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A ‘left-wing Brexit’ is a dangerous delusion

If Labour supporters want a glimpse of what Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election manifesto would look like in practice, they don’t have to dream. They simply need to cross the Channel.

In France, they will discover university tuition funded by the taxpayer. In Portugal and Slovakia, they will see domestic energy consumers who benefit from regulatory price caps. In Germany, they can witness an extensive network of publicly-owned local savings banks. In Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, they can marvel at train companies in public hands. In Luxembourg and Belgium, they will see no zero hour contracts. In Sweden and Denmark, they will discover that the state raises around half of national income in tax.

But this can’t be happening, can it? This social democratic nirvana can’t exist. It must be our imagination playing tricks. Because as two advocates of “Lexit” inform us: “Any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has been forestalled through powerful legal impediments embodied in the treaties.”

According to Corbyn supporters Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna, “the thrust of European economic policy has been to extend the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexibilisation, sub-ordinating employment and social protection to low inflation, debt reduction and competitiveness”. What we have here is a delusion – and an extremely dangerous one in the context of the finely-balanced UK politics of Brexit.

The reality is that the EU is no impediment to either the survival of the institutions of social democracy – nor their extension in Britain. We’ve had a clear demonstration of this only recently. In 2014, the population of the city of Hamburg voted to return their power grid from private companies to municipal hands. Yet, strangely, the neo-liberal jackboots of Brussels failed to crush the move.

It is fair to say that Brussels has a bias against monopoly – and a good thing, too. But it is certainly not opposed to public ownership. Indeed, a clause in the European treaty explicitly states that EU law must remain neutral on the question. The impediment that EU law imposes is that public providers have to be treated on equal footing as privatised ones. On state aid, the requirement is that subsidies to a sector must be available to all operators, public and private alike.

The Lexit case is embarrassingly flimsy. Guinan and Hanna extol the possibilities for a flowering of “community-owned firms” in the UK post-Brexit. But one can find co-operatives all over Europe, where they boast 123 million members. The pair rail against what they call the “commodified migrant labour” under the EU’s freedom of movement laws, ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands of Britons have freely chosen to work in Europe.

There are legitimate concerns about the operation of the EU’s “posted workers” directive, and Corbyn himself has aired them. But it’s a travesty to suggest that there is no possibility for reform in this specific area. No less a figure than the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, has put curbing “social dumping” high on his agenda.

Guinan and Hanna scoff at the “icy smooth-frictionless” of the single market. They seem not to realise that it is this regulatory harmonisation that has helped to lift the UK growth rate considerably since the 1970s, boosting the livelihoods of millions of working class Britons. It is this single market that supports millions of good jobs in manufacturing.

The authors talk about a post-Brexit Britain finally being free to stand up to “extractive” multinationals. But who fined Google and Microsoft billions of dollars of revenue for anti-competitive behaviour? Who has ordered Apple to repay € 13bn (£ 12bn) in avoided corporation tax? It was the European Commission.

Why do Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing UK newspapers ceaselessly attack the EU? As Peter Mandelson once put it to my fellow Independent columnist Matthew Norman: “What you have to understand is that no single government is strong enough to stand up to him. Europe, on the other hand…” 

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, burbled last November of the “enormous opportunities” of Brexit and claimed that those who wanted a second referendum were “on the side of certain corporate elites”. This suggests he has been seduced by the kind of nonsense espoused by Guinan and Hanna.

The EU is, of course, imperfect. And the mishandling of the Eurozone crisis has been a disgrace. But the idea that Europe is some kind of right-wing “neoliberal project” can only represent a combination of wilful ignorance and ideologically induced blindness. We hear endless noise about the things Jeremy Corbyn has and hasn’t said about Venezuela – a country thousands of miles away. We should be more concerned about what he (and too many of those around him) seem not to know about the economy and institutions of our nearest European neighbours.”


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