An argument related to the demand that Ukraine should be supported on the grounds of national self-determination is a general argument that there is a right to self-defence, although this is a no more cogent argument than that deriving from a claim to self-determination. The civilian population of Donetsk could claim the same right to defend themselves from increased attacks by the Ukrainian military just before 24 February 2022, and the population of Crimea and Donbas more generally have the same right against the plans of the Ukrainian state to conquer and reoccupy their territories. By demanding membership of NATO the Ukrainian state has given validity to assertion of this same right by the Russian state to defend itself and its supporters in these areas. Lacking any class basis those supporting either Ukraine or Russia can, and do, parrot the same arguments that thus expose each other to the same rejoinder and counterclaim.
This argument is not to say that at the level of individual Ukrainians it is not permissible for them to defend themselves, but what the pro-war left is proposing is political support to the Ukrainian state and armed forces that are carrying out the fighting. This is how those Ukrainians who are fighting for their state see it, expressed in nationalist terms as defence of their country. But as Marxists maintain, countries are not united and the interests of the different classes composing it are antagonistic. At the level of individuals, it has made more sense to leave the county or relocate, as millions have done, and as we have noted before, those nearer the front line are more in favour of peace than those further away cheering for victory.
In other words, this claim that seems so straightforward, and may even appear to be so at the level of the individual, does not exist, and what we need is what we set out at the start – a Marxist analysis of the cause and nature of the war as determined by its historical origins and development and the nature of the participants and their objectives.
The reliance on an abstract right to self-defence is empty since socialists recognise no such right for the capitalist class or its state, which is why the support for the latter by the Second International was recognised as such a historical betrayal in August 1914. What its twenty-first century imitators repeat is the lack of any principled Marxist position, retreating to the refuge of abstract moralism, which Marxists, going back as far as Marx himself, find repugnant because behind it lies the interests of the capitalist class–presented as universal truths–universal precisely because everyone, from right to left, can espouse them.
So, what we are left with are vacuous moral statements that don’t amount to an argument – that invasions are bad, that the Russians are aggressive and cruel and human rights must be protected. That a Ukrainian invasion of Crimea would be bad, that the demand for NATO membership is aggressive and that Ukrainian fascists can hardly be trusted not to be cruel and deny human rights, are all objections to such claims. It could be argued that the first catalogue of Russian immorality is what counts but that requires argument that the Ukrainian one doesn’t, (or perhaps doesn’t even exist if the western media is to be believed). But it’s obvious that occupation of Crimea would involve violence and oppression, that NATO is an aggressive imperialist alliance, that fascist units exist in the Ukrainian armed forces and that these armed forces are not the first to abide strictly by the laws of war.
So much of the argument in support of Ukraine is therefore based on arguments which dissolve when attached to concrete reality, only to return in abstract moral declarations. We are not therefore on the terrain of Marxist analysis and Marxist politics, which explains why it is impossible for this left to take such a position. It is why their arguments are so similar to that of western imperialism, its politicians, think tanks and media commentators, and their solutions so aligned.
Marxism is thus utterly unnecessary and irrelevant to the arguments of the pro-war Left, all of which can be repeated without any reference to it, something that has escaped them. There are no grounds presented for even the theoretical unity of all the workers of Ukraine and Russia; their support for war involves their unity with Ukrainian capitalism and western imperialism, something that doesn’t escape their notice but the significance of which does.
If successful, the victory of Ukraine, US imperialism and its NATO satraps would mean the occupation of areas where they are rejected by the local population and will see Ukraine subject to the tender mercies of western imperialism. To expect ‘a more just and democratic post-war reconstruction’ from this partnership that they have supported is the height of naivety, if not stupidity.
The pro-war left claims ‘that If we are not seen to be on the side of the people of Ukraine, then the only voices they will hear will be those of western imperialists, not those of the socialists and internationalists.’ But if these so-called ‘socialist and internationalist’ voices are saying the same thing as the western imperialists, and they are, why should anyone care?
Supporters of Ukraine claim that those who refuse to support its state deny the agency of Ukrainians and make it all about the west and western imperialist intervention. But it is these people who deny the agency of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Ukraine, for them, has no role in starting the war but is simply its victim. We are asked to support ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ but these have no agency outside the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian armed forces because outside them they don’t exist. The first is a corrupt capitalist state on a level with Russia and the second is the major repressive force of this state, with particularly reactionary elements such as fascist units in the army. Supporters of Ukraine do not so much justify support for them as dissolve them into abstractions that do not exist in concrete realties.
The motivation of western imperialist backing of Ukraine is usually not examined, or passed over with nebulous remarks that have no significance to taking a political stand. The history of its intervention is treated as irrelevant; its inherently oppressive and repressive character has gone missing, and what this implies for the nature of its intervention in Ukraine and the politics of the war is normally terra incognita and is staying that way. It would appear that all we can do is point out the absurdity of the demands of those supporting Ukraine, such as the call for Britain ‘gifting to Ukraine . . . all the surplus UK military equipment due to be replaced, especially the 79 Challenger tanks, 170 Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles, all Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, Typhoon fighter aircraft – to help Ukraine win more quickly, with less suffering.’
This must be the first time tanks, fighting vehicles and fighter aircraft will ensure ‘less suffering.’ It is assumed that Ukraine will win and win more quickly, presumably because the western media has told them this, and that winning more quickly will not involve inflicting suffering more quickly, or perhaps this is something that also does not exist–the suffering of others. Meanwhile the British capitalist state can get on with modernising its tanks, fighting vehicles and war planes, perhaps for its next progressive imperialist intervention, or whatever.
However, yet another solidarity with Ukraine statement has felt the need to address the role of NATO but does so by somehow giving it no real agency in enforcing its own interests; becoming a prop in the war that is subsidiary in determining its nature, while the rest of the world, including the Ukrainian state, regards its role as vital and critical to success. The supporters of Ukraine again invent a world that does not exist.
The statement says that ‘we should be critical of of the Zelenski government which has embraced neoliberalism . . . and seeks to join the European Union and NATO’, but this criticism is not an obstacle to support! It says that ‘the supply of arms should be without strings or illusions in NATO and the West because the supply of arms can be used to control the scope and duration of the war’. So imperialism with not seek to impose its own interests but supply billions of dollars and Euros of weapons without strings, and this is called politics without illusions! When has imperialism not acted in its own interest but instead on behalf of a ‘national liberation’ struggle?
‘NATO and Western imperialism are backing Ukraine for their own geopolitical interests, so there should be no illusion that NATO and Western imperialism are forces for democracy’, the statement says. No more ‘illusions’ again; but if NATO is backing a ‘national liberation’ struggle then, by definition, it is a ‘force for democracy’. It doesn’t matter how many times you say ‘but NATO is not a force for democracy’ and ‘is the military wing of Western imperialism . . .’ and NATO is acting to ‘defend its geopolitical interests’ while it also supports a war that you claim is progressive and justified. Something has to give.
So who is mistaken here? Is imperialism being fooled into supporting a progressive war of national liberation, an anti-imperialist war? Or are the Left supporters of the Ukrainian state denying the reactionary character of the Ukrainian state and its pursuit of NATO membership; and wrongly supporting NATO intervention in the belief that its geopolitical interests advance democracy, although we are asked to believe that this is not what NATO is about? In what world does any of this make any sense?
Perhaps it is the one that exists in the ‘proxy war between Western and Russian imperialism’ in which ‘NATO has used the Russian invasion to give itself a new purpose’; but whatever new purpose NATO has given itself, it is not one of fighting for democracy. Such a world does not exist and all claims to it doing so are false, shockingly misleading the workers living in NATO countries.
But let us give it one more chance. We are told that ‘when internationalists support the Ukrainians’ right to resist military the Russian invasion and obtain arms from NATO countries, it is not an endorsement of NATO. There have been many movements of national liberation in the past which have called upon imperialist countries for arms without being condemned by socialists: Irish nationalists in 1917, the Spanish republic in 1936, the communist resistance in World War Two, to name a few.’
