Between Europe and a Hard Place

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.

Cruel Britannia: Light Unto the Nations

This week, while our valiant prime minister was ‘battling for Britain’ amongst the bloodsucking Euro-hordes in Brussels, the Home Office approved the deportation of a 92-year-old South African widow who is blind in one eye.   These two events are not as unrelated as they might seem.  One of the key demands in Lord Snooty’s ‘battle’ in Brussels consists of persuading Britain’s fellow-EU members to restrict in-work and out-of-work benefits to European migrant workers and their families, and such actions are the stuff of patriotism in these bleak times.

So too is the deportation of 92-year-old Myrtle Cothill.  Cothill has been a widow for forty years, and for most of that time she lived in South Africa on her pension, with additional support from her friends and her local church.   When she became older and frailer she moved to the UK to be cared for by her daughter.   Cothill has an enlarged heart, poor hearing and she has lost the sight in one eye because of macular degeneration.  She costs the British state nothing and receives a £300 a month pension, but she is nevertheless physically and emotionally dependent on her family in England.

Despite this, the Home Office rejected her application to remain in the UK last December, on the grounds that her ‘condition was not deemed to be life-threatening’ and that ‘suitable medical treatment’ was available in South Africa, in the form of the Red Cross.  Cothill has been in the country since February 2014 -two years after changes in British immigration law drastically restricted the ability of adult dependent relatives to enter the UK.

Last October her application for leave to remain in the country on human rights grounds was rejected by an immigration tribunal, which declared that she had ‘obtained entry to the United Kingdom by deception, and that she and her daughter arranged their affairs with the deliberate intention of making her removal difficult.’

The tribunal vice-president declared that ‘Evidently neither of them is a person of credit and there is no reason why they should be believed…about the appellant’s circumstances.’ One can only assume from this judgement that Myrtle Cothill is not really 92 but a lot younger, that she can see with both eyes and she doesn’t have an enlarged heart, and that she does not require the emotional and physical care that a 92-year-old woman might need from her daughter.

Above all we should disregard her daughter’s insistence that ‘ My mother is in a terrible state.  She is just shaking and shaking….She should be with her family.  The heartbreak of leaving us at her age could finish her off and finish me off too.’

Of course no red-blooded British patriot  can  allow such blatant sentimentality and emotional blackmail to cloud their judgement, and we have learned again and again these last years that none of our institutions is more patriotic than the Home Office.

So on Tuesday a Home Office immigration enforcement officer informed Cothill that she was booked on Virgin Atlantic flight VS601 next Tuesday.   Cothill’s immigration adviser has described this decision as ‘contrary to every human instinct or duty to care for our elders’, but we have long become a country where human instincts that were once taken for granted have been revisited and reassessed according to other criteria, such as their cost to the taxpayer, or ‘hardworking families’ or simply British citizens per se.

Nowhere have these instincts been more conspicously absent than in our collective attitude towards the immigrants who have had the temerity to come to our shores.   I say collective, even though there are millions of people in this country who would be genuinely shocked and appalled if they were aware of the Cothill deportation and so many other similarly brutal decisions that have been taken over the years.   But these are not the people who are driving our viciously barbaric immigration policy, and they are not the people Lord Snooty is ‘battling’ for in Brussels.

Both Cameron’s flagwaving and the Home Office’s latest demonstration of ‘toughness’ are intended to placate a rightwing press that eats xenophobia as its daily bread.   Politicians – and Tory politicians in particular – have colluded with the tabloids in inciting that section of the British public that is most selfish, most paranoid, and steeped to its dismal core in hatred and contempt towards  everything foreign.

Let no one be fooled by the fact that some of the most rabidly anti-immigrant tabloids have supported Cothill – whose father fought in the British army in World War I.  For these patriots individual cases are generally eclipsed by the generic portrayal of immigrants as parasites, terrorists, health tourists, rapists or invaders who take something away from ‘our people’,  unless they play in the Premier League.

