The EU debate: why left leave is making me angry

EU panel debate

I am angry.*

I’ve spoken in a few debates about the EU Referendum recently (the image above is from the Edinburgh People’s Festival debate with Jim Sillars and Neil Findlay). In these, as with my recent blog post, I have tried to present a left wing case for remaining a part of the EU. I have tried to present a vision of a better Europe, one with democracy, transparency, equality and social justice at its heart; along similar lines to the vision of the Democracy in Europe Movement. I don’t, for one moment, think that such a EU is inevitable with a remain vote, just as I did not believe a yes vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum would automatically result in a better Scotland. With Europe, as with Scotland, change and reform will take a great deal of very hard work. It will take the building, developing and sustaining of a social movement across the continent. But creating, having, building and sharing that vision is important. So important.

Many people, in the discussions I’ve seen, heard and contributed to so far, have been lamenting the depressing nature of the debate so far: it has been so completely dominated by the political right, by Bullingdon boys arguing about which vote will serve the interests of neoliberalism better. I have said that we, on the left, must take some responsibility for this. We have a responsibility, a duty, to liven up the debate. To put forward more interesting ideas. To propose what the future – whatever the result – would look like.

To date, I have seen nothing from the left leave campaign that paints a picture for me about a positive future for the UK out of the EU. I have asked several people, challenged fellow debate panel members, asked members of Lexit. And I get the same response from most of them: the EU is undemocratic, it has been captured by neoliberal and corporatist interests, it is not transparent, it is xenophobic. And so on.

I know all of this. I agree with it. I don’t want the status quo. But I don’t see that leaving the EU delivers the radically different Europe (or UK, or Scotland) I want to see. The left’s inability or unwillingness to say how things will be better after a leave vote (for anyone) is making me angry.

I have tried to focus on the potential for a different EU. I have acknowledged the problems of the status quo, but not really gone into them in any detail, not really outlined how leaving the EU does not make these problems go away but will probably make them worse. So here’s some more on this. After this rant, I’ll try and be positive again. But for now, three key reasons why leaving the EU will be bad:

  1. If we can’t reform the EU, we can’t reform the world

So much of the commentary from left leave folk is about how it is just not possible to reform the EU. This sounds very much like an acceptance that reform, anywhere, is not possible. When challenged, many reform-of-the-EU-is-not-possible advocates fail to acknowledge just how broken the British state is. If we leave the EU, we will be at the mercy of a British state, a Westminster institution that has shown no inclination to change.

Remember how hard members of the British establishment railed against change in the AV referendum? They fought tooth and nail against AV – a relatively minor change to our ‘democracy’. That is how resistant to change they are.

The Tories (who will be leading any negotiations following a leave vote) want to increase the membership of the unelected House of Lords by 100 peers, whilst reducing the number of members in the elected House of Commons by 50 MPs. That is how antagonistic to democracy they are.

The Tories went to see Mrs Windsor prior to the last General Election to try and get her to say that people should vote Conservative. That is how resistant to any kind of real democracy (never mind electing the UK’s head of state) they are.

And if we want to talk about TTIP (so many people saying that our NHS is only safe outside the EU, that we won’t be able to have nationalised services as part of the EU), how many members of the UK Cabinet disagree with TTIP and will not want to sign it regardless of EU membership? Zero. Whereas Tsipras, as a member of the European Council, has said he will veto it.

And don’t, for a moment, believe that the Tories will fall apart following a leave vote. Leaving the EU removes the biggest issue of division in the party. They have always been, and will always be, very good at uniting after a battle, no matter how bloody – we have centuries of evidence for this. It might mean losing some prominent personalities, but it won’t dent the Tory ability to hold on to power.

Leaving the EU does not leave us with a blank canvas to create new democratic governance structures. It leaves us with a Tory government and the instruments of the British state that have no interest in us as humans, simply as objects (I don’t even think we qualify as subjects) that can be used to further their neoliberal, imperial interests.

[As a side note, it is for these reasons that I wanted, and still want, Scottish independence. That would lead to a fracture of the British state. Leaving the EU won’t result in a fracture of the EU. And it certainly won’t result in a fracture of the British state. In fact, I think leaving the EU will reinforce the British state. But that’s not what this post is about.]

  1. The problem is Neoliberalism, not the institutions of the EU

This is closely linked to my first point above. The institutions of the EU are not only un- and/or anti- democratic, they have been captured by neoliberalism. But so has the British state. We need to work across borders, building social movements that transcend any kind of nationalism, to challenge neoliberalism.

The EU has become an instrument of neoliberalism. But there is nothing inevitable about this. Going back nearly 70 years, the first thoughts about transnational co-operation were about changing things: about ensuring that war was not the default way to deal with disagreements; about creating new institutions that could redefine our relationships with power; about finding and sharing, across cultural differences, a common humanity; about creating peace and understanding, and defining democracy anew. That is the foundation of the EU. That is what we’ve got to use to challenge its capture by neoliberalism. Leaving the EU does not destroy neoliberalism. Let’s not get distracted from the bigger, and so much more important, goal.

  1. Immigration and freedom of movement will be worse under a Tory government

I am a South African citizen. I was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. I have experienced, first hand, the consequences of colonialism, IMF-imposed structural adjustment, paternalism. I have also experienced the constraints imposed on foreigners by the UK Border Agency and the Home Office. Several years ago (before the laws became even more restrictive) I bought – for that’s what it amounts to – indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

I say ‘bought’ because I had to pay for the stamp in my passport. Before this I had to pay for the ‘Life in the UK’ test. Before this I had to pay for the books that contained the information required to pass the Life in the UK test. Before this I had to pay for the temporary visas to study and work in the UK. Before this I had to pay for the education required to enable me to be in a position to study and work in the UK. Thousands of pounds later, I am treated with less suspicion than other Africans (still some suspicion, though, but it is further moderated by the colour of my skin and the accent that comes out of my mouth) at border controls because of a fancy little stamp in my passport.