So maybe such a world existed in the past?
Let’s just take the Irish example. Was Ireland an independent state in 1916 or a British colony? Were the Irish rebels in 1916 seeking to join the German imperialist alliance, or did they claim ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser’? Did the Irish workers movement participate as a separate political and armed force from the bourgeois nationalists, and did not James Connolly repeatedly declare the political independence of the Irish working class? Was his anti-imperialism the anti-imperialism of opposition to foreign rule or opposition also to capitalism and for the creation of a Socialist Republic? Where does the capitalist Ukrainian state and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ stand on all these questions today?
But let’s not leave the Irish analogy there. What happened to the Irish national struggle when the forces of the working class proved to be too weak and the movement became a purely bourgeois one? ‘Labour’ was told to wait, just as in Ukraine today, and the forces of bourgeois nationalism accepted a settlement with imperialism that left the working class more divided than before, subject to two reactionary regimes that inflicted years of austerity, unemployment and emigration built upon Catholic Church abuse of women and children and Protestant sectarianism and discrimination. Today the capitalist Irish state supports the Ukrainian capitalist state and imperialism, particularly that of the US, upon which its current success depends; which brings us to the core argument of the left supporters of Ukraine.
Beside the unprecedented assortment of support from western imperialism the left supporters of Ukraine present one Marxist-sounding justification, although bourgeois politicians and the media state it as well. This is the demand for Ukrainian self-determination, upon which we get the idea of national liberation and the analogy with Ireland. In this there might seem an argument that at least exists, and it does, except it does not exist for Marxists.
After World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson made himself and the policy famous through his espousal of self-determination, but this is not the grounds for a socialist argument, including his ignoring the demands of some nationalities while upholding others. Through the Treaty of Versailles, the ground was prepared for another world war that further exposed the elastic character of bourgeois support for self-determination. Even before this, the credo of self-determination of nations had failed in the 1848 revolutions in Europe.
The demand, in so far as Lenin actually upheld it, is subsidiary to the self-determination of the working class and involved supporting, if necessary, the demands of nationalities imprisoned within empires or held as colonies. Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 and does not cease to be one because it is losing (or winning according to its supporters) a war with another independent capitalist state. If it is further claimed that socialists should support the prerogatives of a capitalist state in war then it should be clear what this means – the demands of the capitalist state assume priority, which must necessarily therefore involve the subordination of the working class to its rights and requirements.
The interests of the working class either do not then exist, or are identical to those of its capitalist state. If it is further claimed that it is only in this one respect that the interest of the working class and capitalist state are the same, then this fails to recogniser that self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state means that it determines what it requires, what it does, and its freedoms without restriction, otherwise it is not self-determining.
If the attempt is made to wriggle out of this definitional constraint and it is claimed that it is the country (or nationality) that self-determination applies to, then we must recall Marx’s description of history: ‘History does nothing . . . it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” In our case, it is not ‘the country’, or ‘Ukraine’, that ‘wages battles’ but the Ukrainian state and its armed forces.
For the supporters of Ukraine the idea of an immaterial entity to which self-determination applies has been propagated through repeated use of the words Ukraine, Ukrainian resistance, and Ukrainian people when what that corresponds to in reality is the state, the armed forces of that state and a population divided by class in which these socialists wrap up the interests of the working class inside that of the first two – the state and its armed forces.
Reference is sometimes made to particular Ukrainian workers, with the pious invocation to accept their views, as if their coming from a Ukrainian must entail unimpeachable endorsement and acceptance, although their views are presented as privileged not because of their power to advance our understanding but because of their position as potential victims of war. In effect they become props to a story that is being more and more determined by western imperialism, and certainly not by any independent political role that these workers play.
The term ‘Ukrainian people’ is an abstraction without apposite reality, since this people is divided, with some supporting Russia. For supporters of the Ukrainian state this latter people effectively does not exist, so the argument for self-determination does not apply for them. Not so much Lenin as Woodrow Wilson again.
In any case the Leninist argument advances only the right to set up a separate state and this the Ukrainians already have. What the capitalists and its politicians do with this is something else entirely, and socialists do not follow them in order to ensure this capitalist state achieves maximum capacity to act autonomously and independently. Even if we did, it would be a very hard argument to make that the dependence on western imperialism is the road to such freedoms. Since Ukraine has been, and still does, seek membership of NATO, such membership could easily be accused of threatening the same rights that would logically have to apply to Russia.
The only counterargument to this is to claim that Ukraine should not be subordinated to imperialism (e.g. should not be subject to debt dependence), which as we have seen in the statement of the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign is not an argument but a pious wish, and one that support for reliance on the west and its weapons exposes as either rank stupidity or hypocrisy. Again a reality is invoked that does not and cannot exist.
“What appears to characterise (opportunist) practice above all? A certain hostility to ‘theory’. This is quite natural, for our “theory”, that is, the principles of scientific socialism, impose clearly marked limitations to practical activity–insofar as it concerns the aims of this activity, the means used in attaining these aims, and the method employed in this activity. It is quite natural for people who run after immediate “practical” results to want to free themselves from such limitations and to render their practice independent of our “theory”. However, this outlook is refuted by every attempt to apply it in reality.”
Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Reform or Revolution’.
A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the clear and hard division in the socialist movement can hardly be said to have mellowed. The escalation of western involvement has not caused supporters of Ukraine to miss a beat in their support, despite initial indications that they saw possible limits to their defence of imperialist intervention. Indeed, the most startling aspect of their response was the immediate support given to the intrusion of western imperialism, thus placing themselves on the same side as the US, and with objectives identical to it and its NATO allies. Anti-imperialist rhetoric continues to be espoused by pointing solely at Russia while demanding that their own imperialist state intervene more strongly to arm the Ukrainian state.
So sudden and complete was this conversion to seeing western imperialism as key to a progressive solution that no further political moves were required to justify the alliance of this left with their own capitalist state and its imperialist allies. This leap into bed with its previous class enemies was carried out with agreement on what the nature of the war was, who the necessary allies were, what the objectives of the war were, and what should be done about it.
Of course, like repeated references to a certain imperialism, the rhetoric has included left phraseology, but this can’t disguise the fundamental identities: the courtiers of western imperialism have themslves denounced imperialism. Such has been the decisiveness of the embrace of the Ukrainian state that their ‘opposition’ to the war means opposition to Ukrainian defeat, not to the war itself, and Ukrainian victory is construed in the most comprehensive and absolute terms.
Their position is bolstered by the unprecedented support for the war by the Western media, which has been little more than propaganda for this imperialist alliance; war pornography but without the pictures that reveal the real brutality. Their moral certitude, which they believe arises from the clarity of what is happening, is assisted enormously by the western media’s one-sided presentation. Even when western diplomats get exasperated at Ukrainian lies, such as its continued claim that it was a Russian missile that landed in Poland and killed two men, this left does not miss a beat to ask what else might not be true? The effect of sanctions on the world’s poor or on workers living standards in their own countries are all an inevitable price to be paid from the perspective of the war being Russia’s fault and its effects only to be ended by its defeat. Nothing its own imperialist state does can be challenged when it is recognised as the only force able to help win the war that it supports. When you have picked a horse, it is relatively easy to see everything through its blinkers.
A third factor is the unattractive nature of Russia itself, a corrupt and authoritarian capitalist state, but this only invites comparison with the Ukrainian state itself, which is hardly very different and certainly not when it is allied with western imperialism, whose toll of death and destruction dwarfs that of Russia. If Putin is a criminal, Bush and Blair are godfathers, and their successors Biden and Johnson, Truss and Sunak etc. are no different. But it is precisely the refusal to go there that is the problem, because the signal fact that the Russian invasion on 24 February was wrong cannot possibly justify support for the Ukrainian capitalist state and its imperialist backers.
Writing from Ireland it is beyond lamentable to see people who opposed the British armed forces in the North of Ireland suddenly find common cause; effectively demanding that the Minister of Defence, whose own military record here is censored, call for their power to be wielded to implement imperialist interests in Eastern Europe.
