It is not just the populist right who clash ideologically with the European Union.
In 2013, a senior Conservative politician was overheard referring to Eurosceptic activists as “swivel-eyed loons.” Intended as a disparaging remark, some traditionalists wore the label proudly. Michael Fabricant, the party’s former vice-chairman, uploaded a picture of the late bulbous-eyed comedian, Marty Feldman, as his Twitter avatar.
The comments came after 116 Tory MPs defied the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, by voting for an amendment to protest his lack commitment to a referendum on EU membership before 2015. Those on the right of the Conservative party were appalled by the delay.
Hard Brexiteers continue to be stereotyped as demented, frothy-mouthed, “swivel-eyed” monsters. Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that climate change minister, Claire Perry, had used the term in a group WhatsApp conversation with other Tory MPs.
But often overlooked is euroscepticism on the left – with Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn providing an obvious starting point.
Corbyn voted to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum and has railed against European institutions consistently since becoming an MP in 1983. In parliament, he voted against the 1993 Maastricht Treaty and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty.
During the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Labour leader was lukewarm in his support of remain. In one chat-show appearance, Corbyn claimed to be “seven out of ten” on the EU, and was conspicuously absent throughout the Brexit campaigning period.
Corbyn is not isolated amongst left-wing intellectuals over the question of the Europe. The New Left Review, one of the most influential political science journals in the world, had been hankering for ‘Lexit’, a handy – if a little ungainly – neologism of ‘left wing’ and ‘Brexit’, for some time.
The journal’s former editor, Perry Anderson, argued that the EU was an authoritarian and neoliberal project, bent on “enforcing a bitter economic regime of privilege for the few and duress for the many.”
A right wing institution?
At the core of the European project is dogmatic commitment to the free-market. Since the 1970s, European markets have becoming increasingly integrated. The creation of a single currency, Masastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the Stability and Growth pact have driven this trend. Directives at the European Central Bank and the European Commission have now all but banned the Keynesian economic model – the very bedrock of social democracy.
With increased integration comes increased competition. EU states are now forced to compete for investment from multinationals more than ever before. In order to gain a competitive edge, states are forced to lower corporation tax, cut labour costs, weaken unions and compromise on environmental and social regulations. The result is spiralling inequality.
Some intellectual voices on the left, including Alan Johnson, have also argued that the failure of the EU to work democratically, in the interests of the majority, has created a “breeding ground for the far right.” In the US, many analysts have attributed the election of Donald Trump to anger at the unequal impact of globalization in some disaffected caucuses. The unequal spread of Economic integration benefits is perhaps a source of discontent here too.
Despite his long held opposition to the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is expected to announce a major policy shift next month. He is reported to be holding a meeting in early February with Labour bigwigs, in which he will discuss the prospect of remaining part of some sort of customs union.
For Corbyn this would draw clear battle lines to fight a Conservative party, currently floundering in chaos. It would appease pro-Europe sections of the Labour party. But such a policy shift would also represent a sacrifice of values for the Labour leader and some of his comrades.
‘Why, when there is no evidence to suggest that economic liberalism is morally corrupting,’ asks Ryan Bourne on CapX, ‘is the myth that free markets make us selfish so persistent?’
‘A common, yet unfounded, attack on free markets is that they encourage us to be greedy and selfish, and erode moral values.’
According to philosopher Michael Sandel, free market values have led to ‘the crowding out of virtues such as altruism, generosity and solidarity.’
The Pope recently said that “libertarian individualism…minimises the common good.”
Even the British Conservative party seem to agree. “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets,” stated their 2017 manifesto, “we reject the cult of selfish individualism.”
But ‘the weird thing’ about these claims, argues Bourne, is that ‘no hard evidence is ever offered to prove that free markets encourage greed.’
Let’s get one thing straight, he says, there is good evidence to show that levels of prosperity and economic freedom are strongly linked.
‘Natural experiments’ in the form of geopolitical divides such as East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and Hong Kong and mainland China, have shown that ‘market economies tend to be much more prosperous than non-market economies,’ Bourne argues.
And simply put, more money means ‘more resources for compassionate causes,’ either through individual philanthropy or tax revenue.
What do studies show about whether ‘markets facilitate greed and lead to selfish immoral behaviour?’ asks Bourne.
A famous study by Armin Falk and Nora Szech claimed to show that markets were indeed morally damaging.
Their experiment involved participants being given the option of paying cash to save a mouse from being killed.
They found that ‘people were more likely to enable the killing when the decision came about as a result of bargaining between buyers and sellers’ – making the mouse a third-party – rather than when they made the decision alone.
