Could Brexit have ended differently?

Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union, which would “effectively leave Northern Ireland within the EU’s economic jurisdiction” following the UK’s exit, “will dangerously escalate sectarian tensions; spilling over into Britain too as in the past”, we warned before the December 2019 general election. (Socialism Today No.233, November 2019)

“For this reason alone”, we went on, after 19 mainly Blairite Labour MPs had voted with Johnson against the parliamentary whip issued by the then leader Jeremy Corbyn, “the workers’ movement in Britain can give no support to Johnson’s deal”.

The Socialist Party, the publishers of Socialism Today, opposes the EU, which at bottom is a bosses’ club attempting to co-ordinate the policies of different capitalist nation states on a continental scale in the interests of big business.

We backed a leave vote in the binary choice referendum on the UK’s EU membership in 2016 from the standpoint of working class socialist internationalism.

But that did not signify a commitment to offer even one ounce of support to the subsequent outcome of negotiations between the UK government and the 27 other EU member states on what the new relationships would be, including the so-called ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’.

Johnson and the right-populist clique now at the heart of the Tory government have acted recklessly throughout the Brexit process, even from the standpoint of the interests of British capitalism.

The overwhelming majority of the ruling capitalist class had wanted to remain within the EU or at least, when faced with the result of the 2016 referendum, retain a closer alignment to the EU single market than the ‘hard Brexit’ that Johnson sought.

One factor was the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

UK and Irish membership of the common EU economic area had seen the removal of customs controls in 1993 which, after the end of security checks under the 1998 Good Friday ‘peace agreement’, reduced the border’s physical manifestation to changing road signage.

A capitalist hard Brexit of the character pursued by Johnson, however, with a different customs and regulatory regime aimed to undercut the EU single market, would inevitably pose its reinstatement as a hard border.

Former Tory prime minister Theresa May’s proposed withdrawal agreement envisaged the UK as a whole remaining in a customs union with the EU unless and until alternative arrangements to avoid a border were made in a new trade deal.

But Johnson was looking to the Tory party membership, a narrow social base of 150,000 or so, 73% of whom when polled in a 2018 Future of England Study saw Brexit as more important than preserving the Northern Ireland peace process.

Johnson dismissed May’s deal as a ‘Brexit in name only’ and, as part of his campaign for her removal, pledged to the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) conference in November 2018 that he would never accept a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.

Once installed in Downing Street, however, Johnson casually dropped his promise to the DUP, as his EU counterparts insisted on preserving ‘the integrity of the single market’.

The potentially ominous consequences for the working class were so much small change for the negotiators on both sides, with the results now beginning to be seen on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere.

“There was, in reality”, we warned, “no prospect of capitalist politicians reaching an agreement that could recognise the national, religious and cultural differences – and the economic needs of the working class across Ireland – while not threatening workers’ unity”.

Only a programme for a socialist Ireland with full rights for the Protestant minority, and a genuinely equal voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, could do that.

In the new period opening up of revived sectarian tensions, building support for such a programme – in the workers’ movement in Britain as in Ireland – becomes an ever more vital task.

EU leaders also culpable

Since Britain’s exit from the EU and the end of the transition period the Johnson government has shown little sign of heeding warnings of escalating sectarianism from more serious strategists of capitalism, or the new US administration of president Joe Biden.

In March the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis unilaterally extended the ‘grace period’ before the full implementation of sea border checks on food, parcels, pets and horticultural products, provoking legal action from the EU Commission, while differences have been talked up on interpretations of the Northern Ireland Protocol’s Article 10 rules on UK-wide subsidies.

“Perhaps the goal is to sabotage the protocol so that some renegotiation becomes inevitable”, pondered The Guardian, “with an unregulated border as a fait accompli”. (18 March 2021)

This would not represent the interests of the majority of the ruling class – once again – but would fit with the ‘Great Britain’ ideology of the right-populists at the head of the Tory party.

