Britain Votes to Leave the European Union
John Hilary and John Weeks discuss the meaning and impact of Britain’s historic 52-48 vote to leave the EU
GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
Citizens of Britain voted to leave the European Union on June 23. The official results came in around 7 a.m. local time on Friday, June 24, and showed 52 percent of voters preferred to leave the E.U. In other words, there will be a Brexit–or British exit–from the E.U.
Conservative Prime Minister Cameron had tried to appease the right by calling for a referendum, but at the same time supported the country’s business sector by campaigning against it.
The referendum visibly divided the people of Britain, while most of the debate on the issue centered around limiting immigration and whether Britain would suffer economically from a Brexit.
Meanwhile, a less visible debate took place within Britain’s left about the nature of the benefits of the E.U. for a progressive agenda. Now that the vote is over, and probably gives all citizens of the E.U. an opportunity to think about the nature and future of the E.U.
With us to examine the referendum’s result are two experts on the E.U., who are both joining us from London: John Weeks, who is professor emeritus of the University of London and author of the book The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy. Also with us is John Hilary, who is executive director of War on Want. He has worked in the global justice movement for the past 25 years and has published widely on issues of globalization, trade policy, and workers’ rights.
Thanks to both of you for being on The Real News today.
JOHN WEEKS, PROF. EMERITUS, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES: Thank you for having me.
WILPERT: So let me begin with you, John Hilary. What would you say what does the result mean for the people of Britain now?
JOHN HILARY, EXEC. DIR., WAR ON WANT: Well, it’s a really important decision that we’ve made here, and actually it’s being felt as a political earthquake across Britain today. It was not expected that the British people would turn out and vote to leave the European Union. And I think that it’s important for us to be able to analyze what the vote means, particularly, as you’ve already said, for people on the progressive left, because the debate in the mainstream was a very negative. It was very rancorous. It was all about immigration. It was about how you can best open up markets and close down borders. And I think for us it’s the exact opposite of what we would like to see.
I have worked for the past 20 years, together with the European Union’s institutions, on their trade and investment policies, so the relations with the rest of the world. And I have banged my head against the wall of the European Union’s intransigence. And so I know firsthand how difficult it is to achieve change there.
So I think we need to see say to people, this is a vote to reject an institution founded on neoliberal principles which has driven through some of the most negative campaigns, some of the most negative policies over the past few years. And for that we need to be clear: the incoming British government that will replace David Cameron cannot now suggest that they have got a mandate to develop the same neoliberal policies from the U.K. We need to have a complete change. And that, I think, is what the referendum means, because so many millions of people voted saying, we do not trust our government and political elites anymore; we want a different type of politics which does not just serve the interests of the few; it serves the interests of everybody.
WILPERT: John Weeks, I would like to give you the opportunity to respond to the same question. What do you think do the results mean for the people of Britain?
WEEKS: Well, first of all I think it’s a misnomer to talk about the people of Britain, because, first of all, it’s regionally divided. Scotland voted overwhelmingly–almost 70 percent–to remain in the European Union. Wales voted to go out. England voted to go out. And plus there was a class division. It was very much a vote of the working class against the European Union–not entirely. Major trade unions supported continuation in the European Union. So it means different things to different parts of the population.
I would say what it means to everyone is that the election was about immigration. And those of us that supported our continued membership of the European Union–and as you may know, I’ve been a very severe critic of the European Union–they really had no convincing progressive argument about immigration. Most people in the middle of England and North of England believe that immigration has driven down wages (and there’s some truth to that), that immigration was causing the long lines at medical centers, what they call surgeries here, your local health center, and that the immigration was causing a shortage of housing and many other public services. Now, that part is not true. The shortages there are primarily the result of the cuts by the Conservative government.
But overall this is a victory for the right, the far right of the Tory party. And I also think it’s a victory for the far right in Europe.
So I think how we respond to it and how we deal with it is going to be rather complex, ’cause we’re going to have a very right-wing government coming into power quite soon, and that government will be dedicated to a more extreme version of austerity and neoliberalism than the current Tory government. And if they were to call an election, I fear that the representative far right would win it. But I can come back to that. That’s just speculation.
WILPERT: Well, let me just continue with you, John Weeks, for a second about also the larger implications for the rest of Europe, because you had said also in an earlier interview that a Brexit would make a rightward shift in Europe as a whole easier. So what do you think will happen in this regard in the E.U. at large now?
