1. SOME INTRODUCTORY OBSERVATIONS
Perhaps the single most important event in European history following WWII was the establishment of what is now called the European Union. Perhaps as important an event in the early-21st century is what we have come to know as the Brexit Movement. And it is as important because such Movement seems to truly threaten the EU establishment.
The Brexit Movement, which must be seen as an organic and vanguard part of the anti-EU Movement throughout Europe, threatens the EU establishment because it doubts the political and ideological status quo of that establishment. We know that, in the course of the previous century, it was the European Left that had posed some kind of a “threat” to the established order, with powerful Communist Parties in countries such as France and Italy, and with the as powerful British Labour Party (we need remember leaders such as Michael Foot, who had been fighting for British withdrawal from the then European Economic Community).
The 21st century has witnessed the veritable death of the Left, and especially so of the “communist Left”. The fact is that whatever grassroots political challenge to the present-day EU establishment emanates from the popular, patriotic “Right” – and which is hegemonic enough to absorb large segments of civil society, whatever be the ideological inclinations of such civil society. In the UK, the powerful Brexit Movement expresses a civil society beyond traditional Left-Right divisions – it represents a society defending social stability, security, national culture and traditions and, above all, national sovereignty. To defend just such values is “revolutionary”, if only because it is these values – won through long struggles and ensuring the participation of civil society in democratic decision-making processes – that the EU establishment plans to eradicate. It is precisely such “revolutionism” that has been attracting the youth of the UK to such Movement.
But to what precise extent does the Brexit Movement in fact threaten the EU establishment? Is it possible that, were Britain to decide to exit the EU, this would start a domino effect leading to generalized exits? While there might be some truth in such thinking, one should also keep in mind that each EU member state is beset by problems specific to itself that cannot allow for whatever sweeping generalizations. Member states, as it were, follow their own time-tables. Yet still, such time-tables are not airtight systems immune to what happens within the EU as a whole.
At least one thing is for certain: the EU establishment fears Brexit. One can see this from the manner in which the European Council has tried to avert it. We know how it engaged in marathonic negotiations with the UK Government in February 2016, offering the UK a “special status” within the EU. And one should note the central role that Germany played in trying to avert a Brexit.
The EU, moreover, can see that the Brexit Movement has the capacity to redefine and reestablish the political clout of referendums. While the EU bureaucrats have always turned a deaf ear to all referendums – ignoring results in countries such as Holland, France, Ireland and Greece – this time they know that a Brexit victory could rock the structural foundations of the EU.
But whatever the actual results of the June 23 UK referendum, the Brexit Movement is in itself a socio-political event of major historical proportions. Its very existence constitutes a psychological consolidation of the anti-EU movements across the European continent. And it consolidates because Brexit is not a flash in the pan phenomenon: it must be understood as a long-term movement organizing masses of people at grassroots level. The grassroots campaign itself has constituted a form of political education, something almost forgotten in the post-modern world. Not since the decade of the 1960’s has such a sizeable number of the UK masses experienced a sense of collectivity and a continual training in organizational skills. Even Paul de Grauwe, of the LSE – who is himself highly hostile to the idea of Brexit – can only but admit the permanence of the Brexit phenomenon. Even if the Brexit campaign fails to win the day, he has argued, its supporters shall not give up the fight for national independence. He has even suggested that, in the event of a failure in the referendum, the Brexit Movement is capable of destructuring the EU from the inside (functioning as a “Trojan Horse”, as he has put it).
2. UNDERSTANDING THE BREXIT MOVEMENT – THE GENERAL CONTEXT: POST-1989 GERMANIC HEGEMONY WITHIN THE EU
Both Brzezinski in 1997 and Kissinger in 2014 have pointed to the historical fact that, following the unification of Germany in 1989-1990, the German State was to reemerge as the hegemonic power within what is now the EU. Brzezinski has argued that such hegemony allows it to intervene, inter alia, in the region it had traditionally been interested in, the area referred to as Mitteleuropa. Kissinger has pointed to the fact that the post-1989 period would see a change in the balance of overall power within Europe, stamped by the rise of German hegemonic power. Whatever structural or institutional regulations within the EU meant to contain Germanic power would be nullified by the sheer fact of reality – and the reality was that Germany was, yet once more, the most powerful European nation-state.
