Brexit and the British Left – a debate between Joseph Choonara and Pete Green

Great Britain is preparing to vote on leaving the EU (Brexit). This has provoked a significant discussion inside the British Left. We talked to 2 leading figures about what how British socialists should respond to the referendum.

hqdefaultJoseph Choonara is a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in Great Britain and the author of a new pamphlet “The EU: A Left Case for Exit”.


IMG_1324Pete Green is economist and was until recently one of the national speakers of Left Unity.



On Monday 28th March at 7pm, the LINKE Berlin LAG Internationals is organising a Stammtisch (informal discussion) with Joseph on Brexit in the Coop Anti-War Café, Rochstraße 3 (near U-Bahn Alexanderplatz and Weinmeisterstraße or S-Bahn Alexanderplatz and Häckescher Hof).


Why has David Cameron called a referendum on British exit from the EU (Brexit) now?

JC: In the run-up to the 2015 general election Cameron succumbed to pressure from his backbench Tory MPs and pledged in his manifesto to hold an in-out referendum on Europe. Having won the election, he was committed to call the referendum before the end of 2017. Once he concluded his negotiations with other EU leaders — which secured a few mostly cosmetic changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU — he clearly felt it was better to hold this earlier rather than later.

Cameron presides over a bitterly divided party. So far 110 Tory MPs have declared that they will campaign to leave the EU, while 128 have pledged to support Cameron’s “stay” position. Those campaigning to leave include six cabinet ministers and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and a potential successor as Tory leader.

PG: As Jeremy Corbyn said recently, this is all about managing the long-running split within the Conservative party between the Eurosceptics and supporters of remaining in the EU. Cameron promised a renegotiation to be followed by a referendum in the campaign for the 2015 election in the hope of diminishing the appeal of the UK Independence Party. As an electoral strategy that worked, but of course UKIP and the Tory right can now argue that the renegotiation delivered very little other than a few changes to migrants’ entitlement to benefits in their first four years in Britain.

As a result the debate over Brexit in the mainstream media has focused almost entirely on the question of reducing migration, especially from Eastern Europe. This makes the political context very different from that of 1975 when the Labour left led by Tony Benn were the dominant force in the campaign against staying in the EU and almost all the mainstream press supported a yes vote. Today the left nationalist critique of the EU is getting very little attention and George Galloway, who claims to be the true heir of Tony Benn, has resorted to standing on the same platform as Nigel Farage of UKIP.

Victory for the No camp in 1975 would have been a victory for the forces inside the Labour government of the time arguing for an alternative economic strategy and a rejection of cuts in public spending. That’s why I voted No at the time. In 2015 Brexit would be a triumph for the Tory right and UKIP and usher in a further shift to the right in British politics as the minimal protections for workers provided by EU legislation are dismantled and tight controls imposed on migration from the rest of Europe. Instead of fortress Europe we would have fortress Britain except of course for the rich and workers in the financial sector of the City of London. That’s why I will certainly be voting to remain this time despite agreeing with all the criticisms of the undemocratic structure and neoliberal direction of the European Union.

JC: Divisions over Europe have long plagued the Conservative Party. In 1990 pro-European MPs were able to drive out Margaret Thatcher, already fatally weakened by the revolt over the unpopular “poll tax” that she had introduced. Her more pro-European successor, John Major, found his government paralysed by splits over Europe. These divisions have continued and the dysfunctionality of the EU, the debt crisis, the refugee crisis and the rise of the right-wing UK Independence Party have all added to turmoil.

However, the capitalist class in Britain is today, in general, strongly in favour of EU membership. There are exceptions—smaller capitalists who do not trade widely in Europe and who resent the burden of EU membership; Hedge Fund managers who fear possible EU financial legislation and whose scope of operations extends beyond the EU. But the core of the capitalist class prefers to have access to the common market and, in the case of the financial sector, benefits from the position of the City of London on the edge of the EU but outside the Eurozone. Most global financial firms have their European headquarters in London.

