The left should focus on transforming the EU rather than leaving it

Leave and Remain are both distractions from the much more fundamental problem: one can leave the EU, but one cannot leave capitalism.

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The left-wing case for Brexit suffers from two basic contradictions. The first concerns its view of the EU. According to one reading of it, the EU is too strong – so strong that without a radical break with the Union, we are told, all projects of socialist renewal are doomed to fail.

According to another reading, the EU is not strong enough to prevent the departure of member states and undermine socialism altogether. It could not withstand the kind of radical democratic agenda that would succeed if the process of leaving the EU were controlled by the left rather than the right.

The second basic contradiction concerns democracy. The left-wing case for Brexit is both democracy enhancing and democracy suppressing. It is enhancing because the vote for Brexit can be read as a vote of popular empowerment against both technocratic neoliberalism and the unaccountable centralisation of power in Brussels.

It is suppressing because as a result of that vote, almost three million fellow Europeans were disenfranchised overnight, their fate still waiting to be decided. The empowerment of the working classes of one nation was the direct cause of the disempowerment of their European counterparts.

Taken together these contradictions raise an interesting question. Is there a way of supporting radical change that can be democracy enhancing without being democracy suppressing?

A case can be made, but it requires a nuanced (and dispassionate) attitude to the EU that does not sit well with either the polarised state of political debate or the plurality of different interests and aims that the dividing lines between Leave and Remain encapsulate. And it requires an interpretation of Brexit as a political event driven less by racist and xenophobic instincts and more by a yearning for democratic control.

Defining Brexit according to a drive for democratic control poses a dilemma for the radical left. If the democratic drive is powerful enough to aspire at dismantling the EU through a series of exits, why is it not powerful enough to aspire at transforming it through a series of radical initiatives?

One answer to this question stems from the EU’s institutional structure. The rules of the single market, the four freedoms (of goods, services, capital and people), the strictures of the Treaties, and the rulings of the European Court of Justice all serve to entrench a neoliberal system that would be impossible to disrupt without coordinated and simultaneous action from an impossibly large number of left-oriented member states.

But if the European Union so effectively represents the interests of capital against labour, it is difficult to explain why significant chunks of British capital as represented by the Conservative Party and related lobbies, think tanks, and swathes of the media are so vehemently opposed to it. If racism and xenophobia are superficial explanations that fail to consider the real motives of the British working classes’ Euroscepticism, imperial nostalgia must likewise be a superficial explanation for the real motives of the British ruling classes.

A more nuanced answer is to see the EU as a hybrid institution where margins for radical change are no more or less available than those present in individual member states. It is undeniable that in its origins, the Treaty of Rome and the single market approximated Hayek’s vision of prosperity through free trade and market liberalisation. But it is also true that free-market advocates see the current European Union as a betrayal of Hayek’s vision.

What they highlight as limitations to the project are the kinds of things that the left should applaud (and that the current Labour Party is trying to save with its proposals of close alignment with the single market): coordinated energy and environmental policies, employment law, workers’ rights, harmonisation of regulations to prevent “a race to the bottom” and, in the future, tax reform, bankruptcy law and property rights.

Yet critics of the EU emphasise that while EU membership is compatible with nationalisation here and there, the EU legal order would be a constant challenge to any truly radical socialist government. This may be plausible. But while the structure of EU treaties may obstruct ambitious socialist transformation, abolishing an unelected House of Lords and replacing the British monarchy with a socialist republic does not sound too easy, either.

Just as it is naïve to argue that the EU can be transformed to mirror the aspirations of the left, it is naïve to say that it cannot. The solution surely depends on context, on the balance of political forces in different member states, on their relationship to institutions like the European Central Bank, and on the strength of the labour movement in resisting the right and supporting radical transformation.

It may be that, confronted by a strong, transnational labour movement, the European Union would obstruct its demands for change. It may well be that, at that point, one has to reassess the prospects for change and possibly also advocate Leave, ideally by a group of countries, and in a coordinated form. But to endorse Brexit before an inclusive movement of British and European workers is in motion is to put the cart before the horse. It is also to risk the movement never materialising.

This leads to a final, more strategic point. One objection to the project of transforming the EU points to the electoral fate of political movements with a pro-European agenda. Wherever the social-democratic left has endorsed the EU, so the argument goes, it seems to have lost votes. Here, too, the target is misdirected. The success of En Marche in France and the resilience of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany show that the problem may be less with the EU and more with the identity of the left.

What is clearly collapsing everywhere is the project of the Third Way.  A new vision of society that puts capitalism into perspective is sorely needed. The problem is therefore less with the EU as such, and more with the left’s progressive abandonment of its anti-capitalist roots, its increasing detachment from workplace democracy, its distancing from direct activism and its failure to endorse a transformative and transnational vision of the economy, of politics and of society.

The EU’s current shape also reflects these problems. The Third Way is alive and well in the EU's Acquis Communautaire that in turn determines the enlargement process. But the EU is not a cause – it is a symptom. The EU is no more than the sum of its parts: its institutional profile can change (and has changed in the past) depending on the shifts in the politics of member states. 

This is not to say that there are no power asymmetries. As the saga of the Greek bailout reminded us, the relation between hegemons and smaller states is often coloured with neo-colonialism. Clearly some voices in the Council matter more than others, and clearly the interests of some countries drive the agenda forward. But, if anything, this makes the transformative aspirations more rather than less realistic. It shows that the prospects for change depend heavily on the politics of a few key players (eg Germany and France) to produce a shift in the overall balance of forces.

If the European Union were a state, the equivalent of Brexit would be secession, and the equivalent of remain and transform would be regime change. In the case of states, secession and regime change are related and sometimes accompany each other. In any event, they reflect a deep crisis and express the need for profound, revolutionary transformation.

The EU is not a state, but it has been in crisis for quite some time. No one is more aware of its legitimacy deficit and lack of shared democratic ethos than EU representatives themselves. For all its turmoil, Brexit has been a blessing: the hundreds of thousands of people in central London rallying under the blue flags and yellow stars have done more to strengthen the symbolic power of the EU than the millions of euros spent by the Commission for years of shared cultural and identity building programmes.

Yet for all the flags and stars, the radical democratic left ought to worry more about its own identity and future than that of the EU. Leave and Remain (and the strange bedfellows they create) are both distractions from the much more fundamental problem: one can leave the EU, but one cannot leave capitalism.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship