Can Europe Make It?

Why DiEMUK shouldn’t take a precise position on the Brexit negotiations: OR, why Britain is screwed

Let’s focus on the battles we want to win, not the ones we’ve already lost.

Gary Dorken
6 May 2017
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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May during their meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Oct., 2016. Xinhua/Press Association. All rights reserved.DiEMUK 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.

I recently argued with a few DiEM members on Slack that we shouldn’t be taking a precise position on what kind of deal Britain should be seeking with the EU, now that Article 50 has been triggered.

Alas, the opinion seems to have been quickly formed that I was trying to prevent debate. I wasn’t, but I do think debating this is potentially damaging at a time when we are just getting started, and our efforts should be geared towards recruitment, talking about our core ideal of democratic reform in the UK and the EU, the rewording of the New Deal for a UK audience, and the manifesto. But, let me have a go at defending why I think we shouldn’t get too drawn into the Brexit debate.   

The best way to illustrate my point, perhaps, is to go back to the reason that we are all here: Greece, the EU, and our muscular-faced swashbuckling economic hero, Yanis Varoufakis. I'm sure I don’t need to lecture any of you about Greece’s fate at the hands of the EU. But for my purposes, this quote from an interview with Yanis on his negotiations with the EU, will help:

Interviewer: You’ve said creditors objected to you because “I try and talk economics in the Eurogroup, which nobody does.” What happened when you did?


YV: It’s not that it didn’t go down well – it’s that there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. … You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on – to make sure it’s logically coherent – and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply. And that’s startling, for somebody who’s used to academic debate. … The other side always engages. Well there was no engagement at all. It was not even annoyance, it was as if one had not spoken.

The result of these negotiations was harsh austerity measures being forced on Greece, against the will of the Greek government, the Greek people, and against what might be considered good economic sense (see for example Paul Krugman’s blogposts for the New York TImes). Sticking with Krugman, here is his comment after the Greek government accepted the austerity measures proposed by the EU in 2015, just after Yanis resigned:

“In a way, the economics have almost become secondary. But still, let’s be clear: what we’ve learned these past couple of weeks is that being a member of the eurozone means that the creditors can destroy your economy if you step out of line.”

A recurring theme is that sound logical economic arguments takes a back seat to EU wrangling.

This encapsulates the problem that the UK might face in years to come, and why devising some sort of theoretically optimal position for the UK in the upcoming negotiations is pointless, at least for DiEM. Politics is not an academic exercise in rationally weighing up technical solutions; it’s a mash of interests, ideas, prejudices and passions. And this only gets worse at the supranational level of the EU.

The sovereign debt crisis that engulfed the EU and hit countries like Greece especially hard provides an ideal example of this. The ideas that policymakers held and the stories they constructed to frame the problem may have had as much weight in the resulting outcomes as practical concerns over economics or trade. These stories are not necessarily rational or fair: they can form from collective memories, or differing perceptions over their countries’ perceived strengths (e.g. ‘profligate Greeks’ vs. ‘prudent Germans’).

Moreover, It has been suggested that much of the paralysis from the EU over the debt crisis comes from the complexities of EU leaders needing to communicate, debate and convince not only each other, but also the market, the media, and finally their own public. These struggles can effectively be thought of as games being played by different players on different tables all at the same time. Here is Vivien Schmidt, a political scientist, on this idea:

“The EU has an extremely complex decision-making system with multiple institutional actors and a dizzying array of governance processes. Therefore, taking any steps in response to the sovereign debt default crisis is difficult not just because of uncertainty over the best course of action but also because of the sheer number of actors from whom agreement was necessary.”

Too much of the current debate in the UK about the forthcoming negotiations has quite rightly been criticised as being focused solely on the UK’s position, without considering the EU perspective. In essence, it’s the politics, and the ideas surrounding those politics, that may well take a front seat rather than any concerns of optimising our economic positions.

Worse, politicians won’t just be thinking about the EU; they’ll be thinking about their own publics who they will have to face in national elections. The UK therefore needs to make a deal that will satisfy EU leaders, the markets, and the publics of 27 different EU countries. And looking at those publics doesn’t inspire confidence. A poll by Ipsos MORI found that across EU countries as whole only 30% think Britain should be offered favourable terms (compared with 56% in the UK). This is at its worst in France where only 19% say the UK should be offered favourable terms, and right now a new president is about to be elected, who will need to unite the French public. Maybe Brexit will provide that opportunity.

In summary, the EU is a mess. This isn’t news; it’s why DiEM25 was formed! And I actually also say that with a great deal of affection. I think the idea of forming a rigid set of propositions over Brexit, given that we’re at least a year away from those types of negotiations starting, and given how complex the negotiations are likely to become, is simply not in our interest, or within our expertise as an initially small group of people who are doing this on a voluntary basis.

Beyond complexity

If David Cameron feels that he shouldn’t have to “do all the hard shit” of Brexit, I certainly don’t see why DiEM should be so eager to stand next to the fan just as that shit is about to hit. Again, I’m not suggesting DiEMUK has no position on this issue. DiEMUK will always be part of DiEM25. The ‘E’ stands for Europe. Yanis Varoufakis, the co-founder of DiEM25, will always be asked about his opinions on this subject, and those opinions, such as that the UK should seek a “minimal Brexit”, will always be associated with us. But taking and discussing precise positions, such as our membership of the customs union or whether we should be part of the EFTA but not the EEA, are not apolitical. As shown by the early debates within DIEMUK, even the simplest proposition, such as whether UK job seekers should be prioritised over EU ones, is highly contestable and can be upsetting.

I think this would be my final point. It is far from clear at the moment what DiEMUK is, and what people want it to be. I’ve been to a number of meetings, and been involved with the manifesto, and the wide range of ideas that people come up with has amazed me. For some, DiEM should be focused solely on democracy and how to bring about democratic reform in the UK. Others are excited by the New Deal. Still others continue to see us as an extension of DiEM in Europe. People have suggested democracy cafes, regional discussions, DiEM ‘universities’. People have talked about unions, the control of money by the banks. In a few months I’ve been educated and energised by people’s many ideas and passions.

I always go back to the meeting in January, and what Yanis said there. My conclusion was that what we needed to be doing most of all is coming up with progressive ideas and policies that help address the basic questions of how to make life better for people. The vote to leave the EU gave many an opportunity to voice the dissatisfaction they feel at how the UK is being run. What DiEM now needs to be doing is addressing the problems that are at the root of the vote to leave the EU and proposing the real solutions that are needed.

These include democratic reform of the UK, so people have real power to vote for the change they want at every election, not just referendums. Policies to tackle underemployment. Policies to tackle gross regional inequalities. Innovative policies that can create opportunities now, while not destroying the environment. Policies that harness the power that currently exists within the capitalist systems we have to unleash people’s creativity. Many of these things transcend Brexit, indeed they transcend the EU and the UK. The vote to leave the EU is the wrong solution to real problems; we need to offer the right solution.

To me, therefore, we shouldn’t be engaging with Brexit by setting out a precise technical position as if we were in government. It’s not that hard to see that in the best-case scenarios Brexit is going to be a shit show. We’re not a political party, but even if we were, our message should be different. We’re never going to be governing, so we have the space to offer up the true solutions that people need.

By debating and coming up with detailed policy solutions for the future Brexit negotiations that will probably never see the light of day, but will potentially annoy or alienate many of those who might otherwise join us, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Let’s focus on the battles we want to win, not the ones we’ve already lost.   

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