There is a certain sense of panic in ruling class circles about the potential for Britain to leave the EU and an even more intense crisis afflicting the Conservative Party.


How has the British left responded?

PG: The left is divided but the balance is very different from 1975.  A large majority of Labour party and Green party members, especially among the young, are supporting a vote to remain. There is a very interesting, and to my mind very welcome, spirit of internationalism among the newer members who voted for Corbyn which has helped persuade Corbyn himself to support EU membership at this point despite his earlier doubts. Predictably representatives of the Labour right in the Remain camp, such as Alan Johnson and Lord Mandelson, have simply echoed the Cameron line that being in the EU is good for business and welcomed the proposed restrictions on benefits for new migrants.

Fortunately John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), along with Caroline Lucas of the Greens, Left Unity and others on the Labour left have announced their support for the Another Europe is Possible campaign. This shares the criticisms of the EU made by parties on the European Left and in particular opposes the appalling position taken by Cameron’s government on the refugee crisis and the threat of further restrictions on migrant rights in Britain.  McDonnell declared this week “The Tories want a Europe of austerity, inequality and runaway corporate power. I want a Europe of solidarity, workers rights and environmental justice.” I agree with that.

JC: The British left is divided over the question of EU membership. In an earlier referendum in 1975 the social democratic left strongly opposed membership. However, during the dark days of Thatcherism in the 1980s sections of the union movement and Labour Party developed extraordinary illusions in the notion of a “social Europe”, promoted by Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission.

Today there is a revived left within the Labour Party as a result of last year’s campaign to elect left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party. Corbyn is far from enthusiastic about the EU and, during his campaign he said that Cameron could not expect automatic backing from Labour. However, despite his strong support from the large numbers of people who have joined the Labour Party, within parliament itself he is embattled. He was quickly forced to drop his position and pledge to support continued British membership of the EU. Many of the young people drawn into Labour will, in the absence of any opposition from Corbyn, probably instinctively support EU membership too.

PG:  Some of the groups on the far left of British politics are calling for a vote to leave using arguments which echo those deployed in 1975 without acknowledging that the political context and balance of class forces is very different. A common argument refers to what happened in Greece last year with the Syriza government which was forced to capitulate, under pressure from other EU governments and the infamous troika, and had to abandon its resistance to further cuts and privatisations etc. Everything they say about that disaster, and what it revealed about the undemocratic character of EU institutions such as the European Central Bank, is correct.  But the Greek government under Tsipras was trapped by its own commitment to staying in the Eurozone and the single currency. That obviously does not apply to Britain.

A recent editorial in the Socialist Worker argued that because the Tory party is in crisis Labour shouldn’t be helping Cameron to win the referendum. But even if Cameron resigned as a result of losing (which is by no means certain) this would simply result in replacement by an equally nasty rightwing figure such as George Osborne or even Boris Johnson, who has now positioned himself as spokesman for the Brexit campaign in typically opportunistic fashion. The SW position that a Brexit could bring down the government, and that the labour movement would then successfully defend the rights of EU workers to remain in Britain, is simply wishful thinking.

JC: The big unions will take a similar position to Labour, and the Green Party and Scottish Nationalists, who are widely regarded as left-of-centre, will campaign strongly in favour of the EU.

Others on the left will campaign to leave, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). However, here there are also divisions. Given the xenophobic nature of many of the dominant voices for an exit, there are two “red lines” that ought not to be crossed in campaigning against the EU. The first is that the left should not share platforms with the mainstream leave campaigns, which are led by the right. The second is that the left has to avoid, and indeed firmly reject, the racist arguments sometimes advanced by those opposed to the EU. For example, there has, in the past, been talk about migrants from the EU driving down wages through “social dumping”. The left should have no truck with such arguments.

Unfortunately, George Galloway has already made the mistake of joining Nigel Farage on a platform, comparing it to the alliance between Stalin and Churchill during the Second World War. Some of the minority of anti-EU Labour MPs will take a similar position.

