Jeremy Corbyn’s Europe Speech Was Cynical And Naive At The Same Time

Voting to stay in the EU in the hope that a left-wing movement might make the organisation simultaneously more socialist and democratic is like moving to North Korea in the expectation that a friendly word with Kim Jong Un will see the country immediately become a capitalist land of plenty

Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn gave his much-heralded intervention in the EU referendum debate, which is worth analysing as perhaps the single biggest disappointment of Corbyn’s tenure as Labour Leader thus far.

In his speech at Senate House, we were treated to statements like this:

The Labour Party is overwhelmingly for staying in because we believe the European Union has brought: investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment, and offers the best chance of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century.

In fact, Britain’s bounce back from (Labour-inflicted) 1970s decline was due to the free-market policies of the Thatcher Conservative government. The limited extent to which our membership of the European Union helped bring jobs and investment to Britain are the very same reasons why Corbyn now dislikes the current EU – because it is “neoliberal”, market oriented and has awkward rules about state aid and nationalisation of industry.

By voluntarily placing Britain in the EU’s regulatory straightjacket at a time when we were most decidedly mad (with price and wage controls and vast nationalisation of industry) we were indeed prevented from inflicting more harm on ourselves. But Corbyn pines for all the edifices of state socialism which were worn down by Thatcherism and constrained by the EU.

Corbyn basically wants 1970s declining Britain, repeated at a European level. He may admire the social, employment and environmental regulation, but he will not be happy until member states are free to pursue strongly left-wing policies without interference or blocking from Brussels. And of course this is a hopeless fantasy, because the EU is travelling in a direction where member states are able to do fewer and fewer things autonomously in their own national interest, while the euro crisis demands more, not less, convergence.

Corbyn continues:

In the coming century, we face huge challenges, as a people, as a continent and as a global community.  How to deal with climate change. How to address the overweening power of global corporations and ensure they pay fair taxes. How to tackle cyber-crime and terrorism. How to ensure we trade fairly and protect jobs and pay in an era of globalisation. How to address the causes of the huge refugee movements across the world, and how we adapt to a world where people everywhere move more frequently to live, work and retire.

All these issues are serious and pressing, and self-evidently require international co-operation. Collective international action through the European Union is clearly going to be vital to meeting these challenges. Britain will be stronger if we co-operate with our neighbours in facing them together.

Not one of these issues is something which cannot be tackled by determined, well-executed inter-governmental co-operation between sovereign member states. There is nothing mysterious about climate change or terrorism or free trade which can only be solved if the countries of Europe dissolve themselves into a single supranational political entity which sits above them, its unelected leaders making decisions on their behalf.

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour In For Britain - EU Referendum - Brexit

So what is the answer to the European Union’s problems if not recognising that it is a terminally flawed, anachronistic holdover from the early twentieth century, and pulling the eject lever before we impact with the ground?

Corbyn’s solution:

So Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It’s perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member.

[..] I have listened closely to the views of trade unions, environmental groups, human rights organisations and of course to Labour Party members and supporters, and fellow MPs. They are overwhelmingly convinced that we can best make a positive difference by remaining in Europe.

Then they are all part of the same collective delusion. The European Union is not shy about its ultimate goal of ever-closer, not simply more perfect union. And the juggernaut has continued to trundle inexorably in the same integrationist direction for decades. What, exactly, gives them hope that a twinkly-eyed, bearded British socialist and his starry eyed chums like Greece’s Alexis Tsipras (who was pretty much castrated by the eurogroup on live television during last year’s euro crisis) are going to change the direction of travel?

Don’t expect an answer. Every EU apologist from the dawn of time has been ready with mealy-mouthed protestations that “of course the EU is flawed” and “of course we need to push for reform in Europe”, but there are two problems. One is that the European Union is not interested in their kind of reform, and the second is that the EU apologists lose all interest in actually agitating for reform after awhile. Running into a brick wall at full speeds begins to lose its appeal, after awhile.

Then we get to the meat of Corbyn’s speech:

When the last referendum was held in 1975, Europe was divided by the Cold War, and what later became the EU was a much smaller, purely market-driven arrangement. Over the years I have been critical of many decisions taken by the EU, and I remain critical of its shortcomings; from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services.

Here’s the obligatory “I hate the Romans as much as anybody” part, which inevitably precedes a declaration that the EU has given us “the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health“.

