Recently we’ve heard voices from Germany urging the UK not to vote to leave the EU. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “I personally hope and wish that Britain will stay part and parcel of the European Union” before suggesting that the UK wouldn’t be able to achieve the same “quality of compromise” in post-Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told Germany’s weekly news magazine Der Spiegel that, “If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the single market. In is in. Out is out.”
However, he also acknowledged that, “In response to Brexit, we couldn’t simply call for more integration (…)*. That would be crude; many would rightfully wonder whether we politicians still haven’t understood. Even in the event that only a small majority of the British voters reject a withdrawal, we would have to see it as a wake-up call and a warning not to continue with business as usual. Either way, we have to take a serious look at reducing bureaucracy in Europe.”
Der Spiegel** recently devoted a special bilingual issue to the EU referendum, imploring voters: ‘Please don’t go/Bitte geht nicht!’, and explaining ‘why Germany needs the British/warum wir die Briten brauchen’. But despite Schäuble’s warning, Spiegel’s special editorial plainly doesn’t think much of the need to heed any such ‘wake-up call’. Here’s the magazine’s own translation:
“If [the UK] votes to leave because a disproportionately high number of older and less well-educated British want it so passionately, Germany and the rest of Europe will have to accept that today’s EU is dysfunctional and unattractive. The EU should then mourn the loss of departed Britain and learn from it, and it should cease giving humiliating gifts to those who have left and develop some resolution. Or else, hopefully, it will be the other way round: Should the British vote against Brexit, perhaps by 55% or 60% rather than 50.1%, then that would be a mandate. Then the British should stop doing the things that have irritated the rest of Europe for years: special requests, self-pity and wretched haggling over every last detail. The day after the vote, the British should understand that they themselves helped create this detested Europe that they were so close to leaving, and start building a better one.”
If I’m honest, this special blend of arrogance and ignorance (fleetingly) tempts me to vote ‘Leave’ out of sheer bloody-mindedness. First, the condescending remark about education completely ignores the many people (many of them educated and intelligent) who plan to vote Leave on the grounds of deeply-held and well-considered convictions and concerns including, for example, sovereignty, TTIP/CETA, a European army and the EU’s neoliberal character — see my previous post. (And even we think their views aren’t particularly rational, people still have the right to vote as they see fit.) Second, a 55% or 60% vote to remain is anything but a mandate for ‘business as usual’. Again, it disregards the many who — like myself — will be voting to remain not because we unquestioningly want more of the same, but because we despair over the (current) nationalist and populist alternative. And as for ‘haggling over every detail’: I’m certainly not a fan of our government, but what’s actually wrong in principle with close scrutiny (especially given the EU’s lack of transparency) and tough negotiating? Maybe it’s that bloody-mindedness again (we’re not strangers…), but I don’t want our government — whether it’s led by Cameron or anyone else — to unquestioningly sign on the EU’s dotted line every time. Let’s again heed Tony Benn’s reminder: that power isn’t in the gift of MPs to give away; it’s lent by the people and should be returned to the people undiminished. All in all, this editorial appears to regard the UK — and therefore its citizens — as a petulant child. If we vote to leave, we must be punished; if we remain in the EU we should be quiet, humbly know our place and do what the grown-ups (Germany, presumably) say.
Happily, though, Der Spiegel doesn’t have a monopoly on the debate. In fact, the more left-wing German media has featured some genuinely thought-provoking discussion, both for and against Brexit. Clearly, a thorough and in-depth analysis of left-wing attitudes on the EU is a huge topic, deserving of far more attention than can be reasonably covered in the scope of a blog post. But I’d like to share a handful of perspectives with you, and at least offer a glimpse of some left-wing opinions and critiques. I’ve organised the various perspectives — from both sides — into four broad themes: nationalism and xenophobia; the survival of the EU project; a social Europe; and global capital.
1/ nationalism and xenophobia
We often hear about the nationalist and sometimes xenophobic clamour for Brexit, but the EU itself is guilty of tolerating racism. How so? Well, look no further than the hypocrisy surrounding the refugee crisis: Greece has been subjected to inhumane punishment over its economy and its reluctance to accept more austerity; yet when it comes to refusing to accept refugees and even erecting fences to shut them out, other Member States have no need to worry about similarly punitive sanctions. Secondly, the dirty deal with Turkey exposes the EU’s willingness to send refugees to a country that falls some way short of meeting the EU’s own standards on rule or law and human rights. Therefore, the Left should not be deterred from fighting to leave the EU on anti-racist grounds.
If the Left hitches a ride in a Brexit boat steered by nationalists and neo-liberals, there should be no surprise about the direction in which the boat will sail. The EU is already lurching to the right; we can witness the strengthening influence of right-wing populism and nationalism on governments and public discourse. And in the meantime, and xenophobic attacks, both verbal and physical, have become shockingly commonplace. The referendum isn’t just a UK issue: right-wing populists throughout the EU would claim Brexit as their own victory.
