Image from CloudFM group

Image from CloudFM group

by Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

Upon reading this headline, one would be forgiven for thinking that a publication that is often referred to as a ‘rag’, cares deeply about ordinary Brits’ income and so is the Conservative Party’s Europhobic (current) majority.  In reality though, they like to hide behind the veil of nationalism so as to conceal its market fundamentalism.  This is why they love to hate the EU’s Working Time Directive.  That directive is part of an enduring effort made by a previous coalition of national and EU-level political actors to use the collective force of the European Union to ‘humanise’ capitalism as we – citizens of the EU – face it in our daily lives.

Originally enacted in 1993, it was extended to a larger number of workers in 2000 and was subsequently codified in 2003.  It contains basic provisions such as daily and weekly limits to the number of hours that workers can be required to work, a legal right to four weeks of paid annual holidays, legal rights to regular health checks for those who work during the night (an activity that is directly associated with ill health), rest breaks, etc.  Two key points are often missed when that directive is discussed in Britain.  First, it – just like several other pieces of EU legislation – sets minimum standards (i.e. a ‘floor’ below which member states are not allowed to go) but allows EU member states that want to enact higher levels of protection to do so.  Second, the individual opt-out that it contains allows individual workers to work for more than 48 hours per week if they so wish but this is a clause that is often abused in the UK where the culture of long working hours persists.

The original directive was enacted despite vehement opposition from the Conservative British governments of the first half of the 1990s.  Later on Tony Blair’s New Labour administrations fought tooth and nail to prevent the abolition of the individual opt-out which it (still) contains.  But behind the veneer of ‘British’ opposition, a rather different picture exists – indeed, one about which the Murdoch press does not appear keen to inform its readers but also one that offers awkward reading for supporters of what is misleadingly called ‘Lexit’.

As my own ESRC-funded research has demonstrated, when the New Labour transposed that directive in UK law and then implemented it, they made choices that reflected the then government’s ideological orientation.  For example, they transposed the directive into UK law in a way that enabled it to cover many more workers than was legally necessary.  They could have done much more along those lines but chose not to.  That was the government’s choice.  As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the same happened in France.  In other words, membership of the EU did not prevent parties that place themselves on the Left of the political spectrum to a) act in ways that was consistent with their ideological orientation and b) in one way or another different from parties of the Right.  Moreover, a comparison of these two countries has revealed differences between them too: when in government, New Labour’s stance was less worker-friendly than the stance of the French Socialist Party; the French Right did not question the involvement of public authorities in the regulation of working time, while the British Conservatives still believe that this should be left to the market: a matter for direct negotiations between the individual employers and employees.

Over the week-end, this idea – that the amount of time a worker can be required to work should be left to the marketplace – was, yet again, presented in a way that feeds into a particular narrative not only about the EU but about the economy as well.  On that instance, the Sun was simply copying (!) a Frenchman, a descendant of immigrants, no less: Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-winger who won the 2007 French presidential election by promising to French workers to enable them to ‘travailler plus pour gagner plus’.  What they subsequently discovered was that his actual policies were not exactly worker-friendly, as demonstrated by the sweeping reform of French labour laws enacted by the Fillon-led governments of the Right.  Just like in France, the Sun’s narrative, in addition to the numerous factual mistakes that it contained, reflected the idea that public authorities are by definition fetters, not promoters of material progress; workers ought to compete against each other (come what may) so as to earn more irrespective of the negative consequences that the non- or light-touch regulation of working time can have on their health, family life, etc.  Of course, this kind of discourse also helps many employers hide their antiquated practices that foster instead of combatting low productivity.  Ironically and revealingly, GDP per hours worked is far higher in France than it is in the UK.



When Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, said that “England has collapsed”, he was not referring to England’s elimination from the European football championship by Iceland.  What he meant was that the UK has collapsed, in his words, “politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically”.  Far from looking like a party of government in waiting, capable of offering an answer, the Labour party has become entangled in this systemic crisis and may end up splitting as a result.  The party’s reaction to the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates that the image of unity and pro-European conviction that could be detected before the referendum was little more than a façade.  The pro-European conviction is being shaken to the core and unity, if it ever existed, has evaporated.

Key facts indicate that it did not have to be like that.  Recent polling indicates that 81% of Labour party members are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU.  nearly two thirds of those who voted Labour in 2015 are estimated to have voted for the country to remain a member of the EU.  More than 90% of Labour’s MPs were active supporters of the Remain campaign and the leaders of virtually all trade unions and the TUC.  For a party that over the past year has been divided over a number of policies, these are indications of a remarkable degree of unity. In reality, though, things are quite different.  The behaviour of leading Labour politicians indicates that both the left and the right wing of the party find it very easy indeed to move away from their declared pro-EU stance.