Condemning the Russian invasion on the grounds of opposition to imperialism while failing to recognise the Ukrainian desire to become part of the biggest imperialist alliance, and also failing to recognise the role of this alliance in a war in which Ukraine is its proxy, makes all claims to support for Ukraine on an ‘anti-imperialist’ basis not only groundless but thoroughly dishonest.
And this is the issue; a position on the war can only be satisfactorily approached through a Marxist analysis – of the cause and nature of the war as determined by its historical origins and development and the nature of the participants and their objectives. When we look at it from this aspect, left support for Ukraine does not so much fall apart as simply not exist.
So right from 24 February 2022 their claim was that the war was caused by Putin. One man caused it, arising out of his cranium with his imperialist obsession and a distorted and false view of Ukrainian history, including the view that Ukraine was not a real country and Ukrainians were a variety of Russian. Far from looking for the material roots of a war that has impacted the world, the moral left discovered from the start that it was Putin’s view of history that explained it.
Not that Putin’s ideas explained everything, for this left everything did not have to be explained, only the invasion, as this determined everything relevant to understand and upon which to strike a political position. And because nothing prior to this matters, and everything subsequent depends absolutely on it, disagreement with their political position is admission of moral failure. As the late socialist Andrew Collier put it, ‘liberals have a notorious tendency to construct values which might explain their opponents’ policies.’
That this justification for their approach does not fall apart but simply does not exist is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that what Putin actually said before the invasion–that was most directly relevant to it–was all but ignored, which we shall look at in a future post along with other claims.
The ‘Windsor Framework’ agreement between the EU and Britain to maintain or replace (take your pick) the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is a truly remarkable document. It allows Northern Ireland to have free access to both the EU single and UK markets for goods.
The British Prime Minister visited to ensure we knew how great this was even though, as a staunch Brexiteer, he had helped ensure that Britain walked away from this “privilege”, this “prize” that put Northern Ireland in a “unique”, “unbelievably special position” . . . ‘like the world’s most exciting economic zone”, that ensures we are an “incredibly attractive place to invest for businesses”. Perhaps the most fulsome declarations against Brexit I have ever heard.
Yet the truly remarkable factor is that such an arrangement is supposed to be impossible. When Russia claimed that Ukraine could have close trading relationships with the EU and also with its own Eurasian Customs Union, the EU claimed it couldn’t be done. Ukraine had to look decisively West and could not continue its attempts to straddle between it and Russia. We know, of course, that this provoked the Maidan uprising in 2013-2014, when the Ukrainian President decided that the price of greater access to the EU and erecting barriers to Russia was too high.
Ukraine split over his decision, with the open intervention of the United States, repression by the Ukrainian security forces, violence by protesters and seizure of weapons by pro-western elements, including the far right and fascists. This led to a counter-mobilisation in the East of the country among pro-Russia Ukrainians and a civil war that led to Russian armed intervention in Crimea and then Donbas. The conflict never really ended and, of course, we know that this eventually led to the Russian invasion and the proxy war between the US with its NATO allies, and Russia.
So, why is it that what has just been achieved in the North of Ireland could not be done in Ukraine?
The answer, of course, is that the decision in respect of Ukraine was a geopolitical one aimed not just at Ukraine but against Russia, even if some claim that the bureaucrats in Brussels did not fully appreciate this aspect of what they were doing. In any case, the new ‘Windsor Framework’ is essentially a political agreement with political significance that does not primarily lie in the North of Ireland.
It has been pointed out by commentators that the EU and British have put entirely different spins on the significance of what has been agreed, with the former claiming that it has not “renegotiated the protocol” while the British have claimed that the deal “fundamentally amends the text and provisions of the original protocol”; lots of ‘dancing on the heads of pins’ according to one journalist.
Nevertheless, the protocol stays, there remains a ‘border on the Irish sea’ and not inside the island, and the fundamental relationship between the EU and Britain remains. The EU has made concessions and the British have agreed measures that the EU thinks it can live with which minimise physical and other trade-related interventions. The EU Q&A is replete with references to the limits of its flexibility. So, the trusted trader scheme can be suspended if ‘1) the UK fails to provide the EU with access to the relevant UK IT customs systems and databases, or 2) the UK does not live up to the commitments it undertook when setting up the trusted trader scheme.’ On excise ‘the UK will not be able to apply any duty rate below the EU minima’; on duty rates for small producers of alcoholic beverages ‘the UK will not be able to set duty rates for small producers below EU minima rates. The respect for EU minima rates will protect the level playing field with the EU’ etc.
Breaches of the controls are inevitable, but it must be considered that these are going to be relatively unimportant. Northern Ireland is both small and peripheral and ultimately so in the political sense as well, a far cry from Ukraine. The EU was quick to claim the deal as a one-off, so the Swiss can’t follow up on it. The significance of the deal agreed lies in the British acceptance that the road is running out on hostilities with the EU, a project that is taking its Tory sponsors to electoral defeat.
The deal is not however the last word. The disapplication of EU laws is still winding its way through Westminster and controls on imports to Britain have still not been introduced; Brexit has still not been ‘done’. The ’Windsor Framework’ has still to be implemented while deadlines for the various steps are part of the agreement. Beyond this, the problem of continued divergence between the EU and Britain remains, as does its potential impact. While on the British side the debate is about the extent of future divergence, or even its advisability, on the EU side the debate will be about the potential benefits of further deepening, where consideration of its effect on relations with Britain will be a minor concern.
The major innovation beyond the rather technical aspects of trade policy is the introduction of a ‘Stormont Brake’, as an ‘emergency mechanism that will allow the UK government, at the request of 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland (Stormont), in the most exceptional circumstances, as a last resort . . . to stop the application of amended or replacing provisions of EU law . . .’
‘The Stormont Brake can be triggered only after having used every other available mechanism, and where the amended or replacing EU act, or a part of it, significantly differs in scope or content from the previous one and application of such amended or replacing act would have a significant impact specific to everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland in a way that is liable to persist. . . . If triggered and if the conditions are met, the amended EU act would not apply automatically in Northern Ireland.’
This represents the introduction into the workings of the Protocol a mechanism akin to the ‘petition of concern’ introduced in the last British initiative to save the Stormont administration–New Decade, New Approach–meant to get Stormont to work after the previous breakdown. The original devolution arrangements, meant to demonstrate that the Northern Ireland polity could function ‘normally’ and without conflict, introduced powers of veto for each sectarian bloc as a key incentive to make them work it.
The petition of concern was meant to be a last resort insurance-type mechanism but was reportedly used 115 times in five years, a testament not to it working, or to the number of issues absolutely vital to one side or the other, but to the degree of sectarian division. It has quickly been speculated that the restrictive grounds of its use, mirrored in the wording of the new deal as set out above, would make no difference to the willingness of unionists to paralyse the Protocol agreement with the EU. There is no reason why this might not be the case except for the different circumstances of the ‘Windsor Framework’.
Like the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal, it requires 30 members of Stormont to trigger it from at least two parties, and since there are 37 unionists out of a total of 90 members, this looks eminently possible, even accounting for those specifically excluded. Once triggered it would take a harder to procure ‘cross-community’ vote to allow any suspension of a new EU law to be lifted.
While there are various other, on the face of it, rather onerous requirements, including for consultation, the key difference is that the British government is required to apply the veto on any new law, and the British government is not going to do this if it is not in their interest as well, regardless of what unionists think. If it does, the EU can then take retaliatory measures that are proportionate.
It is just about feasible for unionists to repeatedly attempt to apply the brakes, but this would lead to ridicule for themselves and their Brexit cause, and would fail, not mainly because of this but because the British government is in charge. The British, by making the agreement in the first place and failing to meet the Democratic Unionist Party’s seven tests, have shown that the demands of unionism are not its priority.