PG: Personally I take the position that this is not a matter of political principle. We are faced with a choice between a neoliberal and undemocratic European Union, and a neoliberal little Britain which will remain a deregulated tax haven for billionaires and hedge funds.  We need a concrete analysis of the likely consequences of a Brexit given the current balance of forces. If a Corbyn government was being told by EU institutions that it couldn’t reverse privatisation in the health service or take energy utilities and banks into public ownership that would be a completely different scenario.  I could support a Brexit if that was the only option available to ensure that such a Government could implement its programme.

JC: Some of the smaller unions, for instance the RMT railworkers’ union, along with Britain’s small Communist Party will campaign against the EU. Individual left figures such as Tariq Ali have also come out in opposition as have a few other far left groups.

The SWP’s position is that we are keen to work alongside other forces provided they respect the two red lines I have mentioned. It remains to be seen what kind of independent left campaign can be forged on that basis.


The person most identified with Brexit is Nigel Farage and the person most identified with staying is David Cameron. How can socialists take a position without being identified with Farage or Cameron?

JC: At the moment Boris Johnson is much more prominent than Nigel Farage in the “leave” camp. There are two established right-wing campaigns and it is not clear that Farage’s preferred campaign will win the status of the official exit campaign. However, it is true that opposition to the EU is identified with the xenophobic right.

We have to explain very clearly the basis of our opposition to the EU. The first strand of our opposition hinges on the neoliberal nature of the project. That is clear from the fiscal compact, which imposes automatic austerity on EU countries, and from trade deals such as TTIP and TISA that the EU is negotiating. But it is most clearly evinced in the case of Greece. After all, two of the three components of the Troika that have brutalised Greece are EU institutions. Our opposition to the EU is not a retreat into nationalism but an expression of solidarity with Greek workers.

Faced with a choice between democracy and neoliberalism, the EU always chooses the latter. As the Commission’s vice president, Jyrki Katainen put it when Alexis Tsipras was elected in Greece: “We don’t change our policy according to elections.”

PG: I think I’ve already answered that question by referring to the Another Europe is Possible Campaign. Of course it’s difficult for a new poorly funded campaign group to get much of a hearing in the mainstream media. That also of course applies to the far left advocates of Brexit who don’t want to follow Galloway and line up with Nigel Farage. But the fact that people such as John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas are supporting this position will certainly help to get across the idea that it’s possible to be very critical of the way the EU operates, to call for another Europe, and still campaign for a vote to remain.

JC: The second strand of our approach is opposition to “fortress Europe”. Beneath all the pretensions of securing free movement, which is itself rapidly unravelling, it is clear that this right for EU citizens comes at the cost of a racist and exclusionary approach to those deemed non-European or insufficiently European. Currently this involves NATO’s fleet being mobilised alongside Frontex to block the entry of refugees to Greece.

Our argument here is made far easier by Cameron, who, it is clear, will also put forward deeply racist arguments during the campaign. For instance, he argued that if Britain leaves the EU, those trapped in the squalid refugee camp at Calais, France, known as “the Jungle”, would be allowed into Britain by the French government. We would welcome this! For us, solidarity with migrants does not end at Lampedusa or the Hellespont. It includes Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans.

Finally, we are aided by the fact that the SWP is closely identified with the anti-racist movement in Britain. We are central to Stand Up to Racism, which is currently organising the British demonstration that forms part of the European-wide days of action against racism on 19-20 March. We have organised convoys of aid to the Calais camp and raised the issue in the unions. We helped to set up a national campaign against UKIP.

Not everyone on the left will agree with us over the EU, but it would be difficult to confuse us with UKIP sympathisers.

PG: It’s interesting that representatives in London of European Left parties such as Podemos, Syriza and the Left Bloc in Portugal have also been very supportive of the Another Europe is Possible initiative.  I have certainly been influenced by meeting socialists from elsewhere in the EU, especially from Greece, Portugal and Spain, who are very worried about the implications of a Brexit for the hundreds of thousands of young migrant workers and students who are currently leading a precarious existence in Britain having been forced out of their own countries by economic crisis and austerity measures. They have good reason to be worried in my view. One of the strengths of the Another Europe is Possible campaign is that it has sought to involve representatives of these migrant groups and European Left parties.


