The United Kingdom’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union created odd bedfellows – and some odder adversaries. As Tory turned mercilessly against Tory, the schism in the Conservative establishment received much attention. But a parallel (thankfully more civilized) split afflicted my side: the left.
Having campaigned against “Leave” for several months in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, it was inevitable that I faced criticism from left-wing supporters of “Brexit,” or “Lexit” as it came to be known.
Lexiteers reject the call issued by DiEM25 (the radical Democracy in Europe Movement, launched in Berlin in February) for a pan-European movement to change the EU from within. They believe that reviving progressive politics requires exiting an incorrigibly neoliberal EU. The left needed the resulting debate.
Many on the left rightly disdain the easy surrender of others on their side to the premise that globalization has rendered the nation-state irrelevant. While nation-states have become weaker, power should never be confused with sovereignty.
As little Iceland has demonstrated, it is possible for a sovereign people to safeguard basic freedoms and values independently of their state’s power. And, crucially, Iceland, unlike Greece and the UK, never entered the EU.
Back in the 1990s, I campaigned against Greece’s entry into the eurozone, just like Britain’s Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigned in the 1970s against joining the EU. Indeed, when asked by friends in Norway or Switzerland whether they should support their countries’ entry into the EU, my answer is negative.
But it is one thing to oppose entering the EU; it is quite another to favor exiting it once inside. Exiting is unlikely to get you to where you would have been, economically and politically, had you not entered. So opposing both entry and exit is a coherent position.
Whether it makes sense for leftists to advocate exit hinges on whether a nation-state freed from EU institutions provides more fertile ground for cultivating a progressive agenda of redistribution, labor rights, and anti-racism. It also depends on the likely impact of an exit campaign on transnational solidarity. As I travel across Europe, advocating a pan-European movement to confront the EU’s authoritarianism, I sense a great surge of internationalism in places as different from one another as Germany, Ireland, and Portugal.
Distinguished Lexiteers, like Harvard’s Richard Tuck, are prepared to risk quashing this surge. They point to pivotal moments when the left took advantage of Britain’s lack of a written constitution to expropriate private medical business and create its National Health Service and other such institutions. “A vote to stay within the EU,” Tuck writes, “will…end any hope of genuinely left politics in the UK.”
Similarly, on immigration, Tuck claims that, despite the insufferable xenophobia dominating the Leave campaign, the only way to overcome racism is to let Britain’s people “feel” sovereign again by returning control of their borders to London.
Tuck’s historical analysis is correct. The EU is inimical to projects such as the NHS and nationalized industries (though it was the British nation-state, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, that gave the EU its neoliberal cast). And perhaps the loss of control over immigration from Europe inspired greater xenophobia.
But once locked into this EU, a political campaign to exit it is unlikely to steer national politics in the direction of leftist goals. Most likely, it will result in a new Tory administration that tightens the screw of austerity further and erects new fences to keep despised foreigners out.
Many leftists find it hard to fathom why I campaigned for “Remain” after EU leaders vilified me personally and crushed Greece’s “Athens Spring” in 2015. Of course, no truly progressive agenda can be revived through the EU institutions. DiEM25 was founded on the conviction that it is only againstEU institutions, but within the EU, that progressive politics has a chance in Europe. Leftists once understood that the good society is to be won by entering the prevailing institutions in order to overcome their regressive function. “In and against” used to be our motto. We should revive it.
Another critic of DiEM25, Thomas Fazi, believes that, “given the current make-up of the European Parliament,” Greece would still have been crushed, even if the parliament were more democratic. But DiEM25’s view is not simply that the EU suffers a democratic deficit; it is that the European Parliament is not a proper parliament. Creating a proper parliament, able to dismiss the executive, would destroy the European Parliament’s “current make-up” and usher in a democratic politics that would prevent official creditors from crushing countries like Greece.
Fazi’s fellow economist Heiner Flassbeck likewise argues that the nation-state, not some airy-fairy pan-European terrain, as DiEM25 purportedly suggests, is the right place to push for change. In fact, DiEM25 focuses on both levels and beyond. The left, once upon a time, understood the importance of operating simultaneously at the municipal, regional, national, and international levels. Why do we, suddenly, feel the need to prioritize the national over the European?
Perhaps Flassbeck’s harshest criticism of DiEM25’s radical pan-Europeanism is the charge that we are peddling left-wing TINA: “there is no alternative” to operating at the level of the EU. While DiEM25 advocates a democratic union, we certainly reject both the inevitability and the desirability of “ever closer union.” Today, the European establishment is working toward a political union that, we regard as an austerian iron cage. We have declared war on this conception of Europe.
Last year, when Greece’s official creditors threatened us with ejection from the eurozone, even from the EU, I was undaunted. DiEM25 is imbued with this spirit of defiance: we will not be forced by the prospect of the EU’s disintegration to acquiesce to an EU of the establishment’s choosing. In fact, we believe it is important to prepare for the collapse of EU under the weight of its leaders’ hubris. But that is not the same as making the EU’s disintegration our objective and inviting European progressives to join neo-fascists in campaigning for it.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a DiEM25 signatory, recently quipped that socialist nationalism is not a good defense against the postmodern national socialism that the EU’s disintegration would bring. He’s right. Now more than ever, a pan-European humanist movement to democratize the EU is the left’s best bet.