As part of the Brexit Blog we hosted a live recorded podcast in Belfast bringing together a panel of speakers to explore, analyse and debate the impact of Brexit on Ireland, north and south, in the context of austerity, right-wing populism and an organic crisis of politics.
by Vladimir Simović
The European Union (EU) is perhaps the central issue on which the dominant political discourse in Serbia has focused during the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. The EU was one of the main sites where the two dominant political positions collided – the ‘first’ and ‘second’ Serbia, nationalist and liberal. With the rise of the Serbian Progressive Party to power in 2012, this division has lost some of its intensity. Former members of the Serbian Radical Party, ultra-nationalists and opponents of the European integration process, changed their political stance and in 2008 established the Serbian Progressive Party. In doing so became moderate conservatives who were quite enthusiastic when it comes to the EU. This change reshaped the local political sphere and dramatically diminished the presence of Euroscepticism.
How did this change happen? The answer to this question lies in the concept of ‘European values’, a phrase that floats through much political discourse as an empty signifier in which many things can be inscribed.
The EU as a legitimising framework for neoliberal politics
For local politicians, the term ‘European values’ mainly implies characteristics of the capitalist mode of production and related social reproduction. The practical expression of this is found in the privatisation, liberalization, and labour market flexibility agendas of every single Serbian government from 2000 until today. On the other hand, research shows that for the bulk of the population, ‘European values’ has a set of different meanings. For these sections of Serbian society, these values primarily imply something that could be broadly defined as a ‘better life’. Prosperity, higher living standards, and more job opportunities are most commonly cited in opinion polls as major positive aspects of EU accession. At the same time, a significant number of respondents would like to have more information on the economic consequences of the European integration process, and what it means for the standard of living enjoyed by ‘ordinary people’ in the EU.
We could argue that local politicians depoliticise the issue of European integration, with pro-EU parties reducing the process of accession to technical aspects and in doing so normalising a neoliberal course of action. In response Eurosceptic politicians and parties are addressing accession from cultural-nationalist positions, questioning the survival of a ‘Serbian national identity’ if Serbia joins the EU. Meanwhile sections of the population have begun to rethink what joining the EU actually means and how will it affect everyday life. With the crisis that ensued in 2008, it became more than obvious that even rich countries are prone to economic disasters. And yet, joining the EU does not guarantee that Serbia will leave the periphery of the world capitalist system. The crisis has also shown that there is no genuine equality among EU member states – neither economic nor political.
The current Government of the Republic of Serbia has progressed with very sharp neoliberal reforms, often under the pretext of ‘European integration’. New labour laws that could be defined as extremely neoliberal were introduced in 2014 under the pretext that it they aligned with ‘modern’ and ‘European’ norms, although critics have repeatedly shown that these forms of flexible labour legislation are not characteristic for a large number of EU countries and that many articles of the adopted laws are against international conventions. Similar things happened with media law, which encouraged the state’s withdrawal from the media sphere and leave it to private companies – beside two public media platforms, Radio television Serbia and Radio television Vojvodina, all other regional and local media platforms that used to be in public property had to be privatized. The result was that that many media companies were shut down since they were not privatized and about 1.000 media workers were left without a job. This was also justified in ‘European’ terms, with the discourse that was based on the premise that it is how things are being done in a modern world, we have to get rid of the relicts of socialist past. There are many examples of this practice. Narratives of ‘European’ modernisation and progress have the function of pacifying further debate about how legal regulations will actually influence the everyday living of common people and, ultimately, what kind of society we really need to build.
The effects of the EU integration process
To be honest, it’s not as if politicians don’t care about the standards of living and the material conditions of the people – at least in their rhetoric. When Serbia opened up its domestic market for imports of goods from the EU, the argument often made was that the benefits of a duty-free exchange regime would be most beneficial to consumers, as cheaper foreign products and greater competition would lead to lower retail prices. Yet, how can we buy those products if open access to local markets further destroys the already fragile fragments of Serbia’s productive capacities resulting in depressed living standards?
Import liberalisation began shortly after the fall of Milošević and the international sanctions against Yugoslavia started to be withdrawn. Imports with no substantial restrictions, along with a relatively overvalued local currency, made it possible for more competitive foreign goods to flood the domestic market. Adding privatisation into this equation, the ground for the further collapse of Serbia’s productive capacities was firmly established. The continuation of import liberalisation through the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia did not bring many benefits to the advancement of the domestic economy.
Meat production has been particularly affected by the lifting of import restrictions. Much cheaper meat from the EU flooded the domestic market. First, there are products from countries that allow the use of genetically modified soybean meal for animal nutrition. Since this is not allowed in Serbia, meat production requires more investment and therefore the final product is more expensive. In addition, in the context of EU sanctions against Russia, the European market was laden with meat that needs to be sold. This led to a fall in its price. Agricultural products such as potatoes provide another illustrative example. The market in Serbia was flooded with cheap potatoes from the EU, with the result that domestic producers had large stocks that could not be sold. One of the solutions for local producers was to try to export their products to the Russian market because Serbia did not introduce sanctions against Russia. However, the price of potatoes is quite low, and earnings from their export are not enough to cover more than the high cost of shipping to Russia.
Of course, liberalisation had the effects that went the other way, opening up access to a huge market of the EU for Serbian producers. But the big question is how well they are able to successfully match the already existing offer on the EU market. It should be remembered that Serbia’s productive capacities have been continuously dismantled over the last three decades. Since the fall of socialism Serbia’s economy suffered UN sanctions that devastated production capacities, while NATO bombing in 1999 destroyed many factories and large portion of infrastructure making recovery even harder. Throwing such fragile economy into the fire of free market with abolished customs protection haven’t produced many positive effects.
The Russian alternative?
As an alternative to the politics of EU integration, some Eurosceptics have proposed a change in course towards Russia and ‘Eurasian integration’. They claim that Serbia is culturally and historically closer to Russia. Of course, it goes beyond the fact that capitalist relations are not based on culture but on basic economic interests. This is more than obvious when we take a look at the privatisation of the national oil industry. Russia’s Gazprom acquired the majority stake of this company by paying just half of the estimated value. Also, the conditions attached to the export of Serbian manufactured FIAT cars to the Russian market, where they are matched with the reciprocal imports of Russian vehicles into the Serbian market, once again shows that ‘soul connection’ so often emphasised by local nationalists and Russophiles also has its price.
But what attitude does the population of Serbia have towards the EU and Russia? Let’s say that it is very ambivalent. Survey done in 2014 showed that only one-third of the population has a positive attitude towards the EU, whilst 40 percent hold a negative attitude. Attitudes toward Russia are somewhat different – 52 percent rate it positively and only 17 percent negatively. However, when asked where they would like their children to live, only 23 percent opted for Russia, while 70 percent of those polled favoured the EU. Although only 24 percent said they were informed about the EU accession process, more than half of those polled (54 percent) would vote in favour of joining the EU, whereas only 25 percent would be against it. Attitudes towards the EU have not changed dramatically over the course of time. However, it is indicative that in 2009, support for Serbia’s accession to the Union was as high as 71%.
Recent research that measured the views of the youth population shows that younger generations have more negative attitude towards the EU. For example, only 25 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 30 expressed the opinion that joining the EU would improve the quality of life in Serbia, while a total of 56 percent said that nothing would change (33 percent) or that things would be even worse (23 percent).
This ambivalence may be due to the wrong questions being asked. The dilemma should not be one of choosing which power we are the periphery of. This setting fits perfectly into a political monism that does not question the basics of production, but rather emphasises the cultural patterns embodied in idealised representations of the East and the West. Therefore, it is necessary to redefine and politicise the context. This could be done by introducing the dilemma that politicians tend to neglect as it has been resolved long ago – are you in favour of capitalism at all?
