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Don’t expect Brexit to bring about a new dawn in the rest of Europe

We should be wary of leaping from one simple narrative to the next. 

The body language and lip-reading experts were put on high alert during last week’s European Council meeting where Britain, once again, was made to feel the chilly wind of isolation. Since Brexit, the press pack seems to have been engaged in a competition to capture the image that best illustrates the sinking ship of state.

Sharp-elbowed photographers peek through blinds in the hope of finding the Prime Minister looking doleful and friendless while other European leaders huddle conspiratorially over champagne and vol-au-vents. We have seen David Davis portrayed as a bemused lamb before the slaughter, sans briefing documents, while steely eyed EU negotiators line up against him like pin-striped New Jersey attorneys.

One of the latest freeze-frames from Brussels was of Theresa May wedged between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, who were covering their mouths like Premier League footballers as they whispered into her ear. Some said that May was just relieved not to be ignored; others joked that she was forced to listen dutifully as the final sum of the Brexit divorce bill was dictated to her by the weathermakers in a reinvigorated Franco-German alliance.

Such is the British habit for self-flagellation that impotence is now the driving narrative of almost every major news item here concerning Europe, from the French and German elections to each round of negotiations between the UK and EU. There is a great deal of truth in the picture of cack-handedness and confusion. It has also been made clear that, in the short term, any efforts to divide the Franco-German bloc to secure a soft landing for Britain will yield very little apart from irritation. The Brits will have to trudge through the mud in Brussels rather than pick up the phone to Berlin. The united front of the EU27 holds for now.

Nonetheless, we should be wary of leaping from one simple narrative to the next. Just as Britain realises its fatal error in voting for Brexit, we are now led to believe, so Europe has recovered its sense of purpose. Liberated by the departure of ambivalent Albion, a reborn EU is now unified on the need to usher in a new era of European cooperation, and fully agreed on the imperative of making Brexit hurt.

The reality is more complex.

Central to this account of European renewal is the idea that 39-year-old French president Macron has provided a new vision and impetus for the EU project, and that he has a willing partner in the 63-year-old German chancellor Merkel. Here, it is said optimistically, is a judicious mix of youthful enthusiasm and wily experience.

In a recent interview given to Der Spiegel, the French President stressed his admiration for Angela Merkel, and his hopes for what a close working relationship might achieve. Macron, channelling Hegel, said that the essence of politics is to understand the Zeitgeist. For too long, he suggested, the centrists of Europe have lacked a sense of “political heroism”. Post-modernist thinking, according to the student-of-literature-turned-banker, has corroded the “grand narratives” that are required for political success.

Macron also argued that Europe has been drifting aimlessly on a tide of “collective defeatism” since 2005, at least, when the French and the Dutch said “no” in referendums on the EU constitution. By this diagnosis, “the more reticent one is with European ambitions, the less progress one makes”. Thus far, as outlined in a September speech at the Sorbonne, Macron’s strategy has been to use the leverage France has – it will soon be the only EU state with a UN Security Council seat and an independent nuclear deterrent – to set the EU on an economic course that will support his efforts to revive the French economy. François Mitterrand is the model, but Macron’s centrism is ecumenical enough for him to lift some mantras from Charles De Gaulle.

Behind the confidence of his movement-party – En Marche! – however, is growing scepticism that the new president can deliver on what some are calling “France’s last chance”. He is trying to modernise an economy that has yet to recover fully from the 2008 crash and is failing on two key metrics: growth and employment. The measures taken so far, such as the abolition of the wealth tax, have been deeply divisive. In a scathing assessment of Macronism for the New Left Review, Perry Anderson suggests that the new president is devoid of any serious strategy beyond “excruciating pronouncements of patriotard bombast”.

“What I value is that she has never tried to tap the brakes on my élan, my enthusiasm,” says Macron of the German chancellor, true to form. He claims they are also united by a shared love of details. And yet it is those details – in the new proposals for Europe coming from the Élysée Palace – that best illustrate the distance between them. Chief among them is loosening the shackles of the European Central Bank by revamping the eurozone, with a common budget for investment and the appointment of its own finance minister to distribute it. Merkel has remained much more sceptical about grand plans to remake Europe and, after a bruising general election, she has no mandate to pursue anything so radical. Fiscal responsibility remains the leitmotif. This is more the case now that she is in a coalition with the Free Democrats, who have already expressed wariness about further EU spending.

Macron once said of Brexit that it “held up a mirror to the EU”, reminding us that it was both “dysfunctional and highly uninspiring”. This will not be remedied by proclamation alone. The EU27 may be agreed on Brexit for now, but we should not overstate the prospect of a new dawn in the lands that Britain is leaving behind. 

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.