Breaking the Brexit Binary: The Future of Democratic Internationalism

If internationalism is going to oust isolationism in Britain it needs to do more than present itself as the moral alternative to Brexit – we need tangible proposals for both the future of Europe and a wider project for a progressive global international.

Breaking the Brexit Binary

With the Brexit debacle still very much unresolved, and the March deadline set out by Article 50 inching ever closer, pressure is bound to intensify on politicians to hold a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Before any such conversation is had however, those campaigning to stay within the European Union must have something more tangible to offer than simply ‘well it isn’t Brexit’.

A quick glance around today’s European Union will show you neofascist politicians in government in Austria and Italy, populist anti-immigration parties in power in Hungary and Poland, and protests on the streets from Belgrade to Paris. Popular disenfranchisement with the work of the EU does not belong solely to Britain, it is systemic across the continent.

This popular surge of resentment against the EU has allowed opportunist politicians to conflate Euroscepticism with nationalism, submerging democratic and humanitarian principles under a maelstrom of immigration and isolationist rhetoric. If you are against the EU, you are against internationalism per se.

Current supporters of a second referendum or ‘people’s vote’ risk running their campaign on this same binary: If you are for the EU, you are internationalist. If you are against the EU, you are nationalist. This is a dangerous tactic. Pushing voters to decide between their country and a systemically flawed international institution will only serves to fan the flames of national populism.

If internationalism is to win-out, it must break the Brexit binary, recognise valid criticisms of the EU and set-out a detailed democratic agenda to deal with popular grievances. 

Accepting EU failures

A starting point is to stop dismissing the substantial concerns of Eurosceptic voters, and openly acknowledge the essential shortcomings of the European Union in its current form. Yes, it has been an impressive prototype for international cooperation, yes it has achieved impressive feats in terms of internal free movement of people, international data protection and ecological awareness, but to dismiss the current surge of Euroscepticism as contextual is to belittle the EU’s role in actively accentuating current crises. Take two prominent examples:

Financial Crisis

After the global financial meltdown of 2008, the EU actively endorsed and enforced policies of austerity which transferred the burden of financial mismanagement on to the most vulnerable parts of our society. Submitting to the interests of global capital in order to protect the integrity of the single market, this instransgent neoliberalism forced deflationary mechanisms on the countries of Europe which whittled away at the savings of ordinary people, holding them culpable for the misdeeds of the financial elite. This has naturally fostered working class resentment and a shift toward the populist rhetoric of neofascist politicians who are able to position themselves as the defender of working interests. Failure.

Refugee Crisis

Over the last two decades the EU has followed a constructive process to assimilate the people of Europe, breakdown borders and uphold one of its core internationalist values: free movement of people. At the same time money is continually being poured into its increasingly militarised external frontiers.

The UN estimates that there are currently around 25.4 million refugees worldwide. 57% of these come from three countries: Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan. NATO (of which all but 5 EU members are part), has been directly involved in wars in both Afghanistan and Syria, yet there is virtually no EU coordination to take responsibility for the resulting exodus.

In fact, there is a coordinated effort to shirk this responsibility, as evidenced by the EU’s deal with Turkey. In exchange for six billion Euros of EU money and future visa-free travel for its citizens within the union, Turkey has agreed to take back migrants entering Greece. This prevention mechanism fails to regulate conditions for asylum seekers, abdicating humanitarian responsibility and leaving their fate in the hands of Turkey’s right-wing populist government.

If migrants manage to reach Europe they then encounter the Dublin Regulation, which forces asylum seekers to apply for refuge in whatever country they reach first. This is a dereliction of duty by the institutions of the EU, which set out to deal collectively with issues of its member states. By devolving responsibility for the refugee crisis to particular nation-states you abandon the principle of collective action, allow for the unequal distribution of refugees and encourage negligence by affected nations. When the EU draws up national refugee quotas, it fails to present any leverage mechanisms to ensure these quotas are upheld.  

Then there is the policy of organised detention centres across the periphery of the union, which beyond the obvious humanitarian crisis, deals a severe blow to the legitimacy of the union to execute its own humanitarian standards and principles.

This institutionalised humanitarian negligence has cultivated a culture of ‘otherism’, allowing politicians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban to position themselves as the defender of Europe’s Christian values without any repercussions. Failure.


These are essential problems created by the technocratic institutional decision-making processes of the European Commission and European Council, not just contextual temporary concerns. A recent quote I heard from George Mobiot sums this up nicely: “The purpose of neoliberalism is to release the very rich from the restrains of democracy”. By prioritising the market over democratic politics as the legitimate mechanism for pursuing social change, the EU allows monied interest to dictate the futures of its people. The radical redistribution of wealth necessary to deal with the global climate and poverty crises is impossible under this system of technocratic decision-making. 

Those who see themselves as internationalist, must acknowledge these valid criticisms of the EU, instead of pigeon-holing Brexit debates into a false binary paradigm between isolationist Eurosceptics and moral internationalists.

Why we need Internationalism, not Lexit.

Despite the issues with these current international institutions, retreating into isolation is not a viable option.

The dissenting voices trying to claim Brexit from a progressive perspective have put forward arguments for what they call ‘Lexit’ (left Brexit).

Prominent commentators such as Costas Lapavitsas and Grace Blakeley argue that the neoliberal fabric of the EU is institutionalised, and thus irreconcilable with progressive democratic politics. Specifically, they point to EU laws on ‘State Aid’ and the ‘free movement of capital’, which are incompatible with the material reorganisation of resources that they believe necessary to fairly rebalance the British economy.

