As Labour Party members and supporters grapple with the question of how best to respond to the UK government’s increasingly chaotic and potentially suicidal Brexit mission, little attention has been given on the left to how our domestic debate relates to the wider challenges facing the European Union. If we needed reminding of the potent threat from right wing, xenophobic populism in the wider European Union, the Italian general election results should be a ‘wake up’ call.
The political scene across the 28 EU countries defies any simplistic reading however given the evidence of a growth in support for both the radical right and the radical left. It is the Centre – both centre right and centre left – whose political fortunes have fallen most dramatically. Little wonder, since the centrist consensus has dominated government in the EU for two decades and has presided over a record of economic and social failure since the financial crash.
In the Labour Party most debate has prioritised the search for some form of “soft Brexit” to minimise an all-too-possible risk of a post-Brexit economic disaster. Some in the Labour centre and right wing use the minority of pro-Leave Labour voters to justify accepting the inevitability of Brexit. Others have iconised the call for a “second referendum” more as a tactic in their jousting with the Corbyn leadership rather than because of incontrovertible evidence that it would succeed.
Meanwhile the debate about Labour’s radical reform plans for the UK post-Brexit remains deaf to consideration of the radical reform of the EU which Labour – and fellow socialists across the Union – could rally around. The irony is that plans for reform now being debated across the EU will be profoundly important to Labour as it prepares for government in the UK.
Some of these EU reform issues are highlighted in a paper – “The Corbyn Moment and European Socialism”, published by Another Europe is Possible this week – to which I have contributed. They include proposals for tough enforcement of taxation on global multinationals, changes to the EU’s posted workers directive (which would prevent unscrupulous employers from undercutting local wages and working conditions), a new European Labour authority to raise social standards across the EU, as well as new measures to tackle social inequality and enforce higher environmental standards.
None of this will come about without a tough transnational EU democratic political and social struggle. In Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the wider European socialist and social democratic parties see a crucial new ally.
That is why since Jeremy Corbyn declared during the EU referendum campaign: “by working together across our continent we can develop our economies, protect social and human rights, tackle climate change and clamp down on tax dodgers. Collective action through the European Union framework is clearly going to be vital to meeting these challenges.” He has been received with much enthusiasm by the wider European left.
In the paper, some of the implications of these cross currents between the UK and the EU political debate are explored. My strongly Corbyn-supporting co-authors and I are convinced that – to quote the pamphlet – “once we imagine what a Corbyn government in Europe could contribute to the solution of regional and global problems, the argument for rejecting Brexit becomes crystal clear”.
No one can predict with confidence the consequences of the May government’s reckless attempt to browbeat the EU into some kind of “pick and choose” Brexit agreement. But an à la carte Brexit will not succeed and the subsequent final choice may be between a rupture within the Tory party over further concessions hated by the Tory right or a catastrophic ‘no-deal’ outcome.
It may be that circumstances will present us with a serious prospect of a second referendum in the aftermath of a clear cut parliamentary rejection of the terms of a May/EU deal. But with all-engulfing civil war in the Tory party, Labour may well be able to force a general election.
This is not just a one shot opportunity. Almost all serious experts believe that the British government – if it avoids a “cliff edge” crisis – will have to settle for a much longer ‘transition’ period than the 20/24 months period currently debated. The longer that transition lasts the closer we get to a spring 2022 constitutional deadline when a general election becomes mandatory.
A general election triggered by the ignominious collapse of the Tory Brexit fantasy would offer Labour an opportunity to forge a compact with the British people designed to produce radical democratic and socialist change not just at home but across the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, as a newly elected Prime Minister, would have an excellent opportunity to use his victory as a springboard to negotiate a Remain, Reform and Democratise agreement with the EU which might then be put to the British people in a referendum.
John Palmer is a member of Greenwich and Woolwich CLP.