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Mission (im)possible? The British left and the future of Europe

A recent gathering of left-wing activists shows the idea of a reformed Europe is being quietly abandoned – but is this the group to trip up hard Brexit? 

Jen Stout
26 April 2017
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A Remain protestor holds a sign at a pro-EU demonstration in June 2016. Flickr/Ed Everett. Some rights reserved. During the EU referendum, one campaign group provided a counterpoint to the uninspiring cadre of centrist politicians and bankers heading Stronger In. Another Europe is Possible, with links to Momentum and to Varoufakis’ Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), tried to provide the radical argument for an ‘in’ vote. Hosting events headed by figures like Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas, and Varoufakis himself, the campaign drew large crowds - but failed to take back the anti-establishment ground from the right-wing Leave movement.

Part of the problem, perhaps, was that the ultra-simplistic and shouty debate prompted by the referendum permitted no nuance or complexity. To argue for membership of an institution which you readily admit is deeply flawed is difficult. It requires saying several things at once: We should remain because it will benefit us - but only if we reform Europe - to do so we must remain. This kind of complexity was largely drowned out by rich men shouting ‘CONTROL’ and lying on buses.

There were of course many other factors at play on 23 June last year. The triumph of right-wing narratives about the economy and immigration, about power and control, has not been a purely British phenomenon. Many, many words have been printed on failure to engage, or convince, or succeed; all the while much of the English left has been busy fighting for, or over, Corbyn.

However, with hard (and unknowable) Brexit looming, and the US election spurring street protests across the UK as elsewhere, Another Europe activists reconvened, holding a day-long conference with Global Justice in Manchester. With the slightly wistful title Another Europe is Still Possible, the day was more focused on Brexit, and finding a way forward for a rather battered and bruised English left.

The conference saw the launch of Another Europe’s ‘Progressive Deal’: a raft of demands, from human rights to environmental protections, with which they hope to influence the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

Notably, this is a campaign against the form negotiations could take, rather than Brexit itself: it aims to challenge the extreme stance of the government, and the secretive nature of negotiations so far. A few participants’ wry suggestions of blocking Brexit outright were met with an almost embarrassed silence.

Despite the headline of the event, ‘possible Europe’ was something of an elephant in the room. The six demands focus on maintaining links between EU and UK institutions in science and education, rather than any attempt to change the EU itself - understandably, perhaps – and mentions of pan-European movements such as DiEM25 were infrequent and often pessimistic.

“We must participate in a Europe-wide movement for change”, Andrea Pisauro explained, “but it’s a terrible task - fighting both battles at the same time, changing both the UK and Europe”. 

“We must participate in a Europe-wide movement for change”, Andrea Pisauro explained, “but it’s a terrible task – fighting both battles at the same time, changing both the UK and Europe”. Pisauro, who was involved in the Another Europe campaign during the referendum, said he struggles to see the options for progressives at this point. Echoing the generally uncertain mood of the conference, he feels the status quo to be “untenable”, but is not sure what strategy the left can pursue. 

As an Italian activist, Pisauro looks to the EU elections in 2019 as “our best chance to transform Europe”. Recently having moved to Scotland, he believes that a second independence referendum there could provide “leverage to moderate the negotiating stance on Brexit” – an idea heard throughout the day.

Few speakers or participants had good words for the EU in its current state, though the SNP’s Chris McCusker made a rather vague claim that “Europe means anti-austerity”, and MEP Julie Ward emphasised the useful work done by her group of radical parliamentarians in Brussels. An appeal from a DiEM25 member to “remember the aim is to change Europe” was not met with much enthusiasm by the audience. 

As is often the case, many of the speakers described the depth of the current crisis convincingly, but were less concrete on the solutions. Local MEP Julie Ward spoke of the jeering of jubilant far-right politicians over Brexit, as seen from her vantage point in the Brussels parliament. Scottish Greens co-convenor Maggie Chapman summed up recent trends: the brutal effects of austerity; ramped-up racism and xenophobia; and just days earlier, the violence on Westminster Bridge. 

Author and Labour activist Owen Jones talked of the recent attempts to “portray dissent as treason”, with emboldened right-wing newspapers now using the language of the 1930s to attack the judiciary. Looking at the bigger picture, Jones argued, it’s clear that the phenomenon of the ‘sore winner’ – Brexiteers blaming social and economic problems on “remoaner sabotage” – is an attempt to “use Brexit as a counter-revolution, to drive back the hard-won gains of those who fought racism, sexism, homophobia and all the rest”.

Like many of the speakers, Jones emphasised the need for a “compelling narrative” that addresses the concerns of those who voted for Brexit – the left, he said, must not let a “vacuum” be filled by the right again.

Maggie Chapman noted that the right-wing narrative of “blaming Europe, immigration and legislation”, built up over 40 years, has been effective. “They’ve told people a convincing story about what’s wrong with their lives, country and world. The left has hoped these fears would go away”, Chapman continued.

But to make any progress, she said, “we need active, engaged citizens”. This sounds both eminently sensible, and hopelessly far-off, given the fractured state of British democracy and the anger and apathy many feel towards the political class.

In the months since the referendum, Another Europe has been active in organising anti-Trump and EDL protests and highlighting the rights of migrants in the UK. A new initiative by Momentum offshoot The World Transformed will see events held in areas “often neglected by politics”, under the banner Take Back Control. It has the potential to be genuinely fresh and interesting – if, as one sceptical audience member phrased it, they avoid the cringeworthy spectacle of activists parachuting in from Hackney.

It’s hard not to see the real action, though, taking place in London. It was noteworthy that those speakers with the sharpest focus on a specific issue – Zoe Gardner on migrant rights and Sam Fowles on the Great Repeal Bill – emphasised the continued importance of political pressure and parliamentary procedure. With a still-shaky Labour party, the efforts of campaigners in achieving legislative amendments and influencing new policy are surely still critical.

The Brexit process is going to be a “major campaign priority”, confirms convenor Luke Cooper. The government’s plan to use so-called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses to bypass parliament has made headlines recently; researcher Sam Fowles hints at an upcoming stunt involving a Tudor barge sailing from Hampton Court, alongside aims to get substantive amendments into the bill.

As Another Europe organisers admit in the conference leaflet, such “high level lobbying” has taken up much of their time since the referendum, and they now want to build more grassroots activity “outside of London”.

Whether this can happen through the upcoming ‘Take Back Control’ events, or future street protests against Brexit or Trump, remains to be seen. The organisers certainly aren’t lacking in talent – the Manchester conference was smoothly run, the leaflets useful and concise. People were eagerly gathering up bundles of well-designed posters to share with friends. No one, at least in the sessions I attended, monopolised the Q&A to ramble about minor theoretical points. Isn’t this part of the frustration on the left, though – a sense that you can do everything right, and still fail to gain ground?

But nothing is certain now. The political ground can shift with alarming unpredictability – as demonstrated by the prime minister’s surprise announcement shortly after the conference. In just a matter of weeks the UK will once again go to the polls – and with the Labour leadership struggling to find a coherent position on Brexit, and the party’s right wing resurrecting Blair once again, can the radical left take the lead?

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