Op-ed: Changing Britain, A Reply to Sara Gvero on the EU Referendum

Dragan Plavšić offers an alternative take on Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the rise in racist incidents since the referendum, and parallels with Yugoslavia.


Sara Gvero (‘Shrinking Britain: A Migrant’s View on the EU Referendum’ Balkanist July 6, 2016) laments the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She does so from the specific perspective of a migrant from Bosnia (via Italy) who understandably fears the consequences of this momentous decision.

I take a quite different view, as I am not as rosy about the EU as Sara is. I also do not believe the decision to leave the EU need have the consequences Sara fears. Indeed, I would go further and argue that it is not, in general, having those consequences. Let me explain why I take this view by looking a little more closely at Sara’s arguments.

Migration: how do the EU and UK compare?

The general tenor of Sara’s article is that the EU has enabled migrants like her to seek refuge and, despite the usual difficulties of doing so, make better lives for themselves in other lands, as she has done in the UK, in London. Her personal story has been, in the end, a happy one.

However, it is by no means clear that this is necessarily because of the EU. In Sara’s case, this happens to be so, certainly, but the history of the UK has been peppered by migrants arriving on its shores seeking and obtaining refuge and a better life: the French Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century (often referred to as the UK’s ‘first refugees’); the Eastern European Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries; and the post-1945 Eastern Europeans (mainly Poles), together with Afro-Caribbeans and Asians from the UK’s former colonies. And the UK is not the only state in Europe with such a history.

I hasten to add, lest I be misunderstood, that I am not in the least dewy-eyed about this history of migration to the UK (or elsewhere for that matter). Indeed, the experience of migration has also been accompanied by a history of racist intolerance that continues to scar everyday British life, both institutionally and otherwise. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that this history is no different from the EU’s, where racist intolerance has also been an accompanying feature of migration. Witness the racist treatment of, and antipathy towards, Bulgarians, Romanians and Poles in the UK in recent years, to give but one example.

At the same time, the UK’s migration history is not a simple tale of permissive entry; many have also been denied admission over the years, yet in this respect too, the UK is no different from the EU, as recent events amply demonstrate.

The most appalling demonstration of this has been the terrible tragedy of Africans and Syrians drowning in large numbers on the high seas in order to make it to a Fortress Europe determined to deny them entry. It is, of course, good that Germany has taken in many Syrians, even if it has done so reluctantly. But other EU states have shown marked reluctance to do so, leaving Germany to bear the burden. In the UK, well before any referendum, the now former pro-EU Prime Minister, David Cameron, offered, with the scant generosity that has characterised his government, to take in only 5,000 Syrian refugees a year over four years.

The EU policy on migration, then, as much as the UK’s, is part of the problem, not the solution.

Leaving the EU: racism and neo-liberalism intertwined?

Sara also expresses her concern as to the immediate consequences of the decision to leave the EU. And here she refers to her feeling that “the UK’s attitude towards diversity has been completely redefined” for the worse during the referendum campaign. But has it? Is this not hyperbole? In fact, polling after the referendum, conducted by ICM, found that 84 percent of the public supported allowing migrants to stay. Among Leave voters, the figure was 77 percent. Only 16 percent of voters wanted EU citizens to leave.

How is it possible to explain this? One eminently reasonable explanation springs to mind: that the vote to leave the EU was more motivationally complicated than many thought, including Sara who believes that immigration was “the real issue at stake”. But is it really the case, or is it reasonable to suppose, that the 17 million or so who voted to leave were consumed by anti-immigrant racism? The above poll says not, but if we are to understand the root causes of anti-immigrant feeling in order to banish this feeling from society, we cannot afford to take it at face value, as Sara tends to do. We have to dig deeper for underlying reasons.

And here it is pretty clear that immigration was, for many, a proxy for economic and social issues of longstanding. These issues can be traced to the economic and social devastation wrought by Margaret Thatcher (one of the first purveyors of neo-liberalism) in many working class communities across the UK in the 1980s. For many, the loss of industrial jobs has meant flipping hamburgers at McDonalds or stacking shelves in supermarkets on low pay, not to mention crippling levels of debt. The further experience of the 2008 recession served only to intensify these deeply resentful feelings of loss and despair.

In this context, the arrival of immigrants was seen, wrongly, as the arrival of competitors for scarce jobs and public resources, leading the Greek leftist, Stathis Kouvelakis, to recollect the observation of the French philosopher, Étienne Balibar, that racism should be understood as “a displaced form of class struggle”, in circumstances where the working class is politically weak, as it has been for many years in the UK.