Except that what the EU does is not so much lavish spending on cash-strapped institutions being starved to death by the mean Tory government in Westminster. What it actually does is bribe citizens with their own money. In the case of a huge net contributor to the EU budget like Britain, that means sending our taxpayer money to Brussels where it goes through the bureaucratic machine, before a portion of those funds are redistributed to organisations and councils within Britain, to be spent in the way agreed with the EU.

Friargate - Coventry - EU Regional Development Fund - Bribery - Brexit

That so many academic, artistic and cultural leaders are so desperate for Britain to remain in the EU should indeed tell us something. It should tell us that they are either stupid for not realising that they are being bribed with their own money, or that they are very smart and cynically think that the EU’s anti-democratic nature is a great way to get taxpayer funding for things which are either so pointless or so much more at home in the private sector that the British public would never countenance spending the money.

One of the very few messages that Vote Leave actually gets right is the idea that if we leave the European Union, we can spend the money on our own priorities, as democratically chosen by the British people (rather than being agreed by dubious application processes to various EU grant-giving bodies). Of course, Vote Leave immediately go on to spoil it by confusing gross and net contributions and suggesting that we lavish all of the money unthinkingly on the NHS as a mass act of public virtue signalling. But their basic premise is right, not that Corbyn cares.

So what exactly are these never-gonna-happen reforms supposed to look like? Corbyn sets out his vision:

But we also need to make the case for reform in Europe – the reform David Cameron’s Government has no interest in, but plenty of others across Europe do.

That means democratic reform to make the EU more accountable to its people. Economic reform to end to self-defeating austerity and put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy, labour market reform to strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real social Europe. And new rights for governments and elected authorities to support public enterprise and halt the pressure to privatise services.

So the case I’m making is for ‘Remain – and Reform’ in Europe.

Today is the Global Day of Action for Fast Food Rights. In the US workers are demanding $15 an hour, in the UK £10 now. Labour is an internationalist party and socialists have understood from the earliest days of the labour movement that workers need to make common cause across national borders.

Working together in Europe has led to significant gains for workers here in Britain and Labour is determined to deliver further progressive reform in 2020 the democratic Europe of social justice and workers’ rights that people throughout our continent want to see.

But real reform will mean making progressive alliances across the EU – something that the Conservatives will never do.

Ah, so “reform” actually just means lashings more socialism in Europe.

Anyone proposing a change to the workings of the EU based on a single political ideology is immediately doomed to fail, because they are by their own admission less interested in democracy, governance and international co-operation, and more interested in inflicting their own worldview and values on others. And so it is with Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a left-wing Hands Across Europe movement.

Corbyn has no interest in working with conservative or centrist voices in Europe to create a better-functioning set of institutions and rules, because for him (and many on the left), policies and structure are inseparable. Corbyn doesn’t really care that the EU is antidemocratic – after all, right now he is grateful that the EU is undemocratically imposing on Britain various employment and social directives with which he agrees. Therefore his only interest is seeking out other like-minded people on the continent to grab as much power as possible, only then considering changes to the structure of the organisation to make it harder for conservatives to mount a counter-attack.

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour In For Britain - EU Referendum - Brexit - 2

And when it comes to partisan point-scoring against conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn’s extended diatribe against tax avoidance incidentally reveals the single biggest hypocrisy in his entire position on Europe.

Corbyn begins this section:

The most telling revelation about our Prime Minister has not been about his own tax affair, but that in 2013 he personally intervened with the European Commission President to undermine an EU drive to reveal the beneficiaries of offshore trusts, and even now, in the wake of the Panama Papers, he still won’t act.

And on six different occasions since the beginning of last year Conservative MEPs have voted down attempts to take action against tax dodging.

But then he dramatically overreaches:

Left to themselves, it is clear what the main Vote Leave vision is for Britain to be the safe haven of choice for the ill-gotten gains of every dodgy oligarch, dictator or rogue corporation.

They believe this tiny global elite is what matters, not the rest of us, who they dismiss as “low achievers”.

For any apologist or supporter of the EU to stand up in front of a room full of people and declare that it is those fighting for Brexit who are the elitists takes real cojones, and an inscrutable poker face. Because back in the real world, nothing epitomises the desire of a small political and financial elite to escape national democratic accountability for their actions more than the existence of the EU.

As Brendan O’Neill puts it so brilliantly in Spiked:

The EU is not, as its cheerleaders claim, a coming-together of European peoples. Rather, it represents the outsourcing of key parts of national political life to the unaccountable, unreachable realm of the European Commission and other Brussels-based bodies. It directly waters down our democratic clout through granting ever-greater authority to institutions like the EC and the European Court of Justice, whose edicts and rulings can be imposed on nations regardless of what national governments, far less national plebiscites, think of them. That is anti-democratic. End of. And it should be viewed as intolerable by anyone who considers himself progressive, and who recognises that every radical, inspiring leap forward in modern times – from the Levellers to the Chartists to the Suffragettes – has been about people wrestling from the authorities the right to choose who governs them; the right to political say-so.

