The ‘Brexit’ game has begun, and with it what look like being months of deception, delusion and demagoguery. Elections in the UK (and most places, it seems) are generally characterised by bile and bilge but this referendum looks like being one of the very worst if the first few days are anything to go by. Much of the bilge has come from the usual suspects, but what is disappointing to me is how many people on the left seem to be subscribing to a mixture of straw men and pipe dreams. Brexit isn’t an escape from the evil corporate lobbyists and unaccountable courts: it’s all but certain to hand over even more of our lives to the worst of those people.
Some people, particularly on the left, seem to think that Brexit is a way to save us from the ravages of the TTIP (the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’. Now the TTIP is deeply worrying – and is something people on the left should indeed be deeply concerned about. It’s a ‘free trade’ agreement – freeing up trade largely so that big corporations are less fettered by government ‘interference’ – that has been negotiated largely in secret, through the lobbying of those large corporations. Effectively, it could give those corporations mechanisms to override and avoid national laws – in ways that could damage workers’ rights, the environment, local businesses and employment and much more. It might help force the sell off of the NHS – at least that’s one of the fears. So yes, it’s a bit of a nightmare for people – in fact more than a bit of a nightmare.
And yet the idea that going for Brexit would help us avoid its impact is close to ludicrous. One of the key arguments made by Brexiters is that we’ll be able to negotiate our own trade deals. But what kind of deals? The only thing that those people behind Brexit – Grayling, IDS etc – might not like about TTIP is that it doesn’t go far enough. These are the people who actually ARE trying to sell off the NHS, to reduce workers’ rights, to stop the ‘green crap’. These are the people who have cosy meetings with exactly those corporations in whose benefit TTIP is drafted. These are the people who do cosy tax deals with Google, who have secret meetings with the lobbyists. They’re the people who go to Brussels to fight to stop the EU from restricting bankers’ bonuses. They’re the people fighting for the copyright lobbyists etc etc etc.
So yes, we might not have TTIP – though even that’s not clear – but we’ll almost certainly have something even worse. Even more favourable to the lobbyists. How much ‘democratic’ say have we had in our trade deals with Saudi Arabia? With China? How transparent have the negotiations with those two been? What are the terms? Do we even know?
History has shown that the only people to effectively fight against these deals within Europe are the European Parliament. It was the European Parliament who scuppered ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) with which TTIP has parallels, in 2012 – and they’re our last best hope against TTIP. Not the UK government, who would bend over backwards in favour of TTIP…. So if you want to fight TTIP, you need to stay in the EU and work hard on the European Parliament. Incidentally, that’s a little bit of democracy….
That European Court…
The idea of an overreaching ‘European Court’ interfering with British Justice has been mentioned more than once – even Boris Johnson talked of it in passing – but without either details or seemingly any understanding. When asked how and when it interferes, a couple of things seem to be at the tip of Brexiters’ tongues: prisoners’ votes and stopping us deporting terrorists. Aside from the fact that none of those judgments actually said what people seem to think they said, those cases are from the European Court of Human Rights (the ‘ECtHR) at Strasbourg, which is nothing to do with the European Union. The court that is to do with the European Union is the Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’ – but often referred to as the European Court of Justice or ‘ECJ’) in Luxembourg. Strasbourg, Luxembourg, both Bourgs, so I suppose they seem the same, but they’re really very, very different.
There are reasons to be sceptical about some of the rulings but the CJEU has tended to help, not hinder, the people against precisely those groups that ‘lefties’ in particular would like to oppose. It was the CJEU that struck down the Data Retention Directive that effectively enabled mass surveillance in Europe. It was the CJEU that invalidated the ‘Safe Harbor’ agreement (in the Max Schrems case) fighting for people in the face of both big corporations (in this case Facebook et al) and governmental authorities. That’s what the ‘fundamental rights’ that Boris Johnson derided and Brexit would be likely to shrink really mean, just as the ‘red tape’ that Brexit promises to cut is likely to mean workers’ rights, environmental protection and so forth.
But we can vote them out…
The ‘sovereignty’ argument, for many, seems to rest upon the idea that though the current UK government are hideous, at least we can vote them out. It’s a nice idea – indeed, it’s the basis of our democracy – but in this case it’s part phantom part fantasy. Voting for Brexit won’t turn the UK into a socialist paradise. The voters of the UK won’t suddenly see the light and realise that they really want to vote for left wing parties and left wing policies. Whether you think it’s because Jeremy Corbyn is ‘unelectable’, because the ‘electable’ part of the Labour Party is still as useless and anaemic as it was in the leadership contest, because of the constant stream of sniping and undermining from ‘mainstream’ Labour MPs and endless newspaper and magazine columnists, Labour is not riding high in the polls, and shows no sign of doing so.
Add to the equation border changes, funding changes and new lobbying laws and the chances of a left wing government in the near future are even lower. Unless something very radical happens we’re not going to have a Corbyn triumph in 2020 – and to put your faith in such a thing happening is dangerous to say the least. And yet that’s what the ‘left wing case for Brexit’ essentially does. What’s far more likely with Brexit is that an even more right-wing Tory government will come in, and with even fewer restrictions on their actions will destroy even more of what is left of our welfare state, our NHS, all those things about Britain that those on the left like. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling are amongst the most enthusiastic Brexiters. Win the vote and you’re giving them what they want.
So yes, we can vote them out – but the chances of us doing so before 2025 at the earliest are sadly small, and the amount of irreparable damage that can have been done before the is immense.
None of this is to suggest that the EU is a ‘good’ thing in absolute terms. What the Troika did with Greece is unforgivable. The continued embrace of austerity, the influence of the lobbyists and so forth are all hideous – but we shouldn’t let that blind us to the short and medium term effects of Brexit. It should also be remembered that for rich people – including the vast majority of politicians – this is all a bit of a game. Whatever happens they’ll be OK. They’ll make money if we stay and make money if we leave. There are profits to be made whatever happens, and they’ll find ways to make them. That’s why they can play games with highfalutin principles, claims about sovereignty and so forth. For the rest of us, though, this could have a much more real effect. That matters.