Brexit: more humiliation looms
The present terms of debate on Brexit represent paralysis, argues Paul Demarty - in the government, and on the left
The basic dilemma facing Theresa May and her government is that it is attempting to do the impossible.
We have pointed this out many times over, but claim no particular originality of analysis - the evidence is so overwhelming that there is simply no possible alternative scenario. We could demand that the government reveal details of its negotiations with the European powers, as Kier Starmer does loudly, but really there is nothing to reveal. May can dance up to the podium, but she cannot dance around the irresolvable contradiction between what sort of deal she can get through parliament and what she can get from the remaining European powers.
It is in this frame that we must place the latest flashpoints in negotiations - although the word ‘latest’ is rather overselling it. The question is the awkward one of the Irish border, one of the recurring stumbling blocks of the whole process. The Irish government does not want a hard border between the republic and the six counties, for Britain remains Ireland’s main trading partner. The European Union negotiators have adopted that cause as their own, and declared that the only way to achieve this is continued Northern Irish membership of the customs union and single market.
The British negotiators are prepared to do this on the basis that all of the UK will maintain membership for an agreed transition period. This is the so-called ‘backstop’. The Europeans are happy with this - except for the minor matter that it gives the UK government the power, in effect, to unilaterally suspend any such arrangement by abrogating the relevant treaties, leaving ‘plucky little Ireland’ at a great disadvantage. So we need a ‘backstop to the backstop’. For this the EU wants an arrangement where a customs border would exist between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.
May cannot meet this requirement, and so her luckless emissary, Dominic Raab, had to return empty-handed from Brussels on October 14. She depends on the Democratic Unionist Party for support in parliament; and, while the DUP is quite as dependent on smooth trade with the 26 counties as the reverse, it is opposed at a basic existential level to an arrangement like this which would - so far as it was concerned - break the union between ‘Ulster’ and the rest of the UK and bind Ireland together by fiat.
This has been the state of negotiations on the matter, in essence, for months. The fact that there is ‘news’ about it is a sign not really of actual developments, but of people frantically moving about to give the illusion of a story unfolding, when nothing in fact has changed, except that Old Father Time has robbed us all of a few more days of our lives, bringing the cliff-edge deadline a little bit closer. Various newspaperson October 15 carried a picture of cabinet members posing in the middle of a hedge maze, which seems to us one of those ‘knowing wink’ photo-ops that will not age at all well. It is not a joke that they are lost, but bare reality; it is not their wit that will be remembered in years hence, but their rudderlessness.
Signs of weakness, of course, are ripe for exploitation. Not for the first time, we note, the government’s disastrous universal credit reforms have served as a proxy battlefield for the totemic European issue - UC’s architect, Iain Duncan Smith, resigned from David Cameron’s cabinet on the basis that he was being set up to fail, because he was on the ‘wrong side’ of the Brexit argument (as it looked then). He has long bequeathed that toxic portfolio to others, however, and the likelihood that these reforms will leave a lot of pensioners out of pocket has given occasion for yet another ‘Tory rebellion’. With such strategic headaches on the European issue, and with such unfriendly arithmetic in the Commons, all the quotidian embarrassments of capitalist government - usually harmless beyond a day or two of the news cycle - take on a terrifying aspect and raise the question of the survival of the present regime. May has managed to unify her cabinet again - for now - but can anyone imagine we are even a week away from another frantic piece of crisis management?
While we have ridiculed the absurd dysfunction of the Tories at the present time, we must offer a few words of clemency, by way of explaining why the EU negotiators are resolutely imposing humiliation after humiliation.
There really is some logic to the idea that the EU should be more forgiving in all this. Let us assume, for the time being, that all parties are negotiating in good faith with a view to rationally maximising utility. A cliff-edge Brexit will clearly not benefit Britain, in the short term, and the idea promoted by the more swashbuckling Brexiteers that we can find better trade deals elsewhere by ‘shopping around’ is fanciful. Yet it seems equally fanciful that the EU will benefit overmuch either. It will lose one of its largest economies entirely, and (as can clearly be seen from the Irish case) will face significant disruption in some places, where trade with Britain is a big deal. It looks, on the face of it, like a negative-sum game with no winners.
So what gives? As often in these situations, we must look beyond the macroeconomics of trade deficits and tariffs, and bring ourselves up to the level of grand strategy. From the Europeans’ point of view, this particular theatre of combat looks very different indeed.
The dream of European unity is that Europe as a united, multinational entity might turn into a truly powerful player in global politics. At the moment, the single market and customs union gives it a strong hand in bilateral economic negotiations - for example, the Canadian deal signed recently - but its inability to conduct diplomacy in a united fashion and - most importantly - the lack of a common, centralised military force prevents it from doing so. The gamble of ‘euro-federalism’ is that it is possible to incrementally step towards such unity peacefully through successive treaties (‘ever closer union’), on which point, as we shall see, they may well be wrong.
In any event, it is not the case that they are merely being allowed to get on with it by senior players in the world order. Two problems present themselves. The first: the political environment in many member-states is turning hostile. The methods employed in managing the 2008 crisis, combining bailouts with punitive economic measures, have combined unpredictably with a shift in popular support from the ‘party of liberty’ to the ‘party of order’, such that there are several governments based on chauvinist and religious-reactionary ideology over and above theirsupport for capitalism (Law and Justice in Poland, Lega/Five Star in Italy, Fidesz in Hungary … ) On top of that, there cannot be a country in Europe without an anti-EU party of the right with serious electoral support. These forces’ support for an officially liberal supranational political project is highly conditional at best; so the danger is that the EU will begin to fall apart.
