Can Europe Make It?

DiEM25 and Brexit

As the rollercoaster continues, one account of the evolving perspectives of a pan-European movement.

Rosemary Bechler
2 April 2019, 8.33am
Screenshot: Yanis Varoufakis on Question Time in Sheffield, March 28, 2019.

DiEM25's first official stance on Brexit was debated and decided in this and this all-member vote in autumn 2016. With that vote, DiEM25 supported the view that the result of the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU should be respected and that debate should concentrate on an outcome (amongst the many conceivable Brexits) that kept Britain as close to the EU as possible. DiEM25 should fight for the kind of Brexit that would give the British people the maximum power to decide what future relations between their country and the EU should look like, a decision raising major constitutional and other issues none of which had been decided by the stark binary referendum. DiEM25 adopted the position that Article 50 should be triggered in order to achieve a Norway-style (EEA) agreement.

In the event, support for a Norway-style agreement has only emerged late on in the process of negotiation, its treatment as a serious alternative circumvented at every turn hitherto by the Tory Government. This was for three reasons. The main reason was because Theresa May sought to push through a deal which would unite her bitterly divided Tory party and at the same time, exclude the Labour party and other parliamentarians from any substantial participation in the settlement. This meant appeasing the European Research Group and the DUP – both of whom are happier with a No Deal or what has been referred to as a ‘hard Brexit’ than any other option. Early on May committed to leaving the customs union and single market and curtailing freedom of movement as her red lines, and any questioning of such assumptions was simply drowned out by her oft-reiterated phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ Writing in the week after the March 29 supposed guillotine on the UK’s departure from the EU, the debate over these red lines has not yet taken place. Finally on April 1, such an attempt by parliamentarians, with or without Theresa May, to find such a compromising majority will begin to be made.

The second reason for failure to grasp the UK’s best chance to unite around a holding operation that could ultimately lead to the strengthening of democracy, was the increasingly polarising attitude of those campaigning for Remain. Remainers refused to recognise the need to move away from a winner-take-all logic that has done them no favours, and the damage that would be inflicted on UK and UK–EU relations by attempting to annul the referendum result. They also failed to acknowledge deep-seated democratic impulses behind the Leave vote. These included a profound dissatisfaction with the era of austerity presided over by both the UK and the EU since the financial crisis, and what was felt as a loss of sovereign powers of self-determination. Leavers were caricatured as idiots for criticising an EU that seemed to those campaigning for Remain to have overnight shed its own profound democratic limitations and growing signs of disintegration. They were fools for believing what they were told after the referendum, when both government and parliament insisted that its outcome was to be decisive.

(Arguably, as we shall see, no one had fully taken on board the implications of a situation unprecedented in Britain’s long constitutional history. The EU referendum had introduced an entirely novel concept into the unwritten UK constitution, namely the sovereignty of the people – which on this occasion had promptly trumped both the government and the parliament. More on this later.)

Thirdly, the complaint was frequently raised, inside both main political parties, that membership of the EEA for such a big player as the UK would involve a humbling loss of status in which Britain would be “turned into an EU rules-taker rather than a rules-maker’. In a packed meeting in the House of Commons in January 2018, hosted by Labour for the Single Market and Open Britain, and chaired by Chuka Ummuna MP, Yanis Varoufakis countered this particular objection:

Suppose that we finally succeed in having a five-year, renewable Norway-style agreement after March 2019. This affords the House of Commons the opportunity to have the debate in peace and quiet and without a ticking clock and a gun pointing at their heads, of what they want in the longer term... What we must also preserve is Britain’s presence in European politics, in the progressive movements in Europe that are necessary in order to make the European Union sustainable, democratic and a realm of shared prosperity…

But Britain does not have to be an EU rule-taker if it strikes a Norway-style agreement. Allow me to be very specific in three areas here. One is labour market standards and protections for wage labour. Secondly, environmental standards and the protection of the environment. Thirdly, financial regulation. Nothing stops Britain in a Norway-style agreement from setting for itself and for any company working within the United Kingdom, higher regulatory standards for the City of London, higher environmental standards, higher minimum wages and higher standards for defending wage labour.

So instead of thinking of the EU single market rules as the ceilings: think of them as the floors! And think of Labour as the party that will campaign out there for improving the environmental standards, labour standards and financial regulation standards of Brussels and Frankfurt.

