We are Trademark Belfast, the anti- sectarian and anti-racist unit of the Irish labour movement.
by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Following Theresa May’s historic and humiliating defeat in the House of Commons last week she has been under intense pressure to return with an alternative Brexit deal, a Plan B. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to securing a majority amongst her own party and retaining the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) upon whose ten votes she is reliant for power, is the Irish back stop agreement. The backstop is a position of last resort designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal.
Ignoring the result of two Irish referenda
Until late Sunday night there were three ways to avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland: some sort of special arrangement for Northern Ireland; a settlement that would keep all of the United Kingdom in something like a customs union with a dose of regulatory alignment; or a united Ireland. But late on Sunday night a fourth appeared: the rewriting of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA, 1998). Theresa May and some of her privately educated advisors thought that it would be a good idea to implement the result of a British referendum by ignoring the result of two Irish referenda which gave democratic legitimacy to the GFA twenty years ago and brought three decades of violent conflict to an end. Meanwhile there are plenty of voices in Ireland reminding the British establishment that the conflict in Ireland cost thousands of lives and ripped its way through two generations of communities and families; and as recent events have highlighted, the peace process that brought the conflict to an end is still ongoing.
Degree of immeasurable incompetence
Since the Blairite era it has become a tried and tested tactic to float an idea in the mainstream press to test the waters, before making robust denials about its existence once it has been shot down. But the notion that Britain would even consider trying to renegotiate a hard-won international peace treaty lodged at the United Nations is revealing of a number of things. One is the degree of immeasurable incompetence that lies within the Cabinet and those advising it. Another is the exceptionalism and supremacy of an erstwhile empire that looks upon the island of Ireland and its people as entirely expendable. A third is the lengths to which the government will go to appease the DUP and European Research Group (ERG) by attempting to get rid of the backstop designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Not just controversial but impossible
The plan to renegotiate the GFA was of course denied by the government after it was pointed out by, well, everyone, that it’s not just controversial but impossible as it would require the consent of all the parties in the North as well as the Irish Government. However, the very fact of its emergence underlines the extent of the crisis that Theresa May has created for herself. What these amendments to an internationally binding peace agreement may have looked like will never be known. It is doubtful that they exist at all – a kind of Schrodinger’s backstop.
May’s desperate turn to reconsider the GFA followed her cynical call to meet with other parties from across the political spectrum and negotiate a cross-party deal. Corbyn refused to meet her unless she removed the option of a no-deal scenario off the table and was strongly criticised by other parties. Then with the kind of duplicity typical of the Brexit era, those same critics, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and some of his own backbenchers went on to meet Theresa May only then to claim it was a waste of time, much as Corbyn had predicted.
Another underwhelming appearance
And so she was back for yet another underwhelming appearance at the despatch box where she suggested once again that there would be one last push on getting rid of the backstop, or adapting it in ways that will please the obdurate DUP and calm the lunatic ramblings of the ERG. At this stage would anyone be surprised if she suggested bringing Ireland back into the United Kingdom? Meanwhile Labour’s Keir Starmer has made it clear ‘That any deal probably does require a backstop and we’ve got to recognise that’.
It appears that the only hope of winning Labour MPs’ support for a deal through the inclusion of a customs union is off the table and that May is caught between the splits in her own party, her reliance on the DUP and her own self-interest. Of all the ways out of the Irish backstop impasse, none are open to her.
May’s disastrous decision
If it weren’t for May’s disastrous decision to hold an election in 2017 there would be a border in the Irish Sea and some form of Brexit would likely be through. But parliamentary numbers mean the DUP hold the cards for the moment and they want a hard Brexit, a harder border and May’s government cannot hold onto office if it agrees anything else. Last night John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor said it was “highly likely” that the party would support an amendment put forward by Labour MP Yvette Cooper aimed at suspending the Article for leaving the EU if a deal has not been agreed by the end of February. However if the attempts to delay the process fail, it makes a ‘no deal’ Brexit increasingly likely. Unsurprisingly Jean-Claude Junker’s chief spokesperson told reporters yesterday that it was “pretty obvious” that ‘border infrastructure’ will inevitably appear at the border. It won’t be the only thing. We’ll see you there.
DUP: The largest party in Northern Ireland, it is a right-wing, socially conservative, anti-abortion, anti same-sex marriage party that sees itself as defending Britishness and Ulster Protestant culture against Irish nationalism. The party is strongly Eurosceptic and supported the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
ERG: A pressure/support group for Eurosceptic members of the British Conservative Party defined by their strong opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, many were involved in the Leave Campaign and are considered ‘hard Brexiteers’.
by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Rosa Luxemburg said that “The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening”, consider this a whisper. Last night Theresa May’s Brexit deal went down to a staggering defeat of 230 votes, the biggest defeat suffered by a British government in modern history. In ordinary times, this would almost certainly spell the end of a prime minister. But these are extraordinary times. Although May is deeply unpopular, there is no clear parliamentary or public majority for an alternative to her deal.
