Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

How Much More Left Can the EU Take Especially from UK?

Adelina Marini, September 19, 2015

In the covering of the June EU summit several of us journalists had the feeling that there was a lot in common between David Cameron and Alexis Tsipras. Nothing about the ideology, but something about the attitude – pulling the string of internal national politics at the European level to the breaking point. It was exactly at this meeting that two possible exits were discussed – the British (BRexit) and the Greek (GRexit). Neither of those is a fact yet, but the danger of them happening has not disappeared. Similarities between the two extremities of Europe – Britain and Greece – got a new impulse on September 12th when the British Labour party elected a new leader – Jeremy Corbyn. With this choice the party that is still struggling to come out of the shadow of Tony Blair and his “third way” veered further to the left and lined up in the political spectrum with Tsipras’ SYRIZA. 

Jeremy Corbyn is not well known, especially in Europe. He’s been a Member of Parliament since 1983. He is considered to be a candidate of the British unions, which Margaret Thatcher waged war with back in the day and won. Besides sympathising with SYRIZA, Mr Corbyn is also popular for his support of undemocratic regimes, like the ones in Venezuela, Cuba, and Peru. Moreover, he had sympathies towards the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. Considering he is a person who won after a real internal, democratic triumph with the words that democracy is victorious and who holds democracy as a leading principle, it is rather peculiar that it is possible for him to support regimes that ruined millions of lives. 

During the campaign for electing a leader of the Labour party to replace Ed Miliband, who resigned after the failure at the parliamentary elections in May, Jeremy Corbyn showed precisely where he stands on several of the most important questions regarding the EU – in the environment of the loud European populism, which is trying to tell people what they want to hear. Regarding Great Britain remaining a part of the Union Jeremy Corbyn took a difficult position, combining the awareness that against him there are two Eurosceptic parties – David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s UKIP – and the British youngsters’ appetite for easy solutions. With a pro-European programme he cannot win national elections, as was seen in the preliminary internal party elections – Labour supporters did not vote for pro-European candidates like Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, nor for the moderate Andy Burnham. All three of them stood squarely for the UK remaining in the EU and the party’s internationalisation.

“I'm concerned about the way the EU is increasingly operating like a free market across Europe, tearing up the social chapter, damaging working class and workers' interests across Europe, hiding tax evasion in Luxembourg and other places and secretly negotiating a TTIP,” he said, trying to balance between extreme socialism and Euro-scepticism. He did not expressly state whether he was for or against remaining in the EU. He blamed Cameron for protecting the free market in the EU. He was talking of reform, but nothing concrete, meaning he will act as the situation dictates. 

On the subject of Scotland he is adamant about recovering the Labour influence there, which would mean being more left than the Scottish nationalists that are in power at the moment. And they are already too far to the left. Scotland is key to the referendum about Great Britain remaining a member of the EU. It is not only the result of the vote that depends on it, but also whether the United Kingdom will remain united. In the matter of Great Britain’s foreign relations, which at the moment are down to the re-negotiation of relations with the EU, signing trade agreements, and sporadic military operations in the Middle East, Jeremy Corbyn does not present much of an alternative. During the first David Cameron term as head of the Conservatives and government, the United Kingdom lost a sizable portion of its international leverage. One could gather from Corbyn’s speeches that this line will remain in force.

He advocates for a review of Great Britain’s defence and foreign policy, but is scarce at details. He is opposed to any military action abroad for he feels that a political solution must be sought first within the framework of the UN. “Should we not be more interested in supporting international law, working with the UN rather than deciding that we as quite a small country can actually afford this global intervention role?”, he said in the form of a question during the public debate with the three other candidates for Labour leader. At that time he got insistently asked by his opponents whether he thought NATO’s military intervention in Serbia over Kosovo was a good decision. He avoided answering the question straight-forward, unlike his opponents, who expressly stated that the intervention was well founded for it stopped a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. Mr Corbyn explained that the situation in Kosovo was truly dreadful but the bombing of Serbia was excessive and created a multitude of problems. He feels the UN should have received stronger support. At the same time he admitted that it was exactly the UN that failed in Serbia and Kosovo. 