Jeremy Corbyn performance in the referendum campaign was so lackluster and he was, arguably, so late in supporting the Remain camp (a stance that may be the result of his Bennite associations), that a couple of weeks before the referendum almost half of Labour’s voters said they did not know where the party stood on the referendum question.  The extraordinary degree of hostility from the media towards its leader (a hostility that brings to mind the mendacity of the British press against the EU that arguably had a decisive impact on the referendum’s outcome) can explain only part of this state of affairs.  Even if one ignores the multiple allegations that Corbyn and his collaborators actively sabotaged the party’s Remain campaign, the suspicion that Corbyn actually preferred Brexit was compounded by his spokesman’s statement that the result shows that Corbyn’s view is much closer to the views held by the British public.

Secondly, the extent of anti-EU sentiment in the party’s former heartlands in the North of England was such that just days before the referendum leading members of the party’s frontbench like its deputy leader Tom Watson and prominent backbenchers like Yvette Cooper argued in favour of restrictions in the free movement of people inside the EU.  Cooper in particular was so desperate in this attempt that she argued in favour of the abolition (in all but name) of the essence of Schengen area (i.e. one of the most significant achievements of the process of European integration) despite the fact that the UK is not part of it.  This was a belated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to appease the anti-immigrant (to put it mildly) feeling that was unleashed by the referendum.  It was reminiscent of the party’s 2015 general election pledge to reduce new EU migrants’ access to some benefits for two years: late, wide of the mark, out of line with the party’s pro-EU stance and ultimately unsuccessful.  Crucially, these Labour politicians did not try to confront the public’s misconceptions and prejudices at a time when academic research shows the significant contribution that EU immigrants make to the exchequer, even before one considers the cultural and other forms of their contribution.  Nor did they say much about the fact that for decades non-EU immigration (for which the UK has sole responsibility) has been higher than immigration from the EU.  So, even if one (despite the evidence) believes that immigration in the UK is a problem, policy failed in the part that is under the control of the UK government.  Though changing public perceptions during the post-fact politics is anything but easy, these Labour politicians have failed the party and the country by allowing the fact-free, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment to settle.

To his credit Corbyn publicly rejected the notion that immigration is a problem.  Both he and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, were right to argue that parts of the country were feeling the negative impact of immigration as a result of decisions made in Whitehall, not Brussels.  Proof of this is the scrapping by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in August 2010 of the fund that was meant to help ease the pressure on housing, hospitals and schools felt by these communities.

The huge row inside the Labour party after the referendum has focused much more on Corbyn than on the policies that the party ought to pursue in the future.  In this context even some of Corbyn’s supporters (including amongst trade union members) have acknowledged that under his leadership Labour cannot make the electoral progress that it needs to make and offer the country a real alternative to the Conservative government.  At the same time, internal analysis of Labour’s performance in last Amay’s local elections shows that the party has increased its share of votes in areas where this progress would not affect the outcome of a general election.  As the authors of that analysis put it,

“The strategic problem is that only 14% of our gains were in areas we need in order to win general elections – while just under 50% of our losses were in those areas.”

This poses a major dilemma, the answer to which will determine the fate of the Labour party in the next decade or so.  Should it abandon its pro-Europeanism of which its support for immigration is a key indication and hope to attract some of the voters it has lost in its Welsh and northern English former heartlands or should it stick to facts and principles and try to change (rather than echo) the views of these voters some of whom harbour xenophobic opinions.  In other words, at the end of the day, it must decide whether it is a progressive, left-wing party or not.

Those amongst its most prominent MPs and officials who (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) prefer the former to the latter must be aware of the costs that this option will entail.  Joining the anti-immigration bandwagon (instead of, for example, attacking austerity and beefing up labour standards) is no free lunch.  The millions of cosmopolitan, urban dwellers (including those who helped propel Sadiq Khan to victory in the 2016 London mayoral elections) who support Labour (and have boosted its membership since Corbyn’s victory) will abandon it if it becomes little more than ‘red UKIP’ while it is hard to see why other voters (who could be tempted by the anti-immigration line) will prefer the copy to the original.  After all, preliminary evidence shows that a) there is absolutely no correlation between wage growth and support for Brexit and b) culture and personality, rather than material circumstances, lie behind majority support for Brexit.

