The European Parliament: great work if you can get it
The more I see of the Europhobes’ arguments, the more I find their views bizarre and rather antiquated. When I say “Europhobe”, I am referring, of course, to the same people who call themselves “classical liberals” or “Whigs”. These people have moved beyond mere scepticism of the EU. Their antipathy to Europe is often informed by discourses that are rooted in the last World War. These are the people whose arrogance leads them to believe that they know better than the rest of us when it comes to making a judgement on supranational issues. For it is they whose ideas dominate the discourse on the European Union; they run the press and control the media. It is they who talk over others and insist that “all of Europe” is against closer political union.
I recently had an argument on Twitter with a Europhobe, who presumed that I had never read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and pretty much insisted that the Austrian’s word was holy writ. You see, Hayek is a sort of neoliberal mystic in the free-market community and must never be contradicted, for to do so, its heresy. I told him that because I had read Hayek, it didn’t necessarily follow that I agreed with his ideas or that these ideas were, somehow, unassailable. He then proceeded to tell me that it was “Intellectual arrogance to suggest majority opinion wrong because people are not in possession of facts . Also patently wrong”, when I suggested to him that people did not have all the facts about Europe or the EU to make an informed decision (they don’t and the same is often true of domestic politics). In fact, many people don’t know who their MEPs are. He informed me that there was a Europhobic “grassroots movement” and when I asked him to define “grassroots” he dodged the question and produced a research report, which he claimed supported his position. When I told him that it did no such thing, he became touchy.
So let’s look at this supposed Europhobic grassroots movement. Like so many movements that describe themselves as “grassroots”, we find that on closer inspection, they are no such beast. Let’s take a look at the biggest anti-EU
lobby party,UKIP. It is not a grassroots movement because it is dominated by men (for it is men) whose antipathy to Europe and the EU stems from their time in Thatcher’s Tory party. They direct the policies and push the buttons. I would argue that UKIP is really the Continuity Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party. It is, in every sense of the term, a top-down movement. There is a word that is used to describe phony grassroots movements such as these: astro-turf.
The central Europhobe argument is articulated around the sovereignty issue, which is based largely on the idea of national identity. They tell us that since Britain is in the EU, it no longer governs itself. But this is a lie. The Parliament of this country continues to pass laws and its politicians continue to propose legislation. I often find it amusing that no such fears are expressed with regard to NATO or any other military alliance for that matter. Rafael Behr writing in The Guardian in 2009 said,
…the underlying assumption that “Brussels” perpetrates indignities against Britain is false. Real power in the EU is exercised by national governments, mandated by popular election. Under EU treaties, including Lisbon, the vast majority of decisions made in “Europe” that have an impact on Britain, are made with British sovereign consent.
Did you see that too? Yes, these decisions are made with sovereign consent. The Europhobes won’t tell you that. One thing that Europhobes particularly resent is the way the European Parliament passed the Working Time Directive, which offers piecemeal protection that is designed to prevent the exhaustion of the workforce. This was bitterly opposed by the Right. The classical liberals hate this idea and would much rather workers be stripped of what rights they have and forced to work in dirty, dangerous and unsanitary conditions for the sake of profit. This phrase “classical liberal” is instructive since it tells us that those who refer to themselves as such will often cast a misty eye to the 19th century, when every aspect of the worker’s life, including their leisure time, was controlled by the industrial barons and they could get on with the business of buying parliamentary influence.
But it is the insistence on the part of Europhobes that we have another referendum to decide on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU that I find curious. Within these anti-EU narratives I have detected a mixture of nostalgia for a long dead empire coupled with an extreme distaste for anything foreign. Sometimes this is framed in broadly Atlanticist terms – the so-called Anglosphere, for example, and occasionally, the discourse is downright paranoid – EUSSR and EUrabia being the conspiranoid’s favourite cheeky pisstake on the initials “EU”. The central premise of their argument rests on the fact that many people weren’t around or old enough to vote in the 1974 referendum. I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1974 but does that mean I demand a referendum? No and nor was I old enough to vote for the first Labour government. In fact, I wasn’t even born. Do you see me getting annoyed? This is perhaps the least mature of all the Europhobes’ positions. When challenged on this and the points I just raised, the Europhobes will accuse their interlocutors of “bigotry”. Dan Hannan writing in the Telegraph in 2011 produced this unintentionally amusing blog in which he tells us that it’s,
Much easier to pretend that all Eurosceptics are Basil Fawlty than to listen to what they’re actually saying. I was reminded of a delicious moment during the recent Spectator debate on leaving the EU, when a retired French teacher in the audience evoked all the people who had fallen in past European wars, and asked Freddie Forsyth how he’d feel if his grandchildren were to face death in another such conflict. Freddie didn’t catch the question. ‘She wants to know if you’d like your grandchildren to be killed,’ boomed Rod Liddle, the moderator – a pretty good summary of a particular strain of British Euro-enthusiasm: self-righteous, aggressive and irrelevant.
