Europe in the Aftermath of the Brexit Shock
Report from the CWI School
Brexit provided the dramatic backdrop to the discussion on Europe at the 2016 Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) School. Three hundred and twenty comrades from Socialist Alternative and its sister organisations in thirty two countries (from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America) attended the week-long event of discussion and debates, which was held in Belgium from 17-23 July.
Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party and member of the CWI’s International Secretariat introduced the opening plenary discussion on Europe. This is an edited version of Peter’s speech and the discussion that followed, by Kevin Parslow, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales).
This year’s CWI School met in the aftermath of the UK vote for ‘Brexit’ in the 23 June referendum. This has undoubtedly shocked the capitalist class in Britain and worldwide. The school’s first session discussed these important developments and their effects in Europe, led off by Peter Taaffe from the International Secretariat (IS) of the CWI.
The terrible events in Nice, which saw scores killed by a truck deliberately driven into crowds, and the attempted coup in Turkey had also occurred just before the school. Coskcu from Turkey said the coup attempt would mean more undemocratic measures will be imposed on the masses. The CWI opposed the coup but of course there can be no confidence in President Erdogan acting to defend democratic and workers’ rights. In fact the opposite, as he uses the failed coup as a pretext to arrest thousands and to brutally clamp down on democratic rights.
The whole of world capitalism is in crisis, with no real recovery from the meltdown of 2007-08 and workers enduring severe decreases in income. This explains the ongoing revolt of the masses worldwide, which is fuelling populist movements.
Europe and in particular Britain, along with US and the Sanders movement are currently at the forefront of developments. Because of the weight of British capitalism, ‘Brexit’ represents a giant boulder dropped into a lake. There will be an immediate ripple effect but the repercussions will be felt for months and years.
To give a measure of the potential scale of this crisis, the UK has the second biggest economy in the EU and fifth in the world. As a comparison, its economy is 15 times bigger than Greece, which confronted ejection from the euro and the EU in 2015.
The consequences of the referendum were expressed by a front cover of the Economist magazine entitled ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – referencing the 40th anniversary of the punk rock phenomenon! The rise in discontent reflects how capitalist globalisation has stored up mass indignation, which is used to inflict blows on the elite.
There is now deep gloom amongst the European capitalists and their political representatives. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, facing pressure from the populist-right anti-immigrant, Party for Freedom (PVV) which is ahead in national opinion polls, bluntly stated: “England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically.”
Brexit has put a new independence referendum in Scotland on the agenda. Prime minister of the Spanish state Rajoy warned of consequences for the national question, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Sinn Féin immediately called for a new poll on the Irish border, which risks causing a rise in sectarianism. Kevin Henry from Northern Ireland said that Sinn Féin leaders’ state that Northern Ireland was forced out of the EU by “Little Englanders”.
The UK referendum was seen as a way of saving British Prime Minister David Cameron’s skin and healing the rifts in the Tory party by ceding to the demands of the right in the party. Yet it has had exactly the opposite effect, as we predicted. This is probably the biggest setback to the world position of British imperialism since 1945, certainly since the Suez adventure in 1956.
Leaders on both sides of the referendum campaign toppled like ninepins! Cameron has been relegated to history, Boris Johnson, who led the ‘Leave’ campaign and was expected to inherit the crown, was stabbed in the back by fellow Cabinet minister and prominent Leave supporter Michael Gove, then became Foreign Secretary while Gove was sacked from the Cabinet! Nigel Farage resigned as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The infighting widened splits in Tory party to ‘Grand Canyon proportions’. New Prime Minister Theresa May will try and paper over the cracks but it will be difficult to achieve in the midst of the Brexit negotiations.
The Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) said the far right would seek to exploit nationalism and immigration but that ‘Leave’ would basically be a class vote against the elite. We have to fight racism wherever and however it arises. Young people voted by a huge majority to ‘Remain’ for basically internationalist reasons: freedom to travel study and work where they wish, and a rejection of nationalism.
Those who have implied the vote is a dramatic qualitative swing towards the right misunderstand the current class relationship of forces. Some of our critics on the left have even accused the CWI of ‘ultra-leftism’ but it is they who have greatly exaggerated the possibilities for reaction, at this stage. Look what happened in the aftermath of this severe defeat for the decisive sections of the capitalist class. Former Chancellor Osborne retreated on his previous policies of severe austerity, May made noises about scaling down the attacks on the working class, and Gove talked about ‘too much inequality’!
Cameron’s resignation could have precipitated a general election and the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour pushed into power. Then there would have been colossal pressure for change and an entirely new dynamic would have opened up.