We may here add a number of observations pertaining to the question of Germanic hegemony and the forms that it has been taking. While it would be the reunification of Germany that would set the stage for hegemony (this would be apparent by the time the Schrӧder government would come to power in 1998), the real thrust would come by the early-21st century. The role of Germany as a geo-economic and geo-strategic power would be truly boosted following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and as such crisis penetrated Europe. It was especially in the wake of this crisis that such role would be solidified, under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, starting from 2005. Her specific Chancellorship would be forged in just such context of economic crisis in Europe.
How would Germany make use of the economic crisis to bolster its hegemony? Within the eurozone, Germany’s trade surpluses would mean that highly indebted countries would be forced to enter the vicious circle of continual borrowing. This would further mean that Germany would come to enjoy unfair competitive advantages from the weak euro at the expense of others. Parenthetically, it is of some interest to note that such practices of unfair competition need be contrasted to the so-called EU “principles” of free and fair trading practices. In fact, all “principles” of the EU – including those covering “human rights” – would come to be used as ideological tools used to pursue specific policies on the part of a German-controlled EU (we shall have to come back to the limits of such “control”, and which would contextualize the emergence of the Brexit Movement).
Now, the bolstering of Germanic hegemony would lead to a specific foreign policy rationale. As regards the world as a whole, Germany’s leading foreign policy rationale may be said to be dictated by the grammar of geo-economics. As regards Europe in particular (the whole of the continent, and right up to Kiev), we may say that its leading rationale is a combination of geo-economic and geo-political interventionism.
Deeply embedded in the thinking of the German State we see a “logic” which is highly reminiscent of Clausewitz: in the post-modern world, the logic of war translates into the grammar of commerce. But further, the logic of war can also translate into the grammar of political intervention (as in the case of Greece, though not exclusively so). And further still, the logic of war translates into the grammar of ideological discourse (“political correctness” and “multiculturalism”). Of course, the logic of war can also translate into the grammar of war itself (as in Ukraine). Generally speaking, one may say that the gradual emergence of a geo-economic and geo-political Germany has meant that this nation-state has come to organize its policies, both within the EU and internationally, around one central axis – that of its national interests. It is moving, as the analyst K. Kausch and others have suggested, “in pursuit of narrow national interests”. This “narrowness” would ultimately mutate into a form of supremacist nationalism.
This is the very stage – a post-modern Clausewitzian theatre of “war” – wherein the Brexit Movement would emerge. As we shall see, it would be the internal contradictions of such theatre – the latter being the EU itself – that would actually allow for the emergence of such Movement.
3.THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE EU, AND POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS
It is well known that the EU is beset by an orrery of internal contradictions. One is the uneven economic development running right across the continent, and which yields a division of labour characterized by highly advanced capitalist formations at the one end of the scale and dependent capitalist formations at the other extreme end. There are also major differences in cultural and ideological practices across the continent, all of which are expressions of different historical backgrounds. But the essential point here is that all such contradictions and differences come to fuse and are materialized within the different nation-states that make up the EU.
The implications of this are obvious to all careful observers: one can see that the EU is characterized by a number of divisive lines that are geographically delineated and that continually threaten its structural unity. One may speak of a major divisive line between East and West. One may also speak of yet another major divisive line between North and South. Such divisions are quite well known. But one may also speak of a West versus South divide, and so on. Britain, for instance, has (quite naturally) not wanted to participate in measures meant to protect the euro in cases of financial crisis that have beset countries of Southern Europe. Further, Britain has (again quite understandably) come into conflict with Eastern European countries over the question of immigrants coming from that region, and the issue of their welfare rights. Yet another conflictual relationship, which is again regionally-based and involving nation-states, raised its head when Dutch referendum voters overwhelmingly rejected closer EU links with Ukraine in April, 2016.
