Economist John Weeks discusses the upcoming ‘Brexit’ referendum, arguing for reforming the European Union instead of leaving – a position also favored by Yanis Varoufakis and Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In June, UK citizens will be voting in a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union. Speaking to a crowd in Bristol, UK, Prime Minister David Cameron said remaining in the European Union is in the best interest of UK citizens. Let’s have a look. DAVID CAMERON: [Million] jobs are dependent on our trade with Europe. Of course not all those jobs would go if we left the European Union. We’d still do trade with Europe. But can we really put our hands on our hearts and say all those jobs would be safe, that we wouldn’t be disadvantaged if we were on the outside? I don’t believe we can. PERIES: British newspaper the Times also published a letter signed by nearly 200 companies, among them including telecoms, retailers, oil firms, which said leaving the 28-member EU, also known as Brexit, would put the economy at risk. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, had this to say about the Brexit. JEREMY CORBYN: The reality, Mr. Speaker, is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent. Neither has it been about the issues facing the people of Britain. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, it’s been a theatrical side show about trying to appease or failing to appease half of the prime minister’s own Conservative Party. PERIES: Joining us now to discuss this is John Weeks. John Weeks is Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London. His most recent book is Economics of the 1 Percent: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality, and Distorts Policy. Thank you so much for joining us, John. JOHN WEEKS: Thank you for having me again. PERIES: John, give us some background here. How did this come about in the UK? I mean, we were aware of this discussion going on in Greece, but not in the UK. WEEKS: The Conservative Party, for a very long time, at least two decades, have been deeply split over membership in the European Union. That split arose from a division between what you might call the xenophobic wing of the Tory party, which is basically quite nationalist and racist, and what are called Little Englanders. England is the relevant term here, because the opposition to the European Union is overwhelmingly in England, not in Scotland or Wales. At any rate, that split had been there. It was very serious in the 1990s. It almost brought the Conservative government down in the early 1990s. And then when David Cameron became the leader of the Tory party, about ten years ago, he found himself in a situation in which he was initially rather weak. And he made the promise that if he became prime minister, or when he became prime minister, he would hold a referendum. He made that promise hoping that that would bring the party together behind him, and that he would win the leadership. He did win the leadership. I think he never really thought he was going to call a referendum. Then it began to take a life of its own. You know, it was a relatively small majority from the government, 16 votes out of 630 members of parliament. And so he finds himself dependent upon the xenophobes in order to continue to have a government. So he had to call a referendum. You might say he had, he had set up this trap for himself, and it snapped around him. Meanwhile, the Labour Party back in the 1970s had been against joining the European Union, but changed in the 1980s and has been pretty much supportive of the European Union. Jeremy Corbyn himself was for pulling out of the European Union, but for entirely different reasons than the xenophobes in the Tory party. Jeremy Corbyn’s reasons were he thought, correctly, that the European Union was increasingly becoming a union in the interest of capital, with a neoliberal policy, social economic policy. Now, he has switched his position, and I can talk about that more if you wish. PERIES: Yes, please do. WEEKS: Jeremy Corbyn, I think, when he became the leader of the Labour Party, which was I think not long ago, only about six months ago. His position at that point was rather unclear. He, like David Cameron before him, when he became head of the party, he was in a rather weak position. Most of the members of parliament who are–most of the Labour members of parliament do not support Jeremy Corbyn. So he had to move carefully on each of his positions. And initially he chose not to fight over the European Union, over but the main issue, [inaud.] he decided to fight over, and he’s taken a very principled stand, is over Britain’s nuclear deterrent. [Inaud.] a deterrent. But anyway. Now, as time has gone by since Jeremy became leader of the party, events have changed Europe. You have now quite a few progressives in Europe who want to reform the European Union. And one of them will be very familiar to your watchers, your followers, is Yanis Varoufakis. And Yanis Varoufakis knows Corbyn, and he also knows other members of the Labour Party leadership, and I think he has been somewhat influential in, along with people in the Labour Party, convincing Jeremy Corbyn that he should not be in favor of leaving the European Union. And so his position is stay in the European Union, but reform it. PERIES: Okay. Now, there are good people on both sides who favor Brexit, and who favor staying in the euro. Some supporters, of course, say that EU membership undermines the ability of the UK to regulate its borders, and says that it is necessary both for maintaining employment and social services for its own citizens, and also in terms of containing terrorism. People in favor of remaining in the EU say that benefits of current immigration policy help facilitate trade, employment. My curiosity is, where do you come down on all of this, John? WEEKS: If the people who are running the Brexit organizations, the ones that want Britain out, if they were to come along to me, and want to hire me to make their argument for them, I could do an extremely good job of it, because it is very difficult to make a progressive case favoring the European Union. Having said that, I will now proceed to do so, because in fact I think it is likely, let me say, that I am not set in concrete on this. But I think it is likely that I will support Britain continuing to be in the European Union. But it is a hard case to make. The European Union, the governance of the European Union, is a pretty nasty bit of work. I mean, it is an authoritarian system, it is not very democratic. You’ve seen in Greece what, that completely ad hoc policy has resulted in crushing the living standards of the Greek people. And that is through the influence of the German government, and you might say the neo–the long-term neoliberal tendency within the European Union. Okay. Having said that, I will now say what I think are the more positive aspects of it. And I think that they are decisive. One is if you were to speak to, and I will, perhaps I can bring one of them along, someone from the gay and lesbian movement in Britain they would be very favorable to [inaud.] to the European Union because many of the gains of gay rights, and rights of transgender people, and that whole group as a whole has been the result of decisions of the European court upholding the principle which is in the constitution of the, or in the European Union treaties, of non-discrimination. And the European court has generally been much more progressive and enlightened on that issue than the British courts and other national courts. That’s one thing. Second, the European Union’s treaties still incorporate labor rights and workplace rights, which are much stronger than the similar laws in Britain. They’re weaker in Britain because of all the Thatcher years, and Tony Blair’s years, when he basically refused to reform the Thatcher reactionary changes. And of course, the current government in Britain is a very reactionary one. I think that that is the main driver of Jeremy Corbyn’s position. He believes that actually, British workers under current circumstances would be worse off if we were out of the European Union. And I think that’s true. Having said that, these are pretty meager straws to clutch on. Maybe [inaud.] there but you get the point. I think that there are many drawbacks, and really those of us that are progressives in favor of continuing in the European Union have in mind a European Union as it could be, not as it is. Caroline Lucas, our really outstanding MP from Brighton, she spoke a few nights ago and she said, go and vote for the European Union that you want. Now, of course, that’s a bit of a weak argument because you can see [you’ve got to] vote for the one we’ve got. But I think it is possible to reform it. And so that’s the position I’m most likely to take. PERIES: All right. John, we’ll be riding this issue and referendum coming up with you. I hope to have you back very soon. WEEKS: Well, thank you very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.