How a socialist Brexit could reshape Europe

The morning after the general election, the British woke up in a different world. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of recycled socialism was not so unelectable after all; young voters had become an electoral force; and Theresa May’s Conservatives looked hapless and exhausted.

But a major question mark still hangs over Brexit — and more specifically, what the Labour Party’s electoral gains will mean for Britain’s exit from the bloc.

The fundamental debate is no longer a fight between those who oppose Britain leaving the bloc and those who want to rip off the band-aid. The tension lies in different visions of where the country is headed.

In the wake of the June 8 election, the issue now is what to do with Brexit; what kind of society to build using the degrees of freedom that the separation will create. And while May spends time defending Brexit against its opponents, Corbyn is looking further ahead — opposing her brand of Brexit in the name of a more social, more revolutionary version.

May has outlined the vision of a U.K. more free to profit from the global economy and more closely aligned with Donald Trump’s United States in reducing the role of international regulations. Corbyn, meanwhile, sees Brexit as an opportunity to strengthen the role of the state in economic life. The Labour Party wants the state to be the main agent in job creation and the official guardian of families and communities against the winds of global economic forces.

If Corbyn were to take over as prime minister, Brexit could become the vehicle for a movement of socialist renewal.

Corbyn understood this better than anyone else. The Brexit referendum — prompted and promoted by others — left Corbyn with the space he needed to promote a socialist renewal. He drew a sharp distinction between a race-to-the-bottom Brexit and a jobs-first Brexit.

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It’s hardly surprising that the Labour Party made a point of embracing Brexit. After all, so much of its manifesto is in direct violation of European Union law. Corbyn has vouched to regain control over energy supply networks, discriminate against companies that don’t recognize trade unions, and actively support struggling industries through state aid — ideas the European Commission and the European Court of Justice would find very difficult to accept. Only by leaving the EU can the party hope to implement its pledges.

In Brussels, people are wary. Frankly, everything was going well enough. European institutions and member countries were happy with the way Brexit negotiations had been shaping up. They could hardly have asked for a better opponent than a coterie of Conservatives trapped — fairly or unfairly — in the political maze of imperial nostalgia.

Now, they’re not so sure. If Corbyn were to take over as prime minister, Brexit could become the vehicle for a movement of socialist renewal — something that might capture the imaginations of southern Europeans, who have longed for exactly that for years.