This was originally posted on

nigel farage

Nigel Farage speaks at CPAC, 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Having lost the economic argument, the Leave campaign is now trying to shift the debate towards immigration. This element of the EU referendum debate is as closely linked to the issue of sovereignty as is the management of the economy.

There are two arguments that the Leave side tend to emphasise in relation to immigration. The first relates to security.  The most extreme version of this argument takes the form of the false claim that the UK cannot veto Turkey’s accession to the EU and – as a consequence – the arrival of millions of Turks on this island is virtually unavoidable.  A less extreme version of the same argument relates to the impact of migration from other EU member states on public services at the local level, including schools, hospitals etc., and ignores the contribution that these people make to the exchequer (and beyond).  More recently, however, another argument has been made. Aware of the deleterious nature of the association of Brexit with anti-immigration rhetoric, Brexit supporters have argued that

“Brexit refers only to an exit from the EU and there are no specific policies of any kind tied to Brexit. What happens afterwards and how the UK chooses to manage its affairs in the light of an exit is up to the British government, which is ultimately answerable to its electorate. […] [T]he fact remains that Brexit is compatible with both open and closed borders. Which it will be depends on decisions made by an elected government. […] [W]e should use an exit from the EU as an opportunity to have a proper debate for the first time about whether we want the UK to be open to migration or not, and then base our laws on the outcome of that.” (Chris Bickerton)

Leaving aside the fact that the debate on immigration has been going on for many years in the UK, their central point is one that all souverainistes like to make: through an exit from the EU, the British people will reassert their sovereignty and that is what matters above all other considerations.  The precise way in which it will be handled is a separate issue. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

For all its major faults (including the unedifying image of government ministers who lie live on TV), the referendum-related debate has highlighted the fact that membership of the EU involves a whole array of trade-offs, including those that relate to immigration. But this is precisely what the souverainistes see as a problem since sovereignty is, for them, a zero-sum game.   You either have it, or you do not.

So to achieve their main objective – Brexit – they appear to imply there will be no need for such trade-offs in the post-Brexit future.  This is unrealistic to say the least, since – even if we ignore the cultural benefits of immigration – demographic conditions, the state of the economy, the domestic economy’s relationship with its main partner, i.e. the rest of the European Union, will still need to be managed.

They also conveniently ignore two points that are directly linked to each other and show that the balance of forces is likely to be conducive to a particular immigration policy if Brexit occurs.  The first is the fact that historically this country is normally governed by the Conservative party, and the second relates to the domestic balance of power in the aftermath of Brexit.

Specifically, if Brexit begins to materialise on 24 June, it will not be on liberal terms. Rather, it will be on the terms used by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – that is to say, immigration-phobia.  In other words, it will be done in a way that will make openness not more but less likely.  Even a cursory look at the statements made by Nigel Farage and his de facto allies within the Conservative party and beyond shows their overwhelming emphasis on numbers, not the need for a more liberal immigration regime. The use of the term “burdens” is indicative in that respect. In the event of Brexit, David Cameron’s successor will almost inevitably come from the Brexit-supporting side of the Conservative party and they will have virtually no room for manoeuvre on this issue, even if one naively assumed they would actually want to wiggle away from the extreme statements made in the run up to the referendum.

The haste to dissociate Brexit from the toxicity of many Brexit supporters’ anti-immigration rhetoric is understandable for another reason: academic research shows that ‘the effects of demographic change fade over time, probably because local white residents become accustomed to minority residents, have positive contact with them, or come to perceive minorities as legitimately belonging in the area.’ In that sense, those – like Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform – who rightly claim that EU membership is a way to preserve the UK’s openness and increasingly cosmopolitan nature have the wind in their sails.

Dionyssis G Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

This post was originally part of the BREXIT debate at LSE

Tonight Birkbeck hosts its own EU referendum debate


In special extended essay Birkbeck’s Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos examines David Cameron’s (Re) negotiation techniques:

The outcomes of the British government’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union and the referendum that will follow are highly uncertain but the renegotiation reveals quite a lot about Prime Minister David Cameron. For a start, the decision to renegotiate relates much less to the UK’s interests than it does to Prime Minister Cameron’s inability to modernise his own party and face down its increasingly vocal right wing. He now spends most of his time talking about and dealing with the last issue he said he wanted his party to talk about when he became leader of the Conservative Party more than a decade ago. More importantly, the way in which he is going about a crucial part of this renegotiation reveals that – far from what one would expect from a self-proclaimed moderniser – key policy decisions pay little heed to evidence.

