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Why we must jump off the Brussels train before it derails


It was almost a joy watching Labour’s Barry Gardiner mansplaining the Norway and Turkey options to the Brexit Party’s Alex Phillips on last week’s Question Time, forgetting that the EU has just disbanded its Brexit negotiating team to emphasise Juncker’s long-held position that it’s May’s Withdrawal Agreement or nothing.

Not that Gardiner was addressing the audience question, which was whether the Tory leadership contest was akin to changing the captain of the Titanic after it had hit the iceberg. Or indeed that it was his turn to speak (do get a grip, Fiona.) But at least it bought a bit more time for Rory Stewart to scribble notes, his drawn face bent over his notepad.

The one thing that won’t have been on Rory’s jotter is a fully-articulated political philosophy – the Conservatives have long prided themselves on not having one. In this respect they resemble Labour and the LibDems, for all of them have become debating-point opportunists; and that is why, with luck, they are doomed.

For all the splother from our mainstream parties, none of them shows any understanding of the EU. On they bang about economics, when anyone who takes the trouble to read can see that the EU is a political project aiming for Empire. Why, Verhofstadt has just said it openly. To Remain is not to stand still, but to keep seated on a train headed for an unpleasant destination.

The train won’t get there and it would be well for us not to be on board when it derails.

One reason is that we are jointly liable for the EU’s debts and can be called upon to make good shortfalls or even bail them out in a major crisis, as the Bruges Group explains.

But it’s about more than finance, and it’s time for us to reconsider our principles – even if, on the Right, they are rather fuzzy (as giant corporations come to dominate, is freedom a Left issue, or a Right one?)

Some on the Left side are starting to draw designs on their pads. Here is Costas Lapavitsas, ex-MP in the Greek Parliament, giving the rationale for his recent book The Left Case Against The EU.

He has written this book for three reasons: the public is ill-informed about the EU; the Left has a false ‘dream image’ of the EU and lacks a coherent argument for its position; others can learn about the EU’s approach from its treatment of Greece’s Syriza government in 2016.

In an interview he summarised his conclusions. The British Left used to be Eurosceptic but now has a ‘completely imaginary picture’ of the EU. Also, it has lost its belief in a socialist alternative to neoliberalism.

On the common currency/EMU: it was created by the French to ‘tie Germany in’ after the latter’s reunification. That was a miscalculation – the Euro has helped German business, especially in exports, and Germany has emerged as the ‘hegemonic power’ of Europe. France is losing to Germany economically and politically.

The Eurozone crisis was systemic, but that was not obvious to EU functionaries. Lapavitsas had thought they would see sense and rebalance the member economies, especially Germany’s, but no.

The EU’s behaviour towards Greece was ‘abominable’, with a disregard for democracy. Greece was treated as ‘a kind of new colony’ (remember Verhoftstadt’s aides saying the same about the UK on camera?

Here’s a Greek word for them: hubris.) And in Cyprus, the EU took savers’ money to rescue the banks.

Since Maastricht the EU has been a ‘paradigm of neoliberalism’, the ‘four freedoms’ acting as ‘powerful levers’ and enforced by the ECJ. The EU is a neoliberal ‘juggernaut’; Brussels is ‘one of the main lobby points for big business.’

The Left has advocated ‘Remain and reform’, claiming that what it wants can be achieved within the existing structures of the EU. Lapavitsas replies (a) in that case, why is reform needed? Actually, the EU blocks such attempts; (b) it’s been tried and found wanting, as Greece discovered in 2015. It failed immediately. Britain may be bigger, but will get the same opposition.

The EU has ‘a long history of democratic deficit,’ widening over the last two decades. (1) Economic policy has been ‘depoliticised’ and the democratic vote means very little – a Left Greek government and a Right Italian one were both told to comply with EU policies. So what is the point of voting? (2) See how the EU intervenes when challenged: forcing re-votes after a referendum result it doesn’t like; asserting the power of the Council of Ministers and replacing Greek and Italian governments.

The vaunted ‘freedom of movement’ is not about individual rights, but corporate ones: the EU favours capital and allows it to relocate labour as it wishes. Lapavitsas says ‘the local community also has to be protected’ and the Left has forgotten its tradition of workers’ internationalism.

Corbyn’s Labour is conflicted. It needs a more radical programme than 2017’s. It needs a profound industrial strategy, less dependent on the service sector and the City. It needs a plan for State aid, public procurement and financing, in a way that the EU will not allow. The EU imposes severe restraints, the WTO less so. We need to address inequalities of income and wealth, and to reform trading practices.

Where does Lapavitsas see the EU in ten years’ time? It faces existential crisis, not only among peripheral countries but most of all in its core. Italy is stagnant. France cannot compete with Germany and if it adopts German policies will fail; the public are rebelling. Add in the democratic deficit and people’s sense of powerlessness and the EU finds itself in a very difficult position.

Lapavitsas cannot see monetary union surviving – it will probably go in the next global crisis. After that the EU will change into a loose alliance, an ‘empty shell’; the Maastricht years won’t come back.

The European Left needs to get its act together ‘or the political outcomes will not be very good at all’.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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