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Brexit’s test of sovereignty

13 Dec

The Phase 1 deal agreed by the UK government and the EU last week strongly suggests that Britain is on course to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. The deal indicates the degree to which the British government is struggling to cope politically and intellectually with the task demanded of them by the majority of voters.

On each of the three points of contention, the UK’s concessions indicate that the government has no real understanding of what it might mean to reinvigorate British sovereignty by leaving the EU.

On the financial settlement, the government’s leading Brexiteer had loudly played to the domestic gallery by proclaiming that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for its money, blithely ignoring the obvious reality of international politics: if the UK wanted a trade deal with the EU, it was going to have negotiate a price. In the end the agreed price looks, as you might expect it would, to be mid-way between the EU’s larger initial demands and the UK getting off without paying anything.

On EU citizens, the UK has conceded that for at least eight years after leaving the EU, the European Court of Justice should have the final say on disputes involving EU citizens who remain as residents in the UK. This already amounts to agreeing not to leave the EU’s legal jurisdiction for a very long period. The UK government could have cut the ground from under the EU on this point by embracing EU citizens already resident here, offering them a fast track to British citizenship. There is already overwhelming support in the UK for allowing resident EU citizens to remain and it is widely agreed that they represent a considerable benefit to the UK economy. The British government seems simply to have lacked the political imagination to make such a simple, obvious and – most importantly – sovereign gesture.

On the Irish border question, the deal is a fudge intended to push the problem into 2018. The bottom line of the deal is this: there will neither be a hard border with customs posts and regulatory divergence between the South and the North of Ireland, nor will there be such a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK. This amounts to admitting that the UK will not leave the Single Market or the Customs Union, particularly because any trade deal the UK is likely to get from the EU will not cover all of the areas of relevance to the Good Friday Agreement.  Here the challenge that Brexit poses to Britain as a sovereign state is most sharply posed, but in a way that is different from the conventional narrative.

A majority of British voters voted to Leave. However a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. Britain could assert its sovereignty in one of two ways. It could simply impose the national decision on Northern Ireland and insist on a hard border between the South and the North of Ireland. Or it could draw a hard border in the Irish Sea allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. But neither seems to be possible because it is believed that either option puts the survival of the Good Friday Agreement at risk. The first option would increase the separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland and make cross-border cooperation more difficult in a way that is unacceptable to nationalist opinion. The second option would place what would be in effect an international border within the UK, representing a significant step towards the reunification of Ireland and unacceptable to unionists.

Britain can neither implement the decision of a British majority over Northern Ireland nor accept that Northern Ireland is no longer part of Britain. The problem Brexit poses for Northern Ireland is not the disruptive exercise of sovereign power from London which has concerned so many Remainers. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. Britain can neither reassert the claims of an imperial past nor move beyond them. This is the fundamental problem of Brexit, which in the case of Northern Ireland has only been postponed until some time next year. One reason why this involution of British sovereignty is only being made explicit today is that EU membership has served for many years as a substitute for the political allegiances that once bound the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together. As the historian Ross McKibbin once remarked, ‘the EU is now as much part of the structure of the British state as the union with Scotland once was’. And for that reason, the attempt to leave the EU has exposed the withering away of the union and of the sovereignty of the British state.  It is this crisis of the exercise of British sovereign power that is the main force shaping Brexit.

The Irish obstacle to Brexit is a local version of the UK’s larger problem with the EU. As Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck have pointed out in A Brexit Proposal, joining the Common Market back in the 1970s was a way in which Britain managed the problem of imperial decline, and in the process avoided openly confronting the reality that Britain had become a post-imperial northern European state with limited international reach. Nostalgic Tory Eurosceptics (and the DUP) have never understood that leaving the EU means Britain giving up on its pretensions to great power status. Many Remainers for their part seem equally reluctant to abandon these pretensions.