Of all the EU-related issues that Mr Cameron raised in his letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the treatment of EU citizens in the context of the UK’s welfare benefit system (i.e. monies that UK-based workers receive if they meet certain income-related criteria) is, by far, the thorniest and the one that has attracted the largest amount of media attention both in the UK and beyond. Fanning the flames of populism in relation to what he calls “welfare tourism”, Mr Cameron has repeatedly stressed that he wants to stop these benefits “acting like a magnet”, creating incentives for other EU nationals to settle in the UK under the EU’s fundamental principle of free movement across the borders of its member states which ensures that moving from, say, Warsaw to London for work is no different to doing so from Montgomery, AL to San Francisco, CA.

As a public policy issue, EU nationals’ access to the UK benefit system has at least four partially overlapping facets. One is fairness (equality before the law irrespective of nationality or, as Jeremy Corbyn rightly put it, “if somebody is working, paying taxes, doing a job just like anybody else, then surely they deserve access to exactly the same benefits as anybody else”), the second is public finance (since it relates to expenditure or, in the case of tax credits, the non-collection of potential revenue), the third is the labour market (the availability and cost of labour) and another one is migration (the relationship between benefits and a migrant’s decision to come to the UK). Fearful of UKIP’s emotive, divisive and populist rhetoric and recent electoral results, Mr Cameron has explicitly focused only on the latter aspect of the aforementioned issue, partly as a result of the high salience of immigration in the UK (which, as Simon Tilford rightly points out, reflects the failure of successive governments to take appropriate action). Mr Cameron’s decision has two implications.

The first is that this is certainly not a case of evidence-based policy making. Quite the opposite is true for we know – from academic research – that the benefit system is not the reason why other EU nationals come to the UK. This research shows that amongst EU nationals from eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004 (i.e. the main focus of the current debate in the UK), ‘the vast majority […] were attracted to the UK […] by the chance to build a “normal life” for themselves and their families’, and not the opportunity just to claim benefits. In the words of one leading expert ‘EU migrants come here overwhelmingly to work – in fact their employment rates are considerably higher than for either natives or non-EU migrants’.

Moreover, further research shows that when it comes to benefits for people who are out of work, ‘migrants from both within and outside the EU are less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals. DWP statistics [NB: the government’s own statistics] show that as of February 2015, just over 5 million people were claiming welfare benefits; of those, about 370,000 (7.2 per cent) were non-UK nationals (at the time that they registered for a National Insurance number; and of those, only 114,000 (2.2 percent of the total) were EU nationals.  Since those born abroad make up 16 percent of the working age population, and those born in the EU make up about 6 percent, it can be seen that migrants of both types are considerably less likely to claim out-of-work benefits.’

The issue of evidence in relation to what Mr Cameron calls “welfare tourism” is not new. The EU affairs Select Committee of the House of Lords wrote to the first Cameron administration’s immigration minister as early as September 2013 expressing concerns about ‘the lack of information you were able to provide on the extent of the abuse of free movement of workers.’ Even more embarrassingly, when the European Commission queried the British government on accusations made in relation to “benefit tourism”, the response was: “We consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence”, perhaps because they know that the British public’s perceptions are wrong in relation to a whole array of quantifiable issues including the scale of immigration, crime, welfare fraud etc.

When (in November 2015) Mr Cameron did use figures to justify his party’s stance, the UK’s Statistics Authority accused the government of trying to avoid scrutiny by not disclosing important sources and calculations that could have helped independent analysts assess the figures and when (two months later) a government minister was asked to produce figures showing that “benefit tourism” encourages EU migrants to come to the UK, he reportedly did not produce any.

In addition, given the Guardian’s revelation that HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax collection authority, ‘defines “non-UK families” as those where at least one adult in the claimant family is a migrant, meaning that mixed families where one partner is a British national are classed as immigrants’, it became clear that the number of in-work benefit claimants would be artificially inflated precisely because of the definition used. When the HMRC was asked (on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) to reveal ‘how many British nationals claiming tax credits are being counted as migrants’ because of that definition, it failed to provide an answer.

