European Left Divided Over Brexit
A panel of progressive parties of Europe discuss the UK’s plan for Brexit, with reps from the UK’s Labour Party, Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza and Germany’s Dei Linke
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our discussion with representatives of progressive European parties, many of who are in power or might be in power soon.
Now joining us in the studio is the Shadow Home Secretary of the UK Labor Party, MP Dianne Abbot. Joining us from Germany is the Deputy Chair of Die Linke party, MP Sevim Dagdelen. From Spain, representing the PODEMOS party … He’s a member of Congress there, Eduardo Maura. From Greece, the head of the International Relations Department of SYRIZA, which is also now the government of Greece, Yiannis Bournous.
Diane, there’s a lot of talk in Segment One of our discussion about how Europe should cooperate in the European integration project. Well, the UK’s on its way out of Europe it looks like. What does this mean in terms of what you were demanding, more European cooperation on immigration, and also what does it mean in terms of the sort of alliance and cooperation of progressives in the left in Europe, and I’m not sure how they feel about Brexit, but start with your own take.
DIANNE ABBOTT: The first thing to remember about Brexit is that we have the Brexit referendum in order to resolve internal problems in the Conservative party. It was a way of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, placating his right-wing anti-European people, but of course nobody, and I mean like nobody, expected Brexit to win, so there was no plan B. David Cameron disappeared off the scene in all swift order. We’re in a situation which nobody anticipated, which the Tories are trying to negotiate, but for the Conservative Party there’s this huge rift between protectionists and free marketeers, and that is a rift which is not last year or the year before. This is a rift in the Conservative Party which goes back to the 19th century.
Now, we’re not conducting this negotiation. We can only try and hold the Conservatives to account. What I can say is the leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is actually a very internationalist leader. He’s talking to progressive parties in Europe, and whatever happens about the Brexit negotiation, he wants to retain strong links to the progressive parties, which is why I’m here at this conference.
PAUL JAY: Well, if Brexit was to resolve a contradiction within the Conservative Party, then why doesn’t the Labor Party oppose Brexit?
DIANNE ABBOTT: Because the Labor Party has the top ten districts, which are pro-remain … My own is one of them. 80% of my people want to stay in the EU … But we also have the top ten districts who want to come out of the EU, and what we have to do is hold our people together. ‘Cause you can’t have a referendum and then because you didn’t anticipate the result or you don’t like the result, turn around and say, “These people are stupid. We’re gonna continue what we were doing anyway.” There’s a democratic issue here.
But there’s no doubt that if we come out of the EU in the way that the Conservatives are talking about, it will take the British economy over a cliff, and that’s in no one’s interest.
PAUL JAY: Now, SYRIZA decided to stay in the EU even though there was tremendous support in Greece to get out. How do you feel about Brexit?
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Well, actually there was never tremendous support of Greek people in-
PAUL JAY: Maybe not. Certainly the-
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Leaving the eurozone or the European Union. With the historical 61% in the referendum in Greece, people clearly rejected the proposal submitted to Greece by the troika, and then we became victims of a very blatant blackmail which led us to the painful compromise of the third bailout.
We decided to stay in the eurozone because we deemed scenario B, the plan B let’s say, as more destructive for the social majority of Greece. We were a country with a devastated productive base, and within existent reserves of foreign currency. This would mean that we would be led to an uncontrolled default accompanied by the printing of a new national currency which would have to be consecutively devalued, and this would harm guess who? Wage earners and pensioners.
For this reason, we decided to go for this painful compromise with the third bailout, and at this point, if we see then the official data, we can see the Greek economy recovering, exactly because with our parallel program on the sidelines of this painful agreement, we managed to start what Chomsky said about the first term of Lula. We started expanding the room of our cage. We started expanding fiscal space of Greece. We started expanding social policies, and this is very evident the healthcare, education, and the welfare state.
PAUL JAY: What’s your attitude towards Brexit?
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: We didn’t support Brexit. According to our analysis, it was a disastrous result. We deem as very positive the fact that Jeremy Corbyn in the Labor Party is now fighting in favor of maintaining customs union, which also includes the free circulation of people, against the approach of the Tories, which are totally hostile to the idea of the free circulation of citizens. We are ready to work with the Labor Party, with all the progressive forces that want to maintain this sense of solidarity, even if Britain exits the European Union next March one year from now. We consider it a defeat of the European integration project, and especially of the neoliberal version of European integration.
Then, I cannot avoid to comment what we were discussing previously when we referred to Trump. If you see the slogans in favor of Brexit, the slogans used by the populist right, they prove to be false. They accuse the European Union for a variety of problems and crises which were mostly caused by the domestic conservative policies, and this smear campaign, this reproduction of fake news and fake data, resulted in the victory of Brexit in the referendum … But anyway I’m returning to the current situation.