Dripping with bile and whining victimhood about all the evils that immigration has perpetrated on our kindly, generous nation, these voices have drowned and smothered the better instincts of the British population, to the point  when the state is able to present  even the most egregious acts of cruelty as just another routine demonstration of rigour  and implacability in ‘defending our borders.’

The Cothill deportation is one more example of our vertiginous descent. Of course it’s shameful and disgraceful that our government should be even considering the deportation of a half-blind, 92-year-old woman.

But this is what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.  It’s what we’ve allowed our government to do in our name, and perhaps the most terrifying thing about it is that we don’t even seem to realize how shameful and disgraceful it really is.





R.I.P Europe

I’ve just come back from a week’s hiking in the Pyrenees. When I left for the mountains I knew that the European Union was in poor health.  By the time I came down four days later it was dead.  The cause of death is open to question.   Was it a deliberate act of collective suicide?   Or an accidental death, inadvertently carried out by a cruel, fanatical and clueless leadership that was simply too blinkered, too stupid, and too abjectly submissive to the financial institutions that have inflicted such catastrophic ruin on so many countries to keep the Union alive?

Was it homicide-by-banker?  Or did the Union finally succumb to  a long illness, whose symptoms have been evident for some time?    Whichever the verdict, the Greek crisis is the catalyst that historians will one day analyse in their future post mortems.   But I can’t say I saw this coming.   On the contrary, the resounding Greek rejection of the Troika’s latest bailout package left me feeling moderately optimistic that the Oxi vote might galvanize Syriza and the European left in general to oppose the vicious fanaticism of Greece’s creditors and the malignant con trick called austerity.

If that happened, I naively thought, perhaps it might be possible to salvage the best of Europe from the corporate–bureaucratic-financial monster that it has become.  Of course the surprising decision to force Yanis Varoufakis’s resignation should have been a warning sign of Syriza’s intentions, but there was no time to take in its significance before I disappeared into the mountains.

So the news of Syriza’s total capitulation to the Troika when I came back came as a real shock.   I assumed that Varoufakis’s resignation was an – admittedly poor – negotiating ploy.  I didn’t anticipate that after these painful and insane last few months, Tsipras would simply surrender everything and more without even a fight.   Why did he even call a referendum if he wasn’t prepared to use it to wring, at the very least, some serious concessions during the negotiations?

I now realize, as Syriza has done,   that Greece’s creditors had no interest in negotiations. They wanted only the total surrender, humiliation and subjugation of the Greeks and their government.  They wanted to crush Syriza in order to deliver a wider lesson any other movement with a similar programme.  They wanted to use the Greek debt to turn Greece into yet another neoliberal social laboratory.    Disregarding the referendum completely, they were determined to drag the Greek population to the muddy pool and make them drink from in it, in order to impose an accept an economic model on the country that even the IMF admits is unsustainable.

There is a grim irony in the fact that Germany was the principal driving force behind this process – the same Germany that once wrecked Europe, that then had its debt wiped out and its economy generously reshaped in order to pave the way for the post-war ‘economic miracle’; the same Germany that made millions bribing Greek officials to buy weapons that Greece didn’t need, and which now presents itself as model of financial probity.

So it’s deutschland uber alles, except that Germany is not the only culprit, and would not have been able to behave like this had so many other governments not supported it.  All this left Syriza  caught between a rock and very hard place.  It had failed to prepare for the possibility of a Grexit, which in any case the referendum didn’t give it a mandate for. Without that option, it had nothing but moral pressure to bring to bear on governments and institutions that have now demonstrated that they are entirely resistant to any such pressures.

No good telling the Troika about democracy.   No point telling Greece’s creditors that their plans are a recipe for permanent recession and social ruin.  Don’t waste your breath talking to them about cruelty or solidarity.   Try and argue that if a soft-left formation like Syriza can’t find an alternative to austerity then the Golden Dawn fascists will pick up the mantle themselves and will use it for entirely different purposes.

These creditor-zealots can’t – or won’t hear any of this.   They don’t even realize that their deafness and blindness has killed the ‘Europe’ they claim to stand for. Of course, technically speaking, it isn’t dead.  The European Union still exists with all its institutions, and its representatives will stagger on like the walking dead, offering platitudes about progress, solidarity and ever closer union, as embittered and angry electorates across the continent turn to the likes of Jobbik, the National Front and Nigel Farage.

Governments and financial  elites will  still walk around in European clothes and sing emollient hallelujahs in praise of the eurozone.    But the idea of Europe is now dead, muerto, kaput, its remains splattered all over the Acropolis like the wreckage of a beautiful crashed aircraft.

To remind ourselves of what this idea once consisted of, consider these principles outlined in the  preamble to the  2005 European Constitution:

‘DRAWING INSPIRATION  from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which  have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person,freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law,

BELIEVING  that Europe, reunited after bitter experiences, intends to continue along the path of  civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and  most deprived; that it wishes to remain a continent open to culture, learning and social progress; and  that it wishes to deepen the democratic and transparent nature of its public life, and to strive for  peace, justice and solidarity throughout the world,

CONVINCED  that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of  Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a  common destiny,

CONVINCED  that, thus ‘United in diversity’,    Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due  regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future  generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope.’

Pretty, isn’t it?   Like drifting down the Danube listening to a Mozart symphony.   Now try to relate any of that to the brutal humiliation inflicted on Syriza and the Greek people over the last week.  Try to detect a smidgeon of evidence that the ‘bitter experiences’ of the past were brought to bear to help the ‘weakest and most deprived’ in Greece.  Show me how the Troika has acted in a spirit of justice and solidarity.    ‘A special area of human hope’? –  only to proponents of gallows humour. Democracy and transparency?  Enough now, you’re embarrassing yourself and no one is laughing.

Of course it wasn’t only Greece that wrecked these aspirations.  There were always contradictions between the nobler aspirations that drove the   European project and its actual practice; in the disastrously inept response of the EU to the wars in the former Yugoslavia; in the EU’s ruthless enforcement of its hardened anti-migrant borders and the massive death toll that it has engendered; in the EU’s reckless adventurism in Libya and Ukraine.

Despite all that, I believed that that European unity was a good idea, or at least that it contained the seed of of a much better one, and had the potential to become more than a ‘bosses club’, as some sectors of the left called it.   But now that Europe is gone – suffocated and trampled underfoot by the dim subjugation of  national governments and EU institutions to the merciless imperatives of debt-driven finance capital.

Such a Europe doesn’t deserve the support of anyone, but the constitutional preamble is a reminder of another Europe that does.

And despite everything, I can’t help mourning its loss, and I can’t help wondering that if the European Union couldn’t implement these principles, then who will?

Greece versus the loansharks: just say no

The other day I overheard two locals where I live talking politics.     Their views were not   very enlightened, insightful or informed.   On the contrary,   the fragments of their conversation that I picked up sounded like a collage of Daily Mail articles or the Ukip manifesto; the migrants at Calais where ‘economic migrants’ – a term that was clearly pejorative in the minds of both men. Even if they weren’t, ‘we can’t look after them all’, complained one of these upstanding citizens bitterly, as if ‘we’ had ever been trying to do any such thing.

The conversation also turned to Greece, which ‘should never have been allowed to join the Euro’, according to one of these pundits.   The only reason it had joined, was because of ‘some bureaucrats in Brussels’ and the result was ‘a mess.’   Nowhere in this dismal conversation did I hear the slightest expression of sympathy for the awful devastation which the ‘troika’ have inflicted on Greece these last few years.

There was only the same old stereotype of lazy southern Europeans, whose fecklessness was supposedly compounded by the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels.’   Just an everyday exchange of prejudices and received ideas between two smalltown bigots, you might think, were it not for the fact that this tendency to blame the marginalised, the vulnerable and the victims of economic policies enacted by the powerful is such a depressingly ubiquitous component of the great contrick we call austerity, which large swathes of the British public have swallowed without any difficulty at all.

We can expect to hear similarly reactionary bigoted views expressed again and again as the referendum campaign on the EU gets underway next year, and Ukip and the Tory hard right attempt to transform withdrawal from Europe into a national cause célèbre and a litmus test of national sovereignty.   Normally I tend to recoil in disgust when I hear such attitudes, which only confirm what a stagnant political and moral backwater this country has become, and they tend to make me want to cleave more strongly to a European identity that I feel far more comfortable with than British or English.

But Greece is another matter.     Tomorrow millions of Greeks will vote on a very different referendum,   to decide whether or not to accept the last package presented to the Syriza government by the ECB/European Commission/ IMF troika.     It is not, contrary to the way it is sometimes presented, a referendum on whether Greece should remain part of the European Union, but – however indirectly – on whether Greece should remain part of the eurozone.

This follows more than five years of relentless enforced financial cruelty that has crippled Greek society and destroyed the lives of millions of people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis.         It has been the most callous, ruthless and merciless destruction of a society outside a war situation that I have seen in my lifetime.     All Europe’s political institutions and member’states have been complicit in this process, even if some have been more complicit in others.

Watching this tragedy unfold, I have asked myself again and again if Europe’s ruling elites are stupid, blinkered or simply powerless, in their blatant disregard for the nobler aspirations of the the Union’s founding fathers, and their determination to make ordinary Greeks pay the price for the corruption and incompetence of their ruling classes.

It is now clear that Greece is merely the most visible evidence of how deeply committed Europe’s rulers have become to the most voracious and destructive capitalism in its neo-liberal variant – a commitment that is clearly far more significant for them than any meaningful notion of pan-European solidarity.

Since Syriza’s election victory, Alex Tsipras’s government has bent over backwards in an attempt to forge some kind of compromise with its creditors, so much so that it has risked alienating its own supporters and voters.     The troika has not budged one iota.   Instead it has behaved like a payday loanshark, in its determination to squeeze   money from a country that simply doesn’t have it, regardless of the cost.

This week documents   from an internal report compiled by Greece’s own lenders suggest that the Greek debt will still be unsustainable even if Greece does everything that it is being asked of it.       Yet still the troika is attempting to force Syriza to accept the same kind of privatisations and trade union ‘reforms’ that were once imposed on Iraq – during a military occupation.

Now Greece’s creditors   have embarked on their own form of ‘regime change’ without the use of armed force. They have called Tsipras’s bluff and publicly stated that they want Syriza to fall so that they can replace it with a technocratic governmentthat will do what they want. They have demonstrated that they don’t want compromise.   They want unconditional surrender and the total humiliation of Syriza pour encourager les autres and prevent the possibility of any similar resistance elsewhere.

So rather than seek agreement with Tsipras, they have allowed Greece to go to the wall in order to make Greece an offer it cannot refuse. But Greece can refuse.   It can say no.   It can leave the euro and begin printing its own currency, because as painful as that will process will be,   it is difficult to imagine that it will be any more painful than the future that is already being planned if Greece remains in the eurozone.

If Greece says no, it will at least have the opportunity to reset its own destiny on its own terms, rather than those of international financial institutions.     It will encourage other countries to do the same.     If such resistance does take place, it would be a serious blow to the swaggering loanshark that is now lording it over Greece, and might even open the possibility of a different kind of Europe.

Because one thing is clear, that even if the troika ‘wins’ tomorrow and gets a yes vote, the notion of the European Union is a brake against the worst excesses of global capitalism and a model of social solidarity is dying, and may already be dead, as a result of its vicious war on immigration and the brutal imperatives of disaster capitalism that are being forced even on its own members.