These voices articulate an alternative argument for Brexit that breaks the monopoly of populist anti-immigrant rhetoric. They are vital progressive critiques of the EU, but I believe their arguments have two major practical flaws.

1. We are in a rush

When we think about withdrawing from the European Union, we must think of it in terms of cost-benefit, will it help us to tackle the great problems of the day? Will it help us to create the world we want to live in?

The UN report of October 2018 detailed the fact that we only have until 2030 to cut 45% of the world’s carbon emissions to prevent a climate crisis, and a complete transition to clean energy is a necessity by 2050. As set out in Aaron White’s recent column and our Special Relationship Podcast, this is going to take unprecedented international coordination on a Green New Deal to execute. The climate crisis is just one example of the problems created by extractivist globalised capitalism, and if the costs of transitioning from a free-market to a human-centric economy are to be fairly distributed, coordination must be transnationally democratic.

Despite its flaws, the European Union has managed to set a important international precedent. Although the decision-making processes of the Commission remain bureaucratically opaque, the European Parliament (EP) is the only example of a truly democratic international forum in the world today. Unlike the UN which is dominated by the veto powers of the security council, or the IMF and World Bank which are unduly influenced by the will of the United States, the EP provides a vital platform on which a transnational demos can be represented.

If we only have 11 years to take radical action on a climate crisis, then leaving the only current democratic international forum, winning the British public back over to the idea of new international institutions, enacting these, and persuading other countries to join, seems like an impossibly tall order.

2. Progressive Socialism is Inherently Internationalist

The second flaw I find in the ‘Lexit’ debate is in the viability of democratic one-nation socialism. It is readily accepted that if you want to create a progressive economy that deals with structural inequalities, you’re going to need state interventionist policies and higher taxes, but to achieve this you are going to need to prevent capital holding governments to ransom with threats over relocating investments. Theoretically this can be achieved either by enforcing strict controls to prevent the flight of capital, or by ensuring significant international coordination to rebalance the power dynamics in favour of labour.

Lexit arguments proffer the former. They argue that progressive socialism alone is better than watered down socialism within the European project. For me, this raises two concerns. Firstly, Marxism is an inherently internationalist doctrine, retreating to the nation-state abandons the central tenets of an ideology which upholds the values of the international working class and the collective global struggle. Secondly, and more practically, without international support, a British socialist project will increasingly suffer from the economic antipathy of globalised neoliberalism. Global powers are not adverse from putting economic pressure on unfavourable political regimes, you only have to look at Venezuela to see the latest example of that. Such economic sanctions could be devastating, and ruin the credibility of the incumbent government. Whether or not it would ever get that far, international cooperation seems preferable to antagonistic isolation.

So what does the future of democratic internationalism look like?

If we accept that the current European institutions have significant flaws, but that isolationism does not provide a viable alternative, where do we look for the future of internationalism?

After the Second World War the Western world found Keynesianism as the new narrative with which it could construct its international institutions. After the failure of Keynesianism in the 1970’s, international institutions turned to market fundamentalism. Who is offering a tangible story to which we can now turn?

* Cue the Green New Deal and a Progressive Democratic International *

In December 2018 The Sanders Institute gathered prominent international progressives in Burlington, Vermont to discuss transnational coordination on dealing with the rise of authoritarianism.

Amongst those who attended was Yanis Varoufakis, co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25). DiEM25 plans to run cross-national candidates in the MEP elections in May on a ‘European Spring’ platform which would fundamentally democratise the existing institutions of the EU.

A longer transcript of the DiEM25 manifesto can be found here, but below is a few of their immediate proposals.
Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 14.58.47

These are logical proposals to increase the transparency and accountability of EU decision-making processes that would naturally shift the balance away from market interests and towards that of the European demos. A central benefit here is that these are not reforms that would presuppose some huge constructivist project, they are short-term, low-cost and efficiently radical.

In the longer term DiEM25 are looking to redeploy the EU institutions along the lines of a comprehensive plan called a ‘Green New Deal’, to create ‘an Ecological Europe engaged in genuine world-wide green transition’. This would involve both a basic set of caps on carbon emissions, and policies such as a ‘Universal Basic Dividend’ to structurally reorganise the European economy by redistributing capital’s profits.

The US representatives of this Progressive International were headed by 2020 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders is one of a number of progressive voices that have gained significant popular support in the US in recent years. The US Green New Deal resolution recently tabled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates the internationalist outlook of this new movement. 

‘promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal’

These movements are tabling tangible proposals for the future of democratic internationalism.

In Britain, we are beginning to see the language of the American Green New Deal seep into the rhetoric of the parliamentary Labour party; whilst Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a herself somewhat of an icon amongst the British socialist left.

Whilst overt connections have been made to the US progressive movement, the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has not taken steps to publicly identify himself with the DiEM25 movement in Europe. This is understandable given his party’s continual commitment (on paper) to attaining a superficial Norway + deal to exit the EU.

In the light of this commitment however, there is a clear absence of any significant proposals for post-Brexit internationalism. Labour find themselves failing to address the dominant binary narrative outlined above.

Whether it is the proposals of DiEM25, a democratically progressive global international (which must include those most vulnerable in the global south), or something new, the future of democratic internationalism in Britain is dependent on the presentation of tangible alternatives. Whether or not the left continue to back any form of Brexit, it must have a clear vision for the future of democratic internationalism.

Image Courtesy of Aaron White.

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