openDemocracyUK

I hate the EU. But I'll vote to stay in it

The European Union is an undemocratic corporate stitch-up. But leaving would be worse.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
22 February 2016
European_Parliament_Strasbourg_Hemicycle_-_Diliff.jpg

European Parliament, Strasbourg, by Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0

I don't see why Euro-nationalism is particularly different from any other form of nationalism. Sometimes, people seem to call themselves 'European' as an attempt to escape the violent history bound up with the identity of their country. After-all, who can emerge from any honest history book proud to be French, or Spanish, or Belgian, or Portuguese, or Dutch, or German, or British? A desire to be liberated from the shame of a genocidal past is understandable.

But too often, for me, 'European' ends up feeling like the identity of a smug cosmopolitan elite, who wish to define who they are as something different from the working class in whichever part of Europe they are from: a 'we' centred on fashionable cafes and bars from Edinburgh to Athens, and whose ultimate boundary is 'places where most people are white'.

I'm European, sure. Any map will tell me so. But let's not pretend that an identity is more solidaristic simply because it encompasses a larger area. And let's not pretend, as dead bodies float onto the shores of the Mediterranean, that the boundary of this identity isn't as brutally enforced as the boundary of any other.

Likewise, I have never really been infatuated with the European Union. My first real memories of engaging with it were campaigning against Economic Partnership Agreements as a student: rich countries clubbing together to bully their former colonies into ruinous trade deals.

Since then, much of my experience of the EU has been negative: TTIP and Greek austerity, the failure of the emissions trading scheme and the disaster of the Common Agriculture Policy, rules enforcing privatisation of services and procurement laws pushing public contracts towards big business, the racist policing of the Schengen agreement within Europe and the murderous enforcement of the external border. Free movement of capital has proved to be a mistake, and I'm not convinced by free trade in general.

The EU is an anti-democratic club for fading imperial bullies to ensure they are still relevant in the world and the idea of voting for it doesn't please me one bit.

If anything, Cameron's deal makes it worse. Lessening the amount of child benefit people from poorer corners of Europe can send home to their children – child benefit they have usually paid taxes for – is a step in the wrong direction. Either we care about child poverty everywhere or we are xenophobes. Winning the City special status to avoid regulations which might stop it exploding is like securing the right to cling tightly to a kettle as it boils.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the idea of having special status in a club, as Cameron says we will, is utterly intolerable. It is a cricket bat to the bollocks of every claim ever made about what is supposed to constitute British values. It is a skip of the queue, a cup of tea made with tepid water, a taking of the last biscuit.

Finally, I don't like centralisation. I think that decisions should be made at the most local possible level, that governance is better when it is subtler, closer; when people can more easily organise with those around them and create enough wind to redirect it.

There are intelligent people on the left, with whom I usually agree on most things, who will vote to leave the EU. I am tempted to join them. But I won't. Despite all of the above, on 23 June, I'll vote for Britain to remain in the European Union.

In part, this is because I'm not convinced that much of the above would change were we to leave. Westminster has been pushing TTIP within the EU and would happily sign up to just such a treaty as fast as Cameron could whip out his biro. It seems pretty clear that the UK would remain within the European Economic Area, as Norway and Switzerland are, or would negotiate deals which ended up meaning much the same. And most of the changes I'd want to our trade deals would be prohibited by the World Trade Organisation anyway.

As Caroline Lucas has pointed out here on openDemocracy, “the UK has already signed a number of bilateral deals that subject both sides to the dreaded investor state dispute mechanisms (ISDS) which allows companies to sue states for risking their 'future profits'”. And as she has forcefully argued, the politics of the EU is what it is because it represents the governments elected by the peoples of Europe. They will still be the governments, whether they collaborate through the EU or not.

And, some kind of transcontinental governance seems like a good idea. We share the North Sea and Eastern Atlantic. Acid rain from the factories of Northern Europe used to fall on Britain. We move between each others' countries perhaps more than any other collection of states in the world. The co-ordinated power of the union gives the ability to stand up to the amassed power of the world's biggest businesses. Laws raising standards for workers and consumers have been key to driving up everything from fuel efficiency of cars to parental leave, in some cases across the world as well as in Europe.

Were Westminster more democratic, I might still be tempted to vote to repatriate decision making to it. But choosing to take powers from the EU on the grounds that it is undemocratic, only for the laws to be scrutinised by the House of Lords and signed off by the Queen seems pretty pointless. Likewise, if the government negotiating Britain's exit in the case of a leave vote were one who I felt had a shred of democratic instinct, then I might trust them to set up a new arrangement worth having. But the reality is that in such a circumstance, it's likely that the deal would be done by Boris Johnson.

In that context, one thing horrifies me more than any other – something pointed out most forcefully to me by my anarchist flatmate Molly. Because while we can weigh up the likely long term impact of a vote to end the union; the need for some kind of a change; the benefits of kicking Cameron in the teeth, or the desire to escape this pretty unpleasant institution, there is one key part of the EU which, in itself, is unambiguously good: the free movement of people.

A vote to leave would put that at risk: not for me, popping to some conference in Paris. But for the thousands of EU nationals currently living in the country. Would a Prime Minister Johnson insist that anyone earning less than £36,000 should pack their bags and go? Quite possibly not. But am I willing to take that risk on behalf of thousands of other people on the off chance that Westminster will do something good with powers we give it, for a change? Am I willing to leave them in a state of perpetual fear of this possibility? No, I'm not.

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