Why I've changed my mind on Brexit

I've argued that the left should campaign to leave the EU. But now, I'll vote to remain.

Aaron Bastani
9 June 2016
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Aaron Bastani, Novara Media

I’ve been a critic of the European Union for quite some time. While previously aware, at least vaguely, of its democratic deficit – as much a commonplace on A-leveI politics exams as the vocabulary of the eurosceptic right – I only really became acquainted with its harsher side while studying EU trade policy with the Global South as a graduate student. The more I learned, the more angry I became. While leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest countries promised to ‘make poverty history’, often through aid programs, EU trade, and furthermore agricultural policy, was entrenching under-development. Where others saw free movement, solidarity and growth, I saw a mask for colonialism and grotesque exploitation.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that I have argued for Britain to leave the EU over these last few months. While its likely Britain outside the EU would have a trade policy just as objectionable as the EU does at present, at least initially, my reply has been it would at least be subject to democratic accountability. Trade policy, you see, is a competence held by the unelected European Commission. Want to change it at the ballot box? Tough.

And it was more than just the EU’s trade policies that I couldn’t abide. Over the last five years it has also become increasingly clear that the organisation’s undemocratic tendencies have shifted to outright anti-democratic. In 2011 both Italy and Greece found themselves landed with governments they didn’t elect, regimes favourable to perma-austerity and willing to make any sacrifice necessary to protect the integrity of the Eurozone. Mario Monti, prime minister of Italy from 2011 to 2013, and elected by precisely no-one, left a significantly smaller economy than he inherited. What’s more, his labour reforms, which were meant to mark a turning point for the country, have led it to greater economic inertia than ever before. 

That shift, from un- to anti-democratic, has been accompanied by a certain fanaticism among Euro-friendly elites. In 2014, with Greece running a primary budget surplus a year ahead of schedule, Antonis Samaras – then Greek prime minister – reached out to Angela Merkel to ease back on austerity. Deficit reduction may have been on track, but the country was still enduring 25% unemployment. Samaras’ concern, ultimately justified, was that further cuts would be politically untenable ahead of another general election, and that a Syriza-led government would almost certainly follow. That analysis proved entirely correct, and yet Merkel and the Troika did nothing. 

A similar sequence of events has unfolded in the last few months between Merkel and the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi. In May Renzi called for a ‘Migration Compact’, including greater European investment in Africa, stronger common border controls, additional channels for legal migration, joint EU-Africa bonds to finance infrastructure and growth projects, EU migration bonds, and, finally, resettlement schemes as compensation for those countries, primarily Italy and Greece, to establish national asylum systems in line with international standards.

There was much to be commended about that proposal, and it was good politics for both parties. Southern Europe would see heightened legal migration from North Africa and the Middle East in exchange for funding and more room for infrastructure investment. That would placate the German electorate’s increased concern with migration, while offering growth and job’s to the continent’s south. Again, Merkel said no, much to the chagrin of Renzi

despite the disdain for democracy, the zealotry and the legacy of half a century of colonialism, I’ve changed my mind

It is such obstinacy, equally evident in last summer’s dealings between the new Syriza-led Greek government and the Troika over the terms of the third Greek bailout deal, which may bring about the demise of the Eurozone. Any currency union, particularly one consisting of nineteen member states, requires comity, particularly from its leading nation. 

And yet despite the disdain for democracy, the zealotry and the legacy of half a century of colonialism, I’ve changed my mind. I’m almost certain to vote ‘remain’ on 23 June. Why?

For starters, I don’t think the EU is likely to be meaningfully reformed, let alone democratised, any time soon. That would require political will not only in France and Italy – where it already exists to a certain extent – but Germany too. Take one look at the polls and its painfully clear that while the politics of Greece, Spain and, yes, maybe even Britain, are up for grabs, Germany’s CDU (and Bavarian sister party the CSU) reigns supreme. While Merkel has lost serious political capital over the last twelve months in regard to migration, that has benefitted the far-right rather than the left. Europe’s historic party of social democracy, the SPD, recently polled at 21% (it has since improved) while the ultra-nationalist Alternativ Fur Deutschland garnered 14%

That’s not to say change is impossible. Caroline Lucas, a person I hugely admire, thinks it’s doable, as does the increasingly heavyweight John McDonnell. What is more DiEM25, the pan-European organisation founded by Yanis Varoufakis, has one simple, powerful demand: to concentrate the EU’s sovereign powers in the elected European Parliament. Elegant and easy to understand, if any frame can succeed in changing the organisation, it is that. We should settle for nothing less, though it won’t happen any time soon.

Nevertheless, any hope for reform, however distant, is not what underpins my change of view. While I had hoped for a Lexit campaign, it simply hasn’t materialised. The explanation for that is relatively straightforward: once Jeremy Corbyn had plumped for ‘remain’, the left got behind him. In both instances that made sense. Corbyn did not want to split the party and jeopardise his leadership, while his supporters, many of which have been historically eurosceptic, saw a bigger prize on view, namely power. 

Last year Jon Trickett said he would be part of a left exit campaign, while Owen Jones advanced a strong intellectual argument in the Guardian. Even Unite the Union, Britain’s biggest, allegedly came close to campaigning to leave. While the radical left would likely have run a strong, distinct Brexit campaign under New Labour – probably with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at its heart – that hasn’t happened this time. This is not to blame individuals, rather it is to accept that the unexpected event of high office, and potentially forming a future government, has made a radical left exit campaign impossible this time round. In the last few weeks, with not a single major Labour figure backing leave, this has become painfully obvious. 

While I had expected a debate often framed in the xenophobic argot of UKIP and the Tory right, I also expected greater scope for left-wing arguments. The centre, as we know in times of crisis, tends to move in either direction. And yet the left, when it comes to advancing radical arguments on trade, migration and agricultural policy, has done much the same as it has since the late 1980s, very little. I think that’s partly a result of seeking power, yes, but also an assumption that the general public does not agree with its views and objective. For my money you can’t win an argument on migration unless you have an argument on migration. What is more, liberal, multinational institutions are no meaningful bastion in protecting worker and migrant rights – trade unions, social movements and, yes, even governments are. 

At present, neoliberalism – weak unions, high profitability actively facilitated by the state, flat wages and minimal regulation – is a technical inevitability. My hope was that once outside the EU, it would become increasingly obvious that it is, in fact, a political choice. While in the short term the right would stand to gain from leaving, that popular realisation – of neoliberalism as a set of conscious and therefore changeable policies – would have to be a necessary first step in overcoming it and challenging a globalisation made-to-measure for the 1%. I still believe that, but the current context – of euroscepticism now transitioning to outright xenophobia – is simply too great an overhead. 

“Last week I visited my hometown of Bournemouth… what I found surprised even me”

Last week I visited my hometown of Bournemouth to talk to people about which way they were likely to vote. While I expected a cocktail of pro-Brexit sentiment and working-class Toryism, what I found surprised even me. In the space of a few short years the unspoken has become explicit. These people are angry, they are angry at the demise of ‘England’ – read end of empire – they are unhappy at declining living standards, and they are unhappy with a Tory party which they consider out of touch with ordinary people. The problem, at least for Labour under Corbyn so far, is that many, and this is likely replicated across the South and North, view UKIP as the only alternative. In politics predictions can be pointless – and four years is a long time – nevertheless, I would be very surprised to not see UKIP win even more votes in 2020 than they did last May. 

As Anthony Barnett has rightly pointed out, it is not Britain which will choose to leave, should the vote fall that way, but England. A TNS poll conducted over the last week found that, among those sure of their preference, 71% of Scots would vote to stay in the European Union. England is angry, not only at the demise of its ‘place in the world’, but also its absence of political and cultural institutions. An absence of political representation at Westminster isn’t blamed on the media, the electoral system or political parties, but on Brussels. For Scots, with Holyrood and parties of their own – foremost among them the SNP and Scottish Greens – that is less of an issue. 

So the dynamic at work behind rising xenophobia and racism is about more than just the European Union. Rather, the EU has become a cipher for broader discontent which is both economic and ideological. Economic in that contemporary globalisation, apart from an annual package holiday, isn’t perceived to be of net benefit to most Brits. Euroscepticism tends to correlate with economic isolation with Cumbria, South Tyneside and Southend-on-Sea some of the most Eurosceptic parts of the country. While only thirty miles separate Bognor from Brighton, when it comes to Europe they are polar opposites. Many prospects for UKIP growth are also, unsurprisingly, excluded from any prosperity Britain produces. In addition, however, it’s also ideological. While the year in the Gregorian calendar may be 2016, for a generation of Brits it will be forever 1945.

What has made that particularly toxic, and is the fundamental reason behind me changing my mind, was the intervention of Jean Claude Juncker last weekend when he told Le Monde that “Deserters (i.e. a post-exit Britain) will not be welcomed with open arms”. What is increasingly clear is that while Britain is the world’s fifth-largest economy, offering a market of 65 million, it is of paramount importance for European policy-makers that Brussels has no discernible backwards gear. In the context of the never-ending crisis of the Eurozone, formal mechanisms for member-states to leave present arrangements are viewed as an existential threat.

That means the EU would have no choice but to make an example out of the UK, just as it did with Greece last summer. So what would that look like? Slow renegotiation of the EEA while watching capital flight and external direct investment contract, and far more besides. That would provide even greater reason for the right to back austerity – only now we would need to ‘pull together’ not because of Labour profligacy but, if Osborne becomes the next PM, a kamikaze mission led by Boris and UKIP, or if Boris does, the perfidy of authoritarian Europe. A significant recession within the present dynamic of increased anti-migrant sentiment, and an obvious candidate to blame – Brussels – would be fertile ground for the ultra-nationalists and far-right. While the left is much stronger now than it has been for quite some time, it lacks the resources and figures of national profile to take on such arguments from the only position that makes sense: an anti-austerity, internationalist one. 

While I’m now backing ‘remain’, I’m convinced the forces at work have become much bigger than whatever happens on 23 June. What is more, the right wing of the Conservative party, along with an increasingly assertive UKIP, want the end of freedom of movement for European migrants – whatever decision the British public makes. That means it is necessary to construct a movement for migrant rights that covers both EU and non-EU nationals alike. The outcome of a fortnight’s time is no guarantee of anything, and, for my money, measures just as reactionary as what would happen if we leave can still transpire if we stay.

I still agree with every criticism I have made of the European Union. What is more, given the domestic politics of Germany, not to say the continued rise of the far-right in places like the Netherlands and Austria, I see democratisation as unlikely in the medium-term. Nevertheless, from a British perspective, many of the long term trends are in our favour for a different kind of politics. The present situation, therefore, demands we avoid the worst case scenario and screwing that up. Over the next two weeks we need to campaign to stay in, yes, but of equal importance is working out what we do if Britain does indeed leave, or, if we choose to remain, when someone else does. Voting to remain is a defensive, risk-averse option. We should do it knowing that far greater challenges lie ahead, requiring new kinds of thinking and new forms of action.

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