One would expect anti-free-trade activists to cheer the decision of British voters to leave the the world’s largest trading bloc. But how do those activists, often on the progressive end of the political spectrum, feel about how the victorious Leave campaign gained support by stoking anti-immigrant fears?
To discuss this, and how groups opposed to economic globalization see Brexit, I talked to Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow.
Barlow has been a vocal critic of free trade deals since the 1980s. Today, she and her organization are campaigning against two major trade deals Canada is trying to finalize: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe, and the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership.
What was your reaction to Britons voting to leave the EU?
Well, I wasn’t surprised. I knew people who have my sort of politics on both sides, people who said Britain and progressive thinking is better in the EU, and those who said it’s not. But I think something was coming for a shakeup. I could feel the anger building. I do a lot of work in Europe, particularly on CETA and on water privatization issues. And there was a growing feeling coming not just in Great Britain but across Europe that decisions being made by the European Commission, by the European Union and the sort of lobby interests there don’t represent the will of the people. If I’d have had to bet, I would have said that it would be Remain by a tiny three or four per cent margin, but I’m not surprised that the country is split in two. I think it’s a shakeup that’s going to have huge repercussions.
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How do you see it affecting Ontario, if at all?
It’s going to affect CETA, and that’s going to affect Ontario. With Brexit, if it somehow either delays or actually causes the end of CETA, or if it speeds it up, which [federal Minister of International Trade Chrystia] Freeland wants, it’s going to have implications.
All of the [province’s spending] and all of the spending of the municipalities in Ontario will be impacted and challengeable [under CETA]. Over a certain level of spending, [government contracts] all have to be opened up to competition from European companies. So this is new, and this is going to have an impact that we have done very little thinking about. There have been no studies in Canada and no studies in Ontario about the implications for local economies when we’re no longer able to make decisions around protecting local food, protecting local economic development.
Brexit shakes everything up. I think what happened with the U.K. making this decision is that people said: “Love it or hate it, left or right, I want to make these decisions closer to home.”
Every time Donald Trump speaks against NAFTA, I cringe.
Are you bothered by the fact that in the case of the British referendum rejecting EU membership, victory was achieved mostly by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment?
I think it was mixed. Because I know many, many people on the left, if you will, or so-called progressive movement who voted [to Leave]. I have a friend who spoiled his ballot by saying “I refuse to choose between Westminster and Brussels. I hate them both.”
So yes, you’re absolutely right, there was a lot of racism. It’s just like the split in the United States with the people concerned about trade who support [Donald] Trump and the people concerned about trade who support [Bernie] Sanders. There’s the right-wing, populist, xenophobic , hunker-down-and-get-under-the-covers kind of concern, and there’s the much more, I would say, thoughtful, analytical understanding. But in both cases, we have to admit that economic globalization, these policies of unfettered trade and allowing corporations to write the rules and moving jobs by the millions offshore, and the deregulation and privatization of social security have hollowed out the middle class. And they’re angry.
When the decision is made by bureaucrats far away, the feeling is democracy doesn’t matter. And I think it’s the democracy-doesn’t-matter theme that united people across the political spectrum in the Brexit decision.
There’s a very detailed, progressive economic critique of free trade and globalization. But it seems in this case the xenophobic critique was the more persuasive one to a lot of British voters. Does that give you any concern about the ability of a progressive economic argument against globalization to actually persuade voters?
Absolutely. We’re totally, completely aware of this and this is exactly as it’s unfolding in the United States. Every time Donald Trump speaks against NAFTA, I cringe. Because do I want him on my side? No, I don’t. He’s awful. And he speaks to the worst in people. But we need to fight for that space, and that’s what Bernie Sanders did. He said there’s a critique against what Donald Trump says, but also the kind of globalization that has led some people to support Donald Trump.
When I see people say “You’re either protectionist and xenophobic or you’re for open markets,” I say “No, no, no, no, no. Sorry.” There’s a whole third analysis here that says that we can build trade, and nobody that I know is against trade. We can create trade agreements, but they have to be built on a different set of principles and those principles have to protect the right of governments to regulate. It’s a huge challenge for us to put out that alternative third way. It’s not open markets and globalization versus pull the cover up over your head and hate everybody that doesn’t look like you. There’s a third way.
But is that third way persuasive enough? That’s what I’m wondering. What worked in this instance was the fear.
I’m not sure. I know that got a lot of play, but I have a lot of colleagues and friends in Great Britain and Scotland and Ireland and they tell me the xenophobia of Brexit got more media and there were horrible, racist incidents right after, but that there was much more of a thoughtful analysis among many people who just wanted to bring democracy home.
And there’s a reason there’s a difference between the vote in London and the vote out in the communities. [Smaller communities have] been hollowed out. They don’t have jobs. There’s going to be an anger. And some of that anger is going to go nasty and right-wing and divisive and some of it already [putting forward] a third analysis, a very thoughtful analysis. I can only hope that the better side of our nature will be the side that wins.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.