Lexit: looking forwards, not backwards

The EU is riddled with neoliberalism. Brexit has shattered the status quo, and presents an opportunity to the UK left. This piece, introducing our “Looking at Lexit” series, is paired with a “Lemain” argument by Julian Sayarer.

Xavier Buxton
21 September 2017

In 1975 Thatcher argued passionately for Common Market membership. PAimages/PAarchive. All rights reserved.“How’s Lexit treating you?” friends ask, sardonically. “Or is it Regrexit now?” I have to say that I’m not sure, but this I know: the European Union is no friend of the left. Its origins lie in the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s, which eliminated import tariffs within Western Europe; over the years this bloc has expanded its scope, powers, and borders, governing fishing policy, phone charges and asylum rights from Lisbon to Latvia; it has acquired a parliament, a president and a court, a social chapter and even a Charter of Fundamental Rights.

At its core, however, it remains a trade deal, like TTIP, with free-market neoliberalism embedded in its institutions. The results of 2016 referendum and the 2017 election present Labour with a historic opportunity to reset our economy, our civil rights, and our relationship with the rest of the world. The arduous pursuit of continued EU membership would, I fear, place all this in jeopardy.

The UK left has a long tradition of Euroscepticism. Labour campaigned to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum; on the eve of the poll, the Marxist historian EP Thompson colourfully dismissed this “spoof of internationalism” as a bourgeois fantasy of consumption: “a distended stomach, a large organ with various traps, digestive chambers and fiscal acids, assimilating a rich diet of consumer goods.” Far from empowering workers, he argued, it would empower their cosmopolitan bosses, who

… with their secretaries, their linguistic skills, their massed telephones, their expense-account weekends, their inter-locking euro-directorships, their manipulation of the rules and of the Brussels spouters, will always be smiling at the table, with the agenda cooked, the day before the workers get there.

He also warned that the Common Market would “distance decision-making from its subject” and “blight what remain[ed] of our active democratic traditions”. And its failure, he predicted, would provoke a “resurgence of bourgeois nationalist rancour of sensational intensity”.

Since the 1990s, certainly, Thompson’s complaints have found full voice on the right: the “bloated bureaucracy” and the “greed” of Brussels, the “metropolitan elite”, the “democratic deficit”. On the left, meanwhile, Euroscepticism faded to the fringes.

Indeed, since the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1980s, a whole generation of British citizens have grown up to believe that the EU offers a progressive counterpoise to an increasingly conservative England. When Jacques Delors spoke of “solidarity” to the TUC in 1988, they chanted “Frere Jacques!”, bringing a tear to the eye of the Président de la Commission. New regulations protected workers from discrimination, guaranteed maternity pay, and safeguarded the environment. Reviled by the Tories and the tabloid press, this “red tape” was the red flag of my millennial generation: these rights were what we stood for and fought for; these were the fruits of a century of labour struggles.

But this isn’t the only story of the EU. Many on the left were shocked by the treatment of Greece in 2015. Democracy was shoved aside to impose a brutal programme of austerity aimed more at discipline than deliverance. Yet this was no aberration from the principles of the EU, but rather their logical consequence. Quietly, since Maastricht in 1992, the Union has rediscovered its free market foundations.

In 1997, the Stability and Growth Pact established strict rules for budgetary discipline in Member States; the Pact’s “Excessive Debt Procedures” (EDPs) were reinforced by the “Fiscal Compact” of 2012. Osborne obtained a UK opt-out from this Compact, but the struggling economies of southern Europe are forbidden the tried and tested tools of Keynesian policy: any government that borrows more than 3% of its GDP faces economic sanctions. Some contend that these EDPs are all bark and no bite, because no fine has ever been paid; but the bark does its coercive work, driving down deficits across the continent even in times of crisis. Austerity is thus written into the treaties of the Union.

This neoliberal turn is not confined to fiscal policy. While workers have benefited, on the whole, from tighter regulation, the ECJ has increasingly undermined the rights of trade unions. In 1988, Delors promised the TUC that “cooperation” would be as important as competition in the new single market, but the ECJ’s Viking and Laval judgments place a company’s freedom to do business above a union’s right to strike.

And while economists have argued that the downward pressure on wages caused by immigration is “infinitesimally” small, “posted workers” – foreign employees posted to another member state by a foreign employer – have no right to the wider privileges won by unions in the country where they work. The EU, it seems, has no qualms about this two-tier labour market: Cameron’s plan to limit in-work benefits for EU migrants met with little opposition in Brussels. But solidarity is the watchword of the left: no one is protected unless we are all protected.

Freedom of movement is perhaps the most polarising of European issues: while the Tory press has fanned the flames of xenophobia, the left has admirably defended the economic and cultural contribution of migrants, and the benefits of open borders. But these borders are only open to a privileged minority: every week, new bodies are washed up on Greek and Italian shores, shameful testimony to the inhumanity of the EU’s frontiers; in Calais and Grand-Synthe, in Ventimiglia and Röszke, desperate refugees from war-torn former colonies are turned back from these “open borders” at gunpoint.

