Image: Thijs ter Haar
When the date of the referendum was announced last weekend, it signalled an immediate shift in the discourses on the European Union. Consider that over the past few months, until last Saturday - and I mainly speak for myself, but I feel it is a fair extrapolation - our newsfeeds have not been dominated by discussions over the historical, political, social and cultural dimensions of the European Union. Far from it. It should strike us as immensely worrying that we now have less than four months to decide to Remain or Leave, and not merely because this is clearly an immensely short period of time. More specifically, there is too little time for people who have not already engaged in the debate to conceive of what our country would look like in decades to come - whether we are part of the EU or not - as discussions over the EU by politicians and the media have generally lacked a coherent political vision.
Compare this lack of general debate to the Scottish referendum in September 2014. There was crucially a difference in the relative order of events; that is, of negotiation and voting. The negotiations concerning what a future independent Scotland would look like following a Yes vote would have only occurred after the vote had taken place, which meant that the topics of debate on formal and informal levels across Scotland did not tend to focus on the technical details of future negotiations. This is not to say that issues in Europe, such as the significance of the EU Working Time Directive, were irrelevant to British people during Cameron's negotiations. However, the wider, overarching pertinence of these issues had until a few days ago been obscured by an almost singular focus on the political manoeuvres of Cameron in European summits, and the general political machinations of particular individuals in the Tory party using the EU referendum as a platform for their own power plays.
Instead of articulating concerns about what 'British sovereignty' really means in relation to global capital, or emphasising that Britain is not nearly as exceptional in relation to the European project as some would like to think, we have instead been compelled to follow Cameron's exploits. We have witnessed the resounding failure of a Prime Minister who wasted the time of European ministers in the midst of an overwhelming refugee crisis, to extract relatively minor concessions.
More generally however, what seems to be distinctly lacking at the moment is the same visceral expressions of people's political engagement, which were present in Scotland months before its referendum. This political energy varied in its manifestations - whether in outward displays of 'Yes' or 'No' signs in household windows, or in the conversations of clubbers outside the smoking area in Glasgow's Sub Club talking about the referendum. I remember going back home to Manchester briefly for a few months prior to the referendum having been in Edinburgh for several years, and being struck by a noticeable lack of awareness amongst many in England of how fervent the political energy was in Scotland. Likewise, it now seems that the worrying prospect of leaving the EU has not been given the due weight in formal and informal discourses that you would hope is imminently given to it.
There is however one striking similarity between the Scottish and EU referendums -the direction of a victorious outcomes would have been, or will be in the EU's case, determined by the main campaigns. Many Scottish Green Party members were avid proponents of Scottish independence, on the basis of implementing more egalitarian economic policies, even though the balance of power at the time of the referendum was fundamentally wielded by the SNP - a party that was effectively encouraging a race to the bottom in terms of corporation tax, which conflicted with the economic policies conceived of by the Greens. Similarly, even if you were of the opinion that Britain would not particularly suffer from leaving the EU, and thought that it could even significantly gain by leaving the EU, consider who is leading this campaign - Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and and Nigel Farage These self-proclaimed saviours of the EU are not just men you would fundamentally not like to get a pint with, but, moreover, they represent a group with an almost pathological hatred of the EU, and who have so far failed to present to the British public a clear idea of where we would stand outside of the European Union.
Instead of an expansive political vision of what Britain may look like either within or out of the European Union, the British public have been thrown into a debate, which although should transcend the petty politics of self-serving Conservative ministers, has nonetheless been obscured by it.