Finally, when asked (again on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation) in December 2015 to reveal how many recently issued National Insurance numbers are active (i.e. are associated with recent tax payments or benefit claims) so as to gain a more accurate understanding of how many EU nationals have migrated to the UK and how many are in the workforce, the HMRC refused to do so, because – as it claimed –‘following the General Election, there is an active negotiation process at an international level in which UK Ministers and officials are engaged to secure support from the European Commission and other Member States for changes in EU law governing EU migrants’ access to benefits in the UK, in line with the Government’s manifesto commitments. The information is being used to inform the development of policy options as part of the negotiation process and therefore relates to the formulation of Government policy. HMRC continues to believe that releasing information in the form requested would, at this stage, be unhelpful to the negotiation process.’ (emphasis added)

This is not the first time Mr Cameron makes key decisions without a sound basis on evidence. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that he led for five years conducted a very wide-ranging review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK. That review ended by concluding that – by and large – the balance is right. No wonder the British public has not heard him say much about it since then, as the House of Lords pointed out. This might be linked to the fact that at least some of its content was not to his ministers’ liking. Furthermore, prior to the onset of the financial crisis he had promised to match the Labour government’s spending plans. Yet shortly after the onset of the crisis he accused the Labour government of not ‘fixing the roof when the sun was shining’ although there is no evidence that UK governments had been profligate until then.

There is a second, much more disturbing potential consequence of his stance on the issue of migration from EU countries. Even if Mr Cameron manages to convince the UK’s EU partners, he will ultimately fail to achieve his declared policy objective which is to reduce the attractiveness of the UK for other EU nationals, especially those from central and eastern European countries, after he has – of course – declared ‘victory’. This would not be the first time a British Prime Minister declares victory of this kind. Both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher made exactly the same exaggerated declaration in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s concealing from the British public the fact that on both occasions the final result (of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership in the first case and the UK’s contribution to the EU’s budget in the second) was closer to what the UK’s European partners had wanted. Nevertheless, this time has the potential to be far more dangerous for the UK. The way Mr Cameron has been dealing with this important issue is bound to further erode public trust in politicians and fan the flames of populism (of which there is no shortage in the UK), because as long as the British economy keeps generating jobs – irrespective of how safe or well-paid they are – it will keep attracting the young and often well-educated central and east Europeans that it has been attracting since the mid-2000s.

I am not at all advocating a different way to achieve Mr Cameron’s declared intention (quite the opposite, since the intention is wrong). Even if one ignores the broad range of immaterial benefits that openness brings with it, there is ample academic research proving the financial contribution that these people have made in the UK. For example, it has been demonstrated that

‘Those from the European Economic Area (EEA – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from outside the EEA contributed 2% more in taxes than they received in the same period, the report showed. Over the same period, British people paid 11% less in tax than they received.’

Politicians who – unlike Mr Cameron – care about the Old Continent’s long-term prospects ought to engage in an EU-wide debate on the redistribution of resources that needs to take place so as to enable local communities where these people settle to cope with increasing demands placed on schools, hospitals etc. But holding that debate requires – not playing to the gallery, which is in part what Mr Cameron has chosen to do – but having a different kind of leader, one who is prepared to fight against mistaken perceptions.

This piece was originally published on Open Democracy.



Writing about the British Labour Party’s attitude towards European integration, Donald Sassoon rightly pointed out in his classic history of the West European Left in the 20th Century, that “No party of the Left has exhibited such profound uncertainty on the question of Europe.”

The British Left’s views on European integration – as expressed through the Labour Party- are quite dissimilar to the traditions of Labour’s French and German sister parties, ie the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) respectively.

For example, the Labour Party has never shared the German Social Democrats’ principled attachment to the idea of a united Europe and especially not to a federal one. On the contrary, they share some similarities with the traditions of Labour’s Scandinavian sister parties (especially the Swedish SAP).

Post-World War II

After October 1951, the Labour Party was in opposition for a long time and therefore had little room to contribute to the emerging concrete meaning of the enduring concept of unification. During much of this period it remained hostile towards European integration. This was because of two overlapping reasons.

The first related to control over vital national resources and was expressed through hostility to the Schuman Plan’s core idea of placing coal and steel under some kind of supranational ‘control’.

The second element of Labour’s opposition was its attachment to the Commonwealth and (though the party would not explicitly acknowledge it) to a certain idea of Britain as a major power in the postwar era at the centre of a network of (soon to be former) colonies.

As Hussein Kassim notes in his detailed account of Labour’s evolving views on European integration, “Like its sister parties, Labour eventually abandoned its hostility, though not all its reservations” but it never had a clear and emblematic moment of reckoning about it. “Its European journey has been complex, tortuous, and often contradictory, and even as Labour has become Britain’s main pro-European party, it remains circumspect about integration.”


While in the opposition benches in the early 1960s, Labour (then led by Hugh Gaitskell) opposed EEC membership around the time of the Conservative Macmillan administration’s decision to apply in 1961. However, with Harold Wilson in Number 10, the Labour administration submitted a new application in 1967.

