UK Faces Loss of Labor, Environmental Protections as Brexit Unfolds
Because it is not politically feasible to push for a second referendum, British progressives should pressure the state to maintain regulations that will be lost as the country exits the European Union, says economist John Weeks
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
Britain has officially triggered Brexit, the process of leaving the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament it’s an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.
THERESA MAY: A few minutes ago in Brussels, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the EU handed a letter to the President of the European Council on my behalf, confirming the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
I want the United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united, and more outward looking than ever before.
I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country, a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead, and that is why I have set out a clear and ambitious plan for the negotiations ahead.
It is a plan for a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union; a partnership of values, a partnership of interests, a partnership based on cooperation in areas such as security and economic affairs, and a partnership that works in the best interests of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the wider world because perhaps now, more than ever, the world needs the liberal democratic values of Europe.
AARON MATÉ: The European Council President, Donald Tusk, also spoke in Brussels, holding in his hand Britain’s exit letter. His response was far less upbeat.
DONALD TUSK: So here, these six pages, the notification from Prime Minister Theresa May triggering Article 50. There is no reason to pretend that this is a happy day, right in Brussels, nor in London. After all most Europeans, including almost half the British voters, wish that we would stay together, not drift apart.
As for me, I will not pretend that this is… that I am happy today. There is nothing to win in this process, and I am talking about both sides. In the essence… in essence, this is about damage control.
AARON MATÉ: Joining us to discuss this historic day, and what lies ahead is, John Weeks, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of London, and author of, “Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policies”.
Welcome back to The Real News, Professor Weeks. Talk to us about what’s in this very consequential letter, and your response to it.
JOHN WEEKS: Well, first thing, I think that everyone should be aware is that the… I think for a progressive person, it’s very hard to know which side you’re on. Maybe that’s too simplistic. What I mean is the following. On the one hand, you have a right wing British government whose agenda for pulling out of the European Union is, and has been for quite a while, is getting rid of the human rights protection, labor protection, the environmental protection which the European Union had applied, applies, to all of its members.
So, with motivation on the side of the British government, which is a rather incompetent government, I should add, is to try to create you might say as business-oriented and as anti-labor and anti-consumer exit from the European Union as possible. So that’s what they have in mind.
Over on the European Union side, it’s not much better. Donald Tusk is, after all, a person who was one of the leaders in imposing the extreme austerity on Greece, which has led to absolute human… disastrous human conditions. From the European Union side, the motivation in the negotiations is to try to make the conditions for leaving so severe that no other country or no other government, no other population, will consider voting to leave because they will be fearful it’s so expensive that such costs will be put upon them.
So, we’re facing a situation of two rather venal negotiating groups fighting over narrow… their narrow self-interests.
AARON MATÉ: If that’s the case, if citizens are now caught between these two venal poles, to use your term, what does the future hold for progressive politics as this Brexit process begins?
JOHN WEEKS: Well, it’s really difficult to say. There was a small group of people on the left in Britain who were in favor of leaving of the European Union. I think that they were wrong, but they felt that by leaving the European Union, that the European Union was basically a capitalist club, and that there would be more scope for progressive politics in Britain.
It is unfortunately the case that this is… does the break with the European Union does create opportunities. Unfortunately it is the case that the right is much stronger than the left. I mean, people in the United States coming late to this, you might say the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the mainstream of the Democratic Party created a great opening, a great change. It is unfortunately the case that at the moment it appears that the right wing forces of Donald Trump and his rather extreme supporters are in a better position to take advantage of that than the progressives are.
Okay. So, I’ll answer your question. So what should progressives do? I think their current position of the Labour Party led by my MP, actually, Keir Starmer, is to say we are going to try to prevent an exit which negates the regulations over the environment and workers’ rights, that force the government to promise to enshrine those same rights in British law. Whether or not it will be successful, I don’t know.
Perhaps what I should say is, which you might want to talk about or might not, I think going back blocking Brexit, as it’s called over here, was not really a political option.
