Friday, June 24, 2016

A few brief comments on Brexit and the postmortem of the European Union

Another end of the world is possible

There will be a lot of postmortems for the European Union (EU) after Brexit. Many will suggest that this was a victory against the neoliberal policies of the European Union. See, for example, the first three paragraphs of Paul Mason's column here. And it is true, large contingents of working class people, that have suffered with 'free-market' economics, voted for leaving the union. The union, rightly or wrongly, has been seen as undemocratic and responsible for the economics woes of Europe.

The problem is that while it is true that the EU leaders have been part of the problem and have pursued the neoliberal policies within the framework of the union, sometimes with treaties like the Fiscal Compact, it is far from clear that Brexit and the possible demise of the union, if the fever spreads to France, Germany and other countries with their populations demanding their own referenda, will lead to the abandonment of neoliberal policies. Austerity will most likely continue. On this matter, note that the United Kingdom did not ratify the Fiscal Compact, and austerity is a completely home made policy, consolidated by the current Conservative government, but also by the previous Blairite New Labor. And Socialist governments in France (you can say the same of Syriza in Greece) have also accepted austerity as the only alternative.

Most of the austerity policies imposed on the peripheral countries are actually the result of the euro, and are to a great extent independent of the existence of a broader political union. Of course the mechanisms for imposing austerity pass through the institutions of the union, but it is clear that progressive policies can be pursued within the union.

In order to understand the limitations of the European project it is important to remember that the original project, associated to the Treaty of Rome built on the European Coal and Steel community, was a policy that aimed at resolving the perennial Franco-German conflict, with the cooperation of the US, in the context of the Cold War. The project went hand in hand with Keynesian policies at home, and the development of the modern Welfare State, possible in part as a result of the Marshall Plan. On the other hand, the modern union is often confused and seen as being inextricably associated with the euro, which was designed after the Conservative resurgence in the 1980s, and consolidated in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet block. That is, the euro was created in the neoliberal Thatcherite world in which supposedly 'there is no alternative.' The context has not changed much, even if there is a revolt against neoliberal policies.

And that is why separating the euro project (the case of Grexit would be based on that) from Brexit is important. This is hardly the demise of neoliberal policies. Even the end of the European Union would not guarantee that pro-worker coalitions would win elections, or that if elected they would purse Keynesian expansionary policies (btw, it is also unclear that Grexit would solve all the problems in Greece, and that a default would be successful, although I do think the case is stronger there).

Globally, in fact, there is no evidence that neoliberalism is retreating. In Latin America, the opposite seems to be the case. In the US the same working class anger with neoliberal policies, austerity and stagnation has led to both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump's insurgent campaigns, but we may end up with the same old neoliberal policies as always (yeah, I mean Hillary Clinton; and no Bernie and Donald are not the same, but that's another issue, and I would vote for Hillary). Even worse, some elements of the revolt of the masses in the US have led to a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and outright xenophobia, not unlike the UK. And that is something that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have exploited in the UK. And remember that Jeremy Corbyn was for Remain, and that he may also suffer with Brexit, and with that the insurgence against neoliberal Blairism within Labor.

Personally, I cannot see that the disintegration of Europe would lead to a positive outcome. Sure the EU has a significant democratic deficit, and a bureaucracy that is seen as wasteful and inefficient (that is always, btw, part of the right wing propaganda for smaller government; you know, because private corporations are always so efficient and democratic, aren't they?). The same is true of American democracy. Ask the Bernie supporters re-counting votes in California (or Al Gore for that matter). So maybe secession should be the solution (yeah, in the US it's the right wing crazy lunatic fringe in Texas that thinks that this is a good idea). And yes, the right wingers in Europe are rejoicing (Trump too).

At a minimum the European Union provided an environment in which people could move freely, in which petty nationalism gave way to acceptance of foreigners and immigrants, something particularly relevant with the refugee crisis in the neighboring region. Some may suggest that this was very little to show for. And the alternative, does it have something to show for? If the European Union really collapses, there will be very little for progressives to be happy about.


  1. yes with schengen a greek could move to germany, only to be spitted in his face as a lazy worker ..

    1. Xenophobia is a problem. But I can't see how closing the doors, as Brexit has done, helps. Again, there are problems with the EU, but the alternative is hardly a good one. You prefer undocumented Greeks in Germany?

  2. Closing the doors? Norway is outside the EEC/EU, saying no to membership in referendums in 1972 and 1994. We trade, work, cooperate, travel, study, interact in research across all borders in Europe. Public opinion in Norway is stably 70% against EU membership, 20% for. Regards from a Norwegian who have heard all the elite scaremongering during two grueling referendum campaigns. Their dire predictions came to nothing, all lies. We are therefore fairly immune.

    1. Hi Trond:
      Sure you can be out of the EU and still be a relatively open country. The level of skepticism in Norway and Sweden, perhaps because of the larger welfare system (different than the UK) might have played a role,, with Sweden being in the EU, but not the euro (like the UK in this case). However, I would argue that not getting inside is very different than leaving. The people that were for leaving the EU in the UK had a discourse anti-immigration, not dissimilar to Anders Breivik. And for all the anti-elite anger the brexiters will find that elites will be doing fine outside of the EU and continue to pursue austerity policies. And that's the point.