We believe that the Labor Party is doing its best to intervene as a majority opposition party and hopefully as a government-in-waiting to this process. If you ask my political prediction, I believe that the political space and time for Mrs. May is very limited.
PAUL JAY: Does the European integration project the same as the European Union or is it something else?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: No. It’s the integration process and the project is of course more giving up sovereignty rights of the different member states to the Brussels bureaucracy, and it’s also to gain more member states like the Balkan states, Croatia, Serbia, and whatever the candidates, Turkey. This is the integration process as well. I think Brexit and some other elections in the European Union like far-right parties coming up, they are warning shots for us, warning shots like “What happens if you just do business as usual and do the same mistakes as the European Union?”
The European Union is in a really deep crisis. Deep crisis. It caused especially because of the policy in Germany as well. As Yiannis said, Germany is the most powerful economy and member state of the European Union, and the German government blackmailing the southern countries like Italy, Greece, Spain-
EDUARDO MAURA: Portugal.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Portugal, even France now, we are begging France especially in the economical way, and because of the history between Germany and France, we do have a really bad history. We tried to overcome this bad history with a really strong friendship and neighborhood, and the problem is now the economy of Germany, which is very much orientated on the export and weakened the own economy, the income of the people, it gives you more advantages for your competition, and that’s the problem for all other European Union member states.
PAUL JAY: As much as immigration is fueling the right of Europe, anti-EU sentiment is also fueling the right of Europe. Do you want to keep the European Union, and if you were the government of Germany, what would be your attitude towards it?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: First of all, the one who are blaming parties or groups to be anti-European, these are the anti-Europeans actually. For example, the German government, the Finance Minister for long time, Schäuble, he is anti-European, because they caused all the austerity problems, austerity policy. They urged Europe for these austerity policies and they urged all this crisis. That’s why I say they are anti-European.
We say as Left party in Germany, we need a restart of the European Union with a new treaty, because the Lisbon Treaty is not a democratic treaty. Is not a good treaty on the economical, financial issues, and we have to democratize the European Union and the eurozone. And this is another point, because I would be very happy if we once in Germany had the opportunity for a free democratic world like you did in Great Britain with the referendum. We had no chance. We have no chance in Germany to make a referendum on the treaty like the Lisbon Treaty, like in Ireland it was. It shows, the example in Ireland. They had a referendum. They said no to the Lisbon Treaty. But the Brussels bureaucracy of the European Union-
DIANNE ABBOTT: –Them vote again.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Make them vote again?
DIANNE ABBOTT: They had to keep voting til they got it right.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: This deepens the crisis of the European Union because the people are sick of it that they cannot have a will on their own sovereignty, and they’re sick of it that it’s a problem, for example, in Italy. We had elections in Italy last weekend, and in Italy with the elections everyone is very nervous because of the right-wing parties there, but no one is nervous about 30, 40% unemployment within the young people or about the unemployment in Spain or in Portugal or in Greece. We have to react on these problems and not only the right-wing parties.
PAUL JAY: Is Brexit then a positive? It may force this kind of renegotiation of just what the EU is?
DIANNE ABBOTT: I wouldn’t call it a positive, but you have to accept that part of the reason why so many British people voted against the EU was partly the technical issues about sovereignty and so on, but partly these were often areas where there was very high unemployment, where they’ve seen the collapse of traditional industries like coal and steel and manufacturing, and it’s in the more economically marginalized areas of Britain that they’ve voted for Brexit. It was almost a way of saying, “Pay attention to us. Pay attention to our plight.”
PAUL JAY: What’s PODEMOS’s attitude towards this?
EDUARDO MAURA: We oppose Brexit very much. We actually campaigned, one of the very few European countries campaigning against the Brexit actively, putting resources and putting people in the UK. We weren’t very successful, unfortunately, but we opposed Brexit and we are very supportive of the last approach by Jeremy Corbyn supporting the customs union and the free movement of people as well, and we’d like a second … Not a second referendum, but a referendum on the deal between the European Union and Britain.
PAUL JAY: Why did you campaign against it?
EDUARDO MAURA: Because we feel European. We think that the UK and the progressives in the UK can play a major role of paramount importance to the rest of the European Union progressives. We need the UK and the progressives in the UK to change-
YIANNIS BOURNOS: It’s one of the most powerful countries.
EDUARDO MAURA: To change the European Union. Unfortunately, we don’t have Germany yet, and France is going a different way, so we need the UK in order to change a European Union that is very badly built and very badly organized and managed. Because I feel European and in Spain we feel Europeans, progressives feel Europeans.
At the same time, we feel Southerners and we think that the European Union hasn’t treated us fairly. It’s not only bringing cliches to the table. “These people have high rates of unemployment. They don’t work that hard.” No, we’re working hard as anyone. The fact is that we do have a structural problem with unemployment, within the youth particularly, and we feel Southerners and we are prepared of being European and Southern Europeans.
