By Alex Callinicos
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What lies behind the divisions over Brexit?

This article is over 3 years, 5 months old
Issue 2734
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel (Pic: European Council/flickr)

It’s anyone’s guess whether Britain and the European Union (EU) can reach an agreement on their new trading relationship, which is due to start on 1 January. 

But it’s a mistake for the pro-EU liberal left to blame the impasse solely on Boris Johnson and his government, however right wing and incompetent they are. The conflict has much deeper roots. 

Both Brussels and the Johnson government show a relatively coherent understanding of the stakes. The EU is a project based on the partial pooling of sovereignty among the member states under the leadership of the two main continental imperialist powers, Germany and France.

Following 75 years of hugely destructive conflict, these decided after the Second World War to cooperate.

The EU provides a framework in which they can band together the rest of Europe behind their sometimes conflicting goals. Johnson, however, represents a section of the British ruling class that believes its interests are best served by disentangling the United Kingdom from this project. 

This group is almost certainly a minority of the capitalist forces operating here, but it is currently politically dominant.

Taking back control” is not simply an ideological pipedream. Johnson and his allies believe that by regaining national sovereignty they can promote a more deregulated and competitive capitalism based in Britain.

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For example, Dominic Cummings advocated removing Brussels-imposed rules blocking state subsidies to promote new hi-tech firms. 

But, as the analyst Mujtaba Rahman puts it, French president Emmanuel Macron’s “vision of a European industrial and innovative powerhouse is incompatible with a future few-rules Britain that would act as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ for continued American or Chinese economic domination of the EU27”. The objective in the negotiations of France and other member states has been twofold.

First British firms could continue to export goods—Brussels refuses to consider services—tariff-free into the European Single Market solely on condition that Britain remains what one trade expert has called the EU’s “regulatory satellite”.


Secondly, France and its allies want to use Brexit to displace the City of London as the main European financial centre. 

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, was already trying to achieve this before the 2016 referendum. 

But he won’t succeed, as Axel Webber chairman of UBS and ex-president of the German Bundesbank pointed out last week. He said, “The division of Europe is a massive benefit to the City of London because if Europe were united the impact of Brexit would be much more. It’s all about competition between financial centres within Europe, Frankfurt against Paris.” 

But the battle to keep Britain tied to the Single Market and its rules continues, with Brussels using its bargaining advantage ruthlessly. The Financial Times newspaper last week listed various issues where the European Commission is refusing Britain rights it has granted non-EU states from Serbia to Switzerland. Settling these issues is used by the EU as a way of getting what it wants in the trade talks.

The strongly pro-Remain Financial Times accused it of having “a negotiating position so hawkish that even the EU car industry warned in October that it was not in its interests”. 

Now Macron has threatened to veto the emerging trade deal. He highlighted the issue of EU fishing rights in British waters. But what he is really worried is that Germany— represented by its chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen— is prepared to make too many concessions to Johnson. 

Germany’s ultra-competitive industry is less likely to be threatened by the emergence of a rogue British capitalism

So the Guardian columnist George Monbiot is right to see Brexit as “the outcome of a civil war within capitalism”. 

He sees this as a conflict between “the two dominant forms of capitalist enterprise”–“housetrained capitalism”, represented by the EU, and anti-regulation “warlord capitalism”.  But it’s also a struggle between two blocs of capital— two second-rank imperialisms scrabbling for advantage in a crisis-haunted world. 

There are no prizes for guessing who will be the losers. 

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