Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctant acceptance of Brexit has virtually ensured the UK’s departure from the EU. But under pressure from Leave supporters and their wealthy backers, has he handed over Europe without a fight?
Unless Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, abandons his support for Brexit, he will risk becoming a political accomplice in what could be the greatest betrayal of British interests since Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous attempt to appease Hitler’s Nazi regime in the 1930s.
At the beginning of 2018, the position of the Labour leadership is that it backs Brexit and opposes a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
Mr Corbyn and his close ally, John McDonnell, recently confirmed Labour’s support for the Conservatives’ hard Brexit policy of withdrawing from the European single market—which accounts for 44 per cent of British exports and provides employment for nearly three million UK workers—and the EU customs union.
The Labour leader said his party would ‘‘honour’’ the decision of the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU, but insisted he would not allow the country to ‘‘go off a cliff in March 2019’’ when Britain’s departure is formally scheduled.
Mr Corbyn said he rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s threat to leave the EU with no deal if the UK Government failed to negotiate an acceptable free trade deal with Brussels, and has argued he favours a ‘‘jobs Brexit’’.
But the position of the Labour leadership is economically puzzling and politically counter-productive.
It is not clear how withdrawing the UK from the world’s largest tariff-free market will enhance or safeguard the large number of British jobs that depend on access to that market.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn’s refusal to advocate for a second EU referendum is emboldening the right wing of the ruling Tory party to push for the very thing the Labour leadership says it does not want – a British departure from the EU without any free-trade deal in place.
It is high time Mr Corbyn faced some inconvenient truths about Brexit.
First, the EU referendum of June 2016 did not provide a definitive and lasting mandate for Brexit. It is absurd to suggest a narrow 3.8 per cent margin of victory for the Leave camp in a non-binding referendum politically justified the greatest change in British external policy since World War Two.
It is the hallmark of a democratic society that dissent is not only tolerated but is part and parcel of political debate, and that political decisions are reversible.
When Mr Corbyn uses expressions like ‘‘the people have spoken’’ or ‘‘the British public has voted to leave the EU’’ and so forth, he knows such statements are misleading.
For example, the Labour leadership does not view the Conservatives’ election victory of 8 June last year as an irreversible event but somehow claims the outcome of the EU referendum is.
Moreover, the integrity of the EU referendum result is now being challenged by allegations concerning Russia’s use of fake Twitter accounts to rally support for Brexit, and the fact many of the promises by the Leave leadership, such as huge funding increases for the NHS (National Health Service) and significant reductions in immigration, have turned out to be largely false.
Second, Mr. Corbyn must jettison the myth that Brexit will help the UK ‘‘take back control’’. In the world of the 21st century, no sovereign states—even superpowers like the US and China—can totally control their destiny.
Like it or not, globalisation has redefined state sovereignty. Today, all states are confronted by economic, security and environmental challenges that transcend territorial boundaries.
Mr Corbyn may dream (like Mrs May) of dictating the terms of Brexit negotiations, but the reality is that Britain ultimately will have to accept the terms handed down by the other 27 independent EU countries.
The conclusion of the first round of Brexit negotiations in December was particularly instructive. Despite much bluster, the May government had to capitulate to all the EU demands in order to move the discussions on to the question of a free-trade agreement in 2018.
And given that almost half of Britain’s exports go to the EU while Britain’s takes less than 10 per cent of its imports from the EU, it is clear which party is in greatest need of a future UK-EU free trade agreement.
But this is only the beginning of the UK’s disempowerment. Slogans like a ‘‘jobs Brexit’’ implies Labour can somehow build socialism in one country after leaving the EU, but such aspirations are divorced from the realities of an interconnected world.
Outside the EU, the UK is both less valuable to other countries and less able to fight for its own interests. It is no coincidence states as large as the US and China and as relatively small as New Zealand have already told the May Government free-trade deals with the EU take priority over any bilateral deals with the UK.
Britain is a middle-size market that does not offer many advantages to larger markets and by leaving the EU it will become internationally less attractive to do business with. Far from boosting Britain’s sovereignty on the international stage, Brexit is rapidly diminishing it.
Third, and not unrelated, the Labour leadership must decisively break with the hard-right economic agenda of the Brexit leadership.
Supported by free-market libertarians like Joe Hargreaves and Aaron Banks, and backed by a cabal of media billionaire cheerleaders like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, Viscount Rothermere, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, the main goal of the well-heeled Brexit backers is to make Britain into a Singapore-style, low-wage, low-benefit and low-regulation economy.
When Brexit leaders refer to casting off the burdens of EU regulations, they are talking about removing the UK from guaranteed workplace standards – paid holidays, protection against discrimination and paternity leave for parents.
The Brexit leaders believe this economic strategy and a new freedom to negotiate free trade deals will kick-start the British economy.
But the UK’s move to isolate itself from the most prosperous tariff-free market of 500 million consumers looks like bad news for the mass of the British population who are already seeing their prosperity, security and liberty significantly decline.
The pound is 20 per cent lower against the euro than it was in 2015, inflation has risen beyond 3 per cent, and the prices of products imported into the UK are soaring.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of national and international firms in London continue relocating their premises to other European countries, with the loss of thousands of jobs in the UK.
If Mr Corbyn wants to win the next general election, he needs to quickly shed his illusions about Brexit and actively oppose a course of action that seeks to advance the interests of the few at the expense of the many in the UK.
Robert G. Patman is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Otago.
This article originally appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 13 January 2018. It is republished with permission.