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We’re leaving the EU – not Europe

EU_ballotAmidst all the wailing and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth on the part of those who bemoan the UK’s decision to set its own course with Brexit, how many of those who regret the apparent breach with “Europe” have paused to consider the real identity of the “Europe” they seem to hold so dear?

To hear the way they tell it, the “Europe” they long for and feel such affinity with is the fons et origo of all that is good about our culture and civilisation.  “Outside” this “Europe”, we will apparently be cut off from, and disqualified from enjoying, European food, art, music, literature and architecture – no more than a few lonely offshore islands, devoid of anything approaching  European culture and unable to claim to have contributed anything to it.

I recall seeing during the referendum campaign a Facebook posting, from an emotional remainer, of an attractive picture of a paella, with the caption “And they say we should leave Europe!”  Oh, the sophistication of the argument!  No wonder mere plebs had trouble following it.

The truth is, of course, that British involvement in Europe has been with us for centuries – a multi-way traffic of great value to all parties, a continuing contribution from all sides to the continuing warp and woof of the fabric of European civilisation, and of particular value at critical moments in our common history when British intervention has been especially significant. As part of that Europe, Britain is not about to leave and British involvement is unlikely to cease any time soon.

The “Europe” whose loss so many appear to fear is not, in other words, the Europe of which we have been a part for centuries, but the European Union or EU – a quite different animal that is merely an economic arrangement, originally framed on the basis of a Franco-German deal to put together a Common Agricultural Policy to suit inefficient French agriculture and free trade in manufactures to suit efficient German industry. This different animal has unfortunately grown to display an increasingly mangy appearance.

Yes, it is true that the original impetus towards what became the European Union was the noble and commendable aim of saving Europe from yet another re-run of the German attempt to dominate the continent by military force. But so self-congratulatory has been the legend created around this deal that it is virtually no longer possible to identify or even remark upon what has been the actual, and unfortunate, outcome. The “European ideal” precludes, it seems, a discussion of anything so indelicate.

When the Second World War ended, the victors were determined to avoid the mistakes made after the First World War, and went to great lengths to welcome Germany back into the comity of civilised nations; and they eventually went further, by ensuring that the divided nation was reunited so that the full weight of a united Germany’s economic success could be brought to bear.

The deal the Germans were offered under the EU was that they should restrain themselves from future adventures on the condition that they would be free to exert such economic power as they could muster.  The Germans magnanimously accepted the arrangement.

We need speculate for only a moment as to the different Europe we would all now live in if victors and vanquished had swapped identities.  Fortunately for us, it was the far-sighted victors of 1945 who ensured that, with the exception of regrettable episodes of great violence and cruelty, as in the Balkans, Europe has enjoyed substantial peace and prosperity in the post-war period.

The outcome of their efforts, however, has not been quite what they had presumably foreseen or intended – a Europe at ease with itself.  Instead, they have brought about a thorough-going German hegemony – a greater German economy calling the economic shots across Europe – without a shot being fired.

No student of today’s European Union could or should fail to notice the German domination of the European polity.  Some – like the Greeks and other weaker economies – have had particularly good reason to take note.

It is German economic dominance that dictates policy to EU countries and institutions – and, for the Greeks, the consequences have been disastrous.

Encouraged by the apparent security of euro membership to borrow, the Greeks found themselves unable to repay when the debts were called in.  Successive bail-outs have allowed them to ward off forced departure from the euro zone and bankruptcy, but the savage cuts demanded by the creditors have created emergency levels of poverty and unemployment and have so weakened and reduced the size of the Greek economy as to make it impossible for them to service or repay the borrowings.

The usual remedy of devaluation for such a plight is simply not available to the Greeks, for as long as they are part of the euro – and the masters of the euro are determined to allow no backsliding.  All potential escape routes are closed, and the Greeks have been hung out to dry.

The Germans accept no responsibility for their initial eagerness to lend and they continue to rack up huge trade surpluses which by definition must be matched by deficits on the part of smaller and less developed economies.  But the Germans insist that there can be no debt relief.

The only options offered the Greeks are further “structural reforms” – a euphemism for “free-market” measures designed to increase privatisation and provide opportunities to bargain-hunters – and further reductions in social costs such as pensions which have already been cruelly slashed below survival level.

The “Europe” in which Greece – and other weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe – find themselves struggling to survive is the same “Europe” as we are invited to lament.  It is a Europe prepared to inflict the most draconian of austerity measures on some of its most defenceless citizens, in the interests of a pitiless application of financial orthodoxy and at the behest of its dominant economic power whose self-defined interests are given priority over all else.

