Two years ago, I had the huge honour of being the Scottish Greens’ lead candidate in the European elections. Our campaign slogan was a just and welcoming Scotland – we put our principles of peace, social justice and democracy and our support for open borders and immigration front and centre of our campaign.
During that campaign, I became very familiar with some of the huge problems of the EU. Then, and this was before the squeeze on Greece, it was seen as being anti-democratic – the parliament not having anywhere as much influence as the Commission or the European Central Bank (or any of the other institutions of the EU) – not progressive in its political or economic outlook, and not succeeding economically for many.
Not much has changed in the intervening years – it has clearly been captured by and for neoliberal and corporatist interests, it is exclusionary, it can be racist and xenophobic as it does not afford non-Europeans the same rights as Europeans. But still, on balance, I think we should vote to remain part of the EU in just four weeks time.
This is not because I endorse the UK government’s approach as outlined in its controversial document delivered to every home recently. No, far from it. I want to argue for Scotland’s membership of an EU that is radically different to the one being talked about by either side of the very male, very blue debate currently taking place.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must consider our current political context. In Scotland, and in the UK, a vote to leave will be a victory for the right. The momentum in this campaign comes from and sits with a right wing leave case that says we must shut our borders, that we must reinvigorate the Empire, that we must make Britain great again. That sends shivers down my spine.
It means going back to the days of the Raj, and a colonial project in Africa that was profoundly racist. And in the 100th anniversary year of the Easter Rising, which had everything to do with challenging imperial and anti-democratic monarchical power, we need to reclaim some of the collective solidarity of that century-old republican movement.
The right wing case to leave is the dominant narrative, presented by people who think that imperialism is the highest form of capitalism, and that that is a good thing. However much we might wish it not to be the case, siding with these people means siding with those who do not not believe that the world has changed since the 19th century. As an immigrant from post-colonial Southern Africa, that horrifies me.
But, context aside, let’s have a look at some principles, and where they lead us in this debate – there are several that persuade me to vote to remain.
For me, a very important green and socialist principle is the freedom of movement of people, encompassing both the freedoms to live where you wish, and to move when you wish. This is probably one of the most important aspects of the the European Project. Breaking down barriers, such as state borders, is a positive thing. We live and work in an increasingly globalised world. Our economies increasingly function on global or very local levels, not so much at the level of the state. Not only do EU nationals contribute hugely to our economy, but they enrich our lives socially, culturally and in so many other ways. They are our doctors, our teachers, our builders, our professors, and I welcome and value the part they play in our society.
Europe also represents one of the very few real moves to transnational regulation of our banking and finance systems. And ironically, such regulation has been held back by the very forces who now wish to leave the EU. The green cause is advanced by moves to tame the transnational power of capital, and the international influence of the banks. Whilst it is true that, to a large extent, free-market fundamentalism has taken hold across the EU, it is worth noting that this is due to a collective failure of the left to win elections across the continent. And our response should be a call to collective action across the continent, not to separate ourselves off into almost certain right wing oblivion.
And change in Europe can happen – the Democracy in Europe Movement (Diem) is blossoming. It is calling for the EU to embrace accountability. Demands include transparency in decision-making, constraints on corporate lobbying and further democratic input into the EU from citizens.
The European Parliament – which is in many ways far more democratic than our own Westminster parliament (it’s members are elected using a proportional system, for a start!) – should also have the power to instigate legislation, thus building on its ability to block proposals from the Commission. Indeed, an excellent case in point is TTIP. If a majority of democratically elected MEPs choose to vote against TTIP then the deal will be scuppered. Let’s remember that the UK government is one of the biggest cheerleaders for this kind of damaging trade deal. Can you imagine what Britain’s trade deals with the rest of the world would look like if the Tories were left in charge of negotiating them? We’d be signing up to multiple TTIPs with any nation willing to trade with us.
I also want to keep secure cross-border legislation on workers rights, on women’s rights, on human rights. These rights have been hard fought for by trade unions, women and others across the globe, and it is because of the EU they are now enshrined in the laws of every member state. It is because of the EU that temporary and part time workers have something approaching equal rights with full time workers. It is because of the EU that we can have international consultation with trade unions on rights for carers, for stronger protection from dismissal for working mothers. It is because of the EU that we have international policies against sexual harassment, human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children. It is because of the EU that we have designated funding to combat violence against women and girls, fight female genital mutilation, and so much more.
And, whilst I’m talking about funding, it would be remiss of me not to mention education and university research. Without the EU funding our higher education institutions get, without the freedom of movement of students, academics, and dare I say it, knowledge, enabled by the EU, our universities would be very much poorer.
I think it is clear that we need transnational commitments for environmental protection and tackling climate change. It’s only by working with our European neighbours that we can effectively tackle climate change, protect wildlife and reduce pollution. Thanks to EU rules, our beaches are cleaner and our dirtiest power stations are being shut down.
However, virtually all of these reasons have their downfall, not least because they are either strategic – some might say tactical – or instrumental – using the EU as a means to an end, the end being improved workers or human rights.
Fundamentally, I am in favour of the EU because the whole point of it is to change things, to create new institutions, to redefine our relationships with power, to share. Going back to its inception, nearly 70 years ago, this is what it was all about – creating peace and understanding, defining democracy anew. The EU’s capture by neoliberalism is exactly the reason we must fight to remain: we, the people, must use the EU’s foundational approach of peaceful, transformative and incremental change to take back our economy and renew our democracy.
The European story should be celebrated. After centuries of war, countries with different histories and cultures have come together, opting to share sovereignty in some areas while keeping their own traditions, in order to work together for the common good. Being a member of the EU helps the UK meet head-on international challenges like the refugee crisis, international terrorism and climate change.
We know the EU isn’t perfect. We want the EU to be more democratic, to be genuinely accountable to the citizens of Europe. So, rather than capitulate to reactionary forces, our job must be to make the EU better. We need to democratise the EU, and to use it as the beginning of a global social movement of solidarity. And to do this we need to be in it!