The EU doesn't have time for the British Labour

Fully immersed in the migrant-refugee crisis the EU is not overexcited by the election of a Labour party leader, regardless of the fact that this would have huge impact on the future referendum and also on the relations between Brussels and London. It is so disinterested that even Corbyn’s political family – the PES – made no effort to issue an official welcoming address. At euinside's inquest the party sent the following in the name of PES leader Sergey Stanishev: “As PES President, I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his election as leader of the Labour Party. His campaign for leader has inspired tens of thousands of people, many of them young people who have never participated in such an election before. This is a fantastic achievement. As leader of one of the biggest parties in the social democratic parties in Europe, I look forward to working with him for a more social and progressive Union”

Not so festive, however, was the opinion of the Croatian MEP and former foreign minister of Croatia Tonino Picula, who had ambitions for the leader’s station in the Croatian Social Democratic Party (SDP). He feels the political group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament awaited the election of Jeremy Corbyn with a healthy dose of scepticism, but also with an invitation to come ASAP to Brussels and lay out his European Programme. Tonino Picula explains the vote for the radical left Corbin and only ten years after Blair’s “Third way” with the fact that expectations of many, mainly young and educated people, were cheated. “The election of Jeremy Corbyn is a clear signal that Left-wing members and voters for the left-wing parties and the Left in Europe in general want changes”, wrote Mr Picula in an e-mailed response to a question by this website.

Scottish MEP Alyn Smith from the group of Greens/European Free Alliance also hailed Corbyn’s election but warned that this would not go unchallenged. “I would like to see him much more positive on EU membership, retain his stance on the abolition of nuclear weapons and on many other policy issues he is untested.  He also has to convince the population of England to vote Labour, and if he fails to do this then people in Scotland, who voted for the SNP in record numbers at the last opportunity, that the best way to safeguard progressive politics in Scotland is independence”, emailed Alyn Smith. 

The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group which is dominated by Nigel Farage’s MEPs refused to answer euinside's questions with the argument that they were busy with other issues. The EPP, who have no British members, made no comment on the election of Corbyn but reminded that although it is too early to come out with an opinion on the aftermath of his election to the referendum on remaining in the EU, the positions on the EU in both parties – Conservatives and Labour – have changed over the last 40 years. The EPP does not expect this trend to cease, regardless of who is leader in the future. Nevertheless, they reminded that they expect PM Cameron to show up in plenary and present his proposals for a reform. 

How far left, anyway?

The SYRIZA bubble burst after PM Alexis Tsipras backed out on his unrealistic pre-election promises last year and accepted the Eurozone’s conditions in order to broker a third bailout programme. What support will he gather at the preliminary elections this month is yet to be seen but it is obvious that the radical left in the EU has turned into a synonym for lost touch with reality. Denis MacShane, a former minister of European Affairs in Tony Blair’s government, advocated calmness in an article, saying there is no need for hysteria and panic over Corbyn’s election as if he is Lenin, Trotsky, or Hugo Chavez. “When Labour goes into opposition, it always turns left, often sharp left to begin with, and usually elects as its leaders or leading spokespersons politicians who appeal to the party’s gut instincts, not voters’ needs and aspirations.”    

Jeremy Corbyn is yet to reveal himself as a leader. Will he will follow Alexis Tsipras’ fate, whose far left had a short lifespan due to collision with economic realities? It is quite possible, albeit the state of Britain’s economy is nothing like that of Greece. The EU, however, will have an overdose from a large dose of populism, whether left or right, especially in today’s times of reckoning. The first show of Jeremy Corbyn at the European scene, if nothing else comes up, should be at the October EU summit on 15-16 October. As is traditional, before such summits the leaders of parties in the largest political families gather to standardise their positions. This is when we can expect to gain first impressions of Mr Corbyn. And may his election not seem negligible to you in the European context. A considerably smaller economically and population-wise Greece managed to endanger the survival not only of the Eurozone but the entire European Union.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev.