It is extremely rare that anyone goes back and critically examines their original position concerning Brexit. John Weeks is one of the few who has the courage to do so, yet at the same time looks forward at where the process is leading.
John Weeks is Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London, and associate of Prime Economics
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.
Wrong Strategy for June 2016
I voted for Britain to remain in the European Union, even organizing events to that end (with MP Keir Starmer the featured speaker at one of them). My support was not because of economic benefits of membership. In my opinion the economic impact of 40 years of EU membership has been neutral at best.
My support for membership was based first and foremost on the hope that European political integration would end the proclivity of European governments to generate wars among themselves. My secondary reason was the belief that the guarantees of worker, civil and human rights in EU treaties and protocols provide an important barrier to the other great European proclivity, anti-democratic political movements (Nazism and Italian fascism the extreme examples).
I regret that the official campaigns of both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party (Ed Miliband party leader) decided to stress dubious economic benefits, benefits made even more dubious by shabbily and unprofessionally generated statistics. It is hardly surprising that the Conservatives would neglect to stress protection of citizen rights since they are ideologically anti-worker and authoritarian.
That the Labour campaign would also give greatest emphasis to alleged economic benefits is more difficult ot explain. Perhaps it followed automatically from the neoliberal conversion of party ideology under Tony Blair. Whatever its guise, it was never a winning strategy to try to sell the EU on economic grounds with UK household incomes stagnating and sagging general welfare of people on the continent. To any prospective voter reading reports of Brussels designed austerity programmes for Greece and other countries the economic advantages of “Europe” would not have been obvious.
Having lost the referendum on purely economic arguments, the centrist Remainers now doggedly pursue the same strategy; and again reply on prominent members of the establishment for verification and credibility. One would have thought that even the most elitist in the remain camp would realize that few voters have much faith in the pronouncements of the unelected and largely unaccountable head of the Bank of England, but the centre-left Guardian seems to believe in Mark Carney’s drawing power.
More grotesque still, the centrists seem not only to accept without criticism but to welcome the £800.000 to fund the pro-EU Best for Britain. In addition to being the epitome of elitism, this financial support of a billionaire would not seem consistent with the high-profile funder’s putative commitment to an “Open Society”.
If Brexit be reversed, or (more realistically) if a reasonable relationship with the European Union be achieved, a radically different strategy is needed. That radically different strategy would involve 1) abandoning the dysfunctional and often absurd scare tactics of pending economic doom; 2) stressing the political benefits of European Union, not the economic; and 3) analyzing the faults of EU institutions and governance and explaining how a progressive British government could contribute to the reform movement gathering pace on the continent.
Dispelling Brexit Illusions
Before a new strategy can begin to emerge based on sound arguments, we must sweep away the babble that passes for conventional wisdom. Perhaps foremost is the hapless-May-reasonable-Barnier chant. This bit of misbegotten insight maintains that the British prime minister and her negotiating team “haven’t a clue” and arrive at each negotiating session with foolish and ill-formulated demands. In breathtaking contrast, the EU negotiator Michael Barnier is presented as a well informed, well prepared honest broker seeking the best outcome for all.
A quick reality check reveals that along with his activities as EU negotiator, Barnier is in hot pursuit of the presidency of the European Commission, which he sought in 2014 only to have the incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker out-manoeuvre him. While now the putative front-runner, Barnier lacks the support of his government and faces a considerably younger Danish challenger, Margrethe Vesager.
Far from the disinterested and honest broker as presented, for example, by the Guardian, Barnier’s presidential ambitions drive his negotiation tactics. His many public announcements, frequently aggressive and undiplomatic, cannot be taken at face value. They are part of his presidential campaign, aimed at courting support in the European Council (which must nominate him) and the Parliament (which elects).
The public pronouncements of the British negotiator are the mirror reflection of Barnier’s, aimed for at least a year at the prize of Conservative Party leadership. While posturing as the simple images of the honest, hard-nosed negotiator serves Barnier’s purpose, Davis has a much more complicated hand to play as his leadership fortunes wax and wane. Should Theresa May be usurped, it will be via votes of the anti-EU Tory MPs, which would follow from a “soft” Brexit. However, to garner the support of those Brexiteers Davis must not serve as the agent of a “soft” Brexit.
Ferreting Out Reality
The negotiations between Barnier and Davis bring to my mind Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, in which prisoners interpret the illusions produced by moving shadows as reality. To use the famous comparison by Thorstein Veblen ridiculing the role American football in universities, the shadow boxing of Barnier and Davis bears the relation to a Brexit agreement that bull fighting has to agriculture.
While the faux negotiators provide entertainment for the many, an agreement unfolds for the few out of the public eye. Two goals guide the behind the scenes negotiations. First, German manufacturing enjoys a massive trade surplus with Britain and aims to keep it (about £130 billion). Second, British banking capital, “the City”, seeks to maintain its status as Europe’s largest financial and money laundering centre.
As even casual observers know, no important EU policy achieves agreement without support of the German government, and most important ambitions of the German government become EU policy. Analogously, under the present UK government no Brexit arrangement is likely to be agreed or not agreed without the approval of the City. An agreement, nominally between the British government and the European Commission, will be reached incorporating those two goals. This will occur perhaps by the end of this calendar year but certainly before the Article 50 deadline of 29 March 2019.
While we mere mortals fret over the Barnier/Davis cave shadows, the Brexit deal gathers pace out of sight, carried on by the eponymously anonymous bureaucrats in London, Brussels and Berlin. This deal will have little to do with the illusory “soft” and “hard” clichés and much to do with the financial and industrial interests that manipulate European politics.
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