The central most important point one needs to make here is that Germanic hegemony within the EU has been based on a continual manipulation of these multiple contradictions – using its economic clout and concomitant political influence, it has come to adopt the role of “coordinator”, “organizer” and “go-between” of such orrery of contradictions. It is precisely by playing one country off against another that it is able to assert its political hegemony.
But things can work the other way round: both the multiplicity of contradictions and the manipulation of these can yield a boomerang effect. One may say that the Brexit Movement has pointed to just such manipulation and such real contradictions to expose the deficiencies and dangers of the EU. So have the rest of the anti-EU movements in Europe as a whole. Popular dissent against the EU – not only as regards its ultimate convergence, but the very raison d’être of such supranational structure – is on the upswing.
4. ATTEMPTS TO DEAL WITH THE DISSENT OF EUROPEAN CIVIL SOCIETY
We know that the EU has traditionally attempted to “integrate” the peoples of Europe through its bureaucratic structures and the continual reinforcement and expansion of its various administrative organs. To the extent that we have an upsurge of popular eurosceptically-inclined dissent within a series of nation-states, one may speak of an “imposed integration”, and which has led to a serious “democratic deficit” within EU member states.
But we as well know that no dissent can be regulated and absorbed through mere bureaucratic structures (or even through the exercise of a whole range of economically interventionist tools). In fact, the power of the EU is materialized by maintaining a balance between, on the one hand, bureaucratic control/economic tools and, on the other, the organization of ideological hegemony via pro-EU local elites located in each nation-state respectively. It is these local elites that control important ideological structures such as the mass media.
British society knows full well how such mass media function so as to pursue a “fear project”, terrorizing people about the possible consequences of a Brexit (Greek civil society is itself highly experienced with respect to such potentially traumatizing ideological tactics). And further, we also know that whatever Eurosceptic (or patriotic) position is being systematically rejected as either “ultra-Right extremism” or even as “fascism”.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
The exercise of Germanic hegemony over the peoples of European nation-states has its limits – factors delimiting hegemony include the following: a) the very usage of bureaucratic mechanisms to impose EU policies has its inherent bounds, and this is so as it amounts to forms of anti-democratic control obvious to the naked eye; b) the very fact that one sees a continuing resilience of nation-states and especially nation-state consciousness, despite attempts at “integration”; c) the threat of immigration (consider, for instance, what has been said about granting visas to 75 million Turks, etc.); d) the ensuing crisis of multiculturalism; e) perhaps most importantly, a provocative unwillingness – on the part of the EU – to promote and uphold traditional Western values, and which amounts to a rather conspicuous cultural anti-Westernism (the possible consequences of which have been perceptively discussed by Kissinger himself, the latter relating such anti-Westernism to the ideological principle of “tolerance”).
But if such factors may explain the limits to hegemony across the European continent – and which are limits that apply unevenly from country to country – there are even more specific factors pertaining to UK civil society which can potentially debunk whatever hegemonic pretensions on the part of EU political discourse, and it is such potential debunking that has given birth to a movement such as Brexit. In the case of the UK, the limits to EU hegemony are prescribed by the leverage power of that country and, concomitantly, by the leverage power of UK civil society itself. At the level of ideology and culture, one may enumerate a number of factors that allow UK civil society to assert its independence of the EU, and which of course relates to the history of Britain itself: a) the deep tradition of its struggles as a people, whether that be the formation of a specifically national working class (as so brilliantly described by the historian E.P. Thompson) or its well-known role in WWII; b) its long tradition of global power, now still traceable in the form of the Royal Commonwealth Society, composed of 53 independent countries; c) its deep national and cultural consciousness, stretching from the likes of a Shakespeare and through to The Beatles. The vast majority of Britons are well aware of the global effects of their Industrial Revolution and of the global status of their language. Such defining characteristics of a people can potentially empower it to doubt whatever interventions emanating from EU bureaucratic dictums.
All this, it goes without saying, is not meant to belittle the history and culture of the rest of the peoples of Europe. But the point here is that, in direct contrast to the rest of the European peoples, the national consciousness of the British is compounded and reinforced by the fact that their country has always kept its distances from the EU and especially the eurozone. It is this combination of national consciousness and the maintained distances from the EU that yields the leverage of UK civil society as such.