It is this lack of political imagination on the Leave side that lies at the heart of the Brexit problem. Right from the start the UK government meekly accepted its role as just another member state of the EU when it quickly entered into the one-sided and bureaucratic Article 50 process rather than looking for ways to negotiate politically with other individual states. Brexiteers offered no alternative perspective to that laid down by the EU itself. It has subsequently been on the back foot all the way through the negotiations.

It is true, as the government is now suggesting, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Some compromise of the Irish border question might yet be found that satisfies English demands for Brexit and Irish concerns for stability. Nevertheless there remains a basic unwillingness among the British political class to imagine Britain as it really is: a large European economy characterized by low-wages, low productivity and long-term economic, political and constitutional sclerosis. If this reality could be confronted, it would be possible to see that Brexit offers an opportunity to reverse Britain’s decline by reconnecting significant sections of Britain’s population with the nation’s political life and confronting the problem of Britain’s broken economic model.

If Britain does end up remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union, the demand of the majority of voters in the referendum to take back control from the undemocratic mechanisms established by the EU treaties will have been frustrated. Populists and Leavers are already pointing the finger at elite Remainer technocrats who have used their domination of the political class and the deep state to frustrate the popular will. There is some truth in that claim but it evades the primary problem. The resistance of EU supporters to the majority is to be expected – they have always been committed to undemocratic supranational and intergovernmental institutions. But that is only the secondary problem for Brexit. The chief obstacle to implementing the referendum result remains what it has always been – the absence of a political vision that could translate popular anger and frustration at the majority’s exclusion from political influence into a political program for a sovereign democratic Britain.

Chris Bickerton and Peter Ramsay

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A Brexit Proposal – Bickerton and Tuck

20 Nov

Chris Bickerton (TCM contributor) and Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard University, are publishing today their pamphlet, ‘A Brexit Proposal’, which can be downloaded here – Brexit proposal 20 Nov final.

As two prominent supporters of Brexit, they lay out why Brexit is so important for the future of democratic politics in the United Kingdom and beyond, and they give details of what a vision of Brexit for the Left might amount to. They explain why the British Left has embraced a pro-EU position and why this belies a profound misunderstanding of the nature of ‘ever closer union’. The pamphlet looks at all the outstanding issues in the negotiations – a financial settlement, Northern Ireland and EU citizens’ rights – and what a solution to each of them might look like.

 

 

Macron’s European Trap

11 May

This article was originally published on the Cambridge University website.

By any account, the French presidential election that ended last Sunday was extraordinary. The run-off in the second round was between two political ‘outsiders’: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. In the first round, the mainstream left and right candidates came fifth and third respectively, with the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming in way ahead of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Many voters only decided late on who they would vote for, making this one of the most volatile elections on record.

The scandals affecting the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, overshadowed the campaign and relegated debates about political programmes into second place. In the run-up to last Sunday’s second round vote, a fierce argument raged – especially on the left – about the rights and wrongs of abstaining or spoiling one’s ballot paper. Political celebrities – such as the Greek Yanis Varoufakis – weighed in, urging French doubters to vote for Macron because “he is all that stands in between France and the fascism of Marine Le Pen”.

In the end, one in four of registered voters either stayed away last Sunday or spoilt their ballot paper.  What prevailed in the second round was the logic of lesser evil – voting for a candidate that is ‘not as bad’ as another – which goes some way to explaining the sombre tone of Macron’s victory speech on Sunday night at the Louvre in Paris.

For all the novelty, Macron’s election victory points to one important continuity: France’s complicated relationship with the rest of the European Union and its place within the Eurozone. When François Hollande was campaigning for the French presidency in 2012, it was the height of the Eurozone crisis with jobless figures reaching record levels and France’s economy in deep trouble. Aware of the opposition to austerity policies within France, Hollande promised to take-on the German government. He would discuss “firmly and amicably” with Ms Merkel and impress upon her the need for a new ‘growth pact’ for the Eurozone. His growth pact included proposals for Eurobonds to finance infrastructure spending and a transactions tax to fund development programs. His efforts came to nothing and the idea of a “growth pact” disappeared without a trace.