The UK’s immigration system is racist. It is classist. It is xenophobic. It is social engineering: you have to be wealthy enough and well enough educated to be granted entry to the UK. In other words, you must not be poor, unable to speak English, or uneducated.

Most people arguing to leave the EU are British/EU subjects/citizens. Having had the privilege of freedom of movement across the continent (and most of the rest of the world), these people have little idea of what it is like to have arcane restrictions placed on your ability to move around, simply because of where your parents were when you were born, or what their origins were.

If the UK leaves the EU, every single EU citizen will be subjected to similar restrictions that I and thousands of others from around the world are subjected to. Do you really want to expose thousands of Europeans to the racist, classist UKBA? And, if the UK adopts a points-based system like Australia has, how long will it be until people trying to get into the UK are held in detention centres off-shore, where crimes, including rapes, go uninvestigated? This is the reality for refugees at the moment in Europe, which is not on. It is also the reality for would-be immigrants to Australia.

So …

We face a choice. And it may be about choosing the lesser of two evils. But for me, it is a clear choice. We can either allow the Tories to boot out immigrants, to treat other Europeans as appallingly as they treat those from the rest of the world, and to rip up the social charter. Or we can work with those across the continent to build a workers’ movement across Europe, to build a social movement of solidarity that will be our only hope of challenging neoliberalism in Dundee, Brussels, Athens, Harare, Pretoria, Canberra and elsewhere.

If anyone from the left campaigning to leave the EU can give me a clear vision for a better UK outside the EU, I’m all ears.

* Addendum for clarity: Several folk have expressed dismay that Left Leave is making me angrier than the Tories and other right wing groups on both sides of the debate … that is not what I’ve said at all. Left Leave has made me angry because I am yet to hear what their positive vision for either the UK or the EU is if we vote to leave. I am absolutely livid at the content of the mainstream (rightwing) debate and the manner in which it is happening. Please don’t mistake these different sources of anger!

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15 thoughts on “The EU debate: why left leave is making me angry

  1. thank you for the clarity of your comments. I am coming to Scotland second half of July. It would be good to see you if you have the time? Florence

  2. I havent heard a vision from any remain campaigner that is positive other than wishful thinking that a neo-liberal capitalist market driven club will become a new shiny worker-friendly institution. But that doesnt make me angry. You should aim your anger at the tories not the left who want a better deal for workers.

    1. Believe me, Jim, I do aim anger and campaigning effort in the manner you suggest. As I say in my introductory paragraph, I don’t usually do negative stuff (I try to remain relentlessly positive), but I would really like to hear about a positive vision of the UK and the EU if we decide to leave.

  3. “The UK’s immigration system is racist. It is classist. It is xenophobic. It is social engineering: you have to be wealthy enough and well enough educated to be granted entry to the UK. In other words, you must not be poor, unable to speak English, or uneducated.”

    So why exactly should we let such people in? Out of charity and goodwill even when it is to the detriment of British people in a country already in massive government debt, overpopulated and with struggling public services? Or should we ignore these facts simply because you have some sort of chip on your shoulder against Britain?

    1. I believe in open borders. I also know, for a fact (published by the IFS, LSE and others) that immigration produces a net gain economically for the UK. And we certainly benefit culturally and socially. Foreign nationals, for example, make up a significant proportion of NHS staff. I think that’s a positive thing.

      And I don’t have “some sort of chip on (my) shoulder against Britain”. I do, however, try to resist imperialism, racism and xenophobia. If that means campaigning against government policies or state structures, then that is what I will do.

  4. Thank you for sharing these thoughts Maggie, I full heartedly agree with you.
    However I think you’re a unfairly harsh about how (un) democratic the EU institutions are…
    Also, there’s something wrong with this statement :
    “How many members of the monstrosity that is the European Commission disagree with TTIP? One – Tsipras – who has said he will veto it.”
    1) Tsipras is not a member of the Commission, he is a member of the European Council (Council of European head of states / PMs)
    2) more than one members of the European Council disagree with TTIP, I believe the French also threatened to veto it, for example
    3) within the ‘monstrous commission’ DG trade is a big proponent of TTIP, but not all DGs are. I highly doubt that DG environment and DG social affairs are. There’s a clear split in the EC on TTIP (and arguably neoliberalism in general) so all DGs shouldn’t be painted with the same brush i.m.o.
    Best,
    Celia

    1. Thank you, Celia. Yes, you are right on all of those counts (I’ve edited that one sentence to address one of your points). And I say elsewhere that there are democratic structures in the EU … but that wasn’t the focus for this piece. The whole TTIP debate is complex and nuanced – I just wish we got better coverage, discussion and debate about the process in the UK.

  5. Brilliant article thank you Maggie. There are many in the EU fighting tirelessly against TTIP btw…. three UK Green MEPS for starters. Those on the left who want to leave the EU are seduced by a bourgeois fantasy. Get it together people. Read the article again!

  6. I love and welcome your rant, but the fourth reason the left (brexits) talk about is the free market, which is not accessible from with in EU. Could you have an informed rant about that so I can understand how to counter that. Thank you

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