This possibility is confirmed by the ferocious campaign against Corbyn in the capitalist press. Unprecedented humiliation has been heaped on him and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) demands that he should go. Blair thinks Corbyn is ‘dangerous’ despite Blair being utterly discredited by the recent Chilcott Inquiry on the Iraq war.
Mini strike wave
Instead, confidence has been rising, with a mini-strike wave, exemplified by the junior doctors’ dispute and action involving teachers, rail workers and others. Trade union conferences have also taken radical decisions, such as the Rail Maritime Transport union (RMT) continuing its support for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The GMB general union supported needs budgets in local authorities along the lines of the epic Liverpool struggle. This is a vital argument against those right-wing councillors who make cuts and demand Corbyn’s replacement.
Whoever wins the leadership election, the likely outcome will be two parties, with one purged of the right that will fight austerity. It will be better to have a mass party with a smaller group of MPs than this present messy compromise, which could eventually wear out support for Corbyn. However, he is likely to win the leadership contest hands down.
The referendum result has had repercussions throughout Europe. Lucy Redler from Germany pointed out that there was not a week without crisis in EU. It was a “spring and summer of discontent in the EU”: The EU had told Ireland it could not abolish the hated Water Tax, stronger militarisation of the EU had been proposed and more opposition to the ‘unreformable’ EU was raising its head.
Tanja from Belgium said the EU establishment was trying to prevent ‘contagion’.
Danny from the International Secretariat said the EU question has divided the left in Europe and become a microcosm of the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary approach, and this was now beginning to open up divisions in left organisations.
In reality, Peter continued, there is a huge eurosceptic mood in most countries. About 53% in an opinion poll in France want a referendum on EU membership; there are similar figures for the Netherlands, although in neither country is there a majority yet for leaving the EU.
Greece, following the EU-imposed austerity, is now the most Eurosceptic; 92% believe the EU badly handled the crisis. Not so long ago, Greece was the most pro-European country but that was before being placed on the rack of EU austerity. That has led to a collapse in support for the Syriza government to 17% but workers are, at this stage, largely demoralised. This may hand opportunities to the far right/Nazi Golden Dawn, now the third party in opinion polls.
Andros from Xekinima said that for the Greek working class, the most important development has been Brexit. There is very low morale in Greece following the EU-imposed eye-watering austerity but we are helping prepare the forces for future struggles to regain lost income.
The general European economic situation is dire. The Bank for International Settlements remarked in its latest annual report, that the world faces a “risky trinity” of conditions: productivity growth that is unusually low; global debt levels that are historically high because debt has been acting as a political and social substitute for income growth; and room for policy manoeuvre that is remarkably narrow. This is ‘economic speak’ for a drop in wages and income due to the market.
Capitalist commentators fear a domino effect through Europe. Italy could be the next country to follow Britain out of the EU exit door. This would just about finish the EU; already discussions have taken place about a ‘two-tier’ Europe. There is desperate economic stagnation in Italy. Broad swathes of the population have had no rise in living standards for decades.
Now, there is a particular crisis in the banking system, including the world’s oldest bank. Yet the EU is preventing Italian Prime Minister Renzi recapitalising by opposing ‘state intervention’. This is classical neoliberalism and poses further disasters for workers. Italy could be the precursor of developments elsewhere.
A symptom of the crisis is the recent victories of the populist Five Star Movement in the Rome and Turin mayoral elections and its lead in recent opinion polls. Renzi is holding a constitutional referendum in September and may be defeated. He says he would resign if that happens. Social explosions could break out in Italy.
Populist Right danger
In Germany, with the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany – AFD) now at 11%, and die Linke (the Left Party), still on 9% in opinion polls, there is now in effect a five party system. The right-wing FDP, outside the Bundestag at the moment, is also enjoying a revival. Brexit will have important economic effects on Germany. It is reliant on exports to UK, Spain, Italy and Britain.
Austria has entered a serious political crisis with the presidential elections, narrowly won by the Green party’s candidate over the right-wing Freedom Party’s candidate, having to be rerun over a technicality.
Both Austria and Germany highlight the big general crisis of social democratic parties in Europe and around the world, which have lost big support in recent years. A new organisation – perhaps the precursor of new left party – will not take decades to form in Austria. In Germany, die Linke shows the challenges of establishing a new party in this period, where despite massive inequality big mass struggles have yet to break out.
Battling against the far right is a key question and they can fill the vacuum left by the former workers’ parties. The struggle for new independent mass parties is important in this respect.
France has seen the Nuit Debout and fuel protests, and the big strike wave, involving the CGT and other trade union federations, as well as terrorist attacks. French workers have resisted up to now the worst aspects of neoliberalism but President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls are now determined to push through anti-working class ‘reforms’. They have used Bonapartist measures like decrees to avoid defeat. Hollande and Economy Minister Macron stand at historic lows in opinion polls.