The logic of this decision can be seen as a prelude to much of Labour’s subsequent positioning in European integration. It was not based on the acceptance of the principle of European integration. It was much more about mundane and practical, especially economic, considerations at a time when trade between the six founding members of the EEC was booming.

However, the party remained divided on the issue of European integration. Those (mainly on the left but also segments of the right wing of the party) who opposed membership did so on the grounds that it would undermine national sovereignty and even democracy.

Implicit in this populist narrative is the notion that full sovereignty was not only desirable but also possible only outside the European Communities. Those who supported membership rarely did so as a matter of principle (i.e. the idea that European integration is a welcomed way of managing relations between European states).


During the 1980s avid opposition to the European Communities (exemplified by the Labour Party’s 1983 general election manifesto pledge to take the country out of the EC) gradually gave way to measured support for membership and further engagement.

This, however, only emerged after Neil Kinnock’s election as party leader and, importantly, Jacques Delors’ major speech to the TUC in 1988.

The leaders of the British trade union movement saw in Delors’ ‘social Europe’ agenda – exemplified by the Working Time Directive – a protective shield against Margaret Thatcher’s domestic policies.

John Smith’s leadership further boosted the party’s gradual turn towards a much more pro-EU stance that had started under Kinnock.

Crucially, being a member of a particular kind of (evolving) EU was not seen in antithesis to, but a reflection of, the kind of Britain that – under Smith – the Labour Party wanted to build.

This was indicated by Smith castigating John Major in the House of Commons for wanting to turn Britain into the sweatshop of Europe and trying to compete against Taiwan on wages and not against Germany on skills.


Tony Blair’s much vaunted pro-Europeanism, while real and deep (and explicitly so) was, however, not particularly left wing. Although his government signed up to the ‘social chapter’ and gave British workers a series of benefits that their counterparts in continental Europe had been enjoying for years, the very same government was at the heart of opposition to the expansion of these rights, preferring instead what they considered to be ‘market-friendly’ solutions.

This is reflected in Blair’s statement that he wanted the EU to be a superpower but not a superstate. The first part of which is shorthand for Labour Party’s enduring and unwavering attachment to NATO and Atlanticism.


One of the key features of the latest Labour leadership campaign was that all four candidates – including Jeremy Corbyn (though after some initial hesitation) – agreed on the need to keep the UK inside the EU.  This was also Ed Miliband’s unequivocal view.

They also, with some variation in enthusiasm and specificity, all seem to argue that this is the way to promote left wing objectives such as the protection of workers’ rights, rights for women, the protection of the environment etc.

They appear to favour a certain kind of Europe as a reflection of (rather than in opposition to) a particular kind of Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to oppose ‘Brexit’ and support an EU financial transaction tax which the City of London fiercely opposes is indicative of this stance.  As he put it in an article published in the Financial Times, ‘If Mr Cameron fails to deliver a good package or one that reduces the social gains we have previously won in Europe, he needs to understand that Labour will renegotiate to restore our rights and promote a socially progressive Europe.’

In that sense, rather than being stuck in the outdated debate about supporting or opposing further steps in European integration, or trying to ‘out-Ukip’ Ukip, the Labour Party has moved clearly in a substantively pro-European direction. It now regards the UK’s membership of the EU as part and parcel of the kind of future it wants to offer to the British people.

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

syriza flag

This blog post is based on the author’s talk at the panel debate organised by the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory at the LSE on 5 February 2015. The podcast of the entire event is available here.

On 25 January 2015 SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) beat its main rival (the conservative Nea Dimokratia) decisively (36.34 against 27.81 per cent respectively) thus securing the first victory ever for a party of the radical Left in Greece. However, SYRIZA did not manage to secure an outright majority in the Greek Parliament (149 out of a total of 300 seats, despite benefiting from the 50-seat bonus). Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA’s leader and the country’s new Prime Minister, swiftly reached an agreement to form a coalition government with the hardline nationalist Independent Greeks on the basis of their shared visceral opposition to austerity. Together they control 162 seats in Greece’s unicameral parliament. This was undoubtedly a ‘change election’ also because almost half of parliamentary seats are now in the hands of completely new MPs. The clearest message is the rejection of austerity since at least four of the seven parties that are now represented in Parliament are of this view irrespective of motives, rhetoric or even counter-proposals.