Those last three words could easily be used to describe your side, dear Danny. And Frederick Forsyth? What an irascible, small-minded auld cuss. I remember his voice of ‘reason’ on Sunday mornings on BBC Radio 4 when he’d open up his speech with the word “Europe” and then proceed to spend the next 14 minutes or so kicking the continent, sprinkling his spoken ‘essay’ with words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘freedom’. Nosemonkey’s EUtopia blog does an expert job at unpacking Hannan’s ‘arguments’. He notes Hannan’s sophistry and dissembling, which I have mentioned several times on this blog.
And me? I consider myself to be European. I was born in Europe and I have spent most of my life here. But I am also an internationalist. I have no interest in nations, national identity or the discourses (many of which are racist and/or anti-Semitic) that stem from those things. They are socially corrosive and are produced to serve two masters: the state and the boss.
The principle of a united Europe should not be one that is organized along the lines of the nation-state, which is fast approaching its use-by date but one that works towards the eventual death of the nation-state, as a concept, across the world. And perhaps this is where the problem lies within the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats who run the EU: they are still locked into past centuries, with their incessant wars between royal egos and their grand imperial projects, that latter of which was offered to the masses as ‘free trade’. They cling to outmoded ideas about ‘sovereignty’ and national identity, both constructed for the purpose of mobilizing the masses to fight capitalist wars.
As Benedict Anderson reminds us, the nation-state was conceived to fight wars. It replaced the absolute monarchies, which were either violently overthrown or brought to heel by the aristocracy, who often dominated Parliament. Our world was born of warring, squabbling monarchies and has grown into one that consists of warring nation-states that ostensibly practice this notion of free trade. But this trade is neither free nor fair. It is colonization by another name. Free trade has also become, rather invariably, a form of warfare that is explained away by describing it as the ‘opening up’ of markets.
The people of Liberia know how this ‘free trade’ works: the United States flooded the markets with cheap exports of rice, thereby putting domestic producers out of business, the result was a run on the currency and the collapse of the economy. This and the political dominance of the Americo-Liberian minority exercised through True Whig Party under William Tolbert, catalyzed the oppressed into action and civil unrest ensued; this developed into a coup d’etat in which Master Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew Tolbert. We all know what happened next: 20 years of butchery, civil war and instability. Now the classical liberals would spin you some yarn about survival of the fittest but what the Liberian example shows us is how a country’s fragile economy can be ruthlessly destroyed by a larger nation. Where I come from that’s called “bullying”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am sceptical of the EU as it is. The European Commission is an especially odd entity, made up as it is of unelected placemen and near ghostly beings from the dusty corridors of state power that is run by an unelected president. It is a place where party hacks can live out their days in comfort and security. Brittan was there. Kinnock was there. Mandelson was there. Any dummy can do it. But I am not afraid of Europe nor am I afraid of an EU that is genuinely democratic. But the EC is not democratic. That should be the aim: to make it more democratic. I’m not overly keen on the idea of a European military either, it sounds like a duplication of NATO but without the US or Turkey. As it exists, the EU is for bankers and bureaucrats not for the people. The European Parliament is a weak body that exists to rubber stamp the diktats of the EC and veto commissioner’s appointments.
But for those who point to the United States and shout, “It wasn’t conceived in the same way as the European nation-state”, I would say this: you are wrong. The US borrowed every single idea it ever had from Europe because it was born of this continent. Millions of immigrants from this continent landed on America’s shores. The US may not have a monarch at its head but it is the very model of a nation-state. Its earliest wars were wars of conquest and imperial expansion: the Mexican-American and Spanish-American Wars spring most readily to mind.
Euroscepticism is healthy. Europhobia is often irrational and conceals some very unpleasant neoliberal discourses. Presently, any discussion of Britain’s place in Europe is controlled by the Right and their partners in the media. This needs to stop. Writing last year for LabourList, Owen Jones said,
But the EU has also helped to drive forward a neo-liberal agenda here, across Europe, and abroad. Successive EU treaties have enshrined “free competition”, which in practice promotes the privatisation of public services. For example, the Lisbon Treaty includes the following clause: “A European framework law shall establish measures to achieve the liberalisation of a specific service”. And while it was the Tories who privatised our railways, it was EU directive 9/440 that made it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services.
This sort of thing needs to be challenged and the narratives (The EU is ‘socialist’ is one that is particularly amusing) put forward by the Right also need to be challenged. Currently, all the running is being made by Europhobes. This needs to stop.
Here’s a coherent left-wing Eurosceptic argument against the EU from 2009’s The Socialist. This quote points out the flaws in the current EU arrangement that I made above,
This economic persistence of the nation state is linked to its political role. As even capitalist governments don’t control their economic destiny – when faced with the ‘hidden hand’ of the market making workers redundant, for example – they have to find other ways to maintain a social and political base within their respective nation states.
Moreover, the treaty negotiations aimed at ‘equality of competition’ throughout the EU have sometimes meant that the interests of one or another section of the capitalist class in a particular country have not been met, provoking some capitalist politicians to speak out against ‘Europe’. Such objections have been ridden out in times of economic growth, but they will not be so readily overcome in an era of recession.
The nation-state is in its death throes, kept alive only by its capitalist friends who continue to deny its flaws and lie to the people about its role in their lives.
The EU as it currently exists must go and be replaced with something genuinely democratic.
Scepticism is healthy. Fear is not.