Have you decided how you’re going to vote in the upcoming referendum on EU membership? Today’s Times/YouGov poll suggests we’re heading for “Brexit”- no, not a crunchy breakfast cereal high in fibre, but the figurative exploding of the channel tunnel and a return to Island status, one assumes psychologically as well as politically.
For decades now we’ve endured a disingenuous dialogue on the matter, with the Europhile right claiming the benefit stems from intergovernmental cooperation and a single market, free of tariff barriers, while the left talk about the imposition of progressive employment and judicial measures. Both, in effect, are playing a game of see no evil, hear no evil. They know the EU is a proxy for the kind of social democratic government Britain seldom elects; a centralised supra-national check on the conservative, reactionary forces the Eurosceptic right dream of unleashing. Iain Duncan Smith, Lord Lawson and the like, understand that legislating in the interests of Middle England and their own prejudices would be a doddle if it wasn’t for Brussels, and this is keenly felt now the Conservatives have an overall majority and Labour looks to be entering a long spell in the wilderness with Ed Miliband’s fetid corpse cuffed to its wrist.
Why is this disingenuous, you say? It reads as legitimate to my eyes. Well, trying to curb forces that would freeze Britain in aspic, once we’d regressed a few decades, is a perfectly honourable ambition. The problem is that it ignores the German-Franco elephant in the room: democracy.
We have to talk about democracy when it comes to the European project because the principle arguably transcends all other considerations. When a majority of voters, as things stand, seem intent on severing Britain’s link with the continent, it’s tempting to ask why they’re suddenly interested in the appointed European Commission, and the Council of Ministers, and MEPs, elected using a party list system, so not directly accountable to anyone. Why suddenly give a fuck about the primacy of European legislation, or indeed, successive treaties that have seen, in Tony Benn’s memorable phrase, powers lent to our MPs stolen from the electorate and given away to Brussels? After all, haven’t Eurosceptic parties been drawing attention to these, er, anomalies for decades now? Didn’t William Hague, one time stand in for a serious Tory leader, go to the country in 2001 on a ticket to “keep the pound”, only to be resoundingly ignored? Yes, you’re not dreaming, that all happened and nobody cared.
The reason, suggest political scientists, is that Europe, for the longest time, wasn’t what they call a “salient issue”, in other words, what Joe and Jacinda Public really cared about was the price of their house, their job prospects, how much petrol they could afford to put in their bastard wagon, and where Janette and Terry could go to school. But another thing they cared about, an issue that thanks to reality distorting media hype, feeds itself – that now, thanks to the short-sightedness of UK politicians has become inextricably bound up with the European question, is immigration. And it’s that monster that’s made Europe salient.
For the country’s Eurosceptic horde, what’s relevant is the way that Europe’s free movement of people, a fundamental principle underpinning the union, threatens Britain on an existential level. The working time directive, straight bananas and funding for arts projects doesn’t change the character of a nation but its population does. So now, in what will soon be one of the weirdest debates we’ve ever seen in this country, the right point, namely the democratic question, will be argued for the wrong reason, with those who support the union privately wishing that the ministers responsible for waving through the EU’s enlargement without negotiating either an opt-out or some form of transitional control, hadn’t gifted the haters such an acute focaliser.
It’s tempting, if you’re broadly sympathetic to the notion of a united Europe like me, to feel a great deal of anger over this. Britain’s hardly overrun by EU migrants. The figure’s around 2.8m, which sounds like a lot, but is in fact only 1.8% of the population. But, say, the sceptics, too many are coming, they’re undercutting wages, leading to compression/stagnation, and they’re not integrating – just setting up pockets of their homeland here in Blighty, which inevitably erodes communities and creates division. Most seriously, it dilutes the cultural identity of the indigenous masses, even if said culture, say the young, middle class, internationalist metrosexuals with friends from twenty countries, is constituted of a pie and a pint from Weatherspoons and Ant and Dec on a Saturday night. When you don’t respect Britain’s white working class voters, or give a sod about their low wages because you have a well-paid graduate job, then you can dismiss all this, arguing the fragmentation and forced re-engineering of a degenerate mass is a grand project, and worth backing. But these people have a vote in the forthcoming plebiscite and could yet push us out the door. Europe, after all, has to work for everyone; a guarantor of, rather than a threat to, its citizens’ way of life. The current model, one could argue, has disenfranchised millions.
The dilemma for the fence sitter, then, is how to use your vote to achieve a result that’s both democratic and addresses the very real problems that exist with the European project. In that polling booth it will be tempting to see it as a simple left versus right affair, though with the camps flipped from the 1975 vote. One could think about David Cameron’s deal, assuming he has one by then, tinkering with protocols without affecting fundamental structural changes to the union that could only be implemented by treaty. Thinking about the EU, you soon realise that in order to make it work properly – to build something that respects the sovereignty of member states while promoting intergovernmental co-operation; to make a union that facilitates financial liberty while providing certain protections for domestic industry, all existing EU treaties would have to be repealed; we’d have to start again.
In our polling booth, we should also think about the hypocrisy and/or ignorance of those parties trying to sway us one way or another. In Scotland, voters should reflect on an SNP that once opposed EEC membership, now brandishing our EU status as the latest ultimatum in its sad and destructive campaign to break up Britain. Does Nicola Sturgeon understand the contradiction between arguing for independence from England while wanting ever closer union with Brussels, a set up that gives Scottish voters less say than before and commits them to, er, pooling sovereignty? Does she have any idea that opening UK industry to Europe destroyed it, including the traditional cornerstones of the Scottish economy? Why blame Margaret Thatcher for the reforms that inevitably followed, but not the European project? Isn’t Lib Dem support, which at least has been consistent, just more from a party seeking to circumvent the UK electoral system any way it can in a bid to get its agenda into law? And why should we trust UKIP or the Tory right, when their campaign for leaving is fuelled by a noxious cocktail of imperialist nostalgia, resistance to change and myopia, when it comes to the myriad of EU funding agreements that grease the wheels in science, industry and higher education, on which these sectors in part depend, and which are now a nightmare to untangle?
So whichever way you look at it, there’s a lot for you, the box crosser, to grapple with when the time comes. Whereas it’s clear that whatever happens, the European project, as envisioned by the likes of Jacques Delors, Harold Wilson and Helmut Kohl, and ultimately seen as an ultra-left Trojan Horse by Margaret Thatcher, is dead, we must still decide if we want to hang around to shape what remains. Regardless of the arguments proffered, the real debate will be underpinned by social class, community, status and one’s access to the fruits of union. It should really be about democracy of course, but who, in this self-interested, peer-centric society of ours, is interested in voting for a principle?