Among the many questions flowing from Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership contest on 12 September, is that of Corbyn’s stance on the European Union (EU), and Britain’s place within it. Corbyn has openly expressed his scepticism towards the EU while also claiming he would be happy to stay in a reformed EU. Veteran Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee identified Corbyn’s Euroscepticism as one of the greatest dangers of a Corbyn victory, while Financial Times columnist Phillip Stephens argues that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has tilted the balance of British politics towards exit from the EU. Leading Blairite Chukka Umuna has resigned from the Labour shadow cabinet, citing Corbyn’s alleged Euroscepticism as the reason. But before launching into predictions of how Corbyn’s victory will affect the referendum’s outcome, it is necessary to examine some of the contradiction and confusion within British left Euroscepticism.
Corbyn’s studied ambivalence towards the EU expresses the currently inchoate character of leftwing British Eurosceptisicm. As Europe’s social democratic parties tacked towards the centre over the last 30 years and committed themselves to the technocratic modernisation embodied in the EU project, Euro-babble has tended to substitute itself for genuine internationalism on much of the left. Only a rump of isolated old social democrats were left clinging to Euroscepticism. The late Tony Benn denounced the EU for its oligarchic model of power that insulates bureaucrats from popular accountability, while late union leader Bob Crow attacked the EU for dismantling the border controls he argued were necessary to protect the welfare state and working class living standards. Corbyn himself has criticised the EU for allowing tax havens to flourish in its borders, and – piling up his ambivalent Euroscepticism to new levels of convolution and complexity – suggested that he would support leaving the EU if it agrees to trade away its vaunted ‘social protections’ in negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron. In other words, Corbyn may argue that Britain should leave the EU if the EU agrees to meet the British prime minister’s conditions for Britain remaining in the EU.
Corbyn’s equivocation on EU membership subordinates questions of democratic principle to a pragmatic calculation of the extent to which membership of the EU will advance or inhibit Labour Party economic and social policy. This unprincipled approach to such a fundamental political question is a warning of what is to come from Corbyn’s leadership, and it characterises the wider left case against the EU.
Earlier this year, Owen Jones sought to rally the Eurosceptic British Left with a call for ‘Lexit’ – the leftwing case for a British exit from the EU. As Jones made clear, much of this newfound Lexit sympathy is driven by witnessing the economic punishment inflicted on Greece by the EU creditor nations. Political commentators are of course entitled to change their mind just as much as anyone else. Yet the ease with which left-wing belief in the EU has dissipated exposes just how thin and naïve that belief in the EU must have been to begin with. To turn against the EU solely for its austerity policies is to obscure the history of EU political diktat, such as the repeat referendums inflicted on Ireland or how the EU ignored the outcome of the 2005 French and Dutch referendums. These crude impositions of technocratic rule were enforced long before the economic crisis gave the justification of urgency to EU technocracy. To accept arguments for Lexit only after its treatment of Greece would be to interpret the EU as a progressive project gone awry, rather than what it is, an institution designed to evade popular rule and democratic choice. Moreover, however brutal the EU’s treatment of Greece, it ultimately tells us little about whether or not Britain should remain a member-state – particularly given that Britain is not even a member of the Eurozone. So where does this leave the case for ‘Lexit’?
The very fact that Jones felt the need to rebrand British exit from the EU as ‘Lexit’ exposes his fear of making an argument openly in terms of national sovereignty. Jones’ fears of boosting nationalism and prompting a xenophobic rampage reveals more about Jones’ contempt and fear of the British working class than it tells us about working class voters themselves. Instead of staking a leftist claim to universal interests, evidently Jones believes he can only coax his readers into leaving the EU if the issue is cast in sectional terms that exclusively appeal to them. Unwilling to make an argument for popular sovereignty, Jones is left unable to provide any political coherence to left Euroscepticism. On the one hand, Jones positions the EU as a sinister foreign power intruding on Britain from the outside to thwart economic nationalisation and redistribution – as if Thatcherism had no domestic roots. On the other hand, Jones claims that the threat of Lexit is more important than actually leaving the EU. The threat alone, argues Jones, will encourage Germany to loosen its austerian stranglehold on the Eurozone’s weaker economies, and boost the flagging electoral fortunes of Podemos and Syriza.
It is difficult to think of an argument for Britain leaving the EU that undercuts itself so effectively, and that sacrifices international solidarity so readily. Let us leave Greece and Spain shackled to a more benign German hegemon, Jones tells us, while Britain retreats behind the walls of a social democratic Jerusalem once the corporate hirelings from Brussels have been thrown out. Here, there is no principled position on British membership of the EU, or even an appeal to the British demos – only an instrumental calculation about preserving the vote of struggling leftist parties across Europe. Surveying the arguments offered by Corbyn, Jones and their allies, the only common position that can underpin Lexit is economic nationalism. In other words, the EU cramps the nation-state’s capacity to protect national industries and defend welfare provisions and entitlements.
The problem with this position is that it is about the content of economic policy rather than the means through which such policy is decided. Ultimately, the democratic case against the EU is not about the content of economic policy – such as nationalisation versus privatisation – but about carving out the space democratically to decide on economic policy – or any other policy, for that matter. What is at stake in the question of EU membership is political form not content. And for better or worse, the political form of collective self-determination is still inescapably national – the sovereign state. There is no avoiding the fact that what is at stake in a British referendum is democratic restoration and popular sovereignty within Britain itself. That alone should be sufficient to garner leftwing support for Brexit.
Of course, democracy gives no immediate guarantee of the economic outcomes that Jones desires – and perhaps it is popular acceptance of austerity that Left Eurosceptics hope to outflank by imagining that an argument over Lexit can also win the popular battle against austerity. Yet popular sovereignty and democracy must remain the political priority for any progressive political opposition to the EU. The case for British exit from Europe is a national and popular one, not one that can be carried by an alliance of Islington Guardianistas and northern Labour voters. The democratic case against the EU also exposes the limited and parochial character of Jones’ Lexit vision, in which international solidarity is restricted to vainly hoping for German magnanimity towards Europe’s weaker economies. The democratic case against the EU requires not just Britain leaving the EU or more votes for Podemos and Syriza, but dismantling the EU as a whole across the entire continent, through a process of internal democratic renewal within each European nation. Brexit would be as good a place as any to start this process.