Economics professor Costas Lapavitsas says Britain’s vote to leave is a direct result of the EU’s lack of democracy
GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. My name is Gregory Wilpert, and I’m coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The British vote in favor of exiting the European Union has [incompr.] people all across Europe and Britain. The vote took place on Thursday, June 23, and was won with 52 percent in favor of leaving the European Union. One of the main arguments in favor of leaving the E.U. from a progressive side has been that the E.U. is an anti-democratic institution. Other arguments have involved economic issues and immigration, which were the [incompr.] mainly from the right and have predominated the discussion in British media. With us to discuss the impact that the Brexit–or British exit–will have on Britain and on Europe is Costas Lapavitsas. He’s professor in economics at the university of the London School of Oriental and African Studies. He is also a parliamentarian for SYRIZA in Greece. He joins us from Athens, Greece. Thanks, Costas, for joining us today. COSTAS LAPAVITSAS, PROF. ECONOMICS, LONDON SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES: Pleasure to be with you. Just to say that I’m not in Parliament with SYRIZA. I used to be in Parliament with SYRIZA, but I belong to the people who walked away when SYRIZA basically changed policies. WILPERT: Aha. OK. Well, now, let’s look a little bit back into the process as to how the vote came about. There’s been a lot of kind of confusion as to why even would David Cameron risk his prime ministership on such an important issue. And, I mean, he didn’t have to call for a referendum. So how did this whole vote come about in Britain? LAPAVITSAS: I think that politically this represents a gross miscalculation by David Cameron. He had a longstanding political problem within the Tory Party. He thought that he would fix it by calling a referendum, which he thought that he would win easily, and that would settle the internal disputes within the Tory Party. He miscalculated very badly. And the reason why he miscalculated–and with him the entire British establishment–is because of course the question of the referendum touched upon a real, deep class divide in Britain, which came to the fore on this question. The people who voted for exit are basically the lower social strata–working class, poor people, essentially the people who would be the lower end of the income and other distribution in the country, together with some lower middle class strata who also voted in favor of exit. The people who voted in favor of remaining in the country are rich, the well off, the most powerful concentrations of capital, and the upper middle class. This divide came to the fore, and Exit won because the discontent of the poorer, the lower social strata was too strong to be held back. It came to the fore and it prevailed. So we’ve got a deep class divide that’s behind British exit. We should never lose sight of that. WILPERT: You mentioned discontent. But, I mean, what kind of discontent? I mean, one of the things that many people, particularly on the right, have always been arguing is that there’s discontent over immigration. Was that really the main discontent, would you say? Or is there other discontent that this was an expression of? LAPAVITSAS: If we start with a class understanding of what happened, which is fundamental, then we can understand the types of discontent. We should bear in mind that the poor in Britain–and I don’t mean the organized working class, because that’s a different issue that we can discuss in a minute–but the poor in Britain have been feeling under a lot of pressure because of sustained austerity for years. There’s pressure on incomes, there’s pressure on employment, there’s pressure on housing, there’s pressure on social services, that they have been subjected to sustained cuts because of austerity budgets for years. Now, put that together with substantial flows of immigration–inflows have actually trebled the last ten years, and the bulk of these inflows have come from Eastern Europe within the European Union–and you can see how the poor would be perceiving what has been happening to their country. They go to receive medical services, they’re asked to wait for hours in the queue, and a lot of people waiting with them are recent immigrants. Now, unless someone comes out and explains to them that this is because of austerity and this isn’t the fault of workers and so on, they’ll draw the conclusion that it is the immigration that is to blame and it is the E.U. that is to blame. And that’s largely what has happened. So the pressure over the last few years that the poor have been feeling has turned into an anti-E.U. perspective. Now, at the same time what we also have is an advanced and very prevalent sense that the lower social classes in Britain have of loss of control over their environment, loss of sovereignty over their own country, and a decline in democracy. The two go together. And that’s the biggest lesson of the referendum: sovereignty and democracy and command over the conditions of life–and, in a sense, the country–for poor people go together. There was a prevalent sense of loss in Britain. Now, the upper class, the rich, the better-off, the upper middle class all came out in favor of remaining in the E.U. It was natural, natural that the poor would come out against and say no, no, we don’t want that. And that’s what happened. WILPERT: Well, one of the main arguments that of course the right had made is that the E.U. is to be blamed for the immigration inflow. But what you’re implying is also that the austerity policies had something to do with the E.U. Can you explain that a little bit more? Because one of the arguments that I’ve heard before actually goes more in the other direction, that the austerity policies were really something homemade by the British, by the Tory government, by David Cameron, and that the E.U. didn’t have so much of an impact on those kinds of policies. LAPAVITSAS: Of course austerity was homemade, because Britain had a tremendous crisis in 2008-2009 and we’ve been living through policies of austerity for years as a result of that. Of course austerity was homemade. So I didn’t say that the E.U. caused the austerity. Of course it was homemade. But the political elite and the social classes that were in favor of austerity were also in favor of staying in the E.U. And the connection, the correlation was clear to people’s mind. Now, immigration has to do with the E.U., and the sense of loss of control over it was also very prevalent. Here the blame must lie with the left, not with the right. The right made hay, and some very unpleasant people, some very objectionable people, racists, extreme neoliberals, came out and made some facile connections. It was the left that should have come out, pointed out the reasons for pressure on people’s income, and offered them an option, an option, an alternative that would also have allowed them to feel again in command of their own circumstances. They would have allowed people to feel that democracy works, that they actually are masters of where they live, because that’s absent–I repeat to you, that’s absent for working people