This was most clearly expressed by the curmudgeonly old reactionary John Humphrys, when he asked Ireland’s Europe Minister Helen McEntee in a 2019 BBC Today programme interview why “Dublin” didn’t just leave the EU and “throw in their lot with this country?”

But EU representatives too have shown imperial disdain.

At one point in the Brexit negotiations, as each side threatened the other with ‘plans’ for a no deal, the UK published a provisional tariff regime which had Northern Ireland operating as a special tariff-free zone, with no checks or controls on goods moving from the Republic to Northern Ireland.

With no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, this would have been an open invitation for smugglers to move goods from the whole of the EU through Ireland to avoid the tariffs for the rest of the UK.

The EU commission ‘reminded’ members of their obligation to defend the single market, which would have required Ireland to implement border controls to apply EU duties on goods coming from Northern Ireland.

The then Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney was caught off-mic lamenting that this would mean that “all of a sudden we’ll be the government that re-introduced a physical border on the island of Ireland”, a politically explosive development. (The Guardian, 17 January 2019)

But for the EU Commission defending the common economic area for the interests of the big European corporations ultimately trumps empty declarations about the ‘equal interests’ of EU members.

This was again starkly revealed at the end of January when the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, without consulting the Irish government, threatened to invoke Article 16 in the withdrawal agreement to block the export of Covid-19 vaccines into Northern Ireland, in order to ensure that the Commission’s mooted controls on EU-manufactured vaccine exports to the UK could not be bypassed.

This followed a dispute between the EU Commission and the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company over the delivery of vaccine supplies to EU member states.

Vaccine wars and their uses

The whole episode revealed how far from being an integrated state authority the European Union is – never mind the ‘super-state’ of Tory tabloid mythology – but also the hierarchy of power that operates through its institutions.

Health in the EU member states has been the responsibility of the different national governments. But it would have exacerbated centrifugal tendencies within the club if vaccine procurement and distribution had been left to the different nation states – with different production capacities and economic weight to negotiate in the vaccine market – adding to the potential for wildly differing infection rates and national health crises between the member states.

So the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union standing below the European Council heads-of-government EU political authority, was given responsibility to secure vaccines for the whole 450 million EU population.

But the EU Commission is not a state with its own budgetary powers – there was bitter haggling early on between the national member states over the costs of the different types of vaccines being researched.

It also has to balance political pressures from each national government, particularly the bigger powers.

A large order went to Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company, which has not yet produced a usable vaccine.

Von der Leyen herself is a member of Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democratic Union, facing a general election in September against the background of rising Covid infections.

The impact on Ireland of the Commission’s attempt to restore its prestige by a show of ‘vaccine protectionism’ muscle-flexing was low down on her checklist.

But it immediately became top of the DUP’s.

The dominant political force amongst Northern Ireland Protestants since 2003, the DUP was undermined by the duplicity of ‘Johnson the Lundy’ (traitor) in accepting an Irish Sea border.

The Ulster Unionist Party, who the DUP had displaced, had already criticised Johnson’s withdrawal agreement when it was announced for leaving Northern Ireland as a “hybrid part of the UK”.

The Traditional Unionist Voice, a 2007 hard-line split off from the DUP recently picking up polling support, had also denounced the deal as putting Northern Ireland in a “waiting room for a united Ireland”.

So the DUP leader Arlene Foster gratefully seized on von der Leyen’s invocation of Article 16 to call for ‘Unionist unity’ to secure the scrapping of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill retorted that “the Protocol is absolutely necessary”, while lamenting that the EU Commission had given out “a rod to beat it with”.

Days later graffiti appeared threatening customs check point staff, who were withdrawn from the ports at Belfast and Larne.

In early March the Loyalist Community Council, including representatives of Protestant paramilitaries, announced that they were ‘temporarily’ withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

And then from late March came ten days of nightly rioting in towns and cities including Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Newtownabbey, initially in Protestant areas but then developing into sectarian clashes at a so-called ‘peace wall’ dividing Protestant and Catholic communities in West Belfast.