About the author:
He is a member of the Center for Politics of Emancipation (CPE), Belgrade, and a member of the Left Summit of Serbia.
by Dr Stephen Baker
It has been clear for some time that Brexit represents one manifestation of a more existential crisis facing the UK. In the wake of Boris Johnson’s election as Tory leader and British Prime Minister, Dr Stephen Baker explores the prospects for radical change in times of constitutional and political uncertainty, arguing that the Left can and should be setting the agenda.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster is reported as having come out in favour of a ‘patriotic charter’ that proposes to make Remembrance Day a national holiday; to examine the business case for a toll-free road bridge between Ireland and Great Britain; and establish a new cultural institution in Northern Ireland.
The ‘charter’ is part of a broader programme put forward by the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, which argues that the UK Government should pursue ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom, drawing on the strength of the Union to stimulate local areas through both an audacious programme of infrastructure investment and further devolution of powers. It should take an approach that builds upon the success of City Deals, devolution deals and other partnerships.’
Johnson the moderniser?
The proposals come in the wake of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tour of the ‘awesome foursome’, as he calls them; better known to the rest of us as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He promises that his premiership will unite the UK and unleash its productive power.
We have heard this sort of modernising, energising rhetoric before. On his election, Tony Blair promised a ‘new Britain’ at the heart of which would be the creative industries. In the end, he succumbed to people’s princesses and foreign wars, and the creative industries turned out to be a bastion of the well-networked middle class.
Boris Johnsons’ claim to modernising is even less convincing, given that he and his Cabinet represent the copper-fastening of privately educated entitlement and power, personified in the appointment of the antediluvian and patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons.
Others in the Cabinet – Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, Priti Patel – swallowed the Thatcher play-book and now appear intellectually and politically impervious to how catastrophic its prescriptions will be in a world confronted by climate catastrophe and growing social inequality.
#Indyref2 and break-up of Britain
It is hard then to imagine how the UK will survive a Boris Johnson Brexit and premiership. It was already in poor shape, with its sclerotic democracy; twee royal pageantry; ossified class-system, served by elite schools; its mythical Greatness and crumbling welfare state.
This is the class system that has produced the morbid political clique currently leading Brexit. They owe their political lives and material advantages to that socio-political system. They are not about to modernise it. Indeed, their buccaneering, free-market zealotry – Britannia unchained, free of the regulatory shackles of EU membership – is the latest attempt to preserve it. In all likelihood it will hasten the UK’s disintegration.
A poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft in the wake of the new PM’s visit to Edinburgh suggests that a narrow majority of Scots want a second referendum on the question of independence and willing to vote to leave the UK, 52% to 48%. That may be very slim majority upon which to carry out such major constitutional change, but it was enough to trigger Article 50 and may yet carry the UK out of the EU.
If the Scots decide to exit the UK, then by happy coincidence most Conservative Party members seem relaxed about their leaving. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of the Tory grassroots – presumably overwhelmingly English Tories – would rather Brexit happen, even if it means Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the Union.
Poor Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, once touted as a future UK Prime Minister such was her popularity within the party, has now become the most unpopular senior Conservative among the Tory membership; her criticism of Boris Johnson and refusal to support a no-deal Brexit besmirching her reputation.
So strained are relations between Davidson and the Conservative party leadership at Westminster, one commentator has asked whether Davidson would be better to endorse and lead a breakaway Conservative party in Scotland. These are strange times to be a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Ireland to follow suit
Across the Irish Sea, Arlene Foster seems to share few of Ruth Davidson’s reservations about Boris Johnson and the neo-Thatcherite English nationalists leading the UK out of the EU. This is hardly surprising. The DUP’s preference for tub-thumping populism and a conservative brand of Britishness made it a natural ally of the Brexit project with its promise to reboot British greatness.
But on the question of Brexit, the DUP are out of step with most voters in Northern Ireland, the region the party assumes to lead and to speak on behalf of at Westminster. On top of this, many find the DUP’s illiberal policies and exclusive social imagination repellent, although such hard-line attitudes have served the party well at the polls, regularly firing up its base and returning it as the largest Unionist party at successive elections.
However, this electoral success has come at the expense of Unionism’s broader goal of securing Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. How many people in the North are now looking South, and see Irish unity as a route back to the EU and away from a parochial politics inured to Biblical fundamentalism?
How many people in Northern Ireland feel that Brexit, far from ‘taking back control’, has brought into sharp focus the region’s relative powerlessness in the face of a more assertive English identity?
How many of them are thinking that they (and by extension their communities, their region) would have more political power and influence within a united Ireland than a United Kingdom? We can only surmise. Because the only way to know for sure – whether we like it or not – is to hold a border poll.
Setting the agenda from the Left
After the EU referendum in 2016 and its bitter aftermath, many people will not relish the thought of more referenda. But we don’t get to choose the circumstances in which we make history.
If preparations are being made for a no-deal Brexit, as they should be, then preparations also need to be made for the constitutional fall-out. The Left can and should take the initiative here.
If the EU referendum was essentially a civil war within the British Conservative Party and so the public conversation was dominated by voices from the political right, the Left has got to set the agenda of any future referenda.
That means major constitutional questions should not be determined by appeals to blood and belonging, nostalgic evocations, or the lies and propaganda of the rich. Any hint of this will be deeply divisive, as the EU referendum in the UK has demonstrated.
The debate has to be about the quality of people’s citizenship; about the right of people to homes, free healthcare and education, environmental justice, rights at work … and that’s just to start with.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the West Belfast Féile that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” with a “new constitution”, he might have thought that he was issuing a warning. It is, in fact, an aspiration. The task must be to build a new state committed to social justice and equality. No-one should campaign or vote for anything less.
Dr Stephen Baker is a Lecturer in Film & Television Studies at Ulster University and a longtime trade union activist.
by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Boris Johnson has, as expected, shaken off questions about his character and fulfilled his life’s ambition to become the new Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister, seeing off rival Jeremy Hunt by a two-to-one margin of 92,153 votes to 46,656. Here in the mother of all parliaments he became leader of the country with a vote of 0.13% of the UK population, a diverse electorate comprised of mostly old white right wing men living in southern England.
For the Tory right and the party’s traditional support base, Johnson’s election represents a mandate to deliver Brexit and simultaneously restore Conservative values of old. These constituencies will be heartened by the composition of the newly appointed Cabinet, which has been frontloaded with hardline Brexiteers, Thatcherites and outright reactionaries. This is the stuff of nightmares for women, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, the poor, the infirm and working-class people as a whole. In addition, the appointment of Julian Smith, a long-time ally of the DUP, as Northern Ireland Secretary of State indicates that Johnson wishes to keep the Conservative’s partners happy at the continued expense of British government impartiality in the North’s fragile peace process.
The ‘Boris bounce’
As predicted, Johnson’s victory has produced an instant ‘Boris bounce’ of between 5-7 points, bringing the Tories up to 31% in one recent poll. While we ought to be cautious of polls, understanding that they are used as much to influence opinion as to reflect it, they do appear to suggest that Tory voters who had defected to the Brexit Party are already beginning to return to their party of origin in significant numbers.
On the face of it, Johnson looks set to achieve his immediate objective of marginalising the Brexit Party and consolidating Tory support at upwards of 30%. He has ‘absolutely’ ruled out calling a general election before the UK’s exit from the EU is secured, and the laws governing the timing of an early election mean that there is a very narrow window for doing so.
