THE BLOG

EU Referendum: It's Not Just the Economy, Stupid!

03/02/2016 09:48 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:12 GMT

The notion of 'Brexit' is no longer the sole domain of Tory Eurosceptics and UKIPpers. There are many compelling left-wing arguments for leaving the European Union; the EU's perceived obsession with free trade, potentially to the detriment of environmental safeguards and workers' rights; its exasperating tendency to shoot itself in the foot through opaque decision-making combined with some appalling PR. The EU can indeed be its own worst enemy.

The economic arguments for the UK's place in the European Union are well rehearsed. 1 in 10 British jobs is directly linked to our membership of the European single market. The EU is the destination for over 50% of our exports. Business leaders are lining up to warn about the potential impact of casting ourselves out of the Euro-club.

In my view, the impending referendum is about so much more than economics. It goes to the very core of the kind of country we aspire to be. On offer are two diametrically opposed visions for Britain's future identity. The first is an outward-looking, collaborationist vision, while the opposite is the image of an aloof island nation cut off from its neighbours both physically and psychologically.

The truth is that despite being one of the largest contributors to the EU, with all the positive influence we could exert as a consequence, we behave largely like an annoying terrier, constantly yapping at the ankles of our European allies. Instead, we should aim to be fully committed members, critical but constructive, seeking the kind of change that the citizens of the EU so desperately need, rather than languishing in a constant state of paranoia and bemoaning a perceived loss of sovereignty that is actually a smokescreen for a huge whack of misplaced jingoism and xenophobia. The inherent irony of our deluded sense of superiority is that there are one million Brits living in Spain, 330,000 in France, and 65,000 in Cyprus.

Progressives across Europe are understandably anxious but undoubtedly, the European Union currently reflects the nature of the national governments within it. The sad reality is that neoliberal capitalist thinking is pervasive in most European countries with each government vying to force the union to dance to a tune of its choosing, within the context of a global financial crisis, which - ironically - the associates (or cronies) of many of these governments are directly responsible for. This goes some way to explaining the horror that is TTIP - strangely enough, right-wingers who dislike the EU tend to think TTIP is a great idea. Funny, that.

However, that is not to say that this is the permanent state of affairs. Across Europe, people are beginning to reject the narrative of austerity and division. I believe this could eventually pull the EU back from the precipice and see it fulfill its role as a potentially massive driver for change, with people and the planet at its centre. What I do know for sure is this: an isolationist UK - with or without Scotland - will do nothing to enhance the country's standing in the world, nor the lives of the people in it.

Even in Greece, certainly the greatest victim of the current domination of centre-right politics in Europe, there is no convincing evidence of popular support for 'Grexit'. On the contrary, even SYRIZA's posters feature the slogan 'Yes to Europe, No to Austerity'. A pro-EU stance does not equate to an unequivocal endorsement of how Brussels operates right now, no more than those that voted 'No' to Scottish independence did so in the misguided belief that Westminster is a democratic utopia.

The bottom line is this; if the UK feels that we are sidelined at the European Union, that is because we conduct ourselves like a stroppy child; haughty, detached and often downright contemptuous. We find ourselves in the absurd situation whereby in the 2009-14 parliament, UKIP, who now hold 22 of the UK's 73 seats in the European Parliament, ranked 76th out of 76 for attendance, took part in just 61% of votes, and had three of the six lowest attending MEPs. Imagine how much more we could influence the agenda were we to have more progressive MEPs fighting for the right causes and actually being there to represent our interests.

Reforming the EU goes hand-in-hand with winning the arguments here at home. In simply jumping ship, we would effectively be throwing in the towel and saying that we see no future for progressive politics in Europe. If that is the case, then we might as well all surrender to the neoliberal consensus right now. An EU of progressive parties and politics is possible but it starts in individual nation states.

Self-imposed isolation is not the solution. In threatening to throw our weight behind the campaign to leave the EU, those of us with a global vision of equality and sustainability would be doing the Farages of this world a wholly undeserved favour. So, let's get off the sidelines and be the change we want to see in the EU, change for the common good.