Stay or go, left or right: the duality of Europe
Today Jeremy Corbyn gave his first speech on the forthcoming European referendum. It is a refreshing intervention. Not least because so far the debate has been largely restricted to competing wings of the Tory Party.
On the one side we have heard the Prime Minister and the Chancellor deliver dire predictions of social and economic disaster, should Britain vote to leave. On the other we have heard Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suggest that pretty much the same thing will happen if we stay.
Why are we even having this debate? Surely there are more pressing issues facing us than our membership of the European Union. Should we not be focusing our energies on solving the crisis in the NHS for example?
Many voters could be forgiven for asking what all the fuss is about. Most are consumed with balancing their household budgets, working out when they will ever pay down their student debt, or if they will ever afford a home. It’s hard to imagine that those queuing at food banks worry too much about the respective cases put forward by the in-out campaigns.
Prior to the election in 2010 there was no clamour to leave the European Union. The fact we are even having a referendum at all is a function of the deep division within the Conservative Party on the issue; it is a sop to the right, originally designed to take the heat off the Prime Minister. It seems to have spectacularly backfired, as both wings of the Tory party go to war.
Socialists and Labour supporters, like me, find ourselves with a ‘Sophie’s choice’ type dilemma, in terms of which pro-banker campaign to jump on board with. Those on the left who think the EU is no more than a ‘gangster’s club’ find themselves in the same camp as Nigel Farage, while those who feel Europe offers the best protection against the excesses of Tory austerity will line up alongside Cameron.
On this issue, perhaps like no other issue, the lines are blurred. Those on the left, who have staunchly opposed the pro-market and flagrantly undemocratic aspects of the EU in the past, will find themselves not wanting to abandon the protections afforded to workers by the European Social Charter, leaving British workers exposed to anti-trade union legislation. Of course there are also those who feel that Europe is beyond reform and we would be better out.
Can both be right? Does the European question really come down to such a ‘rock and a hard place’ type predicament? Are we simultaneously redeemed and damned?
After all the Europe that rode rough shod over the wishes of the Greek people and to this day legislates in the interests of business, deregulation and privatisation, is the same one that introduced the ‘social charter’, free movement and the ‘European working time directive’ that protects workers from excessive hours of labour. Many regions, including my own, are enjoying an economic revival as a result of European funding.
Is this Schrodinger’s Continent? Simultaneously a champion of ordinary people and their oppressor. Perhaps we won’t know for certain until the results are in, or will the way we vote have the potential to alter the reality. What kind of Europe would it be without Britain? What would Britain be like without Europe?
Albert Einstein once said that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” Science has revealed time and again, that much of what we think is real is merely a construct of our minds. What we perceive as reality is actually our subjective interpretation of the world; every bit as real to each of us as the next person’s is to them, but sometimes very different depending on individual perspective.
This is no more obvious than in the world of politics. We are all biased. Even if we think we are balanced, we are not. Each of us is the product of our experience, preconceived ideas and expectations. Yes we can, in some circumstances, rise above this and force our brains to challenge our prejudice, but fundamentally we find it hard not to see the world as we expect it to be.
All we can reasonably expect of each other, politicians and journalists is that we are honest about this. Politics, science and philosophy are therefore merely arguments about which version of reality is closest to the ‘truth’. To help us in our quest we can use evidence, facts and experiment, but ultimately our conclusions will depend on interpretation.
So it comes down to the fact that reality, whether we like it or not, is nuanced. However, in June, we will be asked to make a purely binary decision; leave or remain? Does this have to mean, as Chuka Umunna suggests, that the respective campaigns should also be ‘black and white’? In my view no.
I believe it is better for the left to use this as an opportunity to juxtapose the current imperfect model, with the idea of a socialist Europe and argue this would be infinitely better than an unfettered pro-business Britain. Surely the lesson socialists should take from the experience of Greek workers, is that we can not achieve our goals in splendid isolation.
There are those who say that, in the European Union, the odds are stacked overwhelmingly in favour of international capital and that Europe is corrupt and anti-labour. This, in my version of reality, is undoubtedly true; but does that mean change is impossible? I don’t think so.
It is fair to say that transforming the EU within the confines of the ‘Council of Ministers’ or through the European Parliament is a huge challenge. The odds are undoubtedly against us. Hasn’t it always been this way though? The history of the Labour movement is one of fighting overwhelming odds. That has never prevented us from taking on the challenges before and it shouldn’t now.
Those who argue to leave the EU because it is run by a right-wing cabal, need to explain to me how Britain is any different right now. For me this is not about choosing between exploitation by British or European capitalists; it is instead about grasping an opportunity to argue for the type of Europe we want to live in.
This is exactly what motivates the people of Greece, Portugal and Spain. It is also what has driven millions of French citizens onto the streets recently. Europe is in ferment today, more so than at any time in the last forty years.
People are openly discussing alternative forms of government and new economic models. I don’t believe we should abandon them, rather I think we need to join them and help shape the argument, not only in the European Parliament, but also in the factories, universities, cafes and on the streets. To do that we need to be inside not outside of Europe.
Today the leader of the Labour Party has rejected this binary debate and instead put forward a more nuanced argument. I believe it is an honest and logical position. Opposing Europe from the left in the 70’s does not necessitate holding the same position today. Labour’s position has always been to oppose a Europe biased towards capital, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as isolationist.
The polarisation of the debate helps no one, least of all a public trying to navigate its way through the arguments for or against. Arguing to stay or go on the basis of ‘mutually assured destruction’ is a road to nowhere. Voters are tired of politicians predicting the end of the world is nigh, unless they vote this way or that. I believe people want to know what politicians really believe, why they believe it and in whose interests do they operate.
In that context it is entirely logical to argue that Europe is in desperate need of reform, even revolution, while also maintaining that the best way to achieve this is from within. You can do that while at the same time setting out an alternative programme to that advocated by Cameron. In fact to do anything else does a disservice to the democratic process. This should not become a ‘popular front’ with the Cameron wing of the Tory Party.
So I will be voting to remain. Not because I have any illusions in the current EU, or because it’s the best of a bad lot. Instead I will vote to stay because I am an internationalist and a socialist and I believe in standing in solidarity with those citizens who also want to revolutionise their Europe. I want to join a growing movement that is rejecting austerity and championing a new democracy across the whole ‘Euro-Zone’.
This is my reality. What’s yours?