The Stormont Brake has been characterised as a carrot to unionism but one that requires the DUP to return to Stormont and end its boycott, as it can only be triggered in a functioning Assembly. The offer of a veto is thus a sardonic judgement on the power of the veto the DUP already wields.
It was widely thought, even before the appearance of the new deal, that the DUP would play for time so that it would withhold judgement before the local elections in May. These, it is thought, would reveal the verdict of the majority of unionists on the deal to be negative, or certainly negative enough to damage the DUP should it accept it. This would hardly be a surprise since an oft-repeated unionist expression is ‘not an inch’. Unfortunately, it cannot retake the ground itself and the crisis is of its own making – by supporting Brexit, accepting the different circumstances of Northern Ireland, opposing the alternative Theresa May deal, even if it could have worked, and the initial support it gave for the Protocol’s benefits. This leaves it ill-prepared for a battle against the British government.
Postponing decision on the deal might appear smart, especially since the party is divided, but it might not take that long before this looks weak, and vulnerable to accusations from rivals that it is. The main rival is Traditional Unionist Voice, which is a one-man band, which itself illustrates the hollowness of unionist opposition. This, however, can just breed frustration and anger. Far from protecting themselves, DUP delay may simply strengthen unionist opposition by opening the door to those willing to be clear and forthright, with resignation developing among others of its supporters. In any event, in local terms, the Windsor Framework is a defeat for unionism. You can tell this, when even the King gets it in the neck.
When the war in Ukraine broke out the Western powers rushed to supply weapons to the Ukrainian state, which became the purported bearer of freedom for the whole of Europe, if not the rest of the world because much of the rest of the world understood that the United States and Europe were not defenders of freedom.
In Ireland the government parties floated the idea of the state joining NATO so it too could supply weapons, but the rapid response by the Irish people showed that this idea was very unpopular and would require a lot more work to force through. After an apparent slight from Volodymyr Zelensky about the Irish contribution to the Ukrainian cause the government parties proclaimed that their contribution would be to provide a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Very quickly government ministers were predicting that as many as 200,000 Ukrainian refugees were to be supplied with accommodation, which on the face of it seemed incredible. This was a government and state that had proved incapable of solving a homelessness problem of around 10,000, while massive house price increases had made buying one impossible for many, rents were astronomical, and much of the newly built housing stock was dangerous or becoming rapidly uninhabitable.
However an unprecedented propaganda campaign ensured that the cause of the Ukrainian state received much sympathy, and did so in Ireland, so much so that a state notorious for corruption and reactionary nationalism was embraced by almost everyone from right-wing governments to much of the left. Ironically this left has just recalled thirty years since the massive anti-war demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain etc. Today this left not only supports war but supports the US and Britain etc. supplying arms to ensure that the war continues to be fought, by a country that itself provided soldiers to occupy Iraq following the invasion.
Opposition to war has become support for war and opposition to western imperialism has become defence of western imperialism in its support for a state that wants to join its imperialist alliance. From the cause of death and destruction and oppression, these powers are accepted as defenders against these calamities, and the massive drive to rearmament has left this left trailing behind, endorsing the supply of weapons to its new ally while stuck with a past politics that recognises western imperialism as a prime source of war and oppression in the world. Of course, something will have to give here.
This is the first context to the refugee crisis in Ireland but one that was all but ignored by the demonstration in support of refugees in Dublin on Saturday, even though the massive increase in refugee numbers is mainly accounted for by Ukrainians. Not one of the left leaflets distributed at the demonstration mentioned the war, or so much as mentioned Ukraine, and I saw only one makeshift flag in Ukrainian colours, with no identifiable Ukrainian contingent on the demonstration.
The second context is the crises in housing and health services and stress on the provision of state services more generally. There is a valid argument that younger immigration will provide greater services than they will consume, but this will not immediately be the case and especially with so many Ukrainians being women with young children. Childcare costs can be extortionate in Ireland. When we also consider that refugee provision has been placed in mainly working class areas or in small rural towns, but not in more affluent and middle class areas, we can see why it would cause resentment Opinion polls have shown both support for refugees but also concern that the country has taken too many. There are also widespread complaints of lack of consultation with local communities before placing refugees in accommodation. Behind all this lies both valid complaints that there are inadequate services but also racism.
One reason why ‘war’ and ‘Ukraine’ was unmentioned at the demonstration is that the target of much racist invective, protest and attacks has been against non-Ukrainian asylum seekers. This includes men from Georgia and Albania, who have been particularly targeted. One can’t help but believe that were Georgia invaded by Russia or Albania by Serbia the Irish state would be proclaiming their needs and absolute requirement for emergency assistance.
The state and its governing parties have led the way into a crisis in which the far right and racist forces have mobilised in local areas to attack refugees and turn local people against them, with lurid stories of sexual harassment by refugees against Irish women and other racist tropes learnt from abroad. Irish people and existing asylum seekers have seen their demand for accommodation grow, and their needs be unmet, only to witness the government parties proclaim emergency measures to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.
The prioritisation of Ukrainians and creation of double standards when it comes to treatment of those seeking refuge in Ireland has not prevented the state’s efforts to assist Ukrainians from staggering from crisis to crisis with no evidence of the ability to create the required capacity in the short term or existence of a longer-term plan. This is not in the least surprising. The Irish state has failed to provide adequate housing for the pre-existing population and its health services have continually been in crisis. It has been silent on complaints that large numbers of refugees will not help this situation while it has all but ignored the full needs it has created.
It has therefore opened the door to racist and xenophobic arguments and agitation and has now started to row in behind them. It has promised to clamp down harder on asylum seekers while it proclaims the necessity to support more Ukrainian refugees, with the threat of more deportations of the former. It makes claims of their cheating to be here in the first place as a result ”criminal gangs”’ and human “traffickers”; makes statements denying that single men are being placed in accommodation, as if they were indeed the threat proclaimed by racists, and the new Taoiseach Varadkar has now declared that immigration policy must become “firm and hard”.
The real failure of the state and government parties to provide adequate state services is being blamed on refugees by the far right, which has not targeted the largest group of arrivals–Ukrainians fleeing war–but instead refugees who are not so obviously white and ‘deserving’. The state, on the other hand, has also declared these refugees uniquely deserving while it supports a war that has caused them to flee their homes in the first place, with continued support only promising more to follow. This combination is one more reactionary consequence of a reactionary war.
The demonstration on Saturday was called after increasing anti-immigrant protests by the far right that have grown in number, particularly noticeable because of their previous absence and the naive and stupid notion that the Irish (of all people!) were immune from the racism that has grown across Europe. I went down to it from Belfast to support it, see its size and its composition and because it was important to rebuff the mobilisations of the far right for whom control of the streets is a strategic objective. A large demonstration would signal where it stood in terms of such mobilisation and the terms on which the whole argument could be waged. A large demonstration of the left would not be enough to meet these requirements.
In the event the demonstration was larger than such a mobilisation, consisting of a wide cross-section of the population, from outside of the left or who it would normally be able to mobilise. In this it was impressive and just about achieved its purpose. It was not however, in my estimate and those of a couple of comrades, 50,000 strong, but perhaps just more than half that number. It was largely Dublin-based and did not have the predominantly working class composition of the water charges demonstrations or of the very large demonstration against austerity that followed the crash of the Celtic Tiger. It did however contain a significant number from ethnic minorities and from the left and some trade unions. These were predominantly its activists and not significant numbers from the trade union membership, which would have made it much larger.
The left has built itself an electoral base in Dublin and Cork and its grass-roots organisation should be well placed to defeat attempts by the far right to organise in local areas, but it is not quite as simple as that. Building an electoral base is not the same as building a movement. People before Profit seemed to be aware of this, as it faces defeat by Sinn Fein in the next elections, and its main message on the demonstration was for people to join it. Unfortunately, it is not an organisation with the capacity to contain a mass membership and an electoral base is not an organisational one. Its leaflet called for a left government and for everyone to support its legislative motion in the Dáil on housing, proposals that are hardly adequate.
