Here is a prediction about the outcome of today’s UK referendum on leaving the European Union. Even in the unlikely event that the remain camp loses, the UK will still not Brexit. Europe’s neoliberal elite will not agree to release its grip on a major western nation. A solution will be found to keep the UK in the union, whatever British voters decide. Which is one very good reason to vote Brexit, as I’ll explain in a minute.
It has been hard to find much commentary, even in the most liberal corners of the corporate media, making a progressive case for exit. Instead Britain has been bogged down in an ugly immigration debate. But Counterpunch has published an article by Joseph Richardson that covers much of the important ground for leftwingers.
He reminds us that the neoliberal imperatives of the EU were starkly on display recently in the crushing of Greece, despite its people’s efforts to resist self-immolation through the imposition of hyper-austerity policies. As western economies continue to suffer in the self-destructive pursuit of endless and impossible growth, the EU’s role as a heavy – bullying, intimidating and roughing up member states and their publics – will become ever more evident as weaker members struggle to keep up their payments to a gangster elite.
The neoliberalism enforced by the EU is not some unfortunate experiment we can reform, or even reverse, at some distant point in the future. It is hurling us towards a climate precipice that will soon make human life impossible on the planet.
Richardson also rebuts claims that the EU has been the post-war bulwark against militarism and regional conflict. As he points out, peace in Europe is the legacy of its leading nations’ declining global clout in the post-war period, the rapid transfer of power to the US, and Washington’s need for a quiet market in Europe for its goods.
The cost, on the other hand, has been decades of a dangerous arms race and nuclear stand-off, first with the Soviet Union and now with Russia, in which the EU has been deeply implicated – through its subservient position inside a US-dominated Nato.
Europe has also continued, as a US client super-state, to actively participate in resource-grabs in developing nations like Libya and Iraq. Quite contrary to the myth of a peaceful Europe, huge sums are invested by member states in the arms trade at home and in fuelling and sustaining conflicts in other regions, such as in Syria.
An immigration debate ought to be at the centre of campaigning about the EU, just not in the way it is being presented in this campaign. The migrants trying to pour into Europe are refugees from EU and US policies – a global economic policy that is making poorer parts of the planet increasingly uninhabitable, and a foreign policy that stokes ethnic and sectarian divisions and provides the arms needed to ensure yet more bloodshed.
Without the EU, the imperial role of the US would be far more obvious. The EU’s entirely undeserved nice-guy image, despite its mostly lock-step alliance with Washington on international affairs, shields the US from proper scrutiny.
At home, the fundamental question facing anyone who considers him or herself of the left is the same it was when a similar referendum was conducted in 1975, as Richardson explains:
“Unlike the MPs campaigning for remain today, politicians like [Tony] Benn understood that the lack of democracy at the heart of the EU was not an oversight on the part of its founders, but an essential component of a project which sought to supplant national governments with a supranational authority divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. So long as power was vested in national assemblies, these institutions, however imperfect, were at least answerable to their voters, but once power over economic policy was ceded to bureaucrats then the business elites which effectively governed Europe were easily able to overcome popular resistance to their policies by dispensing with the need for elections.”
In short, the EU cannot be reformed by Britain staying in because the union’s very structures are designed to accrete power for the few without accountability to the many.
The EU is one of the key trans-national institutions, along with others like the IMF and World Bank, whose role is to claw back on behalf of the US the social democratic gains made by many European publics after the Second World War. After all, were leftwing politics to be seen as a viable or even preferable alternative to US neoliberalism, then European national publics might demand the right to take back governance of their countries – and Washington’s global dominance would be at an end.
Even though I believe we are too far down this path for a leave vote to actually result in the chosen outcome, it does not mean an exit vote is pointless. Testing structures designed to negate expressions of popular will – like trying to bend the bars of the prison cell you find yourself in – has an educational role. We cannot fight for our freedoms until we start to understand how truly unfree we have become.
There is a criticism of this article on social media I find deeply troubling – and an indication that people aren’t really thinking about the key issue.
It is this: that by making the case I have here, I am giving succour to the far-right. It is vital, these people say, to remain in the EU to prevent the rise of the fascists.
Let’s set aside the anti-democratic assumption behind this criticism: that I should keep quiet and not make arguments that might inflame the “masses” into taking decisions that will be harmful to them.
The question being avoided is this: why are far-right movements becoming so prominent in Europe? The (justified) sense among European publics that politicians, both local and EU ones, are no longer accountable to them is fuelling frustration and anger. People are unhappy at being ruled by unelected elites and being economically pillaged by faceless corporations. This has led to a new radicalism in politics, on both the left and the right. It is a battle where everything is still to play for.
However, history suggests that politicians of the far-right excel in exploiting emotions of popular anger and resentment for their own ends.
The EU is not about to become a bastion of working class rights. It is going to continue imposing a global neoliberal order that victimises the working class and increasingly the middle class too.
Staying in the EU is going to increase the frustrations of the 99 per cent, and make them even more open to the scapegoating strategies employed by the far-right. Leaving the EU may or may not make the far-right stronger, depending on how well the left responds to the challenge (the signs so far are not good). But what should not be doubted is that staying in will only accelerate the rise of the fascists.
Another strange criticism being levelled at me is that Britain is far from democratic itself and it would be better to invest our energies in reforming the EU.
I couldn’t agree more than the UK has a very large democratic deficit – not least an unrepresentative electoral system whose inertia will make radical change extremely difficult.
But that should supply an even stronger argument to leave the EU. It provides an additional layer of undemocratic “representation”, distancing us even further from our local politicians, who themselves barely represent us.
Reforming the corrupt UK political system is going to be herculean task. Reforming the EU is going to be downright impossible if it has to be done at arm’s length and collectively, through each EU state’s corrupt domestic political system.