Brexit in Arizona

Arizona's World War II Memorial: Guns to Salute the Fallen. Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix.

On 11 December, the UK parliament will vote on the EU withdrawal treaty.  The May government is at imminent risk of collapse should parliament fail to ratify the Brexit treaty.  All of this matters in Arizona and every other US state.

In small towns such as Bisbee, Kingman, and Springerville, there are memorials to local men killed in World War I.  Some 127 died.  There are even more monuments scattered across the state to the World War II dead, most of whom died in Europe.  Just over 1600 Arizonan soldiers died in World War II, a heavy human price for what was then a less-populated state with slightly under a half-million residents. 

Arizona is not much different from other far-distant locations where they sent soldiers to fight and die in a European war.  Algeria, Australia, Canada, Caribbean islands, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Senegal and many other countries with no stake in a European conflict other than that they had been colonised by Europeans.  Small towns in all these countries too have neglected memorials to the dead.

Europe bought its past 70 years of relative continental peace – the Balkans being an exception – with lives taken from around the world.  Stopping the violence of European nationalism bore an astonishing blood price for those whose lives otherwise had nothing to do with the conflicts. 

When British grow offended at outsiders with opinions about Brexit, they ignore those whose lives bought victory in World War II.  Brexit is not a domestic or a wholly European issue, a matter to be straightened out between the United Kingdom and the European Union.  Dismissal of distant opinion underlines the persistence of colonial mentalities. Brexit supporters evince a nostalgia for empire, one which the EU, despite the UK’s profound influence on its policymaking, does not satisfy.

The European Union represents a generational effort towards peace and cooperation.  It repudiates the nationalist antagonisms that generated such cataclysmic mass murder that spread far beyond the European continent.  The vision of a peaceful Europe sharing goals, a common citizenship, and affirming human rights has been an animating force since Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman propelled it forward in an at first sceptical postwar Europe.  Beginning with the European Economic Community in 1958, the Union has become the leading federalist project in history. 

That same project has generated intense antagonism from so-called Old Europe, in the EU’s former communist territories, one that adheres to the nationalism that needs border checkpoints to ensure its sense of territorial security and control.  This is also the nationalist revanchism of Nigel Farage and his now-disappeared UKIP followers, bent on reclaiming from Brussels supposed lost sovereignty and stolen independence.  Theirs is an a priori opposition to European integration and their claims that the EU is a failed economy derive from a rejection of integration, not rejection of austerity policies in Greece and elsewhere. 

This is simple anti-Europeanism.  It is born in a loathing of working-class Eastern European migrants, one that now takes the form of the Leave Means Leave campaign under the logo #chuckchequers and tariff-based trade proposals filled with Pollyanna promises.  For these Europhobic purists, Theresa May’s government has pursued an unacceptable course of compromise and betrayal even as it prepares to depart the European Union.  Near entirely a political movement of old white men, this Leave absolutism and its reactionary ilk bid fair to topple May’s tenuous government. 

Should the Leavers succeed, some members of Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of the Labour Party will support it. Corbyn has taken Eurosceptic positions for over 40 years since as a local councillor he voted in 1975 against the United Kingdom entering the then-European Economic Community.  When first elected as MP in 1983 he supported a platform pledging withdrawal from the EEC.  Later he opposed the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties establishing the EU; he opposed a European central bank and the euro currency.  Their ideological motivations are different, but Corbyn and May share a similar record of opposition to the EU (albeit Corbyn with a more ambiguous parliamentary voting record). 

But Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist progressive. He is not a Tory nationalist. For Corbyn and many left-wingers who support leaving the EU, the issue turns around banks and their role in shaping Brussels-sponsored austerity policies that vitiate social budgets. 

In their view, the treatment of Greece provides a solid anti-EU argument in its own right. Brussels represents an obstacle to expanded social expenditures and building local socialism, and works as an extension of the IMF and American capital. All true, to a point, particularly since the 2007-8 economic crisis.

But Brexit is also bad. It involves massive economic and social dislocation, with enormously negative consequences for the UK economy, as well as for Europe.  Taking a short-term view, Labour Eurosceptics see this as a political opportunity to take advantage of massive public dissatisfaction, win an election, and install a real socialist government, one that Britain has lacked for decades.  Yet for all their predictable condemnation of May’s plan and demands for her political evisceration, Labour could not have done any better were it managing Brexit.

Significant parts of the British left have been pressing against Brexit, particularly its prospective damage to human rights and labour regulations, environmental protections, and migrant interests. These voices have identified clearly the racist underpinnings of the Brexit campaign and its xenophobic Little Britain notions and support a second referendum.  They face the understandable contradiction of supporting Jeremy Corbyn while opposing a Brexit he so far has not blocked.

Europe without internal borders constitutes a new consciousness, one that needs to be fostered rather than stripped away. Brexit is empowering anti-EU right-wing nationalist politics in France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, and elsewhere.  It would be foolish and counter-historical to assume that a post-Brexit Europe would continue to suppress the nationalism that claimed tens of millions of lives over the twentieth century.  Neither Arizona nor other US states need more memorials due to European wars. It’s hard to imagine them not being erected again given the direction that Europe is headed.

Arizona has too-long experience in the xenophobic politics that have driven the Leave movement.  They seek to protect an older racial and social order from change, from new migrants, from people speaking different languages in public places.  They use border-creation and solidification as a promise of prosperity for working class people.  It is capital-owners who will be able to turn Leave to their benefit, not working people.  A post-Leave United Kingdom will advance the visions of white Englishmen determined not to lose their privilege.  In short, it will more resemble Trumpian Arizona.

Photograph courtesy of Jasperdo. Published under a Creative Commons license.