Can Europe Make It?

On the June 8 UK general election : a strong and credible opposition

Main proposition: DiEM25 UK should refrain from supporting any particular party at this point. It should focus instead on outlining specific approaches to the Brexit negotiation process.

Vasilis Kotsidis
2 May 2017

Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved. DiEM25UK with DiEM25 as a whole is working out its stance on the forthcoming UK elections. See a similar debate here that took place regarding the French elections. Against a background of a first-past-the-post electoral system, together with various suggestions for tactical voting and progressive alliances to prevent a May/Dacre victory at the ballot box, here is an early contribution to the discussion. It is a personal view.

With the benefit of hindsight, the sudden announcement of a rather imminent general election should not have come as a surprise, given the current state of affairs at the UK-wide and European level. In proposing a stance that DiEM25 UK should adopt as an organisation, I have tried to take into account as many facets of the issue as my currently rather feeble mind can contain. Among them, it is worth noting that the announcement has taken place less than a month after the official activation of the separation process, while government officials have been complaining about the inadequacy of the specified duration of this process. It is also worth noting that the climate in the EU is not particularly conducive to the establishment and development of progressive, reformist ideas (to put it mildly).

The expectations for the negotiation that appear to be prevalent in UK public opinion are quite high. People, on average, seem to be expecting at the very least an improvement in their economic conditions, accompanied by a substantial reduction in total net immigration. Given the distribution of power and leverage in the negotiation setting, I consider it unlikely that the UK can achieve an economically non-damaging separation without major concessions linked to the immigration of EU nationals. This view may be wrong. However, if it is at all accurate, the current government is unlikely to be unaware of this. The announcement of a general election can be seen as supportive to this argument: had they expected that a favourable outcome is highly likely, they would simply have ‘gone for it’.

Poisoned chalice

In terms of strategic interplay, under the current circumstances, it must be an excellent move to pursue a general election on the part of the government. So much so, that virtually any excuse will suffice. Effectively, having just activated the separation process and being acutely aware of the relevant power relations, they can get better off by either stimulating nationalistic support for a drastic detachment, in which case the expectations will not be met, but the public will embrace the outcome nevertheless: or, apportioning the bigger part of the blame to any succeeding government for “failure” in the negotiations, they can always argue that they would have attained a far better outcome. Thus, both election-outcome possibilities appear favourable to them relative to their current situation. 

For this reason, I do not understand why anyone who is not part of the Conservative party would want a general election at this point in time. The view that “taking back control” (sic) from the Tories is the goal to be striving for appears to me to be a misconception or, at least, an incompletely specified position. It is important to remember that the negotiation process will involve an EU bureaucracy that shares a lot of common ground with the current UK government in terms of mentality and approach to politics and economics. If anything, a more progressive/left-wing government would be likely to induce them to adopt stricter positions, in order to quell internal unrest, discredit alternative policy approaches, and enhance their relevance to both the EU and the UK.

Besides, even the opposition’s reasonable attempts to protect the “interests” of European citizens translates, to a large extent, into dissatisfaction among UK citizens, due to either the economic implications of radical separation or the necessary concessions that accompany access to the EU single market. Navigation through the political minefield that this process constitutes is hard, if possible at all. 

Policy perplexities

In terms of political positions, it does not seem to me that the objectives of either the Labour party, or the Liberal Democrats, or the Scottish Nationalists are in line with average expectations. As a matter of principle, Jeremy Corbyn is more averse towards the current functioning of the EU single market than he is towards immigration (at least as far as I can understand it). And even if we can reasonably ignore his (supposed) disposition on this, the idea of a continued close relationship between the UK and the EU is rather nefarious (as has been pointed out elsewhere in this debate). In particular, what is commonly referred to as “tariff-free access to the single market” is a bit of a red herring. It is a nice, succinct way to outline one’s approach to international trade, but it completely ignores other, much more effective trade barriers. As the negotiations reach their conclusion, we should reasonably expect obscurities in the agreements that allow for such barriers to be preyed upon. More generally, compromises in the final agreement are unlikely to be taken lightly. If they were, then the current government would be in no need of a general election. And such compromises, in the form of maintenance of a close partnership between the UK and the EU lie at the core of the positions championed by the parties on the light-right, centre, and left side of the political spectrum.

On the other hand, a stronger mandate for the current government can be equally destructive. Summoning up support for a radical separation may not only undermine the social cohesion and short/medium-term economic performance of the UK, but also lay the foundations for more neo-liberal ideals in approaching economic policy and exacerbate the disparity between the UK and the “European” identity. In this case, even pragmatic economic underperformance will be readily attributed to the “hostile and vengeful” disposition of an obscure federal superstructure. This scenario is particularly dire for DiEM25 UK, as its narrative on the non-viability of the current EU organisation will be taken independently of its call for reform and appropriated by organisations that advocate the alternative of nationalist isolationism.

Strong and credible opposition

Given this state of affairs, and bearing in mind that the proposal for a general election has been approved, I think that it is essential to preserve the integrity of our positions. I think that, right now, if we support any political party, we will effectively interlace our narrative and appeal with theirs.

In addition, our involvement may be detrimental for their long-term prospects. Personally, for example, I do admire Jeremy Corbyn for maintaining a principled stance in a predominantly sophist-minded environment. And although the event of him becoming the next prime minister may end up working really well for both the UK and the EU, I at the very least, will regret the fact that he will have to either take the blame for or clean up after someone else’s mess. Worse, if this, rather optimistic scenario where the mess is actually cleaned up does not play out, the stage may be set for the neo-liberal agenda to be granted absolution and dominate the country’s politics for a substantial period of time afterwards. And in that case, a strong and credible opposition will be necessary.

Finally, I do apologise for taking such length to develop a simple argument. Even after five years, I am still struggling with English. If you have made it this far, thank you for your patience.

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