Why Juncker and May need each other

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Whatever the spat between them this week over dinner, Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May are both of the pro-neoliberal centre right, and they need each other

“Praise god it’s not Russia this time!”

The Russian embassy in London neatly trolled Theresa May as she stood on the steps of Downing Street this week accusing Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU of interference in the British general election.

It was an extraordinary claim. Though it has to be said, the leaking to Germany’s leading conservative paper by officials on the Juncker side of what seems to have been an ill-tempered over-dinner meeting with May to discuss Brexit was unusual only in terms of who the target was.

Britain is not Greece. But the behaviour of the Luxembourgeois Juncker came as no surprise to anyone in the southern European country that has been ground in the maw of the European institutions over the last eight years.

Not just hostile leaks, but crashing the banking system was the kind of intervention the European Commission and European Central Bank engaged in at the end of June 2015 – directly to interfere through methods of financial terrorism in the Greek referendum.

Those fanatically pro-EU liberal figures praising Juncker in this spat with May would do well to remember that his Bollinger-fuelled bullying continues to be directed at the Greek pensioner, the Spanish unemployed youngster and the French factory worker trying to preserve their workplace rights and job.

Others of us have been reminded that liberal free-market capitalism has had only ever a nodding acquaintance with democracy and popular sovereignty.

And both Juncker and May are wholly committed to the neoliberal, corporate capitalist policies whose failure is measured in widening inequality, mass unemployment across Europe and a permanent class war from above.

Both are also of the centre right. He was the prime minister of Luxembourg who turned it into a tax haven, before moving on to his sinecure in Brussels.

That makes May’s claim about “interference” in the British general election all the more absurd. As the local government elections confirmed this week, the general election on 8 June presents a straight choice – either the return of a May government, or its defeat, with the only alternative being a government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

The very last thing that Juncker, Angela Merkel, the outgoing Francois Hollande or any of the European institutions or mainstream governments wants to see is a victory by a socialist-led Labour Party in Britain.

Labour’s plans to renationalise the NHS and rail, to invest and to redistribute wealth are entirely at odds with the rigged economic orthodoxy and breach the rules that lock it into the EU. Just as European-wide effort went into holding back the surge of Jean-Luc Melenchon in France in favour of promoting the Blairite Emmanuel Macron, so are they all committed to a Tory government in Britain.

So why the heat over that dinner? First, it is a sign of the clashes to come over the Brexit process. Those are perilous – for both sides.

Less remarked upon in this story is who it was that Juncker was speaking to when his entourage leaked that dinner table conversation and his haughty assessment of it.

It was the rest of the EU and its 27 governments. Beneath the proclamations of ironclad unity, the European Commission and Merkel have been working flat out to hold a common front.

Last year Merkel made an astonishing speech to the German equivalent of the CBI. She told big business not to go off seeking sector by sector deals with London – car manufacture, machine tools and so on. Instead, everything had to go through the German state and in turn through the EU negotiating team, in which Franco-German interests are strongly represented.

The EU is a powerful bureaucratic entity in its own right. But European capitalism is not a singular force with a single state. It is an agglomeration of national capitalisms – with sectional interests – and 27 states semi-organised in a hierarchy.

The primary aim in the Brexit process, say EU officials, is to maintain that arrangement. But if all were well, why would any effort be required to do so? All is not well.

Economic stagnation has produced enormous political strains in one European country after another. France is the latest, where neither of the twin party pillars of the political system made it into this weekend’s second round of the presidential election.

In Italy, the third biggest economy in the EU, the national carrier Alitalia has just gone bust. EU state aid rules prevent a nationalisation rescue. The anti-EU Five Star Movement is ahead in the polls.

We are often told that all the 27 EU states have a common economic interest in this Brexit process, which means “all the cards are in their hands”. It is true that the giant German economy could cope with a rupture in trade with Britain if no deal came out of the Brexit negotiations.

Other countries are not so sanguine. The government of the Netherlands is impeccably pro-EU. But the high proportion of Dutch trade with Britain means bosses and politicians there are much more nervous about Brexit.

So one side of this was shoring up the EU27 members and reinforcing the mantra that Brexit must be painful to ordinary people in Britain pour décourager les autres.

The second thing the Brexit dinner revealed was the essential unreality of the Tories’ negotiating position. Labour’s Keir Starmer hit the mark this week when he said a Corbyn-led government would rip up the Tories’ otherworldly plan, and outline a strategy based upon workers rights and economic growth – for the many, not the few.

One reason for the mess of the Tory negotiating position is that May is just not very good. Her lack of competence is attested to in how she was caught flatfooted by these leaks.

But it runs deeper than that. It is rooted in what the May government has been trying to do over the last nine months, which is to square a circle and exit the political mess David Cameron left them with after failing to win his referendum.

Behind all the chauvinistic flag-waving aimed at recuperating votes that went to UKIP in 2015, May wants a big business Brexit. And big business remains of the view it had overwhelmingly this time last year when it campaigned hard for Remain.

It would much prefer Brexit to mean not Brexit. That has been politically impossible in the wake of the referendum. With a majority of just 13 MPs in the Commons, the May government has been susceptible to the threat of revolt from two minority wings.

The Brexit fantasists – the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who think that waving a Union Jack will restore the British Empire – and the ideologically committed pro-EU minority of Kenneth Clarke and Anna Soubry.

The farrago of the government’s position is a product of this basic instability. And it is led by a prime minister who Clarke described on candid camera at the time of the Tory leadership succession last year as lacking in any big ideas and an eternal pragmatist – from reluctant Remainer to apparently hard Brexiteer.

May has surrounded herself with advisors from her time at the Home Office, which she ran with all the narrow-mindedness of a provincial Tory magistrate.

She is now hoping for a big majority through which to assert some control, not to pursue some hard Brexit, but to bury the referendum and return the Tory party in government to close alignment with the City of London and big business. That centres upon something she has been trailing for some weeks, to the alarm of the Tory Brexiteers.

It is to seek a long transitional arrangement with the EU in which all the strictures of the single market – which is not a trading relationship, but a legal enforcement of big business’s rights – are maintained, possibly renewed every year by vote of parliament.

It is to buy time and to avoid the kind of clashes that could open ruptures at the top – in Britain and in the EU – through which an insurgent popular anger could break.

As in any negotiation between capitalist interests there is antagonism. But May and Juncker have much more in common in seeking to control this process and quell what Diane Abbott called “a roar against the establishment” delivering the Leave vote in the referendum.

There are tensions. But they need each other – Juncker needs a big Tory win on 8 June.

And if you want to see what real interference looks like – then if Labour can continue to recover in the polls, it will be in your face in the coming weeks.  Including from Brussels, from Berlin, from Paris and from Washington.

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