Brexit – Back to sovereignty

Interview with Brian Denny, trade unionist from Great Britain

The large British trade union confederation, the TUC, had spoken out against Brexit, but a large part of the membership was in favour. Brian Denny, a trade unionist in the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, with more than 80,000 members, particularly in the transport sector), takes stock.

Ruptures: With the corona crisis, the United Kingdom is facing its first crisis after Brexit. Is this situation being handled differently from how it would have been if the country had been a member of the European Union?
Brian Denny: Brexit is a process of regaining sovereignty and independence. And in this context, the epidemic reinforces the United Kingdom’s decision: it is clear that only the nation state is able to deal with this situation and organise itself in the crisis. The European Union is doing nothing because there is nothing it can do about it. Even Emmanuel Macron should recognise this. More and more Europe, more and more globalisation, fewer and fewer borders, in full awareness, one bears the full burden of any crisis by depriving oneself of the indispensable instruments for dealing with it.

The UK government is releasing considerable financial resources to limit the impact of the pandemic. Would this have been possible before Brexit?
The effect is psychological rather than budgetary or legal: we know that these decisions are national and therefore we are only accountable to ourselves in this situation. This is evident specifically in the Corona crisis, but even more generally at the level where the decisions for expansionary fiscal policy are taken. The government’s plan seems to be to develop the economy by allocating the necessary public resources. This is the opposite of the austerity idea on which the EU insists and, more generally, of globalisation.

Isn’t it surprising that the Conservative Party, which has so far been guided by unbridled economic liberalism, is putting such a policy into action?
It’s not that surprising. Throughout their history, the Tories have sometimes shown great pragmatism and a real understanding of the situation. This pragmatism and sense of reality has now also been demonstrated in the case of brexit: EU supporters within the Tory party have now made it clear that the matter is closed for them – for example, the former Deputy Prime Minister under John Major, Michael Heseltine, who was one of the sharpest opponents of brexite among the Conservatives. The people voted, and the tide has turned. You really have to be a Social Democrat to make the opposite of that …

In fact, this is not the attitude of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party …
Part of the very divided Labour Party declares that its new goal is the early return of the United Kingdom to the European Union, preferably tomorrow. That would be laughable if it were not so dramatic. These analyses are crude and extremely simplistic, they show resignation and are inappropriate. They are characteristic of a way of thinking that is ten years behind the times!

Is it not painful for a trade unionist like you to make such a statement, which is more favourable to the Conservatives than to the Labour Party?
Brexit has overcome the right-left cleavage from the beginning. It was always clear that we were in a major sovereignty issue that went beyond the usual positions on the political chessboard. The national interest took precedence in this issue.

But don’t you fear a difficult awakening if the government, in order to be politically successful, creates the conditions for extensive deregulation, especially of the London financial centre, without any control?
This phenomenon of extreme liberalisation of financial activities unfortunately existed even before the Brexit in the City. The European Union has done nothing to prevent this phenomenon ... And it is indeed globalisation, which appeals so much to the social democrats – Anthony Blair was a brilliant example of this – that carries within it the idea of this unlimited and limitless expansion of financial capitalism.

Even at the price of black money?
In the context of globalisation, you cannot defend yourself against dirty money, it produces and spreads it. From this point of view, a strong sovereignty will prove to be much more effective. Of course, Brexit is not the solution for everything. It is a process, and it will be what we make of it. Let me add that Singapore, which is often seen as an example of deregulation, benefits from massive state intervention, contrary to popular belief. The EU also has a free trade agreement with this country.

How is this expansive financial policy of the conservatives with massive investments, for example in public transport, experienced within the unions?
Trade unions are not political parties. They must represent the interests of the employees. In some ways it is easier for us, it forces us to be much more pragmatic than political parties. We therefore welcome the decisions, particularly the announcement of the development of rail and bus networks. These investments are essential and nobody in the trade unions is against them. We even believe that we need to go further and that we are still too closely involved in European politics, especially in the rail sector. The link must be broken. We are in the process of regaining the leeway for a policy in favour of public transport. We must go further.

Meaning …?
The UK was at the forefront of rail deregulation and privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s. The subsequent major disruptions to operations led to the reappropriation of certain lines by the public authorities: this was the case in 2018 for the London Northeast Railway and the East Coast Line (linking London to Edinburgh). This opens up new perspectives.

Ironically, companies like Eurostar could benefit from Brexit in the wake of the Corona crisis.
This is a good example, Eurostar will need strong public support to survive the crisis. This public intervention will be all the easier in a UK driven by the Brexit mentality. We now have a greater ability to respond. The private sector will also benefit from our regained sovereignty, contrary to the views of the proponents of globalisation and the European Union.

Among these EU supporters is the TUC, the major British trade union federation. How do the trade union leaders who were somehow surprised by the popular vote react?
The TUC has always supported the EU project, largely without a mandate from union members. Today it is very silent, as millions of members, the basis of the trade unions, have clearly voted in favour of the country leaving the EU. The leadership is now approaching the new situation with a certain realism, but is reluctant to accept withdrawal from the EU. The apparatus is obviously not enthusiastic about the opportunity presented by Brexit …    •

Source: Ruptures from 8 April 2020; interview by Julien Lessors

(Translation Current Concerns)

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