They concluded that “market interaction displays a tendency to lower moral values, relative to individually stated preferences,” because their guilt was spread, and there was more “competition” for their money.
This study was seen as proof ‘that markets eroded our humanity,’ says Bourne, but in real life, economic transactions are more like the individual judgement than the bartering scenario.
As Breyer and Weimann argued in their critique of the experiment, “in typical market situations, moral norms play a more prominent role than in non-market bargaining situations,” that are mostly zero-sum.
This alternative conclusion is supported by Herbert Gintis, who experimented with economic games with members of 15 ‘tribal societies’ from across the world.
He found that those ‘exposed to voluntary exchange’ in markets were ‘more highly motivated by non-financial fairness considerations than those which were not.’
“The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious,” Gintis argued.
In fact, he added, “movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange.”
In other words, says Bourne, ‘greed, cheating and intolerance’ are more likely to be prevalent in ‘societies where individuals can only fulfil selfish desires by taking from, overpowering or using dominant political or hierarchical positions to rule over and extort from others.’
‘Markets actually encourage collaboration and exchange between parties that might otherwise not interact,’ he concludes.
‘This interdependency discourages violence and builds trust and tolerance.’
‘Two of the world’s biggest economies are poised to prove that globalisation is not dead,’ said The FT, ‘and that the populist antipathy to free trade has not yet triumphed.’
After four years of trade talks, and several recent negotiating breakthroughs on the ‘sticky questions of cheese and car parts,’ a ‘sweeping’ EU Japan free trade agreement is expected to be completed ahead of the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday.
European farmers are set to ‘win prized access’ to the Japanese agricultural market, while Japan’s carmakers will no longer be hampered by EU import tariffs.
“We will have full duty free access for almost all agri-food exports,” said one EU official. “Some of the transitions are longer than we would have liked, but in the end it will be fully duty free.”
Crucially for campaign groups, the EU has also said there will be no “investor-state dispute settlement” mechanism in the accord. The format has been widely criticised for allowing multinationals to ‘ride roughshod over local regulations.’
The EU Japan free trade accord is both a ‘powerful rejection’ of Donald Trump’s aggressive protectionism – on the eve of his arrival in Hamburg – and confirmation that a hard Brexit would leave some UK companies on ‘worse trade terms’ with their European neighbours than ‘Japanese competitors halfway around the world.’
The accord with the ‘fourth-largest import market in the world’ will be a boost for European farmers, cheese-makers and vintners ‘at a time when rural communities on the continent are being courted by populist forces.’
In Japan, the free trade agreement will be a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The agreement will ‘force change on unproductive parts of the Japanese economy, particularly agriculture.’
Mr. Abe had originally hoped the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership would fulfil this function until Donald Trump scrapped it.
In the long term, the EU Japan deal ‘may increase pressure on Mr. Trump to reconsider his anti-trade animus.’
His ‘suspicion of globalisation’ focuses mainly on China, a country he casts as ‘keen to dominate the west.’
30 years ago, the US and Europe characterised Japan in exactly the same way.
‘That Japan’s commercial hegemony never materialised, and that it is now a welcome trade partner, illustrates how badly protectionist arguments age as the global economy moves on.’
While the US and the UK, the two countries who ‘built the global liberal trading order,’ turn inward, Japan and the EU ‘must continue to lead.’
Shinzo Abe and his government must maintain good relations with the countries remaining in the TPP agreement, and Europe must look to deepen trade with other markets, such as South America and Mexico.
‘As the rest of the world comes together, the UK and the US risk being left behind – or forced to rethink their repudiation of the global order they built.’
An EU survey published today today shows that two-thirds of Europeans believe the EU should be tough with the UK during Brexit negotiations.
The Chatham House-Kantor EU survey – “The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes” – was conducted in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.
65% of non-U.K participants said that while EU should stay on good terms with Britain, it should not compromise on its core principles.
Brexit. 70% of Britons said the EU would suffer from the loss of the UK, a sentiment shared by 46% of the continental Europeans. Notably, only 7% of the elites saw Brexit as a threat to the EU.
10,000 members of the public and 2,000 ‘elites’ were involved in the survey.
It concluded in January 2017, before the Dutch and French elections.
The failures of far-right parties in Holland and France, Eurozone economic growth, and Britain’s muddling of its Brexit strategy have led to an increase in approval for the EU since the Brexit vote according to a recent Pew survey.
63% of Europeans now have view the Union in a positive light, a sharp increase from the last years’ figures.