Both Kissinger and especially Brzezinski have pointed to this relative distance that Britain has always maintained vis-à-vis the EU. Even as early as 1953, Britain’s official representative at the Messina Conference, Sir Roy Denman, would address the architects of the EU with the words: “au revoir et bonne chance”. This relative autonomy, and especially the fact that Britain would stick to its own currency, enhances the leverage power of British civil society itself. It is this reality that constitutes the launching pad of the Brexit Movement.
5. THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
The exercise of Germanic hegemony over the peoples of European
nation-states has its limits – factors delimiting hegemony include the
following: a) the very usage of bureaucratic mechanisms to impose EU
policies has its inherent bounds, and this is so as it amounts to forms of
anti-democratic control obvious to the naked eye; b) the very fact that one
sees a continuing resilience of nation-states and especially nation-state
consciousness, despite attempts at “integration”; c) the threat of
immigration (consider, for instance, what has been said about granting
visas to 75 million Turks, etc.); d) the ensuing crisis of
multiculturalism; e) perhaps most importantly, a provocative unwillingness
– on the part of the EU – to promote and uphold traditional Western values,
and which amounts to a rather conspicuous cultural anti-Westernism (the
possible consequences of which have been perceptively discussed by
Kissinger himself, the latter relating such anti-Westernism to the
ideological principle of “tolerance”).
But if such factors may explain the limits to hegemony across the European
continent – and which are limits that apply unevenly from country to
country – there are even more specific factors pertaining to UK civil
society which can potentially debunk whatever hegemonic pretensions on the
part of EU political discourse, and it is such potential debunking that has
given birth to a movement such as Brexit. In the case of the UK, the limits
to EU hegemony are prescribed by the leverage power of that country and,
concomitantly, by the leverage power of UK civil society itself. At the
level of ideology and culture, one may enumerate a number of factors that
allow UK civil society to assert its independence of the EU, and which of
course relates to the history of Britain itself: a) the deep tradition of
its struggles as a people, whether that be the formation of a specifically
national working class (as so brilliantly described by the historian E.P.
Thompson) or its well-known role in WWII; b) its long tradition of global
power, now still traceable in the form of the Royal Commonwealth Society,
composed of 53 independent countries; c) its deep national and cultural
consciousness, stretching from the likes of a Shakespeare and through to
The Beatles. The vast majority of Britons are well aware of the global
effects of their Industrial Revolution and of the global status of their
language. Such defining characteristics of a people can potentially empower
it to doubt whatever interventions emanating from EU bureaucratic dictums.
All this, it goes without saying, is not meant to belittle the history and
culture of the rest of the peoples of Europe. But the point here is that,
in direct contrast to the rest of the European peoples, the national
consciousness of the British is compounded and reinforced by the fact that
their country has always kept its distances from the EU and especially the
eurozone. It is this combination of national consciousness and the
maintained distances from the EU that yields the leverage of UK civil
society as such.
Both Kissinger and especially Brzezinski have pointed to this relative
distance that Britain has always maintained vis-à-vis the EU. Even as early
as 1953, Britain’s official representative at the Messina Conference, Sir
Roy Denman, would address the architects of the EU with the words: “au
revoir et bonne chance”. This relative autonomy, and especially the fact
that Britain would stick to its own currency, enhances the leverage power
of British civil society itself. It is this reality that constitutes the
launching pad of the Brexit Movement.
6. THE BREXIT MOVEMENT, AND UKIP
There is definitely a wide variety of political and social currents that have come to compose the Brexit Movement. And yet, at least in the specifically ideological terrain, one may argue that it is UKIP which has set the agenda for exiting the EU. As such, it may be said to constitute the vanguard force behind that Movement.
It is often suggested that it was the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party that would ultimately oblige Cameron to proceed with the June 23 referendum. But one needs to understand that both UKIP and the Conservative Party are riding a wave of mass, popular Euroscepticism that is forcing almost everyone on the political scene at large to adjust accordingly (the manner of adjustment on the part of the Labour Party calls for a special analysis). We know that the NatCen Social Research report of 2015 found that 63% of Britons are inclined to be Eurosceptic. While the Conservative Party elite had no choice but adjust to such reality, UKIP had already articulated a cohesive discourse of Euroscepticism that would prophetically reflect the looming grassroots psychology.