Is the EU a defence against neo-liberalism?

The key question that therefore follows is this: does the EU offer any defence to the neo-liberal misery that lies at the root of this anti-immigrant feeling? Or is the EU, in fact, one of the present incarnations of this economic policy, thereby giving rise to anti-immigrant feeling?

Sara certainly seems to take the view that the EU offers some kind of defence here, though her view is accompanied by some revealing ambiguity. She writes, for example, that leaving will mean that “job security may be jeopardized even more”. It is the “even more” here that is of special relevance, because it implies that job security was already in some jeopardy before the UK voted to leave the EU. At the same time, Sara is concerned for “human rights and workers’ rights” once the EU is no longer there to protect them.

These are understandable concerns, but they underestimate the extent to which job security and workers’ rights have been under successful neoliberal attack in the UK for some 35 years now (as implicitly conceded, I think, by Sara’s “even more”). Throughout this time, it should be noted, the UK was a key member, having joined the EEC, the EU’s predecessor, in 1973.

Indeed, the last 35 years have seen the persistent erosion of trade union rights from the Thatcher years to the latest Trade Union Act of 2016 which places a number of further obstacles in the path of taking strike action. In 2012, the Cameron government introduced new rules doubling the amount of time – from one year to two – that employees had to work for their employers before being entitled to make a claim for unfair dismissal, thereby cutting unfair dismissal claims by over 3,000 a year. And let us not forget that recent years have seen the appalling growth in exploitative zero-hour contracts under which an employer is not obliged to provide minimum working hours to employees.

More broadly, the current traumatic experience of Greece – where whole swathes of the economy are undergoing neo-liberal privatisation by EU diktat against the wishes of the Greek people – reinforces the point. So does the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and USA, giving transnational corporations the unprecedented right to sue national governments for loss of profits, among other unprecedented deregulatory and privatising measures. This is neo-liberalism par excellence. In this context, is it any surprise that the former European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, has just joined Goldman Sachs, the global investment bank?

It cannot therefore be, and should not be, surprising that the EU has been consistently witnessing the rise of Far Right parties committed to blaming immigrants for what are, in reality, the ills of neoliberalism. EU neoliberalism has been a breeding ground for the anti-immigrant Far Right. It is no obstacle to it.

France: how to really defend yourself against neo-liberalism!

So let me suggest that the best defender of workers’ rights is not, and has not been, and cannot be, the EU or the UK. No, the best defenders of these rights are workers themselves, assuming a sufficient degree of consciousness and self-organisation. However, their ability to defend themselves in recent times has been consistently curtailed by successive UK governments – without so much as a critical murmur from the EU.

This should be no surprise to any observer of current events in France. There the French President, François Hollande, is determined to curtail workplace rights in order to create a more flexible labour market favourable to employers. This is a classic piece of neo-liberal legislation which French workers are presently resisting by way of mass demonstrations and strikes.

So where does the EU stand on all this? The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was crystal clear when backing Hollande: “This isn’t some monstrous reform, it’s not an attack on French labour law. These are adjustments that remove some rigidities. It would be good if France did this.” French workers would beg to differ. Their demonstrations and strikes show they know the EU will not protect their rights.

Leaving the EU: some political consequences

Politically speaking too, the vote to leave has confounded some over-confident predictions of an inevitable lurch to the Right. There is little real sign that this is in fact happening.

Nigel Farage, the racist leader of UKIP, resigned quickly, sensing that his moment in the limelight was very likely over. Two leading Brexiters, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, conspicuously failed to get far with their bids to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader. Admittedly, Boris Johnson is now Foreign Secretary, but under the leadership of the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, a Remainer. What has emerged, then, is a not untypical Conservative administration, albeit one that has to operate in new political circumstances outside the EU. It would be narrow, however, to judge the Leave vote by these developments alone.

For something else has also been happening in the UK which cannot be neglected if we are to give a complete picture of the political context in which the vote to leave took place. This is the rise of the Left, which found expression in the election last year of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, an election almost without precedent in the Party’s history given Corbyn’s radical socialist politics. His stunning leadership victory, and the labour movement that has coalesced, and is coalescing, around him to protect him from extraordinary assaults by political opponents and the media, further confound the predictions of an inevitable lurch to the Right. In fact, the Left is showing signs of a real renaissance, after more than three decades wallowing in the wings.

And here Corbyn’s election is also relevant to two final points Sara makes, that is, her reference to the spike in recent racist incidents in the UK, and to the parallel she draws with the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. How so?

