Sunday, 23 September 2018

Salzburg and the Continuing Rise of Nationalism

Apparently the EU’s reaction was an insult to Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May has track record of not listening however and for being inflexible. From a harsh line on immigration, resulting in the injustice of the Windrush affair, through the 2017 snap election with its unwavering mantra of “strong and stable” and now to the so-called Chequers plan, May has shown that, once set out upon a course, she is incapable of moving from it until it meets an immovably real object. According to the European editor of Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Tony Connelly, this mismatch of expectation led to the debacle of Salzburg. Having trampled over objections within her own party to the plan, Theresa May thought that she could do the same with the EU 27. They, on the other hand, have been consistent and clear: there are options available but they have never included compromising either the customs union or the single market. Either the UK accepts membership of the EEA and with it becomes a rule taker, or a Canada Plus deal with defined, regulated trade but, and this is important, a backstop provision covering the island of Ireland in order to support the Republic of Ireland’s place within the EU. Other than this, there are two further options: leave the EU, with no deal and no trade agreement, or stay. Stay and all this can go away. 

These are the deals on offer folks. Sure, there may be some tinkering around the edges but the twenty-seven nations of the EU have decided to stick together on this. If the UK chooses to leave with no agreement or trade deal in place, it will be painful for all. The pain however will be spread, albeit unevenly, among the EU-27. The focus of the agony however, will be upon the UK. For those British people reading this who, like our Prime Minister, may be detached from reality, that means you and me.

We are told however that sovereignty has a value greater than gold and, like the wolf of Aesop’s Fables, better lean freedom than fat slavery. Except that the UK have never been a slave within the EU and British citizens have certainly never been so. We have never been so free to work and move across the continent and millions of our fellow citizens has taken advantage of this for decades: whether for work, holiday or retirement. The only problem seems to be that this is not a case of British exceptionalism: foreigners(!) are allowed to come to the UK with exactly the same rights. Foreign is being spoken on the streets of Britain and apparently that makes some people feel less British. There is a word for that and it is called xenophobia. 

What has been undoubtedly the case though is that an economic sub-class has been allowed to developed and this has been mobilised by nationalist forces across the continent. This nationalism has varied from place to place but it is the far-right variety that is currently in ascendency. It is most visible in nations like Poland and Hungary, but make no mistake, it is continent-wide: as seen in rising support in Sweden, France, Italy and the UK. The Conservative Party now occupies the territory formally covered by UKIP. The rump of UKIP is effectively merging with the EDL. 

The lesson for this who support the EU is clear: the economic benefits has to be shared as deeply as possible, with no EU citizen being left behind. This is a major challenge but it cannot ever be ignored again. Doubtless this insight will enrage the economic right which are currently driving the rise of nationalism and the attempt to break up the European Union. They want a system of competing economies with weak governments dictated to by strong corporations. Competition between nation states are great for them as long as corporations are free to invest in the best opportunity. As far as the various populations are concerned, it will be a race to the bottom. This is the reality of the lean freedom on offer. The EU, for all its faults, is designed to benefit its citizens through the provision of a regulated marketplace. It is these regulations that the economic right wish to destroy and nationalism is their chosen weapon; regardless of who suffers. In fact, for the extreme right, suffering is the natural order of things. A citizen may have to suffer for the sake of the nation but a strong nation ultimately will export its suffering on to other, weaker nations. This is where the far right and the free markets merge in interest except the social Darwinism of the far right will be cheated by the more powerful corporations. The nation-state will forever be weak. It is divide and rule.

How do we avoid this grim prospect? First of all, Britain has to get through this current crisis. It will not be easy. The supporters of the economic right are on the verge of victory. All this have to do is keep May in power and limp her across the finishing post at the 29thof March, 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. They would prefer a no-deal exit. Billions can be made in a crash, primarily by betting against currency values but also by being ready to buy up devalued property. It is the opportunity that the billionaire backers of Brexit are waiting for. The majority of the press are on their side: insult to Britain, EU Gangsters, May’s Finest Hour, to paraphrase just a few of their headlines.

The Labour leadership has so far been backing Brexit. One can only conclude that Jeremy Corbyn is following the Marxist analysis that capitalism has to become intolerable before the masses to rise up and overthrow the system through revolution. I don’t know if the majority of Labour supporters share the leadership’s Marxism. If they don’t, they have to offer a final referendum on EU membership asking the British people are they sure this is what we want. As a party, they also have to come out as firm supporters of the EU. It was lack of Labour leadership on the issue that, in part, led to the defeat in 2016. 

The SNP has to come off the fence on this too. Many of their supporters have calculated that the UK leaving the EU will lead to an increased chance of a second Scottish independence referendum and a far-right England will lead to a Yes vote finally succeeding. That might be so but, the main problem is that Scotland’s largest neighbour and trading partner will then be a far-right monster! That is really kind of important guys and regardless of one’s aspirations, it is something that no sane person can wish for. Get off the fence and actively support a People’s Vote. 

As for my own party, the Liberal Democrats, we have been knocked into the wings of late but we are still here. If there is an election within the next year our message has to be simple: we will refuse Brexit. No Peoples Vote: a majority Lib Dem government would simply note that the 2016 referendum was advisory under law and a majority government would have a mandate to block it. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stay in the EU. If we remain a minority party after the next election, then yes, we still support a People’s Vote. 
Yes, we have many other good policies and it is right we shall talk about them as well. Brexit is the elephant in the room that everybody has to be talking about for now. 

Beyond party politics however, Brexit is the most important thing facing the United Kingdom. It has to be stopped: the alternative is too horrible to contemplate but it is almost upon us. 

UPDATE: 24th of September, 2018. On BBC's Today Programme, shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirms that any People's Vote offered by Labour would not include a option to remain in the EU. This effectively renders any further referendum being worthless. 

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