Socialist Worker

The political choices behind hard Brexit

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2735

Boris Johnson wants to push negotiations to the wire

Boris Johnson wants to push negotiations to the wire (Pic: Number10/Flickr)


So we’re still stuck at the Brexit cliff-edge. Whether or not there is a trade deal between Britain and the European Union (EU), we will experience a hard Brexit, with a fair degree of economic disruption.

Such an outcome was not inevitable. So why is it happening? There are three main reasons.

First, this is how the EU chose to play Brexit. The Tory ex-MEP Daniel Hannan wrote an interesting piece in the Telegraph newspaper. It outlined how the EU reacted to the weakness and incompetence of Theresa May’s government by progressively tightening its demands.

Even some of the EU’s emergency measures to alleviate the effects of a no-deal Brexit are conditional on Britain accepting a “level playing field”. That means caving into the EU’s central demand that, even after leaving the Single European Market, it remains tied to the rules of the single market.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his numerous apologists this side of the Channel try to justify this, on the face of it, absurd requirement. They argue that Britain is too big and too close to be allowed to go its own way.

There’s an element of truth in this—France and its allies fear being undercut by a deregulated “Singapore-on-Thames”.

But the EU is bullying Switzerland to revise the agreements they made in the 1990s that created the kind of economic relationship that Britain has asked for. That suggests that more is involved.

The EU now functions economically as a would-be imperial power. It imposes its policies not just on its member states—witness austerity in Greece—but on its neighbours.

Secondly, this is what Boris Johnson and the Tory right want. Regaining Britain’s economic sovereignty has been their prime objective, and to achieve it they are willing to risk the disruption of a no-deal Brexit.

Sovereignism seems to be the closest thing to a principle that Johnson has. In any case, he lost a lot of political capital by his incompetent handling of the pandemic.

The latest three-tier system provoked a massive rebellion by Tory backbenchers. Many of them would denounce him for treason if they thought he was conceding too much to Brussels. This gives Johnson a strong incentive to push the negotiations to the wire.

There is nothing inevitable about the hard Brexit we are heading for. It is the outcome of the political choices made by a range of actors in European capitals and Westminster

Third, this is the price of Jeremy Corbyn not becoming prime minister. Labour nearly won the June 2017 general election on a programme that combined accepting Brexit and implementing a range of social-democratic reforms. This would have been a very different break with the EU.

The problem is that, after Corbyn’s near-miss in 2017, the Labour right wing worked systematically to destroy his leadership. On the one hand, they initiated and gave credibility to the lie that Corbyn is an antisemite. They fed a media hue-and-cry that was very damaging to Labour’s general election campaign a year ago.

On the other hand, the Labour right, through their instrument Keir Starmer, forced Corbyn to promise a second referendum on Brexit. This made it very easy for the Tories to target Labour-held constituencies that had voted to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

The Remain wing of the Labour Party, with an exaggerated sense of their power amid the parliamentary disarray of 2018-19, played into Johnson’s hands.

So there is nothing inevitable about the hard Brexit we are heading for. It is the outcome of the political choices made by a range of actors in European capitals and Westminster. Understanding this is important if we want to learn from what is happening.

It’s also important if we are to avoid the blame game to which too many people on the left seem to be attracted. One fundamental element in the situation was the weakness of the British radical left.

It was too weak to make a powerful anticapitalist case either for or against the EU during the referendum campaign. It was also too weak to impose its own solution as an alternative during the Brexit crisis of 2017-19.

But this doesn’t mean the radical left lacks support, as the hundreds of thousands who rallied to Corbyn showed. We need to learn how to win.


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