A snap election?
But there are circumstances in which it could still happen. One possibility is that Johnson was lying and will renege on this pledge and call a general election in search of the elusive working majority, particularly if the Tories continue to eat into Brexit Party support and creep up towards the high-30s in the polls. This option would become more attractive to Johnson should the EU refuse to accept a reformulation of the backstop and pressure grows on the new Prime Minister to follow through with his ‘do or die’ pledge to leave by 31 October.
The other possibility is that Parliament will trigger a vote of no confidence in the government in response to Johnson’s rhetoric and the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Labour have so far rejected calls from the new Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson to table an official vote of no confidence, arguing that such a vote now ‘will only strengthen Boris Johnson’s hand and further his march towards no deal’. Corbyn’s party is likely to hold fire till the end of the summer, when opposition to Johnson has fomented and a vote of no confidence stands a better chance of success. The key factor in this parliamentary equation is the twenty or so Tory MPs who are vehemently opposed to a hard Brexit and have begun to rail against Johnson’s rhetoric. Corbyn needs to be confident of enlisting their support before moving to topple the government.
Reconciling the irreconcilable
Recognising that Johnson is at heart a cynical, lying opportunist, it would come as no surprise if he were to effect an about-turn and accept closer regulatory alignment with the Single Market, in an effort to placate his old friends in big business and the City of London. Equally, he may follow the example of Theresa May and appeal to the EU for an extension to find a parliamentary majority for a tweaked Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
At this stage, however, we look to be on course of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson has convened a ‘war cabinet’ of ardent Brexiteers to prepare for this eventuality, started planning for the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, and threatened to prorogue Parliament before 31 October so that the UK will automatically leave the EU without a deal in place. He is also looking to his counterpart across the Atlantic for a TTIP style trade deal to compensate for the loss of economic activity within the EU in the event of a no-deal.
Yet each of these strategies come with the same set of problems that plagued May during her term in office. Johnson’s victory has gone some way to re-energise the Tory base, but he inherits a party that remains bitterly divided along ideological, political and economic class lines. These divisions are destined to re-open as the government’s preferred strategy becomes clearer. According to Richard Seymour, Johnson’s dilemma can be summed up thus:
If he tries to deliver a “no deal” Brexit he will split his party and parliament will block him. If he tries to renege on Brexit, he will split his party. If he tries to string the Brexiteers along, and seek further delays, he will be incinerated in a fiery backlash.
Viewed in this light, it is doubtful whether Johnson is better positioned than his predecessor to repair the deeper divisions within Conservatism and the ruling class. Arguably his Irish policy and the threats issued from Irish America not to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and his frosty reception in Scotland both suggest that he is much more likely to hasten the break-up of the UK.
For the Labour left, Johnson’s personal attacks on Corbyn should leave no doubt that we are already on an election footing. The Labour leadership knows this and also seems to recognise the dangers of allowing the political battles ahead to be fought on the narrow ground of anti-Boris moralism. Speaking at a Labour rally in London’s Parliament Square, Corbyn announced a series of pledges that would be implemented by an incoming Labour government. They include: the retention of the winter fuel allowance; free bus passes and TV licenses for pensioners; free school meals for all primary school children and a reduction in class sizes; a £10-an-hour living wage; increased NHS spending; and the creation of 400,000 jobs as part of a ‘green industrial revolution’. These are among the wide range of policies contained within Labour’s manifesto which carry popular appeal and could form part of a radical, insurgent strategy to defeat the right and expose the vacuity of the liberal centre.
But what of Labour’s position on Brexit? One of Corbyn’s pledges is to campaign for Remain against no-deal or a ‘bad Tory deal’. Having long sought to unite voters around a deal that would work for communities, a position based on the party’s ‘six tests’, Labour is now on the path to becoming a party of Remain. The arguments in favour of this strategy centre on two trends: the consolidation of pro-Brexit forces behind Johnson and the possibility of a swift exit; and the fractured nature of the political forces representing Remain. In these conditions, Corbyn is facing sustained pressure to align with the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalist parties in an anti-Boris and anti-Brexit campaign.
Despite its obvious appeal for some, Corbyn’s team should be alive to the dangers associated with this course of action. For starters, any alliance with the pro-Remain establishment would necessarily be based on a dilution of Labour’s radical programme – the foundation stone of a successful general election campaign and any serious attempt to build a transformative movement in post-Brexit Britain. Secondly, it should be reiterated that there has been no major shift in popular opinion towards support for Remain, despite the improved fortunes of the Lib Dems in particular. To the contrary, a recent Opinium poll indicates that 52 percent of the population still favour leaving the EU, with 38 percent committed to a hard Brexit regardless of the consequences. Were Labour to adopt a hard Remain position in the event of a divisive referendum, it is conceivable that the party would face a backlash in its Leave voting traditional strongholds, including those marginal constituencies that it needs to win a general election. Finally, as noted above, there is every chance that the opportunity for a second referendum may not present itself until after the fact of the UK leaving on 31 October. It is questionable whether the Labour leadership would be wise to assume the task of negotiating Britain’s re-entry to the EU, with all of the problems that would raise.
There is no doubt that Labour is in an incredibly difficult position with no easy route out. But although they have had the worst possible run in – Brexit, a hostile media, attacks from the centre, open revolt among the Parliamentary Labour Party – Corbyn’s party is ahead in the poll of polls and his team would probably welcome an election sooner rather than later. There is arguably no better time than now to mobilise the party activist base and left trade unions around Labour’s radical agenda. Whether this can be coupled with an effective Brexit strategy depends on the timing of an election, the fate of the government in Europe and the weight given to the set of factors outlined above.
by Dave Gibney
The question of workers’ rights is a recurring theme in the debate around Brexit. For the most part trade unions in Britain and Ireland are concerned that a hard or no-deal outcome would threaten a regression in the rights and living standards enjoyed by workers across these islands. But, argues Dave Gibney, there is a more complicated set of factors to take into account.
Economic inequality is now higher in the UK than any time since the 1960s. Real wages have been falling since the UK joined the EU in 1973. Coincidently, the regions of the UK with the lowest median incomes are also the regions that voted to leave the EU in the strongest terms.
Hyndburn, Torbay and West Somerset have average median incomes of £17,000, £16,900 and £16,900 respectively. Those constituencies also voted Leave by margins of 66.2 percent, 63.2 percent and 60.6 percent. Hyndburn also rejected the two main political parties of the Conservatives and Labour in the recent European elections, choosing instead to vote for the Brexit Party by a margin of 39.1 percent, Labour receiving 25.5 percent and the Conservatives 8 percent.
To some, it might be difficult to see the connection between low incomes and Brexit, but nevertheless, it is there. Juxtapose the above with the highest income constituency in the UK, London City, which has an average mean income of £58,300 per year and recorded a Leave vote of only 25 percent.
For many communities, membership of the EU has been fruitful. For others, there is a sense that it has provided very little. This helps to explain why those who have the least to lose were among the strongest supporters of Brexit.
Integration within the EU has occurred in an increasingly neoliberal fashion. The ‘four freedoms’ of the single market – freedom of movement for goods, services, labour and capital – without strong collective bargaining provisions, access for trade unions to the workplace and the protection of effective collective actions serves to exacerbate economic inequality, undermines working conditions and results in a reduction in living standards.
The EU: A worker’s paradise?
The dominant narrative is that the EU has been great for workers’ rights. In Ireland it is often said that the EU provided workers with lunch breaks, annual leave and protection against discrimination at work.
Much of this may be true. But, we need to look at where those individual rights came from in the first place.