2/ the survival of the EU project
The EU is facing an existential crisis. Unable or unwilling to listen to what people want, the EU has set a neoliberal course. As a result, support for the EU is on the wane and ultimately the only solution is to let the EU collapse. The UK’s exit would resonate with and embolden people suffering from austerity and high unemployment in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland, as well as the anti-TTIP/CETA movements in Germany and France. The UK Left should therefore seize this unique opportunity to bring about a positive change and become the catalyst for the re-founding of an EU that serves people, not profit.
We need to rescue the EU, as the alternative would be even worse. Drastically reforming an EU that currently serves the interests of economic profit and the rich is, of course, an uphill task. But how would a series of competing, beggar-thy-neighbour states bring us any closer to achieving that goal? Workers would be played off against each other and also against migrant workers. Just when we so urgently need stronger understanding and cooperation, Brexit and subsequent EU disintegration would hinder working class solidarity in Europe. Furthermore, elsewhere in the EU (notably in Hungary and Poland), we are witnessing the tension between notions of national sovereignty and international responsibility, for example in relation to the rule of law and the EU’s values and norms. In the age of global financial market capitalism, the European refugee crisis and a resurgent Right — in other words, precisely because the political climate is so challenging — a return to nation state solutions is simply not an answer.
3/ can an EU of elites become a social Europe?
Brexit is a movement against both national and EU elites. Social democracy represents those elites; it is concerned with preserving and stabilising the system, and is hostile to the ambitions of the working class***. While the socialist Left might be reluctant to be seen sharing a platform with the Right, it cannot ignore the strong working-class desire to leave the EU. As such, if the Left aligns itself to the pro-Remain neoliberal elites, it betrays workers and threatens to stifle and undermine an important social movement.
It is doubtful that a better and more social Europe would emerge post-Brexit. First and foremost, it would still be the elites who determine the trajectory of the EU. After all, the European Council is made up of heads of Member State governments, themselves willing participants in the neoliberal agenda. Therefore, it is naïve to imagine that a return to the nation state (either in the UK or more widely in Europe) would mark a departure from the past thirty years. Conversely, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn makes a strong socialist case for remaining in the EU and for the crucial role Labour has to play: strengthening public services, protecting workers’ rights and working together with British and European comrades to create a better, more social Europe for workers. This is an important message for stemming and even reversing the tide of right-wing populism in the EU. Admittedly, the response from Germany’s Social Democrats has been decidedly lukewarm, but the SPD must clearly signal its readiness to engage in constructive dialogue with Labour.
4/ global capital
A restoration of national sovereignty defies global capitalism. By leaving the EU, national governments and the working class would be resisting and rejecting alliances of states that are based on the interests of capital.
remain (or maybe boycott?)
The whole EU in-or-out debate is a smokescreen. Globalisation dominates policymaking at EU and national level, and a Brexit won’t change that. Therefore, the referendum is all about the wrong question: it’s not a question of territory — it’s a question of the whole (capitalist) system — the Systemfrage.
So there we are, a brief snapshot of left-wing opinions and comments in Germany. Some quite familiar in the UK media too, others less common. If I had to choose the most persuasive in terms of influencing my vote on Thursday, then it would have to be the argument that a Brexit would be claimed as an endorsement for a nationalist and racist agenda. Hence my vote to Remain. But which is the most stimulating? Well, despite its rather brief mention here (and the fact I wouldn’t recommend a boycott!), I’m struck by the final point regarding the very question we’re being asked. The referendum ballot paper gives us the chance to vote for Leave or Remain, but doesn’t give us the opportunity to say exactly what kind of Britain and/or EU we want. So it’ll be up to the Left to show the way, for example by mobilising internationally against TTIP/CETA and by growing and strengthening movements such as DiEM25. What do you think?
* No mention here of the so-called ‘Five Ministers Report’ — also dubbed the ‘Coalition Agreement of Europe’s Elites’ — on ‘Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union’. A German-language critical analysis of the report is available from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation; a brief but similarly critical comment in English can be found here.
** Der Spiegel is Germany’s leading weekly news magazine. It is known and respected for its investigative journalism and is broadly in the political centre. However, it has been accused of bias and smear campaigns against the Left Party (Die Linke). More left-wing media include the Green/Left-leaning Taz and the more traditionally socialist Neues Deutschland.
*** Some background: Many commentators no longer consider the SPD to be on the political Left; not only since it became the junior partner in the conservative CDU-led government, but also since, together with Die Grünen, it introduced some of the harshest welfare and employment market measures the country has ever seen.
Brexit: It’s Smarter to Stay (English translation), Klaus Brinkbäumer and Florian Harms in Der Spiegel, 11.06.2016
The views in this piece have been gathered over the last couple of months. However, I’ve also referred to arguments and comments drawn from the sources below.
Nein zum Brexit: Varoufakis und Žižek für »Vote In« , Tom Strohschneider in Neues Deutschland, 10.06.2016 (German)
Let’s Brexit!, Tommy McKearney in Taz, 30.5.2015 (German)
Was bedeutet das britische Europareferendum für die europäische Linke? Axel Troost, (deputy chair of DIE LINKE and finance speaker of the party’s parliamentary group), Die Linke website, 10.06.2016 (German)
‘Please don’t go!’: Der Spiegel, cover of the special Brexit issue, 11.6.2016