Wednesday, 3 August 2016

After Brexit

The referendum vote in the U.K. to leave the European Union (EU) forms a coda to the rather pessimistic piece in the last issue of The Thinker. It was the worst possible result; close but decisive revealing deep underlying fissures in British society along several axes. Young against old; richer against poorer; London versus the North; educated against less-educated.  In each category, the first voted much more heavily to Remain than the 48% in the overall vote. In the north of England, Manchester, a multi-cultural city with a huge universities, voted to Remain whilst the surrounding battered once-cotton towns of Lancashire voted heavily to Leave. Scotland and London were the bastions of Remain, pretty much all the rest voted to Leave.

What happened? Perhaps the best explanation can be found by going back to the last referendum Britain had on the EU in 1975 when it was still called the European community. Labour, the party in power, was deeply split over the issue as was the right-wing of the Conservative Party. Even so, the country gave a 67% majority to stay in the EC. In his diary, Ken Tynan, a drama critic, noted:

     6 June: Roy Jenkins [then Home Secretary] interviewed on TV after the result was announced, made an unguarded remark that summed up the tacit elitism of the pro-Marketers. Asked to explain why the public had voted as it had… [he] smugly replied “They took the advice of the people they were used to following”

Last June, a majority of English (and Welsh) people stubbornly refused to accept the advice of just the same  people who had expected to be followed as usual. In a perceptive article in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester explores this refusal and, essentially, concludes that Britain is a country in which one large section, the white working class, feels that it has been abandoned. As he writes:

         To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat - a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.

This group was once politically represented by the Labour Party, an alliance of liberal, metropolitan intellectuals and the working class, and now feels abandoned by it. Lanchester goes on:

              For now, what has happened amounts to a collapse of our political system…The deeper problem is that the referendum has exposed splits in our society which aren’t mapped by the political parties as they are currently constituted…Political parties are the mechanism through which divisions in society are argued over and competing interests are asserted.
             The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved.

So what now with regard to EU exit, something which is now the focus of the political problems outlined by Lanchester? There are essentially three options. 

First, the UK Parliament could simply immediately repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and its later amendments, the founding and, in most respects, the only legal basis for British membership at least so far as the British are concerned. Once this is done, then European law except that which has been transposed into British legislation would no longer be valid and the country would no longer be bound, legally if not morally, by any treaty obligations with the EU. It could then apply whatever border controls it saw fit and cease to provide funds to any institution of the EU.

This is not going to happen. Such immediate and unilateral action would fit the hopes of some extreme ‘exiters’ but would arouse great resentment amongst other EU members and institutions and, possibly, provoke retaliatory action. They demand exit based on the formula of the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 50, which requires:

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

Broadly, this seems to mean that a member-state tells the EU that it wants to go, then, after a great deal of talking, it does whatever is necessary under its own constitutional framework to leave. It also may conclude an agreement with the European Council as to its future relationship though Article 50 remains unclear as to what happens if no agreement is reached after two years of talking  if a country has not withdrawn “in accordance with tis own constitutional requirements” but has also not concluded an agreement. (Health warning: do not try to read Article 218 of the Treaty in the hope of enlightenment if you wish to get to sleep). Presumably membership somehow just lapses like a member of a club who fails to pay their subscription. The fact is that no one is very clear just how a state leaves the EU as the possibility has never been seriously considered before.

The exit-option most often put about is that the UK should remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which is essentially the EU-lite with free trade and some financial contribution but no involvement in environment, agriculture or fisheries policies. The problem with this is that one of the pillars of the EEA is the same free movement of labour as exists within the EU, whilst one of the key reasons for the exit majority was resentment over the volume of EU nationals immigrating into the UK.

The third option is that the UK Government will start talking with various bits of the EU setup, after it notifies it of its intentions under Article 50, and that these talks will drag on for so long that everyone will become tired of the issue and it can be quietly dropped on the pretext that popular opinion has now swung round to the ‘sensible’ side rather than the ill-informed and rather stupid rabble that, in the view of the metropolitan elite, voted to leave. Or a blatantly unacceptable deal will be ‘agreed’, put to another referendum, rejected and this will be taken as a symbol that opinion has shifted against exit.

The Government is publicly  inclined to the second option as it has put some hard-line ‘exiters’ in the front rank of the future negotiations. However, a sign that the third option is still up for grabs is that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will not trigger the Article 50 process by ‘notifying’ the EU until next year. Indeed such is the confusion over just what withdrawal means that no one seems very clear as to just what ‘notify’ actually involves. Perhaps a hand-written letter signed by the Queen or, on the other hand, simply public acceptance of the referendum result. Legal action is already being taken by devoted opponents to require a specific vote in Parliament on triggering Article 50 where there is, in principle, a majority against exit  and it seems likely that this case will be argued all the way to the Supreme Court. Article 50 refers to a country’s ‘own constitutional requirements’ and as the UK has no formal constitution it’s make-hay time for any lawyer who can claim constitutional law expertise. Currently, bookmakers are offering odds as low as 2/1 that Article 50 will not be triggered until after 2018 or even not at all. It might be worth a flutter even at these odds.