Perhaps it’s time we cast off our rose-tinted spectacles. Let’s just enjoy the paella.

Bryan Gould is a former Labour MP and former member of the Shadow Cabinet


  1. Bazza says:

    I attended a lecture by Dr Ha Joon Chang a few years ago and he recommended that we all read the financial pages of newspapers which I also recommend and I have done so now for years and the stuff you learn.
    For example read recently in the Guardian that Germany’s exports last year were over 1 trillion (I think in euros) whilst its imports were about 900,000 so Germany is doing very well.
    Oh and it is argued most of the debt repayments from suffering Greece are going to German banks.
    But in Germany apart from high end engineering products there is plenty of poverty pay and significant numbers on low incomes.
    So if you think about it the free moment of capital in the EC Offers a boom for TNCs and with the free movement of labour we have the periphery serving the core (Germany, France, UK).
    Oh and we didn’t in the UK have to spend a penny on the health and education of migrant workers (a subsidy of billions) plus they even pay their own fares to get here!
    I remember a New Left Review piece arguing that the EC was set up originally to counter the then perceived threat of the USSR, to give Europe a greater voice on the World stage, and to counter US hegemony. In fact it was argued France was originally against the UK joining because it was felt it would act as a Trojan Horse for the US (which eventally happened) and the dollar was to soon dominate and hence I suggested perhaps the desire for some for the Euro.
    So it has been interesting to hear Trumps team now criticising the EC and the Euro but are they just trying to protect the dollar especially once the UK leaves the EC?
    So as we leave as socialists we should be trying to get the best out of Brexit for working people in the UK, EC migrants right to remain plus our citizens in the EC too, and working people in every country.
    Perhaps our national and international clarion call should be: TIME TO TAKE BACK CONTROL FROM NEO-LIBERALISM!

  2. Bazza says:

    Oops imports 900m euros.

  3. Mervyn Hyde says:

    I recommend people to watch this discussion with leading economist Mark Blyth.

  4. Jim Denham says:

    First off, let’s be fair to Jeremy: Brexit has split the Labour party’s voters 60/40 (the majority pro-Remain), and even a latter-day Harold Wilson would struggle to bridge the divide.

    But Corbyn’s decision to back Theresa May’s Brexit Bill, regardless of whether any amendments were passed (none were) was simply craven, and ended up pleasing no-one. Imposing a three-line whip that was ignored even by Labour whips, made matters worse. His tweet that “the fight starts now” – after having supported May’s Brexit plan – was little more than risible.

    Let us be clear, as Coatesy explains in a brilliant piece here: Brexit is, by its very nature reactionary, backward, isolationist, nativist and – ultimately – racist. Any leftist who thinks any good can possibly come of it (or that there is a “People’s Brexit”/”Lexit” or some such nonsense) is a delusional idiot.

    Corbyn’s weakness, lack of passion and general incoherence during the referendum campaign and in parliament since, merely serves to confirm the suspicion that, as an unsophisticated non-Marxist Bennite surrounded by Stalinist anti-EU advisers like Milne, his heart was never really in the pro-Remain cause. Even the Economist picked up on this:

    “Mr Corbyn did not make his first pro-EU intervention until mid-April, fully two months after Mr Cameron called the referendum. Since then he has been a bit player at best. When researchers at Loughborough University ranked the ten most reported-on politicians in the second half of May, he did not even make the list (partly by his own design: he had spent part of the period on holiday). By refusing to campaign alongside Tories—doing so would “discredit” the party, sniffs John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor—he has ruled himself out of every important Remain event and televised debate.

    “When Mr Corbyn does bother to intervene, he is a study in reluctance. His ‘pro-EU’ speeches are litanies of complaints about the union. Voters should back Remain, he says, because the Conservatives would not negotiate the right sort of Brexit. On June 2nd he declared Treasury warnings about the consequences of leaving as ‘hysterical hype’ and ‘mythmaking’.”

    The Corbyn leadership is evidently terrified of May’s and the Brexiteers’ charge that anyone who even questions a hard Brexit is defying the “will of the people” (if not an outright “enemy of the people”); in fact, of course, had the 52/48% referendum result been reflected in parliament last week, the government’s majority would have been 26, not the 372 that May achieved with Corbyn’s backing.

    The idea that “the people have spoken” and the referendum result cannot, therefore, be opposed, needs to be nipped in the bud once and for all; by that logic Labour would simply give up whenever it lost an election.

    The 23 June vote represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices weak and incoherent (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson, the Labour right-winger leading Labour’s Remain campaign).

    That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.

    All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.

    Labour should fight for freedom of movement, for substantive democracy and against Article 50.

    The internationalist, anti-racist left may now have lost that argument, largely because of the weakness and political ignorance of Corbyn and his advisers. But there is a further battle worth having: instead of issuing a ludicrous and ineffectual “final warning” to those MPs who voted against May last week, Corbyn should do something about Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, Labour MPs who voted against basic rights for EU citizens. And if Corbyn won’t act, Labour members should start organising to deselect these scumbags.

    1. john P Reid says:

      Libdem membership, this way >

    2. Karl Stewart says:

      Yawn…JimmyD the mad LibDemer is off again…rant…rant…rant…

      It was you LibDems who campaigned for the EU referendum in tge first place my friend. Now you have to respect the outcome.

      Now we’re finally out, as our next Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn rightfully says: “The real fight starts now” for a socialist exit.

      JimmyD, you and your LibDem mates keep whining forever if you like, we on the left are uniting behind Corbyn our democratically elected leader.

  5. Danny Nicol says:

    Good to see a campaign to nationalise gas and electricity here in Britain.

    As long as we remain in the EU, such an extension of public ownership would be entirely unlawful since Directive 2003/55/EC of 2003, and Directive 2003/54/EC of 2003 mandate open markets.

    Moreover these directives would continue to apply to us if we have a “soft Brexit”. They apply for example to the European Economic Area.

    So increased privatisation is not just part of the EU regime for poor Eurozone Member States such as Greece, as Bryan recounts. The entrenched neoliberalism of the EU and EEA is an albatross round the neck of all countries within the organisations.

  6. Bazza says:

    Yes and our UK and its relationship with Europe needs perhaps to be built on anti-Neo Liberalism and the same for other countries.
    So we all really get our countries back and perhaps apart from a house and a bit of a garden what in the UK is ours?
    There was a very good piece in the Obsérver on Sunday on a wonderful booklet ‘This Merrie England’ which was published in 1893 but at the time it really spoke to the working class/working people and sold out and had to be reprinted!
    And this is what we need to do today really talk to working people’s lives.
    This publication talked about 8 hour days for decent pay and perhaps we need to talk about shorter working weeks, to harness techology, robotics etc so business serves society and not the other way round.
    But with Neo-Liberalism we have had everything having a price, the marketisation and privatisation and everything is treated as a commodity including us – cheap labour through deregulation, zero hours, self-employment, tendering, outsourcing, contacting out, subcontacting – and people are sick of it all.
    So Labour needs to get power back to working people – let’s get back to giving councils the money and the power to raise their own money (and a local say over planning and schools) and let’s have municipal socialism and community enterprise but this will need a framework of state led public investment (which will also feed the private sector supply chain) but will also need serious taxes on the rich, corporations, windfall taxes on big business, financial transaction taxes closing offshore banking etc. to power it.
    But as well as power back locally we also need it regionally so to supplement Wales and Scotland etc. we could have Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western Parliaments but not with an extra tier in England but perhaps with MPs in those regions meeting some time in their region in council chambers (then each would represent about 20% of the UK population though Scotland and others less).
    And somewhere in all of this we need to take control of labour supply and capital supply.
    And Labour needs to have shortlists for Parliament of 6, which have at least 2 working class potential candidates, 2 women, at least 1 BME/LGBT/Disabled then pick the best left wing democratic socialists.
    The problem is now when working people look at Labour MPs do they see themselves?
    But to give people their country back we also need the democratic public ownership of land, banks (more local and more local lending and investment) mail, rail, water, pharma (save the NHS billions), public utilities, some airlines (less seats, more space & comfort) and all with staff electing the boards and communities having a say but we could have different models – some could break even and some like public utilities could pay a community dividend like the old Coop divi – but they need nailing down so people love them like generally they still do the NHS despite Tory grotesque mismanagement!
    We should share all of these ideas in community consultation events by Labour CLPs up to the election.
    So perhaps our call to working people should be: TAKE BACK CONTROL – REAL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
    Then export the model to Europe et al.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      Can’t fault your vision Bazza, Thatcher turned Britain into a household budget, that is not how the real economy works.

      This conversation though is a vital perspective of where we have been and where we will go unless people wake up.

      Professor Mark Blyth.

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