So, the date for the referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union has been set (23rd June) and politicians on both sides are coming out with their position on the matter. Unusually, David Cameron has allowed members of his cabinet freedom to support either side in this (he and George Osborne support staying in; Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and London mayor Boris Johnson support leaving). On the Labour side, all but 7 support remaining, as well as all 54 from the SNP, and all members from the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. The Remain side point to the fact that the EU countries are our closest neighours and that as a member of the EU we get a say in writing the rules of the ‘club’. The Leave side claim that we could have a mutual trading agreement similar to that ‘enjoyed’ by Norway and Switzerland, and that we could build up closer trading relationships with ‘emerging economies’ such as India and China. If things in Europe in June are as they are now, I will be voting to stay in. Whatever the faults of the European Union, I do not trust the people who are trying to drag us out and to leave now would give them untrammelled power.
In 2003, I was “anti this war now”, as were most opponents of the invasion of Iraq. This situation is comparable to the dilemma many of us faced at that time; many of us had desired the removal of Saddam Hussain since the Gulf War and believed he should have been removed then. However, the invasion was led by a rather stupid and unhinged US president and a bunch of clever but extreme advisers, all of whom sought to capitalise on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim anger following 9/11 (irrespective of the fact that Saddam Hussain had nothing to do with 9/11). We all know that the EU is a neoliberal institution with a less than democratic decision-making process which favours a model in which ordinary people pay for the crimes or mistakes of the financial élite, much as is the case with the present UK government, especially ordinary people in poorer countries on the fringes of Europe. But we won’t get a change from that reality if we vote to leave the EU under the present government. For decades, these people have led a drum-beat campaign against what they see as “nuisance” legislation and against anything which acts as a check on the power of the state to stick the boot into powerless and unpopular people; we will see more of that without any advantage for ordinary people’s jobs or standard of living if we leave now.
My views on Europe have changed over the years. As a teenager I remember eagerly reading the Guardian’s Europe supplement every Friday and getting the European (an accessible and brightly presented broadsheet owned by Robert Maxwell) on the way home from boarding school. (However, the European changed its format, coming to resemble the Times somewhat, and became rather dull and I stopped buying it.) I was a firm believer in the European project, thought opponents were narrow-minded, backward-looking bigots, was aware that it meant I could move to any country in western Europe and live and work for as long as I liked, and imagined myself doing so. Things didn’t work out like that for me, of course. I became Muslim in 1998 and gradually became more aware that Europe, despite having very substantial Muslim minorities in some countries, was turning against Islam, that politicians came to power on explicitly anti-Muslim platforms and saw legislation passed that outlawed normal Muslim dress and behaviour. However, voting to leave the EU will not change anything for Muslims in this country; the present government is hardly known for being friendly to Muslims (I suspect halal slaughter remains legal only because banning it would affect Jews as well) and we have a press which has spent the last fifteen years ranting against “multiculturalism” and blaming every problem on Muslims or government or business being too soft on Muslims.
Being part of Europe nowadays is about trade only. The ‘European project’ was meant to be about preventing another outbreak of war by making sure countries traded freely with each other and, later, by allowing cultural exchange. I have heard younger Tories say that the fear of war was something that drove the older generation; the younger generation do not think like that. The problem is that Britain has never been a strong, independent country. Never. It was a feudal kingdom on the edge of Europe, then it founded colonies and tricked its way into ruling other countries and became the ‘mother country’ of an Empire, then it was country within the European Community and later Union. Apart from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s, it has never stood on its own two feet without other countries (and slaves) to exploit or a free trade area to provide ready markets and cheap labour. Leaving the EU now is a leap into the dark of a sort nobody is facing up to. Tories talk of making our own agreements with countries like India and China; there is no guarantee that they will be interested in doing so on terms favourable to us when there remains a trading bloc of hundreds of millions of people next door, countries which retain manufacturing capacities when we have got rid of most of ours. In any case, these countries, like the Old Commonwealth countries which share a language and cultural similarities with us, are all thousands of miles away and in the event of conflict or oil shortages, we could not guarantee getting the goods or people here (or there); Europe (obviously excepting Ireland) is only 21 miles away from Britain’s shores. We could not guarantee that companies which provide employment here but which trade with the Continent would not simply move there, and similarly with foreign-owned manufacturing plants such as own most of our motor industry.
I believe that some of the arguments being used to justify exiting (regarding benefits in particular) are manufactured, but some of the anger is well-founded and the Remain side refuses to face up to them, particularly those whose jobs (such as people in secure, public-sector, professional jobs, even if they are not highly paid) are not under any threat. I am not convinced by the argument that the influx of eastern Europeans in 2004 does not depress wages (my wages hardly went up in the time I was driving vans and small trucks before 2013), but there are less obvious disadvantages: employers can easily recruit skilled workers from abroad and do not have to invest in or take risks with new native talent, and can demand “two years’ experience” (or more) without worrying about not being able to fill posts (common in the transport industry). However, this was the decision of the Blair government; it was not forced on us by the EU, and most other countries did not allow the influx, which resulted in more eastern Europeans moving here. The damage has already been done, and fewer migrants from eastern Europe are moving here now as there are more jobs in their home countries. The Blair government did this because it was too sensitive to the demands of business, and leaving the EU will not change the fact that unions are weak and that the rich look after each other in this country. When Thatcher wanted to break the miners in the 1980s, she imported coal from communist Poland.
In short, I do not think leaving the EU will change things for the better for ordinary people. It is possible that in the near future the EU will collapse, either because of the refugee crisis, the collapse of one or other country’s economy, or something else, but it is not close to collapse now. The EU has allowed the UK considerable leeway over the years, allowing opt-outs from the Social Chapter in 1992 and not forcing us to join the Euro or the Schengen accord, and now bending over backwards to accommodate David Cameron’s demands (it is noticeable that the status quo is not an option in the coming referendum). It is not true that we are being walked over by Europe, or that we do not “control our own borders”. I am particularly concerned about left-wingers in England who support the Leave campaign knowing that it will pitch us into an isolated Tory England without the benefits of devolved government, as in Scotland (which may demand another referendum on independence if the UK leaves). Europe is white-dominated, anti-multicultural and increasingly racist; so is Britain. The EU has a democratic deficit; so does Britain, and the present government intends to increase it. The EU is neoliberal; Britain is more so. We will not gain anything in these regards by leaving, and (as with repealing the ‘hated’ Human Rights Act, another bit of dissent manufactured by the Tory press) it will leave the Tories without any restrictions on their power, at least in England. I may support leaving the EU in the future if it is no longer worth us being part of it. Right now, that is not the case.
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