Most of the German left will agree that we shouldn’t support the current EU, but many say that this it is because it has abandoned its roots as a union that was supposed to bring prosperity and stop wars. Was the EU ever progressive?

PG: This is not to my mind a very helpful way of thinking about the issues at stake today.  Marx and Engels supported German unification in the 19th century as progressive despite their hostility to the domination of Prussia over the process. That was because they rightly recognised that it would accelerate the growth of capitalism and thus the emergence of a unified workers movement. To apply that historical analogy to the EU even in its original phase would be problematic.

I agree with those who argue that the EU was from its origins a project designed to consolidate a reconstructed capitalist system after the traumas of the Second World War and was supported by the USA in the context of the cold war and Russian domination in Eastern Europe. There is an important truth in the claim that the degree of economic integration between the economies of the European states, as well as the military integration within NATO, has made another war between Britain, France and Germany inconceivable.  Yet that would not be reversed even if France left the EU under the leadership of Marie Le Pen which is certainly another possible, if unlikely, consequence of a Brexit.

JC: The EU was always, at root, a project to bolster the fortunes of European capitalism. Its forerunners emerged in the period following the Second World War. The rulers of the various European powers had discovered in the most painful ways possible that the capitalist corporations and their competition could no longer be contained within national borders and that this would lead to clashes between different blocs of capital linked to different states. In the final analysis this could mean military conflicts.

The EU and its predecessors were a method of seeking to overcome this contradiction between globalising capital and the continued importance of the various different states making up Europe. It secured for the capitalists a big enough market on which they could sell goods and obtain labour and raw materials. Later, for some of them, it secured a currency that could operate as a reserve currency globally. It was aided by US support—and indeed the EU has always worked in tandem with NATO, for instance in their coordinated incorporation of various former Warsaw Pact countries.

PG: A breakup of the EU into competing national states would certainly not be a progressive step and would do nothing to resolve the deep contradictions of contemporary capitalism evident in the latest phase of economic crisis globally and the grotesque levels of inequality between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us. What we need is a unified workers’ movement across the whole of Europe and sadly we are a long way from that although increased migration between EU countries will generate pressure for that over time.

JC: There were Keynesian elements to the EU’s earliest incarnations. But that is hardly surprising as Keynesianism, or at least a bastardised form of it, was the consensus on both the left and right economically in the post-war decades. With the crises of the 1970s, these policies were dropped by European governments, at various different points in time, and the EU evolved in a similar direction.


Don’t you think that the EU can be reformed as Yannis Varoufakis’s recently launched DiEM25 movement argues?

JC: Unfortunately, Varoufakis’s early negotiations with the EU reflected precisely this kind of flawed logic. He and Tsipras seemed to think that they could persuade their interlocutors based purely on the rationality of their arguments. This failed utterly. Once breaking with the Euro and EU was taken off the table by the Syriza leaders, they were utterly disarmed—as the terrible deal ultimately agreed shows.

Organisations such as Antarsya, the anti-capitalist left in Greece, who from the outset argued for a radical break with the EU, had a far more realistic measure of the balance of forces and a far better vision of what was necessary.

PG: I have a lot of sympathy with the aims of this movement but I am sceptical about its prospects in the near future given the current balance of forces and composition of EU governments. A massive movement from below spreading across borders on the scale of the revolutionary movements of 1848 and 1919 would be necessary and that would need to find an expression at the level of national governments.

What’s happened in Greece certainly confirms the difficulties facing any challenge to EU institutions from within one country – especially if that country is on the periphery of the EU economically and heavily in debt. In Greece I would have disagreed with Varoufakis and supported the left platform within Syriza but of course that position did not succeed electorally given the understandable nervousness of many in Greece about the implications of leaving the Eurozone.

