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Corbyn, Brexit and the nature of the European beast

Do British politicians have any idea about what the EU entails? Ewald Engelen doubts it. Conservatives are opposed to the EU, despite its free market policies. Labour is in favour, but doesn’t seem to realise that the EU has weakened the bargaining power of workers. The UK is headed for a political battle based on grave misconceptions.

Last Monday, Mr Cameron tried to sell his "new settlement" with the EU to the members of the House of Commons. The website of The Guardian provided live coverage of the debate, which, to a continental outsider, closely mimicked the mores posh debating clubs that Evelyn Waugh used to portray in his novels.

But that's beside the point here. I would instead want to draw attention to Mr Corbyn’s intervention, which turned the political stance regarding the EU of the left and the right, by a full 180 degrees compared with what one would expect on the continent. This raises the question to what extent politicians in the UK have really understood the nature of the beast. I reckon they have not. For if they had, the conservatives would be fully in favour of the creation of a European market, and labour were to reject that very same Europe emphatically. But Mr Corbyn sounded in his speech like your average social liberal "europhile", as they're known on the continent, with Mr Guy Verhofstadt, chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, as its best known (and most hated) incarnation.

Underneath you’ll find a bit of close reading of sections of Mr Corbyn’s House of Commons speech from last Monday to back that up.

'The Labour party and the trade union movement are overwhelmingly for staying in, because we believe that the EU has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and environment and we are convinced that a vote to remain is in the best interests of the people...'


In my humble opinion, it is sort of self-defeating for a critic of globalised, financialised capitalism, which I take Mr Corbyn to be, to use such a statement as an opening gambit. It reminds me very much of a statement of a Dutch senator of the Green Left Party about "globalisation just being a given". You give the whole political game away if that is your starting point. Since the EU is predominantly about the Common Market and its four freedoms of movement (of labour, capital, goods and services), it has been responsible for a huge shift in bargaining power between capital and labour, benefiting the former and harming the latter. The Common Market has resulted in a geographical redistribution of corporate functions. This in in turn has eroded national tax bases due to tax evasion, harmed the middle classes by shifting manufacturing jobs to low wage jurisdictions and in the process inflated income inequalities. This resulted in huge macroeconomic imbalances, both within the EU as a whole (surpluses and deficits) and within member states individually (debt driven versus export led growth).

The EU erodes what democracy is all about: equal political voice rights for all citizens and full accountability of representatives

As mainstream social scientists, such as Wolfgang Streeck and Fritz Scharpf have emphasized for decades, due to asymmetries in EU decision making processes "negative integration" (ie the harmonisation of market rules through deregulation, liberalisation, flexibilisation and privatisation) almost always takes precedence over "positive integration" (ie the introduction of protective social measures at the EU level). Moreover, there is now an extensive academic literature on how the democratic deficit at the heart of the European institutions has created a democratic vacuum that has been skillfully filled by corporate lobbyists, which have turned Brussels into a lobby heaven that is comparable only to Washington in terms size and effect. The EU erodes what democracy is all about: equal political voice rights for all citizens and full accountability of representatives.


It is beyond me why someone like Mr Corbyn is unable to see the EU for what it is, namely a political machine for the furthering of corporate interests and the disempowerment of citizens. And it is silly to parade some cosmetic EU regulation on the "protection of workers, consumers and the environment", as Mr Corbyn does, as sufficient compensation for the extreme loss of power workers and citizens have experienced as a result of European integration. Rather, these measures logically follow from the four freedoms that are at the heart of the Common Market and should be seen for what they are: rules to further the mercantile project that is at the heart of modern Europe. No more, nor less.

Here it is interesting to contrast Mr Corbyn’s endorsement of European micro regulation with Mr Johnsons rejection of it. In a piece that was published yesterday in The Telegraph in which Mr Johnson explained his motives for backing Brexit, he identified two Europe's. The Europe of the Common Market, which is the good, neoliberal Europe. And the Europe of meddling busy bees, which is the bad Europe that is only producing red tape, stands in the way of competitiveness and entrepreneurialism and which should hence be rejected. Just as Mr Johnson fails to see that micro market regulation is the logical outcome of the four freedoms of the Common Market, so Mr Corbyn fails to acknowledge that his endorsement of micro market regulation ("protection for workers, consumers and environment") means that he swallows the Common Market project lock, stock and barrel.

