That there is a lot wrong with the European Union is not in doubt. It has morphed into a lumbering, hubristic leviathan before our very eyes, often displaying the kind of staggering incompetence, not to mention cruelty and abuse of power, associated with empires that have grown too quickly; losing touch not only with reality, but most importantly with its people, as it shambles along in a delusive bubble of its own creation. But it was not always like this.
A potted history of the EU
Back in the eighties, it was a no-brainer that Britain should be a part of the nascent European project. That the Labour Party dared to advocate withdrawal from the EEC in its 1983 ‘suicide note’ was deemed to be further proof that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives were the only competent party to be trusted with the economy. It is now often forgotten that it was Mrs Thatcher (later to succumb to Euroscepticism) who signed the Single Market Act in 1985 – giving us the free movement of capital and people, a neoliberal nirvana. Only a few years later John Major followed up with the Maastricht treaty, which drew out some of the political implications of the ongoing process of the union of European nations, and then took us into what turned into the disaster of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The ever-expanding EU project culminated in the creation of the single currency – something now widely credited with much of Europe’s economic woes. Euroscepticism grew in tandem with the expansion. The European project was growing too fast, said the sceptics, and Britain risked losing what was left of its sovereignty – we were sleepwalking into a ‘superstate’. Even from the very start of the creation of the EU, the Tories had had their naysayers – its right-wingers, who cloaked their ideological objections in an economic rationale. This struck a chord with their doubles on the left who were doing the same thing. These ideologues patiently bided their time as, over the decades, the fantastic success of what is now called the EU slipped into its opposite – vindication of the naysayers’ warnings, at least in their eyes.
Britain was always something of a reluctant partner in this project. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too. After the decline and fall of its empire, Britain was caught following the second world war between the rise of the new superpower, the USA, and the formation of the European power bloc. The former imperial power naturally wanted to retain power and influence in a changing world – but what compromises should it make with rising greater powers, and with which ones? Straightaway we see that worries about the loss of ‘sovereignty’, voiced by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, is at least situated by history. But if it was all as simple as they like to make out, why did Johnson only convert to Brexit after David Cameron’s apparent failure to secure suitable reforms? It’s not as if those reforms were ever going to deliver the kind of sovereignty wished for. Brexiteers argue that, with full sovereignty restored, Britain would be free to do trade deals with all four corners of the globe, but what sort of trade deals would the likes of Johnson and Farage sign us up to? Presumably, ones without the socio-economic protections of the EU – arguably good for businesses, or at least for some of them, but what kind of boon for democracy and ‘sovereignty’ would it represent for the mass of the population? One that is hard to discern, we would wager.
It’s not the economy, stupid
You can argue the toss about the economic trade-offs. As far as it is possible to tell, the boring reality is that the purely economic costs or benefits will probably be marginal either way. The whole question is more a political one. As Paul Mason points out, there are good arguments for wanting to exit the EU, but that doesn’t mean you should actually vote for Brexit. Why? Two words: Boris Johnson. Vote Brexit, get a resurgent Tory right, which will dominate the next period of British politics, and which will use the referendum win as a mandate to pursue ever more extreme Thatcherite polices. It is all very well voting to ‘get your country back’, but you won’t get it back – you’re handing it to the Tory right.
There’s a small ‘c’ conservative argument for staying, too, in that we are gambling with uncertain and potentially big upheavals for at best marginal economic gains. The terms of the withdrawal that Britain will win from the EU are by no means clear at this stage, but could conceivably be punitive – the EU will want to discourage other countries with similar ideas. Britain will want a continuing relationship with Europe, particularly access to the single market – and Europe will to an extent surely want that too. Britain is still one of the biggest and richest economies in the world. But given Britain’s current (at least apparent) hostility to migration and regulation and other conditions imposed by Brussels, how will this be achieved? The devil will of course be in the detail. But this is the real point. Brexiteers are pursuing an ideological agenda, the implications and real consequences of which they cannot be sure of. They are dangerous radicals, not conservatives. They want the benefits of EU membership without the costs. They are not really conservatives at all but have a petit–bourgeois spiv mentality.
Don’t let’s divorce or kick out the kids, let’s talk
Let’s return to the sovereignty question, as this would seem to be something of a trump card for Brexiteers of left and right. It can be seen for the myth it is with an analogy. When an individual decides to get married, they cede a large portion of their personal sovereignty with another person who is doing likewise. Both parties pool sovereignty: what they lose in one aspect, they gain in another. This is only apparently a loss, from a limited and selfish point of view. Actually, the apparent loss is a real gain: both individuals are strengthened by the partnership – the ‘individual’ has been transformed into a higher synthesis. At this point, it would be stupid and counterproductive to continue to insist on your individual rights. All that would do would be to threaten the higher synthesis. You’ll end up back on your own again, back where you started, having gained nothing. As The Economist likes to point out, full sovereignty is not obviously something to be wished for. Nowhere on earth is more sovereign and independent than North Korea.