This gives the narrative of Norway plus a magnificent oomph. It allows us all, we progressives, to move in this country from a defensive stance to an inspirational one. Norway plus as a way of getting our country back, as a way of making Labour the hegemonic power in the United Kingdom, as a way of defending our environmental and labour standards, putting the financial genie back into the bottle where it belongs.

Work with us across the English channel, along the lines of what we in DiEM25 are proposing as a European New Deal. You don’t need to be in the European Union formally to do this. One last example and I will conclude. To its credit in the last election, Labour went to the voters with a proposal for a Public Investment Bank (PIB). You desperately need this in this country. Imagine you create it.

In Europe we have the European Investment Bank (EIB) of which you may no longer be a member, or maybe you will still be one. But it really doesn’t matter either way. What can stop us, on both sides of the English Channel, from coordinating the issuance of bonds from your new, Labour-instigated, Public Investment Bank with the activities of the EIB, soaking up the excess liquidity in the financial sectors of continental Europe and the City of London; and having the Bank of England in synchronicity with the European Central Bank cooperating to purchase those bonds of your PIB and our EIB in order to fund something like 5% of GDP every year invested in good quality jobs along the lines of a green energy union and green transition? Nothing.

We can simulate that. We can simulate that situation as if Britain had never left the EU, and actually produce a situation in which Britain is far more integrated in the EU than it was under Thatcher with the opt-out – where I would sit next to George Osborne in ECOFIN and he would never open his mouth unless there was an issue that affected the City of London. That was not Britain in the EU…

So, let us stay together, and let us work towards a Norway plus progressive Brexit that changes Britain, changes the EU, and in the longer term allows us to imagine a second referendum that will bring us all back together.

Brexit as a democracy-free-zone

Theresa May has acquired something of a reputation for ‘Not doing debate’. Setting aside her preference for conducting the Brexit process as a secretive Whitehall operation, everything May has done since inheriting the binary referendum result on the UK’s future relationship to the EU has been an avoidance of debate, from the resistance of the UK government to seeking parliamentary approval for Article 50 or to a “meaningful debate” on the final deal, to the ministerial power grab over the Withdrawal Bill and secretive plans for trade deals, the marginalisation of the devolved nations, the refusal of plan-B discussions, and the insistence that “Brexit means Brexit” through months and years in which it has become increasingly clear that no-one has a clue what Brexit means.

This last formulation, uttered in that impatient tone of British common sense which is always a sure sign of the windowless circularity of ideology, turns out to have been the most deceptive and effective for the reactionary forces at play. It has allowed her to choose her own red lines without any explanation or accountability, and at the same time persuade a large number of Britons that “We know who we are”, with the inevitable result that any attempt to subject those red lines to democratic debate is now being met with cries of ‘betrayal against democracy’, a sentiment swiftly stoked by a Tommy Robinson-led UKIP and Farage’s “Jarrow march to London’.

So there are two key debates that Theresa May has so far succeeded in avoiding during her seemingly lonely tour of duty that really matter today, one traditional, the other highly innovative. The first is surely the debate and discussion – let us call it ‘voice’ as opposed to ‘vote – at the heart of a liberal democracy: democratic debate leading to compromise between legitimate political adversaries. And the other, which we will come to soon, is what Emmanuel Macron is currently wrestling with in France, where one-to-many governance is also historically challenged by the many-to-many communications era in which we dwell, i.e. the setting up of a permanent framework for deliberative political debate for people who want to have a say in their own futures.

May’s total unwillingness to forego her own red lines and reach out across the political parties to seek a majority is only now, amazingly, surfacing into popular consciousness. The main casualty here has been parliamentary sovereignty. Yanis Varoufakis pointed out the irony early on:

“What, philosophically-speaking, is the most powerful argument for Brexit? Sovereignty – returning parliamentary sovereignty to this great House. What! There has been no discussion in the House of what kind of Brexit the country wants. Even the way that European legislation is transcribed into British law has been taken away from this House, and moved to a Tory Cabinet …The Brexiteers are in the process of brutally murdering the sovereignty of this House of Commons.”

As the months have passed, we have learned quite a lot about the dark money fuelling the Leave publicity campaign. Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who funded Leave.EU, describes his as a ‘very simple agenda: to destroy the professional politician’, complementing the opposition to public service professionals that thinking Conservatives espouse. The politics of continuing polarising referendums advocated by such forces, accompanied by the proliferation of enemy images through one-to-one psychometric messaging, is designed to give their own anti-politics a stable institutional form adapted to the conditions of the UK. A guiding strategy is to stall action by elected politicians, leaving the way clear for others to exercise power in their place.

