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.