EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier, Photo: GUE/NGL / Cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier, Photo: GUE/NGL / Cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

There’s much to say about this week’s Brexit news and, as ever, much of the commentary misses the point, argue Reuben Bard-Rosenberg and Martin Hall

The crucial thing to understand about the Brexit negotiations is that Johnson and Barnier are both playing hard ball.

Johnson is obviously dangling the possibility that he’ll follow through with a no-deal Brexit.

He is saying he will attempt to change aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol. He is banging on about the structural integrity of the UK. He is selling it as him versus an EU bent on breaking up the UK.

In The Telegraph this morning, he has upped the ante by declaring that Brussels ‘must take their threats off the table’. This language is part of a well-established tactic by the Tories under Johnson, one that takes in proroguing parliament along the way, to give the most well-known example.

It is this. Johnson is banking on the fact that his being prepared to break international law will draw the maximum possible opprobrium from the establishment, as it plays well with a section of his base and ratchets up the culture war that has worked so well for right populism.

Hence the language of the UK as ‘client state’ being talked up by British negotiators.

Barnier, for his part, is attempting to make tight restrictions on state-aid – that is to say, state subsidies – an absolute prerequisite to a deal.

What is key is that the sort of economic settlement Barnier is trying to impose is dead in a ditch. This settlement is attached to a notion of a return to the halcyon days of the pre-2008 crisis, and it’s a vision that the Labour leadership shares.

It is a fantasy.

Politically, electorates are no longer happy about allowing the vagaries of the domestic and global marketplace to order society.

Where conservatives are winning in the world, it is generally with a proclaimed agenda of pro-business planning rather than Reaganomics. This is partly what Trumpism was about.

Johnson and the section of the Tories who want to give government the power to direct investment and secure greater control over big business know this.

And this of course was the case even before Covid. It is unimaginable that the major economies can be rebuilt without significant government input.

What the Barnier approach would mean in practice is that the European state-aid regime remains in place for all 28 countries, but with the many ad hoc exceptions that will be necessary to meet the political and economic needs of the ruling class in the remaining 27 countries, which will play out in different ways depending on the economic muscle of the constituent states.

EU state aid rules have for many years masked the huge levels of inequality between countries in the bloc. It has never been the ‘level playing field’ beloved of neo-liberal fantasists.

Britain meanwhile will be compelled to labour on under such neo-liberal fantasies whose time has very much passed.

What’s absolutely crucial is that socialists resist the temptation to pick a side.

On both sides of the channel, progressive forces need to be advancing a different vision of partnership and inter-relatedness.

The current crisis, in which the forces of social democracy are advancing no answer other than better management of the attempt to revivify the existing economic model, has given us a space to make the radical arguments needed regarding a wholesale redefinition of how we organise the productive forces in society.

That was the basis for the radical left case for leaving the EU.

If sections of the left get dragged into supporting the Barnier position out of a sense that this is opposing Toryism, or because of the veneer of rights protected by the level playing field, then the opportunity shrinks.

The zombie forces of British diplomatic narcissism and European neo-liberalism can and must be destroyed. Don’t take a side.

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