Any left government will require a Sinn Fein leadership and its left credentials are threadbare, even if it may have the capacity and scope for some social-democratic measures. What such a government could not be is a working class one – but then a ‘left’ government does not have to be working class, the term ‘left’ in an Irish context does not imply very much. An organisation that thinks the role of working class activity is to support votes in parliament has got it arse about face. Other left leaflets pointed to the need for working class unity and for it to organise and mobilise, but this requires challenging the bureaucratic character and leadership of the trade unions and these left organisations neither prioritise this nor have the capacity to be exemplars of healthy democratic organisation themselves.
It also requires the correct political approach, and too much of the demonstration was an expression of liberalism and not socialist politics. Not so long ago the left exposed the inane character of abstract nouns, such as the ‘war on terror’ but now it appears not to object to the demand to oppose ‘hate’ or support ‘diversity’, as if there are not some things, such as racism, that should be hated. Supporting ‘diversity’ is a bit like declaring your support for gravity, it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t, it will still exist. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, a diverse number of racists would not be a step forward. If you want the opposite of division it is called unity, and then you need to say who should unite and for what purpose.
The rise of the far right has been prepared by the failure for years of the Irish State and government parties to provide adequate state services for the majority of the Irish people, and for its similar failure in relation to those refugees it has, and has not, encouraged to come to Ireland. Its policies have sewn the division between natives and refugees and between first class refugees who are white–and victims of a war it has supported–and those second class others seeking refuge who it has determined are a problem.
The crucial issues facing Irish workers, Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers are therefore the same with the same guilty forces responsible for their plight. Their common need should be clear, as is the need for working class unity and for working class organisation to express it. Many organisations supported the demonstration in Dublin on Saturday. Those with a commitment to the interests of the working class, including Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers, should form a united organisation that can provide a programme for further action at national and local level that offers not only opposition to the far right but an alternative.
Book Review ‘Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done’, Stefaan De Rynck, Agenda, 2023
At one point in the Brexit negotiations Michel Barnier pointed out that in the area of security policy the UK was promising to do more together with the EU than it had done before; as De Rynck puts it, trying ‘briefly to hold on to its lead role on EU military operations.’ It continued to present itself as the bridge between the EU and US, except the EU ‘failed to see any benefit in not liaising directly with the US instead.’ When Johnson won the election in December 2019 this approach for a closer relationship on security and foreign policy was dropped.
What came later, we now know, is acting as an instrument of US policy in the war in Ukraine; scuppering early negotiations by promising western military support to the Ukrainian regime and continuing to ‘punch above its weight’ by promises of weapons deliveries like tanks designed more to pressurise others than to make a critical contribution itself.
De Rynck doesn’t explain the about-face, except that Trump had criticised NATO, implying a reduced priority for Europe ,while he had already promised Britain a trade deal “very quickly”. His ambassador to the UK supported Brexit – “you have a great future outside the EU” he said – while US State Department officials warned against no deal and stated their wish that security cooperation be maintained at “current levels”
De Rynck admits that the EU negotiators were initially less confident of maintaining a united front on foreign and security policy than on the economic front, and implies concern that some East European countries might want different outcomes. He argues however that Brexit has strengthened EU security arrangements and its autonomous decision making in which the UK will no longer be involved. He argues that weakening the single market would have eroded both and reduced the ‘strategic potential of a more Global Europe’. On the other hand, its development, including a ‘single market for defence industries’, is a precondition for development of this role.
This assessment is informed by the start of the war in Ukraine and the alliance with the US in opposition to Russia, including sanctions that have substituted cheaper Russian energy for more expensive US sources. The introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act in the US is now also a threat to EU industry with its subsidies attracting European industry to the US. When the problem of Ukrainian refugees is added, it is clear that the ‘strategic potential of a more Global Europe’ faces a threat from the US in relation to which Britain has acted as supplicant and surrogate.
De Rynck makes none of these observations in the book but alludes to this role in recording previous US opposition to the EU’s satellite navigation system Galileo, which Britain had at first also opposed. He reports that the EU Commission came close to abandoning the project, although went ahead when Denmark switched sides, Tony Blair withdrew British reservations and Germany promised to pay. This then gave the EU its own alternative to the American Global Positioning System.
The British claimed that they had been able to limit Galileo to civil applications, and continued to veto military uses, but by 2015 they announced their intentions to use it for military purposes, including for the guidance of targeted weapons. ‘Losing access’ to the system was therefore a significant Brexit problem.
De Rynck explains that the EU were willing to allow the UK to use the system’s military grade signal, but Britain also wanted access to the source code for economic and military purposes and complained it could not be the only member of the UN Security Council without full control of its own navigation system. After a ‘bitter’ debate, and threat and counter-threat, the purpose claimed for Brexit of “taking back control” did indeed mean losing it, and Britain did become the only member of the UN Security Council without full control of its own navigation system.
A core justification of Brexit was the ‘opportunity’ to change its policies, regulations, and product requirements. Brexit, it seemed to everyone, would be pointless without this. However, rather than see how EU rules would continue to apply post-Brexit, the EU initially concentrated on what guarantees any alternative arrangements could offer, on effective dispute settlement and on credible unilateral remedies, all of which were agreed three years later.
In between the British complained that the EU approach did not seek to replicate its trade negotiations elsewhere, like those with Japan or New Zealand. Michael Gove said Britain was willing to reintroduce tariffs in exchange for the EU lowering its demands on a level playing field only to be told that there was no time to go line by line through each product, and in any case, it would not buy a lighter version of the level playing field.
Britain made proposals and then withdrew them; it proposed a Canada style trade agreement and then backtracked when what this meant was explained to them. ‘What makes the UK “so unworthy” complained David Frost, as the British declared their sovereignty, only to be told that sovereignty was a two-way street; the EU was itself annoyed that what was on offer to them was less than what the British were offering to Japan, Ukraine and Australia.
It seems almost incredible that, given the course of the negotiations recorded in the book, the British continued to argue that cooperation should rely on trust rather than rules. The EU was perfectly aware that the negotiations were mainly just to ‘get Brexit done’ without any genuine commitment to any written agreement.
De Rynck states that ‘despite some failed EU demands and compromises, the outcome was largely in line with what the EU set out at the start.’ ‘The UK government played a game of chicken, by itself’ and ‘as a more diverse and bigger economy, the EU had no interest in accommodating the UK . . .’
The majority of the British people now regard Brexit as a mistake. The sign on the side of the bus promising money to the NHS looks like the con it was as the NHS collapses, highlighted by media reports of incidents of raw sewage pouring out inside crumbling hospitals. This, and every other Brexit promise, has literally turned to shit and the wonder is that anyone thinks being poorer is part of the solution to anything.
Guardian commentators like Polly Toynbee write articles setting out how awful Brexit has been but with no proposal to reverse it – ‘Most people are now in favour of rejoining the EU, but Labour is right to steer clear of another row over Europe’ she says. Gideon Rachman writes columns for the ‘Financial Times’ about how it can be reversed but has nothing more to propose than two referendums on the tenth anniversary of the 2016 leave vote.
The British state is in confusion about what to do, evidenced by the meeting of the great and good, leavers and remainers, reported to arise because ‘Brexit is not delivering’. Its proclaimed purpose however was “about moving on from leave and remain, and what are the issues we now have to face.” As if the issue is not what brought them together in the first place and the answer obvious.
As one commentator in ‘The Irish Times’ said, ‘it is hard to understand the 40 per cent who still agree with the decision’. On the left, among the Lexit supporters, there equally appears to be no remorse, just excuses like the assorted Tories, UKIPers, xenophobes and racists who were equally committed to a Britain-alone approach.
The book by the EU insider reveals no secrets but describes the British negotiation process as confused, inept and as full of wishful thinking as the Brexit project itself. It faithfully records the bluster and threats that no one with any appreciation of the balance of power could take seriously. It points to the folly of left supporters of Brexit who supported it when all this was obvious. Did they expect the negotiations would deliver some advance for the British working class? I suppose that they must, in which case the book is another testament to the stupidity of Brexit, Lexit or whatever its supporters want to call it, now that it’s no longer just an idea and so not what they wanted.