There was consensus between the elites and the public in four areas.
– The commitment to financial solidarity between the states.
– A positive vision of democracy.
– A feeling of common European identity.
– The EU’s successes (peace, freedom of movement, the Schengen zone, the euro and the single market) and failures (bureaucracy, the refugee crisis, austerity, unemployment, massive immigration).
United States of Europe. And 47% of the elites and 41% of the public oppose the idea of the ‘United States of Europe,’ though 71% of the elites favour further integration in the long term.
In several other areas, participants were split.
EU membership. 71% of the elites felt they had benefitted from being part of the Union, an opinion shared by only one third of the public. Another third felt they hadn’t benefitted at all, the rest were undecided.
Immigration. The elites tended to view immigration in a positive light, whereas 51% of the public believed immigration had led to more crime, and 55% of them believed it was putting a strain on the welfare state.
Enlargement. Similarly, 47% of the public felt EU enlargement had gone too far, whereas 58% of the elites supported bringing new members on board.
49% of the elites and 62% of the public were opposed to Turkey becoming part of the EU.
Austerity. The elites were divided over the usefulness of EU austerity policies. 54% believe they had been inefficient, 28% disagreed.
Refugees. Equally, they were split over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. 59% agreed with it, 30% said it was the wrong decision.
The EU survey suggests that ‘a new societal divide along the libertarian-authoritarian political spectrum,’where authoritarianism is less a system of government, but more a ‘set of preferences.’
These people – often perceived as the ‘losers’ of globalisation – favour authority and are resistant to change.
The more authoritarian-minded are more likely to be middle-aged men with low levels of education living in in rural areas.
The traditional left-right dividing line on the European Union – traditionally about wealth redistribution and class – is now ‘between those with the qualifications, skills and outlook needed to thrive in the more economically and socially liberal environment and those who lack them.’
This divide ‘is pulling Europe in two very different directions,’ says the EU survey.
‘The political challenges facing the EU – particularly the appeal of populist-authoritarian leaders and parties – are likely to remain on the landscape for many years, even after economic growth has been restored and sustained.’
‘You’re just trying to grab on to a collective identity because you’re fucking alone, you’re busy all the time, you’ve got nothing. There’s no hope.’
The unexpected result of the Brexit referendum was a watershed moment in British history.
The decision to leave the EU has become the single biggest – and most polarising – political issue of our time.
After a wild election campaign, and the subsequent collapse of the ‘hard Brexit’ Conservative majority, even the government seems unsure of what Brexit really means, despite negotiations officially beginning today (19/06).
A year on, with uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future, the questions the referendum raised about what it means to be British remain unanswered.
Enter Timothy George Kelly, a London-based Australian filmmaker who travelled around the UK talking to people about being British in the months after the referendum.
The result, Brexitannia, is a beautifully crafted, sobering snapshot of a country in turmoil. ‘A portrait of democracy in all its ugly glory,’ says Kelly.
The first documentary about Brexit, Brexitannia challenges the caricatures often used to demonise Leave and Remain voters, and brings into focus several other dividing lines – the gulf between country and city, young and old, migration, automation, globalisation, and British identity.
It also crucially places the Brexit vote in its wider socio-economic context, and in doing so offers a way to move past Leave/Remain identity politics.
Brexitannia is divided into two parts. Interviews with ‘the people’ – ordinary voters who explain why they voted the way they did, and their view on what it means to be British – and interviews with ‘the experts,’ who include Noam Chomsky.
The questions the referendum raised about what it means to be British remain unanswered.
This approach sounds rather ungainly, but ‘the experts’ are able to frame the Brexit vote in its proper context – the collapse of neoliberalism – explaining how certain communities have been brought to their knees by privatisation and the free-market ideal.
‘The people’ are shot alone, from a distance – at home or at work – and given time to think aloud and express themselves openly.
Sat alone on their front drive, or standing in their back garden, there is an acute sense of ‘the people’s’ vulnerability, of the distance between them and Westminster.
By giving the interviewees a space to voice their opinions, the film shows the complexities and contradictions of collective democratic decision-making, challenging lazy narratives about what caused Brexit and why people voted Leave or Remain.
But the film never passes judgement.
‘It was never made to be an activist film for Leave or Remain,’ says Kelly. It’s a sociological portrait of a country.’
Shot in black and white, the documentary feels like a historical record. The interviews are interspersed with shots of the sea, soil, white cliffs, and British flags.
Gary points to his forearm and says ‘English is that colour.’
