Why ‘remain and reform’ is the only progressive position

Soft Brexit means preserving the pre-referendum status quo with no possibility of contributing to change, writes Mary Kaldor

June 18, 2018
9 min read

In spite of the way Brexit dominates the news cycle, most people don’t seem to want to think about it. We tend to screen out the endless mess too-ing and fro-ing of the negotiations and the associated embarrassing and painful shenanigans within both political parties – and hope that it will all be okay in the end.

From a progressive perspective there is no good Brexit, so we cannot simply hope that it will turn out for the best. There is no satisfactory route out of this convoluted process; indeed that is why it is so difficult. There is only bad or slightly less bad Brexit – each version is associated with the two dominant political narratives -right-wing populism versus global liberalism. Sleepwalking into disaster is not an option.

Bad Brexit is what is known as a hard Brexit. This means leaving the customs union and the single market. Hard Brexit is associated with nationalism and racism; a clarion call to the rising tide of xenophobia and right wing populism throughout Europe and North America. It would most likely spell the break-up of Britain, with a united Ireland and an independent Scotland. It means tearing up the European regulatory framework. It would make the remnants of England a dream land  for oligarchs, arms dealers, frackers and the like. It would end up with a poor inegalitarian bigoted closed-in England.

There is of course a left version of hard Brexit. The idea is that if we separate ourselves from the EU we can build socialism in one country. There was always a problem with this notion as the Soviet experience showed – but nowadays it is fantasy. We live in an interconnected world where we cannot shut off flows of goods, people and capital without huge costs in terms of prosperity, human rights, and everyday life.

The argument that we would be freer to provide state aid to ailing industries defies the reality that countries like France and Germany already provide far more state aid than we do within EU rules and that, outside the EU, our capacity to provide state aid would be hugely diminished. But most importantly, the Lexit argument fails to take account of the politics of Brexit, the fact that the left would need to ally with right-wing Brexiters to achieve a hard Brexit and would play into the populist nationalist appeal of Brexit.

The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that a soft Brexit, or slightly less bad Brexit, is more likely. The softest Brexit means staying in the single market and the customs union so that in economic terms, everything more or less stays the same. But we would not be part of the decision-making procedures  and would have not say on the future evolution of these institutions. We would probably be consulted but, as the Norwegian Prime Minister made clear in an interview with the Today programme, this is not the same as political participation. A semi-soft Brexit is the current Labour position -staying in a customs union with full access to the internal market but not membership in the single market whatever that means.

Soft Brexit means subordinating ourselves to the rules of the European Union. Many of those rules, of course, are beneficial; they include health and safety, workers’ rights, standardisation of mobile phone charges, digital privacy or environmental protection. Indeed, without Britain, the market fundamentalism that has tended to dominate EU policies in recent years might be more likely to be mitigated. But basically, soft Brexit  means preserving the pre-referendum status quo with no possibility of contributing to change.

If the hard Brexit position can be roughly equated with Trumpism, the soft Brexit position could be described as a version of Clintonism. It will satisfy the global neo-liberal elite. Indeed, it is bizarre that a Corbyn led Labour Party has chosen to support the most neo-liberal aspect of the EU, the customs union. It is the single market that includes many of the more progressive aspects of the EU especially freedom of movement as well as regulations that are outside the single market.

It is worth recalling that the EU began as an institution that aimed to prevent the recurrence of war, fascism and imperialism on our continent. For the first two decades after the war. EU policy aimed at building solidarity through common infrastructure, regional funds, agricultural policy, cultural and educational exchanges, or collaborative research. It is only since the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 and the establishment of the euro that a divisive neo-liberal set of rules have been institutionalised. It is also worth recalling that the EU is not an ‘other’. The UK was a full participant in this evolution and indeed played a major role in spreading neo-liberal doctrines.

The only genuinely democratic left position on the European Union is to remain inside the Union and be active in the European institutions, to ally with other progressive movements across Europe in order to oppose the two dominant political tendencies – right-wing populism and neo-liberal elitism that feed upon each other. We need a new internationalist left and green political narrative. The Labour Party is viewed in other parts of Europe as an example of how to avoid the demise of social democracy. It has half a million members more than any other party in Europe. With the possible exceptions of Portugal and Spain it is the only party that has the potential to implement a socialist programme. Inside the European Union, a Corbyn led government could press for such policies as closing down multinational tax havens, controlling financial speculation, reforming the euro or investing in resource saving infrastructure that would provide an environment in which progressive policies could be implemented. Outside the EU, if Corbyn-led Labour was ever able to win an election, it would find itself in hugely unfavourable post-Brexit conditions, extremely vulnerable to financial and other market pressures.

Indeed the ‘take back control’ argument was always a chimera. In an interconnected world the only way to have substantive democracy, to participate in decisions that directly affect our lives is through active participation in regional and global institutions as well as national and local institutions. We do have avenues for participation in the EU -the problem is that we have always been preoccupied with national politics and have never been actively engaged in European issues. This is what needs to change and indeed is already changing.

The main arguments against this position also have to do with democracy. It is argued that the referendum was a democratic decision and that any attempt to overturn the result will provide a platform for the right-wing populists who dominated the referendum debate. Leaving aside the question of whether the referendum did represent a democratic decision, given the difficulties of holding a referendum on a complex subject, the lies on all sides, the role of Cambridge Analytica and perhaps of Russia, the over spending of the leave campaign, the simplistic rules for such a major decision, the fact that Commonwealth citizens could vote and not EU citizens, it is a strange sort of democracy that abides by a decision indefinitely allowing no debate or rethinking – we do not treat elections as permanent decisions. Surely democracy involves an ongoing deliberative process that allows people to change their minds.

As for the argument about allowing right-wing populists a platform, that has already happened. Brexit has given them a confidence and a position that earlier was impossible to imagine. If a hard Brexit goes ahead, ‘take back control’ will mean handing control to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees Mogg. A soft Brexit will mean we have even less control than before and thereby will offer for a field day for Brexit arguments. The only way to put the genie of racism and anti-immigration sentiments back in the bottle is to deal with the arguments head-on. Treating people with respect involves being prepared to debate with them. It may be that the leavers in the home counties who were nostalgic for empire will never change their romantic dreams of sovereignty. But those in post-industrial leave areas in the Midlands and North of England who voted for Brexit out of frustration with the status quo can only expect something even worse or something just as bad – and this needs to be made clear.

It is not too late to stop Brexit. There has to be a democratic process for reversing Brexit. People need to wake up, to campaign for the final deal to be defeated in Parliament followed by either for a new election or people’s vote on the final deal. Some argue that the polls have only changed slightly and that there is a risk that a people’s vote may produce the same result.  

If that happens, Brexit will have to go ahead. But the minimal change in the polls is largely a consequence of the fact that the two dominant parties insist on seeing the process through and that’s what voters are hearing. When Miliband was leader of the Labour Party, public opinion favoured austerity for much the same reason even though so many people were hurting. A shift in Labour’s stance to remain and reform could result in a dramatic shift in public opinion in the same way that Corbyn shifted attitudes to austerity. This is an existential moment when principle matters and when radical change becomes possible.