We need the rest of Europe. We need cooperation. We need integration in order not to have two different Europes, one in Berlin and another one in Athens. We want one Europe. We don’t really mind whether it’s in Paris, London, or Madrid, but we need one, and with an economic policy, with a tax policy, with a policy of migration, that cooperates, that doesn’t create a Europe of takers and a Europe of givers.
There’s no takers and givers. We all take and we all give. We give a lot and we take a lot. But everyone takes a lot and gives a lot. There are no takers or givers in the European Union. That’s not what the establishment, what the Conservative Party thought,
SEVIM DAGDELEN: It’s the project of the European Union.
EDUARDO MAURA: What the Conservatives in the European Union think. That’s why they bring these cliches to the table and they have built two different European Unions. One for the rich and one for the rest.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: I think the problem is the European Union, the project “European Union” was an economical project first of all, and it was the promise for millions of people of living in a welfare state, welfare union. This promise is not fulfilled for millions of people, especially in the South, and that’s the problem why the European Union is in such crisis. The people don’t feel like they fulfill the promises as given-
EDUARDO MAURA: They don’t belong.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Yeah. Well, they belong. You can feel European as much as you like, but European is not European Union. European Union is an abstract form of supernational union. It’s not a country or whatever. The thing is you can feel European and you have to criticize, but this European Union which makes the rich more rich and the poor more poor or more about the-
PAUL JAY: Can you get to this rebooted European Union without first countries pulling out of it, or do you think that can happen somehow within it?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: You can reform it, actually, with a new treaty, for example. You need a-
EDUARDO MAURA: Mm-hm. A new social pattern. We need another-
PAUL JAY: Would a Labor Party consider a Labor government even if there’s been a Brexit? But a Labor government, everybody part of a new type of EU?
DIANNE ABBOTT: Well, during the referendum campaign, we spoke about the need to remain but to reform. Unfortunately though, we lost the Brexit vote and we have to be very careful, and I’m very careful, to take the Brexit vote seriously, because those parts of Britain that voted to come out of the EU were expressing very wide concerns about the situation, and we have to be seen to listen to those concerns.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Yeah, we have to respect it.
PAUL JAY: I’m not sure … What would that mean then if in fact you had some other breakthroughs, for example, in some progressive governments in some other countries and they wanted to renegotiate an EU? Is that something Labor would be open to?
DIANNE ABBOTT: I can’t speculate as to what might happen. What I can tell you is clearly there were parts of Britain where the traditional manufacturing, coal mining, rust belt industries had collapsed, who felt they were being neglected by the center, and we as a labor movement have to address those real concerns. The negotiation is a matter for Theresa May, and we’ll see how that goes.
PAUL JAY: Probably a matter for Theresa May.
DIANNE ABBOTT: Well, it’s a matter for the government.
PAUL JAY: Depending how long that government lasts.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Well, but also Europe doesn’t just need a new treaty. We need a new social contract. We wanted … We should have needed a political union with all that comes with a political union, which is a political project. That means taxes, that means currency, and that means defense and that means a lot of things. But the fact is that we only got the euro. We only got the currency and some economic policies.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Well, but then you have the same problem like they did in Great Britain, because the one thing is, some people-
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: No, not against euro.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Well, but … Not, yeah.
YIANNIS BOURNOS: I’m saying we need more than the euro.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Some people say we have to reform the European Union in that way that we build something like on defense, on finance, on social politics and economic, and on budget, but I don’t think this is right, because the positive side of the European Union is you have 27 member states plus one, yet and you have their own sovereignty rights, and I think this is the good thing. And if you try to get less sovereignty for the national member states but more rights for the bureaucracy for Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, that’s going to deepen the crisis in the European Union. When I say we have to rebuild or restart the European Union, technically you can do it with the European Union now … Have a new contract and have a new treaty … But practically-
PAUL JAY: Oh yeah. How real is that?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: It’s very unlikely because 27 member states have to say “Yes” on this treaty.
PAUL JAY: If the real politics is that it’s highly unlikely to have this enormous reform unless there’s this magical breakthrough of progressive governments in 27 countries or most of them, then what happens now in real terms? Would a PODEMOS government stay in the EU?
EDUARDO MAURA: Yes. We would, even though we don’t like what we’re seeing at all. We want our sovereignty and we want more sovereignty, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot sign a social contract with other countries, and that means cooperating and integrating much more. The fact that the European Central Bank is a German bank, so that’s the German bank supporting policies that come from Germany and only help part of the German population … Has been the most problematic thing for countries like Greece and Spain and Italy, which are rich countries already. This is a huge, huge problem, and it’s not gonna be solved by getting more sovereignty back. We need sovereignty but we also need a common project.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: But Eduardo, more democracy or more integration?
EDUARDO MAURA: No.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Well no.