When Britain and Ireland joined the EU in 1973, almost half of all workers in the European Union were members of trade unions, with a 46 percent density level. However, that figure has now halved and is currently at only 23 percent. Organised worker power is no longer a dominant force within the EU, if it ever was, with corporations and wealthy individuals dictating policies to a much greater extent.
Individual vs collective workers’ rights
The progress made on workers’ rights on the back of strong trade unions within the EU is laudable. However, most of those workplace improvements are in the area of individual rights. The EU has delivered virtually nothing in terms of collective rights. This is evidenced most clearly by the Viking, Laval, Rüffert and Luxemburg rulings. These rulings prioritised economic freedoms and the movement of services over the right to collective action, undermining workers’ conditions of employment and reinforcing the unequal power relations and economic inequality that have grown in Britain, Ireland and across the continent. Furthermore, in recent years, the EU Commission has undermined collective action in Greece and other peripheral countries. The Commission’s agenda has resulted in a decline of workers covered by collective agreements from 83 percent in 2008 to 42 percent in 2013.
Obviously we should welcome measures which protect workers against discrimination based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other spurious grounds. Yes, workers should be entitled to annual leave, maternity leave and lunch breaks. And of course workers should be entitled to basic health and safety provisions at work. However, these individual rights are the minimum we should expect in the twenty-first century, and certainly shouldn’t be seen as a trade-off for collective rights.
Is the EU anti-worker?
The EU does not ban industrial action outright, nor does it prevent workers from joining trade unions. Its anti-union policies are much more subtle. It incentivises privatisation and ‘competition’, in the knowledge that the private sector is much better positioned to undermine trade unions and workers’ rights.
Privatisation is encouraged through economic rules, such as those contained in the Fiscal Treaty (though the UK is not included in this) and the Stability and Growth Pact. When a country’s debt to GDP ratio is above 60 percent, or the state is running a deficit of more than 3 percent, the government of the day is incentivised into moving important public services ‘off-balance sheet’.
What this means can be illustrated through the case of Ireland. When domestic water charges were introduced in 2015, one of the key reasons cited by government was to move expenditure on water services ‘off-balance sheet’. In order to do that, the utility (Irish Water) had to receive 51 percent of its funding through end-user charges. That required a metered water system. Of course, once an income stream is established through charges, it makes it easier to privatise in the future. The fact the EU tried to force Greece and Portugal sell their water utitlies wasn’t lost on water protesters in Ireland.
Once privatised, the EU’s rules prevent monopolies, dictating that there must be competition in the market. As usual, with competition comes a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions.
Public sector employment is often the antidote to this race to the bottom and provides upward pressure on conditions of employment. The moves towards privatisation can be seen in the decline of public sector jobs. In 1992, more than 23 percent of all workers in the UK were in the public service, whereas today that figure is 16 percent – a 30 percent reduction.
While the blame for this may not be entirely at the door of the EU, many see it as a contributory factor.
EU leaders out-of-touch with workers’ reality
In her acceptance speech to the EU Parliament, the newly elected President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, 500 million Europeans live in freedom and prosperity.” The fact that 22.4 percent of all citizens living within the EU are at risk of poverty is lost on her. That’s more than 100 million people who have just been informed that they are prosperous, while they make the difficult decision about whether they feed their children or turn on the heating this week.
These myths about EU prosperity don’t stack up. The mainstream media consistently reports that the EU is great for jobs and workers’ rights but this is not the lived experience of workers across the EU.
In the post-war era up until the UK joined the EU (1945-1973), the average unemployment rate was 2.3%. In subsequent years up until the Brexit vote (1973-2016), the UK’s average unemployment rate was 7.3%. It more than trebled. Ireland’s figures are similar. Average unemployment between 1960-1973 was 5.5%, whereas during the period between EEC membership and 2016 the average unemployment rate has increased to 10.5%, almost doubling.
This high rate of unemployment is part and parcel of the EU’s demands for low inflation, while a large supply of reserve workers also serves to keep wages low.
The fact that inequality in the EU has been growing for forty years is not a coincidence. It’s structural. The EU and its rules ensure the top 1 percent of the population accumulates obscene wealth, and in most countries, this is facilitated further by national governments.
Sovereignty was cited as the second most important reason UK citizens voted for Brexit. The perception among many Leave voters is that the EU dictates certain rules within which governments must operate.
For example, it is extremely difficult to renationalise an essential industry under EU rules. It would be virtually impossible for the UK to renationalise its rail network operations inside the EU because of the Fourth Railway Package, a new piece of legislation which will introduce market competition into rail systems, requiring countries to introduce privately operated routes. This comes into effect in 2023 and we can expect workers’ pay and conditions of employment to deteriorate as companies begin to compete with each other for lower costs.
On the road to self-destruction
The 2016 Brexit vote has made it much more difficult to be critical of the European Union. Dare question EU policies in this environment and run the risk of being branded an ill-informed idiot, a racist or a Nigel Farage supporter.
This portrayal of those with opposing views to the prevailing mainstream position as backward Neanderthals is ideal for the anti-democractic forces within the EU. It’s also extremely dangerous, because without critique, they can double-down on the very practices that contributed to the Brexit vote in the first place, such as: the promotion of the worst excesses of capitalism and privatisation; increases in economic inequality and reductions in living standards; the expansion of the EU’s imperial project, including the creation of a European army; and the financialisation of everything we need to survive, even water.
The problem the EU has, and which has been illustrated throughout the Brexit debacle, is that the privatisation agenda and the four freedoms valued so dearly – free movement of goods, services, labour and capital – are likely to result in the self-destruction of the EU unless there is something done to tackle economic inequality.
The future of the EU?
This requires much stronger collective bargaining rights, including a fundamental right for trade unions to access workplaces and undertake inspections on workplace compliance, the outlawing of union busting activities with strong penalties as a deterrent and uninhibited collective action protections. It is clear from past experience that the EU institutions are not on the side of labour in this endeavor, and even if they were, it would require the collective agreement of 27 member states to implement the necessary reforms to address these issues. Looking at the overall composition of national governments and the results of the recent European elections, the prospect of this seems more distant than ever.
About the author: Dave Gibney is the communications officer for Mandate trade union, the main retail union in the Republic of Ireland, and joint coordinator of the Right2Water campaign.
A threat to women and peace in Northern Ireland
by Clare Bailey
Europe’s Green parties made historic gains in the recent European elections in a ‘Green wave’ that also hit a number of local, regional and national elections. Here Clare Bailey sets out the Green Party (Northern Ireland)’s argument that a hard Brexit must be avoided because of the threat it poses to the Northern Ireland peace process, to women and to the task of averting climate breakdown.
As the Tory leadership contest rumbles on – which is a bit like moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic – a no-deal situation is back on the agenda. If this happens, it will be catastrophic for the economy and society across Britain and Ireland, but particularly so in Northern Ireland.
Yet it will be women in Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of a no-deal Brexit. This is because Brexit is putting women’s rights under threat, because Brexit will further de-stabilise the peace-building in the region, and because it will mean that the role of women in the peace process will be further undermined.
Brexit is bad for women
The women’s sector in Northern Ireland and the border regions rightly view Brexit in a negative light. They fear that a Brexit-induced economic downturn would deepen poverty among women and families. Working women here share the concerns of their sisters in Britain that Brexit will expand the gender pay gap, dismantle work-related protections and erode the principles of equality and non-discrimination built into law through four decades of EU membership. They are also concerned that the community and voluntary sector, a vital support to the peace process, will lose access to at least some of the funding available through the EU.