Book Review ‘Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done’, Stefaan De Rynck, Agenda, 2023
In Ireland one of the lessons supposedly to be learned from Britain leaving the EU is the necessity to have a plan for what you want to do when you succeed, with the mess associated with Brexit due to its supporters not having one. Some leave campaigners did want to put together a plan but apparently Dominic Cummings opposed this on principle. So now, supporters of a referendum on a united Ireland are keen to get a plan on what it would look like and how it would be implemented. Of course, the experience of the Brexit referendum and its consequences demonstrate that the problem with it was not the absence of a cunning plan but that it was simply a bad idea.
Brexit immediately gave rise to the potential for hardening the existing political border, with leaving the customs union and single market raising the prospect of checks to be applied to goods entering and exiting the single market. This was the case even if Theresa May repeatedly said that there would be “no going back to the borders of the past.”
Both the EU and the British negotiators were concerned that whatever solution was proposed to avoid a hard border within the island did not (or did) become leverage for the new border that would exist between Britain and the EU. That concern continued to exist even after a first agreement was made with Theresa May that a ‘backstop’ would be in place, which would ensure–absent any other agreed solution–that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU rules, although this would entail checks between Britain and the North of Ireland. As a sign of things to come the British government blocked civil servants in the North from engaging with the EU on how this might work.
As noted in the previous post, the British would rapidly disavow at home what they had just agreed, and May renounced her commitment in the House of Commons as something no prime minister could ever accept. But if this was the case, a ‘soft’ Brexit would have to cover all the UK and this was not acceptable to those for whom Brexit meant Brexit, whatever Brexit actually meant. Jeremy Corbyn once again demonstrated the poverty of his own position by supporting the backstop but wanting domestic guarantees of a soft Brexit.
De Rynck describes British politics as a ‘farce’, noting that ‘May could not claim publicly she had obtained a customs union for fear of upsetting her backbenchers, which suited Corbyn’s fear that he would have to explain his own opposition to a deal his party officially wanted.’
The focus on the North of Ireland that frustrated the Tory Brexiteers so much only existed because it starkly revealed the illusion of Brexit itself, and the phantasy that was the deal that they thought they could get. Irish nationalists could be forgiven for seeing what was happening as karma – British weakness being exposed by their clinging to one of their last colonies. However, a survey of Tory MPs revealed that only one third of them thought the border was a serious matter, so it’s doubtful this was the source of much discomfort for them.
British think tanks sought out a different solution that avoided the necessity for checks and a border where they would have to take place, including ‘Max fac’, which the EU rejected but De Rynck suggested ‘some elements could be useful to soften friction for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland’. In the end, of course, May couldn’t get her deal through, and Boris Johnson turned the backstop into a ‘frontstop’.
De Rynck completes the picture of British political farce by noting the position of the Democratic Unionist Party, which believed that EU support for its Irish member state would collapse in the end. He recalls that Barnier “pushed Foster and her party to come up with its own solution but there was never a plan from the DUP”, quelle surprise.
He notes their June 2017 manifesto, surely being one of very few to have read it, which affirmed Northern Ireland’s “unique history and geography”, its “particular circumstances” and its need for “ease of trade with the Irish Republic and throughout the European Union.” The DUP advocated “Northern-Ireland specific solutions through active executive engagement”. Its leader, Arlene Foster, was later to highlight the benefits to Northern Ireland of being in both the UK and EU markets; but not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the most extreme elements set the agenda for the rest to follow and it became the overwhelming policy of unionism to condemn these sort of arrangements as a threat to their ‘precious union’.
While Johnson turned the backstop into immediate application, or at least pretended to, he also wanted a particular voting procedure that would ensure local Northern-Ireland consent to its peculiar arrangements. The EU agreed that the NI Assembly should have the right to confirm the requirements of the deal over time but thought that its ability to overrule the initial Westminster decision made no sense. The British negotiators wanted the local Assembly to approve the deal and to require a majority of both nationalists and unionists, which given the latter’s deepest affection for saying ‘No’ would have meant they would have said no and there would have been no deal.
It might appear easy to discern British motivation for asking for this provision because they might have believed that the unionists’ ‘No’ could perhaps be a means of putting pressure on the EU to deliver a better deal. The approach of the EU however, was that while it was up to the UK to determine its internal political arrangements, these were not determining a deal with the European Union. Today, the DUP is still opposed to the final deal and is in effect attempting to impose its veto, but it is not a party to the talks and it will not determine their outcome.
The final deal was concluded with the same familiar backdrop as the preceding negotiations. The Daily Telegraph reported a cabinet minister’s “fury” at the EU’s “demands for more concessions” while at the same time Johnson decided to sign up to it. He later met representatives of Northern Ireland manufacturing, assuring them that they could throw any customs forms requested in the bin, and they could call him if they had a problem. I would not be surprised if they immediately reflected that there was no problem for which he would be regarded as the solution. As we have now been assured, Johnson did not know what he was signing up to, writing in the Daily Telegraph that the protocol he agreed to couldn’t have meant introducing trade barriers, because that’s not what he meant, and so it would be vital to now “close that option down.”
On the EU side, it would appear from De Rynck that the EU was happier with the Johnson deal than with May’s proposed all-UK membership of a common customs territory, with its pursuit of some sort of “max-fac” means of reducing customs checks. He nevertheless contends that “the EU compromised more on Northern Ireland than on any other withdrawal issue”. This might be true, because it is also clear that in terms of the other two issues, in respect of Britain’s financial settlement and the rights of citizens, the EU essentially got what it wanted.
Book Review ‘Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done’, Stefaan De Rynck, Agenda, 2023
This book tells the story of the Brexit negotiations from the point of view of the EU by a senior EU negotiator. It is a reminder of the tortuous course of the process and the more or less complete failure of the British government to achieve its objectives, not least because it was never too clear about what these were; or perhaps more accurately, if it did have ideas, these were none to clear and not possible to achieve.
Anyone with any interest in Brexit will be aware that Britain appeared to believe that the EU needed Britain more than Britain needed the EU and that certain countries had a particular interest in the British market. These would be keen on a deal that facilitated unrestricted access; for example that German car makers would put pressure on Angela Merkel to make sure no barriers were put up to selling their cars in Britain. In fact German industry (and others, including the Spanish so reliant on British holiday makers) lobbied to ensure protection of the EU’s single market.
This meant British diplomacy believed it could prise individual states away from the EU negotiators and undermine a united EU response. This was backed up by repeated threats that if Britain didn’t get what it wanted it could walk away with no deal. This was sometimes accompanied by threats of ending security cooperation, which the author of the book acknowledges the British usually to the lead on. Ironically it was the EU in the final agreement that rejected an important aspect of military cooperation in which the British were very keen to be involved.
Their negotiating tactics often amounted to not negotiating and dragging their feet, as if the EU would come running, expecting the EU to be in some way desperate to maintain the relationship due to the cost of the divorce. Merkel recalled at an informal occasion at Davos that ‘May kept asking me to make an offer’, as if the party walking away should be given whatever was required to have it still hanging around. Merkel said “I told her it is the UK that is leaving. The UK should tell us what it wants.”
British tactics also involved repeatedly deferring Brexit through delaying notification of leaving, extending the period of negotiation, and demanding a transition period while then running down the clock in the face of deadlines that piled on the pressure to get a deal. This pressure was placed particularly on the British side because Tory leaders were continually under pressure from their Eurosceptic MPs to demonstrate progress in getting Brexit done. What would be the problem if the EU did indeed need Britain so much?
While this was supposed to be the case, British sources continually leaked stories to the media in London that the EU negotiators had made outrageous demands that Britain had rejected. EU negotiators then began to find that this was the prelude to acceptance of the actual EU proposals, at which point the press in London would claim a great victory!
