European Union, Opinion

Pehe: For a more ambitious Brexit debate

Leaving the EU or staying in a dysfunctional institution is not an inspiring choice. But the Brexit debate can be about much more than immigrants’ benefits.

It may have looked like a premature April Fools’ joke when The Guardian reported that a call-centre campaign advocating Britain’s exit from the EU employed migrant workers, including a man from Slovakia. In the Brexit debate, which has largely focused on EU immigration, this piece of news lends itself to all manner of ironic scenarios. Perhaps the man or woman receiving a call from said campaign would be relieved that after Britain leaves the EU, they will no longer have to encounter as many people with the same East European accent as that of the caller, though hopefully they would refrain from telling the call centre employee directly. Joking aside, the official Brexit campaign is of course not questioning the right of Slovaks, Poles, or Spaniards working in the UK to remain after 23 June should the UK vote to leave, even if misguided voters may sometimes see it as such. But as Szilárd Pap pointed out, plans for the UK’s exit from the EU do constitute an attack on foreign workers. What is essentially a domestic British problem – the issue that a certain number of EU nationals are claiming money from the UK state rather than contributing to the budget through taxes – is being used as one of the major reasons for offering a disproportionate solution: leaving the EU. Indeed, it is a number of internal British problems, including the issues of immigration control and benefits, that have structured the debate, alongside terminologically confused discussions of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’. David Cameron’s need to settle divergent positions on the EU within the Conservative party is being off-loaded onto the whole country via the referendum; domestic politics is being resolved in the international arena and putting the EU’s future at risk as a result.

The problem with the Brexit debate is that it is being carried out almost entirely in the negative.

As Yanis Varoufakis remarked while addressing a public gathering in the British Houses of Parliament in February, Cameron is advocating the right thing for the wrong reasons. But Cameron’s efforts to negotiate divisions within his own party and to keep Ukip at bay by portraying himself as an EU reformist have fallen flat. While the Prime Minister’s stance is that Britain should stay in the EU, his attempts at renegotiating British membership hardly inspire confidence in remaining in an institution which he obviously supports very half-heartedly. Staying in the EU on Cameron’s terms is not a stimulating prospect: for those who support EU membership, if the options are framed as either leaving or remaining in an institution that doesn’t work, what kind of choice is that? And what kind of emancipatory politics can come from such a discussion?

The problem with the Brexit debate is that it is being carried out almost entirely in the negative. This is where the British Left seems to have missed an opportunity. In particular, one may ask: where is Labour in this debate and why have they not taken a more unequivocal stance? Conservative Eurosceptic arguments are invariably founded on invoking nostalgically-tinted images of national greatness or refer to the idea of nation states governing themselves as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’. It is not too difficult to refute such faulty logic with sound reasoning and an alternative vision, yet the British Labour Party have been quite helpless faced with the question of their support for the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing EU critic, sat on the fence for quite some time before eventually coming out in lukewarm support of the In campaign. Labour MP Gisela Stuart has teamed up with Conservative justice secretary Michael Gove to head the Vote Leave campaign and opinions within Labour remain split. Parts of the Labour Party have consistently been wary of the EU as an instrument of neoliberalism which has impacted predomintantly those communities in post-industrial regions in the UK whose interests Labour has traditionally championed. Yet it is also extremely naïve to think that Britain on its own, outside of EU structures, will be better positioned to, for instance, effectively negotiate TTIP and fight for more social justice. And so as it is, Labour is more or less reluctantly supporting the status quo of remaining in an EU that it does not fully endorse.

Yet it is the Left, and Labour in particular, which has the chance to reset the terms of the debate to give the In option much more positive content. Varoufakis’s new DiEM 25 – Democracy in Europe Movement recognizes that as it is, the EU does not work. The solution is not however to resign and protectively shield national interests, but to democratize the European Union. Indeed, those in Britain campaigning to stay in the EU would do well to listen to Varoufakis’s appeal and use the referendum as a chance to start discussing real options of how to transform the EU for the better – as the Guardian’s Owen Jones, until recently a Brexit supporter, has pointed out. DiEM may still appear marginal and will have to work hard to be taken seriously, but there are groups in Britain who have been receptive to its message. Efforts such as the Good Europe campaign, organized by the Compass think thank, recognize that the referendum is an opportunity to imagine a more ambitious and positive vision for Europe’s future. Like DiEM, Good Europe is a non-partisan effort with cross-party appeal, which has been actively supported by figures such as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party. Labour’s hesitant attitude could seek inspiration from Lucas, who has grasped how to discuss Europe as a place to realize aspirations for democracy, equality, and sustainability rather than as an obstruction to sovereignty.

[easy-tweet tweet=”If framed differently, the Brexit debate could become a mobilizing force for democratizing the EU. “]

The EU as a union of nation states bickering over who can carve out the most for their own national interests while ceding as little as possible to Europe is hardly a rallying force. The Left has a chance to seize upon the referendum as an opening to not only defend an unsatisfactory status quo, but to demand the EU’s transformation. The Brexit debate can be about so much more than budgetary savings on immigration benefits. Instead of myopic and insular aspirations focused on questions of national interest, what is needed is a greater commitment to internationalism and the courage to imagine the EU as an entity in its own right that can secure better labour rights, environmental protection, and ensure a functioning level of public services much more effectively than any single nation state on its own. If framed differently, the Brexit debate could become a mobilizing force for democratizing the EU.





Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at