The issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union divided the British Conservative Party.
But the British left was also divided on the issue.
The British Labour Party formally supported the ‘remain’ side. But leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for being ambivalent about staying in the EU and for having pulled his punches in campaigning against an exit.
Prominent left intellectuals also divided on the issue. For example, journalist and author Tariq Ali campaigned in favour of Brexit, while former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, a vehement critic of current EU arrangements, nevertheless supported the ‘remain’ side.
Left arguments for and against Brexit included those set out below. Not every argument in the list was adopted by all those who argued in favour of or against Brexit.
Arguments for Brexit:
- European Union is a key organizer of neoliberal capitalism on a global scale, punishing workers in Greece, in Spain, in Ireland, under the period of austerity.
- EU has presided over growth of massive inequality;
- EU as it is presently structured, is an extremely undemocratic, bureaucratic organisation which is not accountable to the people of any country;
- Theoretical arguments about reforming the EU to make it more democratic and less neoliberal are naïve. Rather, disadvantaged EU countries need to be prepared to exit and default on their debt if radical reform is to be achieved;
- Although anti-immigrant forces supported Brexit, the immigration debate is largely about cheap European labour coming into Britain;
- While the members of the European Council and the Eurogroup of finance ministers are elected politicians, answerable, theoretically, to their respective national parliaments, the Council and the Eurogroup are themselves not answerable to any parliament, nor indeed to any voting citizens whatsoever;
- The Eurogroup, where most of Europe’s important economic decisions are taken, is a body that does not even exist in European law, keeps no minutes of its procedures and insists its deliberations are confidential – that is, not to be shared with the citizens of Europe;
- The purpose of the EU is to remove macroeconomic policy from democratic control and to put monetary and fiscal policy outside of political contestation;
- Reduction in the ‘sovereignty’ of national states rolls back the democratic and social/economic gains that had previously been achieved by progressive forces. Thus ‘democratising’ the institutions of the EU cannot represent progress. Economic integration will always be top down.
Arguments for remain:
- There are many problems with the European Union. But the preferable course is to stay in to change it, to make it into a better organization, to democratize it;
- Whatever its weaknesses, the EU has at least succeeded in securing peace in Europe for most of the period since the Second World War. The Europe of sovereign countries, which went on for 2,000 years, saw constant war;
- The only Brexit offered was that offered by Nigel Farage and supported by the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen. Brexit plays into the arms of the extreme right and its anti-immigrant, racist agenda;
- The vast majority of labor unions and other progressive organizations in Britain were in favour of remain;
- While globalisation and economic integration has led to declines in job security and employment in some areas, greater economic integration is inevitable and leaving the EU will not lead to the return of these lost jobs. It may result in further declines in employment and job security;
- Electing progressive governments across Europe is a viable means of spurring reform of the EU;
- The EU is not totally anti-democratic. The European Council comprises heads of governments, while Ecofin and the Eurogroup are the councils of finance ministers (of the whole EU and of the Eurozone respectively). All these representatives are democratically elected;
- The EU has delivered mutually beneficial arrangements including coordination between police forces, lower prices, open borders, common industry standards, and creation of a free-trade zone.
- Most of the so-called ‘red tape’ for which the EU is criticised relate to labour and environmental standards. The EU complements policy initiatives taken by individual EU countries by setting minimum labour and environmental standards. The EU has some of the world’s highest environmental standards;
- The shift from a multiplicity of (increasingly powerless and non-sovereign) national democracies to a single (and truly sovereign) European supranational democracy is inevitable.