Conflict is gendered…
Northern Ireland has gone through forty years of conflict which has had massive physical and psychological impacts on individuals, families, communities and in turn geographical and cultural relationships. The vast majority of those killed in the conflict were men. The majority of surviving family members are women. A person’s experience of conflict and their conflict legacy needs are heavily shaped by gender. Victimhood is gendered, as are coping strategies. Only when viewed through a gender lens does the broader legacy of the conflict emerge.
So women have experienced the conflict differently from men, but their voices and experiences have been largely invisible, as they were silenced and excluded in their communities once the peace process had been established. Yet these are the very women who kept families and communities together throughout the Troubles and continued working across communities when it was dangerous to do so. Women are a significant presence in victims’ organisations in providing and receiving services. They are a vital part of peace-building.
…as is peace-building
Still the dominant perspective on the conflict reflects a narrow, binary ‘two communities’ narrative of Catholic/Nationalist/Republican and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist, which informs our community relations policies and political agreements. It reflects an environment where gender and issues that predominantly impact on women such as domestic and sexual violence are not considered relevant. The absence and exclusion of women from the peace process and its narratives has exacerbated this. The outworkings of this is that women who have been heavily involved in peace-building work have noted a shrinking of the space for their participation, as this work became male dominated following the GFA and the release of mostly male political prisoners.
The shrinking of space for women’s participation in peace-building is compounded by the hyper-masculinity of the conflict. Our conflict is viewed through a sectarian lens with a focus on death, incidents, violence and blame, rather than stories, relationships and processes. The power and control still wielded by paramilitary groups in communities continues to silence, exclude and intimidate women. The insufficiencies of the GFA are accompanied by rising levels of domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental-ill health and drug and alcohol misuse.
Membership of the EU may have delivered legislative protections in theory, but the reality for women on the ground in Northern Ireland has been minimal. Exiting will only exacerbate the situation of women.
If the EU’s Peace funding for Northern Ireland is scrapped as a consequence of Brexit, this puts in peril financial support for the women’s sector, which has acted both as a cornerstone of peace-building and as well as a lifeline and protection for victims of sexual and domestic violence in a post-conflict society. Yet peace is built in local communities from the ground up through community development, education, and capacity building. Thus there is a real danger of Brexit de-stabilising peace-building in Northern Ireland as a consequence of making impossible the work of hundreds of small grassroots initiative especially in the women’s sector.
More women at the decision-making table!
Women have been a vital part of peace-building in Northern Ireland, and their participation needs to be recognised as such. As communities try to build peace and transition from conflict, we need more women in politics and public life, and we need to address sectarianism, domestic and sexual violence and abuse, class and poverty. Yet the existing high levels of gender inequality hinder women’s participation in developing meaningful and sustainable responses to conflict, in peace-building and in reconstruction processes. With Brexit it is likely that equality and human rights will be eroded – in a region where women are denied legal access to abortion in almost every circumstance, with devastating consequences for those who are forced to go down the illegal route or travel to England.
The Brexit moloch and climate breakdown
Irrespective of the centrality of Northern Ireland to the Brexit saga, and the damage it would do to our region, Brexit has simultaneously diverted the attention away from the vital issues we need to address in Northern Ireland to build real peace. It has also consumed far too much of the attention we need to tackle some of the most urgent questions of our time, namely climate breakdown.
It is well-known that the world’s leading climate scientists have warned there are only twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty. Climate breakdown is increasingly viewed as a threat-multiplier, driving the likelihood of violent conflict arising from pre-existing and complex interactions between political, economic, religious, ethnic or other cultural forces. Hundreds of millions of people will be affected by this, particularly women, particularly in the global South.
Solidarity across borders and with nature
This means that we must tackle gender inequality and environmental destruction together. Social and environmental issues should not be treated as separate. The causes for the oppression of women, people of colour and the environment stem from the same place. The capitalist system driven at its core by the maximisation of profit, regardless of social and ecological costs, is incompatible with a just and sustainable future. All of these issues need to be tackled collectively with the aim of eliminating all forms of domination while recognising and embracing the interdependence and connection humans have with the earth.
What is to be done?
A new society and just transition would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing and basic services as health education transport and culture. We must address the ‘growth’ question which means putting an end to shocking waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. As we support and join our sisters and allies fighting for equal pay, for domestic violence shelters, for better child care, and for all the efforts to stop the daily exploitation and suffering of women, we see these efforts as bandages on a very unhealthy system.
Brexit is a symptom, not a cause, of this system. Curing this unhealthy system, rather than just patching it up, will make for a more sustainable future, through a just transition to save the planet and our very existence. Brexit seems quite irrelevant when we are faced with the extinction of humanity, but I’d rather be working with my Green colleagues across Europe to challenge it.
The local and the global
The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, just as the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted in support of the GFA. I believe as one of the 4 Remain parties we, the Green Party Northern Ireland, have a shared responsibility to protect jobs, economic stability, the environment and people’s livelihoods in the region. At the very least, this means avoiding a hard border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the relative peace of the past twenty years, while staying within the Single Market and a Customs Union.
That does not mean we should be naïve about the EU or its shortcomings. We recognise, for example, the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the EU institutions, which are designed to be resistant to popular will. We also condemn the shame of Fortress Europe and the racist attitudes that prevail within the EU institutions, a racism experienced first-hand by friend and colleague Magid Magid on his first day in Strasbourg for the opening of the European Parliament. But we also understand that the challenges of today require a transnational response and that we must work together with our colleagues and allies across the EU to tackle the threats to the environment and humanity globally while fighting institutional racism.
About the author: Clare Bailey is a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Northern Ireland, Leader of the Green Party NI and a longtime activist in the women’s movement.
by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
The contest to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister has reached its final stage after Tory MPs selected Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to go head-to-head in a series of hustings, where they will seek to win a majority of votes among the party’s 120,000 members.
The leadership process to date has been characterised by scandals, infighting and fragmentation, reflecting the political and ideological divisions which have plagued the Conservative Party for decades and have opened up as a result of Brexit.
The task of bridging these divisions will now fall to Johnson or Hunt, who will be expected to succeed where Theresa May fell short. This will involve meeting the challenge of the Brexit Party, which poses a significant threat to the Tories in up to fifty of their most marginal seats. A Johnson victory would boost the chances of electoral consolidation for the party whilst contributing somewhat to the polarisation of opinion along old left/right, two-party lines. However even this is unlikely to resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the British political system.
Step forward Prime Minister Johnson?
Boris Johnson’s alleged domestic dispute with his partner means that the leadership contest may no longer be a coronation, particularly if Hunt questions his rival’s character during the upcoming election hustings. However it is doubtful whether this will be enough to close the 20+ point gap between the two. Johnson’s Teflon-like ability to shrug off successive scandals means that he is almost certain to assume leadership of his party and the country on 22 July.
A number of polls indicate that Tory supporters see him as the best placed candidate to win back voters who backed the Brexit Party during Theresa May’s tenure. Johnson has routinely changed his position on Brexit according to the prevailing winds but has now vowed to remove the backstop, withhold the £39 billion ‘divorce’ payment due to the EU and take Britain out on 31 October with or without a deal.
This rhetoric is designed to affect a Tory recovery in the polls at the expense of Nigel Farage’s party. In the short term, a Johnson victory would lead to the growth and consolidation of Tory support in the polls. As the Tories extend their lead over Brexit Party, greater numbers of defectors may be encouraged to return to their party of origin. This would raise the possibility of an early general election, particularly if – or when – Johnson is unable to secure the backing of parliament for his proposed Brexit plan.