The EU is a union not of peoples, but of elites. It has in recent decades become the sphere in which national elites, feeling ever more estranged from their national electorates, have effectively taken refuge. In pooling their national sovereignties into the EU, our national rulers absolve themselves of the responsibility to have tough, testy debates with us about various political and social matters, in favour of seeing such issues discussed and resolved by the commissioners and self-styled experts of this rarefied zone.

The EU is not any kind of internationalist or cosmopolitan project, as its supporters claim. Nor is it a conspiracy of French and German blaggards to do over decent Blighty, as its detractors insist. Rather, it is the institution that has grown from and been constantly fed by national elites’ own growing feeling of exhaustion with democracy – and with democracy’s engine: the demos – be it politicians who would rather an aloof court decided something they haven’t got the stomach to debate or advocacy campaigners who agitate for an EC regulation because nothing repulses them more than the idea of trying to win over the plebs of their own nations.

And O’Neill’s conclusion in the same piece could be aimed directly at those left-wing EU supporters who, like Corbyn, insist that we must stay locked in unwanted political union to protect our “rights”:

All those things that the Remain lobby claims will be better if we stay in the EU – workers’ rights, freedom of movement, anti-terror security measures – are things that should be discussed and decided by us. To say the EU does ‘good things’, even though it does them without any real democratic oversight, is to support a benevolent tyranny. A tyranny enacted not to crush us but to save us – the worst kind.

But of course Jeremy Corbyn (and much of the Left) do not trust us to make the “correct” decisions on these or any other issues, so they are more than happy for democratic control of these things to be outsourced to a supranational European level of government which is more amenable to their demands.

Britain Labour Party

So to summarise – Jeremy Corbyn supports Britain remaining in the European Union on the basis that the EU may one day magically reject capitalism and seek to become a socialist paradise. And yet no serious watcher of the EU or its member states believes that this is remote possibility, whatever Yanis Varoufakis and his Democracy in Europe Movement may say.

Therefore Jeremy Corbyn is willing to subject Britain to the ongoing uncertainty of remaining part of a relentlessly integrating supranational political union (not to mention the probability of a violent, uncontrolled Brexit further down the line when the EU either disintegrates or takes another major step toward federalisation) because he is holding out the flimsy hope that a ragtag assortment of socialist and communist groups across Europe will get together and take over the EU’s institutions, recasting Brussels in their own image.

Of all the grandiose claims from both official sides in this referendum campaign, how likely does this proposition seem to you?

Exactly. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that any of the things that Jeremy Corbyn freely admits to finding most objectionable about the European Union will change any time soon. Deep down, Jeremy Corbyn knows this, and yet here he is, telling us about the wonderful, socialist-friendly EU which could soon be ours.

When Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest and almost immediately recanted his long-held euroscepticism, this blog remarked:

There are lots of words you can use to describe the Labour Party’s fawning and uncritical “IN at all costs” attitude toward the European Union, but it is certainly not the “new politics” promised by Jeremy Corbyn.

And as Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party continues, it will be very interesting to observe where he chooses to make a stand in defence of his left-wing principles, and where else he is willing – or forced – to make concessions to the majority centrists of the parliamentary party.

On nearly every other issue – armed intervention in Syria, Trident nuclear weapons, you name it – Jeremy Corbyn has been more than willing to provoke rage and hysteria within his own party by treading a different path and rejecting a number of sacred New Labour shibboleths. But when it came to the European Union, Corbyn didn’t simply send out Hilary Benn to give the doe-eyed, europhile position. He swallowed his pride and did it himself.

One might call it a rather bold act of leadership by Corbyn, were it not also such a grotesque betrayal of his own beliefs on the subject of Europe.

Ultimately, Jeremy Corbyn wanting to stay in the European Union to bring about democratic socialist reform is like me wanting to go to North Korea to single-handedly convince Kim Jong Un to surrender power and help his country transition away from totalitarian dictatorship. The aim is certainly ambitious, maybe even noble, but the audience’s receptiveness to the message is decidedly limited. And both are equally doomed to failure.

The only difference is that as a private citizen, I am free to indulge in as many far-fetched daydreams as I like without consequence, whereas Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party and the official Opposition.

