Labour, Brexit and lessons from Greece

Marina Prentoulis is a senior lecturer in media and politics at University of East Anglia. She is a member of the Greek Left party Syriza, a Labour Party campaigner for free movement and workers’ rights, and an activist with Another Europe is Possible. She spoke with The Clarion’s Daniel Round.

What is Another Europe is Possible, and how can the Labour Left engage with it to ensure the best possible positioning with regards to the EU?

The position of Another Europe is Possible is very close to the position that the Labour Party is currently shaping. We are critical of the EU and critical of it as a neoliberal project, but at the same time most of the present governments across Europe are conservative and want to push back against labour rights and for economic adjustment programmes. Our approach is that we can achieve a different Europe. AEIP is an umbrella organisation, a coalition of people from different parties and groups including, for example, Caroline Lucas from the Greens, Labour’s Clive Lewis and Yanis Varoufakis from Diem25. AEIP staked out a critical Remain position at the referendum. Post-referendum, we think that the absolute priority is to defend and push for freedom of movement – distinct from freedom of capital, of course. We in Labour need to work with other people who are willing to cooperate, such as Greens and people in various NGOs – and AEIP as a vehicle allows for that.

The Labour Campaign for Free Movement is now trying to build some momentum on the issue ahead of Labour Party conference. Where do you see the campaign going and what type of impact do you think it can have?

The first objective of the campaign is to challenge the idea that it is foreign workers who ‘steal’ the jobs of British workers. This idea is a xenophobic one when we know that in Britain it is neoliberal policies that undermine workers, their rights, job security and so on. The argument has created a nasty, racist environment. So, people on the Left need to organise, strengthen their unions and lead the fight to stop the victimisation of foreign labour. Also, behind the idea of free movement is the idea of a more progressive and open society, which Britain has been. We are now close to falling back into something that is very difficult to sustain in this world – a closed, nationalistic country. This argument also prevails in other countries, with Trump talking about Mexicans and walls in the US, Marine LePen in France and others elsewhere in Europe.

In the 1950s, when Britain had workers from the Caribbean and elsewhere coming over, there was tremendous racism and victimisation of foreign workers. The argument back then was that they would undermine the conditions of British workers and undercut their wages, so there is a long history of this type of argument in the UK. It is amazingly sad that we have fallen back into the mistakes of the past in the way that we have. As a Left, we should be open and aim for an inclusive, equal society, fighting back and arguing against these trends and harmful discourses.

With Labour Party conference coming up, do you think the Left is likely to come out of it strengthened, and how do you think issues like freedom of movement will feature?

I am optimistic in terms of freedom of movement, with some prominent unions and unionists coming out in support of it. The latest series of announcements from Labour are promising too. Labour has now really differentiated its position from the Tories, which is a positive step and gives a lot of hope. For a while, I was a bit critical of the Labour leadership’s position, but I think the recent shift has been clever politics. Meanwhile, the Tories are killing each other! We are beginning to create a Left position which is inclusive and open, and puts on the agenda labour rights and freedom of movement. I don’t have any predictions for conference as such, but I hope this will be a very strong current at both it and Momentum’s event, The World Transformed. I’ve been invited to a couple of events at The World Transformed, including a panel on Brexit.

What role do you see Momentum playing here?

Momentum has a crucial role for the Labour Left and its fortunes. From the Greek experience – an experience that hasn’t worked very well – Syriza didn’t have the democratic structures in place, and so a lot of people within the party who wanted to be critical of the government didn’t really have a space. The issue of how we organise as activists in relation to our party is really important. I see a contradiction in how Momentum operates, a tension. I follow Momentum from the outside, but I share the aspirations of those within it who want it to become more than simply an organisation that defends the leadership. It also needs to be a broader movement for real social change and transformation.

More than a year on from the referendum, how do you reflect back on that period and what is the way forward for the Left?

I speak as a Greek person, this is my second EU negotiation – I grew ten years older observing the first one and now I’ll probably lose another ten with this one! I think first of all, the Brexit campaign was made up of lies – lies about how the EU works and lies about what Brexit would mean. People tend to think of referenda as a very democratic approach to decision making. I think they can be, but only if the correct discussions take place beforehand and people are well informed. So I think the referendum itself was a very bad idea at that stage, and the lies that were told delegitimise the result. Tory Brexiteers played on the emotions of some people – fear of foreigners, for example. The Left didn’t do well enough in talking about the economic issues that people have faced over the past thirty years, the issues that underpin some of these fears. Despite all of this, I would find it difficult to say “let’s have another referendum – ignore the first one”. It would worsen the mood in parts of the country. I don’t think people are crazy for voting for Brexit – I understood the outcome. I understand why people feel they have lost power and lost sovereignty.

You are currently in Greece – could you give an overview of what is happening on the Greek Left? What is going on within Syriza – are there still people fighting the good fight? Are there any signs that Syriza, KKE, Pouplar Unity, Antarsya and others can work together, or does deep factionalism remain?