This “Rule, Britannia” imagery juxtaposed with the range of characters – from the dejected to the defiant – in the mundane setting of their everyday lives portrays a nation struggling to define itself.
Several of the interviewees in the film live up to the clichés about Leave/Remain voters.
Like Gary, who – sitting with a pint-sipping mate in the corner of a pub – points to his forearm and says ‘English is that colour,’ or the blustering man in a field wearing a Slazenger t-shirt who dreams of sending the Europeans home and forcing his employers to give him a payrise because there are no more polish workers to undercut him: ‘why should we help out? No one ever helps us.’
Such people yearn for an idealised Britain of old. A Britain that was once Great.
Similarly, there is the classic young, urban, Remain voter, who describes people who voted Leave as less educated – ‘coming to a pro-Remain position takes more reading.’
But others confound the stereotypes, such as the second generation British-Ghanaian woman whose parents voted Leave because they felt people had started to ‘take the mickey out of the [immigration] system.’ It’s too easy now, she says, for people to come to the UK ‘and go straight on benefits.’
Or the bald man from Plymouth, standing with his coffee in front of a lighthouse, who eloquently explains that the Brexit vote wasn’t all down to racism and xenophobia:
‘There are not 17.5 million racists in Britain.’
Then there is the fisherman who describes how the British fishing industry gets a rough deal from the EU:
‘Over 60% of the fish caught within Europe is caught within British water.’
There is the young white working-class woman from the North East who describes explaining to her Dad at the working men’s club why foreign labour is not to blame for job losses:
‘Who do you know that’s lost their house or their job to an immigrant?’
Or the old lady from Liverpool who describes her first reaction to the news of the referendum result:
‘A terrible shock when I got up in the morning and realised we were out. I just sat and cried.‘
And the Muslim woman, and Remain voter, who was subjected to racial abuse while sitting in her car the day after Brexit:
‘Simply because of the colour of our skin, all of a sudden we don’t belong,’ she says. ‘As a Muslim woman – and for my two daughters – I feel desperately unsafe, and desperately unhappy.’
It is unclear which way many of the other interviewees voted, which is telling.
It shows how futile the regressive – yet commonplace – practice of defining people by their Brexit stance (something many of us are guilty of) really is.
Besides, for many of the disenfranchised, predominantly working-class interviewees, nothing has changed since Brexit and they don’t expect it to.
‘The southeast of the country… is where all the work and everything is,’ says a grey-haired man sitting in a small front room. ‘Brexit doesn’t matter, because we’ve got nothing anyhow.’
Brexitannia portrays a downcast and deeply divided nation, humiliated by industrial decline and its waning global stature.
What attitude to adopt, then to move past these divisions, starting with the Leave-Remain dichotomy?
‘To put the burden of Brexit on a sort of mindless nationalism of those types of workers, families and cities, that have lost so much ground because of the financialising, the corporatising, and the internationalising of our national economies,’ argues sociologist Saskia Sassen, ‘is truly unfair. More importantly perhaps, that doesn’t get us anywhere.’
Pro-EU viewers will find some of the justifications for voting Leave featured in the film hard to stomach, and the frequent expression of borderline racist views is depressing.
But by the end of Brexitannia there is an overwhelming sense that ‘the people’ – all of them – are in fact victims. Victims of the failures of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism ‘undermines democracy by taking decisions from people and placing them in the hands of private power,’ says Noam Chomsky. ‘That in itself is anti-democratic, and it also turns out to be harmful to much of the population.’
There is an overwhelming sense that ‘the people’ – all of them – are in fact victims.
This, in turn, raises a difficult question. If you accept ‘the experts” premise and agree that the scapegoating of migrants and people of colour for the decline of the white working class is a diversionary tactic, then how much is Gary himself to blame for his racist views?
Besides posing probing questions about what it means to be British, Brexitannia also offers a glimpse into the lives of many frustrated working-class Leave voters, who feel the voting booth is the only place they can make their voices heard.
‘Brexit was one of these vary rare opportunities to say fuck off to the government.’
While Remainers who are still sore about Brexit may not agree with such rationale, they can certainly understand the pain of feeling let down by their own country.
Perhaps, in the most British way possible, recognition of this universal feeling of resentment could be the first step towards reconciling the divisions that Brexit has perpetuated.
‘Brexit is partly a cry of help, it’s a cry. There is pain in the success of Brexit. It represents pain, and that is the people who are left behind.’
Brexitannia will be screening for the first time in London on Friday 23rd, during the East End Film Festival. It will be followed by a Q&A with the director and a special panel. Click here for the Facebook event.