When I waste my time and energies advocating for a futile cause, it harms nobody. When Jeremy Corbyn does the same, as he did at Senate House yesterday, he betrays not only his conscience but also the people who voted for Corbyn trusting him to speak his true mind and defend their interests.


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5 thoughts on “Jeremy Corbyn’s Europe Speech Was Cynical And Naive At The Same Time

  1. Peter Smith April 16, 2016 / 9:46 PM

    Sorry to hog your comments section, but I just remembered an excellent post on a blog called “Finnbrennan” and titled “What should the #Lexit argument look like?”

    Here are few pertinent extracts in connection with your post above:

    “I think it was Owen Jones who coined the phrase “Lexit” in a Guardian article last July. He invited debate on whether the left could any longer support remaining in the EU given the treatment of Greece, the wholesale adoption of neo-liberalism and the threat to democracy from free trade rules and treaties like TTIP. He warned, quite rightly I think, that “without a Left Out campaign, UKIP could displace Labour right across northern England”.

    “…..A host of progressive left wing figures have backed “Another Europe is Possible” arguing for a radical remain position that breaks with the free market and austerity politics that dominate the continent. So far they seem to have the best tunes or at least the best players. Kelvin Hopkins has been consistent in following the exit route, but no one could accuse Kate Hoey of being a left-winger. She was originally selected as Labour candidate for Vauxhall precisely because she wasn’t. As for George Galloway, the sight of him preaching from Nigel Farage’s pulpit is a great reminder of the quip about the profession of patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

    “….The EU is a capitalist club that is impoverishing working people across the continent so that its elite don’t have to pay the price for the economic crises they caused. Its aim is to create a superstate trading block that competes with others by driving down living standards for the majority until they meet those of east Asia coming up. It is ideologically and organisationally wedded to free market capitalism with the fewest protections for workers it can get away with. The problem isn’t open borders, it is closed ones, with fences now inside as well as out, to stop those trying to flee from the wars and economic devastation our rulers fund and create. It’s not a progressive force, it’s a regressive one. I don’t just want the UK to leave, I want the whole rotten edifice to collapse so that a new Europe and a new world can genuinely be possible.”

    “And of course we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about immigration. To argue that our class has always had to travel to find work; that when big business can shift its wealth freely across the world in search of profit then workers should be free to travel too; that strong trade unions, not strong fences, are the only guarantee of decent wages and working conditions; that no human being is illegal!”

    “….A left wing argument about immigration should start from the premise that every worker should be free to travel but none should be forced to. Foreign and international development policy should be about encouraging and cooperating with sustainable development and human rights, not selling arms and cosying up to friendly oligarchs and kleptocrats.”

    “Right now, when most of the leadership of the labour movement are backing a Prime Minister who openly mocks and attacks us, they risk looking like what’s been called the “stabilising class”; people who argue for change, but run a mile when any real change is actually on offer that might undermine the power relationships we live under.”

    “You will never convince a UKIP voter to support Labour by telling them they are stupid or racist. Equally, you will never convince them if all you do is agree with them that Brussels or migrant workers are at the root of their problems. The referendum debate is going to be dominated by arguments about immigration, who are the “real patriots”, and what’s good for the economy, without asking just who and what the economy is for. Unless the left puts forward a very different position, then we will simply be swamped in a nasty nationalist tide. I don’t claim to have all or even a few of the answers, but I think the points above are somewhere to start. And if Owen Jones is proved right, and the left cannot make an independent, forward looking, optimistic and convincing argument for an Exit vote, then in or out of the EU, Britain in June will be a very depressing place indeed for every trade unionist.”


  2. Peter Smith April 16, 2016 / 2:04 PM


    Another excellent post pointing out how the political “leadership” (I know Labour is not in power, but they could be) of the UK is letting the citizens down.

    I can see that you do not need a EU history lesson, but it is shocking to note that so many in the rest of Britain does. The lessons and course of history are often brushed off flippantly, especially when the lesson is difficult to swallow.

    Britain’s eventual entry into the European Community in 1973 followed a roller-coaster ride of acceptance and rejection, mainly by France who, among some other reasons, reckoned that the UK was not yet up to the standard of the other EEC countries to be allowed entry into the “club”. Can you believe the arrogance. However getting into the EEC became an over-riding objective of the UK Labour government of the time.

    For some reason, up until that date, the majority of the UK public did not really support joining the EEC, perhaps because they had more sense to realise where the whole integration project was headed and did not wish to see their recently hard-won independence thrown down the drain.

