Notes From the Margins…

Between Europe and a Hard Place

  • April 24, 2016
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In June the United Kingdom will decide whether or not to remain part of the European Union.   This is obviously a historic decision for the country, and it may have far wider historic implications and consequences for the whole of Europe, even if the gaggle of reactionary Little Englander or rather Great Britainer nationalists, bigots, racists and opportunistic egomaniacs seems largely indifferent to them.

I confess to a great  of ambivalence about the referendum myself.    This isn’t because of the quality of the arguments or the debate or its central campaigns.  You don’t know whether to laugh or weep when you hear the likes of Nigel Farage telling the public that all those pounds that go to Brussels could be used to pay for hospitals or ‘our NHS’,  when Farage favours marketising and privatising the NHS.   And then there are Cameron and Osborne on the other side insisting that  ‘our NHS’ depends on us staying in, when they are no less eager to flog the NHS off to their corporate pals.

So that’s the central contest, ladies and gentlemen; on the one hand Brexit – a campaign that sounds like a crunchy dog’s biscuit,  represented by the likes of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Theresa May, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.   These are names to chill the blood at the best of times, and the thought that they might be empowered by a referendum victory is enough make you want to change your nationality or run weeping to the polling station crying in, in, in.

But then there is Bremain – an equally damp and dismal place that sounds like some lost Tolkeinian kingdom, represented by political hucksters like Cameron, who have lumbered leaden-footed into a referendum they didn’t even want, because their less-than-glorious triumph in limiting in-work benefits for migrant workers wasn’t enough to ease the permanent whining victimhood that keeps  certain Tories writhing in their beds at night.

Beyond this arid quarrel, there are a range of positions that  I have more sympathy with, whether it’s Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement, Corbyn’s Social Europe redux, Greens for a Better Europe, and Lexit.

At this stage I’m inclined to vote for staying in, and not only because I feel more European than British, let alone English – or at least the version of Englishness embodied by the Brexiters.  That doesn’t mean that I have a starry-eyed view of the European Union as a bastion of progressive politics.   Far from it, I think that many of the left’s criticisms of the EU are entirely justified, whether they refer to the lack of democracy and transparency, the EU’s treatment of migrants, or its collusion in the brutal and destructive ‘discipline’ imposed on Greece and other countries during these miserable years of  austerity.

But some leftist criticisms of the EU seem to me rather crude,  and overly optimistic about what the consequences of leaving might be.   Continually referring to the EU as nothing but a ‘bosses club’ entirely minimises the historic importance of the European project in bringing to an end hundreds of years of warfare between European states, culminating in the two most destructive wars in world history.

We might take this achievement for granted now, but after World War II, there was no guarantee it would work.   The European ‘peace project’  was partly made possible by giving European states more reason to cooperate with each other than fight each other, through the development of a common space of free movement of people – as well as goods and capital.

The European Union is the largest and most successful attempt to create a supra-national community in history,   through the abolition of border checks and the painstaking construction of an array of laws and regulations that made it possible for European citizens to live and work anywhere in the continent and enjoy the same rights of residence.

This isn’t simply a question of labour exploitation by a ‘bosses’ club’; in successfully removing physical borders and paper walls that once seemed permanent and impregnable, the European Union showed what can be done elsewhere.   We all know well what the dark side of that ‘borderless’ European project has been, and its consequences for people who are not European citizens, and that deserves all the criticism it gets, and all the resistance that we can generate towards it.

But the positive side of the European project should not be ignored; the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater – especially when the bath is being drained primarily by the right not the left.     The European project that emerged after World II was an elite-driven project for sure, but  men like Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and even Adenauer, Churchill and de Gasperi  had far more vision and intelligence than their successors.

They recognized the destructive forces in European history and attempted to create mechanisms that could contain them, by laying the basis for a post-war (capitalist) community of nations with democracy, human rights and the rule of law as central components of Europe’s new political identity, based on the continent’s best traditions rather than its worst.

Once again, far be it from me to idealise this achievement.   We are, after all, talking about a continent that acquired much of its wealth through colonial conquest and forced labour, a continent  that produced King Leopold’s Congo,   industrialised mass murder, Hitler, Franco and Mussolini.   The European project did  not miraculously transform Europe into the embodiment of the best hopes of humankind – it simply attempted to become something better than it had been,  if only to keep more radical social forces in the continent at bay embodied by the resistance forces that emerged during World War II.

Rightwing Brexiters have no interest in any of this.   Most of them seem incapable of thinking historically at all – except through the lens of post-imperial nostalgia.   But if Britain leaves, it will very likely encourage a revanchist nationalist rejection of the European idea  across the continent to do the same thing, and for the same reasons.

At a time when the right and far right is experiencing an upsurge across the continent, when governments across Eastern Europe are using migration as a catalyst for a return to authoritarianism, I prefer the notion of a supra-national European community based on democratic political values and free movement of people to anything these movements are proposing.

Europe’s treatment of migrants – and not just the most recent response to the ‘migrant crisis’  offers myriad examples of how contingent these achievements have been, and how readily – and how shamefully – European states will depart from them when it suits them.  Indeed,  Europe’s response to migration has been a moral, political and humanitarian disaster, and it may well sink the European project without any help from Brexit.

But the EU does have the kernel of a good idea, whereas the Brexiters have no good ideas at all.  I would prefer to see that kernel take a very different and more genuinely progressive and internationalist form.    There   is a tendency amongst Lexiters to act as if the European Union is entirely responsible for Fortress Europe,   for neoliberalism and austerity.

But   the European Union is still the sum of its states – some states being more powerful than others.   It didn’t decide by itself that non-European migrants would have to cross a lethal gauntlet of obstacles to get to the continent.     European states also reached the same conclusion and acted accordingly.   It isn’t the EU that stops migrants in Calais from reaching the UK – that’s something both Brexiters and Bremainers agree on.   It wasn’t the EU that reached a secret ‘pushback’ agreement with Libya to send back refugees without giving them a chance to apply for asylum – the Italian government did that all by itself.

Even when the EU has tried – pathetically – to ask member states to resettle 160,000 refugees, these quotas were ignored.  So staying in the EU will not – as things stand – do anything to change this situation, but leaving it will not empower it the forces opposed to the ‘fortress’ model.

Some Lexiters have said that predictions of a Brexit ‘carnival of reaction’ have been overdone, and that immigration and racism have not been overt in the debate.  This is disingenuous.   Racism and xenophobia are what made this referendum possible.   Anti-immigrationism has been the driving force behind opposition to the EU for decades. Take that away, and all you are left with is a handful of fake arguments and bitter post-imperial whining about ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’, the loss of national sovereignty and ‘getting our country back’

I cannot stand the prospect of seeing the country cut off politically from the rest of the continent and marooned with these forces.  I supported the Oxi vote, and I would have supported a ‘breakout’ from the Eurozone by Greece and countries seeking to escape austerity.   I still would.   But that isn’t what’s on offer here.   What we have is Farage and Johnson.

Lexit arguments, even when they are good, remain marginal arguments.  If Brexit wins, it will be the right wot wun it.   And I won’t  be part of that.   So I’m staying in, with gritted teeth.

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  1. Tsigantes

    24th Apr 2016 - 1:11 pm

    I can’t believe what I’m reading.

    Clearly you have not understood what has happened in Greece, where I live, and which is coming to the rest of the EU once it is perfected. You do not understand that Britain will be punished royally by the EU once you have voted to stay in, because that is “our” EU way. You are ignoring that 60% of EU’s citizens want out – and their very good reasons for that. And you do not understand that as soon as the next US president is sworn in, CISA and TTiP will be pushed through and whatever quibbles you have now about the NHS will be meaningless as it will be sued out of existence by Big Pharma. The anti-GMO laws will be up-ended too and Monsanto will be free to take over EU agriculture. Our European pretenses to Domaine of Origin will be destroyed forever because it interferes with US rights to call their feta “feta” and their blue cheese “roquefort”…

    On a personal note, I hope you do not have a mortgage or any debts and I hope you have no children to feed or educate because within 5 years you will be on the street or forced to live on 200 GBP/month before stealth and property taxes.

    Britain will be forced into Roman law and Habeas Corpus will no longer exist. Your unwritten constitution will no longer exist either, in the same way that Greece, Portugal’s, Spain’s, Ireland’s, Italy’s etc. were first violated, and then thrown out the window. EU apparatchiks will govern Britain in the same way they Greece and Portugal and the Baltics now and more or less dictate the rules elsewhere. You will still pay for a Potemkin parliament though to keep up the false facade of “democracy” although your vote will count for nothing.

    You clearly don’t understand that the EU is not a loving club of pals but simply the economic arm of NATO, run out of Washington in the sole service of Washington’s strategic and war aims and to profit international corporations, mostly American. The origin of the EU was not Spinelli & co, but Bretton Woods 1945 , alongside GATT, World Bank and IMF.

    I am sorry that you will dismiss my comment as “raving”….yes, I am raving in shock at your reasoning. Your vote FOR shows absolutely zero solidarity with the citizens of the EU and absolutely no understanding of what we are going through. We are praying that Britain Brexit! We are praying for the EU demise! 60% of us look to British citizens to vote OUT and save us from our fate.

    But no, it seems you want to believe all that nonsense about holding hands and Ode to Joy, maybe because it’s so much “nicer” than reality…?

  2. Paul Seligman

    25th Apr 2016 - 7:55 pm

    It’s really hard because both choices on offer are extremely unattractive. I agree with much of what tsigantes has said. I used to be a fan in moderation of EEC because of the role in making internal war unthinkable, as Matt points out. But that is not where we are now. The EU far from improving and reforming becomes ever less democratic. You could abolish the European Parliament and not much would be lost. Yet as Matt also points out, Britain would be leaving EU on a very right wing agenda which would be strengthened by exit. Probably the only principled position is abstention, as argued here (I don’t agree with al the long article, especially the later sections). But if I abstain as an individual it achieves nothing either. And that’s the point – socialist forces in UK are so weak that we are all making individual decisions instead of agreeing a common platform that could be defended.

  3. Tsigantes

    25th Apr 2016 - 11:26 pm

    What peace?

    The EU – briefly EEC in transition – was immediately kickstarted as an accelerated project after the dissolution of the USSR in 1989: up until then it was still the Common Market. This coincided with the secret [as in, unrevealed even today] re-purposing of NATO at the exact moment it should have been shut down. Everything goes back to 1989. Here I recommend you go on the .eu Timeline to follow the speed of construction, starting with 1989. An eyeopener.

    By 1990 Germany had reunited and out of the blue recognized Croatia as a secessionist state – surprising the majority of Croatians who had no idea secession was on the cards – and the illegal “humanitarian” war to destroy neutral, non-aligned Yugoslavia was on. Over 10 years NATO waged war on Yugoslavia so as to re-balkanize the Balkans (divide and rule), including 78 straight days of bombing Serbia and particularly Belgrade, including such *cute* tricks as bombing the national broadcasting centre, hospitals, schools and the Chinese Embassy. Whoops! Fog o’ War!

    The Lisbon Treaty made membership in NATO mandatory with membership of the EU. Formerly neutral countries – Finland, Sweden – are required to keep holding referendums on NATO membership until the answer is YES. Membership in the Euro is also mandatory for all new members with the present opt-outs required to hold referenda as above. (i.e. by staying in, Britain must sacrifice the pound.) Shouldn’t this make it clear that democracy is not in EU’s case a ‘value’ but cosmetic, a plastic mask?

    By 2005 the EU had been enlarged by 16 more countries, i.e. the so-called Warsaw Pact zone, thus NATO fully encircled Russia’s western border. Since almost half of these countries did not meet the criteria and did not receive full or even half of the normal structural aid, it should be clear that the EU is a territory solely defined by Washington’s war aims, not by any internally desired or internally generated logic or development. In 2014 after years of NGO-prepared colour revolution “we” pulled off “our” Maidan coup d’etat in Ukraine using US-supported, Oligarch-funded private Nazi armies. We have destroyed Ukraine, stolen its gold, installed the IMF to sell its assets / cut – ie’reform’ – social welfare; and funded, supplied and lead the Ukrainian army in waging pre-planned civil war on Donbass, causing millions to migrate internally and into Russia. “We” framed Russia with an horrendous air crash and on the basis of a lie, are obliged to kowtow to Washington’s sanctions, thus severely damaging our own economies. Not Washington’s.

    But hey, we’ve now succeeded in extending NATO across Russia’s southwestern ‘underbelly’ while engaging in further ongoing destabilizations further east in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Stans. And now Turkey is on track to be “EU” too: the one and only issue over which Europe dared to resist Washington for 20+ years.

    With Ukraine, Turkey and the under-formation Kurdistan all ‘NATO’, “we” now have tremendous strategic depth to wage war on Russia and at the same time allow the Yinon/Clean Break plan to be completed.

    Meanwhile we – NATO – have also waged illegal foreign war on 7 countries in 13 years and are in year 10 of the transformational New Middle East Plan, [signed by Condaleeza Rice and Olmert in June 2006 in Tel Aviv as official Israel-US-NATO policy] which re-fashions the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan according to Ralph Peters Blood Borders map. “We” are now going into Libya for Round 2 and we’ve surrounded Egypt on 3 sides. “We” [but especially you, the UK] are illegally involved [undercover] in Yemen and using nuclear weapons there: are you aware of that?

    In sum, what is the EU? It is NATO, over which no European country has any control whatsoever. The EU itself is an add-on project for imperial convenience and economic gain: a supposedly ‘federal’ project [that is diplomatic code for a public unprepared for and allergic to loss of sovereignty and statehood] but a federation not of states or provinces (as in the USA or Canada) with provincial rights and local democracy, but a single state consisting of language regions with all “democracy” centered in Brussels. The EU itself – clearly spelled out in both the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties – is a centralised economic realm with no democracy whatsoever, except the pathetic and laughable EU parliament – which until 3 years ago was a completely powerless talking shop but since then has won a right of veto. Like the House of Lords.

    Everything else about the EU – flag, anthem, children’s orchestra, nonexistent bridges & gates on euro bills – is lipstick: an expensive propaganda exercise in an effort to establish a fake emotional legitimacy. Which has failed spectacularly, since even at the height of its “popularity” (toleration is maybe more accurate) – 2006 – only 3% of Europeans identified themselves as being part of the EU. That number has since plunged.

    Sadly it seems that the English Channel/La Manche and the Special Relationship has blinded UK subjects to *our* continental reality. And the UK’s historic enmity toward Russia obscures the fact for British citizens (though not your government) that for continental Europeans a real EU would stretch – to quote DeGaulle – from the Atlantic to the Urals: we see Russia as European by definition, and trade with Russia as normal, desirable and beneficial. For us a real EU would be a trade alliance, never a single state.

    ps DiEM25 is a distraction and sell-out I am sorry (very sorry!) to say. What price “transparency and democracy” in 2025 when TTiP is on track for 2017 and CISA a done deal? I suggest you look into who is funding DiEM25.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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