Last Monday, Mr Cameron tried to sell his "new settlement" with the EU to the members of the House of Commons. The website of The Guardian provided live coverage of the debate, which, to a continental outsider, closely mimicked the mores of the sort of posh debating clubs that Evelyn Waugh portrayed. But that's beside the point here. I would instead like to draw attention to Mr Corbyns intervention, which turned the political positions of left and right concerning the EU into the exact opposite of what it is on the continent, raising the question to what extent politicians in the UK have truely, really understood what is the nature of this beast. I venture that they have not. For if they had, conservatives would be fully in favour of market making Europe, while labour would just as enthusiastically reject that very same Europe. Instead, Mr Corbyn in his speech sounded like your average social liberal "europhile", as they are known on the continent, with Mr Verhofstadt, chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of the European Parliament, as its best known (and most hated) incarnation.
Here is a bit of close reading of (parts of) Mr Corbyns House of Commons speech from last Monday to back that up.
"The Labour party and the trade union movement are overwhelmingly for staying in because we believe that the EU has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and environment and we are convinced that a vote to remain is in the best interests of the people..."
In my humble opinion, it is sort of self-defeating for a critic of globalized, financialised capitalism, which I take Mr Corbyn to be, to use such a statement as your opening gambit. It very much reminds me of the statement of a Dutch senator from the Green Left about "globalization being a given". You simply give the whole political game away if this is your starting point. Since the EU is predominantly about the Common Market and its four freedoms of movement (of labour, capital, goods and services), it has been responsible for a huge shift in bargaining power between capital and labour, benefiting the first and harming the latter. The Common Market has resulted in a geographical redistribution of corporate functions, which has eroded national tax bases due to tax evasion, has harmed the middle classes by shifting manufacturing jobs to low wage jurisdictions, has in the process ramped up income inequalities, and has resulted in huge macroeconomic imbalances, both within the EU as a whole (surpluses and deficits) and within member states individually (debt driven versus export led growth).
As mainstream social scientists like Wolfgang Streeck and Fritz Scharpf have been emphasizing for decades now, due to asymmetries in EU decision making processes 'negative integration' (ie the harmonization of market rules through deregulation, liberalization, flexibilisation and privatization) almost always takes precedence over 'positive integration' (ie the introduction of protective social measures at the EU level). Moreover, there is now an extensive academic literature on how the democratic deficit at the heart of the European institutions has created a democratic vacuum which has been skillfully filled by corporate lobbyists, which have turned Brussels into a lobby heaven that is comparable only to Washington in terms of its size and its effect. The EU erodes what democracy is all about: equal political voice rights for all citizens and full accountability of representatives.
It is beyond me why someone like Mr Corbyn is unable to see the EU for what it's worth, namely a political machine for the furthering of large corporate interests and for disempowering citizens. And it is simply silly to parade some cosmetic EU regulation on the "protection of workers, consumers and the environment", as Mr Corbyn does, as sufficient compensation for the extreme loss of power workers and citizens have experienced because of European integration. Rather, these measures logically follow from the four freedoms that are at the heart of the Common Market and should be seen for what they are: rules to further the mercantile project that is at the heart of modern Europe. No more, no less.
Here it is interesting to contrast Mr Corbyns endorsement of European micro regulation with Mr Johnsons rejection of it. In a piece that was published in The Telegraph in which Mr Johnson explained his motives for backing Brexit, he basically identified two Europe's. The Europe of the Common Market, which is the good, neoliberal Europe. And the Europe of meddling busy bees, which is the bad Europe and is only producing red tape, stands in the way of competitiveness and entrepreneurialism and should hence be rejected. Just as Mr Johnson fails to see that micro market regulation is the logical outcome of the four freedoms of the Common Market, so Mr Corbyn fails to acknowledge that his endorsement of micro market regulation ("protection for workers, consumers and environment") implies an endorsement of the Common Market project of which these rules are the product.
Moreover, you would expect someone like Mr Corbyn to be aware that these regulations are pushed through by a bulwark of neoliberalism, namely the European Court of Justice, which is beyond any democratic control. As the secretary of justice, Mr Grove, wrote a couple of days earlier in a blog where he explained his decision to back Brexit:
"It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU but the experience of Government has only deepened my conviction that we need change. Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’. I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter."
