Monday, 22 February 2016

Yes, but no, but yes but no but…

I hope everyone else is as confused by Britain's 'negotiations' with Europe as I am. Cameron seems to exacted a series of pledges from the rest of the EU that are either meaningless or minuscule. The effect seems to be calculated solely to appease the headbangers on his own backbenchers whom he personally riled-up during the days of the coalition by promising them a referendum solely for tactical advantage. Having promised it, he then had to generate some heat to justify it, and so along comes this list of supposedly earth-shaking agreements that actually look a bit embarrassing. Some fiddling with child benefit that doesn't cost much and doesn't apply to many; an exemption from one of the vaguest clauses ever to be committed to parchment 'ever-closer union'; a temporary brake on in-work benefits in unspecified circumstances to solve a non-existent problem and – perhaps the sole thing Cameron actually cares about – some perks for his donors in the financial sector (who show their gratitude by, er, not paying any taxes). Then of course we have the utterly grotesque sight of a backbench MP and Mayor of London being invited to Downing Street for 'talks' as though he were a visiting head of state rather than a rival in the Conservative Party's power struggle. Call that democracy?

If I was a European leader I would be seriously pissed off about being recruited to play a part in a political stunt that's of no interest to most British citizens and of no international merit. Europe is falling apart under the contradictory pressures of the Syrian crisis, the environment is degrading in front of our eyes, Russia is annexing chunks of our neighbours' countries, corporations are poisoning our children, selling our data and evading their taxes and yet the British have hijacked the political agenda to ensure that sugary tea and gristly sausages get protected AOC status (while, I would like to point out, lobbying to weaken car emissions laws in the wake of the VW scandal).

The British have never been anything other than wreckers within the EU as de Gaulle knew. What baffles me most of all about the whole thing is why the rest of Europe puts up with it.

Somehow the UK wants to be America's lapdog and Europe's top dog with very little justification for why it deserves it. Wielding rented nukes is no excuse. Yes, the UK has a very large economy – apparently not large enough to fund public libraries – but an awful lot of it is either shady money or dependent on access to EU markets.

Like most people, I'm fairly conflicted by the EU debates. For the British hard left, of which I am often aligned, the EU is a capitalist plot designed to weaken the working conditions of the masses and ensure the continued hegemony of unaccountable financial elites, though the continental socialist movement doesn't feel the same way. However, I have long felt that while it is a capitalist plot, the alternative is a much nastier capitalist plot with added viciousness. Even the rightwing Western European governments are herbivorous compared with the vicious asset-stripping the UK labours under. What little workers' rights British citizens have are guaranteed by the EU and the various (but not related) European courts. The same applies to human rights (don't forget that the Conservative Party wants to abolish them), reproductive and sexual minority rights, environmental protections, consumer protections and so much more. Leaving the EU would result in a hostage situation. Between the wing of the Conservative Party that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the finance sector (look up tax-avoiding Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom's funding for example) and the wing that sees the poor, sick, Welsh, Scots, young and professional classes as the enemy and you'll soon discover that the EU's mild capitalism is a damn sight more welcoming than British government which will sell us to the lowest bidder just so long as they can carry on fox-hunting.

I look at the Tories and UKIP and see several strands of contradictory thought. They believe in the free movement of capital above all else, but detest the free movement of people. They hate regulation of banks, emissions and everything else, yet they hark back to some imaginary golden age. They hate superstates which are unelected and distant, yet adore the British parliamentary system which features 900 unelected Lords and 650 elected MPs (about to be reduced to 600). They love the British Empire at the same time as hating the EU superstate. They say that the Eurozone is undemocratic and economically unwieldy, applying the same fiscal rules to diverse conditions, while condemning the Welsh and Scottish nationalists for criticising Westminster's identical behaviour. I have a dystopic vision of a non-EU largely derived from Julian Barnes's England, England, in which the Isle of Wight becomes a theme park based on a fantasy bucolic past, while an independent England becomes a backwater ruled by narrow-minded authoritarians. Coincidentally enough, I found the Grassroots Out campaign's decision to design club ties before doing any actual campaigning hugely rich in sociological data.

It's redolent of the kind of golf-club fascism that lurks under the surface of these reactionaries, scared of women, immigrants, ethnic minorities, northerners, the Celtic nations, the poor etc. etc. And just think how many more of them there will be when Spain sends back those hundreds of thousands of Daily Mail readers who just wanted a sunnier, whiter Britain and moved to the Costas without ever learning a word of Spanish or gaining any wider perspective. I wonder if the UK political classes' blinkers mean that they assume everyone wants to come here and no True Brit will lose out by not being able to go Over There. After all as we well know, Abroad is Ghastly and They All Think In English Really, They're Just Being Difficult.

In the end, I'm sorry to say, I would take a Brussels government over any British government of whichever party. I remember all too clearly Labour's Tony Blair going round boasting that the UK had the harshest trades union laws in Europe. I don't like or understand Britain's sense of exceptionalism. Yes, its Empire was one of the largest but there's nothing it did that anyone should be proud of, nor does it justify special treatment. If part of the EU's purpose was to bind nations like Germany so closely to its neighbours that it will never misbehave again, Britain certainly deserves the same treatment. Rather than kow-towing to these braying toffs and small-minded UKIP bigots, our friends should keep Britain bound and gagged in a back room until it's ready to behave like a global citizen and good neighbour rather than the local bully.

In an ideal world, I'd vote for a EUSSR in a heartbeat: a radically democratic and socialist continental nation which afforded responsible government to a hugely diverse population with due regard for the rights of minorities everywhere, while combining to provide justice, peace, security and environmental protection in all those cases where collective action alone can make the difference. In the real world, too, membership even of this decaying structure is a positive benefit: just look at South Yorkshire, or the Welsh valleys, or the ex-industrial belt in Scotland. All these and more places have been thrown lifelines not by an indifferent and even hostile British government. I genuinely believe that Britain out of the EU will be a meaner, crueller and poorer place. But at least it might occasion the break-up of the UK and render it harmless for the ages.

So in the end, my answer to the EU referendum is vote Yes, but not with any joy. The negotiations were a political charade and it feels awful to reward this kind of cynical shenanigans with a positive outcome but the alternative is just so much worse. Imagine Farage, Grayling and Johnson's faces grinning at you from every TV screen as they joyfully announce the closure of the last women's refuge or adolescent sexual health scheme, as they sell the last old folks' home to Goldman Sachs (unelected distantly-run and unaccountable corporations are totally different from 'Brussels') and finally as they oversee the loading of the last cattle trucks to Dover bearing the last foreign care workers, while Jeremy Clarkson revs his engine ready to take them off to the the unveiling of a statue to Margaret Thatcher at Rhodes (formerly Oxford) University (chancellor: Michael Gove).

As I said, my feelings are confused and emotional, a bundle of crude political assessment, atavistic fears and ideological prejudices. But I do tend to think that in an uncertain world, building bridges with largely good neighbours is a damn sight more constructive than arrogant one-upmanship.

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