Corbyn’s Labour Party and the spike in racist incidents

That there has been a spike in racist incidents since the referendum is clear. Nevertheless, there is good evidence that this spike does not in fact represent the tip of a nationalist upsurge, as the ICM poll cited above confirms. But there is another good reason to think this.

Here we need to ask a key question: where is the most effective response to this spike coming from, in the main? And the answer to that is Jeremy Corbyn who has uncompromisingly and resolutely been leading the argument that migrants are not to blame for society’s ills.

Indeed, it is Corbyn who has repeatedly pointed out that migrants provide a net economic benefit to the UK, working in and contributing to the provision of many key public services, such as the National Health Service, one of the great achievements of the immediate post-war Attlee Labour government that survives largely intact despite creeping neo-liberal privatisation over many years.

Corbyn and the labour movement around him, in particular the trade unions, have therefore stood firm against this recent spike in racist incidents. As a result, his leadership has been able to rally anti-racist sentiment, providing much concrete hope that this spike can be abated and defeated.

The Yugoslav parallel: is there one?

This leads me on, finally, to the case of Yugoslavia. Sara draws a parallel here with the UK’s referendum vote by referring to the shock of her British friends at the vote to leave the EU, comparing it to the shocking ease with which “the principles of cohabitation and diversity” were also discarded as Yugoslavia collapsed. However, this parallel leaves much to be desired, especially when we look at things more closely.

As I have argued in this article, I do not believe these principles are being abandoned. On the contrary, these principles continue, post-referendum, to be shared by the great majority of both Leave and Remain voters, as the ICM poll I cited above again indicates.

Moreover, there exists in the UK today a significant political force – Corbyn’s Labour Party — that consistently supports and advocates the principles of cohabitation and diversity and does so with resounding clarity.

Such a political force was singularly lacking in Yugoslavia as it collapsed into bloody war. Indeed, Yugoslavia was consumed by nationalism precisely because of the absence of any countervailing political force. But as I have argued here, the UK has not in any significant way been consumed by racism. What tendencies there are in this direction find themselves opposed by the countervailing force of Corbyn’s Labour Party and the labour movement as a whole.

The EU and the collapse of Yugoslavia

But let me take this issue a little further, even if I have to delve into territory more than a little tinged with tragic irony, given Sara’s empathy with the EU. For the EU was one important factor in the very collapse of Yugoslavia into bloody war. Its expressly accommodating existence as a pole of attraction for those eager to leave Yugoslavia should not be underestimated. After all, the prominent slogan of Slovenia’s leader at the time, Milan Kučan, was “Europe, now!”

Moreover, one of the more immediate reasons for Yugoslavia’s catastrophic collapse was the role of the EU in prematurely recognising two key states, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Croatia’s case, for example, the EU’s very own Badinter Commission advised against impetuous recognition until the rights of Croatia’s minorities had been properly secured. However, this advice was not heeded (as it was not in Bosnia-Herzegovina too), with the consequence that Serb minorities were thrown into the welcoming arms of Milošević’s aggrandising nationalism. Bloody war then ensued.

That was then. What about the EU in former Yugoslavia now? Besides the drive to absorb these new states into its ranks, we cannot, should not, and must not, forget its current neo-colonial and neo-liberal role in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The EU’s role in both states has to be seen for what it is: a profoundly undemocratic form of misrule, ultimately exercised by foreign administrators acting as proxies for US-led Western imperialism.

Is it, therefore, any surprise that in 2014, Bosnians of all ethnicities took to the streets to demonstrate against this misrule? And is it any surprise that the EU’s initial response by its High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, was to threaten force against the protests? As he put it, “If the situation escalates, we will possibly have to think about EU troops.”

There is, then, one very clear sense in which it is proper to observe that, very much because of the EU, many migrants from former Yugoslavia find themselves scattered across Europe (not to mention further afield). Unfortunately, that observation reflects negatively on the EU rather more than it reflects upon it positively.


All in all, then, the UK’s decision to leave the EU should be seen as a blow against neo-liberalism, the source of so much inequality, poverty and racism across Europe. It is an opportunity that the resurgent Left in the UK can grasp in order to change both the UK and Europe, and to raise the possibility of another Europe altogether different from the one that exists today. In that sense, the referendum vote was certainly a blow against the EU, but not necessarily a blow against Europe.


Dragan Plavšić is a supporter of a Corbyn-led Labour Party in the UK and a member of Marks21 in Serbia. He is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (London 2003).


Cover photo credit: duncan c/flickr/some rights reserved

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