EDUARDO MAURA: That’s a wrong polarization.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: I believe in democratic integration. The problem is that France and Germany haven’t been able to deliver.
EDUARDO MAURA: I think and we think that every discussion that has to do with the present or future of the European Union becomes metaphysical if we don’t tackle the central question. The central question is the balance of power in every country, which is reflected in the European decision making bodies. The Brussels bureaucracy is not something metaphysical.
The European Union unfortunately is a hybrid thing, something between a federal state and the cooperation of nation states. It has always failed to resolve this issue, which means that, for example, the European Council consists of the Prime Ministers of the member states, which means that Mr. Juncker and the rest of the bureaucratic establishment of the European Commission is appointed through electoral results that define the balance of power, and then the dominant political forces appoint the new commission every five years.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: And the bank.
EDUARDO MAURA: And the direction of the Europeans in their banks.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: That’s why I’m saying we need democracy.
EDUARDO MAURA: So the central question is how the progressive forces coordinated and organize their struggle starting from the national level of course, because there are particularities in every nation state, starting from the national level in order to change the balance of power.
PAUL JAY: If the balance of power is gonna change significantly it’s gonna have to happen in Germany.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Yeah.
PAUL JAY: If they’re gonna have a real change in the EU.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: When SYRIZA won, in Germany, they’re all over in Greece and in Germany, like posters. We change Europe and we start from Greece. Or the left said. The problem was-
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Yeah, but Greece was at 2% of European GDP.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Yeah yeah.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: The left is far behind and that’s a problem.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: And that’s the problem. Yeah. That’s what I’m getting at. We all had these posters in Greece and in Germany, all the left. We change Europe and we start from Greece. If we look back we didn’t start with the change. The crisis is going deeper.
You asked “Can we reform the European Union as it is now?” We don’t know it. We don’t know it. We know that the crisis comes deeper and deeper and we have to change some things, but I really don’t know. I’m not sure if we can technically or practically change it in the frame we have at the moment in the European Union. That’s the problem.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: The key question is how to create an alliance between the popular classes and the middle classes in every country with a left project that challenges the establishment with a perspective of gaining power. This is how we won in Greece, and this is a problem of the left. We already mentioned that.
PAUL JAY: What’s holding that back in Germany?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Pardon?
PAUL JAY: What’s the obstacle to that in Germany? Why isn’t the left taking more advantage of this moment in Germany?
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Well, this is the central question. I don’t know why. I do not have the answer yet because this is a central question of the power. I think one reason is that we do not have such a history like in Greece or Spain or whatever, like we are benefiting from the situation. The benefits of this situation of the eurozone, the euro is a project of the German capital. We are benefiting-
YIANNIS BOURNOS: Yeah, but still you have some millions of people under the poverty line, if I’m correct, in Germany.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Yes, I know, but it’s very relative in compare to your country or to Spain. That’s what the problem, and of course we have unemployment.
Of course, we do have even now the biggest sector of low wages in whole Europe. It’s in Germany. It’s not in the South. It’s in Germany. We have 2.7 million children in poverty. We have the retired people who live in poverty. We do have this, but it’s relative in compare to some other states.
That’s the reason why Germany benefits from the situation at the moment, is the winner of the eurozone policy and the austerity policy, and that makes it very hard to us to convince the majority of the population that we need the change.
On the other hand side, the majority of the population in Germany is criticizing the European Union, because it’s getting more and more sovereignty rights from us, and we do not want to govern by the Brussels bureaucracy like Jean-Claude Juncker. We don’t want them.
PAUL JAY: We’re running out of time, so just one final question to Diane. A possible Labor Party government, it’s looking very possible … What might it do in terms of allying with or helping the progressive forces in Europe?
DIANNE ABBOTT: We’re very committed to working with progressive forces in Europe. We think the 21st century that’s the forward for a whole range of issues. My party supported to remain. I personally voted for remain, but we have to accept that the country has voted to Brexit. But our commitment-
PAUL JAY: Just for Americans that don’t know, remain was “remain in the EU” as opposed to Brexit. Sorry.
DIANNE ABBOTT: My party supported remaining in Europe. I voted to remain in Europe. The vast majority of my constituents in London voted to remain in Europe, but we have to accept the results of the referendum just as any state or country accepts the results of a referendum. That’s kinda ground zero when it comes to democracy. But we don’t want to see a Brexit which is damaging either to our country or economy or to our relationships with progressive forces in Europe.
PAUL JAY: Well, I hope we get to do this again. Maybe next time we’ll do it in London. Thank you all for joining us.
EDUARDO MAURA: It was a pleasure.
SEVIM DAGDELEN: Thank you.
DIANNE ABBOTT: It’s a pleasure.
YIANNIS BOURNOUS: Thank you very much.
PAUL JAY: Thank you, and thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.