The Blog

The European Union Is an Awful Choice  -  But We Can't Afford to Be Simplistic

I don't have much sympathy for the European Union in its current form. The EU has a congenitally undemocratic DNA that is designed for big business and littered with secretive lobbying networks built to resist genuine public scrutiny. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the democratically elected left-wing government of Greece, failing to behave humanely toward that long-suffering European country. The EU's economic failure is fuelling racism and ultra-right movements all across the continent, transforming the EU referendum debate from a genuine national conversation into a desolate political wasteland.

Europe is now caught in a vicious cycle, fluctuating between the false opposites of capitulation to neoliberal globalization and temptation to anti-immigrant populism. Hostility towards the governing establishment is widely shared in nations on both sides of the Atlantic. If this trend persists, some of the world's greatest democracies could eventually fall into Trumpism in full pomp.

To those of us who want societies run in the interests of the majority rather than unaccountable corporate interests, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) epitomizes prevailing global capitalism, and its negative social impact is clear enough. Such continental trade deals represent a brutal assault on democracy and the economic security of average citizens. Mechanisms such as the Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) enshrine the legal rights of companies to sue governments in private courts if any legislation potentially infringes on a company's right to profit, paving the way for unelected transnational corporations to dictate the policies of democratically elected governments. Similar clauses in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have already started to show their effects across Canada, the US and Mexico.

How would Brexit fare in this context? The left in the UK has mistrusted the European project since its inception and it's easy to see why. Supporting Brexit is a natural tendency when one can imagine the potential treasure chest of a strong nation state rejecting the Brussels bureaucrats' austerity-driven politics. This belief, however, is the most wrongheaded one of all when you consider the political realities at stake in a post referendum world. Public concern has grown globally as international migration has risen. Europe's far right is already feeding off the despair fuelled by extreme trade agreements and a backlash against refugees fleeing decades of violence in the Middle East.

Breaking the shackles of Brussels will not likely produce a democratic emancipation from mainland Europe; but it could let loose the chauvinistic demons that have been somewhat tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in Austria, France, Germany and many other parts of Europe. Brexit would most likely mean a hard swing to the right in British politics as well, and a galvanizing of UKIP-bolstered xenophobia.

Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are being deliberately dishonest and divisive, playing a cynical political game as they treat potential economic chaos for the discontented working class as a low-risk political ladder. When Michael Gove says he's on the side of the common people, he means that he's willing to ride a wave of populism with potent political passion -- as long as it suits him.

Facts are especially important when the cohesion of the society is at stake. Immigration is a legitimate concern of the voters, given the failure of successive governments to build public confidence by applying sensible polices. However, although The Leave Campaign's case on immigration may successfully exploit voters' insecurities and fears, their argument is fundamentally flawed. Migrant labour is routinely needed in this country by the NHS, supermarkets, public transport and it's a critical part of the service economy. The truth is that for centuries Britain has benefited from the dynamism and hard work of immigrants, and it needs international talent and ideas in this fast-changing world.

I remain convinced that our only hope is to mobilize transnationally. The movement to defeat TTIP has received the support of well over 3 million Europeans in a little over a year. In Berlin, 250,000 people took to the streets rejecting the "free trade" agenda. Linking up campaigners across Europe together has seriously stalled the process, perhaps fatally. In Spain movements such as Podemos resist austerity and privatization policies imposed throughout Europe. In the US, though Bernie Sanders is unlikely to become the Democratic nominee, his progressive movement is forcing even pro-trade Hillary Clinton to re-examine TTIP.

This kind of politics aims to unite with people across the continent to build a cohesive, democratic Europe that is run in the interests of the majority. Fragmentation is not the right instrument to confront the immigration crisis, global warming, corporate greed or other truly pressing issues.

In the absence of genuine political will to challenge the neoliberal order, simply voting yes or no will not address the real issues that this referendum raised, which focus on the essential concern: the capacity of pan-European democratic engagement in this neoliberal age. And it is because of this margin of hope that I believe Britain needs to stay in the EU -- so that it can lead the reform of the bloc with the help of transnational grassroots movements that are defining the terms of the struggle. It won't be easy, but it is worth a try. If it fails, the EU may ultimately be shattered by its own many contradictions.