This year, European liberals denounced Trump’s plan to round up millions of illegal immigrants and deport them to Mexico without the right to appeal; but the EU announced a similar policy of mass deportation in 2016, sending thousands of unprocessed Syrian asylum seekers back to Turkey, in defiance of its international obligations. The EU’s migration policy is so cruel and destructive that Médecins Sans Frontières have cut all ties, rejecting any further funding from its institutions and member states. As internationalists on the left, should we too not distance ourselves from this deadly and discriminatory “freedom of movement”?


Europe’s open borders are closed to many of the most desperate. Photo by Rebecca Harms. CC.These arguments have been made before. The question that always comes back is this: “Yes, but what good would leaving do?” It is true that the UK political consensus has long been far to the right of most of Europe. On austerity, on workers’ rights, on immigration, the Tory party, and even New Labour, make Brussels look like radical socialists. In a much-shared article before the referendum, Paul Mason argued that the left should campaign for Brexit, but “not now”: a Tory-led Brexit, directed by Gove or Johnson, would see a gutting of workers’ rights, a brutal crackdown on immigration, Britain turned into a “neoliberal fantasy island”, adrift in the Atlantic. And so it seemed for a while, those twelve months between the referendum and the election, when the Lexiteers went very quiet; no Johnson or Gove, but a populist May government bedding down for a perma-Tory decade.

It was not to be. The referendum had broken the neoliberal consensus, and alerted the establishment to the polling power of the “left behind”. May’s Conservatives tried to position themselves as the party of Brexit, but it was Corbyn’s Labour that channelled the grievances of Leavers and Remainers alike. His success was built partly on a “constructive ambiguity” around Brexit, but the enthusiasm came from a social democratic programme that promised real societal change. A left-led Brexit, such as Mason sought, has become a very real possibility.

The election result seemed to confirm the views of many Remainers: that Brexit was a distraction from the problems of globalisation, not its solution. At root, some said, the referendum was a rejection of Tory austerity, not the “internationalism” and “progressive” politics of the EU. This has much truth in it. But the left should be cautious of this logic, for two reasons.

The first is that Corbyn’s policy platform, the manifesto that won him the largest point gain for a party since the war, and that many believe is a blueprint for tweny first century social democracy, could be obstructed by EU membership. As has been pointed out by others, Corbyn’s plans to renationalise rail, mail, and energy may fall foul of EU competition rules; at the very least, a Labour government would face challenges in the European courts.

State aid for British businesses faces similar obstacles. Some say these obstacles can be circumvented; others dismiss state aid as as re-heated Seventies socialism, the sooner abandoned the better. But Labour’s most innovative policies would also be threatened by EU membership. The use of public procurement to encourage responsible corporate behaviour and state backing for the co-operative ownership: the case law of the ECJ suggests both of these will be opposed in Brussels. We have waited forty years for a renewal of the left-wing policy innovation: we cannot afford to be checking every reform package against hostile EU regulations.

The second reason is strategic. Varoufakis recently revealed that he spoke to Corbyn and McDonnell before the referendum campaign, and persuaded them to back Remain. He warned them that the “UK would expend [its] political capital pursuing withdrawal”, leaving no room for their radical reforms. With Article 50 already triggered, I believe the opposite is the case. For Labour now to pursue a second referendum, in the hope of a different result, in order to remain part of a Union dominated by conservatives and reactionaries that may or may not someday transform itself into a socially responsible and democratically accountable superstate: this would be foolish expenditure of Labour’s political capital.

This is not an argument to embrace Theresa May’s Brexit, to facilitate the Whitehall power-grab. But nor should Labour seek to block the Brexit process altogether. In opposition, it faces a tough but not impossible task: to shape Brexit into Lexit. It should fight to keep the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to guarantee the rights of EU citizens; it should seek maximum access to European markets, while maintaining the independence of its governmental spending; it should seek continued cooperation on nuclear energy and membership of academic research programmes. Britain should control its own immigration policy, and Labour should work to make that as open, fair and inclusive as possible, for the mutual benefit of migrants from around the world and of a new thriving British economy, fuelled by the largest stimulus programme in our post-war history. This is a platform that Labour MPs, Labour members, and the UK as a whole can unite behind.

In 1975, EP Thompson perceived Britain to be on the point of momentous change. In the midst of a capitalist crisis, with a united British labour movement, he “glimpsed the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition … to a democratic socialist society … where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces”. The Common Market was capitalism’s last throw of the die. An independent socialist state, Thompson thought, would be best gift Britain could offer to its European neighbours. Only later could “a true idea of Europe … return: as a cautious federation of socialist states.” We stand, I think, at a similar crossroads. We must be bold enough to take the revolutionary turn.


Labour has popular momentum after the 2017 election. How can it best be spent? PAimages/Ben Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData