It’s unusual for me to sit on the fence about any important political issue. But the decision whether to remain in or leave the EU has been a uniquely long and complex one, full of contradictions and riddled with doubt — hence the inordinate length of time it’s taken to write this piece. I’m not alone, though: it seems that many voters won’t decide how to vote until the last minute. Just to be clear, the aim of this post isn’t to present a balanced evaluation of the debate, issue by issue; it simply reflects on the particular concerns and predicaments that guided this most conflicted of decisions.
For quite a while now, I’ve felt that leaving the EU represents the most democratic, optimistic and progressive option. So it’s been uncomfortable and frustrating to say the least when people equate this position with lining up alongside the ranks of xenophobes and flag-waving nationalists. For me, nothing could be further from the truth.
It was at university — studying European politics and German — that doubts about the EU began to creep in. At that time, the early 1990s, ‘Europe’ was all about Maastricht and the freedom to travel, and I was set to study for a year abroad — a great privilege. But a closer look at European integration cast the EU in a rather different light: as a force for capital accumulation, privatisation and capitalist exploitation, and structured on inherently undemocratic institutions. Nor were these just abstract critiques; time and time again, the growing suspicions were confirmed. And one image that made a lasting impression (unlike the film’s title, sadly!) portrayed an imagined EU of the future, with a unified EU army lined up and ready to open fire on people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, fleeing war, hunger and environmental catastrophe brought about by global warming. How long will that remain mere fiction?
welfare and employment
So let’s focus on the issues. The Remain campaign has repeatedly flagged EU welfare and employment rights — the maximum working week, a minimum of four weeks’ paid annual leave, for example — as positive reasons to stay. After all, what would happen to these basic rights were the UK to leave the EU? Under the current government, it’s anybody’s guess. Yet there are huge numbers of EU citizens who are underemployed, in precarious working relationships, unsocial ‘mini-jobs’, in (self-exploitative) pseudo self-employment and on zero-hours contracts, taking any work they can find and at any price. Where is their maximum working week and paid holiday? Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that, due to the economic impact of Brexit, we could expect another year or so of austerity. Would that be the same austerity we’ve endured for the last six years — inside the EU? The point is, it feels like ‘social Europe’ has diminished to the extent that it is now little more than a myth (see ‘Catastroika’, below).
TTIP and CETA
Another key Remain argument underlines the importance of the Single Market for the success of the UK economy. And this seems a reasonable point if we want to guarantee markets for UK businesses. But how far down the road to ‘harmonisation’ are we headed, and do we even have a choice? Here, of course, I’m thinking about the TTIP deal with the United States and CETA, the deal with Canada currently awaiting ratification (see also ‘Fighting TTIP, CETA and ISDS: Lessons from Canada’, below). Both place the interests of corporations and privatisation over democracy, and threaten a race to the bottom for fundamental food safety, environment, animal welfare and employment standards in the EU, USA and Canada, while the negotiations themselves are elitist, secretive and undemocratic. It’s simply not good enough to make details available online — many people haven’t heard of TTIP and probably even fewer are aware of CETA’s existence; neither has featured prominently in the EU referendum campaign, let alone in the televised ‘debates’. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive answer as to where the UK would stand in the event of a Leave vote — whether we’d be sucked in anyway or pushed to the ‘back of the queue’. But either way, the very fact that the EU has embarked on these deals at all deepens my scepticism of the Union as an institution we should want to be any part of.
The late Tony Benn warned that power is lent to MPs and should be returned undiminished — it isn’t theirs to give away. In a 2001 parliamentary debate he also famously set out his five questions to people in power: “’What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.” These oft-cited questions really cut to the heart of the matter: democratic accountability. Throughout the EU debate, Remain campaigners have argued, ‘Ah, but the European Parliament is elected by proportional representation, which is far more democratic than Westminster’s first-past-the-post system and unelected upper chamber!’ Well, that’s true, of course, so it’s up to us as UK citizens to sort out our own electoral system. Reforming the (mostly unelected) EU institutions, however, is another kettle of fish altogether — a point Jenny Jones of the Green Party convincingly makes in this excellent article. But it’s not ‘just’ about voting out unpopular governments and individual MPs — what about getting rid of the ideas that made them unpopular in the first place? Well, German Finance Minister Schäuble left little doubt as to the value of democracy in the EU when he said, “New elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into (…). Any new government must stick to the contractual agreements of its predecessors” (BBC). In other words, you can vote for change, but we reserve the right to completely ignore your democratic voice.
but wait a minute…
All in all, these obstacles regarding the EU — its capitalist character and locked-in neoliberal trajectory, the threats posed by TTIP/CETA, the inherently undemocratic institutions and an elite that disregards democracy — point very clearly to a Leave vote. So why the indecision?
Well, I’ve just spent a week in the UK and witnessed the EU debate first hand. And a lot of it is absolute poison. More of which shortly, but first let’s focus on some positives.
The Green Party has made a refreshingly positive contribution to the Remain debate (#GreenerIN), focusing strongly on the environmental aspect, including climate change, clean beaches, air pollution and wildlife protection.
What’s more, while the Greens’ official position is to give critical support to remaining, some members have adopted a different position, preferring either a Leave vote or a principled abstention.Thankfully, though, there has been no Green replica of the tawdry ‘blue on blue bun-fight’ that’s tearing apart the Tories. So despite natural scepticism towards the EU, I’ve found myself increasingly receptive to these measured, evidence-based environmental arguments. In addition, leading conservation organisations, such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth, have also carried out a fair, balanced assessment of the EU, including the obvious weaknesses (FoE, for example, cites the unsustainable Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies). Both organisations conclude that, on the whole, despite these serious flaws, nature is safer within the EU (see also ‘What’s in it for Nature’, below).
what about TTIP/CETA?
They are still undoubtedly toxic. But a couple of points need to be weighed up. First, the cat is finally out of the bag and activists across the EU are mobilising energetically against TTIP. Gradually, CETA too is getting some attention — although sadly not in the EU debate. Secondly, let’s assume we choose to leave. Not only is it unclear whether the UK will be included in these trade agreements, but also, in the rush to secure alternative markets for UK businesses, our government of the day will embark on negotiating a series of new bilateral agreements. We have absolutely no idea what rights and protections will be traded away. And my fear is that, buoyed by a Brexit vote, it’ll be the Right that plots the political course, with all the horror scenarios that implies for our NHS, employment rights, environmental protection and animal welfare.
the poison at the heart of the Leave campaign
“When you look at the Leave campaign, it is beginning to sound very much like Farage’s Britain. They’ve bought into the Farage argument that everything’s disastrous. When they say take the country back, I think sometimes they mean take the country backwards to when it was the sick man of Europe. In Farage’s case, immigrants are demonised as being rapists and all the rest of what comes with Farage’s Britain.” That was David Cameron in a recent Observer interview, and on this particular point, I have to concur with the PM.
I know that people, and above all the working class, have real concerns about immigration, particularly in relation to public services and housing. However — and this is where any common ground with Cameron abruptly ends — let’s not lose sight of the fact that these crises in services, hospitals, housing, jobs and schools are largely attributable to wilful and ideologically-driven political acts against the poor and most vulnerable in our society. And blaming immigration distracts us from the real culprits — our own government (and its predecessors). Much of the rhetoric surrounding this issue has been literally sickening; moreover, it threatens to become more ‘acceptable’ and deeply rooted in public discourse if ‘justified’ by a Brexit vote. I simply cannot countenance my socialist, pro-democracy Leave vote being falsely claimed as a mandate for this bigoted malice. And that’s a big problem.
a class issue
I strongly believe class is a major factor in this referendum, and that the Left — and the Labour Party in particular — has been overshadowed on both sides. Had Labour prevented the anti-immigration ‘ownership’ of Brexit, there might have been a broader, stronger and more progressive argument for leaving. After all, you could argue that the Tories won’t be in government forever (especially if Labour finally supports PR), and what an opportunity it would be to shape a more social, sustainable, democratic and caring Britain. The reality, though, is sadly different: the Leave campaign preys on fear and propagates intolerance. In this final week, as the Remain campaign appears to falter, I sincerely hope that we will see less of Cameron and more of Jeremy Corbyn. Socialist and openly critical of the EU, Corbyn and the Momentum grassroots movement now represent the last hope of stopping a right-wing-driven Brexit, and of making a credible, progressive and class-based argument to remain. And make no mistake: a Leave vote would almost inevitably be followed by a Scottish vote for independence in a last-ditch effort for Scotland to remain in the EU. The Scottish seats Labour has recently lost would be gone forever — consigning Labour to long-term opposition and the rest of us to the prospect of further Tory governments and the continued assaults on the NHS, welfare state, education, public services — and the working class.
and the vote goes to…
My conscience still warns that the EU is undemocratic and threatens our rights and social security. But equally, the cynical exploitation of working class fears, the prospect of a nastier Britain and almost certainly more neoliberal austerity and hardship are also matters of conscience. And that’s why I intend — reluctantly and critically — to vote ‘Remain’ next Thursday. I hope I won’t regret it.
Some insights that helped along the way — please take a look:
Catastroika: Privatisation Goes Public: In this 2012 documentary Naomi Klein, Slavoj Žižek et al. explain neoliberal mass privatisation, attacks on democracy and the systematic impoverishment of populations (including Greece, German unification, UK, Russia).
Fighting TTIP, CETA and ISDS: Lessons from Canada: This short video by canadians.org warns Europeans of the dangers posed by the trade agreements, drawing heavily on Canada’s own bitter experience of NAFTA, its ‘partnership’ with the USA and Mexico.
What’s in it for Nature?: The RSPB presents its case studies and findings on the EU referendum. Contributions include statements from Caroline Lucas (Green Party MP — Remain) and George Eustice (Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment — Leave). While the RSPB doesn’t tell anyone how to vote, its own analysis suggests that wildlife is better protected within the EU.
Image credits: What has the EU done for the environment and What has the EU done for animals? and other #GreenerIN campaign images can be found at https://www.greenparty.org.uk/europe-resources.html