An outright Tory victory in a general election however seems like a distant prospect, and Farage’s threat to field over 600 candidates in that event will ultimately necessitate some form of cooperation between the two. There is every possibility of the Tory Party under Johnson entering into a coalition arrangement with the Brexit Party. This sits within the trend across Europe whereby conservative parties are under increasing pressure to make deals with radical right parties, and where the two forces are showing signs of convergence along ideological and organisational lines.
An existential crisis
There is every reason to believe that any Tory recovery will be temporary and that we are living through the high point of an existential crisis for the party of the British ruling class. Electoral support for the Tories has plateaued in recent decades while their membership is declining, ageing and increasingly inactive. Attempts to emulate Labour’s model of organising and mobilisation have meanwhile been hugely unsuccessful. In addition, it is clear that the attitudes and interests of the Tory support base no longer align with those of the dominant fractions of capital. This divergence finds its most obvious expression around the question of Brexit: one poll suggests that the majority of Tory members remain committed to Brexit even at the cost of the party’s disintegration and breakup of the United Kingdom, while big business and the financial sector are unequivocally in favour of Remain.
These are the problems which dogged May’s premiership and will not be resolved simply through the election of a new leader. Johnson, like May, will have to contend with the Tory Remainers who have threatened to trigger a no-confidence vote if the government attempts to force through a hard Brexit. He will have to quickly identify viable ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border in Ireland, which have so far eluded the government. And that is to say nothing of the Scottish question: a no-deal Brexit delivered by a Farage/Johnson coalition would undoubtedly swing a vote for Scottish independence, with demands for an Irish border poll to follow.
In short, a restoration of the status quo ante is not on the cards: one way or another we are entering into a new political dispensation.
What does this mean for Labour?
The one potential upshot of this is that the threat of a Johnson-led government or Tory/Brexit Party coalition will concentrate the minds of Labour supporters who have become inactive or recently switched to the centrist parties (Lib Dems, Greens) in protest at the party’s stance on Brexit. There are several marginal constituencies, including Boris’ home seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the Labour candidate will represent the only realistic hope of defeating the Tories or Brexit Party. In such circumstances only the most vociferous opponents of Corbyn’s project are likely to stick to their guns in voting Lib Dem or Green.
Corbyn’s Labour is ahead in all major polls, including the all-important poll of polls, and will be looking forward to a general election. Following the unlikely victory of Lisa Forbes in the recent Peterborough by-election, Corbyn told the media to ‘Underestimate us as your peril’ and expressed confidence that a general election would ‘deliver a government for the many, not the few’. However, a number of potential dangers lie ahead. The first concerns the ground upon which any election might be fought. Pressure from the liberal media is sure to encourage the view in some quarters that Labour’s election strategy should centre on attacking Johnson’s character, rather than seeking to mobilise people around the alternative vision that was so crucial in 2017 and again in the Peterborough by-election. The former might yield short-term gains, but it is the latter that will provide a solid foundation for building the Labour movement into the future.
The other, related danger for Corbyn is that the centrist parties will be working hard to bill a general election as a battle between the forces of Leave and Remain, with a view to dragging Labour onto the terrain of a culture war. It remains highly likely that a good performance for Labour would still leave the party depending on one or a combination of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Lib Dems and Greens to form a ‘progressive’ government. This would, of course, come at a cost – the demand for a second referendum on EU membership, a second Scottish independence referendum or both.
Against this backdrop, there will be pressure on the Labour leadership to declare support for Remain in a second referendum, in an attempt to claw back enough votes from the pro-Remain parties to win a parliamentary majority. The unlikely election of Jeremy Hunt, the current Foreign Secretary and candidate of choice for a significant minority of Tory Remainers, would in all likelihood add to this pressure.
But there are a number of problems with this approach. To begin with, it would patently fail to win back working-class voters from the Brexit Party and drive greater numbers into the welcome arms of Farage, at the cost of losing up to 50 marginal seats concentrated mainly in the Labour heartlands upon which the party was built. The referendum campaign itself would be hugely divisive given the polarisation of people’s positions on Brexit, both within the labour movement and across society.
The other problem is that the party leadership appears to be pivoting towards this explicitly anti-Brexit position just when it has become all but impossible to hold such a vote before the UK is due to leave the EU. The terms of any future referendum would have to be very different, focusing on the question of Britain’s re-entry into the EU and the stringent conditions that would come with that.
In view of all of this, it is reasonable to argue that Labour’s prospects would not be best served by trying to stop Brexit at this stage. Rather the best course of action appears to be the one that is currently being pursued – one that focuses on maximising ‘the vote against crashing out and allies it to a popular domestic agenda’.
by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Existential /ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃ(ə)l/ adjective – relating to or dealing with existence (especially with human existence)
Labour catch a break
Labour breathed a sigh of relief last Thursday. And although the Tories may also have felt some relief at Nigel Farage’s early departure from the count centre when the writing of Labour’s victory was on the wall, the bold Boris Johnson will be left arguing that only he can now see of the Brexit Party (BXP) challenge by taking on Europe and pushing for a crash-out Brexit. As of the weekend each of the Tory party candidates for the leadership is now vying to outdo each other in the abruptness and absoluteness of the UK exit in October. When questioned about re-opening negotiations that have finished or dealing with the Irish back stop it is all bluster and noise.
The biggest loser on the night was perhaps the Labour right-wing arguing for a so-called People’s Vote, because whilst Labour may have lost a few votes to the Greens and Lib Dems, they won Peterborough based on the current strategy of the leadership (and what Paul Mason calls Corbyn’s ‘Stalinist advisors’) which is to campaign on anything except Brexit and to focus on core socialist issues, the threats to the National Health Service (NHS), austerity, precariousness and inequality. Let’s not forget, Peterborough backed Leave by 61% to 39% in the 2016 referendum and according to all the pundits this should have been a BXP victory and a similar situation faces Labour across the vast majority of marginal seats in England and Wales which voted Leave in significant numbers.
For Labour the victory is a vindication, less of their delicate position in trying to maintain unity in a party whose voters are split between leave and remain, but rather of their local campaigning machine, their activists and their energy. In speaking to activists present in Peterborough, Momentum played a significant role as did trade unionists from across the country. Seen in this light, rather than through the distorted lens of the single issue EU elections, the Peterborough victory might suggest that Labour have an ability to hold enough of their own Remain vote using their radical message and local organising to win a general election.
The Tories continue to break
This word ‘existential’ is often over used but in terms of the future of the Conservative party it is not an exaggeration. Why? Because the BXT party failure to win a seat in Peterborough doesn’t really matter; what matters is its continued existence and capacity to steal enough Tory votes to hand over marginal seats to the Labour Party in any general election.
The whining from centrists and liberals about the BXP having no policies or manifesto completely misses the point. In 2014 UKIP won 16% of the European vote and thirteen seats. That vote has simply shifted to BXP. In addition, one overlooked finding from the post-EU election Ashcroft poll was that, among all those voting, 50% said they had voted Remain in the referendum and 45% voted Leave; now, 50% said they support Leave and 46% said they were in favour of Remain. Despite the best efforts of ultra-Remainers, under the most propitious of conditions and with vast resources, half of the British electorate are unmoved in their commitment to leave the EU.
