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Analysis #32

“Remain and Reform” Really Just Means “Remain”

Richard Tuck

7 July 2019

“Remain and Reform” is a mindless slogan akin to Tony Blair’s “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Just as Blair only ramped up incarceration without addressing the societal drivers of crime, so Left Remainers have no chance of reforming the EU – indeed, they have no idea how to do so.

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. “Remain and Reform”. Tony Blair and his admirers have never been at a loss when it comes to fine-sounding but deeply dishonest slogans. As we all know now, Blair’s government was far tougher on crime than on the causes of crime, with the prison population surging from 60,000 to 80,000 during his tenure, with little to show in terms of any reduction in crime. Whatever “tough on the causes of crime” may have meant, in practice Blair’s policy turned out to be little more than a standard regime of increased policing and incarceration. It was really just “tough on crime”, and the underlying causes were never seriously addressed, in part because no one really knew what they might be.


Exactly the same would be true of “Remain and Reform”, if by some evil chance it is ever implemented. This is the new slogan for Labour Remainers, inspired by Yanis Varoufakis, for whom it has been the solution to his own personal dilemma: the contradiction between his experience in the Greek debt crisis and his long-standing romance with the idea of a united Europe. It actually underscores the truth of what pro-Brexit Leftists have said all along: that, as things stand in the EU, many socialist policies are impossible. Can we really pursue socialism in a Union governed by the capitalist four freedoms? If we can, why would we need “Reform”?


Many of the people who support “Remain and Reform” argue that we need to stay in the EU in order to stop a Tory government implementing a programme that will undermine workers’ rights and make Britain a capitalist offshore tax haven. But the idea that the EU is needed to stop such a thing presupposes that domestic British political processes will not do so in any reliable fashion; otherwise, we could simply rely Labour’s arguments yielding victories at the ballot box. So, underlying the “Remain and Reform” agenda is a deep pessimism about British politics, and a belief that it will not deliver the kind of results the Left hopes for.


But if we despair of British politics, why should we expect anything better from the politics of Europe? Anyone looking at the continent today with clear eyes and a clear head cannot possibly conclude that the Left is poised to take it over. If anything, the complete opposite is true, with far-right populists on the march across the continent. So where exactly is the impetus for a Leftist “Reform” programme going to come from? There is a contradiction at the heart of “Remain and Reform” just as there was at the heart of “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.


Not only are the appropriate political formations lacking across Europe, it is not clear what the appropriate processes would be. Essentially, the EU is a legal order, with its most important decisions made by a court interpreting a constitution, as the Lisbon Treaty was originally called. In this respect, it resembles the United States, though since it was created to entrench a certain kind of market society and not to fashion a state, its constitution arguably has further-reaching economic implications than even the US Constitution. But the Left in the United States, and indeed the general American population, has always understood the significance of this structure and is properly informed about it. Political scientists produce detailed studies of how the Supreme Court operates and how the social and political background of the justices affect the result. Presidential elections increasingly focus on who Presidents will nominate and get through the Senate confirmation. Activists dream of constitutional amendments, such as one to overturn the notorious Citizens United judgement, and they even have more or less practical plans to secure them, or at least know what is required. How many members of the Labour Party calling for “Remain and Reform” can even name one of the judges of the European Court of Justice, let alone how they might rule on a case, or how the provisions of the Treaties which they are interpreting could be changed?


For example, at the moment, Article 153(5) of the Consolidated Treaty expressly denies EU jurisdiction over issues concerning “pay, the right of association, the right to strike or the right to impose lock-outs”, all things which the Left ought to be interested in. How could that be changed? If the powers of the Union are to be extended, the European Council has to agree to put any proposed amendment to a special Convention “composed of representatives of the national Parliaments, of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, of the European Parliament and of the Commission” which has to “adopt by consensus a recommendation to a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States”, each of which has then separately to ratify the proposed amendment before it can come into force. If there are any hold-outs, “the matter shall be referred to the European Council”. All of these bodies are likely to be dominated by forces of the Right, with endless veto points. The procedure has been made deliberately impenetrable to lock in existing arrangements (see Analysis #23 - The Folly of “Remain and Reform”: Why the EU is Impervious to Change).


Contrast these procedures with Article V of the US Constitution, dealing with amendments, which gives no veto power to any governmental institutions such as the Presidency or the state governors, and even allows two thirds of the state legislatures to force a constitutional convention on an unwilling Congress; and no one thinks it is an easy matter to amend the US Constitution in a progressive (or, indeed, any) direction. Can anyone seriously think that there is any route to “Reform” in the EU, unless there is what at the moment is an unimaginable transformation of the domestic politics in every single member state? And if there were to be such a transformation, would there really be any need for the EU? Wouldn’t these left-wing democratic governments be able to manage relationships between themselves without the need for supranational regulation and technocratic government?


So, just as “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” really meant simply “Tough on crime”, “Remain and Reform” really means “Remain” – or maybe “Remain but let’s keep our fingers crossed that it might change”. The people who mouth this slogan have to come clean with the rest of us: would they support Remain without Reform, or is Reform a necessary condition for Remain? In almost all cases, I think, it is the former. But they then have to say openly that the kind of things they mean by ”Reform”, and which used to be thought of as “Socialism”, are expendable in the interests of staying in the EU, and they have to tell us why they are willing to make that trade-off, rather than pretending that it does not have to be made.

About the author

Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson professor of government at Harvard University.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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