Something similar is happening today. Last Monday, a day after the French election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech where she insisted that Macron’s victory would not change German policy in Europe. The German position is clear: France must reform its economy first, and bring its budget deficits well within the Eurozone’s rules, before there is any discussion on Eurozone reform. Even then, it is very unlikely that anything that was contained in Macron’s programme – creation of a Eurozone parliament, a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone finance minister – will see the light of day. Such changes would require treaty reform that national governments say is out of the question. Referendums have left European governments so bruised that they are unwilling to risk putting treaty changes to the vote.

There is an irony here. Macron has been an openly pro-European candidate, regularly waving the European flag and taking the Ode to Joy – the EU’s ‘anthem’ – as his own campaign song. And yet, this very pro-Europeanism is what will most constrain a Macron presidency. Most likely as a first step is that Macron will be pushed into cutting budgets and reforming labour markets, doing so possibly by decree given the history of opposition to such measures. In exchange, he may get some mild reforms of the functioning of the Eurozone but ones that fall short of any need for ratification through referendum or by national parliaments. This outcome may be part of Macron’s strategy, where the rigidity of the Eurozone’s rules is used as a means of pushing economy reforms onto France. Either way, the bigger difficulties, to do with structural imbalances of the Eurozone, will remain untouched.

A problem Macron never has confronted is that his promises to transform France’s national growth model are made within a context where Eurozone membership which makes such a change almost impossible. Macron’s election was extraordinary in many respects but his experience of life inside the Eurozone is likely to be rather more run of the mill.

Chris Bickerton

Fear Wins in France

9 May

Last Sunday, Marine Le Pen came in third in a two-way race for the French Presidency. With the lowest turnout since 1969, Emanuel Macron won 44% among registered voters, abstentions plus over one million spoiled or blank ballots added up to 34%, and Le Pen won 22%. While most newspapers have trumpeted Macron’s 65% of expressed ballots, the real story of the election is one of dissatisfaction, strategic ambivalence and discontent. Even the status quo had to show up wearing anti-establishment garb. Macron, the great savior of the republic, is someone who stood apart from its major parties, while they collapsed around him. His En Marche! is not even a party but rather a political trick borrowed from Latin American politics or the likes of Silvio Berlusconi – a personal vehicle whose only purpose is to get him elected. The crisis of representation is the central fact of this election.

During the election, and its immediate aftermath, the dominant interpretation has been different: the moral imperative was to vote against the right-wing nationalist and then leave the rest to those who govern. We have argued before that there is no obligation to cast strategic votes against lesser evil candidates and that campaigns dominated by Lesser Evilism are undemocratic. During the campaign one isn’t supposed to bring up any of the lesser evil’s faults, for fear of undermining his or her chances, and there is nothing to hold him or her to afterwards. As such, Lesser Evil voting amounts to carte blanche for the victor. Merely by winning, the winner fulfills his mandate.

The results suggest most French people, like almost everyone else, can hold two thoughts in their head simultaneously: they disliked the FN more than Macron, but thought little of him and the status quo he represents. During the second round, one was not allowed to express much discontent with the present, nor the many good reasons for it, without looking like or being called a Le Pen supporter. With the bête noire of the FN out of the way, it will have to be continuously revived over the next five years to rebut perfectly valid criticism of Macron, his policies, the EU, the euro, the major parties, and the rest of it. If anything, the result underestimates the degree to which the sands are shifting beneath those who rule, since much of the vote for Macron was strategic. This graphic shows that the highest single reason given for voting Macron was opposition to Le Pen (h/t Jacobin)

Slide1

That is all the more reason why the ruling coalition will want fear of the right to overshadow serious political debate about central issues – like how deeply undemocratic the EU is, what a recipe for stagnation and inequality the Eurozone is, and how few answers the mainstream European parties have for these problems because they prefer to wander the halls of Brussels than represent their own constituents.