As Costas Lapavitsas commented pithily at a recent panel discussion in Belfast, Brexit is the manifestation of a deepening political split within the British ruling class, a split that ‘has magnified itself to the extent that it has paralysed the Tory Party’ and the continued fracturing of the party of the ruling class is marvellous news. Long may it continue. The key now is for Labour to build on the Peterborough result and unite people around a radical, socialist alternative. There appears, thankfully, to be no alternative.
by Stevie Nolan & Seán Byers, TradeMark Belfast
The European elections: Results and prospects
Last week’s European Parliament elections attracted an increased turnout, reflecting the high stakes in member states where governing parties are facing a crisis of legitimacy, as well as the mobilisation of sections of political and civil society around questions such as the climate emergency, the threat of the far right and the battle over the EU’s future direction.
Overall, the elections produced no clear story, but rather a number of realignments that will result in a more fragmented, finely balanced Parliament and greater instability across the European political system.
The traditional centre-left and centre-right blocs both took a big hit, losing their combined majority for the first time in four decades. The radical right and nationalist parties made significant gains, doing particularly well in Sweden, Poland, Hungary, France and Italy, although they have not experienced the European-wide surge that many pollsters had predicted. The Left, on the other hand, failed to meet its own modest expectations, faring badly in Germany and France while suffering a heavier-than-expected defeat to the right-wing opposition in Greece. Podemos has had disappointing European, regional and local elections, just one month after losing 29 of its 71 seats in the Spanish general election.Solid performances in countries such as Portugal and Cyprus, along with big gains for the Belgian Workers’ Party, were not enough to disguise what has to be seen as a very poor showing for the radical left as a whole. In the Danish national elections a different picture emerged with the Social Democrats forging a victory though with accusations that it is based in part upon the party’s tougher stance on immigration winning back voters back from the far right Danish People’s Party which lost heavily. The Social Democrats are likely to form a government with a left-bloc alliance that will include the eco-socialist Socialist People’s Party who doubled their seats on the green wave and the Marxist Red Green Alliance which maintained 13 of its 14 seats.
For many the big winners were the Greens and the Liberals, who have gained 60 seats to reach a total of 177 seats between them, creating what ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt has described as a ‘new balance of power in the European Parliament’. Some have interpreted their success optimistically as the birth of a new politics, others emphasising the resilience of a pro-EU centre-ground. There is of course a more complicated picture to explain, involving closer attention to national specificities, spatial dynamics, demographic trends and turnout. Here we merely attempt to weigh up the strength of these claims and assess the state of left formations and strategies from this point on.
A new politics or centrist renewal?
Although we have indeed witnessed an electoral #GreenWave across Europe, it would not be unfair to say that this owes much to the emergence of a new consciousness that has benefitted parties with the ‘green’ brand – regardless of their records in government or policy positions in the here and now. There is, at this present moment, no obvious alignment between the centrist Green parties of Europe and the radical current of school strikes and direct action whose radical slogan of ‘system change not climate change’ adequately captures the need for urgent and bold action. Achieving the kind of transformation that is required will therefore largely depend on an escalation of militant grassroots activity, the active intervention of trade unions on a much larger scale than we have seen to date, and the formation of effective red-green alliances at a national and international level.
It could also be argued that the combined forces of centrism have held up quite well, if one factors in the Liberal bloc. Any centrist majority in the Parliament will have to include this grouping, which includes (for now) the Lib Dems in Britain and Macron’s La République En Marche! As Kevin Ovenden has argued, Macron is likely to exploit this as part of an overall – and thus far unsuccessful – strategy ‘to restore French influence in the EU that has waned considerably over the last 25 years’. Crucially, however, the Liberals will not seek to bring about a radical overhaul of the EU’s economic system, despite the lasting impact of austerity and a slowdown in economic growth. Rather, they have shown that they are only too willing to reinforce the economic status quo and borrow the clothes of the right in the interest of political expediency.
Thus, it is a paradox that the circumstances of political fragmentation and extended crisis for traditional parties contain within them the possibility of centrist renewal: a return to Third Way politics with some technocratic Green tinkering or, worse still, further accommodation with the anti-immigrant demands of the right.
The Europeanisation of politics?
It has also been claimed that that the elections are significant for pointing to a ‘Europeanisation’ or ‘transnationalisation’ of politics. This claim has been made most eloquently by David Adler, Policy Coordinator for DiEM25, who identifies the Green Wave, the scrubbing of anti-EU rhetoric by Eurosceptic parties, and closer transnational cooperation between the radical right as evidence of this trend. Although there may be something in this, there are also reasons to be less sanguine.
First of all, it is clear that not everyone invested in ‘European’ politics to the same degree. Voter turnout at a national level varied from 22.74% in Slovakia to 88.74% in Belgium, where voting is compulsory; in the UK the figure was just under 37%, despite the elections being billed as an effective second referendum on EU membership. Overall, turnout was still much lower than is normal in a national election, which reflects the lack of a European demos and the fact that the European Parliament has very limited powers or relevance compared with a national legislature. Significantly, it the working classes abstained in large numbers.
Second, it may be the case that some Eurosceptic parties have temporarily ceased to talk openly about an exit from the EU, and that pro-EU parties won 75% of the vote, however it is less certain that this marks what Adler has described as a ‘fortification of the EU’. For instance, having emerged from the election with a strengthened mandate, Salvini has entered into another dispute with the European Commission over the Italian government’s budget. The Commission has triggered disciplinary action but Salvini has vowed not to back down, knowing that a confrontation with Brussels would certainly yield big gains for Lega in a fresh general election.
Salvini is not about to drag Italy out of the EU. But as Thomas Fazi and Adam Tooze have both argued, the Commission’s handling of the Italian case points to deepening contradictions which threaten the long-term survival of the eurozone and EU. Likewise, in France the marginal victory of Marine La Pen’s National Rally party is likely to signal the adoption of a more explicitly ‘France first’ strategy by Macron, with the result of increasing conflict at the EU’s core. Rather than one decisive rupture, it is possible that the EU will continue to sink deeper into multiple crises and suffer what Fazi has termed a ‘slow-motion implosion’.
Thirdly, the election produced no obvious mandate for the transnational ‘Remain and reform’ agenda advocated by some sections of the left. DiEM25’s programme received very little support, except in Varoufakis’ native Greece where they now intend to contest the upcoming national elections. Arguably it remains the case that the DiEM25 project consists of ‘nothing more than a series of demands, with no clear idea of how they are to be actualised’. Similarly, the social-democratic coupling of a ‘progressivist’ culture war politics with calls for return to ‘social Europe’ failed to attract significant support.
Finally, even if we are to suppose that the implicit endorsement of a Green New Deal represents an advance towards ‘a paneuropean movement dedicated to a single progressive policy agenda for all Europeans’, there remains no obvious route for securing its implementation at that level. For transnational socialist or green politics to mean anything in concrete terms will require:
strong and active movements at the local and national level. There is no abstract global fight against crisis and neoliberalism. Social struggles are internationalized only when local and national movements realize the need for coordination across borders in order to strengthen the fight against international and well-coordinated counter-forces. But international coordination presupposes that there is something to coordinate.
The reality is that these conditions do not yet exist, but must be built from the ground up and plugged into the new ‘green’ consciousness. The threat of a good example in a core European country such as Britain may assist in this task, although the likelihood of a radical Labour government has shrunk considerably in recent months.
The state and future direction of left politics
For the radical left, the failure to mobilise its base will have provoked a lot a soul-searching. The mass abstention of the working-classes not only helps to explain the Left’s reversal in the European Parliament but also its heavy losses in states such as the Republic of Ireland, where Sinn Féin and the Trotskyist left both lost half of their local council seats.