    As it turned out, in the general election in 1970, Labour lost to the Conservatives, although the Common Market issue played very little or no part of the election campaign.

    The new Conservative government wasted little time getting the UK EC membership application lodged. Despite clear signs of the intended direction of the EC and through some deceit and skillful manoeuvring back in Britain, Edward Heath obtained approval of the UK’s accession to the European Community (EC).

    The main reason why the UK wanted to be in the EC was to benefit and share in the overwhelming prosperity that had taken hold in Europe. Spurred on from the financial and business elites, the UK politicians wanted the UK to share in the European economic boom. In truth of fact, many other factors contributed to the European economic miracle at the time, and being part of the EC was a largely irrelevant factor. Some advantages did accrue from the trade deals struck, the common customs union and the common market arrangements. In fact, these were the ONLY parts of the EC arrangements that the UK, sensibly, ever wanted to be part of.

    In 1974, the economic situation in the UK took a turn for the worse and in the general election of 1974, Labour once again took over from the Conservatives. This time, on-going membership of the EC had become an decisive electoral issue.

    In a strange twist of irony, Harold Wilson had committed himself to obtaining a “fundamental renegotiation” of Britain’s entry terms in the Labour Party election manifesto:

    “A profound political mistake made by the Heath government was to accept the terms of entry to the Common Market, and to take us in without the consent of the British people. This has involved the imposition of food taxes on top of rising world prices, crippling fresh burdens on our balance of payments, and a draconian curtailment of the power of the British Parliament to settle questions affecting vital British interests. This is why a Labour government will seek a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of entry.”

    From 1974 until 1975, negotiations took place between the UK and the EC and, although some concessions were obtained, most experts called the new deal “a sham”. However, Wilson was not to be deterred. He announced that a referendum would take place in 1975, and the question would be whether the UK should remain in the EC or not. Not unlike 2016, there were plenty of ructions in both the main political parties over this issue, including the resignation of some prominent politicians.

    In an almost mirror image to what has transpired with the 2016 Referendum debate, the same or very similar alliances existed, duplicate Yes/No campaigns were set up, the Yes/No argument and debates went back and forth and mis-information abounded on both sides. Similarly, both the Labour and Conservative parties were pushing for a “Yes” vote.

    The result of the referendum was a 67,2% Yes to stay in the EC on a 65% voter turnout. Later analysis showed that the majority Yes vote was largely based on the belief that Wilson had obtained a better deal for the UK in the EU, This, as we now know, turned out not to be true.

    For the UK in the EC, however, things would just go from bad to worse.

    In the period 1975 to 1990, on almost every issue in the EC, the UK found themselves in opposition to the prevailing sentiment. In addition, by 1976, the economic situation in the UK had become dire. Wilson resigned in 1976 and his successor kept things barely cobbled together until in 1979, when after losing a no-confidence debate in parliament, a general election had to be called and the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over power.

    Initially, Thatcher was a supporter of the EC (or Common Market as the British preferred to call it), although she sought to change certain provisions to be more favourable to the UK.

    However as time elapsed and endless disputes about many issues ensued, she started to dig in her heels strongly. The European integration project had been steadily gathering pace and Thatcher opposed all moves towards political union. The UK became a constant thorn in the side of the EC bureaucrats with their resistance.

    Unwittingly and under pressure towards the end of her tenure, Thatcher was eventually “suckered” into agreeing to further EC treaties, despite her intuitive understanding that the advancement of “Union” was not a good thing. At least not in the way that it was being done. History has proved her to be correct in her analysis, but wrong in her actions regarding the EC treaties.

    Ultimately, internal power struggles in the Conservative party and her endless conflict with the EC bureaucrats forced her to resign.

    And now, it would appear, history is about to repeat itself as Corbyn falls into the same trap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper April 17, 2016 / 1:11 AM

      Many thanks Peter for reading, and for sharing this lively and accurate brief history. Your account of Britain’s accession to the EU rightly points out that we joined at a time of great national decline and self-doubt, and subsequently came to connect our eventual recovery with having joined the EU, even though the EU played only a limited role in our revival (staunching the blood loss rather than making us fit and healthy). Britain is no longer the country we were in the early 1970s. We are no longer the sick man of Europe, facing the real prospect of permanently falling out of the list of first world countries. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people – including nearly all of our political leaders – think and act as though we are still that weak and ineffectual basket case of a country that we were in 1970. I guess that having come of political age around that time, many have simply internalised the idea of Britain’s inadequacy to the extent that they are unable to shake it.


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