What would we want this much-prized sovereignty for? The Brexiteers top trump, at least when it comes to connecting with a disaffected populace, is: to control our borders. The UK has entered an arrangement which nominally cedes border control for the right of access to other countries. The Brexiteers’ big beef is that more people in the other countries appear to have taken advantage of this to come here than people in the UK have to go there. This is a partial and hence misleading truth. What has really been happening is that the UK economy has been sucking in some of the most able workers from other EU countries and exploiting them in our more-flexible and hence cheaper labour markets. This has been made possible because of the near collapse of the ‘wage’ following 30 years of Thatcherism. Many indigenous Brits cannot afford to live on the wage a job offers without relying on a relatively generous (soon to be taken away) system of benefits. That this has been a boon to UK business (if not to its workers) is not in doubt. The UK has expanded its economy by raiding poorer countries’ labour forces, at the expense of our own, whilst at the same time having the chutzpah to claim that these very same people are clogging up our hospitals and social services – institutions that are, ironically, most often built and staffed by those very same immigrants.
Increased migration was an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism. This is the economy Thatcher and her successors built – a globalised, neoliberal, free-market utopia – and it explains why large sections of the business community still support EU membership, albeit through gritted teeth. But rather than accepting this reality, the likes of Johnson and Farage want to go a step further. For them, the EU stands in opposition to the kind of neoliberalism they want to see. When they bemoan the EU’s ‘regulations’ and ‘red tape’ what they are tacitly acknowledging are the remains of the social democratic settlement that followed in the wake of the second world war. This settlement was a compromise that recognised the rights of ordinary working people to such things as health, education, housing and a decent wage, if in return working people would recognise the rights of businesses to ply their trade in search of profits. This compromise, now thinned out, still underpins the Single Market, and the likes of Farage and Johnson want to get rid of what remains. The rest of the ‘red tape’ constitutes the legal framework required to underpin any free trading agreement – costs big businesses are happy to take on, but which can be an intolerable burden to smaller ones (a reason in itself why big businesses are happy to take them on). So when the Brexiteers light a bonfire under EU red tape, we can assume that any new such arrangements they come up with will be just as bureaucratic and costly (if not more so, minus the social protections we currently enjoy). What kind of free-trading paradise would you expect when when a desperate UK led by the blonde opportunist starts renegotiating our trading position with the likes of Trump or authoritarian states such as China?
At least some of the Brexit people have bigger dreams. They believe that a referendum victory will lead to a series of referendums in other EU states, thereby destroying the EU leviathan by stealth and turning Europe into a group of free associating and freely trading democractic nations – a kind of anarcho-capitalism, in fact. This is almost certainly a dangerous illusion and makes Cameron’s overheated warnings about world war seem all the more plausible. As the Remainers rhetorically point out, about the only foreign power praying for Brexit is Vladimir Putin – there’s nothing that would suit his geopolitical strategy more than the break-up of the power blocs currently frustrating his ambitions. This is not to say that there will be chaotic break up and war in the event of Brexit – but given the uncertainties, and the continent’s still recent history, conservative caution would seem sensible. There’s nothing very wrong with utopian dreaming, but beware the fanatics who are in a rush to impose their vision on a recalcitrant reality. Afghanistan and Iraq provide sobering lessons for those who are in a hurry to engage in utopian state-destruction and social engineering. The hope there was that ‘liberal democracy’ would spontaneously emerge from the rubble; what we actually saw was tribalism, sectarianism and corruption, to mention nothing worse, emerging in the power vacuum of these failed states. Utopian Brexiteers, whether of the free trading or socialist variety, should be careful what they wish for.
The EU does of course need to change, and the best way for progressive forces to help bring about democratic change is for Britain to remain a member. Being outside will leave us with no control over events occurring on our doorstep and will not return any meaningful sovereignty. Warnings from the likes of the Bank of England and the IMF should be heeded. The only likely result of a win for the Brexit campaign is a carnival of reaction in this country – and perhaps worse in the countries on our borders. That many people want to leave the EU is entirely understandable, however. The EU needs to wake up to the simple fact that its current course is unsustainable. Let’s hope the UK’s referendum goes the right way – for Remain – but that the EU learns a lesson from all the millions of ordinary people who are clamouring for the exits.