Messaging, it seems, was also important, with the electorate favouring those with unambiguous policy positions and punishing those who attempted to ‘triangulate’ between opposite poles or transcend the divisions between left and right. Ovenden rightly notes that the Podemos strategy of uniting people behind ‘empty signifiers’ has not only backfired on Iglesias’ party but also on Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, which saw its share of the vote reduced to just 6.5%. In particular it is the failure of the left to successfully mobilise around a simple, positive and radical message that appears to have cost it dearly. This is crucial in an era where a party without an organised structure or membership base can win an election, simply by virtue of having a gimmick and an effective social media strategy.
But, above all, the future for the left lies in the revitalisation of a class-based socialist politics as radical as the time requires – a politics that roots itself in the organised labour movement, connects with the Green movement and organises around the interests of those ‘who have the greatest incentive to upturn the economic order’.
by Andreas Thomsen
On 24 May, the day after the European Parliament elections were held in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but before the votes were counted, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation. It is now expected that a general election will be held this year, meaning that the European election results should be of particular interest to politicians in London. For while the results of a general election will certainly differ from those of the European elections, not least because of the completely different electoral systems used, the latter do provide a good indication of the national mood.
Brexit is the issue dominating UK politics at the moment, so it is no surprise that this came through particularly strongly in the European Parliament elections. In the UK, the election results will be mainly looked at through the prism of one question, namely ‘What is the ratio of votes for pro-Brexit parties to those cast for parties wanting the country to remain part of the European Union?’ In this equation the Labour Party is still the one unknown quantity, with their position being regarded as indecisive at best but ostensibly pro-Brexit. At the 2014 European elections, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led at that time by Nigel Farage, picked up the votes of the most vociferous advocates of leaving the EU.
Since then, Farage has left UKIP, running again for the European Parliament this time with his newly-established Brexit Party. On the other side of the argument, supporting the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, a whole panoply of parties stood for election: Change UK (a new party created by members of parliament defecting from Labour and the Conservative Party), the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru. The political landscape in Northern Ireland is very different from that of Great Britain. By far the largest political forces there are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who as unionists want to remain part of the UK, and the republican Sinn Féin, who back Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland. Despite supporting Brexit, the DUP rejected the deal the May government had negotiated with the rest of the EU, considering the arrangements for Northern Ireland unacceptable. Sinn Féin is against Brexit altogether.
The clear winners were Nigel Farage’s newly-founded Brexit Party. In 2014, Farage’s UKIP won 26.6% of the vote, taking 24 seats in the European Parliament. In the 2019 European elections, the Brexit Party garnered a 31.6% vote share and 29 seats. The obvious losers were the governing Conservatives (Tories). Their share of the vote plummeted 14.8 percentage points, from 23.05% in 2014 to just 9.1%. They lost 15 seats, leaving them with just four. Labour, the main opposition party in the UK parliament, lost almost as much ground as the governing party, slumping from 24.4% to 14.1%. This means they now only have 10 seats, 10 fewer than in the 2014 elections. Among the parties that clearly support the UK staying in the EU, the Liberal Democrats made a major breakthrough, coming in second place after the Brexit Party, with 20.3% of the vote and 16 seats. In 2014, they had only secured one seat and a vote share of 6.7%. Among the other options for ‘Remain’ voters, the Greens did very well, with their score of 12.1% landing them seven seats.
Change UK ended up in a lowly eighth place with 3.4%, failing to win a seat in the European Parliament. The Scottish nationalists, the SNP, picked up three seats, and their Welsh counterparts, Plaid Cymru, took one. In Northern Ireland, there was only one change in terms of the distribution of seats. While Sinn Féin and the DUP each retained their one seat, the Alliance Party secured its first seat in the European Parliament. This means that instead of being picked up by a Protestant unionist party as it had been before, this seat is now going to a liberal, non-denominational party.
The parties that clearly support remaining in the EU (the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin) achieved about 41%, but the parties obviously backing Brexit (the Brexit Party, the Tories, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)) also fell short of an absolute majority, with a combined score of around 44%. The Labour Party cannot be pinned down to either of these camps, and therefore this result reflects the very indecisive situation in the House of Commons.
A lack of clarity and signs of things to come
The European elections in the UK, including those in Northern Ireland, were held in unique, almost surreal political circumstances. The original date for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union passed a while ago and while a Brexit deal has been agreed by the UK government and the EU, the UK parliament is finding it impossible to endorse the agreement or make a viable counter-proposal, and therefore Brexit has been postponed. However, there is no majority in the House of Commons for a ‘no deal’ hard Brexit either. How things will develop from here is highly uncertain, with the prime minister severely weakened and her government on shaky ground. Talks with the Labour Party aimed at finding a compromise solution were abandoned with no agreement just before the European elections. This unresolved, chaotic situation gave rise to a bewildering state of affairs whereby the UK, whose government had long since planned to leave the European Union, had to participate in the elections to the European Parliament. The European elections in the UK were held on 23 May.
However, the day before, on 22 May, there was another turn of events. Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom resigned from her cabinet position as Leader of the House, explaining her decision in a sharply-worded statement aimed at the prime minister. That same day, rumours increased that Theresa May would resign that week. Candidates to succeed her already started positioning themselves, including former Foreign Secretary and ‘no deal’ Brexit advocate Boris Johnson. And all this was unfolding against the backdrop of opinion polls predicting truly devastating results for the Tory Party in the upcoming European elections. Then, on 24 May, Theresa May announced she would step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June.
It is now very likely that a general election will be held later this year, probably even before the new scheduled EU withdrawal date of 31 October.
While the result of a ‘first-past-the-post’ general election is likely to be very different from the European elections, this fact could actually make a difficult situation even worse, because under this system, third- or fourth-placed parties are liable to experience very crushing defeats that far exceed their percentage losses. Thus, for the Conservatives, who found themselves pushed into fifth place in the European Parliament elections, how they perform in a general election could determine their very survival. While things look slightly better for Labour, who came third in the European elections, they too are in an alarming position. Therefore, if a general election were to be held in the near future and the Brexit issue were still unresolved, it could spell disaster for both major parties and completely transform the UK’s political landscape. This prospect is unlikely to calm the massively polarised and highly charged atmosphere currently prevailing in all the UK’s political camps.
Revenge from both sides and Labour`s dilemma
In a trend which may well be repeated in future elections, these European polls saw hard Brexiteers exact revenge on the Tories, who are now fighting for survival. But Labour too is being severely punished. Given the massive escalation of this one issue, which is dominating UK politics to the exclusion of almost everything else, and the country’s extreme polarisation on this subject, many voters are favouring clear, unequivocal options. Those voting for the Brexit Party want out fast, even without a deal and with no further negotiations. A vote for the Remain parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin) indicates support for withdrawing Article 50 and remaining in the EU, and a willingness to confirm this through a second referendum.
This situation poses a twofold dilemma for the Labour Party. Opinion polls and also resolutions passed by the party show that the majority of its members and supporters are against Brexit, but it also has a significant number of Brexiteers in its ranks. The signals sent out by the leadership have tried to satisfy both the Remainer and the Brexiteer camps but have ended up pleasing neither. The party’s indecisiveness and ambiguity are annoying and irritating its supporters and doing it huge damage. At the same time, however, Labour is also the main opposition party in the House of Commons. Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the opposition and prospective prime minister if the party were to win a general election. In a de facto two-party system, things soon become difficult and indeed dangerous for the official opposition when they cannot come up with a solid counter-position to the government’s flagship project.
So if the Labour leadership wants to maintain its ambiguous position on this now all-important issue, it has to hope that further elections in the UK remain a long way off. As things stand and if they keep to their current stance, Labour are unlikely to win a general election until the Brexit issue is settled one way or the other. However, it is doubtful whether they will be granted this luxury.