De Rynck notes that while the British media in Brussels often had a better grasp of what was going on, their counterparts in London regurgitated the same Brexit delusions of Tory MPs for home consumption. This was the case even where the British made agreements and then talked at home as if they hadn’t, or openly backtracked on them in front of the domestic audience. Threats would be made, and no action ever follow.
While the whole exercise was based on ‘taking back control’ the negotiations revealed how little control Britain had; its parsimony on protecting citizen’s rights in the Withdrawal Agreement revealing the reactionary priorities behind the project. Taking back control meant taking control of citizens’ rights and trashing them. Theresa May would tell Italian television she was guaranteeing the rights of their compatriots in the UK at the same time as her negotiating team was arguing to take some away.
And it wasn’t even the rights of foreigners that were to be discarded. De Rynck writes – that ‘Madrid seemed more concerned about the Brits in Spain than London was an impression activist NGOs often confirmed at that time in conversations with Barnier’s team.’ Some EU states wanted EU nationals to have the same rights in the UK as UK nationals would have, except that this would give UK nationals in the EU more rights and better protection than EU nationals in the UK.
De Rynck appears to view with some wry amusement the visits to Brussels of British political delegations to meet with Michel Barnier, including those tasked with monitoring the Brexit process, with their innocent suggestions for progress but clear incomprehension about what the problem was.
He makes clear that the united response by the EU member states and refusal to be divided was a result of EU membership and its single market being much more important to them than Britain. The EU was completely conscious that it was the stronger party and British claims that it was going to get ‘a great trade deal’ with the United States, as promised by Donald Trump, failed completely to influence EU negotiators. None of the US officials met by an EU delegation to Washington supported Britain and audiences were mostly in favour of deepening the single market in order to benefit US investment. The EU was also aware of British intentions to make agreements and not implement them, which is why unilateral enforcement was included in the texts.
It never struck the British that if they hadn’t got what they wanted by threatening to leave they weren’t going to get it once they had decided to go. Boris Johnson had claimed that after voting to leave Britain would get a better deal than David Cameron’s attempt before it, while some member states thought Cameron had got too much.
The British never seemed to ‘smell the coffee’ even after the repeated refusal of members states to enter into bilateral discussions, or to appreciate that British political difficulties and divisions did not mean that the EU would decide they should be helped to overcome them. Rather it was taken as a warning for EU negotiators not to get embroiled. Repeated resignations by British negotiators, of David Davis, Dominic Raab and David Frost no doubt assisted the Brexiteers in not learning from experience, although perhaps resignation was the best course individuals could take to avoid their fingerprints over failure.
Above all, the EU was determined to protect its single market, which meant that there was to be no cherry-picking and no having cake and eating it, where Britain would be able to have access for some favoured sectors but not for others. Neither was there to be mutual recognition of each other’s standards, which effectively meant the British could establish the market’s rules. EU negotiators raised the issue of their own sovereignty when the British proclaimed theirs, while other Eurosceptics such as Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Salvini in Italy and the Sweden Democrats rowed back on their opposition to the EU or the Euro.
De Rynck has negative judgements to make on the British Labour Party, which he accuses of having givien a blank cheque to the Conservative government by voting for withdrawal without knowing the destination the government wanted to go in. He records that Starmer while accompanying Corbyn, just like Theresa May, wanted full single market access while restricting free movement of EU nationals. The Labour MP Hilary Benn, who led the House of Commons Committee on Exiting the EU, visited Brussels and asked questions ‘from a different galaxy.’ Benn wondered why divergence from EU rules was a problem as the UK would still be more aligned than any other country. From the point of view of the EU, and apart from dynamic alignment being a problem, there was no point to Brexit if the British did not change their rules, with this change expected to be in the opposite direction. Why would it agree to that?
Those socialists in Britain who might regularly read ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, and despair at the wretched propagandistic coverage of the war in Ukraine, should count themselves lucky that that they don’t live in Ireland and avail of the coverage of ‘The Irish Times’.
Unable to contribute to the cause of western imperialism directly, the Irish State has cloaked its contribution in mawkish tones of hypocritical concern, loudly proclaiming that it too supports the war while condemning its inevitable results. Like all western support, from right to left, it considers support for war has nothing to do with its consequences because “Russia started it.’
‘The Irish Times’ faithfully reflects the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Irish State and political establishment. The Russian war is routinely damned and its purported atrocities highlighted but its true horrors, which might include graphic pictures of the dead and dying, are hidden. Even more unsettling, photographs and video of those killed by Ukrainians will not be front page or headline news. War coverage in the West is so routinely censored that its presence is unnoticed.
So imagine my surprise when today’s newspaper includes a column by the historian Geoffrey Roberts, who sets out the dangers of western escalation and its purpose. No doubt the rest of the week will see numerous letters of condemnation.
He notes that the West’s previous red lines on the supply of weapons have been crossed while significant political figures dismiss the possibility of Russian escalation in response. He notes that such escalation ‘would be shocking to those western decision-makers who have become accustomed to the idea that only they can act with impunity when it comes to escalating the Ukraine war.’
Escalation includes main battle tanks and missiles with relatively long-range potential. It also includes direct NATO personnel intervention through intelligence, training and targeting. The provision of main battle tanks will involve significant maintenance support, and possibly NATO tank operators if they are to provide anywhere near their potential impact.
Previously, some left supporters of the Ukrainian state have made a distinction between defensive and offensive weapons and opposed ‘direct military intervention.’ Main battle tanks are clearly offensive weapons provided to Ukraine so it can carry out offensive operations, while missiles already supplied have the potential to hit Crimea, which previously was not simply a province of Ukraine but had autonomous status. Today its population is clearly Russian and is considered by the Russian Federation to be part of its territory. For those claiming justification for the war based on ‘self-determination’ this leaves something of a contradiction.
It is of course open to the supporters of Ukraine to support this state on the grounds that the war as a whole is purely a defensive one, but that does not avoid an existing problem and opens the door to another.
Those partisans of Ukraine who speak of supporting the Ukrainian people have the same problem as someone who recently posted on Facebook ‘victory to the Russian people in their struggle against NATO’. Neither the Ukrainian nor Russian people are fighting this war, although it is they who are dying. They are killing and being killed on behalf of the Ukrainian and Russian states, which are the real parties to the conflict. In neither case is the working class independently organised and fighting in its own interest and for its own objectives.
Either the respective supporters of the Ukrainian and Russian states believe that in this war one of these capitalist states is fighting for the interests of the working class or they can’t tell the difference between a capitalist state and its people, never mind its working class. In neither case can the left supporters of either state be considered Marxist, which as a bare necessity requires the ability to distinguish between a capitalist state and a working class and, having done so, be able to identify and assert their separate and antagonistic interests.
If, on this occasion, they maintain that their interests are the same or aligned they face the question of how such an extraordinary convergence has occurred? In the case of supporters of Ukraine – how did this alignment also include the whole of Western imperialism? Why wouldn’t it happen again and how does this not invalidate Marxism, which teaches the irreconcilable antagonism between the working class and the capitalist state? How often can the working class rely on the capitalist state to defend its interests? Do they know where this idea has led before and, if they do, can they not just do themselves and those of us who oppose this capitalist war a favour and take a short cut to openly repudiating Marxism?
The second, new problem opened up, is that if the character of the war is not to be defined by the infantile argument of who invaded who, then this must widen consideration of its nature to include the cause of the war, including the invasion; the objectives of the warring parties and the political character of these objectives and thus of the war itself. In relation to this the article by Geoffrey Roberts is appropriate:
‘Never has the world witnessed such a proxy war as that being waged in Ukraine by the West, the overarching aim being to cripple Russia as a great power.’
‘In pursuit of this aim the US and other western governments have showered Ukraine with more than $100 billion worth of military, humanitarian and financial aid. Nato has scoured the globe for old Soviet ammunition and weapons systems that can be readily utilised by the Ukrainians. Western financial institutions have seized control of Russian foreign currency reserves and imposed sanctions designed to destabilise the rouble and collapse Russia’s economy. The West is also working to turn Russia into a pariah state internationally.’
