I’ve tended to be quite ambivalent about the EU in the past. But I now find myself pretty passionate about staying in. I wanted to articulate why.
One thing to get out of the way first. If conventional economics are your thing then the economic arguments for the UK staying in the UK are overwhelming. Even som’eone without much economic expertise – like our Chancellor, say – can see that. Conventional economics is clearly a load of cobblers though. Look at what a complete mess it’s making of, well, everything; it’s a mix of ideology (the invisible hand of the market will work for the common good? Yeah, right!), guesswork (cos trickledown will definitely happen) and a ridiculously unscientific attitude to growth and the planet’s resources. So I’m moving on to the more serious stuff right away.
I believe that decisions should be made as locally as is sensible and practical. One might think that that would suggest not getting involved in large international bodies that can make laws that affect everyday life. But actually the logical conclusion is that if some decisions should be local then some should be national, some continental and some global. Even though the UN is a bit pants, it’s obvious that such a body is needed. If only it were more effective, in fact. And if – if – we want to trade, work and travel freely in the EU area, then it’s just plain sensible to regulate those areas at a continental level.
At which point it becomes clear that, if that’s to happen, we should be part of the law-making process. Obviously we should. Plus the EU can (to an extent) keep a relatively clear head on the key issues of human rights and the environment, while national governments are rocked by waves of stupid right-wing populism. And oh boy! how much those UKIP types (including Tory UKIP types) hate human rights and the environment, at least when it comes to any restrictions on their specific favourite freedoms, namely (a) the freedom to be a total money-driven, bigoted, pompous, patriarchal, self-interested little Englanders and (b) the freedom from taking any responsibility for the consequences of being total money-driven, bigoted, pompous, patriarchal, self-interested little Englanders.
Let’s not even start on the European Convention on Human Rights and how utterly bonkers their ideas about that are. They don’t even seem to know what it is.
Going back to more useful expressions of liberty than the freedom to be an arse without consequences, do we actually want any guarantee over the freedoms of trade, work and travel that European cooperation offers? Freedoms, which, of course, come conveniently packaged with a regulatory system (that’ll be the EU) to keep them fair? Do we want to have a say in what they are and how they’re controlled and managed? Surely on the whole we do, even though some aspects of trade are problematic; the brutal bottom line is that only reason to limit our control over our own freedoms is if that’s a price worth paying to stem internal EU immigration.
Ah, immigration. Am I really writing about immigration?
OK, lets do this. The way the Leave campaign is spreading lies about the impacts of immigration doesn’t really need taking apart, it’s such transparently racist rubbish. Sure, immigration can’t be completely unlimited forever. OK you guys, with your stripes ties and your horribly warped definition of common sense, you’ve got a point there. This island is only so big. So maybe at some point in the 22nd Century we might have to take stock, although probably we’ll be the migrants then. Have you seen what sea-level rises will do to the UK? Specially the east coast. UKIP really needs to be change tack over climate change if it wants to keep its voters from drowning. Anyway…
As things stand, we still have plenty of space and if we can shed crazed Thatcherite doctrine we’ll have enough housing too. Plus EU migrants contribute far more than they take out. In fact, migration as a whole does. Any losses, while grotesquely and irresponsibly exaggerated by the right-wing Leave camp, are massively outweighed by the benefits. Plus it works both ways – we get to develop diabetes on the Costa del Sol and benefit from free Spanish healthcare. If we want. Or even actually work or study abroad.
But… it’s not smooth sailing. We can’t pretend that increased immigration due to open EU borders is always going to be an easy and smooth process. We need to make the people who are already don’t feel marginalised, that is actually fair enough because no-one should feel marginalised. We need to make sure that newcomers are properly supported. We also have to make sure that there are not potentially destabilising mass movements of people. If large amounts of the brightest people leave poorer countries, for example, then that poverty becomes more entrenched.
Punitive measures like cutting benefits to migrants won’t solve that though. They just punish individuals. Losing the freedom to work across the EU is too big a price to pay. So what do we do? The thing is, it’s not like the rest of the EU doesn’t care about the impacts of migration, external or internal: these are issues we all face, and we can and should deal with them collectively.
(Plus, on the subject of borders, we’re not in Schengen. So security isn’t an issue either. Well, it is, but it’s nothing to do with EU membership.)
Another favourite Eurosceptic gripe is sovereignty. There’s really no issue of this being lost – it’s not even on the table. The EU only deals with those things that are relevant to Europe-wide co-operation; regardless of the number of laws made, Westminster shapes our lives far more in practice. Not that I care much for the notion of national sovereignty, but it is the right level for a great many decisions (not least as parliamentary constituencies are about as big as you can get before the elected representative can’t really have a detailed engagement with the area). To be honest, I wouldn’t want to hand over any more power without a major reform of the EU. And Cameron, in his recent deal, did remove the UK from any commitment to further integration. Which was sensible, actually, given the circumstances. The rest was awful. Let’s face it, what a wasted opportunity for genuine democratic reform his would-be UKIP-appeasing negotiations actually were! But these issues aren’t about our sovereignty, which remains fundamentally intact. They’re about democracy.