To be honest, this is the sort of language that we on the continent would have expected to hear from the true left of, let's say, the Socialist Party from the Netherlands, Die Linke from Germany, Syriza from Greece or Podemos from Spain. Not from a high ranking member of the British Conservative Party. On the continent this has namely been the experience since the outbreak of the eurocrisis. A severe loss of sovereignty under the so-called "excessive deficit procedure" of the European Commission, which has abused its undemocratic prerogatives to push through a neoliberal agenda of market deregulation under the euphemistic heading of "structural reform". Instead, British progressives get a labour leader who voices herbivore endorsements of EU neoliberalism.
Mr Corbyn next sentence is typical for the final line of defense against euroskepticism:
"In the 21st Century as a country and as a continent and indeed as a human race we face some challenging issues - how to tackle climate change, how to address the power of global corporations, how to ensure they pay fair taxes, how to tackle cyber crime and terrorism, how we trade fairly and protect jobs and pay in an era of globalization, how we address the causes of the huge refugee movements across the world, how we adapt to a world where people of all countries move more frequently to live, work and retire. All of these issues are serious, pressing and self evidently can only be solved by international cooperation. (my emphasis) "
Since the issues we face – climate change, corporate power abuses, tax evasion, crime and terrorism, fair trade, refugees, etc. – exceed the boundaries of the nation state, supranational coordination is the only way to solve them. Again it is a line that puts Mr Corbyn squarely within the camp of Mr Verhofstadt and other social liberals of his ilk. Not only that, it contains the same intellectual slippage that the Verhofstadt's of this world so skillfully (ab)use. For while it may be true that at least some of these issues require supranational political cooperation, it doesn't follow that it requires a regional body like the EU. Take climate change. It is not hard to imagine a world without the EU where a similar treaty like the Paris agreement on climate change would just as easily have been struck. Moreover, regarding a substantial number of the issues Mr Corbyn mentions the EU is actually blocking progress rather than facilitating it.
Tax evasion is a case in point. Member states like Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands, which are the largest benificiaries of the current international tax landscape, have for decades now abused their veto positions to block any initiative to tackle tax base erosion at the European level. The EU is in many instances not a solution to the collective action problems thrown up by an international Hobbesian world, as Mr Corbyn seems to think, but boils down to the constitutionalization of collective deadlock on issues which matter most to the large corporate interests that have become the most important constituency of the politicians that occupy the European seats of power. Again, the EU is designed to bulldozer over national restrictions on capital movement ("negative integration") while simultaneously constraining any political initiative to develop such restraints at the European level (a prohibition on "positive integration").
Hence there is nothing "self evident" about the EU as solver of international problems. The rhetoric of self evidence suggests that Mr Corbyn either lacks real arguments or is subject to a similar kind of quasi-religious identification of European integration with progress that characterizes the political establishment on the continent. Anything that is presented as "self evident" is automatically immunized from serious public debate. Again, it is a political strategy that comes straight from the rule book of continental "europhiles". It surprises me to see Mr Corbyn in that camp.
The quote concludes as follows:
"The European Union will be a vital part of how we as a country meet those challenges, therefore it’s more than disappointing that the prime minister’s deal has failed to address a single one of those issues. The reality is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent, neither has it been about the issues facing the people of Britain, indeed it’s been a theatrical sideshow about trying to appease, or failing to appease, half of the prime minister’s own Conservative party."
This may well be a correct reading of Cameron's political play. But as a conclusion it is extremely superficial. Again, the EU is seen as the solution to "the challenges facing our continent", in the light of the highly slanted reading of those challenges which Mr Corbyn has given. For a truly progressive take on the EU would immediately have recognized that the EU itself is the cause of many of these challenges. Tax evasion, privatization of utilities, precariatization of labour, disempowerment of citizens – to name but a few. From a continental perspective one can only wonder why Labour keeps misreading the nature of the European beast. Mr Corbyn and team would be well advised to reconsider and shift their support from the "inners" to the "outers". For one, it would make for a welcome wake up call for continental European elites that the EU increasingly stands in between citizens on the one hand and democracy and prosperity on the other.