Those who govern need to be forced back into representing their own people and they won’t do it voluntarily. As the French election reminds us, the EU is not the only way they wish to avoid accountability. Establishment politicians are no less willing to employ the politics of fear than is the populist right – an inflated fear of fascism to match the right’s inflated fear of immigrants. Anything to avoid the harder task of convincing voters on the merits.

Alex Gourevitch

 

Macron is a symptom of France’s problems, not a solution to them

24 Apr

This post was originally published here by Prospect Magazine

Having fought a campaign around the theme of over-turning the political establishment and pitching himself as the leader of an insurgent citizen-led movement, that very same establishment greeted Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the first round of the French presidential election with a huge sigh of relief. This tells us something about the candidate who is now most likely to become the next president of France.

Macron’s success boils down to one key insight: the French Socialist party (PS) is a sinking ship and anyone tied to it will go down with it. Macron quit the government presided over by François Hollande just in time to make his image as an outsider plausible. He decided to run as an independent rather than seek the Socialist Party nomination by taking part in the open primaries. This laid the basis for his success. The relegation of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, to fifth place in the first round, where he secured a paltry 6.35% of the vote, is the big story of this election so far. It had a decisive result in both propelling Macron to first place in the first round and in pushing up Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vote share to within a whisker of François Fillon. The latter got 19.94% of the vote, Mélenchon 19.62%.

The collapse of the PS made the Macron phenomenon possible and this dynamic will shape a Macron presidency, assuming he goes on to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round as many assume he will.  His En Marche! movement captured the imagination of many but this enthusiasm came from his call to break the mould of French party politics. Disillusionment with the capacity of these parties to organize and lead drew people to Macron. In this first round of voting, it was striking how often people said they were voting in order to avoid someone else getting through. This sort of negative reasoning suited Macron perfectly as he was the acceptable face of all anti-system feelings: he was a safe vote for anyone who wanted to give the political mainstream a kicking but preserve the status quo at the same time. This peculiar and contradictory desire for both change and continuity was summed up perfectly in the days before yesterday’s vote, where voting Macron became a way of avoiding a Mélenchon-Le Pen run-off.

The negative feelings behind the Macron phenomenon are not new. In 2012, François Hollande won the presidency on the back of huge anti-Sarkozy sentiment. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won in a run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, securing over 80% of the votes cast in an enormous wave of anti-National Front feeling. Negative sentiments rather than a positive endorsement of a distinctive programme have become central to determining who makes it to the Elysée palace, and Macron confirms this rule. Even in organisational terms, Macron and his En Marche! movement have some roots in the recent past. Back in 2007, the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royale tried to create her own electoral movement, Desirs d’Avenir, after she received lukewarm support from the chauvinist barons of the PS. Her movement went nowhere after she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy but it was a sign that short-lived electoral vehicles built around the personality of a presidential candidate were possible in France as alternatives to traditional party machines.

What propels Emmanuel Macron forward as he fights to win the second round is the collapse of the French party political system and specifically the disappearance of the French PS as an electoral force. These disintegrative and negative dynamics make for very weak foundations going forward and explain why abstention is likely to be very high in the second round. Those congratulating themselves after Macron’s first round victory should think a bit harder about what is exactly is happening in France. Macron is a symptom of the country’s problems, not a solution to them.

Chris Bickerton

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Resistance

15 Feb

This week, TCM author Alex Gourevitch has an article at Jacobin on the limits of resistance and the tendency of the Left to substitute a short-term politics of fear and outrage for a long-term politics of freedom. This leaves the Left without an independent set of ideas or organization to which it might win people, and leaves it in the uncomfortable position of tacitly serving as the shock troops for the Democratic Party.

Readers of this blog can read the article here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/trump-gop-democrats-protests-marches-social-movement/

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