for quarrels or mourning. This is a plea for the left and others concerned about the rise of the right to act quickly and decisively. In or out, this is no longer about campaigning one side in a binary referendum. This is an open political crisis and the stakes are higher than ever. We need to:
- Build a strong coalition. Yes, there are issues with the British left. Yes, there could have been a stronger Lexit campaign (Left exit). Yes, Corbyn could have done more to counter the anti-immigration discourse. In fact, Corbyn could have led the Lexit campaign. For some, he could even have been a Lemain. But this was a referendum called by the right, for the right and under terms defined by the right. There was limited space for other discourses and campaigns, particularly in the mainstream media, which proved to be an echo chamber for the scare-mongering of both the official ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ camps. Within this context, an exit or remain vote for the left became primarily a question of strategy rather than of shared values or critiques of the EU. But just as strategies depend on the political and socio-economic conditions on the ground, so do they change as new conditions emerge. Brexit represents a dramatic change of paradigm. The issue is no longer, or not only, about Europe, but about reaching out to all those whose lived experience has been (and will be) defined by discrimination and alienation and start rebuilding what is clearly a very divided society. In this we must unite, or fail.
- Support Corbyn. Many issues remain to be determined on the political scene. Who will lead the Tory party? What will happen to the Tory party? When will Article 50 of the EU Treaty be triggered? What will the UK-EU deal involve? What impact will this have in other Member States? But one thing is clear: in the present political conjuncture, with the entire political establishment in crisis and xenophobia on the ground, a Corbyn-led Labour party is the only political road to a progressive Brexit – ProgrExit as Paul Masson coined it. The Labour Parliamentary Party is already on the offensive, calling for Corbyn to resign. Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party is the only event that managed to mobilise people en masse, and particularly the youth, in over two decades. Whatever one’s criticisms of Labour’s campaign during the referendum, now the strategy dictates that we rally against attempts to depose Corbyn, call for a general election and ensure that he wins. If the PLP overthrows Corbyn, calls a leadership election and refuses him a place on the ballot, major trade unions have already suggested that this will lead to a break up of the Labour party. Members should resign en masse and others on the left join or support them.
- Fight against Racism and Xenophobia. Yes, the mainstream referendum debate has been concerned primarily with immigration. Yes, it has unleashed and sanctioned the racism underpinning much of Britain’s imperial legacy. Yes, the left, including the Lexit campaign, has failed to hegemonise a strong counter-narrative. But that doesn’t mean that the 52% that voted to leave are racists, or xenophobes or have any affinity with the right. The result is also the product of long-standing and growing inequalities and an increasingly alienated and marginalised working class. The risk is that the result will be used and mobilised by the far right. We must not let this happen. We must fight for a different interpretation, if not of the result, then of the concrete consequences of Brexit after the referendum, and unite against the vision of the Farages and the Goves. We must denounce racism and xenophobia wherever we see it and organise against those that attempt to make it a defining feature of post-Brexit Britain. To the extent that this was an anti-establishment vote, we must turn it into a progressive anti-establishment vote.
- Build a genuine internationalism. The mainstream debate about the referendum was primarily concerned with immigration, but it was not only about EU immigration: it was about a specific racialised, class-based immigration, about a ‘refugee crisis’ which the UK has been actively trying to contain, articulated with reference to an underlying rhetoric that multi-culturalism (rather than austerity) has failed and undermines the ‘fabric’ of British society. Many EU citizens will feel shocked, unwelcome and even angry at the result. We must show them that there are other more authentic and inclusive forms of social solidarity than the market-driven version of citizenship defined and practiced by the EU, which excludes those without the necessary economic means to ‘remain’ and has done little to foster a genuine European demos. But Brexit is also the opportunity for a real internationalism that does not stop at the EU’s borders and that transcends the Euro-centrism of EU citizenship. The EU’s Europeanism has been constructed around the exclusion of the non-European ‘other’. It has involved violently policed external borders, forced discipline to the EU’s liberal and economic values and ideology for ‘deviant’ and ‘inspiring’ Member States and virtually no rights to non-EU citizens. Internationalism is about social relationships, shared experience and solidarity. It doesn’t know of nations, races or borders. Citizens of Islamic faith have already been under sustained attacks under this government, with policies like Prevent working to deepen and entrench their marginalisation within society. Non-EU citizens are already subject to an earnings threshold of £35,000. We must support them now more than ever.
- Put forward alternatives to austerity.Yes, the referendum was a choice between two forms of neo-liberalism: the US-inspired neo-liberalism of the Tories, which has involved sweeping cuts and large-scale privatisation and the German ordo-liberal EU-imposed fiscal discipline and austerity. But Brexit could create the conditions for a new binary. After Brexit, it will no longer be possible to blame the EU for a stagnating economy, unemployment and deepening inequalities. Neo-liberal policies will appear for what they are: an ideological project, which benefits only the few whilst simultaneously unravelling the entire social fabric. The space will open for the articulation of an alternative, the success of which could have a domino effect across the rest of the EU. Neo-liberalism was rolled in the country of Thatcher; let it die first in Britain too.
- Build Alliances. There is much in the Brexit vote that is specific to Britain. But there is much that stems from conditions that are common to the entire EU. The far right is on the rise across Europe. The Freedom Party almost won the Austrian presidential election. Its first leader was a former Nazi official and SS office and when the party entered into a coalition government in 1999, the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions against Austria. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National may well become the next French premier. The far right is already in power in Poland and Hungary and has made real gains in Parliament in Sweden and Germany. In Greece, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn remains at a steady third place in Parliament. Walls and fences have been erected in three countries in response to the refugee crisis and many more have re-introduced border controls. Calls for a referendum on EU membership have been made in several Member States. We need to build alliances with others in the European left. We need to ensure that any disintegration of the EU does not involve a return to closed borders, isolationism and ethnic nationalism but the opportunity to re-define our relationship with our neighbours and beyond.