WEEKS: Well, I think there are two possibilities. First let me note that the most progressive movement in Europe, Podemos–actually, it’s called Unidos Podemos now–was for continued membership in the European Union–and continued membership in the euro, as a matter of fact.
But I think that if you’re seeing the newspapers, well, the media today, you know that Le Pen in France applauded the British vote, as did the far-right racist leader in Holland, and as did the Polish government, which is also very right-wing.
So I think that there are two possibilities [incompr.] brief. One is that you get the rise of the far right, which leads more countries in the European Union. The other possibility that must become considered seriously is with Britain now: that the German government will assert its control more tightly over the European Union. Britain, even under Cameron, was a restraint against that, and you could have a more right-wing European Union consolidated around perhaps a fewer number of countries.
WILPERT: John Hilary, I’d like to get your response to that. I mean, I assume that you agree or I think you indicated already that this was a boon to the right within Britain. But what about the rest of Europe? How do you see this playing out in the rest of Europe?
HILARY: Well, I think there’s a lot to play for. I mean, I think what this does is it throws the European Union institutions into real turmoil, because they’re now faced with the first major withdrawal of a serious European Union country since the formation of the Coal and Steel Community way back in the fifties. So it’s a really big moment. And I think the European leaders need to look very, very hard at their record to work out why there are so many of these new movements of rejecting the European Union across the whole of Europe.
And absolutely as John Weeks has said, some of those movements are very regressive. They’re far-right movements. They’re populist movements. And some are much more based in the left, and they have different degrees of wanting to stay within the euro, within the European Union.
And I think what’s now important is to recognize that there has been an antidemocratic, institutional bias within the European Union itself which has led people to reject it and to see it as being some form of deeply dictatorial capitalist club which has absolutely no reference to their lives. And you think only of last year in Greece, when the people did vote for an alternative to the savage austerity policies that were being visited upon them, and they were told absolutely clearly by the European institutions: there can be no Democratic choice against the European treaties. That’s the actual words of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.
So I think that there is a really important period now that the European leaders need to go through of soul-searching and recognizing why it is that a project which was meant to bring people closer together has actually turned into a capitalist, neoliberal program which serves the interests of a tiny minority right at the top of the food chain while everybody else is being told to pay for the sins of the bankers, the sins of the financiers, the sins of the capitalists. And that’s, I think, where the rejection of the European Union is coming from. And that’s where it has the potential to build towards something more positive if we can channel that energy.
WILPERT: We said earlier–I mean, and both of you have mentioned earlier that this also represents, to some extent, a strengthening of the right within Britain. So I just want to return back to that issue of what it means within Britain. That is, David Cameron has now said that he will step down as prime minister in October since he did not get what he campaigned for. However, some say also that now that Britain is leaving the E.U., even though the E.U. is such a neoliberal institution, it actually opens the door, perhaps, to pursue even more neoliberal policies within Britain.
What do you think, John Hilary, with regard to that argument that this not only represents a shift to the right, so to speak, culturally speaking, for the anti-immigrant agenda, but also economically speaking towards neoliberalism within Britain?
HILARY: Well, we need to remember that the people who may take over from David Cameron have already been part of his Tory government and that that government is already responsible for visiting an appalling series of austerity measures on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. So it’s not as if David Cameron has been there trying to hold back the forces of aggression. David Cameron has led the charge, with his government, against the poor, against the vulnerable, against workers, against society in Britain. So I think it’s wrong to suggest that somehow there is another wing of the Tory Party which is going to be even worse. We already know how bad it is.
But what I think this does do is it means that we, for the first time in Britain, are brought face-to-face with our adversary. So we know, for example, that in the past, campaigning on trade policy, on investment policy as it affects other countries around the world, we’ve never been able to square up to our enemy, because our enemy has been in Brussels, unelected, unaccountable. And so every time we got to the British government and said, we don’t like the trade policy that is being put through in our name, they’ve said, oh dear, but it’s not our policy; you’ll have to go and see the European Commission. Now it will be a straight fight between us trying to push for progressive policies, both in the U.K. and in our relations with other countries, and the government officials here who will be responsible for those policies. And that shift, I think, is something which has united people on both sides of the spectrum, that this is genuinely a return to a situation where we have direct democracy again, not a situation of the European Commission being able to hide all the time behind the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the E.U.
WILPERT: John Weeks, I’d like to get your response to this. What do you mean this think this means for Britain’s left and for the Labour Party and progressive social movements in Britain?