Cos let’s face it, the EU isn’t as democratic as it should be. Still, it’s not as bad as all that; even the infamous unelected commissioners are actually chosen by elected governments to represent them. And really, if we had direct elections for our commissioner, probably only about seven people would turn up to vote. Moreover, EU laws do ultimately have to be passed by directly elected representatives. Also, there are national vetoes and other structures to keep the system from imposing unwanted laws. There’s room for improvement, sure, but the bigger problem lies elsewhere; it’s that the system as a whole serves the neoliberal consensus, and the neoliberal consensus is shit. On a stick. Well it’s not, cos at least you can burn dung for fuel or use it as fertiliser. Anyway, yep, we all know it’s true: the EU does do Satan’s work. Just look at the appalling retribution meted out to Greece for exercising some democratically-mandated independence of economic thought.
But the thing is, this is where we’re at as civilisation; if our values change, so will our institutions. That’s how we have to make change happen. You might be tempted to use Brexit to give EU neoliberalism a kick in the teeth but nobody’s going to notice. The symbolism of a Brexit vote is determined by the majority of the people vote for it. No, neoliberalism has to be discredited as an idea. Otherwise it’s a hydra; every fallen institution will simply be replaced. On the other hand, think of the impact if we can change the ideology. That’s about us, taking responsibility. It sounds like hard work but with the EU and national governments we’re talking about fair-to-moderately democratic institutions, and if we want democracy then we have accept that it’s our job as actual citizens to bring about change. Exposing the fraud of neoliberalism and winning the argument for a truly democratic, egalitarian and ecological* alternative is where the struggle is at, and the EU will follow. And that needs to happen on a much bigger scale than Europe.
It’s going to have to kick-off unilaterally in Europe though, isn’t it? I don’t mean only in Europe; all over the world change is coming. Too bloody slowly to stop the biosphere suffering irrevocable damage, but still. It’s coming. By unilateral I mean that we can’t wait around. We have the fewest excuses. Not only cos we started this nightmare (and yes I do mean colonialism and the Industrial Revolution) but because we have a pretty unique mix of wealth, privilege and well-established left-wing/Green movements. Getting out the EU won’t help; staying involved could, if we play it right, give us a bigger voice, more influence, and the kind of organisation that can make actual change happen. Leaving the EU would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Take my own party, the UK Greens (on whose behalf I am definitely not writing). It’s not just that the European Parliament gives us more seats than Westminster, and therefore a louder voice; it connects us to a European-wide party, and the Green-European Free Alliance grouping, linking us to countries in which the Greens and similarly-minded progressives are much stronger and thereby giving us much more of a voice at an international level. Right-wing parties don’t need those links. Leaving won’t hurt them. Progressive/Green parties do and it will.
The EU is also, for all its neoliberal bullying, less of a neoliberal bully than the US, and slightly less bad at regulating the worst excesses of capitalism. Opposition to TTIP has been pan-European and the EU hasn’t been totally unresponsive to that. The US, even under Obama, has been a pretty malign influence on the world. Now think what it’d be like under Trump. Cos, unlike Obama, Trump actually wants to be malign. And then think where we’d be post-Brext, trying to suck up to the US having lost influence in Europe. Not EU but euw.
There are two versions of what we are: a rich nation on the edge of Europe with a major role in the EU (and thus the world) hanging in the balance, or a deluded former colonial power with a former special relationship with the US and resentment towards is nearer neighbours, tragically unable to come to terms with a changing world order. Both are true. One is clearly better. The right-wing Leave camp want to make Britain great again and will do the opposite. We’d end up as a small, unwelcoming nation on the wrong side of the Atlantic, isolated from our European left-wing allies and dangerously close both to the European right and whatever insanity is unfolding in the US.
The right is on the rise, hard to digest as that is. It’s on the rise even while there are people still living who remember the terrible impact of Fascism in Europe. And it’s largely rightwing populism that’s fuelling the Leave campaign here. I know one should decide purely on the case in hand, and not the political ramifications, but it’s a cold hard fact that a victory for Leave would be a massive boost for the nationalist right across Europe. UKIP and its Tory allies espouse an infantile yet highly popular mix of racist nationalism and market fundamentalism. They believe in deregulation to the point of scrapping human rights and environmental protections. Read between the lines and they also believe that languages other than English shouldn’t be heard on our streets, that Britishness basically means being white and that non-British folk are a drain on resources and not really full human beings. While there are of course decent left-wing arguments for leaving the EU, the political situation is what it is, with Trump in the US and the right seizing power across Europe. A victory for Brexit would not only mean the loss of many freedoms; it’d mean rightwing populism in the ascendant, neoliberalism unchallenged, and progressive/Green politics in the UK weakened and isolated.
*Oh come on, we all know deep down that ecoscocialism is the only rational stance.