and for the the poor in Britain. That wasn’t forthcoming. So the extreme right made the political gains. The blame must lie with the left. I’m afraid the British Labour Party made a terrible mistake in how it handled the situation, and so did much of the left. WILPERT: So let’s turn to particularly that issue. So now that the vote has happened in favor of the Brexit, of leaving the E.U., what does that mean for the left, for the labor movement, for the Labour Party, and progressive social movements in general? How should they move forward now that Britain is no longer part of the E.U. and possibly face a backlash, in a sense, from the far right, which sees itself as being vindicated in this situation because of the immigration issue being perceived as being the main issue? LAPAVITSAS: This is the most important question, of course. And all the energies of the left must go towards a focus on this issue, because we must get the answer right. Otherwise we will have very unpleasant circumstances emerging in Britain and elsewhere. This is a historic moment. It’s a moment that indicates the beginning of the end for the European Union as well as a dramatic change for Britain. The left must get it right, which means that the left must come out and offer to the British people a genuine alternative. Now, the trade unions came out in favor of remaining. They also misjudged it. The Labour Party, as I’ve already indicated, did not offer a very good prospect to the British people. We need a different proposal put across, a proposal that breaks with the Europeanism of the last few years. The sense that all progress goes together with the European Union, that’s not true, and we need to say that clearly. What this means in the context of Britain–which would obviously be used elsewhere in Europe as well–is realistic proposals on what democracy would mean today. Democracy is very important. We must, as the left make proposals, have to actually mean things to people where they live, that they feel that they can command their own circumstances, they can command the conditions of life at the neighborhood and at the workplace. That’s what democracy must mean. And we must propose that clearly. This, I repeat, is impossible without some element of national sovereignty. The left has for too long been highly apprehensive of any idea of national sovereignty. This is impossible to do today. We must reestablish the meaning of national sovereignty from a left-wing perspective. That must also go with a radical economic program that allows greater democracy, more sovereignty to have content. This means nationalizing banks. It means nationalizing steel industry, nationalizing the railways. Public services and so on must be boosted. All these progressive things that we want to see must be put coherently on the table, but together–I repeat–with a broader program of democracy and sovereignty for people and for nation. WILPERT: So I guess you’re saying that these kinds of policies that you’re proposing are not to possible within the context of the European Union. So, in other words, what it sounds like what you’re implying is that for other countries in Europe, in order to focus on some of what–the rest of Europe, what other countries of Europe would have to do, then, is leave the E.U. as well. Is that correct? In order to pursue, if they wanted to pursue these policies that you’re talking about, they would have to leave the E.U. Is that correct? LAPAVITSAS: Brexit puts the future of the E.U. on the table. No question at all about it. This is a historic moment. It puts the question of the E.U. on the table. And we must start with the understanding that the E.U. has failed. And it has failed for a variety of reasons, democracy being one of them, economic policies being another, and of course the madness of the common currency, which doesn’t apply to Britain, thankfully, but it applies elsewhere. The E.U. has failed. The left for too long has associated the E.U. with progressive policies and progressive politics. That must change, because people have got genuine grievances about the E.U., and the ones who are benefiting politically from these grievances are the extreme right. So we must rethink left-wing politics along the lines that I’ve already suggested for Britain for the whole of the continent. That doesn’t mean going back to a state of national competition, nationalism, or anything of the sort. It’s a fallacy to counterpose the false cosmopolitanism and false internationalism of the E.U. to extreme nationalism. The left never subscribed to this idea of internationalism coming from Brussels. The historic left never subscribed to this idea of internationalism coming from Brussels. This is bourgeois internationalism. The left has always had different ideas about internationalism and it must rediscover those urgently. This means, as I said before, reestablishing democracy, reestablishing a sense of sovereignty and economic policies that go with that. If there is no sovereignty, if there is no command over the neighborhood, the workplace, and the nation, the beneficiary tends to be large international capital. And we’ve seen that with TTIP very clearly in Europe at the moment. WILPERT: We’re almost out of time, so just one last question. Since you’re in Greece, in Athens right now, and that’s a country that you originally come from, do you think that the Brexit vote will make it easier or more likely that Greece will also leave the European Union? LAPAVITSAS: I came here to Athens yesterday after the British vote in the evening. I saw the climate in London in the morning and the climate in Athens in the evening. No one expected, of course, this direction of voting. Greek establishment was certain that Remain would win. And how wrong were they? There was great shock this morning. But among the left, especially the left that is radical and ready to continue the fight for justice and different policies in Greece and recapturing democracy and sovereignty in Greece, the result has been greeted with elation, I have to tell you. The result was actually a boost, a great boost to the radical left that wishes to continue the fight that was basically abandoned by SYRIZA last summer when it surrendered to the lenders. This was a great boost. But to continue that fight and to bring justice and a new social situation in Greece, the left needs, urgently, new ideas, such as the ones that I have suggested, new ideas about what should happen to this country. And it should bear in mind that the unraveling of the European Union is well advanced now and Greek exit from the Monetary Union, and possibly from the European Union, is something that’s beginning to shape up more and more concretely on a daily basis after the events of Brexit. So the radical left must prepare again. It will have a great historical [incompr.] British [incompr.] WILPERT: OK. Unfortunately, we’re out of time. But thanks so much, Costas, for joining us today. It was a very interesting discussion, and we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the ongoing developments as they unfold. So thanks for being with us today on The Real News. LAPAVITSAS: Thank you very much. WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
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