Even more shocking than this toxic interference, however, was May’s pursuit of the same anti-politics in the October Conservative party conference after the referendum, when she argued that those who said she could not trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval were attempting to subvert democracy. Albert Weale outlined the underlying argument in his timely polemic, The Will of the People – a modern myth. He explains how May’s argument begins:

“ by equating the will of the people with the outcome of the referendum. It goes on to equate government policy with the referendum result. It ends up by equating government policy with the will of the people. In consequence, parliament becomes the enemy of democracy and has to be replaced with government by executive decree. And all this in the name of the will of the people!… One people; one will; one-party state.”

May has remained wedded to this logic throughout the two and a half year period designated by Article 50, in which she has argued that the sole options are her bad deal or a no deal crashing out. It is only as her government lost control of the process in March 2019, that the democracy on which a liberal democracy depends – ‘democratic debate leading to compromise between legitimate political adversaries’– was able to break out in a limited manner which as we write may be too little and too late. Instead, the tragedy of Brexit in which our processes of decision-making have oriented politics around political combat rather than deliberation and problem solving, has ensured that so far whatever Britain does, around half the population will question its legitimacy.

By October 2018, activists in DiEM25UK, seeing how the wind was blowing felt that not only was Norway + unlikely to get a look in, like all the other alternatives to May’s Hobson’s choice, but that the Tory rightwing which seemed to have May in its thrall, were increasingly committed to a No Deal Brexit. During the summer, the government had suffered significant resignations over its Chequers plan which was widely criticised within the parties supporting the government and vehemently opposed by all the opposition parties. There was no convergence in sight on the terms of the Brexit bill.

The state of the negotiations between the UK and the EU left us increasingly concerned about the absence of honest debate about Brexit in Britain. We wanted to campaign for the inclusion of marginalised voices whose lives would be permanently altered by the decision, but who had been given no say in the referendum – 16-18 year olds, EU citizens resident in the UK who had begun to be subjected to May’s ‘hostile environment’, and UK subjects who had made other European counties their home. But we were also crucially aware that the vast majority of UK subjects, leavers and remainers alike, from many different strands of persuasion, had had no chance to exchange their views in the crossfire between two adamantine enemy images. As Nick Inman commented in July 2018, “I have never heard anyone speak up for those who think the EU is a terrible thing but on balance, the UK should stay in for a little while longer and figure out the best course of action calmly” – a starting point many a DIEMer, as it happened, might identify with.

More than two years after the referendum and one and a half after triggering Article 50, there was still no clarity about what the government, the Parliament, and the country as a whole, wanted. There was, in fact, utter confusion and division at all levels. The only thing that was clear, despite the Prime Minister’s insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, was that a No Deal would be a catastrophe for most of us. Some of us wrote to the DiEM25 coordinating collective – didn’t we urgently need to update our position? We agreed that what was needed was to move away from May’s ‘my way or the highway’ logic. We issued a statement:

With the deadline for Brexit approaching fast, time is running out and we are facing either a terrible deal negotiated by Theresa May or a no-deal disaster. In view of this, the UK National Collective and the Coordinating Collective believe that a one-year extension of the two-year period in which Brexit must be concluded (under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) is necessary to allow democracy to breathe again.

However, legally speaking, an extension to Article 50 must be agreed to by both London and Brussels. The EU will only agree to a one-year extension if this extra time is requested to consult the people of the UK, either via a general election or a referendum. Giving Prime Minister May more time to continue squabbling within her cabinet does not qualify.

So DiEM25 CC and DIEM25UK NC are proposing to oppose both a Theresa May 'fudge' and a Tory-Trump hard Brexit, and instead to consult the people of the UK by calling for a one-year extension of Article 50 in order to organise a general election. We argue that in such a polarised process, this is the only way to have a full debate in which all options are alive (Mrs May's deal, Hard Brexit, DiEM25's choice of Norway-style Brexit, No Brexit etc.) that can clear the air and settle the issue democratically.

