Colin Hines – A left-wing Brexit is an oxymoron

Colin Hines is a staunch supporter of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union, but he also argues that the EU has to be reformed to stop the increasing disaffection and the rise of the political Right using this discontent to win voters. As he writes “without fundamental changes to allow EU countries to take back control of their domestic economies it will be impossible to permanently see off the rise of the extreme right. To do this will require a rewrite of the Treaty of Rome to convert it to a ‘Treaty of Home Europe-wide’.”

Colin Hines has worked in the environmental movement for over 40 years on issues ranging from population, food, proliferation, and the adverse environmental and social effects of international trade. He is also the convener of the Green New Deal Group and blogs at Progressive Protectionism

We at Brave New Europe don’t take a position on Brexit. While we recognise that many dark and odious forces lay behind the Brexit vote, and that the process will inflict significant economic damage on many people, we also know that European institutions and policies typically reflect a strong neoliberal slant – and we launched this project to oppose and change this.  We have sympathy with the anger against European institutions – but we also believe in the principle of European cross-border co-operation and co-ordination in many areas.  Reflecting this complex reality, we will host both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain articles.


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Recently there have been calls from left-wing Brexiteers (Lexiteers) to redouble efforts to make the case for how, if the UK leaves the EU, it will help to achieve socialism at least in one country – Britain. . They feel there is no choice since the EU is so powerful and resistant to change. In the view of one leading proponent of Lexit, Costas Lapavitsas, we would be better off leaping into the arms of that well-known progressive and non neo-liberal entity the World Trade Organisation!

But what such Lexiteers never address is what kind of global economy we will be sailing off into, alone. They tend to think that because the EU is still in throes of declining neo-liberalism, the UK must somehow set its own socialist agenda – to be followed once we are free of the EU’s restraining clutches. They feel the Left should not be wasting its time going for a second referendum with a remain-but-reform option, since the EU is beyond reform.

Let’s consider the most likely result of there not being a People’s Vote on the deal or remain – that we leave the EU. The Tory turkeys are highly unlikely to vote for an election Christmas before they have to, in 2022. We already know that their dreams of a “global” Britain in reality involve the low tax, deregulating regime recently promised by Theresa May. That includes kowtowing to Trump’s America by offering low corporate tax rates and lowering food standards to allow the import of chlorine-washed chicken.

Indeed Trump’s policy of one-sided protectionism won’t go away since it is proving so successful, short-term, and domestically popular with his voters. The renaming of NAFTA as USMCA (the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement) has resulted in constraints of future car sales to the US, the Canadian dairy market granting greater access to US exports and, for the present, the retention of US tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminium. Aside from a tariff on $200bn of Chinese imports Trump has also threatened to impose US import tariffs on EU-made cars . Where, pray, will that leave the bits of the UK car industry that won’t have retreated back into the EU as a response to such chill global trade winds?

But let us assume, for a moment, that the Conservatives forget their historical concentration on keeping power at all costs and go for an election before 2022, and Labour gets into power. It is great that John McDonnell, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, has been modelling the likely effects of a massive flight of capital, but I hope they are comprehensive: a Labour government inheriting a country that has left the EU will face a hostile global economic environment. It is likely to see not only capital but Britain-based industries rushing out the door.

Those businesses that remain will demand a low-wage, low-tax economy and so more low-skilled and well as high-skilled immigrants will be encouraged to come and work. A further drop in the pound and the resulting import-fuelled inflation will lead to a rise in interest rates. What price an end to austerity in the face of that catalogue of economically crippling pressures?

There is no alternative to a Peoples Vote for remain

So let’s be clear. There is only one way not to have a deregulating Tory government further wrecking the economy after Brexit. And indeed only one way not to see an isolated Labour government being forced to bow to the demands of international capital, big business and Trump protectionism. What must occur is for the Left to ignore the damaging Lexiteers’ fantasies and instead push for a People’s Vote and ensure it results in a remain victory. Given the shift from leave to remain, according to opinion polls, particularly amongst the young, the likely remain result will also have the advantage of hastening the decline of a divided and factional Tory Party, and enable Labour to apply the policies it outlined at its Party Conference.

It is also crucial to contest the defeatist assertion always made by the Lexiteers that the neo-liberal EU is utterly unchangeable and that no one on the left has any idea how to change it. Political changes are already forcing the EU to rethink its policies. The rise of the extreme right is undermining the idea that freedom of movement is set in stone, despite the continued calls for it by a bizarre alliance of employers seeking cheap labour and those on the left and in the green parties wanting unconstrained EU migration.

Another positive sign is that Portugal has turned against austerity and gone for increased public expenditure; an approach that is unsurprisingly proving a success for the majority of Portuguese . French president Emmanuel Macron’s erstwhile popularity has turned sour, as his policies are seen to benefit only the rich, and has now been overtaken by Jean Luc Melanchon. He is a long-term Eurosceptic and the leader of the left-wing France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and has vowed to renegotiate the EU’s “neo-liberal” treaties if elected .

This leads us to the final argument by the left-wing Brexiteers that the Left is so busy trying to ensure that the UK doesn’t leave the EU that it has developed no policies to counter the EU’s neo-liberal bent.  The threat of a disastrous Brexit has meant that much of its energy has been focussed on achieving the only thing that can stop Brexit i.e. a second referendum, with an option to vote to “remain-but-reform”.

The biggest problem for many on the left however will be that in the resulting public debate the question of immigration and where people stand on freedom of movement will return centre stage. A key point will be what constraints there can be on future migration from the EU. If Europe wants the UK to vote to stay it will have to make it clear there is no such thing as unfettered freedom of movement. Under EU rules, European citizens can be made to return home if they have not found work after three months; no state agency is obliged to hire foreign workers and there are provisions for an emergency brake if public services are being overwhelmed. If such a managed migration approach were to move centre stage in the pre-referendum debate, then the answer to a People’s Vote would likely be to remain.

The Lexiteers are right in saying that the left has no detailed answer to the EU’s neo-liberal four freedoms. But what would a new direction for Europe actually look like? A crucial priority would be to ensure a return to democratic control over our continent’s economic and environmental future – one that counters the present pro-big-business EU Commission and parliament.

Reviving support for the EU through a ‘Treaty of Home

As was made clear in a previous Brave New Europe article without fundamental changes to allow EU countries to take back control of their domestic economies it will be impossible to permanently see off the rise of the extreme right. To do this will require a rewrite of the Treaty of Rome to convert it to a ‘Treaty of Home Europe-wide’.  This will involve the reintroduction of border controls for people, goods, capital and services, to allow local economies to be protected and nurtured continent-wide. Cross-border issues such as responding to non-European migration, climate change, pollution, crime and military security would still require intra-European co-operation. These measures could build a sense of hope and support for this more cohesive European future and so halt the EU’s present descent into unpopularity, which could be its undoing.

The existing EC Treaty of Rome Article 3 (ex Article 3) (c) foresees an internal market characterised by the abolition, as between member states, of obstacles to the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital.

The proposed ‘Treaty of Home’ Article 3 (ex Article 3) (c) foresees a market characterised by the maintenance, as between member states, of appropriate controls to the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital in order to allow regional, national and local economies to prosper.

The big losers would be corporations, no longer able to play countries off against each other in the race to the bottom encouraged by open borders. The extreme right would also lose their ominous momentum, since they could no longer claim to be the only parties with a solution to uncontrolled immigration within Europe.

So the choice is clear for the Left in the UK. They must seek to win a remain vote in a second referendum and ignore the Lexit fantasy of socialism in one country.


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