‘Without western support Ukraine’s war effort would have collapsed months ago. The continuation of the war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian casualties. Ukraine’s economy has been laid waste, while millions of its citizens have fled the country, and many more have been displaced internally.’
Roberts is correct that without Western imperialism there would no longer be a war – Ukraine would have negotiated a peace. To therefore pretend that western intervention is secondary is to deny reality.
Roberts presents one potential of the continuation of the war:
‘As Putin creeps closer to some kind of military victory in Ukraine, the voice of those urging western restraint will be needed more than ever. The more territory Ukraine loses, the more casualties it incurs, the greater will be the West’s temptation to take yet another escalatory step towards all-out war with Russia.’
It is obviously hazardous to predict the outcome of the war given the conflicting claims of both sides and the obvious propaganda character of most of what is published. The involvement of so many actors makes it difficult to have confidence. What role will Belarus play, and will a ‘coalition of the willing’ e.g. Poland etc. be the subterfuge that NATO will adopt for a more direct intervention? How much escalation will NATO go for on the basis that they argue that they will not be intimidated, Russia hasn’t reacted so far, and the threats from Russia are outrageous intimidation?
What one thinks will be the outcome very much reflects what one thinks is already happening.
A strange consensus exists in the Western media. Ukraine is winning but there are repeated entreaties for the Western powers to maintain their support, calls really directed to the populations consuming their media. The ‘between-the-lines’ message is that Ukraine will not win if the West does not continue to support it. That Ukraine can win, and claims that it is doing so, are meant to convince that the sacrifices already made have achieved results and not been wasted, although apparent setbacks also give rise to the same appeals.
What this means is that while Ukrainians are doing almost all the fighting, they cannot continue without Western support. In other words, the war must continue, and can only continue, if the West remains in the fight. Despite this repeatedly admitted dependence of Ukraine on the West, by both parties, their leftist supporters still claim to support their war based on the idea of ‘self-determination’.
In point of fact self-determination was achieved by Ukraine when it became an independent state in 1991, whereupon it suffered an economic collapse. It attempted to carry out an independent foreign policy by balancing between Russia and the West but this too failed. Its dependence now on the West is complete and all talk of self-determination and independence is so much deceitful humbug. Win or lose Ukraine–as it has existed–is not going to determine its own future, or be in any genuine way independent of imperialism: ‘self-determination’ has also failed.
Ukraine started the war with 43 million people and 5 million military-aged men, but according to the U.N.,14.3 million have fled and a further 9 million are in Russian-occupied territory. Ukraine is therefore reduced to about 20 to 27 million people and at this ratio it has less than 3 million draftable men. A million have already been drafted, and many of the rest are either not physically fit or have a vital role in the economy. The GDP of this economy has declined by an estimated 30 per cent.
It started with an army of 250,000 regular troops, together with 450,000 mobilised citizen soldiers, with 1,800 artillery pieces that allowed firing rates of 6,000 to 7,000 rounds a day, plus perhaps over 2,500 tanks. The weapons supplied by the West are needed not to add to these totals but to replace them because Ukraine does not itself have the necessary military-industrial complex to do it. If Ukraine could not defeat the invasion with these initial forces the lesser supplies from the West are not going to achieve this task despite the escalation in the power of the new weapons. Their purpose is to keep the war going, with all the horror this must necessarily entail.
Ukraine and the West have been able to present the idea that not only can it win the war, but actually is, through two arguments about how it has proceeded so far. First is the failure of the Russians to take Kyiv and its retreat from the city, and secondly the reverses and retreats in Kharkiv and Kherson, reducing Russian control to approximately 50% of the territory it had captured by the invasion on 24 February.
The Russian objective has been a neutral Ukraine if an allied one could not be attained, while Ukraine as a member of NATO is unacceptable.The initial invasion seemed to be based on the view that Russia could point the gun to the head of Ukraine’s political leadership in Kyiv and gain the concessions that it required without a full-scale war. When this leadership, with western intervention, rejected this course the only alternative was the grinding conflict that the war has become.
Since Russia has had no intention of occupying all of Ukraine the purpose of the invasion is to enlarge the buffer between it and the NATO powers and to destroy the military capacity of the country – to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘de-nazify’. A buffer, even an enlarged one through annexing Ukrainian territory, is not enough; Russia already started the invasion with a buffer but a continuing military threat in the remaining un-occupied state would be a very meagre victory.
This is why Russia invaded with only around 200,000 troops made up of regular Russian forces and soldiers from the two separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk; less than the Ukrainian armed forces when an overwhelming numerical superiority would have been required.
The primary goal of the military conflict has therefore become the destruction of the Ukrainian armed forces, and not the acquisition of territory, which can be taken after a military victory. This includes those oblasts which Russia now claims as its territory but which it currently does not completely control. The primary purpose of Ukraine has been the recapture of territory lost; together these explain the character of Russian reverses in Kharkiv and Kherson.
In the former few Russian forces were in place to defend earlier gains and most of those that existed belonged to separatist militias; Russia did not have enough soldiers to maintain its occupation of the area. It was however able, in due course, to halt the Ukrainian offensive and then consider a counter-attack. In Kherson the Russian forces were exposed and retreated before this exposure crystallised into a more pressing threat. The result was that it was able to keep its forces intact and strengthen its immediate strategic position. In both Kharkiv and Kherson the maintenance of its armed forces was more important than territorial loss. To these must now be added the partial mobilisation of a further claimed 300,000 Russian soldiers, giving its forces numerical superiority for the first time.
Pro-Russian commentators have therefore argued that the static conflict that has been in place for the last three to four months has not been a stalemate but a result of Russian strategy to engage greater and greater numbers of Ukrainian forces with the purpose of then destroying them with greater firepower. So, while we have noted that Ukraine could fire 6,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds a day, Russia has been firing 40,000 to 50,000, with some reports stating that it has a six-to-one advantage in artillery pieces. It is therefore obvious that this sort of war is to Russia’s advantage; it is also true that it is not a war that Ukraine can win.
Attempts to keep it going by Western arms do not benefit Ukraine but will only result in the death of more Ukrainians, not to mention Russians. The number of weapons, including their diversity and the logistical problems arising from this, are inadequate and cannot in themselves rebuild an army that superior Russian forces already degraded when this army had larger weapons systems on which it had already been trained.
The political leadership of Ukraine, who walked their country into this war and promised victory, will find it difficult to admit defeat and so face the wrath of its far-right supporters and the displeasure of its US backers. EU leaders may decide that sanctions have failed to impose the costs on Russia that they expected; that they themselves can’t afford, and that would not be justified by the project of incorporating Ukraine in NATO. The rest of the world outside what calls itself ‘the international community’ has not rallied to the demands of the US, and China has not decided that doing the bidding of its declared enemy is better than maintaining its alliance with its new friend.
These point to an end to the war sooner rather than later, but not until Russia has degraded the Ukrainian armed forces and occupied those parts of Ukraine it now claims as its own sovereign territory.
This, of course, will not end the hatred and division between Ukrainian and Russian, including their working classes, and will not end the mutual antagonism between the two states. The US and its NATO creation will have suffered a reverse but these have happened before; military setbacks will not destroy western imperialism, and the Russian and Chinese states certainly won’t.
A victory for Ukraine and the US would have similar reactionary consequences and would not usher in any progressive Russian regime. We will leave to left-wing bourgeois moralists any notion that a victory for Ukraine would be a victory for the working class anywhere, least of all in Ukraine itself, which would then in such an eventuality have its future celebrations consist of the triumph of western imperialism and of Ukraine’s most reactionary nationalist traditions.
A war with potentially only reactionary outcomes and consequences is not one that can be supported. Its lasting tragedy may be that any sort of democratic and progressive peace settlement is impossible. Right now it certainly looks extremely unlikely, which is unsurprising. This could only arise from a working class armed with its own political alternative, and not some second-hand programme that has already failed and which is the most impossible outcome of all.