However, there was a disagreement between the proposers of the motion from the DiEM25 cc and some of the members and initiators from DIEM25 UK NC over the possibility of the UK participating in the EU elections. Two options were therefore put before the entire DIEM25 membership for their decision. They were urged to visit the Members’ Forum for what soon became an extended debate on the issues raised by this choice between the two Calls:

Option 2, proposed by Yanis Varoufakis on behalf of the CC, sees the inclusion of an extra call by our pan-European movement for UK participation in the EU elections ( Option 1) as likely to exacerbate the division between UK Remainers and Leavers. Under option 2, DiEM25 would campaign for a one-year extension solely in order to enable an all-options-on-the-table general election to take place so that a new government, with a real mandate, can complete the UK-EU negotiations.

The CC is concerned that, after Leave won but before Brexit is settled, exhorting UK voters to participate in the EU elections will only have the same polarising effect as the People’s Vote to ‘Stop Brexit’ and the shift towards Remainers in the latest polling. To be consistent with our Norway plus criteria, the CC believes that leaving our policy as currently framed is preferable to Option 1.

The thematic DSC, Take back control of your EU rights, and a few members of the UK NC are concerned that omitting to mention the opportunity for UK participation in EU elections which could happen in case of extension, will backfire on our campaign, and believe that EU elections could provide another chance to democratically discuss what to make of Brexit, giving a voice to those EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU who will suffer from Brexit, but who have had no say.

Nevertheless, there was much that we agreed on. We were in profound agreement that whatever the terms of the People’s Vote, this way of deciding the outcome did not show enough respect towards the original referendum result. Another referendum that threatened to annul the first could only lead to a further toxic polarisation of opinion. The enemy images introduced into the referendum debate by mercenary propaganda firms backed by far right financiers like Steve Bannon had already paved the way to incivility and even murder before the result. But if anything, the following two years had seen rising levels of racism and xenophobia, and further polarisation of opinion. We were not convinced that this toxicity prevented debate: on the contrary, we felt that, as Gordon Brown put it, “by opening a dialogue across the country and engaging in a constructive, outward-looking conversation about our future” we might discover “a road back to a more cohesive country, reuniting around shared values and rediscovered common interests.” A comprehensive People’s Debate was the only way to restore democracy to the UK and at the same time renew it.

In formulating this position, we return to the second type of debate that Theresa May’s Government is determined to avoid. This is indeed a ‘return to the people’, but one that allows them a far more constructive say than any People’s Vote. Rather, what the Brexit process has revealed is the urgent need for a rolling People’s Debate throughout the UK, one recognising for example the regional and national identities within the UK’s partial devolution – one that enables people to listen to each other and to move on from their respective positions. Such a cross-the-board, in-depth consultation about the future we want for the UK and for its relationship with the EU, could see people become rulemakers in a renewed democracy.

It is exactly the same revolutionary possibility, thrown up by 20 weeks of struggle by the Gilets Jaunes, that Emmanuel Macron has put so much time and effort into preventing just across the Channel in France. He may succeed this time round. May might get her deal through using all her bartering power. But this can only delay the historic reckoning which will ultimately save and renew democracy across the European Union. In the many-to-many communications era, if violence and mayhem is to be avoided, not only power, but also the essential feature of a liberal democracy – ‘democratic debate leading to compromise between legitimate political adversaries’ – has to be devolved to the people. And if representative democracy is to survive, it will be because of the positive contribution that the people’s elected representatives make to this process. Meanwhile this dual relationship between parliamentary and popular sovereignty, fighting back against an overweening executive, is gradually taking centre stage.

We are convinced that the people of the UK, like the other peoples of Europe, all of whom have their own national versions of a rising nationalist far right, a democratic crisis, a wrecking austerity, and scapegoating enemy image of migrants to deal with, can only become ‘rulemakers’ when we have more of a democratic say at both levels of decision-making – building a consensus on all those major issues that can no longer be ignored by power, and vigilant enough not to let ourselves be manipulated, divided and conquered within and between nations, over and over again.

We can already identify several key issues that the Brexit process, in itself a democracy-free-zone, has thrown up for democratic decision in such a People’s Debate: the British constitution, including the creation of an English parliament or multiple regional English assemblies; the electoral system and the role of referenda; the Irish question, including the possibility of joint UK-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland; migration and freedom of movement; Britain’s economic model, particularly the outsize role of finance and the need to boost green investment across the country; and of course the UK-EU relationship.