More than that, UKIP has been able to express a positive, popular ideology of assertive patriotism that lies well beyond a merely negative dissent against the failings of the EU. It has played a major role in “organizing” the spontaneous upsurge of national consciousness, highlighting the importance of cultural cohesion – and thereby systematically exposing the EU ideology of multiculturalism. As importantly, the UKIP movement has steered clear of racism and whatever forms of “hate speech” – as such, its role in political debate has helped unite at least that part of civil society that is opposed to the EU in a myriad of ways.
7. BEYOND 20TH CENTURY STANDARD IDEOLOGIES
Both the wider Brexit Movement at grassroots level and UKIP itself express a post-20th century ideological discourse – what we see here is a discourse beyond the traditional Left-Right division. The common cause for national independence has translated into a de facto alliance between UKIP, the anti-EU wing of the Conservative Party, and an important block within the Labour Party which is itself clearly anti-EU (and which therefore remains consistent with the 1979 Labour Manifesto against the then EEC). That the ideological discourse of the Brexit Movement has overcome much of the Left-Right divisions of the past renders it a par excellence movement of the 21st century – the struggles of this century can only but be around the destruction or salvaging of nation-states (the supremacy of nation-states as sovereign, independent entities dates back, at least theoretically, to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and which has since constituted a geo-political “Order” that is now being challenged by the so-called “NWO”).
The Brexit Movement encompasses a section of the Labour Party. The anti-EU block within that Party is said to be in the minority, albeit constituting a highly significant current, at least for ideological reasons. Kate Hoey, Labour Party MP since 1989 and once member of the International Marxist Group, has stated that approximately 40% of Labour supporters are in favour of leaving the EU. On the other hand, the Trades Union Congress has officially stated that it is opposed to Brexit. It is said that the ranks of the Labour Party have been thrown into confusion.
What is the basic position of the anti-EU Labour Party block? This grouping sees migrant labour as essentially cheap labour power, and argues that the EU wishes to make such labour power easily available across Europe and the UK in the interests of multinational corporations (it thus relates the issue of migration to neoliberal globalization plans). As such, the block is for border controls. Such a position, of course, intersects with basic UKIP positions. Much like the Labour minority, UKIP has argued that border controls are necessary for the UK if there is to be a selection of immigrants. Such selection would, inter alia, help protect the wages of British working people – it is said that, since 2004, there has been a drop in worker remuneration amounting to 10%, and that is put down to the use of ultra-cheap migrant labour for the purpose of undercutting wages. Both for the Labour block and UKIP, such undercutting cannot be preempted unless only skilled immigrants are allowed to join the British labour market.
At least as regards the question of worker “protection”, therefore, we see an essential convergence of policy between the traditional Left and UKIP. The UKIP Manifesto states the Party’s position on the issue of British workers as follows: “Our approach… revolves around restoring incentives for workers by cutting taxes and ending the current ‘open door’ arrangement for European labour that has driven down wages in recent years”.
There is yet another extremely important ideological convergence between the Labour block and UKIP: both are opposed to the undemocratic structures and practices of the EU. Hoey has consistently argued that her anti-EU position is meant to uphold the democratic rights of the British working people – the EU “government”, she points out, is unelected and cannot be removed. British civil society needs to reestablish its right to elect its representatives, and such representatives should be accountable to their constituency. UKIP’s emphasis on “direct democracy” – at least in the sense of accountability – is of course well known to all around Europe.
The question of a “democratic deficit” within the EU has also been raised by the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Like UKIP, the anti-EU block within the Conservative Party places a great deal of emphasis on the need to salvage the UK as an independent nation-state, and which would mean freeing it from the interventionist and undemocratic chains of EU bureaucracy. It has adopted such a policy precisely because it has little choice but adjust to the spontaneous anti-EU sentiments of many of its supporters. Boris Johnson, the well-known “One-Nation Tory”, has himself adopted an anti-EU position, arguing that the UK is undergoing a gradual and invisible process of “colonialist occupation” wrought on it by the EU.