WEEKS: I think–first let me say, nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen when major events like this occur, that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict the outcome.
However, the most important progressive movement in Britain is Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him who supported Britain’s continuation in the European Union. Indeed, every progressive politician in Britain supported continuing in the European Union.
I think that the government which will come to power has–well, the head of it will either be Boris Johnson or man less known to your watchers named Gove. They have both in the past pledged to privatize the National Health Service. So we’re talking about sums pretty serious characters.
I think it’s quite possible that this will lead to–I mean, we know it will lead to another referendum on independence in Scotland. Were Scotland to withdraw, that would strengthen the right-wing in England, because Scotland is a social democratic country, in effect, or nation, whatever you want to call it, much more social democratic. Anyone that travels to Scotland, it does feel like you’ve got to Scandinavia from England.
So I think that–I’m not going to predict what would happen, but I did a lot of work on this campaign. Most people know almost–that I’ve talked to–and I go door-to-door and so on–know almost nothing about the European Union. They know nothing about how it is governed. They think it turns out a bunch of heavy consumer regulations that restrict of British business and we ought to get rid of those. And they have no idea of the position it takes on a whole range of issues or how it’s organized.
Immigration was the issue people that voted on: we’ve got too many foreigners over here in Britain. That’s what the Out won on, and that is what they are going to pursue. And if I were the person that takes over after David Cameron, I would immediately call an election with the confidence that I could win it. And the reason that the Tories could win it is because the Labour Party is split. Most of Jeremy Corbyn’s MPs would love to see him defeated and will not work for a Labour Party to win. And when that happens, we could be in a very difficult situation indeed.
As for social movements outside of the Labour Party–well, the most important one, actually, very closely related to the Labour Party, called Momentum, which was set up in support of Jeremy Corbyn, outside of that they are quite weak, and I do hope they improve and get stronger. But a vote against immigration is a vote for the right, in fact.
WILPERT: But, John Weeks, what about the argument that John Hilary made that this gives an opportunity for the left or for progressives to face the opposition, so to speak, face-to-face for the first time without the intermediary of the E.U., and therefore it provides perhaps a sort of opening for a more progressive politics within the E.U.? Would you reject that argument?
WEEKS: Well, I think we really don’t have time to get into the way the E.U. operates. But given Britain’s relationship to the European Union, the actual power that what’s loosely called Brussels has over Britain is very weak. Britain has an opt-out from several of the treaties–not, I should say, an opt out from the one that David Cameron wants to opt out on, namely the ones that protect workers rights. But I would say that the European Union’s ability to determine what goes on in Britain is very, very slight, except through the European Court of Human Rights and through consumer protection. Those are quite strong. But basically the British Parliament is sovereign. Britain has no written constitution. Parliament can pass anything it wants to. If the new Tory government wishes to, it can now eliminate workers’ rights without having to worry about challenges in the European court to protect workers on the basis of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
WILPERT: We’re just about out of time. But John Hilary, I just want to give you one last chance to respond that before we have to end it.
HILARY: Yeah. I think, I mean, nobody here is in any illusion that the challenge in front of us is a really big challenge. We want to try to unite progressive forces to fight for the sort of social justice, both in this country and in our relations with other countries, that we have failed to see in the European Union. And that is the message which I think needs to unite people, a vision of a world which is not just run in the interests of this tiny transnational capitalist elite but begins to look at the broader interests of society, and particularly for ordinary working-class people, who are the ones who have turned out in record numbers in this referendum, to say that they don’t believe anymore in the promises of the elites.
So I think that there is a mass movement that is waiting to be built here, and I think that the challenge for us is to ensure that we bring it behind a set of progressive policies rather than allowing it to slip into the scapegoating of migrants or into a negative agenda which will actually help to divide the left against itself.
So I think that everything is to play for. It’s still very early days in our understanding of what the referendum decision is going to mean. But I don’t think that we need to play the fear game any longer. That was part of the referendum debate, and that’s what made it so negative. We need now to be building on a message of hope, a message of unity, and a message of social justice to unite everybody behind.
WILPERT: OK. Well, thanks so much, John Hilary and John Weeks, for joining us from London today. It was really an interesting discussion. And we’ll definitely, of course, be following this story as it develops. So thanks again for joining us.
HILARY: Thank you very much.
WEEKS: Thanks very much for having me for this interesting discussion.
WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.