From Grexit to Brexit: How Greece's 'ruination' revived left-wing Euroscepticism
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Europe’s beggaring of Greece has rattled British left-wingers, dismaying the Europhile and emboldening the Eurosceptic. Where they will stand in a referendum campaign dominated by right-wingers will determine the outcome of the June 23 vote.
It is commonly assumed across Europe that members of Britain’s Labour Party are natural Europhiles, whereas conservatives are likelier to be sceptical of the merits of European integration. Labour leaders are not normally expected to brand the 28-nation club a “usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage”, as Jeremy Corbyn, then a little-known Labour backbencher, wrote last year, referring to the EU’s treatment of Greece. But when the veteran Eurosceptic triumphed in a leadership vote only months later, many wondered where Labour would stand as the UK headed for a high-stakes referendum on its membership in the EU.
In fact, Corbyn’s brand of left-wing Euroscepticism is hardly an anomaly in the British political landscape. “There has always been a sizeable chunk of the British left that is opposed to the EU,” says left-wing journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan. “It is a significant minority that believes the EU entrenches neo-liberal economics, is too close to the financial industry, and is fundamentally undemocratic.” Indeed the last time Britain held a referendum on EU membership, back in 1975, the “Leave” campaign was led by prominent Labour ministers, including Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn.
Back then, Benn and others of his ilk believed the EU would present an obstacle for national governments seeking to implement a socialist programme. Recent evidence suggests their misgivings were founded – as is now painfully clear to the many left-wing parties across Europe, from Greece’s Syriza to France’s Socialists, who campaigned for a radical break from austerity only to be forced to eat their words once in office.
But Britain's old Eurosceptic left hadn't foreseen its own country lurching even further to the right – so far that most left-wingers and trade unions have learned to appreciate Brussels as a bulwark for workers’ rights, environmental standards and other key planks of the progressive agenda. Since then, successive surveys have estimated that a solid two-thirds of Labour supporters count as Europhiles.
That Europhilia was seriously undermined last year by the gruelling standoff between Greece’s left-wing Syriza government and its EU creditors. When Athens was ultimately blackmailed, browbeaten into submission and forced to accept another dose of the drastic austerity programme that has wiped out a third of its economy and increased its addiction to debt, thousands across Europe took to social media screaming #ThisIsACoup. Reactions were particularly hostile in Britain’s left-wing press, usually a source of pro-Europe commentary.
"Progressives should be appalled by the European Union’s ruination of Greece. It’s time to reclaim the Eurosceptic cause," said the Guardian’s Owen Jones. “Everything good about the EU is in retreat; everything bad is on the rampage,” argued his colleague George Monbiot. Writing in the Spectator, Nick Cohen said the EU was being portrayed “with some truth, as a cruel, fanatical and stupid institution”. Politico’s Ben Judah noted that “many Labour MPs and influential left-wing figures are toying with Euroscepticism, appalled by the way the EU has handled the crisis in Greece”. Soon, the term “Lexit” had gained currency, suggesting there were genuine grounds to call for a left-wing Brexit.
Reflecting on this acrimonious break-up between the EU and prominent voices on the left, the Guardian’s Toby Moses recently wrote that “[f]or many, the treatment of Greece and Syriza was the moment the EU crossed the Rubicon”. Jones said there were “good, principled, left-wing reasons for questioning [Britain’s] membership of the EU”. He pointed to Brussels’ role in pushing for privatization of key public services and negotiating a secretive trade deal with the US.
But, he warned, a left-wing vote in favour of Brexit “could hand victory to the right-wing rabble that leads the charge for a ‘sovereign’ Britain” – a reference to the motley group of right-wing Conservatives and leaders of the Europhobic UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the helm of the “Leave” campaign.
Several left-wing commentators (including those quoted above) have also stepped back from endorsing Brexit, for precisely the same reasons. O’Hagan ranks among them. She says the referendum campaign has actually helped stem the resurgence in left-wing Euroscepticism, by associating the Brexit cause with the hard right. “A year ago I would have considered leaving [the EU], but now it’s too scary,” she explains. “A victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign would send a signal to the hard right that they are popular and have a mandate to run the country.”
Lessons from Scotland
Crucially, Corbyn appears to have made the same calculation, embracing the “Remain” cause, albeit with a few important caveats. He has warned that “a Tory Brexit negotiation would be a disaster for many working people in Britain,” arguing that Eurosceptic Tories (Conservatives) would seize the opportunity to get rid of EU rules protecting workers’ rights. But he has also called for a more “social Europe”, saying: “We believe that Europe can and must do far more to meet the needs of our people. That’s why we make the case for remain.”
The Labour leader’s arguments for remaining part of the Union are noticeably different from those put forward by Prime Minister David Cameron. Corbyn has dared to argue the merits of immigration, a topic studiously avoided by the Conservative prime minister, who is fearful of giving ammunition to the anti-immigrant Brexit camp. Whether he can put a positive spin on such a toxic issue, and reassure working-class voters who fear for their jobs and wages, is an open question. As O’Hagan explains, “The Greek drama had a bearing on those who are politically engaged, but immigration is a bigger issue for the broader public, one many people feel emotionally.”
Despite their obvious differences, Cameron’s camp is keen for Corbyn’s voice to be heard. It fears left-wing voters will stay at home on June 23, perceiving the referendum as a squabble within the Conservative Party. But the Labour leader has refused to share a platform with the prime minister during the campaign, fearing it would tarnish Labour in the eyes of voters. Last month, his closest lieutenant, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, criticised the new Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for appearing alongside Cameron at a “Remain” rally. "Sharing a platform with them [the Conservatives] discredits us,” McDonnell argued. “It demotivates the very people we are trying to mobilize."
Corbyn is wary of seeing his party fall into a trap as it did in 2014 when Cameron made a first referendum gamble, on Scottish independence. The Conservatives are so toxic in much of Scotland that Labour was left to do the heavy lifting for them – only to be punished by Scottish voters in the subsequent election for collaborating with the Tories. Labour didn't want a Scottish referendum two years ago, nor did it ask for a Brexit vote today. And yet its voters will be crucial to staving off the break-up of the EU, just as they spared Cameron the shame of presiding over the break-up of the kingdom.