By Jonathan Lee
Part I of this article can be found here.
Since the United Kingdom signed the Withdrawal Agreement and formally left the European Union on 31st January, Remainers and Leavers are just as polarised as they ever were. Much of the rhetoric from Leavers and Remainers demonstrates a warped understanding of what the EU actually is and how it works. In this part, we address a few notable example of the things which both sides get very, very wrong.
The belief that the EU is a Left-liberal project
A big misconception that many right-wing Leavers have about the EU is one which they share with many Remainers: that the EU is a leftist project.
The EU is a libertarian project, one which – at its core – exists to more efficiently create more capital. Whilst its values are mostly socially liberal, its economics are largely neoliberal. Many Remainers confuse the liberal actions of the EU on things like anti-discrimination, tackling climate change, or workers rights and apply this to the EU as a whole in its purpose and agenda. Most notable is the slightly historically revised idea that the EU was created to end all wars in Europe. This is kind of true, but from the outset this was always to suit the purposes of capitalists. It is a nice outcome of economic integration that war, which is not in their economic interests anway, is less likely. The European Economic Community, the EU’s earlier incarnation, came out of the first European Coal and Steel Community. This was a consortium of capitalists who wanted more frictionless trade between their interests in different countries. They saw the merging of these specific industries, which were vital to the ability to wage war, as a sure way of ensuring war did not break out. The merging of economies into a single common market is an underlying premise which has remained core to the EU up until the modern day.
The EU’s slavish commitment to neoliberal policies are plain for everyone to see. You need only examine the EU’s near fanatical adherence to private ownership over public, its prohibitive laws affecting state aid, its commitment to enforced austerity measures, its punitive actions against states who bail out nationalised industries, and the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal, which even after widespread protests is still lurking in behind-closed-doors negotiations with big business lobbyists.
By and large, the progressive policies the EU puts forwards in terms of workers’ rights, environmentalism, and anti-discrimination are driven by a desire to protect its capitalist interests. A perfect case study into how far the EU will go to protect these interests can be seen in the actions of the ‘Troika’ (the European Commission, the International Money Fund and the European Central Bank) towards Greece after the 2008 financial crisis.
The EU is anti-Racism
The EU is anti-Racism in theory, in that the European Commission and the Parliament will frequently condemn all forms of racism wherever it arises. Usually such proclamations are in response to a very specific incidence of racism, usually in a very specific member state, which the EU basically doesn’t have the courage to call out by name. Yes, the EU is generally against discrimination against any person for any reason, but the reason for this is mostly economic.
A perfect example of how the economic and social interests of the EU can loosely align is in the Racial Equality Directive (RED). This is the only legal instrument which the European Commission can use to take action against member states when they discriminate against their own citizens. However, it only applies in the provision of services or social security & advances. Discrimination can only be challenged through this paradigm, it cannot be used to challenge racial profiling, police brutality or forced evictions by state authorities for example. This is because the RED was basically envisaged to stop any kind of discrimination which would prevent you working and paying your taxes and social security contributions. It has an economic reasoning at its core: to ensure the smooth running of the single common market and its workers. The instrument has been called into question by the Fundamental Rights Agency who have said it “is not effective” when it comes to protecting Romani citizens of the European Union in particular from discrimination. The RED typifies the EU’s fundamental desire to protect taxpayers and the producers of capital.
Why we should have stayed anyway
Between the Hardline Brexiters and the Europhiles, neither side really has it right when it comes to the nature of the European Union. Something as large and multifaceted as the EU will always be different things to different people. While it is not the monstrous, USSR-esque, supranational state that some Leavers paint it as, the EU is hardly a benign liberal beacon in the dark either.
In reality, the EU is unable or unwilling to challenge member states who routinely and systematically abuse the rights of Roma and other minorities. It has no real comprehensive strategy, other than ‘Fortress Europe’, to deal with the large numbers of people from Africa and the Middle East migrating to the continent. And at the same time, it is afraid to challenge member states which act as buffer states for the continent against migration. It is an unwieldy, somewhat opaque, neoliberal club of nations which often fails in its attempts to enforce a liberal, rights based order in Europe. And yet, it’s better than the alternative.
The EU for all its faults provides the UK with a strong position in the international arena. In 2018, the UK regained its top spot in the soft power index with France and Germany coming in second and third place. These top three countries also happen to be the economic and political front runners of the European Union, with the the rest of the top thirty mostly made up of other EU member states.
despite its many problems the EU is still at heart a liberal, internationalist institution where the role of international organisations and non-state actors have a role in shaping policy
Economically, membership of the EU represents a huge boon to the UK. Of course, we will still trade with the EU after the transition period finishes. Just because the Tories say we will ‘look abroad’ to the Commonwealth in their mad Empire 2.0 strategy doesn’t mean our geographical, historical and logical trade links with the rest of our continent will change overnight. But that trade will cost us more, and we will lose out on opportunities which are otherwise available to EU member states.
The EU’s neoliberalism is nothing compared to the current far-right reincarnation of Toryism which, unchecked by the EU, awaits us in the years to come. Left out in the cold by our proud, island-nationalist government who will insist on ‘looking further afield than Europe’, we will be at the mercy of Donald Trump’s United States for potential trade deals. Without the backing of a 28 member-state trading bloc, and the largest economy in the world, we will rapidly find out how little Great Britain really is when it comes to the more realist international wilderness.
Finally, despite its many problems the EU is still at heart a liberal, internationalist institution where the role of international organisations and non-state actors have a role in shaping policy. By design it accentuates the mutual benefits of cooperation between nations, rather than implicit competition. For all its problematic economic reasoning, it has broadly ensured an unprecedented period of peace and relative prosperity in Europe in modern times. There has been no war in the area of EU integration since the end of the Second World War. No EU member state has ever taken up arms against another. This has led to the slightly nauseating term Pax Europaea, since this is the longest period of peace in Western Europe since Augustus’ Pax Romana in the 1st – 2nd century CE. Of course, this ignores the number of wars which have sprung up on the periphery of the EU in Eastern and Balkan Europe, as well as the number of neo-colonial wars waged by EU member states around the world. However, peace bought on a continental scale for such a long time is no small thing. This alone should be reason enough to defend the European Union. Today we are granted the luxury of war being almost completely out of our living memory in most of Europe, and that is to a large degree thanks to the existence of the European Union. It would be a tragedy if Nigel Farage’s predictions came true and Brexit becomes the first fracture in the break that eventually ends the EU, and with it peace in Europe.
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