In addition to these issues, there is an essential role for people’s empowerment as such in combating the rise of rightwing nationalism, with its ‘strongmen’ leaders. We must cultivate the skills of compromise with all the ‘others’ in our diverse societies, beginning with the vital skill of listening to each other. DiEMers in the UK have differed over which of these processes has to come first and among which constituencies if we are to secure the progress of the rest. In the end, Yanis’ motion, which warned against being seen to disrespect the referendum’s leave voters by urging participation in European elections won the day among DiEM25 members by 80.26 % of the vote. Ultimately, it is the people deciding what their own priorities are in such a process of rich exchange that will bring about the changes we all need. This is the kind of Europe and indeed the world that we democrats are waiting and working for. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the only alternative to polarisation and violence.

What happened next?

That decision took place last November, and the situation since has changed several times. Since the referendum, Yanis Varoufakis has been consulted frequently about negotiating with the EU, and has always insisted that it is impossible to negotiate with the EU, and that May’s approach in conceding the two stages of negotiation, the Withdrawal Agreement as a precondition for the political settlement, had already sold the pass. He has always pointed out that the ticking clock of March 29 as the deadline hanging over the negotiators’ heads would force all players to delay showing their hand until the very last moment, and that this in itself would prevent any meaningful negotiation.

In the new year, he came to the decision that the extension of Article 50 was not the way forward, since this could only prolong the game of chicken. He has resumed DIEM25’s original position, recommending a Norway plus – whose basic principles we have always attempted to honour – as a viable holding position and backdrop to a People’s Debate.

DiEM25UK activists, meanwhile, are largely convinced that winning some kind of extension of Article 50 – the longer the better – is vital for preventing a calamitous No Deal. They are calling for a delay of the guillotine for at least one year. In reality, Brexit negotiations to settle almost everything which still needs to be settled, will take more years than that. So one big self-deception which is now gripping the UK is the idea that we must just “get on with it”, whatever “it” is. And that something will then have been irretrievably settled.

DiEMers remain in substantial agreement on two points. Firstly, that we need a change in government to ensure any truly democratic outcome to the Brexit process: hence we call for a General Election. Secondly, that we need to find that format for “opening a dialogue across the country and engaging in a constructive, outward-looking conversation about our future” suggested by Gordon Brown as the only way to “reunite around shared values… and common interests”. But what form could this People’s Debate take? Some UK DiEMers, inspired by the Citizens Assembly on Brexit which took place in Manchester, led by the Constitutional Unit of UCL in September 2017, have begun to look into the possibilities of an issues-based people’s convention on Brexit which could accompany the years of negotiation which still lie ahead for the British people in this process. This might consist of a process of regional citizens assemblies, culminating in a UK-wide constitutional convention.

Who knows, perhaps we are destined in the twenty-first century, to see the democratic checks and balances currently unsatisfactorily divided between popular elections and ‘elites’ of some kind, replaced by the combination of people as represented by elections working alongside people as represented by sortition or lot, a powerful bulwark against the power of elite and interest groups. An additional house, the People’s Chamber, as suggested by citizens’ juries theoretician Nicholas Gruen, might join the other two in the UK. In or out, such experiments in deepening democracy, alongside those of the Gilets Jaunes and the digital city, and many others, will feed into our thinking about and campaigning for a “permanent framework for deliberative debate for people who want to have a say in their own futures”, not least at the European level where a call for a European constitutional assembly is a key demand of DiEM’s European Spring partners in the first transnational party with a coherent programme to participate in the EU elections this May. If a People’s Chamber – for England, for Britain, for both? – begins life as a rolling convention on Brexit, this hapless political mess will have been worth the struggle.

The end of a roller coaster?

However, we cannot expect the spreading constitutional crisis in the UK to have gone unnoticed by the forces of reaction who have been so successfully driving this process hitherto. As the Times reports, a majority of cabinet ministers now favour leaving the EU with no deal. In the parliament, the number of Tory MPs happy with a sudden exit has swollen to about 200. This is obviously not a parliamentary majority, but it is big enough for the Tories to self-destruct. Our biggest fear for next week’s EU summit is that EU leaders will bounce the ball back to the UK at the final minute. With the summit scheduled for April 10, there would be a window of two days until the scheduled Brexit date, during which the House of Commons may have a chance to vote on unilateral revocation as the final way out. The result is that the probability of no deal has risen.

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