Yes or no to an exit from the EU: this is the question the United Kingdom was asked to answer in 2016. In this interview, James O’Nions of Global Justice Now / Attac UK explains why the prospect of exit is typically only raised by the right-wing and is therefore the wrong approach for progressive and left forces.

What political options did you discuss at Global Justice Now (GJN) once it became clear that there would be a referendum on Brexit? How did you come to a decision on how to campaign?

James O’Nions: We looked at the various possibilities: staying out of the referendum debate completely, backing an exit position (“leave”) or supporting remaining in the EU (“remain”). That said, it was clear to us that if we opted for the second or third position, we wouldn’t support any of the official leave or remain campaigns, but would rather run our own campaign from a critical perspective.

Another option would have been to intervene in the Brexit debate without coming down on a specific side. That was actually the first suggestion that we presented to our elected board: not taking a position, but rather making our voice heard in certain important areas of the debate. But as the board conducted their own discussions, it soon became clear that everyone felt it was important to stay. It was becoming increasingly evident that leaving the EU would be based on reactionary politics in a wide range of forms. Of course, this desire to stay in the EU did not arise from our belief that the EU was a particularly virtuous institution. Though it does represent a form of international cooperation, we’ve always criticised and fought against its many negative aspects.

We also wanted to give our many members, especially our local groups, a chance for co-determination – after all, they would be the ones to implement the resulting campaign. A lot of them were convinced we should take a remain position. Only a small group favoured the option of not committing to any position, and there was no one in favour of an exit at all. So the mandate from our members was very clear.

What first gave you the idea of not taking a clear position for or against Brexit?

James O’Nions: Originally, we assumed that there was more difference of opinion on this issue among our members, and we didn’t want to cause unnecessary division. We knew there were good reasons for demanding a left exit. But it turned out that only few within the organisation agreed. As such, it became increasingly clear that there was a consensus for running a remain campaign.

Did similar debates occur with the same result in other similar movements and organisations?

James O’Nions: Some of them never adopted an official point of view on leave or remain, the “War on Want” campaign being one of them. As far as I know, their chairman advocated leaving, but that was never the position of the organisation as a whole. Others, like Friends of the Earth, took a very clear pro-remain stance justified by the positive impact of EU membership on UK environmental commitments – from climate change to the improvement in cleanliness of our beaches. This last one is a pretty big deal, since British beaches were in dire need of action before the EU came along.

Our critically-oriented remain campaign saw us partner with other activists seeking, like us, to build a common platform for strengthening this critical angle. This is how “Another Europe is Possible” came about – through us working together and releasing joint materials. The platform was made up of a range of people with diverse left-wing backgrounds, from the Labour Party and the Green Party to Left Unity.

So you finally decided on a remain campaign, but from a critical perspective. What were your main concerns, and how did you go about campaigning?

James O’Nions: One issue that was very important to us was the idea of the free movement of people within the EU. Some argue that free movement of people within the EU should exclude those from outside the EU, but as far as we were concerned, you weren’t going to expand the realm of freedom of movement by sealing it off at its existing boundaries. Many of the activists involved in “Another Europe is Possible” came from other EU countries, so that was central to the whole platform.

Other than that, it was about contesting the claims of the right and producing proper materials. The government put out an official remain position and sent out these leaflets to everyone in the country, “this is why it’s important to remain”, an official government ad with the government logo. Then there was the official remain campaign, which was bathed in a sort of modern nationalism. The campaign materials looked like pieces of corporate propaganda, just unbelievably bland and badly designed. The printed flyers had pictures of people who simply didn’t look real, they didn’t even give full names. It was such incredibly bad propaganda; you could hardly believe what you were looking at. And all the focus was placed on the fear of what would happen to the economy if we left. Basically, the official remain campaign misjudged the mood in the country.

Of course, as a relatively small organisation, and because we weren’t focusing exclusively on the referendum campaign, we weren’t able address everything. We focused on certain progressive achievements, arguing that while the EU is not perfect, we would lose these achievements if we left; the potential consequences for labour rights and the like. But we also raised serious mistakes with the leave campaign, who argued – pretty opportunistically – that leaving the EU would rid us of TTIP. We pointed out the hypocrisy of the political actors and the deceptive nature of this argument, since an exit would make be far more likely to result up with an even worse free trade contract than TTIP. That’s what seems to be happening now.

How did the campaign go? Did you manage to get your key messages through?

James O’Nions: Well, unfortunately not. Ultimately, this is partly to do to with the size of our organisation and the number of activists we have – and not all of our activists got out there and started using our materials. But even within the “Another Europe is Possible” coalition, we sent out a lot of material in the final weeks; we remained active. Of course, it was also the case that the platform had started from nothing and was financed solely by activists, not by business people with huge chequebooks. Given the enormity of the challenge we faced, it was clear from the outset that we wouldn’t be able to make a huge difference.

Another problem was the Labour Party. The widespread claim that Jeremy Corbyn did nothing during the campaign is not true – he was absolutely campaigning to remain, he attended a number of public events and took part in meetings. But within the Labour Party, the overall impetus for a heartfelt remain campaign wasn’t really enough. This, in turn, meant that some of the institutional basis that could have supported a successful critical remain campaign wasn’t really there.

I suppose what I’d say is that the forces of the broad left in the UK were a bit too small to change the course of debate about the EU, because it had been conducted in right-wing terms for so long. The official terms of the debate had shifted so far to the right that there simply wasn’t enough time to effect fundamental changes and move it back again. The representatives of the “Lexit”, a left exit from the EU, were similarly unable to have any substantial influence over the wider discussion –maybe even less than “Another Europe is Possible”, since the forces of the Lexit position never really came together as part of a coherent campaign.

So you’re saying that ultimately, the public debate was dominated by right-wing nationalist forces on the one side and right-wing neoliberal forces on the other, while the progressive left wasn’t really getting any wider attention?

James O’Nions: Absolutely, yes.

Taking into account all the factors and circumstances you’ve described, what could the left have done differently?

James O’Nions: That’s hard to answer. I think one of the reasons why we took this stance is precisely because the left was in such a weak position to influence the debate. We shouldn’t forget that during the original accession referendum in the 1970s, the left – that is, the then left-wing Labour Party – was against the EU. In the present day, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a far-right movement, dominates the issue, and has done for a long time. So we knew that the practical outcome of a vote to leave the EU would be the strengthening of reactionary and racist forces in society.

Generally, leave votes formed the majority in economically weak regions of the UK. It seems there is a special brand of rural conservatism that has always been anti-European and would, in any case, have voted in favour of exit and against Europe. But in post-industrial areas, the vote could perhaps have been won in favour of remain.

I think there was a significant section of people on the left who wavered for a while and didn’t know how to vote, but eventually adopted a remain position because they perceived the growing reactionary climate and realized where things were headed.

What would you advise other leftists and social movements who might soon find themselves in a similar situation?

James O’Nions: That’s not an easy question to answer. Unfortunately, the way the Brexit referendum happened in the UK probably just added to the momentum for right-wing forces to dominate the debate in other national contexts. One feasible option when faced with such a situation would be the creation of a platform around the idea that the most pressing need for sovereignty is not national sovereignty, but sovereignty in the sense of freedom from global corporate power.

My instinct tells me that we would have needed to change certain things a lot sooner in order to be able to drive the EU debate in a different direction. If we want to change society and develop strategies against the right, the exit debate is the wrong starting point.

This interview was conducted by Ralph Guth in 2017.

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