    2. well of course one of the reasons of brexit is immigration issues.

      1.its put downward pressure on manual low skilled jobs its put pressure on the welfare system which diminsh the quality of life of the working class.

      2.there is a big problem with immigrants (specially if their skin colour is not fair enough or belong to lets say another religion) because they are a holy cow for the establishiment and the media which always whitewash and try to cover up for non liberal views and actions of some members of minority/immigrant communities.

      the establishment whitewash this views and actions and silence legitimiate criticism against homophobic chauvnistic and even xenophobic sentiments of some members of this communities.

      while the same establishment fighting against intolerance racism xenophobia homophobia chauvinism (justfully) if we are speaking about the general population.

      matias no wonder that in this case people will start to become more xenophobic its simply because the establishment silence any legitimiate criticizm of immigration and immigrant communities when you silence legitimate criticizm you open the door for cheap populist views instead.

      now what i think uk and other european countries should do?

      first of all embrace australian/new zealandian model of immigration based on how much immigrants can contribute to society and how much their skills are in shortage or not while carefully picking this jobs which will not create downward pressure on the poor working class.

      if immigrants will come to work only in good paying respceted jobs most likely this people will less likely live in a closed ghetto and their integration process will be mmuch easier.

      2.while european countries should embrace this kind of immigration they should fight against illegal immigration and they should return back illegals into their country of origin.

      what i think european countries should do?

      a.the establishment should start to criticize iliberal views and values of some of the members of minority and immigration community in the same they criticize this views in the general population,also they should encourage and embrace liberal movements and branches and views of minority/immigrant communities is important no less than criticize iliberal views.

      refugees which are a persecuted minority in their countries (yazidi kurds christians etc) should be welcomed in europe because they truly have no land to come back.

      while syrian refugees (who is part of the majority) should be sent to jordan refugee camps while the EU will obligate itself to finance this camps make there humane conditions in this camps also they will guarantee work for this refugees and they will guarantee protection of this refugee camps from any threat.

      this will be just solution for this problem while you dont impose radical demopgraphic and cultural change on european countries and european people.

      if european union and the european establishment will implement my advices or similar advices i think that european union will get rid of the dark populist views.

      of course its should be combined with full employment policies and good quality public services.

    3. The point is not that there is one issue. People might have voted, and most likely did, for a myriad of reasons. And the poor economic conditions were central, as I admitted. The point is that these conditions are unlikely to change as a result of the vote. My point is the EU is orthogonal to the economic conditions. It went hand in hand with Keynesian policies in the past. The problem is the national governments pro-austerity stances, and in many cases the euro (not an issue for the UK). So you're left with one thing that will change, immigration. Mind you, immigrants still will come, perhaps in smaller proportions. However, like in the US, they're more likely to be undocumented now.

    4. Full employment policies and more enlightened immigration policy are not in the agenda. Certainly not of a Boris Johnson premiership.

    5. i realise that boris johnson its not concerned about full employment about good strong welfare state and elnigthened immigration policy (sadly).

      but the neoliberal pan european establishment of the eu dont do that either while its trying to impose its undemocratic will on european countries.

    6. yes, so what. they can and will do impose in undemocratic fashion neolberal policies in the uk outside of the eu. so again, just using logic, the eu is orthogonal to what the elites will do, if they can do it inside or outside, doesn't it? they've used the eu, as much as keynesians used it before the 1980s.

    7. you are right but since 1980-s as you said they are locked in neoliberal way of thinking and they are imposing it on EU states.

      good example is how the eu imposed austerity on southern european states personally i dont think that if not the EU they were imposing austerity on their populations.

      so yes i do realise that UK is not a member of the eurozone and as far as i know its fiscal policy is not restricted by any treaty (maybe i am wrong about that),but brexit is a serious wake up call for europe to change itself to make it more democratic and at least when countries dont want to impose austerity on their people it will maybe convince EU to respect this choice.

  3. The left needs a vision to enact its policies through a nation state level action, *in addition* to internationalism. That is the reality of the political environment in Europe right now.

  4. The above analysis is indeed correct, but I think it fails to see the matter in the long term. The working class anti-neoliberal anger that propelled Brexit victory will not go away with the blue flags, it will still be there tomorrow, even strenghtened when the likes of Johnson inflict even more suffering on the poor. Then, the so called populists will be faced with a choice: embrace left wing, anti-capitalist economic policies to maintain their support, or be destroyed by the very forces they have stirred. Don't assume Britain's and Europe's people will be so easily duped: the genie is indeed out of the bottle, and cannot be controlled by the mage apprentices who let him out.

    1. I agree that anti-neoliberalism is still alive. Whether people get that austerity is the problem is another thing. A good chunk concentrate on immigration issues. And I think they're already duped. Not only leaving the EU will not lead to a reversion of the neoliberal agenda and austerity, it might bring down the insurgency within Labor. Corbyn is clearly under attack now.

  5. I totally agree with you, Matias. I believe those in favor of a "left-wing Brexit" have severely misread the political conditions in the UK. Unfortunately, however, Brexit has won, and as a democrat, its mandate has to be carried on. Otherwise democracy itself will be on trial (as it is in Greece). I can only hope some left-wing force imposes its will and force over the right, though there is absolutely nothing to expect it to happen.


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