Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail‘s international affairs columnist, just published a piece that so irritated me that I felt the need to write about how bad it is. It is a textbook case of the basic dishonesty and contempt for the left that is endemic to huffy liberal pundits.
“In France and Britain, for want of an opposition the EU could be lost,” runs the headline. Though it takes some passing shots at figures on the far-right, it mostly lays out a plaintive elegy for European social democracy gone by, and laments the scruffy leftists who have usurped the rightful place of the reasonable, pragmatic Blairs and Hollandes of the world, who refuse to pay homage to an EU that has made clear its intentions to crush the working people of debtor nations rather than suffer a creditor to lose a cent. At any rate, you should read it as a companion to this piece.
Written in the context of the snap election just called by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the piece begins with Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, who leads the UK’s social democratic Labour Party, is the most left-wing leader the party has had in a generation. He is also, in my opinion, pretty bad at his job. Saunders and I appear to agree there. What irritates me is what Saunders chooses to highlight as his failings in the context of the current election, and the goal-post moving he engages in to justify his criticism.
First of all, he calls him a “left-wing nationalist.” I was genuinely curious about this: ra-ra flag-waving is not one of Corbyn’s faults. Someone asked Saunders about this on Twitter, and he responded, “Absolutely. His top policy proposals include re-nationalizing key industries, transit, coal mines…” To be blunt, that is not nationalism. It is certainly left-wing, but there is nothing necessarily nationalist about public control of services and industries: the verb is ‘to nationalize,’ certainly, but I’m sure that Saunders is aware that predicating a categorical argument on rhetorical feints is shaky ground.
When he was challenged on this point, he responded that “single-state ownership of ex widely held industries is a pretty clear sign of nationalism, esp with rejection of international alliances.” Wait, what? First of all, the first part is still not really true at all, and he’s now added in another point about international alliances. While many historical nationalists have been reluctant to enter into them, to say that Corbyn’s skepticism of NATO and past supportive statements about Irish republicanism and Argentina’s claims to the Falklands are indicative of British nationalism is just downright absurd. Where is the flag-waving rhetoric here, the jingoism? The context is totally different, and once again, I’m sure Saunders knows this.
Anyway, that’s that particular lie out of the way – I assume that Saunders knows at least something about the last half-century of European history, and is clearly picking his words carefully, so I can only imagine that he’s being willfully dishonest.
He then moves on to the election, and excoriates Corbyn for his choice to not relitigate a referendum his side lost: “[he] did not even mention Brexit in the three-paragraph statement he issued in response to Ms. May’s election call; he instead focused on economic and living-standards issues such as budget cuts to education and health care.” I would suggest to Saunders that these are the issues on which Labour is the most competitive with the Tories compared to the 25-point gap on Europe, and that it makes a certain amount of sense to fight on comparatively favourable ground you’ve chosen rather than the swamp your adversary wants you to jump into.
Later on in the piece, Saunders notes that Corbyn “is widely blamed for having helped create the defeat [for Remain]” in 2016. 65% of Labour voters opted to Remain last year, compared to 68% of ostensibly staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. It is patently ridiculous to me to suggest that the difference between catastrophe and blamelessness is being a hair above or below a solid two-thirds majority. Why not blame David Cameron, the man who called for a referendum for short-term partisan gain in 2013 and then proceeded to win over only 40% of his voters to the Remain camp?
Turning to France, Saunders moans about the “plausible possibility” that the right-wing Marine Le Pen and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon may advance to the head-to-head second round of the French presidential election. He further says that Mélenchon “endorses … withdrawal from the EU.” Which is kind of true – he favours using an exit from the EU as a ‘Plan B’ for leverage in ‘Plan A’ negotiations to reform it, which, frankly, strikes me as a more normal, direct way to negotiate over needed EU reform than David Cameron’s unproductive 2011 efforts and subsequent referendum loss in 2016. It’s not the same thing as Le Pen’s position, which is to unilaterally withdraw from the Euro and then hold a referendum to leave if the EU doesn’t dismantle itself. Saunders, of course, ignores the considerable daylight between the two plans and declares them equivalent.
Saunders laments that “pragmatic centre-left” candidates are on the decline, part of a trend “that has struck France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Britain.” There is a major category error here. Emmanuel Macron’s major achievement as the French economy minister was pretty standard Thatcherite ‘economic reform’ designed to “streamline government organization, increase investment promotion, reduce red tape, and modernize our economy.” In the current election, he’s promised to reinstate compulsory military service, and plans to hire even more police and greatly increase military spending. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats’ leader is the anti-abortion and anti-gay Tim Farron. To cast either Macron or the Lib Dems as paragons of the centre-left is simply laughable. For someone usually so keen on looking under self-applied labels to find the real stuff, Saunders seems oddly prepared to take them at their word.
This taking of major elements of his argument for granted tie back in an ironic way to the central premise of his piece, which is that “nobody has the electoral will or ability to make the case for [EU] membership.” Well, Saunders clearly has the will and ability to make that case in the pages of the Globe and Mail. Conspicuously, he doesn’t.
The EU in this piece appears only on the periphery, the MacGuffin or idealized damsel in distress menaced by a feckless Corbyn or sinister Mélenchon, waiting for a smiling empty suit-of-armour like Macron or Farron to save it.
In reality, it is a deeply flawed institution that, nevertheless, represents a genuinely worthwhile vision of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic continent. It needs more people to make a proactive case for it: Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister (whom you could hardly blame for having soured on the whole thing), has rolled up his sleeves and launched the promising DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) that seeks to democratize the EU.
Saunders is not here to make that case. He is here to punch left, that age-old pastime of smug liberals, by means fair or foul, and his beloved EU is no better off for his efforts.