What’s Brexit got to do with it?

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Slovenian philosopher and commentator Slavoj Žižek advocates improved healthcare, educational standards and wage rates across Europe

by Colin Fox, SSP national co-spokesperson • There is a temptation to dismiss the Brexit debate as tedious and irrelevant to the real priorities facing working people in Britain today.

But the issues are far reaching for British capitalism and its place in the world. Both sides of these negotiations, the Tory Government and the European Union, will feed working people to the neoliberal lions.

The Tories are said to be seeking a ‘bespoke Brexit’ deal where they reach an agreement with the EU that no other country has secured. But there are deep divisions in their ranks about how much they should concede to gain such an outcome.

Tory Leavers are angry because they feel they are being denied their Referendum victory. Remainers meanwhile fear departure will mean the loss of economic prosperity and international isolation.

Both sides are desperately jockeying for position and seeking to maximise the pressure they can exert on Theresa May.

Many people wonder what Britain will look like outside the EU. The fact is no one knows. There are so many variables and unresolved political compromises.

On the Irish Border question for example no one wants customs posts, passport controls or tariffs.

The problem is the Republic will be in the EU and Northern Ireland outside and to maintain the status quo a common trade deal will need to be signed and common immigration arrangements agreed neither of which can be achieved unless under existing EU rules. The Tories simply cannot sign up to those rules.

Equally, the only way British capitalism can secure tariff free trade with the EU, its biggest market, is by agreeing to the free movement of labour and accepting European Court of Justice arbitration.

This is again something May has already ruled out as it does not represent ‘taking back control’.

A customs union between Britain and the EU means no one can sign any separate trade deals with nations outside the EU. It must accept the common external border of the EU.

This restriction is also deemed politically unacceptable to those who voted to Leave the EU in 2016. One thing is clear however, working people have no ‘team on the park’ here—no one playing for them.

We can expect both sides therefore to attack our interests with further casualisation, further wage cuts, further privatisation and further deterioration in vital public services, widening inequalities, further restriction on trade unions and collective bargaining all supported by Leavers and Remainers alike.

So what should socialists be demanding whilst these negotiations over markets, trade, tariffs and existing EU regulations are ongoing? Wait for a Labour Government? No. Done that, bought the t-shirt.

Labour is as deeply split over Europe as the Tories. Corbyn’s message this week that the EU is “not the root of all our problems” nor “the source of all enlightenment” attempted to bring some sense to this debate.

But he added “The truth is more down to earth and in our hands,” which might be more wishful thinking on his part than anything else.

Labour is opposed to the ‘EU Customs Union’ but favours a ‘customs union’ aligning Britain with arrangements close to the existing ones.

EU President Donald Tusk insists this plan will not be acceptable to them. And Labour voters in the Midlands, Wales and the north of England who voted overwhelmingly for Brexit see it as a betrayal of their wishes in 2016.

Rather than wait for a Labour government, Slovenian philosopher and commentator Slavoj Žižek suggests in his book The Courage of Hopelessness that the Left should challenge the free trade ideologues on both sides of these negotiations by pressing for internationally binding agreements that restrict the power of finance capital [introducing the Tobin tax on stock market transaction and uniform corporation tax rates] whilst extending international solidarity between people not capital.

He further suggests adopting German penalties for all those companies who close plants and outsource production to cheap labour locations.

He also advocates improved healthcare, educational standards and wage rates across Europe as well as enhanced protection for minorities and migrant labour. All this stands in contrast to the ‘direction of travel’ of all the recent EU Treaties.

Wisely, Žižek is under no illusion about the size of the challenge here nor the forces of neoliberalism lined up against such a programme, nor the likelihood of success in the short term. But he argues it is a far more progressive political position to adopt than tail-ending the competing sections of the European corporate classes.

It remains to be seen what comes of his proposals or similar ones from the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his Diem25 movement.

Meantime, don’t expect all the Brexit manifestations to disappear from our news headlines anytime soon.

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