The looming exit — Brexit — of certainly England and Wales from the European Union (EU) — should not overly concern South Africa economically or politically. Certainly not in the short term.
But the Brexit vote should send warning signals to trade union and worker organisations everywhere. Because it has given a major boost to the xenophobic poison that resides within nationalism, distracting attention from an economic and social system that should be the prime target of growing calls for transformation.
The nationalist call to break from the EU actually amounts to the antithesis of the humanist core expressed in the union slogan: workers of all countries unite. This was a call for unity within an exploitative system, recognising that only by uniting could the sellers of labour protect themselves and, in the process, perhaps improve the lot of all humanity.
Within hours of the referendum result being announced, the first xenophobic displays were reported as the racist Right celebrated. Slogans were daubed on walls and T-shirts printed with slogans calling for migrants to leave Britain, an island nation of migrants.
But several fragments of the radical Left in Britain also backed a Brexit. The Right did so on a racist, xenophobic basis, wishing to restrict immigration, the Left on the grounds that the EU is a “Bosses club” that cannot be reformed.
Yet, by the logic especially of the “revolutionary” Left, all governments in the present dispensation are “bosses clubs” that cannot be reformed. This reasoning, along with the thinking on the Right that Brexit would mean more restricted immigration, reveals a worrying level of ignorance about the EU and how it functions.
The EU is certainly a complicated, bureaucratic and free market institution. But it is not a government: all decisions taken are by consensus and national parliaments remain supreme in their own territories. Voices within the admittedly rather ineffective EU parliament reflect the reality in the member countries and are, therefore, mainly from the Right and Centre, but also from the Left.
For economic reasons, the majority of Brexit backers also tend to agree that Britain should retain its economic ties through membership of the European common market. Yet the the fundamental requirement to be a common market member is the “free movement of persons”.
Capital has never required such permission and the movement of “persons”, initially suited the requirements of the market in the EU. It should, had unions and other internationalists been up to the challenge, have made the promotion of internationalism easier. But little was achieved.
What Brexit has done has been to embolden British xenophobes to attack EU migrants — especially Poles — now living, working and studying in Britain. And the repercussions will be felt, not only in Europe, but around the world.
There are now an estimated 3 million EU migrants living, working and studying in Britain. But there are also more than 2 million British citizens now in the same conditions in EU countries.
This is only one of the plethora of issues now raised. Trade deals, treaties, agreements on health care, university collaboration within the EU and with other countries outside of the largest economic bloc in the world are also up in the air.
As Professor Michael Dougan of Liverpool University and a leading authority on the legal aspects of the EU notes: unravelling this will probably take about ten years or more. In the meantime, the success of what is essentially a nationalist project has given impetus to a range of populist groups, not only in the EU, but around the world.
At the same time, the British trade union movement has been found wanting, caught essentially on the sidelines, tacitly supporting the “remain” camp while many members, disillusioned with the promises of the EU, voted “out”. This is hardly surprising, given the devastation visited on the industrial and mining heartlands of Britain.
In these areas of widespread unemployment, working people fell prey to populist blandishments about internationalism and immigration being to blame for their woes. Globalisation — and the EU as part of this process — certainly bears the blame, but “little England” nationalism is merely a nastier variation on the same theme.
In what seem like delusions of grandeur, the radical Left maintains that a break with the EU would damage “the bosses” while not “weakening international links between workers in struggle”. Yet boundaries to travel and encouragement to nationalism mean the very opposite.
But does this have anything much to do with South Africa? Indeed it does, because Brexit and its aftermath encourage nationalist sentiments everywhere. And, as evidence from the recent turmoil in Tshwane and elsewhere revealed, there are worrying signs of animosity not only to “foreigners” from Africa but also to citizens of other local language groups.
As a result, the main concern about Brexit for South African democrats and trade unionists should be the impact it may have on our own festering nationalisms.
Never has the slogan, workers of the world unite, seemed more appropriate.