By Shaun Doherty
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Brexit shambles and EU crisis

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
Issue 445

There could be many twists and turns in the Brexit melodrama in the hiatus between my writing this article and you reading it.

To speculate on what may or not happen is futile, but there have been enough developments to date that help us unpick some of the fundamental issues at stake.

The most obvious starting point is that the government’s paralysis as a result of Theresa May’s inability to put her deal to the vote for a third time does not mean that there is likely to be an agreed alternative.

May’s humiliation in the vote to allow a range of other proposals to be put to members in which 30 Tories voted against her highlights her predicament. But the idea that parliament has “taken control” of the process in order to rescue it fails to acknowledge the fact that there is no alternative that can necessarily achieve a majority in the House.

Any “softening” in the Brexit proposals is more likely to stiffen the opposition of the hard Brexiteers, and even if a majority in parliament were achieved for one of the options the government could simply ignore it. That is why there is a perverse logic in May’s position that has got even Jacob Rees Mogg worried.

She is banking on the threat of no Brexit or a second referendum or a general election forcing her opponents in the Mogg’s European Research Group to eventually and reluctantly back her deal.

But even then she could no longer rely on the support of the DUP no matter how many bribes are offered them because they have made it clear that they care less about Brexit than their ideological and constitutional commitment to the Union and will not countenance any suggestion of Irish exceptionalism. So it is a shambles.

There is a further dimension to this crisis that is particularly depressing. All the focus on parliamentary manoeuvres sucks the Labour party into the strategy of “reaching across the aisle” to the 30 Tory remainers who rebelled against the government and enabled parliament to work through the “indicative” votes on alternatives to May’s deal.

This is likely to shift Labour’s focus to a more EU-friendly set of proposals and away from its campaigns around the real issues that affect the vast majority of us — fighting against austerity, racism and climate change and for decent housing, public services and wages.

If the centre of political gravity is shifted towards parliament it puts the emphasis not on the battle of substance for political change, but on the echo of that battle. It also aligns Labour with the interests of big business and global capital and away from the concerns of ordinary people.

How incongruous was it to see the leader of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, making a joint appeal for closer alignment to Europe with Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry.

This manifestation of cross-class collaboration was the hallmark of the big pro-EU demonstration on 23 March and its impact was undoubtedly considerable. It also presents socialists with a challenge of interpretation. Many of those on the march would regard themselves as anti-racist and politically progressive, and crude denunciations of the participants does us a disservice. Perhaps because social media lends itself to the discourse of abuse many of the comments from the left were little more than name-calling.

It is imperative, however, to make a sharp case against the politics of a march that is supported by Tony Blair and has Lord Heseltine as one of the main speakers.

The best way to distance ourselves from the likes of Tom Watson and the Labour right is to make the argument that the central divide in society is not between Remain and Leave, but between those who want to impose austerity and those who are prepared to fight it.

Unfortunately our version of Leave is not on the table, but our prioritising of the fight against all forms of racism stands in stark contrast to the anti-immigration policies of EU and the British ruling class.
The march was also used as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with and chants about him being missing were prevalent.

But to his credit Corbyn was instead visiting Morecambe campaigning for the local elections. In the process he supported and visited an anti-fracking site and a food bank, focussed his speech on poverty, climate change and housing and gave a moving tribute for the anniversary of the Chinese cockle pickers who died in the quick sands of Morecambe as a result of exploitation by gang masters.

This is where he is at his best, not in parliament where he can much more easily be pulled by a different force of political gravity. It is much more difficult to agitate for a general election and the possibility of getting rid of the Tories if you are working in tandem with many of them over Brexit.

Much of the commentary on this whole fiasco has tended to focus on Britain, but the more perceptive of commentators have shifted their gaze to the concerns of the rest of Europe.

Wolfgang Munchau of the FT in particular has pointed out the EU’s fears of extending the saga of the British exit beyond the short extension they have already acceded to. He argues that it is distracting them from other pressing problems such as the continuing economic fragility of the region reflected in an economic downturn, the increasing influence of China, particularly in relation to Italy, and the rise of far right parties and their potentially disruptive influence on the European Parliament.

This concern would be magnified if a further delay meant that Britain had to take part in the upcoming European elections and that UKIP and the far right here were to make gains that destabilised the balance of power still further in parliament.

If you add to the toxic mix Emmanuel Macron’s travails in France facing the continuing threat from the Gilets Jaunes revolt and Spain’s continuing Catalan agitation and the expectation that the far right will make significant gains in the general election next month it is clear that all is not rosy in the EU garden.

In these circumstances we have to be clear about the fundamentals. Far from being a bastion of progressive politics the EU is a neoliberal institution promoting the broader interests of the capitalist class at the expense of workers.

It is also manifestly racist in the way that it has left thousands of those fleeing war and famine to drown in the Mediterranean and in its collusion with Libyan militias rounding up would be migrants into slave camps in north Africa.

The urgent need to get the Tories out and force a general election requires a shift of focus away from parliament onto the streets and into the workplaces.

Anti-racism has to at the heart of this mobilisation. That is a pre-requisite for a Corbyn government that has the potential to implement policies that transform the political landscape.

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