The immediate trigger for the riots was the decision announced by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute senior Sinn Féin politicians for potentially breaching Covid restrictions when attending the funeral of the leading IRA member Bobby Storey in June, feeding into a narrative that Protestants are now the unfavoured community.

But the EU Withdrawal Agreement and its changes to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland provides the glowing underfire.

Brexit ultimately was merely a summary term for renegotiating the UK’s economic, political and diplomatic relations with 27 other nation states, including the Irish republic, codified in the various treaties, regulations, rulings and directives that constitute the EU club.

But could it have produced any different outcome to what has materialised?

Corbynism – a missed opportunity

The June 2016 EU referendum and the subsequent three years of negotiations over the withdrawal agreement took place during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

This was a unique period providing an opportunity to reverse Tony Blair’s transmutation of Labour into the capitalist New Labour and transform the party into a mass vehicle for working class political representation on a socialist programme, including a socialist, internationalist opposition to the EU bosses’ club.

In his 2015 leadership election campaign Corbyn was clear that he would oppose the then Tory prime minster David Cameron promoting a “free market EU economy that tears up environmental protection, social protection and workers’ rights”. (The Guardian, 8 August 2015)

If Cameron ignored Labour’s demands, Corbyn argued, “at that point we go back to our movement and decide what we do. We don’t give a blank cheque now in advance for Cameron to do whatever he wants to do”.

Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned in the 1975 referendum against the European Economic Community (before it was renamed as the EU) and consistently voted as a backbencher against the various neoliberal EU treaties.

Having unexpectedly won the leadership contest on votes from outside the Labour Party membership, from ‘registered supporters’ paying £3 and individual members of affiliated trade unions, he was in a powerful position to change the whole terms of the ‘Europe’ debate.

Instead, unfortunately, in his first mistaken attempt to conciliate with the Blairites, within days of his victory he signed a joint letter with the then shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn saying that in the forthcoming referendum Labour “will be campaigning to stay in regardless of the outcome of the government’s renegotiation” with the EU – the very definition of ‘a blank cheque’.

However, the defeat suffered by the capitalist class in its majority nine months later in the 2016 referendum – a blow delivered by the working class even if it was through the distorting prism of a plebiscitary vote – created a new opportunity for Corbynism.

In his immediate response Corbyn unequivocally accepted the result, correctly identifying it as “a vote by the people of left-behind Britain against a political establishment that has failed them”. (The Guardian, 8 July 2016)

What was required, he argued, was to “negotiate a new relationship with the EU… that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights… an end of EU-enforced liberalisation and privatisation of public services – and for freedom for public enterprise and public investment, now restricted by EU treaties”.

This could have been the starting point of a campaign to rally both leave and working class remain voters behind a socialist and internationalist stance in the talks with the EU.

It could have given a socialist content to the UK’s leave vote to appeal to workers across Europe, including the Irish republic, for a common struggle against the strictures of the EU bosses’ club.

The capitalist governments of the other EU27 member states would have undoubtedly pushed back against the demands of a Corbyn-led government but would also have faced the pressure of the discontent developing against the EU in every member state.

The working class could have been mobilised in each country to demand that their government join Corbyn in a fundamental reshaping of European relationships encompassing opposition to EU-driven neo-liberalism and support for public ownership.

It is the working class, with no permanent interest in capitalism and its institutions, which has the greatest possibility of reaching a common position across the EU countries, if a bold lead is given.

But this would have posed the need for decisive steps to build new vehicles of mass political representation of the working classes of Europe.

In a speech in Prague in December 2016 Corbyn announced that a conference would be held in London to discuss Brexit, correctly saying that “unless progressive parties and movements break with the failed economic and political establishment it is the siren voices of the populist far right that will fill the gap”.

