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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: The left must challenge the EU, not simply concede to it

By failing to offer a post-EU vision, Labour allowed the Conservatives to shape Brexit – with disastrous consequences.

By Grace Blakeley

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 2,909 migrants died in 2016 while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Another 3,661 died over the following four years while attempting the perilous journey into Europe.

In the first six months of this year, as we approach the five-year anniversary of Brexit, 813 migrants have died in the Mediterranean, suggesting that the total number of deaths in 2021 could be the highest since 2017. According to the United Nations, Frontex, the European border force, is partly to blame, having adopted a “pushback” strategy to try to force migrant boats back into North Africa.

Frontex is also taking action against activists, many of whom are facing trial across Europe for the crime of rescuing refugees from drowning.

Meanwhile, the UK government has sought to distract people from its negligent handling of the pandemic by inflaming the culture wars. Earlier this year, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that refugees entering the UK in the “wrong” way would be turned away. Campaigners and lawyers have said that the plans could contravene the Geneva Convention.

Clearly, the values of Europe and the UK have not changed substantially as a result of either Brexit or Covid-19. Commentators observing large increases in state spending over the course of the pandemic have been quick to suggest that socialism is being introduced by stealth. But the real test of our leaders’ priorities is not how much money they splash on loans to giant multinational corporations; it’s who they allow to live, and who they condemn to death.

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Europe has delivered a paltry recovery fund for its periphery, with poorer member states likely to emerge from the pandemic in an even weaker state. EU leaders seem more concerned with securing the bloc’s power and prestige than with delivering “global solutions to global problems”.

To those of us who argued for a left Brexit, none of these developments are surprising. Brexit was never a fixed thing, it was a process; and like any process, the way we talked about it, managed it and delivered it was always going to be more important in determining its nature than the events surrounding its inception.

Under pressure from those both inside and outside of Labour seeking to destroy the Corbyn leadership, the party failed to offer a post-EU vision. As a result, it handed the Conservatives the power to shape Brexit. We will look back on Brexit both as the moment the culture wars went mainstream and as the beginning of the end of the European dream of “ever closer union”.

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It didn’t have to be this way. Had Labour adopted a different stance on Brexit, it may not have won the 2019 general election, but our airwaves would not be saturated with analyses of how the party should try to win back the Red Wall with less economic policy and more xenophobia. And leftist parties across Europe might have realised that there is more to be gained from challenging the European project than simply conceding to it.

Grace Blakeley is an economics commentator and author

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.