The confusion over the whole process mirrors the shambles of the current British political scene. The Conservative Party has managed, temporarily, to patch over its differences as parties in power tend to do by appointing prominent ‘exiters’ to negotiate the possibly impossible task of leaving. However, the centre-left party, Labour, is reducing itself to complete mockery in a leadership contest in which a clearly incompetent incumbent, Corbyn, who gained the support of only 20% of his MPs in a no-confidence vote, will probably defeat an unknown challenger of dubious background, having gained almost god-like status amongst a band of new arrivals to Labour, mostly based in London and, mostly, rather well-off. Genuine long-term leaders of Labour are standing aside hoping to become leader after the Corbyn-led electoral defeat which all assume will happen. However some doubt must exist as to whether Labour will survive at all as a major party after this debacle.

In many respects, the British political train-wreck brings it in line with the political scene throughout Europe. The previous article noted that the pattern of a centre-right/centre-left party structure is collapsing as people lose faith in the old parties. In eastern Europe, which has very little tradition of this kind, there is a disturbing rise of the neo-fascist parties which have, so far, achieved only marginal purchase in western Europe. However, in France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, is dancing with glee at the British vote as she believes it encourages her supporters to push their own dislike of the EU. She will probably not become French President in elections next year, just like Donald Trump surely cannot become US President. Surely not.  But the French President, Hollande, is currently committing suicide by forcing through measures deeply unpopular with his own Socialist party using extra-parliamentary powers in the name of the neoliberal austerity programme imposed by Brussels and the German government. Big fascist gains in the French Assembly seem inevitable. In the Netherlands, Dutch anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, is currently heading opinion polls on the basis of calling for a referendum on leaving the EU if he is elected in March, 2017. Italy and Greece are dying under EU-imposed policies whilst Spain seems unable to even form a government. With an Italian referendum on constitutional reforms due in the autumn, the latest vogue word in Euro-politics, replacing Brexit, is Quitaly, the possibility that Italy will vote to leave the EU. This might happen if the Five Star Movement, led by TV comedian Beppe Grillo, defeats the autumn referendum. Revealingly, the 5SM claims not to be a party but a social movement.

Just why have we reached this parlous state? Zygmunt Bauman, the venerable political scientist has the following answer:

        We could describe what is going on at the moment as a crisis of democracy, the collapse of trust: the belief that our leaders are not just corrupt or stupid, but inept. Action requires power, to be able to do things, and we need politics, which is the ability to decide what needs to be done. But that marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation state has ended. Power has been globalized, but politics is as local as before. Politics has had its hands cut off. People no longer believe in the democratic system because it doesn’t keep its promises. We see this, for example, with the migration crisis: it’s a global phenomenon, but we still act parochially. Our democratic institutions were not designed for dealing with situations of interdependence. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of democratic institutions.

Thus Europeans hear their national leaders say that they will resolve the refugee crisis, stop terrorism, provide more jobs, control the banks, increase economic growth… And then they don’t. As a consequence they turn to parties or social movements disguised as parties which at least hold out the promise of action even though, as with Syriza in Greece, they prove unable to do this. In America, Trump bases his campaign on exactly this self-proclaimed ability to get things done.

In the coming two or three years of wearisome negotiations between Britain and the EU, it is possible that they will become irrelevant as the whole EU structure falls apart. Another Euro crisis, perhaps triggered by the collapse of Italian banks, a blanket refusal by some states to implement even a half-baked refugee resettlement programme, a continuing use of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty against neo-fascist regimes, another anti-EU referendum in the Netherlands, Italy or France; any of these could make British exit a sideshow in the general chaos.

The overall result of the referendum in Britain, whatever happens in the rest of the EU, may well be  some variant of option 3. As Lanchester puts it, “the likeliest outcome, …is a betrayal of the white working class. They should be used to it by now.”  Used to it or not, such a betrayal may spark some far-reaching political consequences.

Yes, this continues to be a pessimistic assessment. We need more than brave Tess Asplund to offer opposition. To continue with news of my local choir, this month we are singing for the return of Joe Hill, the early-twentieth century Swedish-American trade unionist and songwriter framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915. Even that may not be enough.

The link is:

Only for the brave