Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to countenance a peoples’ poll on the Brexit deal is thought to be based on two major concerns – one his desire to respect the majority’s views on the need to control migration of EU citizen’s, which he appears to think can’t be adequately done if we remain. Secondly his adherence of the oft stated ‘fact’ that the EU has become a neoliberal, pro austerity bloc, unlikely to change. Therefore in an unspecified manner never detailed, we will somehow or other be better off outside it.
In this article I explain two things that Labour could demand of the EU as the price of reversing Brexit. They are likely to be accepted for two reasons. Firstly Europeans are still keen for the UK to remain in Europe, but most importantly the changes asked for by Labour would help tackle the social, economic and migration pressure that is causing the EU such problems, and could help regain the flagging support of the continent’s citizens. Finally it has the advantage for Labour that such a campaign for No Brexit plus some constraints on EU migration would then provide a reason for the majority of both leave and remain voters to put the party into No 10.
Curbing Freedom of Movement
I have explained in previous Brave New Europe articles the shifts in European opinion since the Brexit vote that has challenged the idea that freedom of movement is somehow writ in stone. German industrialist have called for Britain to be offered more autonomy over immigration, the European Commission’s recently tightened its rules on access to social security for those not in work and Richard Corbett MEP, leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament, made clear that when it comes to EU freedom of movement, that this is not an unconditional right and that Britain could strengthen controls as other EU countries already do.
Recently a report was published detailing a range of additional policies to manage migration and tackle some public concerns by including a system of digital identity verification to tackle illegal migration, the adoption of human capital points-based systems, labour-market reform to reduce exploitation in the workplace, and a national strategy for social integration to drive greater social contact and encourage an inclusive citizenship.
Shifting Europe from a neoliberal entity to one that improves economic, social and environmental conditions.
The European Economic Community was originally conceived as an exercise in economic interdependence to ensure that old enmities, particularly between Germany and France that had devastated Europe twice in the first half of the 20th century, never happened again. The so called golden age between 1945 and the seventies was the result of a mixed economy where government’s actively managed their economies to produce unusually high and sustained growth, together with full employment. This came to an end in the 70s when two massive oil price rises and a resulting dramatic slowdown in economic activity led to stock markets falls and recession. This enabled free market proponents to set about replacing Keynesianism. The focus on full employment and stimulating demand was gradually dismantled.
It was replaced with an alternative that prioritised price stability over jobs and focused on wage moderation and labour market ‘reform’ i.e. less labour rights and trades union bargaining power. This was the main route to achieve the new deification of competitiveness with its increasing emphasis on privatisation and the liberalisation of financial markets. These trends were strengthened at a European level by the signing in 1986 of the Single European Act (SEA). This resulted in the launch of the Single Market on the 1st January 1993, with its increasing emphasis on the four ‘fundamental freedoms’, the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.
The Single European Act was seen as a crucial part of the process of slowly and irreversibly centralising power in Brussels. The free market screw was further tightened by the Maastricht Treaty, which formally proposed the introduction of the single currency. This was followed in 1996 by the Stability and Growth Pact, which established strict convergence criteria for joining the euro. This was similar to the Structural Adjustment Programmes that the World Bank and IMF had imposed on developing countries in the 1980s, with disastrous consequences for their economies and for the poor in particular.
In 2002 the euro was introduced, and the eurozone now consists of 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union. Membership has resulted in a loss of sovereignty particularly in terms of setting the level of a state’s currency, since that is now controlled by the European Central Bank. As the economy of Europe floundered during the noughties, especially after the 2008 banking crises, the recovery programme has been dominated by austerity. This has decreased economic activity across most of Europe and increased unrest particularly in Southern Europe where its effects have been most severe.
The final nail in the coffin of the European Union, in terms of taking it ever further away from the economic security and prosperity for the majority provided in its first two decades, was the enlargement to Eastern Europe countries starting in 2004.
Following the accession of these states to the EU, migrant labour has been moving west in their millions whilst capital and manufacturing jobs have moved east. The numbers involved and the rapidity of migration has helped fuel the rise of extreme right parties across Europe. This situation was further exacerbated by the refugee crisis in Europe.
It is this daunting history which convinces many on the left that the EU is an unreformable monolith and that the UK is better off out of it – though how the economy will thrive outside is never detailed. However all those adverse aspects of the EU are capable of being changed. There is too reasons for this. One the populous has had enough of austerity and is looking for a change in direction. Secondly the neoliberal direction of the EU has been reversed in the case of Portugal. The country’s prime minister António Costa, who came to power in 2015 is unique among mainland Europe’s socialist leaders, in that he is popular and is pursuing a successful alternative to austerity. The previous centre-right coalition had imposed a punitive austerity programme, overseen by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Yet more than two years later, Portugal’s “left-wing exceptionalism” appears in robust health.
So much so that European parliamentarians applauded Costa on 14 March when he spoke of how his anti-austerity alliance had shielded Portugal from right-wing populism. He told MEPs that “What sets democratic politics apart from populism is that it does not tap into people’s fears… but instead gives them back hope in the future.” More than 270,000 jobs have been created over the last two years, while unemployment, which peaked at 17 per cent in 2013, fell below 8 per cent in December 2017 for the first time in more than 13 years. The government has increased state pensions, the minimum wage and public sector pay while cutting taxes and improving welfare benefits for the lowest-paid. The popularity of the government is a result of the support for its anti austerity approach after Portugal’s painful 2011 bailout, resulting in the biggest public spending cuts in 50 years and a deep recession.
The time is now auspicious for Labour to adopt a No Brexit policy
So given this, imagine if Corbyn changed his view and started aggressively campaigning for No Brexit and explaining that the Europe we could remain in would be reformed to control migration and end austerity Europe wide, as illustrated by the little known Portuguese example.
Of course to increase the potential for this change of direction by Labour will require them to receive support from trades unions and NGOs. At present such groupings are trapped in a bizarre cognitive dissonance over Brexit. On the one hand they know that the motives behind its leading lights are to drastically shrink the state and to force the UK into a race for the bottom via free trade agreements. The TUC and NGOs like Greenpeace have extensively catalogued the likely adverse effects of such trends. Yet on the other hand unions then babble about the potential for a ‘jobs first Brexit’ and environmentalists for ‘aGreen Brexit’ .
Its time for them to stop monitoring these threats and instead to take the logical next step to fight and reverse the actual threat itself. They could then put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to do likewise. Of course the EU needs improving, but outside it the UK will be a weakened orphan, scrabbling for scraps from more powerful trading countries like the US and China. A ‘No Brexit’ future would be a very different and more optimistic one.