The UK’s withdrawl from the European Union is probably the most important political decision in our generation. For good or bad, it will redefine the UK’s relationships with other countries, and (perhaps more importantly for ordinary people) the British state’s relationship with its own citizens. This will impact upon how to deal with poverty, inequality, community relations, international relations, business and trade… The list goes on. Thus how the UK withdraws from the Union is of paramount importance. Just like an amicable break-up, or a job resignation, it is important not to burn bridges with our closest neighbours because, in all likelihood, they will remain our biggest trading partners and diplomatic allies (even out of the EU, the UK is still in the continent of Europe, and thus remains significant to other European countries. Though I should stress significant does not mean important).
Yet the way the Leave campaign comported itself, and the way in which (proto-) Brexit is currently being handled suggests that if Brexit does come to pass, there may be few bridges with the EU’s big players left. Why is this looking the case? We should start by evaluating the rhetoric of the Leave campaign and those co-ordinating Brexit that it is the best option for Britain. There are a number of important counterfactuals to this statement that should be explored. The misinformation that tarnished the Leave campaign, for example (1,2,3,4,5) points to deeper problems and contradictions within Brexit itself, and can be traced through to the current actions and positions of the senior Brexit negotiators in the Cabinet, namely Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.
This post discusses what I see as the two major issues with the Brexit negotiations: 1) Questioning the rhetoric on what is ‘best’ for Britain, and its deeper origins and implications; 2) A misplaced and antiquated sense of geopolitical significance, rooted in the relative hubris of the British (perhaps English) nation-state [This second point could be read alongside this earlier post on Brexit and nationalism; this post can provide more of a political economy perspective.
Brexit is best – but for whom?
Brexit was portrayed as the best option for Britain’s political, economic and cultural future by the Leave campaign, and understandably this narrative has more or less been upheld by the Conservative government. However, if Brexit truly was best for Britain, and the polity were able to reach this conclusion themselves (as the Leave campaign certainly portrayed, through emphasising distain for ‘so-called experts’, fearmongerers and so on), why so much misinformation? This, alongside scare tactics about the growth of the EU and thus the implications for migration to the UK, suggests those in favour of Brexit felt the need to stack the deck in order to gain the result they wanted. Again – why, if Brexit was clearly the best option for Britain? Put simply, what is ‘best’ as portrayed by Leave and now the Conservatives is not actually best for most Britons (and indeed not the choice of large chunks of the UK, in particular Scotland and Northern Ireland). Rather, the desire to leave for those involved in Brexit is largely, but not entirely, based upon particular class interests. This line has been relatively popular in terms of explaining subaltern classes’ frustration with the ruling class, and with an unfair social and economic system. Brexit was a protest. After the vote there were a number of examples of Turkeys voting for Christmas, in terms of voting away access to structural funds. Cornwall and Wales both received a significant amount of EU funding. Yet both these regions voted in favour of Brexit. Two reasonable explanations for this are either those voting Leave did not know the amount of support the EU provided their region, or their anger towards the Union overwhelmed any sense of fear over the loss of funding.
Those leading the Leave campaign(s) and consequently negotiating the UK’s exit from Europe had no such worries. The mobility of global capital means that if you have enough in the way of assets, you will have access to markets and organisations that will allow you to move capital easily. The economic fallout of Brexit – inevitably impacting upon jobs, growth, inflation and so on – will affect the majority of citizens’ socio-economic wellbeing. For the financial (and economic more generally) elite, assets and wealth can be amassed offshore, away from volatile markets, or managed in such a way so as to to work to make more money (think hedge funds). These people include many of the Faces of Brexit:
Last year, Boris made a grand total of £612,583, this includes his City Hall salary, interest on savings and his earnings from his Telegraph column (source).
In 2009, Liam Fox’s wealth was estimated at £1m. From a quick Google, I can’t discern David Davis’ wealth, so I will consider him an outlier. More generally, and as put by Lapavitsas in Jacobin:
By contrast, the Leave side of the ruling class is a motley group without a strong sectoral character, who partly hope to trade more intensely outside the European Union. More than that, however, Leave supporters hope to advance a more thorough neoliberal agenda by ridding Britain of EU regulations and further reducing labor rights and social protection.
Although it could damage the mobility of their capital through restricting access to EU markets (notwithstanding the point I made about the mobility of capital above), it offers the opportunity to exploit labour more throughly at home. This involves making money in more ‘traditional’ ways, rather than relying on finance, and would lessen the blow of Brexit – but only for those who are in a position to make profit from their employees’ labour (of course, this is predicated on there being enough jobs and investment in the right places). These two tactics, clearly, are open only to those who have the luxury of having assets and capital to move or deploy in different markets of varying stability.
This does not invalidate the primary idea of Lexit – that the EU is essentially a capitalists’ club, and enables the exploitation of labour and the free movement of capital on a large scale – but it does demonstrate that the interests of capital and the ruling class transcend even the supranational organisation of the EU, let alone the traditional nation-state. This is, as an aside, a strong critique of Lexit – Brexit simply strengthens the position of the elite in the UK, who are able to marshall their resources to ride out any instability or crisis instigated by Brexit, whilst the 98% of citizens without access to such large stockpiles of resources have no such recourse. A recent article in the Guardian highlights this in more global terms:
The International Monetary Fund has warned that free trade is increasingly seen as benefiting only the well-off and that help is needed for those whose job prospects have been damaged by globalisation in order to put fresh momentum behind removing barriers to international commerce.
As much as Brexit has been portrayed as a victory for the little guy against faceless bureaucracy, the business end is essentially a fracas between different factions of the ruling class. You are more than welcome to participate, as long as you can afford the entry fee, as implied by Theresa May:
After a meeting at Chequers, Ms May’s spokesperson said the deal the UK would seek would have “controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe, but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services.”
Brexit as a struggle for sovereignty and autonomy
Boris Johnson is no stranger to gaffes. I have always maintained that he has carefully curated a persona of loveable buffoonery meant to disarm the general public. In general it works. However, on the international stage, his buffoonery appears more earnest. The FT recently reported on the UK’s hardline rhetoric on Brexit negotiations, signalling the British state’s position that it could get what it wants from Brexit with little compromise; ‘Mr Johnson had claimed it was “baloney” that the UK could not get a free trade deal if it ended free movement for EU workers.’ In a more bizarre turn of events, and in direct contradiction with the leaflet I posted above, Johnson came out fighting in Turkey’s corner:
Britain will support Turkey’s bid to join the EU despite its June 23 vote to leave the bloc, the U.K.’s foreign secretary said on Monday.
“We may be leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe,” Boris Johnson said while on an official visit to Turkey, AFP reported. He added the U.K. “will help Turkey in any way.”
This illustrates another central characteristic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, resulting in the Leave vote. There is a large subsection of the British elite who suffer from what I call ‘Empire Syndrome’ – the belief that because Britain was great once, it remains so and should be treated as such. This is a very particular form of nation-state hubris that allows followers to ignore the political and economic realities of the globalised world and believe that they can successfully pursue a policy of isolationism at worst, or expect instant preferential trading agreements with the Commonwealth (also known as the countries Britain once ruled). This greatly overestimates Britain’s position in the world. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister represented the feelings of many EU officials in his response to Johnson:
“We’ll happily send her majesty’s foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon treaty,” Mr Schäuble joked at a news conference with Michel Sapin, his French counterpart. “He can then read about the fact that there’s a certain connection between the single market and the four freedoms. At a pinch, I can talk about it in English.”
Realism, arguably the orthodox theoretical position in International Relations, argues that international politics is a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers, in which it is in the interests of the less powerful partners, allies and/or combatants to strike a deal with more powerful actors in which the powerful actor will gain more. This is something the UK’s Brexit team would be well advised to bear in mind. The EU has 27 (26 if the UK leaves) guaranteed trading partners and a sophisticated financial system that has withstood an international financial crash without disintegrating. The UK has zero guaranteed trading partners. Aggressive rhetoric based on an exaggerated sense of self-importance will lead to the EU imposing a much worse fate on the UK, than anything the UK could ever threaten the EU with. London is currently a vitally important trading hub. Yet to retain its importance, it needs support. That support can be pulled, and other financial centres will be able to reap the rewards.
Turn to Nigel Farage’s announcement that the Brexit vote meant that the British people had got their country back. Indeed, this was a central slogan across the Leave campaign(s). Yet again, we must ask from whom are ‘we’ getting ‘our’ country ‘back’? The slogan and the rationale behind it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding (willing or otherwise) of how sovereignty works. The very fact that the UK can democratically choose
to leave the EU demonstrates its sovereignty, as does the ability for the state to negotiate vetos on various elements of EU decision-making, and to choose not to ratify European Agreements, thus preventing them from becoming national law. Considering as well Britain’s history in this area, demonstrating a certain panache for oppressing other nations and states, such a slogan demonstrates significant hubris and a greatly exaggerated vision of the UK’s place in the world.
The UK’s perceived importance has become somewhat of an assumption amongst a number of key players. David Davis, for example, believes it will be possible to negotiate tarrif free access to the European Single Market, even though this is not the case for states like Norway and Switzerland. This is essentially a reversed theory of realism in that the weaker partner thinks it can come out on top, or perhaps it a realist position if the year was 1900. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, demonstrated significant confusion over the UK’s role in the world, partciularly in transition from one shackled by the EU, to one that seemingly will be shackled by the WTO:
Noting that at present, the UK had global trading commitments established via the EU, Fox said these would remain in place after Brexit was complete (source).
Surely it can only be one or the other? Again, this demonstrates the misplaced belief that the UK can have all the benefits of EU membership without any of the costs – which is, essentially, how the UK approached negotiation within the EU. I suspect things will be different in a post-EU UK.
Whither the Commoner?
What is perhaps most telling about the UK’s post-proto-Brexit position, besides the fact that there is no clear way forward, and an even less clear timeframe for the process, is how silent ordinary citizens have been. In the lead up to the referendum and for a short time afterwards, the person on the street was afforded much more air time. Now we are in the throes of technicalities, we have returned to a focus on the international geopolitical, financial and general economic vagaries of Brexit. Where, then, is the lauded downtrodden citizen? While the UK government and elite plays its games with the socio-political and socio-economic future of the country (as instability is always worse for a state than stability, whether that is achieved inside or outside Europe), it is the rest of society that will suffer. Particularly as they have no ability to benefit from global capital, unlike those negotiating Brexit on both sides of the UK/EU fence.