Moreover, you would expect someone like Mr Corbyn to be aware that these regulations are pushed through by a bullwark of neoliberalism, namely the European Court of Justice, which is beyond any democratic control. As the secretary of justice, Mr Gove, wrote a couple of days earlier in a blog post in which he explained his decision to back a Brexit:

'It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU but the experience of Government has only deepened my conviction that we need change. Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’. I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.'


Language of the true left

This is the sort of language that we on the continent would have expected from the true left of, let's say, the Socialist Party from the Netherlands, Die Linke from Germany, Syriza from Greece or Podemos from Spain. Not from a high ranking member of the British Conservative Party. For on the continent this has been the experience since the outbreak of the euro crisis. A severe loss of sovereignty under the so-called "excessive deficit procedure" of the European Commission, which abuses its unelected powers to push through an agenda of market deregulation euphemistically called "structural reform". Instead, British progressives get a labour leader who voices herbivore endorsements of EU neoliberalism. 

Mr Corbyn next sentence is typical for the final line of defense against euroskepticism:

'In the 21st Century as a country and as a continent and indeed as a human race we face some challenging issues – how to tackle climate change, how to address the power of global corporations, how to ensure they pay fair taxes, how to tackle cyber crime and terrorism, how we trade fairly and protect jobs and pay in an era of globalisation, how we address the causes of the huge refugee movements across the world, how we adapt to a world where people of all countries move more frequently to live, work and retire. All of these issues are serious, pressing and self evidently can only be solved by international cooperation.'

Since the issues we face – climate change, corporate power abuses, tax evasion, crime and terrorism, fair trade, refugees – exceed the boundaries of any nation state, supranational cooperation is the only way to solve them. Again it is a line that puts Mr Corbyn squarely within the camp of Mr Verhofstadt and the other social liberals of that ilk. Not only that, it of course contains the same intellectual slippage that the Verhofstadt's of this world so skillfully employ.

On many of the issues Mr Corbyn cares so much about, the EU is blocking progress rather than facilitating it

For while it may be true that at least some of these issues require supranational political cooperation, it doesn't follow that it requires a regional body like the EU. Take climate change. It is not hard to imagine a world without the EU where a similar deal like the Paris agreement on climate change would have been struck just as easily. Moreover, on many of the issues Mr Corbyn cares so much about, the EU is blocking progress rather than facilitating it.

Tax evasion is a case in point. Member states like Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands, which are the largest beneficiaries of the current international tax landscape, have for decades now abused their veto right to block any initiative to tackle tax base erosion at a European level. In short, the EU is not a solution to the collective action problems thrown up by an international Hobbesian world, as Mr Corbyn seems to think, but boils down to the constitutionalisation of collective deadlock, especially on issues that matter most to the large corporate interests that have become the most important constituency for the politicians that occupy European seats of power. Again, the EU is designed to bulldozer over national restrictions on capital movement ("negative integration") while simultaneously constraining any political initiative to construct similar kinds of restrictions at the European level (no "positive integration").

Wake up call

Hence there is nothing "self evident" about the EU as solver of international problems. The rhetoric of self evidence suggests that Mr Corbyn either lacks real arguments or is subject to a similar kind of quasi-religious identification of European integration with progress that characterizes the political establishment on the continent. Everything that is presented as "self evident", is automatically immune to serious public debate. Again, it is a political strategy that comes straight from the rule book of continental "europhiles". It surprises me to see Mr Corbyn in that camp.

The quote concludes with:

'The European Union will be a vital part of how we as a country meet those challenges, therefore it’s more than disappointing that the prime minister’s deal has failed to address a single one of those issues. The reality is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent, neither has it been about the issues facing the people of Britain, indeed it’s been a theatrical sideshow about trying to appease, or failing to appease, half of the prime minister’s own Conservative party.'

This may well be a correct reading of Cameron’s political play. But as a conclusion it is extremely superficial. The EU is seen as the solution to "the challenges facing our continent", in the light of the highly slanted reading of those challenges Mr Corbyn has given.

For a truly progressive take on the EU would immediately have recognised that the EU itself is the cause of many of these challenges. Tax evasion, privatisation of utilities, precariatisation of labour, disempowerment of citiziens to name but a few. From a continental perspective one can only wonder why Labour keeps on so misreading the nature of the European beast. Mr Corbyn and  his team would be well advised to reconsider and shift their support from the "inners" to the "outers". For one, it would make for a welcome wake up call for continental European elites that the EU increasingly stands in between citizens on the one hand and democracy and prosperity on the other.