The sectarianism is full on! I’m still in Syriza, and I get a bit of flak from some people because of that. We have a Left-led government and we want to see Left policies implemented, but that is not currently possible. On the one hand, part of the memorandum they had to sign was designed to implement the general trend in Europe, which is to minimise labour rights, to destroy the welfare state and to privatise. On the other, Syriza has to create a modern state, which Greece is currently not. In relation to the labour market, for example, for years there has been a black market in Greece – workers are not given insurance and face great insecurity and exploitation. Syriza has made it easier for employees to go to court against unscrupulous employers. This is not necessarily Left politics – you could imagine an ‘anti-corruption’ centre-right government enacting anti-black market policies. However, it will help to bring the Greek state into a position where it does not allow this specific type of exploitation. I have experienced it myself. I once had an employer who was a ‘Leftist’. He would come into the workplace to give me lectures on Marxism but then didn’t pay national insurance! This type of practice has been quite widespread in Greece unfortunately.

You can’t really change a lot of things, however, with the agreement between Greece and the EU. Some of us who are more critical of the Tsipras government are in a bit of a dilemma – what are we to do? I can’t go to the other Left parties because I don’t share their politics. Popular Unity, for example, doesn’t seem to understand that if you change the currency, many of the same pressures on Greece would still remain. Despite this, I would like to see them pass the threshold and get into parliament next time around, but I don’t think that will materialise.

So we are lacking a space in Syriza – a grassroots space. In the British Labour Party, when Blair was leader, Corbyn, McDonnell and others stayed in the party. There was some space in the party which allowed the Left to do certain things at certain levels, despite the fact Blair was pushing through neoliberal policies that Corbyn and the Left opposed. Greece and Syriza is different. For us on the Syriza Left, the big issue is building a democratic space where we can go on working for social change on the ground, be critical of the government when necessary, and possibly influence the leadership from the bottom up.

Britain is not Greece, but a Corbyn government will come under huge pressure. How do we avoid a similar outcome to what happened in Greece?

First of all we have to remember that Britain is not part of the Eurozone, which has its own structural problems as we saw in the case of Greece. Greece was subjected to memoranda, or lending agreements, such as imposing austerity. These types of neoliberal structural adjustments have been imposed on Britain since the 1980s by successive governments. One issue, however, that may be similar for both Greece and Britain in relation to Brexit is the idea of a ‘multiple-speed’ Europe. This scenario paints a bleak future for all of us, enabling the possibility that some countries, including a post-Brexit Britain with no say in EU matters, will be further marginalised on the periphery of the continent. This is something we should resist, both for Greece and Britain.

In the case of both countries, the pressure will also come from a number of ‘peripheral’ issues, unique to the geo-political profile of each country. To give you an example, during the negotiations Greece was simultaneously facing a refugee crisis. Had Germany refused to accept refugees or had the neighbouring countries permanently closed their borders, it could have been used as an indirect form of pressure. Similarly in Britain, it seems that during the referendum the issues of the Irish and Gibraltar borders were treated as insignificant, secondary issues. They are not insignificant at all. So the politics of the negotiations go beyond simply the economic arrangements.

A future radical Labour government will be in the unique position to change the balance of power within the EU and to start building new alliances across Europe at the governmental and grassroots levels. Greece was isolated within the EU power centres during the negotiations and the solidarity movement across Europe did not achieve enough momentum. Pushing for a social and socialist EU is our common struggle and Labour has to commit to that so it doesn’t happen again.

French President Emmanuel Macron has just visited Greece, promising reform of the EU. What type of response did he get?

Macron is a banker, a neoliberal. He talks about a different Europe and uses some of the language that Syriza used a few years ago, so it resonates on the level of rhetoric somewhat. But Macron’s vision for Europe is, of course, very different. He is trying to destroy the unions in France, for example. I worry Macron’s politics could lead to the rise of fascism in France. He is certainly not the answer for a social Europe, and it is unlikely he can end the dominance of Merkel’s Germany in the Eurozone. Melenchon and Hamon spoke very nicely about Greece and change in Europe in the French Presidential campaign earlier this year, of course, but unfortunately neither made the second round.

Finally – do you think the populist right has started to ebb in Europe, and could you update us on the situation with Golden Dawn?

The trial of Golden Dawn’s criminal activities is still ongoing. It has been four years since the anti-racist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered, and we are still waiting for justice. We are still waiting to see the Golden Dawn criminals behind bars. However, they continue to be legitimised. One recent example – Demetris Syllouris, the President of the Cypriot Parliament, invited two Golden Dawn MEPs to a dinner he was hosting for Greek and Cypriot representatives. Syriza MEPs rightly boycotted the dinner in protest.

As for the far-right across the world, I still think there is a huge danger. In the UK for example, UKIP is collapsing but the Tories have absorbed their politics and are bringing some of their ideas into the mainstream. She may have lost, but it is beyond belief that LePen got as many votes as she did in France. So I don’t think we should be complacent. We should be preparing more and more to fight them!

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