Half way into the third year of the Brexit frenzy this much is clear: The upheaval caused by the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum will continue to shape European politics on both sides of the Channel throughout 2019 and beyond. That certainty aside, much of the political, social, legal, economic and cultural fallout this unprecedented political process will bring about is impossible to anticipate. What does this mean for the European left? How will the left respond? How does the left stand on increased European Union integration? Can we even speak of a European left as such? How do we respond to the rise of the radical right?
The Brexit “revolt”
It is rather telling of the prevailing uncertainty that some people in the UK are stocking up on canned meat and painkillers to get through the potentially chaotic immediate aftermath of “Brexit day”. Real-term effects in most areas, though – for example on workers’ rights, health care or the environment – might not be felt until much after 29 March. And Brexit’s repercussions will affect more than the future shape of trade or customs regulations between the UK and the EU. As conditions of the final agreement remain unclear, the European left, too, has yet to develop answers to Brexit and its implications. The reasons for this lie deeper and point to the left’s ambiguous relationship with European integration.
Brexit comes at a crucial moment in the European political project. Crises abound across the continent. We are witnessing intensifying social conflict coupled with widespread revolt against the political centre. The Brexit vote of June 2016 was one such revolt, itself partly symptomatic of the multiple crises afflicting European capitalism: The Eurozone crisis. Austerity. A governance crisis. The rise of racist and fascist political parties. Social democracy in decline. Meanwhile, an astonishingly oblivious political class keeps ploughing on at both supranational and national levels. Brexit, then, in many ways epitomises the challenges of democratic transnational integration.
Divisive for the left
While the radical right continues to make gains and take power, the left has thus far failed to seize the opportunities presented by the current crisis of neoliberal capitalism. In Britain the Labour Party’s move to the left, coupled with its relative electoral success and mobilisation of a grassroots movement in the form of Momentum, poses a potential, though unrealised, challenge to the continent’s predominantly weak social democratic parties. Alas, on Brexit the party remains as divided as any, leaving the continental left at a loss as to how to support a socialist alternative to a Tory Brexit.
More problematically still, although we have seen the growth of anti-systemic left movements elsewhere in Europe, it is not possible to speak of a European left as such – one that is rooted in working class communities, has an organic relationship with organised labour and is united by a coherent economic vision and political strategy in the face of key centres of power, including the EU. The left continues to be divided on the question of embracing or abandoning integration within the EU while narrow ethnic nationalisms are gaining ground.
Brexit and beyond
The global financial crash, euro debt crisis and imposition of austerity have led to a decade of stagnation and impoverishment for much of the continent’s population. The Eurozone’s fault-lines have been exposed as result of growing economic inequality and increased divergence between core and peripheral countries. The EU’s institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy, while a succession of governments have begun to show some resistance to the rules governing its economic system.
It is crucial that this pessimism does not lead to despair, but instead provides the ground on which to rethink and rebuild. The foundations for this task are being constructed in different pockets of Europe, where the left is advocating strategic disobedience, engaging in new forms of community and trade union organising, and experimenting with “real utopias” aimed at democratising key aspects of social and economic life whilst generating class consciousness and organisational strength. It is time to link new and existing struggles and harness them towards a more effective left strategy for building a people’s Europe.
This Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung blog wants to support this process. We promote an inclusive, comradely debate between – and within – various sections of the European and international left that reflects the diverse perspectives held on key issues. And we bring national, racial and gendered specificities to bear on the debate, particularly where they have been neglected.
Over the next twelve months we will be inviting grassroots, left activists, journalists, politicians and thinkers to contribute to this discussion in the form of analysis as well as interviews, podcasts and video segments. These will be posted weekly, interspersed with commentary pieces by the blog hosts. The blog thus offers a running commentary on the Brexit saga and provides a forum for discussion on the broader themes of the EU and Eurozone, electoralism and social movements, trade unionism and labour politics, alternative economic and political strategies, and the task of building left power.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung is being partnered in this initiative by Trademark Belfast, a trade union-based social justice and peacebuilding organisation that works closely with trade union, grassroots and left political actors across Ireland, Britain and Europe to promote alternative economic and political strategies. We look forward to you joining us on the journey ahead.
As part of this blog two events will be held in the early part of the year.
On 22 February Trademark will be hosting its annual political school in rural County Fermanagh near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It brings together community and trade union activists, the political left and progressive academics to discuss and explore the potential for cooperation on a wide range of issues.
This school will focus on the theme of ‘Brexit, the Border and the European Union’ and will host amongst others John Hilary (British Labour’s Senior Advisor on Trade), along with academics such as Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast and Alex Gordon of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). The event will be live-streamed on the blog and will be followed up with articles, commentary, and a podcast featuring some of the keynote speakers. Past speakers have included Ann Pettifor (PRIME), Professor Steve Keen, Andrew Fisher (John McDonnell’s Senior Advisor) and Professor Mary Mellor.
Also in March 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office, in collaboration with Another Europe is Possible, will host a live audience event on Brexit, Europe and the left that will be recorded as a podcast.
by Ada-Charlotte Regelmann, Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Originally published 9 January 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.