While SYRIZA is the clear winner and this was a ‘change election’, it is also clear that it came close to an outright majority in parliament primarily because of the electoral system. In other words, the trend towards coalition governments does not appear to be weakening; quite the opposite is true. This indicates that Greek voters, far from looking for new Messiahs, wanted to reward SYRIZA’s transition to more moderate views, a process that started just before the 2012 elections and is still ongoing, but they did not want to revert to the crushing majorities that they used to give to either the centre-right New Democracy or the centre-left PASOK that have alternated in power since 1974. There is anecdotal evidence that indicates that, even before the election – ordinary voters did not expect a SYRIZA-led government to change everything.

SYRIZA’s victory is not down to a strategic decision to please a particular segment of the population. In fact, a survey conducted by Kapa Research indicates that support for SYRIZA is quite broad with SYRIZA beating its main opponent in all age groups except the over 65s, all categories of occupations except entrepreneurs and pensioners, all levels of education and across the gender.

These elections have also confirmed that the fascist Golden Dawn is here to stay. The Greek voters who claimed they ‘did not know what it was about’ in 2012 cannot rely on this anyway dubious excuse at least since the murder of the rapper and anti-fascist activist Pavlos Fyssas. On the flip side, this is not a negative development since one can begin to solve the problem only once one has accepted there is a problem that needs solving. It is worth noting that once again support for Golden Dawn among Athenian police is much higher than it is at the national level.

What are the implications for the Greek party system?

 As regards the implications of these elections for the Greek party system, two developments stand out. First, the neoliberally-minded version of social democracy as encountered in Greece in the form of PASOK is dead and buried. PASOK’s share of the vote dropped from almost 44 per cent (and an outright majority) in 2009 to 4.68 and just 13 MPs in 2015. Whether SYRIZA will keep reforming itself and thus become a proper social democratic party remains to be seen. What is certain is that the realities that Greece faces are so harsh, that SYRIZA is likely to follow PASOK’s example and modernise itself while in government though in SYRIZA’s case this process commenced a while ago. This is likely to be difficult in SYRIZA’s case because of the prevailing culture of opposition that permeates key segments of the coalition that is SYRIZA. Also, it is early to say whether ND will become a normal party of the centre-right or whether it will stick to the outgoing PM Samaras’s nationalist populism.

What are the implications for the Eurozone?

 These may be very significant. As Pierre Moscovici (Commissioner in charge of economic and monetary affairs) noted on 5 February 2015, governments need room for manoeuver after elections. Otherwise what is the point of voting in the EU? The increasing parliamentarisation of the EU (which is an extremely positive and important development) was never meant to lead to the weakening of parliamentary democracy as it developed at the national level over the past century or two but if the current German government is as intransigent as it is reported to be, it will end up badly damaging both. If national elections cannot lead to any change of any kind, why would or should citizens vote in European elections given the prevailing emphasis on ‘the rules’ and a particular understanding of them?

SYRIZA is also the first party to win a democratic election inside the Eurozone on the basis of a platform that explicitly challenges the prevailing obsession with austerity. In doing so, it has every right to draw attention to the fact that – to the extent that it has been implemented – the programme currently in place has not reduced the debt burden. The debt burden has actually grown to 175 per cent of GDP. The trouble is that if those who support the current programme in Berlin, Frankfurt and elsewhere appear to give concessions, they know very well that political change in Spain is likely to follow in a way that will deal an even bigger blow to austerity, in a country that has a much bigger economy and much smaller debt than Greece. That is something they want to avoid and is also the single biggest obstacle for SYRIZA’s efforts-The Telegraph todays claims that other European leaders would like SYRIZA to fail ‘and be seen to fail’. On the other hand, SYRIZA is explicitly committed to balanced primary budgets. This makes SYRIZA a far more difficult opponent to deal with especially if the new government is given the time to show whether they are serious about the kind of structural reform that the country needs, i.e. dramatically improving tax collection, radically reforming the justice and tax systems, fighting corruption, taking on the vested interests that keep the cost of public procurement artificially high, dealing with the negative consequences of transfer pricing abuses, etc.

In short, while SYRIZA’s moderate message (including the determination to keep Greece inside the Eurozone) is a source of optimism, those who hold the levers of power know that if SYRIZA is allowed to have its way or at least part thereof, what is really at stake is the viability of the TINA doctrine.

Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos is a senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck

Pavlos Fyssas was no ordinary rapper. Born and raised in the working class district of Amfiali near Piraeus, one of several unemployment- and poverty-hit parts of the Greek capital, the 34-year old man had distinguished himself both through his art (as Killah P, he was part of the low bap music scene, alongside bands such as Active Member) and actions of solidarity, the two often combined. A well-known anti-fascist activist, he was murdered by a thug of the Golden Dawn neo-nazi party on 18th September 2013. This act of political violence has led to a major political defeat of the conservative-led Greek government. This is so for several reasons.