JC: There are some fairly obvious obstacles to reform. Power in the EU rests on two pillars. The first consists of unelected bureaucratic institutions such as the Commission and the European Central Bank. These are not really susceptible to any democratic pressure. Climbing these hierarchies involves proving one’s loyalty to the ruling classes of Europe. The second pillar is the European Council, formed of the heads of governments from around the EU. This cannot be reformed at the European level, because these leaders are elected in national elections.

The central question is not whether we can somehow cause EU institutions to break with neoliberalism and racism but whether within particular states movements from below can bring about a challenge to their ruling classes. There is no short cut to this.

Of course, internationalism is crucial to these battles. But there is no reason whatsoever why this solidarity needs to pass through the channels of the EU. The coordinated protests against racism on 19-20 March are a case in point. These involve forms of internationalism born out of the necessity for various nationally-based campaigns to coordinate with each other and to learn from one another’s struggles.

PG: As I suggested above, my position on a Brexit is not conditional on the likelihood of being able to reform the EU in the near or even the distant future. It derives rather from the prospect that a little Britain governed by the right would become a fortress Britain and this would be even worse than remaining in a fortress Europe. Even if EU workers in Britain are not immediately expelled (which many employers would resist of course) their position would become far more precarious. Access to healthcare, housing and unemployment benefits would be restricted especially for recent migrants.

Every rightwing politician looking for votes will be encouraged to engage in further scapegoating of immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe. The atmosphere will be toxic – and the left will be in serious danger (as it is already) of being marginalised by a carnival of reaction in much of the media.


Many people living in Europe, including myself, have guaranteed residency and benefits in Germany because of our British passports. What will happen to us if Britain leaves the EU?

PG: The guarantees you mention will certainly disappear. There may be negotiations about transitional arrangements but if Britain moves towards restrictions on migration from elsewhere in the EU, as is very probable following a Brexit, I can certainly envisage a comparable reaction from the remaining EU states. I recently read in the Guardian that many British nationals living in Berlin were applying for German citizenship, which is not difficult to obtain if you’ve been working there for 8 years and that’s certainly what I would do. As someone aged 65 with a German wife who visits Berlin regularly I could  be affected personally if my European health card no longer entitles me to free medical treatment in an emergency.

JC: The more critical argument is what would happen to EU residents and particularly those from Eastern Europe, within Britain. There are about two million EU citizens resident here at present. In a sense, the fact that there are also about two million British people living in the EU, including about a million, many of them retirees, in Spain, makes it far less likely that people would be told to leave. No government is likely to want to risk the political consequences of mutual expulsions of residents.

Furthermore, we should remember that Britain and other European countries are heavily dependent on migrant labour. I don’t see the vast movements of people that have characterised capitalism since its birth suddenly grinding to a halt.

PG: Politically within Britain the critical question concerns the more than 2 million residents from other EU countries. There is an argument that they will not be affected because these are workers needed by British businesses. But this is a crudely economistic, politically naïve claim which somehow pretends that the way in which the Brexit campaign is being promoted in the media will have no serious consequences.

British capitalism will certainly want to retain access to the single market and subsequent negotiations will focus on that for trade in goods and services. But restrictions on new entrants and a deprivation of rights to benefits and health services for existing migrants will certainly be pushed through by a rightwing Tory government seeking re-election. It’s a horrifying prospect and we certainly cannot assume that such a poisonous environment will assist a Corbyn led Labour party to victory in the next election.

JC: More generally, we have to resist the pessimism of many on the left. Here in Britain some people speak as if Brexit would automatically mean a shift to the right. However, if Cameron loses the referendum it will weaken the ruling class and it would almost certainly mean the end of Cameron’s own tenure as prime minister. The Tories would be in a dire state. One potential beneficiary of such a scenario is Jeremy Corbyn.

I would welcome an election under those conditions and I would welcome a Corbyn victory—something that would open up a broader space for the revolutionary left. How things would ultimately play out in those conditions will depend on struggles yet to come.


Interviews by Phil Butland