What is to be done? Brexit, Corbyn, and the democratisation of Europe. A conversation with Mary Kaldor

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This blog post is based on an Italian interview by Marta Musso* that appeared in the Italian cultural journal “L’Indice dei libri del Mese”.

Prof. Kaldor**, the Brexit referendum campaign was based on the problem of ‘take back control’ – of national borders, of the budget, of the spaces where decisions are taken. Deep down, aren’t they right?

The ‘take back control’ of the referendum referred to a small right-wing élite led by Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Davis – absolutely nothing to do with democratic participation. Brexit was indeed at the basis of the relation between democracy and globalisation. We must separate between ‘procedural democracy’ and ‘substantive democracy’: the first is given by the elections, the rule of law, and all the tools that characterise the democratic system. The second one is about political equality; the capacity of the single citizen to influence the decisions that concerns his life. However, the decisions that today are of vital importance are not taken on a State-level: they are taken in the headquarters of large multinationals, on the laptops of financial speculators, or they are not taken by anyone, like with climate change. The reason for this is not globalisation per se, but the sclerosis of States that are becoming smaller. Therefore,

the answer to the crisis of substantive democracy is not shielding within the borders of States that are in a crisis, but in the great novelty represented by the European Union, because it is big enough to implement decisions on a world scale.

If we want to tax international corporations, act against climate change, put an end to financial speculations, we cannot operate on a State level. Brexit did not give us back control, it further took control away from us: in a sclerotic State, power ends up in the hands of a small élites. The 8 June elections were a rebellion against this situation.

Let’s talk about the elections. Corbyn was strongly criticised by most British media, right and left leaning, as well as by his own party. Even though officially against Brexit, he did not campaign strongly for the Remain vote; since the referendum he has said that the result should be respected, and he is blocking attempts to safeguard Britain’s position in the common market. On the Brexit issue, the Labour party is divided, and the first opinion polls seemed to announce the end of Corbyn – perhaps even of the Labour Party. How do you explain his success on the 8th of June?

I was on the side of Corbyn since the beginning, for the simple reason that if the Labour Party had kept mimicking the neoliberal policies of the others, it would have eventually imploded – like it happened with Hollande’s Socialists in France.

Without Corbyn, my fear is that Labour votes would switch to some extreme right-wing forces such as the UKIP. We are in a transitional phase, when people are tired and look for alternatives – similar to the 1930s, when the failures of the Left brought to Fascism.

Corbyn is a bit ‘old left’, especially in his outlook within the national borders, and his ambiguous approach to Europe; however, this allowed him to take back many votes that had gone to the far right. It is also important to notice that these elections were dominated by social issues, and that the problem of austerity is not separated from Brexit. I think that lots of people on the left were turned off the EU because of the Greek crisis, and there is an idea that the EU is this unreformable, neoliberal organization. Corbyn was successful because he became a symbol against austerity, a message that I hope will spread abroad.  However, the Labour Party is not a Brexiters’ party, the Remainers identified more with Labour than the Conservatives. One of the most interesting tactical campaigns was ‘Best for Britain’, which focused on the exclusion from the Parliament of advocates of a hard-Brexit; this almost always translated in voting for the Labour candidate. Furthermore, it is important to stress that this campaign was not won by Jeremy Corbyn himself, but thanks to the engagement of thousands of thousands of people, especially young people, in a truly astonishing way. As a matter of fact, many of these young people who determined the electoral outcome started to be politically active because of Brexit, they feel robbed of their future.

You seem to describe the end of an era of political disengagement, and you suggest that democracy can revitalise itself in the global world through very localised actions.

We need to think of a model of ‘layered democracy’. One of the reasons I am so pro-Europe is that

the European Union represents a new formula: it is not a new State, like the US, nor an intergovernmental organisation, such as the UN. It is a new model, which counterbalances some of the negative aspects of the States, from human rights to having the mass for taking global-level decisions.

What Europe needs to understand is that in a globalised world, the importance of taking decisions on a local level, more than on a national level, is fundamental. In order to do so we need an ‘internationalised’ civil society; perhaps thanks to Brexit, these European-level movements are now emerging. A real democratisation of the EU, especially of the Eurozone, is the crucial issue to get out of this mess – and I am not referring to Brexit, I mean the global mess. Europe is the experiment that the world needs in this historical conjuncture to be able to tackle the global issues; and the young people, starting with the Britons, are in majority pro-European. They want to be in Europe to change it.

*Marta Musso (MWF HEC 2016-17) is the President of Eogan (European Oil and Gas Archives Network). She is particularly interested in the study of energy policies, international development and the digital world. Since 2015 she has supervised undergraduate students at the University of Cambridge on World History and on Methodologies of Historical Research. @MartaMusso

* *Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance at the LSE, where she is Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit. She is the author of works on globalisation, cosmopolitan democracy, new wars. We met her for a conversation on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and the state of democracy in Europe.

The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme