Why the EU sucks – and why I’ll vote to remain in it
It’s decision time for the UK. Either we vote to stay in the European Union, and face the rise of Hitler-style totalitarianism, or we leave and risk lurching into world war. The agony of choice. Leaving will also mean a spike in food prices, economic collapse and an end to cheap flights to the continent. Staying in, on the other hand, will mean being overrun by shifty foreigners, losing our sovereignty to a growing “EU super-state” and a continuation of the national scandal that is the regulation of banana sales. These visions of the UK’s future come a month before voting takes place in the referendum, set to take place on 23 June. By the time of the vote, we will probably have been told that leaving the EU will hand control of the British Isles over to the Islamic State, and that voting to remain will mean a ban on tea bags. The only constant is that we will remain part of the Eurovision song contest. Let’s fight one battle at a time.
Iconic in this storm of nonsense is former London mayor, and wannabe next prime minister, Boris Johnson. Johnson is the key proponent of the leave position, having jumped on the bandwagon after months of dithering. Just two years ago he would write, "It was [Winston Churchill’s] idea to bring those countries together, to bind them together so indissolubly that they could never go to war again - and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success? Together with Nato the European Community, now Union, has helped to deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors." By May of this year, he had changed his tune somewhat, telling journalists, "The argument we might broadly call the peace-in-Europe argument – that the EU is associated with 70 years of stability, and we need to stay in to prevent German tanks crossing the French border…is wholly bogus."
That about sums up the level of political honesty at the heart of the campaign – with people like Johnson using the issue as part of a career path, like when he ran London on a part-time basis while writing a column for the Telegraph (for £250,000 – a sum he described as “chickenfeed”) and authoring a biography of Winston Churchill (a thinly disguised attempt to draw parallels between himself and the wartime prime minister, from which his above pro-EU statement was taken). Just as being London Mayor was essentially an opportunity to enhance his CV, campaigning for an EU leave vote is a gamble that he hopes will lead to him landing David Cameron’s job. Either that or he truly believes in what he is saying – the only problem with that idea is that, like Donald Trump, he tends to perpetually contradict himself, resorting to blustering like a schoolboy who didn’t do his homework when he’s called up on it. “Hahaha, #ClassicBoris!” (That's not the only Trumpish thing he's been doing. He also made racist remarks against Barack Obama and even tried to whip up a crowd to stop a live TV news broadcast.)
Then there’s Cameron, who is leading the charge for the remain camp. He is busy doing his best to convince voters that staying inside the EU is the best way to screw people over. If we were outside the EU, we might miss out on exploitative trade deals and see a collapse in house prices (which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you own a house). It’s also the best way to keep out pesky migrants and invade other countries, two favourite pastimes of our political elite.
On this playing field of debate, it can feel at times like a choice between catching cholera or syphilis. The focus on teams Cameron and Johnson frames the entire discussion in the context of a Tory civil war, which in many ways it is. Tory politicians have dominated the campaign in the press, which is generally pro-Brexit. The referendum was called as a way of placating the Tory right, and those beyond it in groups like the UK Independence Party, with the belief that a vote to remain would prevail. For this reason, the arguments are generally over issues that would appeal to Tory supporters, although the need to draw in those on the left has been recognised in both sides’ campaigning to “save the NHS” (currently being eviscerated by the same Tory government).
So what about the rest of us? It seems like a no-brainer that left wing/progressive people should support the UK’s continued membership of the EU. For one thing, the union allows people from EU countries to live, work and, in most cases, enjoy the benefits of the welfare state in whichever country they go to. It is the antithesis of little Englandism, of keeping the country closed off, monocultural and boring. But it’s not as simple as that, because the EU is about more than that.
The EU is a trading block, first and foremost, and a ruthless one at that. Its trade liberalism meant that German and French banks could push risky loans on Greece, and then reduce the country to crisis point as they picked up their returns. It’s the European Central Bank and the European Commission that pushed such severe austerity on the country, one of many to suffer forced economic policies without regard of who their elected governments were or what they wanted to do. Starving kids and un-stocked Greek hospitals are neither here or there. The controversial Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, which would allow corporations to sue countries that implemented policies that harm their profits, was negotiated largely in secret by the EU, yet when it takes effect it will override any elected government in Europe. Other EU rules encourage privatisations and explicitly forbid taking industries into public ownership. In the EU, money talks, and far louder than democracy.
Much of the discussion over the EU has been about migration. The latest induced panic from the Brexiteer Tories and the right wing press is that Turkey is going to join the union, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This was the subject of an editorial in The Telegraph, titled, “We need to talk about immigration”, a statement as redundant as saying “We need to talk about Game of Thrones” in a staff canteen. Aside from the fact that Turkey is not likely to join the EU any time soon (and that all member states have to agree to its membership), the subtext is clear. Leading Brexiteers have also now called for EU migrants to be accepted to the UK only on an “Australian style points-based system”.
But the EU has hardly been the champion of migrant rights that it is being made out to be. Quite the opposite. Fortress Europe relies on the free movement of people within it, but also on the exclusion of many coming from outside. The EU deal with Turkey over refugees, for example, means that for every person deported to Turkey from Greece, one person from Turkey can settle in the EU. It’s a deal that has led many refugees to search for even more dangerous routes into Europe, and has left tens of thousands of desperate people languishing in refugee camps in Greece.
These are all good reasons to take this opportunity to deal a blow to the EU, and if circumstances were different I would be all for exit. If a sizeable number of internationalists were agitating for a leave vote, with a central demand being for the continued free movement of people between countries, including those from outside the EU, then that would be one thing. But we don’t have that. A victory for the Brexiteers would be perceived by the vast majority of people as a victory for the hard-right of the Tory party, the celebrations would be from far-right groups on the periphery, and it will embolden them to go even further.
Looking at the Vote Leave website, the implications of the right-led Brexit come chillingly into focus: “If we vote remain on 23 June, we as a nation will remain powerless to control EU migration into our country, no matter how great the impact is on our schools and hospitals!” A bit rich coming from the very people who are perpetually attacking the NHS. We can assume from this that the forces driving this campaign will have to try and make good on this demand to make coming to the UK even more difficult. It’s little wonder that so many EU migrants into Britain are fearful for their future.
I know, and respect, many people arguing for a left wing Brexit – or “Lexit” – and these voices should not be written off. It is a principled internationalist position. They will generally argue that the free movement of people around Europe is essential to British capitalism – in or out of Europe – and that deals will be quickly worked out to retain this in future. Would big agricultural companies really sack their entire migrant staff? Or central London coffee shops? Almost certainly not. But maybe it will be seen as an excuse to make their lives difficult, remove their rights to any sort of social welfare, and give them an extra set of hurdles in everyday life. Of course, we can try to resist that. And perhaps, yes, Brexit would be the final nail in the coffin for Tory unity, destroying them for a generation on an electoral basis. Perhaps, or perhaps not.
The UK leaving the EU might be the first domino to fall, reducing the EU to a chapter of history and leaving open a route to forge something much better. Or, on the other hand, it might convince EU leaders that they need to be even harsher on migrants and workers rights because their perceived softness on those issues is what caused Britain to leave. The EU lets Syrians drown in the Mediterranean. Yes, but will that really stop if Brexit wins? Or will we replace Fortress Europe with Fortresses Europe and Britain?
If I lived in Texas, where a small number of Republicans want to secede the state from the union, I would probably vote against them. That’s not out of any love for the American regime, it’s just that the alternative, in these circumstances, would be worse. In contrast, I support Scotland’s bid to free itself from the UK, largely because the argument is being made on a progressive basis. In some ways that seems contradictory, but context is important in this sort of situation.
I wouldn’t hold any hope in the EU being reformed, lacking decent democratic structures as it does, and I hope that one day we can enjoy a truly social Europe away from the EU as it is today. I hope when that happens that we as a continent will do more to welcome those coming from outside, perhaps even desire unity with them on the basis of people and not profits. That’s something we can all fight for. But if the UK votes to leave the EU this time there won’t be the choice of ticking that box. Internationalists, the left and anti-racists will have their votes anonymously mixed into the piles of ballot papers which will be used by the right to strengthen their own hand.
But one thing is for sure. Whichever way the vote goes, campaigning over issues like migrant rights, democratic accountability and austerity will be vital. Just as the factions within the mainstream debate are essentially two sides of the same coin, so must we be in the challenges we face ahead.
Cover image: Police guard the 'Jungle' refugee camp in Calais. Much of the coverage of the EU referendum has focused on immigration.