A right wing journalist, said Leila from France, claimed “France is facing two dangers: Daesh and the CGT.” But the CGT should have called a general strike. There will probably be a period of big strikes despite the very complicated situation following the terrorist attacks.
Given current polls, Hollande will be defeated in the first round of presidential elections next year, if he stands. The left candidate, Mélenchon, is ahead of him. Marine Le Pen of the far right Front National (FN) is likely to be in the final round of voting. The left will have a dilemma if she is in a run-off with a candidate from the right. Our slogans will be important in such a situation.
Spain has seen two general elections in the last seven months and the left parties, on the joint Unidos Podemos list in June’s elections, lost a million votes between the two. Viki from Spain said this was disappointing for the working class and youth. A ‘Grand Coalition’ of the right-wing Popular Party and the ex-socialist PSOE is most likely to be formed but this will be unstable and lead to new period of struggle.
In Portugal, the Left Bloc and Communist Party’s decision to support the Socialist Party government from the outside was correct and overcame the legacy of previous sectarian influence. But instead of agreeing to a long-term deal, the Left should decide whether to support each piece of legislation, case by case, depending on the interests of the working class.
In Ireland, the seats gained in the Dáil by the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit reflect the success of the anti-water charges campaign. Strikes are developing, as was seen in the recent Dublin tram workers dispute.
Belgium has also seen another strike wave begin. Els from Belgium remarked that on the morning of the UK referendum result, Belgian workers were on strike. The pickets saw Brexit as a victory while their officials thought it was a mistake! There is no lack of combativeness amongst Belgian workers and because of the struggles the government could fall.
In Eastern Europe, the long post-Stalinist ‘winter sleep’ of the working class is possibly coming to an end. Mass uprisings in Macedonia and big protests in Romania have taken place, almost unremarked by the western capitalist media. Alex from Romania commented that Romania has the highest levels of poverty and income inequality in the EU and more people are beginning to challenge the establishment. The Education Minister had to resign after protests over his comments that “free education” was a relic of communism!
Poland is symptomatic of developments in Eastern Europe. Governments there have embraced neo-liberalism but the current politically right-wing nationalist government in Poland, like that of Hungary, has taken a tilt against the market in the direction of ‘state capitalism’. This is an indication of a partial rejection of the effects of the market and the need for a more ‘regulated’ capitalism, including renationalisation. It raises the question of the planned economy and a socialist alternative.
A storm cloud on the horizon in Eastern Europe is the increased tension with Russia, not just over the Ukraine but also the spreading of NATO’s tentacles to the Baltic States.
Peter concluded by stating that we face a new disturbed period in Europe in which there will be elements of revolution including uprisings of the working class. At the same time we will see the hand of reaction and the blind alley of terrorism.
A polarisation is taking place that will not necessarily always take place on clear class lines. But this is provoking discussion and debate and forcing working people and youth to think things out.
The CWI will energetically find the new fighters and win them to our banner, which cannot be achieved through abstract propaganda but by engaging in all the struggles and raising the idea of the socialist change. We have entered a new phase throughout the whole of Europe and we must seize every opportunity to lay the basis for mass parties and the building of the CWI.
Programme and strategy
An excellent discussion was concluded by Hannah from the IS, who mentioned further effects of the referendum that could include a downturn in the UK economy and low consumer spending. But any devaluation of sterling will not have same effect as that following Britain’s ejection from ERM in 1992. This is because of the continuing weakness of British industry. Also the refugee crisis could lead to the fracturing and possible break-up of the Schengen zone. In Scotland, the threat of new independence referendum is more of a bargaining chip than an immediate threat but demand for it could become unstoppable.
The undermining of traditional capitalist parties throughout Europe is clear but in the absence of fighting left organisations we see the rise of right-wing populism. We cannot see the struggle against the far right as separate to the struggle of the workers’ movement against austerity. The workers’ movement in France has engendered division and crisis in the far right FN, just as the Syriza government saw big support from Golden Dawn voters before Syriza’s betrayal in government.
Programme and tactics are very important. In France, there is a ‘mood of ‘strike and strike until we win’, which has its positive aspects but workers cannot win without challenging for power politically, as well. Corbyn’s programme is much weaker than the Bennites in the 1970s and 1980s, who called for nationalisation, but we should not underestimate the pressure from below which could push left parties further than they want to go. The fear of a snap general election forced the capitalists to move but Corbyn has not buckled despite the pressure. The time is for a strategy of action.
There is still a confused level of consciousness and understanding amongst European workers but in new struggles we can look forward to the broader development of a socialist consciousness. That will then pose the changing of society on socialist grounds.