But the subsequent invites for a gathering in February 2017 went to Labour’s ‘sister parties’ in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group in the European parliament, including the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the French Parti Socialiste, the living embodiments of the ‘failed political establishment’.

From Ireland it was the Irish Labour Party, having fallen to just seven TDs (Teachtai Dála – members of the Irish parliament) in the 2016 elections after participating in an austerity coalition government, and not the six left TDs who were then sitting in the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit parliamentary group.

Nothing more was heard subsequently about a European-wide campaign.

And so an opportunity was lost to use the Brexit negotiations to push the process of developing independent working class political representation and socialist consciousness on a continental scale, a vital preparation for creating a new, socialist, Europe – and for harmoniously recasting relations between workers in Britain and Ireland and within the island of Ireland.

Once again, internationally as domestically, Jeremy Corbyn and his leading supporters sought to conciliate with the representatives of capitalism within the workers’ movement rather than organise a decisive break with them around a bold socialist programme.

Workers’ unity the only answer

Seeking to de-escalate the immediate crisis around the sea border issue, UK-EU talks have begun on possible modifications to checks, with the UK pushing a ‘trusted trader’ scheme using the big supermarkets’ logistics and audit systems.

The possibility of a new enhanced deal on agri-food products has also been mooted – although not favoured by Johnson – as these only formed a limited part of the hastily-negotiated UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement that ended the eleven-month Brexit transition phase.

But what is involved are not technical issues with the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol – Tory minister Michael Gove at one point waxed lyrical in the House of Commons on the free movement of British sausages – but how to overcome the deep legacy of divide and rule bequeathed by capitalism to Ireland and for which it has no answers.

The interests of British capitalism today are different to what they were when they partitioned Ireland in 1921, a history recounted by Niall Mulholland in his article in this issue of Socialism Today.

The British ruling class imposed partition then primarily to cut across the revolutionary movement of the working class that developed at the end of world war one, which the leadership of the workers’ organisations, fatally weakened by the execution of James Connolly in 1916, failed to lead to its inherent socialist conclusion.

But they also wanted to maintain access to the naval bases in the north and retain direct control of the most industrialised region of Ireland, factors which no longer apply.

Preserving the tools of divide and rule – whether racial, religious, national, gender or other differences amongst the working class – is a ‘permanent interest’ of the capitalists, who can only secure their rule as a truly privileged minority through such means.

But they can also spiral out of control. Declassified files released in Dublin in 2018 showed the despair of Margaret Thatcher, the alleged ‘Iron Lady’, when she confided to the then Irish premier Charles Haughey in June 1988 that “I do not know what to do about the border”. (The Guardian, 28 December 2018)

Any move towards a united Ireland would spark “the worst civil war in history” she said, which “would spread to the mainland”.

That would shatter Britain’s global position, not least in relations with the US with its more than 30 million strong Irish-American population.

The British ruling class today would have no fundamental objections to a united Ireland. But the results of their poisonous legacy cannot be wished away.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement, establishing a power-sharing Assembly in the north, contained but also institutionalised sectarian divisions which are still reflected in daily life.

There are more permanent ‘peace walls’ than before 1998 and the proportion of children in integrated primary schools is only up from 3% in 2000 to 5.8% (in 2018).

But Catholics now hold nearly half the jobs in both the public and private sectors, with the majority of workplaces now mixed. And it will be the impulse for working class unity against the interests of the bosses that holds the key to the future.

How else, for example, could the fears of Protestant workers of what a change in constitutional arrangements could mean for their livelihoods be answered except through a militant assertion of working class interests against the capitalists?

History has shown what is possible and a further glimpse was seen in the recent events, with bus drivers, united across sectarian lines, walking out when they and their colleagues were threatened.

As the workers’ movement rebuilds and draws lessons from the defeat of Corbynism within the Labour Party framework the unity of the working class around socialist policies must be its watchwords, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, against the idea of unity with any stripe of capitalist politician.