Be careful what EU wish for

The EU is a crisis-ridden institution. Why do we keep pretending that Remain is the more stable option for the Left? By Ray Bellchambers

June 28, 2018
7 min read

Protesters at the March for Europe, July 2016. Photo by Alisdare Hickson

The remain campaign, in its various guises, is moving into high gear. With an endless array of speaking tours, banner drops and marches, they have been highly successful in gaining media coverage – albeit less so in actually persuading Tory MPs to rebel against the hard-line Brexit-means-Brexiteers leading their party.

For young people in particular, the chosen rhetoric of ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ is peculiarly disjointed from the reality of the cause they are promoting. The Remain campaign had and continues to have almost nothing positive to say about the future, and can only rail to a sceptical public against the supposedly reckless, idiotic folly of leaving (whatever happened to the ‘punishment budget’?). That a lot of young people can only see a future blighted by insecure service jobs, unable to move out from home, or suffocating amounts of debt has apparently not factored into a campaign that speaks only for those with an already bright future to ‘protect’ from the uncertainty of Brexit.

Whilst it would be unfair to tar left-wing groups like Another Europe is Possible with the same brush as their conservative counterparts, both these camps portray Lexit as fundamentally, unforgivably reckless. They claim Lexit is the delusion of chancers who are jeopardising a swathe of hard-won human rights, workers’ rights, migrant rights and so on at the hands of a Tory Brexit, in the vain hope that sometime, somewhere down the line the Left will benefit.

Nonetheless, the most reasonable remainers on Left will concede, when confronted with the many inconvenient truths about the EU, that their argument is really a case of ‘better the devil you know’. Amidst all the debate about what the future would hold for the Left if we leave, little attention has been paid to the multiple, overlapping crisis facing the EU elsewhere. It is assumed that remaining is automatically the more secure option. But in reality, the EU is on an unstable and worrying trajectory, driven by forces its institutions are incapable of confronting and events beyond its control.

The migration crisis has seen states cracking down on migrants, repeatedly violating the human rights principles that the EU is supposed to enshrine. It has exposed the complete inability of the EU to enforce agreements and standards without being able to use the muscle of the European Central Bank to back them up. On the face of it, this is a textbook example of where the EU’s long-forgotten principles of compromise, pooling of resources and tolerance should have been able to prevail.

When in 2015 the European Council agreed to introduce a low-numbers resettlement quota system it seemed as though a politically significant baby step had been taken towards a unified response. But instead, the system was simply ignored by the central European Visegrad group and barely implemented in most of the rest of Europe with no substantive repercussions. Of the 160,000 who were supposed to be resettled, only 28,000 ever were – despite multiple time extensions. Meanwhile, FRONTEX has been empowered to act as an indiscriminate interdiction, detention and deportation agency, perversely acting to curtail the right to asylum in the name of European ‘humanitarianism’.

The Left argument runs that, despite all its contradictions, the EU remains a bulwark against the worst excesses of reactionary Tory social policy. But there’s no reason to put any such faith in it. In Poland and in Hungary almost every shade of homophobic, anti-Semitic or otherwise illiberal legislation has been passed with concerned weasel words the best the EU can offer. Now, with Austria’s chancellor and interior minister proposing military secure zones in north Africa to ‘concentrate’ migrants, and light-wing nationalists topping the polls even in places like Sweden, there is absolutely no reason to believe the EU can act as a functional counterweight to the rise of the far Right. Just as likely is that the mainstream Christian Democratic Right simply moves further rightwards to accommodate and neutralise the electoral threat of such groups, a tactic that has a less than glowing pedigree.

Whilst economists are right to worry about the sheer cliff of a no-deal Brexit, the EU is no bastion of economic stability. The slow burn economic crisis has no end in sight. Whilst yields (ergo risk) on government debt have mostly stabilised for now, Southern European debtors persist in an apparently permanent state of limbo; not quite in crisis but not quite in recovery either. The neoliberal medicine they were prescribed has satisfied the debt markets but also precludes any policies to meaningfully restructure their economies or secure any of the proceeds of growth for their populaces. The chronically overvalued and economically malignant Euro is kept artificially strong to the benefit of French and German consumers whilst making the exports of poorer European countries uncompetitive, in a zero-sum game which ultimately benefits nobody. Only a minor downturn is needed to trigger another, even greater round of crisis.

Each set of reforms coming out of Brussels compels more economic ‘liberalisation’ than the last, and any wiggle room to evade politically unpopular changes is diminishing fast. All signs point towards the continued imposition of neoliberal reforms from above wherever they have so far been resisted at a national level, a debt time bomb that Europe’s anaemic economies will be poorly placed to weather and, ultimately, the painful and protracted break-up of the Euro.

Recent events in Italy have demonstrated very clearly the stance the commission and its ever-beneficent Franco-German leadership have taken to these crises. When one of Europe’s most historically federalist states tried to form a coalition between the big-tent populists of the Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant Lega Nord, it was M5S’s choice of a Eurosceptic former technocrat as finance minister that caused a flurry of pushback which culminated in a near constitutional crisis. So much furore, yet barely a mention that Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini would become deputy prime minister. In the last two weeks, Salvini has left a boat carrying over 600 men, women and children stranded in the Mediterranean, proposed a compulsory register of Roma gypsies, and called for a ‘mass cleansing, street by street, quarter by quarter’. It couldn’t be clearer where the commission’s true priorities lie.

Far from being any kind of safe option, the actual consequences of remaining are no less uncertain, and no less potentially dire for the Left than those of leaving. In either case we can only really make an informed guess at great historical contingencies that are at play across Europe. Leave supporting Leftists have sought to demonstrate that in leaving the EU, great opportunities for socialist advances exist – not simply those of of reactionary backsliding. The question to which no adequate answer appears to have been found is what opportunities exist inside the EU, given the dangers are no less acute? What if you got what you wished for, but it didn’t turn out how you thought?