The second is that the global hegemon remains the United States, which - though it orchestrated the beginnings of the European project - does not want its supreme role on the world stage challenged. US policy in Europe has always been to encourage only those forms of union that do not seriously raise the prospect of a rival for hegemony.
On both fronts, the Brexit issue is highly charged. Throughout Europe, those reactionary parties that promote Eurosceptic ideology are watching the Brexit process very, very closely. Jeremy Hunt got into some hot water for comparing the EU to the Soviet Union in its determined frustration of national ambitions; but there are no end of people on the continent who are happy to view the EU as a modern ‘prison house of nations’, as the tsar’s empire was rightly known.
No country has left the EU before; therefore, Brexit will serve as ‘prior art’ for anyone seeking to follow suit. The most important thing, from this point of view, is not that everyone should get out the other side of this in one piece with goodwill intact, but that Britain should be seen to lose out. The Brexit referendum is an inspirational fable for the Eurosceptic right; the reality of Brexit must therefore be made into a cautionary tale.
This does not necessarily mean that things have to be truly catastrophic. It does mean, however, that cutting a deal so that the UK can maintain a good trading relationship with the EU without opening its borders to migrants is definitely out - it would send the wrong message in the general direction of Italy (and Poland, and … ). On other matters, too, things must be made worse; hence the prospect of a customs border in the Irish Sea. If the UK can be forced to admit to such humiliations, what chance does Hungary have to escape them?
On the other side of things, it should be said that America’s trustiest instrument in sabotaging the stronger forms of federalism in Europe has always been the UK. Britain has pushed, helpfully, for massive geographic expansion over closer integration, making the overall political mathematics more perilous. Now, however, it may be that our special mission has a rather different meaning. In the Donald Trump era, it seems that a shift is taking place towards more directly exploitative relations between the US and other powers, as glimpsed in Trump’s humiliation of Mexico and Canada in his gunpoint ‘renegotiation’ of Nafta. No doubt Trump is itching to pull the same trick on the European powers, forcing Germany, France and all the rest, one by one, into punitive bilateral deals.
How well rooted this view is in the American elite is hard to discern. It is notable, however, that almost no American political voices are raised against Brexit. Perhaps Britain can serve one last time as a US instrument - a final, fatal piece of sabotage. Certainly the Europeans will not be blind to all this.
It seems, in fact, that the great lesson will be how impotent the British ruling class actually is on the world stage. The last such unpleasant revelation concerned one body of water, the Suez Canal; this time the Irish Sea threatens our insular arrogance. Sure, we might serve an openly obnoxious Trumpite turn in US imperialist strategy as a ‘rough instrument’ against the EU; but that hardly guarantees security in the long term. Trump’s visit to the UK saw him openly undermine the prime minister and flout the most basic norms of international glad-handing etiquette. Of course, Trump treats May with contempt - what is she going to do in return? Invade Rhode Island? And, if Boris Johnson thinks he can do better, then he is in for a rude awakening.
Britain is thus at the bottom of this little food chain; but it is America, not Europe, at the top. Hence Europe’s intransigence in negotiations - it goes for the jugular not because it is ascending to greater internal unity and global prestige, but for the opposite reason - that it is in danger of being pulled apart. We said above that the euro-federalist project of incremental, peaceful progress towards continental unity was not necessarily well-founded, and the EU’s difficulties since 2008 bring us to the core of their illusions.
The result of such a process of unification, after all, would be a centralised, military-diplomatic machine; but achieving it under capitalism in fact presupposes such an apparatus. Because capital as a social relation tends to centralise wealth and power alike, it produces inequalities that, under conditions of downturn (also inevitable under capitalism, of course), in turn generate sectional resentment across all manner of axes of division. The state formations that hold together are the ones that can, in the last instance, defend their integrity with main force. For Europe to unite effectively, then, is in reality a matter of conquest, or else the threat of conquest; neither looks likely in the short term and, given the destructiveness of modern military technology, neither looks like a terribly attractive prospect - and neither is admitted to the consciousness of EU partisans, who are thereby condemned to hopeless utopianism.
The other possible route is the one that leads out of capitalism altogether - socialist revolution. Success in this endeavour does not look likely in the short term either; but serious steps could be taken now - common action of the workers’ movement across borders - that would provide a real counterforce to the march of chauvinist reaction and the decreasingly rational flailing about of defeated liberals.
It is a matter of great misfortune, then, that the British left is divided between ‘Lexiteers’ and ‘left’ remainers. The former - who try to insert a squeak of hopeless left nationalism into a Brexit debate taking place entirely within the Conservative Party - merely promote a variant of the desperate sectional fantasy of seceding from the global order.
The latter appear on the face of it to be more ‘rational’, in that remainism is at least marketed as a vaguely leftwing concern in the mainstream media. But, in reality, they are also based on a fantasy - where the Lexiteers hope to start off towards socialism from a delusory national autarkism, the remainers want to build from the collapsed edifice of post-cold war neoliberalism, whose collapse is to blame for nationalist reaction. It is like trying to cure your lung cancer by doubling your cigarette intake, to kill more of the malignant cells.
The bottom line is that the impasse in parliament, the fractious negotiations in Europe, and the rise of Trump and of other nationalists are all avatars of a deeper strategic dilemma. By loyally ‘taking sides’ over Brexit, however, the factions of the left prevent themselves from actually confronting the strategic issues - concretely, the need for an international class response to the unfolding political crisis of neoliberalism; and, moreover, a programme for the socialist transformation of Europe. This is the only course that will not leave us trapped within nationalist delusions - or politically circumscribed by the ‘cosmopolitan’ wing of capital.