12 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is the new leader of the Labour party after winning an absolute majority of 59.5% in the first round. The election of someone so far outside of the the political mainstream will have profound implications for UK politics, including EU policy and the referendum campaign.

Will Corbyn campaign for an Out vote?

Corbyn voted against Britain’s membership of the EEC in 1975 and since then he has been a consistent critic of many EU policies ranging from the CAP through to the Eurozone’s treatment of Greece. Some commentators have therefore argued he could campaign for Brexit this time around, a prospect also floated by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. However, this is remains an unlikely scenario. Over the course of the leadership campaign Corbyn further nuanced his stance on the EU question, telling The Guardian that:

We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands. But that does not mean walking away, but staying to fight together for a better Europe.

Jeremy Corbyn, Statement to The Guardian, 28 July 2015

From a strategic perspective, strengthening his position within the parliamentary party and establishing a degree of party unity will be a priority for Corbyn and given that the vast majority of Labour MPs support continued membership, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it would make no sense for him squander his limited political capital by picking a fight on this issue (there are plenty of other issues he will have to fight on). Tom Watson, the new deputy leader who will play an important role in keeping the party together recently said that:

We need to make the socialist case to stay in. It’s an easy case to make, because the EU, for all its many flaws, is an inherently progressive set of institutions.

Tom Watson, Deputy leadership speech, 7 September 2015

However, even if the renegotiation leaves the bulk of EU social and employment laws in place, Corbyn’s alternative vision for Europe would still be far removed from what is realistically on offer. Therefore, during the referendum campaign, he could decide not to explicitly recommend an In vote either and take a back seat, leaving the likes of Alan Johnson and Chuka Umunna to run the party’s In campaign from outside of the shadow cabinet.

How would Labour’s EU policy change under Corbyn?

Although Corbyn will most likely want to focus on domestic policy issues and he will not see Europe as a priority, the ongoing media focus on the issue will mean that he will have to articulate his position on a number of EU related issues. Up until now there has been a large degree of cross-party consensus as to the substance of EU policy but this would change under a Corbyn-led Labour party (although much will also depend on who he appoints to his shadow cabinet).

Here is how Labour’s position on a range of issues which will feature prominently in the renegotiation and referendum campaign could change under Corbyn:

Non-euro safeguards: Identified by Chancellor George Osborne as the single most important issue in UK-EU relations and supported by Labour in its GE manifesto. Given Corbyn’s scepticism about the euro, the party will likely continue to back safeguards for non-euro member states on democratic grounds, although that could change if the changes are perceived as being designed to protect the City from EU regulation – Corbyn and his supporters want to see financial services regulated more heavily.

Free Movement: Corbyn is unashamedly pro-immigration and pro-welfare so he could drop the party’s support for the principle of restricting benefits for new EU migrants, although this will cause problems with MPs who see the party’s immigration stance as an electoral liability vis-à-vis UKIP and the Tories. Either way however Corbyn will not make a big deal about immigration during the campaign. A Corbyn-led Labour party would also demand that the UK play a more active role in Europe’s refugee crisis.

Single market/competition policy: Whereas Labour has traditionally backed deepening the single market, under Corbyn it might become at best ambivalent and at worst outright hostile, particularly in the sensitive area of services.  Corbyn would also like to pursue a much more interventionist economic and industrial policy and renationalise the railways, both of which risk running afoul of EU state aid and competition rules.

Free trade: Trade will be a key battleground in the referendum campaign and the EU-US free trade agreement, TTIP, could also become more prominent thanks to Corbyn. While the Labour establishment has backed TTIP, Corbyn and his supporters as well as much of the trade union constituency is strongly opposed seeing it as a secretive deal which would remove social protections and open public sector to private enterprise.

Increased role for national parliaments: Labour already backs an increased role for national parliaments and Corbyn himself is likely to be sympathetic – he listed the weakening of national parliaments as one of his reasons for voting against the Maastrict Treaty.

EU budget reform: This is another area where Labour could supporting the government – Corbyn and his supporters have long been critical of taxpayers subsidising landowners via the CAP and he was one of 17 Labour MPs to sign a letter in support of Open Europe’s proposal to devolve regional development subsidies back to wealthier member states.

It will be also be interesting to see if under his leadership Labour reaches out to the far-left in Europe such as SYRIZA, Podemos and Die Linke as opposed to its traditional centre-left allies.

Conclusion: Does Corbyn’s win make Brexit more or less likely?

Corbyn could substantially shift the terms of the EU debate during the renegotiation and the referendum campaign. Even without endorsing an Out vote himself, by criticising TTIP, the inability of the UK to pursue a more interventionist economic policy and the Eurozone’s ‘undemocratic’ treatment of Greece, he could drive support for Brexit on the left.

That said, the flipside of this effect could be to make the Out argument a much more risky and less coherent proposition with the pragmatic Brexit campaign potentially caught between the anti-immigrant UKIP on one hand and the far-left Corbyn camp on the other. In contrast, an In campaign backed by the Prime Minister, Chancellor and moderate Tory and Labour MPs could win the minds (if not hearts) of swing voters for whom economic stability is of paramount importance.

The spectre of Corbyn-esque arguments gaining traction during the referendum campaign might also help to convince business sceptical of EU over-regulation that Brexit would not automatically improve the situation. Indeed, business might decide to stick with the devil they know on the grounds that despite the substantial costs of membership, EU rules guarantee free competition and non-discrimination, rules which a Corbyn-led Labour party would likely want to change post-Brexit.

For these reasons, Corbyn’s victory is a wild card in terms of the EU referendum – as his own triumph demonstrates, little can be taken for granted in UK politics at the moment.