First, the Greek government’s long overdue reaction proves decisively that existing domestic legislation (specifically the penal code and anti-terror laws) offers powerful tools that ought to be used in the fight against the neo-nazis of Golden Dawn. Since, unlike in other European countries, a political party cannot be banned in Greece on historically-defined constitutional grounds, in the wake of Pavlos Fyssas’ murder, the conservative-led government asked the country’s top public prosecutors to investigate no less than 32 documented cases of attacks that had taken place across Greece and were thought to be linked to Golden Dawn. The idea is powerfully simple: on the basis of existing evidence, could – the government asked – a case be made that Golden Dawn is, in fact, an organised criminal group? An equally important implication on the operational level is the direct involvement of the state’s counter-terrorism and intelligence service apparatus in key parts of the investigation. It is as a result of this initial investigation that the country’s top prosecutors issued arrest warrants for more than 30 individuals including not only its leader (who reportedly had no license for the three fire arms that were found at his residence at the time of his arrest) and five other Golden Dawn MPs but also serving police officers. Aided by whistleblowers, the top prosecutors’ initial report refers, inter alia, to several cases of murder or attempted murder. These are charges that, if proven, carry lengthy jail sentences and, crucially, in these cases MPs cannot hide behind parliamentary immunity. Where there is a will, there is a way.

This begs the question of why the conservative-led government did not act earlier; why did the relevant minister not do anything more than merely stating that he is ‘worried’? Why did we have to get to Pavlos Fyssas’ murder for the government to act? Incompetence is certainly a factor (as it was in the case of the closure of the public broadcaster) but there are more sinister causes at play here. Indeed, one idea behind the government’s initial inaction was that many of those who voted for the Golden Dawn (or declared their support for it in opinion polls) were working class voters who could – in the absence of this option – have voted for parties of the Left, especially SYRIZA, the main opposition party. This demonstrates the strategic importance of the Golden Dawn’s significant presence in working class constituencies like the one where Pavlos Fyssas was murdered.

In addition, at the level of political narratives, the conservative-led government systematically used Golden Dawn’s presence and actions to propagate its own so-called ‘theory of the two extremes’. According to that theory, SYRIZA too could be considered to be an extremist party, or at least one that harboured some sympathies for (left-wing) extremism. Implicit here is the idea that SYRIZA is not a legitimate option, especially for the ‘law-abiding citizens’ that traditionally vote for the two ruling parties but deserted them in the wake of the crisis. This kind of argument was propagated not only by the government’s official spokesman but also conservative MPs such as Chrysanthos Lazarides, a senior aide to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, both of whom come from the nationalist wing of the ruling Nea Dimokratia. Even by their standards, relying on this rhetoric after Pavlos Fyssas’ murder and the revelations that followed about Golden Dawn’s criminal activity, would be far fetched. Both they and PASOK, the other ruling party, are in desperate need of an alternative strategy and narrative. Arguably the same applies to SYRIZA. Its rates in opinion polls have been stagnating since the last election possibly because it has not yet established itself as a party with a single voice on key issues and, more importantly, it has not yet completed its long overdue turn to pragmatism.

Pavlos Fyssas’ murder has also been a long overdue wake-up call for the government in terms of the implications of the support that Golden Dawn enjoys amongst Greek police and armed forces. In democracies citizens are free to choose which party they vote for and we know for sure that the election results in the Athenian polling stations where most Greek police voted in 2012 showed a much higher degree of support for Golden Dawn than the country’s average. However, taxpayers pay police and soldiers’ salaries in order to be kept safe rather than see them tolerate, turn a blind eye to, help prepare or even contribute to criminal acts such as those that Golden Dawn is alleged to have perpetrated. This is not a problem that can be kept under the carpet for long, especially in a crisis-hit country like Greece. In that sense, the policing minister’s decision to move, replace or effectively sack several senior police officers, including at least one senior official involved in the investigation on Golden Dawn, and the charges brought against police across the country who had links with Golden Dawn are steps in the right direction.

Finally, Pavlos Fyssas’ murder ought to be a wake-up call for ordinary Greeks who have voted for, declared their support for (even in opinion polls), or turned a blind eye to the Golden Dawn’s hate-filled activity and rhetoric. After his murder, they can no longer claim that they did not know what the Golden Dawn is really about. The era of innocence, if it ever started, is well and truly over.

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. This post was previously published on openDemocracy.