AARON MATÉ: How so?
JOHN WEEKS: I think the problem is that the referendum, 52% of those who voted, and it was a relatively high turnout, higher than in the general elections, 52% of voters voted, voted to leave. There is no political party, no major political party – there are three major political parties and none of them are for a second referendum. The Conservatives not for a second referendum because their party is split, and the people for leaving the European Union are strong, and they’ve been strong for a long time, and they’re stronger than ever.
The Labour Party is not for a second referendum, because the leaders of the Labour Party believe that a large portion of supporters of the Labour Party voted to leave, and are afraid that they will lose the support of particularly their working class members if they were to go for a second referendum.
The third largest party, the Scottish Nationalists, they do not want a second referendum because they want a referendum on independence. Which in fact the Scottish Parliament yesterday voted to hold a second referendum on independence.
The only parties that are for a second referendum, which would really be what’s necessary to reverse this process, the only ones are the Liberal Democrats, which have nine out of 650 seats, and the Greens, which have one out of 650 seats.
So, in a different world, might trying to have a second referendum or to get Parliament to treat the referendum only as advisory, not as binding, but that probably… that is not a realistic possibility at the moment.
AARON MATÉ: You mentioned Scotland. I’m wondering if you could break that down for us. The Scottish Parliament has voted in favor of holding a referendum. What does that portend?
JOHN WEEKS: Well, I very much regret to say that it probably indicates a break-up of the United Kingdom. I won’t bore your watchers with a long history, but I’ll give you a few facts. There was 200, well, 300 years ago that Scotland and England joined together to form the United Kingdom. And I think what held Scotland and Britain together were three things. A negative thing was the imperialism, colonialism. Scottish businesses gained a lot from British imperial conquests abroad. The second thing that much more positive that Britain and Scotland had in common, during the 20th century was the trade union movement. The trade union movement was very strong in Scotland and united with trade union in Britain.
However, in the Thatcher era, that began to break down because Scotland is basically a social democratic nation. And the neo-liberalism effects Britain much, much more than Scotland. So this has been building for quite a long time, and at the moment the forces in Scotland that want an independent Scotland are driven, one, by narrow nationalism, but also by feeling that England is essentially a neo-liberal nation and Scotland essentially a social democratic nation, more Scandinavian than British, you might say. And that’s driving the referendum. This will be the second referendum.
The first one was defeated. Fifty-five percent of Scottish –- those who voted –- voted to stay. But things can change now. There’s a very strong support for the European Union. Scotland, well over 60% of the population voted to remain in the European Union in Scotland, and so I think the situation is very, very dangerous – or very… I think a break-up of the United Kingdom is a real possibility.
AARON MATÉ: And Professor Weeks, in this last minute we have, this letter today begins a two-year process. What are the key issues in your mind that are hanging over this process as it begins?
JOHN WEEKS: Well, there was an excellent article today in The Guardian, a British newspaper, The Guardian. Your viewers can see it online, go to it online, without paying. It was written by a European who was a trade negotiator, and he was actually saying that the trade issues can probably be sorted out fairly simply. Well, not simply. That’s the wrong word. That in principle you can see them being sorted out. They are not intractable.
I think much more serious are the political arrangements, and by political arrangements, I mean specifically the role that Britain will play in Europe. Basically Britain leaving the European Union leaves the German government the overwhelming power in Europe and I think many countries in the European Union, their governments, their people, are concerned about that. And that in fact is one of the things that might soften the new negotiations over leaving the European Union.
But the short answer to your question is the major issues… the headline issues will be economic ones, but underlying that is a political conflict over the age-old question, or at least centuries-old question, who is the dominant power in Europe, and what is the role of Britain in Europe?
AARON MATÉ: Well, we look forward to what the answer is, and we’ll be sure to check back with you to help us understand it. Professor John Weeks, Professor of the University of London, thanks very much for joining us.
JOHN WEEKS: Thank you for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.