Tory Brexiteer and austerity architect Iain Duncan Smith argued somewhat incongruously that “the ball will be in the EU’s court” to avert a no-deal Brexit if they refuse to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement following 18 months of negotiations. This line is advanced by those intent on fashioning a Brexit which benefits a niche of international capital associated with the Tory party, while the costs are inflicted on the masses, particularly on those for whom Brexit introduces a new precarity in their residence and employment. Aside from the rank amorality of this argument, there is an unchallenged tendency for Brexiteers to present the Article 50 process as a ball-game, whereas their European counterparts have been playing chess.
The fact that the current stalemate in Parliament renders a no-deal Brexit - or some Frankenstein’s monster variation of May’s deal - more likely with each day should bring an urgent focus on Labour’s internal turmoil over its Brexit strategy. Forlorn calls for a second referendum are resonating in Europe as an unworkable period of limbo, followed by the amplified tumult of another referendum.
Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn’s most recent move - proposing to assist Theresa May in getting a softer Brexit deal through Parliament as she failed to reopen negotiations in Brussels - was an excellent one. It brought into sharp focus May’s hopelessness in satisfying her divided party. In any normal scenario this paralysed government would be under irresistible pressure to resign and call an election.
Instead, the end-game is fast arriving and Labour’s strategy for it, hitherto skilfully veiled, will necessarily be denuded as the final moves play out. The reality of unprincipled splits raises the stakes and plays into the dynamic of when, rather than if, an early general election will be called. At the moment, Labour runs the risk of being seen to facilitate May’s Brexit to benefit from the turmoil it will inevitably produce, resulting in a General Election it can win on a socialist programme. Yet the fallout from a Tory - but, frankly, any - Brexit would be a potentially insurmountable obstacle to realising any of it.
A “remain and reform” approach offers higher returns, and if communicated adroitly, could address working-class Leave voters’ concerns in a way Brexit simply cannot. Brexit is only one of several major crises impacting on an EU still determined to apply neoliberal ‘orthodoxy’ as a cure-all. Ironically, together with the impending departure of Juncker and others, this leaves the EU more open to serious reform than at any point since before Maastricht. It would take a major member state with a socialist government and some allies to put a social Europe back on the agenda, and reverse the gains made by the ascendant right who regard Brexit as a fantastic opportunity to advance nationalist policy across the EU.
Serious consideration should therefore be given to Labour rejecting both May’s deal and no-deal, putting a radical and achievable programme for reform in Europe as part of a manifesto for a general election before Brexit takes effect. It should explicitly argue for a new Treaty to replace Lisbon, by:
1. Introducing a Social Directive with binding principles on the welfare state, working conditions and access to health and other social services.
2. Reforming state aid to permit state-directed investment in industrial innovation for social ends and reforming procurement directives to reverse outsourcing of public services and contracts.
3. In the eurozone, removing the “fiscal discipline” ideology so that public spending doesn’t become the first victim in financial crises. Removing monetary policy from the European Central Bank to a democratic monetary policy committee, modelled on the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
4. Serious institutional overhaul that puts the European Parliament on a par with the EU Council, with the Commission below, and regulating lobbying through the creation of an official lobbying institution as the only permissible way for industry to lobby the EU institutions. Expanding the reach of the EESC, Committee of the Regions and other lobbying institutions to provide routes for trade unions and other groups to lobby with comparable impact to industry.
5. Removing foreign and security policy competence from the EU, repurposing the European External Action Service and the European Border and Coastguard Agency for humanitarian assistance.
The attractiveness of these points to other EU member states, even those with right-wing populist governments, is underestimated. A Labour government could reverse the traditional British role in European politics from wreckers to builders of a new consensus that offers a progressive way out of decades of neoliberalism.
The problem of framing this approach domestically in the UK is one of communication rather than of substance - left Euroscepticism has always been about a rejection of neoliberalism. Here’s Labour’s chance to wipe it off the board.