In the absence of such an alternative, May seems determined to hang on. She has until Monday to present a ‘Plan B’ – a way forward that unifies her bitterly divided Cabinet and which, she hopes, will secure enough support to pass the House of Commons. All signs point to an extension of Article 50, which would push back the deadline for the UK’s exit in order that negotiations around a withdrawal deal can be re-opened. This would require the unanimous support of the EU27 leaders through the European Council. And, while EU negotiators are holding firm in their public insistence that the current deal is ‘the best compromise’, privately they have been preparing to delay Brexit until at least July. After all, they would rather see that Brexit is cancelled entirely.
A motion of no confidence
The British Labour Party is in favour of extending the negotiating period beyond the European Parliament elections in May. In the meantime, Corbyn has tabled a motion of no confidence that will be put to the vote tonight at 7pm (GMT). In doing this he hopes to trigger an early Westminster election, to be fought on the basis that a Labour government would seek to negotiate a deal for Customs Union membership and Single Market access while rapidly implementing its manifesto commitments. This position is supported by the general secretaries of four British trade unions: Unite, Unison, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA).
But while Labour’s motion will have the support of the opposition parties, it looks destined to fail as Tory Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have both indicated that they would support May in a confidence vote. This leads to a consideration of Labour’s strategic options. Corbyn is keen to avoid a so-called ‘people’s vote’, understanding that it would likely result in one of two disastrous outcomes: another victory for Leave and a confidence boost for the right; or a narrow win for Remain, which would not resolve the underlying factors behind Brexit or the divisions it has helped to entrench.
Corbyn’s big challenge
The big challenge for Corbyn is that while the Labour membership and Parliamentary Labour Party are pro-Remain and sympathetic to the holding of a second referendum, the majority of Labour constituencies voted Leave. There appears to be no obvious or immediate strategy for managing this tension in a progressive direction. On the one hand, the scale of the government’s defeat on Tuesday supports the argument that what should follow is a sustained campaign to oust the Tory government through parliamentary pressure and a grassroots mobilisation of Labour Party and trade union members. This is Corbyn’s preferred strategy, although the impetus for such a mobilisation would need to be built very quickly and would depend on the practical cooperation of key unions.
On the other hand, provisions that allow for the UK parliament to propose alternative solutions to Brexit are pointing in the direction of a cross-party agreement between the centrist majority. Voting trends and public declarations by MPs suggest that some form of Norway-plus deal would command a parliamentary majority. However, there are a number of reasons for the left to be cautious of this idea. Firstly, it is being driven by Tory MP Nick Boles in alliance with Labour Remainers. Conceived in the Westminster bubble, the proposal has no connection with the labour movement or the strategic imperatives of Corbyn’s long-term project, but instead threatens to undermine them while consolidating the Tory’s position in power.
A way out of the crisis
Secondly, it has been argued that a Norway-plus arrangement does not represent the panacea it is often made out to be. For example, it would mean remaining within the EEA and Single Market, demanding compliance with the ‘four freedoms’ – of movement for goods, services, capital and labour. As Grace Blakeley has argued elsewhere, this would severely impede the Labour Party’s capacity to restrict the flow of capital in the form capital controls or a tax on financial transactions. Moreover, the Norwegian model ties the state to the EU’s regressive policies on state aid, public ownership, procurement and workers’ rights. Technically, while a socialist government might retain the power of veto within this arrangement, in practice this would be contested and involve some form of confrontation with the EU.
Thus, there is much for the Labour and trade union left to consider as it looks to forge a way out of the current crisis. The Labour leadership intends to table a motion of no confidence at least once more, when the details of May’s Plan B are better known. But unless there is an unexpected setback at a European level, we are looking at an extension to the negotiating period and a protracted road to a workable deal. Ultimately, Corbyn may be railroaded into backing a Norway-plus solution or something representing a marginal, even cosmetic improvement on what May currently has – particularly if it avoids the potentially damaging consequences brought by a second referendum. Something, however, will need to change – and quickly – if Labour are to productively seize on the limited opportunities that the situation presents.
by Ada-Charlotte Regelmann, Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Half way into the third year of the Brexit frenzy this much is clear: The upheaval caused by the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum will continue to shape European politics on both sides of the Channel throughout 2019 and beyond. That certainty aside, much of the political, social, legal, economic and cultural fallout this unprecedented political process will bring about is impossible to anticipate. What does this mean for the European left? How will the left respond? How does the left stand on increased European Union integration? Can we even speak of a European left as such? How do we respond to the rise of the radical right?
The Brexit “revolt”
It is rather telling of the prevailing uncertainty that some people in the UK are stocking up on canned meat and painkillers to get through the potentially chaotic immediate aftermath of “Brexit day”. Real-term effects in most areas, though – for example on workers’ rights, health care or the environment – might not be felt until much after 29 March. And Brexit’s repercussions will affect more than the future shape of trade or customs regulations between the UK and the EU. As conditions of the final agreement remain unclear, the European left, too, has yet to develop answers to Brexit and its implications. The reasons for this lie deeper and point to the left’s ambiguous relationship with European integration.
Brexit comes at a crucial moment in the European political project. Crises abound across the continent. We are witnessing intensifying social conflict coupled with widespread revolt against the political centre. The Brexit vote of June 2016 was one such revolt, itself partly symptomatic of the multiple crises afflicting European capitalism: The Eurozone crisis. Austerity. A governance crisis. The rise of racist and fascist political parties. Social democracy in decline. Meanwhile, an astonishingly oblivious political class keeps ploughing on at both supranational and national levels. Brexit, then, in many ways epitomises the challenges of democratic transnational integration.
Divisive for the left
While the radical right continues to make gains and take power, the left has thus far failed to seize the opportunities presented by the current crisis of neoliberal capitalism. In Britain the Labour Party’s move to the left, coupled with its relative electoral success and mobilisation of a grassroots movement in the form of Momentum, poses a potential, though unrealised, challenge to the continent’s predominantly weak social democratic parties. Alas, on Brexit the party remains as divided as any, leaving the continental left at a loss as to how to support a socialist alternative to a Tory Brexit.
More problematically still, although we have seen the growth of anti-systemic left movements elsewhere in Europe, it is not possible to speak of a European left as such – one that is rooted in working class communities, has an organic relationship with organised labour and is united by a coherent economic vision and political strategy in the face of key centres of power, including the EU. The left continues to be divided on the question of embracing or abandoning integration within the EU while narrow ethnic nationalisms are gaining ground.
Brexit and beyond
The global financial crash, euro debt crisis and imposition of austerity have led to a decade of stagnation and impoverishment for much of the continent’s population. The Eurozone’s fault-lines have been exposed as result of growing economic inequality and increased divergence between core and peripheral countries. The EU’s institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy, while a succession of governments have begun to show some resistance to the rules governing its economic system.
It is crucial that this pessimism does not lead to despair, but instead provides the ground on which to rethink and rebuild. The foundations for this task are being constructed in different pockets of Europe, where the left is advocating strategic disobedience, engaging in new forms of community and trade union organising, and experimenting with “real utopias” aimed at democratising key aspects of social and economic life whilst generating class consciousness and organisational strength. It is time to link new and existing struggles and harness them towards a more effective left strategy for building a people’s Europe.
This Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung blog wants to support this process. We promote an inclusive, comradely debate between – and within – various sections of the European and international left that reflects the diverse perspectives held on key issues. And we bring national, racial and gendered specificities to bear on the debate, particularly where they have been neglected.
Over the next twelve months we will be inviting grassroots, left activists, journalists, politicians and thinkers to contribute to this discussion in the form of analysis as well as interviews, podcasts and video segments. These will be posted weekly, interspersed with commentary pieces by the blog hosts. The blog thus offers a running commentary on the Brexit saga and provides a forum for discussion on the broader themes of the EU and Eurozone, electoralism and social movements, trade unionism and labour politics, alternative economic and political strategies, and the task of building left power.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung is being partnered in this initiative by Trademark Belfast, a trade union-based social justice and peacebuilding organisation that works closely with trade union, grassroots and left political actors across Ireland, Britain and Europe to promote alternative economic and political strategies. We look forward to you joining us on the journey ahead.
As part of this blog two events will be held in the early part of the year.
On 22 February Trademark will be hosting its annual political school in rural County Fermanagh near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It brings together community and trade union activists, the political left and progressive academics to discuss and explore the potential for cooperation on a wide range of issues.
This school will focus on the theme of ‘Brexit, the Border and the European Union’ and will host amongst others John Hilary (British Labour’s Senior Advisor on Trade), along with academics such as Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast and Alex Gordon of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). The event will be live-streamed on the blog and will be followed up with articles, commentary, and a podcast featuring some of the keynote speakers. Past speakers have included Ann Pettifor (PRIME), Professor Steve Keen, Andrew Fisher (John McDonnell’s Senior Advisor) and Professor Mary Mellor.
Also in March 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office, in collaboration with Another Europe is Possible, will host a live audience event on Brexit, Europe and the left that will be recorded as a podcast.