It is important to note that the Conservative Party elite fears the Brexit Movement, as it also fears the numerous currents of anti-EU sentiment within its own ranks, potentially functioning as conducting vessels vis-à-vis UKIP ideology. Above all, therefore, it fears an internal division – for that very reason, the party organs of the Conservatives have decided not to actively participate in the referendum campaign as such. To gauge the possible extent of such an internal division, we may cite data released on February 28, 2016 – according to such data, of the 331 Conservative Party MP’s, 160 support remaining within the EU, 151 are for exiting, and 20 remain undecided. Even within the Cameron Cabinet, seven of its Ministers are – or so they claim – for Brexit. Reflecting grassroots anti-EU sentiment, the anti-EU wing of the Conservative Party remains extremely powerful – in the event of the Brexit Movement losing the referendum, such grassroots popular ideology could forge deeper, invisible links with UKIP, and their common aim shall be to undermine EU hegemony in the long run. Anti-EU Conservatives could even cooperate with elements of the Left so as to isolate the Cameron block. Generally speaking, traditional Left-Right divisions cross-cut and may diverge or intersect in accordance with one pertinent issue – that of salvaging national independence.
8. FROM CIVIL SOCIETY TO CAPITAL – THE QUESTION OF “PROTECTING” BRITISH LOCAL CAPITAL
Apart from considering the anti-EU sentiments of large sections of civil society, one also needs to understand the Brexit Movement in terms of the economic interests that either back it or are hostile to it.
What of the position of the various segments of capital operating in the UK with respect to the Brexit issue? It is important to note that the Remain Campaign is being financed, above all, by global Banking/Finance Capital: Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Bloomberg, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup are all for the UK remaining within the EU. They openly finance and speak for the pro-EU campaign. Backers also include the IMF and, of course, Siemens.
In direct contrast, the Brexit Movement is supported by important segments of endogenous small businesses. But support for Brexit goes beyond that: it has been said that Hargreaves Lansdown’s co-founder is one of the biggest backers of the anti-EU campaign, donating £3,2m in support of it. The insurance tycoon Arron Banks, who is also the co-founder of Leave EU, is said to have donated £6m.
It is a complex task – in the absence of the necessary data – to demarcate dividing lines between different segments of capital standing for or against Brexit. Very generally, one can see a conflict of interest between, on the one hand, British local capital and, on the other, global finance capital. One thing seems clear: important segments of endogenous British capital wish to “protect” their interests vis-à-vis global multinational corporations (and seem to be suspicious of the latter’s intentions in pursuing the TTIP).
9. THE POSITION OF THE BRITISH LEFT – AND THE HISTORICAL IMPLICATIONS
Ignoring large sections of civil society – and especially that which belongs to the so-called “Left” – the leadership of the Labour Party has, at least objectively speaking, opted to side with global finance capital in its opposition to the Brexit Movement. It has thus also chosen to ignore the interests of British small businesses. One wonders how the historian of the future will come to assess one of the most unholiest of alliances that has ever been forged in the struggle to support the EU bureaucracy – Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband (son of the brilliant Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband) have joined forces with Cameron, Merkel and Obama in defense of the EU. The “communist” historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had already spoken of “The end of socialism” in his work, “The Age of Extremes” (chapter XVI), which he located in the 1980’s. By 1994, he could sense that the 21st century would be quite unpredictable. But only the very cynical could possibly have predicted an alliance between the Labour Party with the elite of the Conservative Party, the representative of German State Nationalism, and the representative of US imperialism. That, surely, further verifies that the Left-Right divisions of the 20th century are more or less dead and gone. As Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, has put it: “There is nothing more modern than nationalism”. The Brexit Movement, of course, is part and parcel of such post-modern reality. And the essence of such reality is that the democratic nation-state – as has been lived by European civil society thus far – is clearly up for grabs. The rejuvenation of national consciousness is near-predictable.
Panagiotis Tourikis (“Nikos Vlachos”), 12.6.2016.