Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Sleepwalking the EU

The European Union referendum debate is sputtering slowly towards half-life. Still largely framed as a debate between two parts of the Tory Party, with echoing accompaniment from their familiars in UKIP and the remnants of the Lib Dems, it has to be so far the most turgid, depressive experience in recent political history. None of the aspiration and joy, or even the passion and anger, of the Scottish referendum or the US elections. Just a bunch of men in suits, accompanied by the odd woman in a suit, trying to outdo each other with predictions of our imminent demise if we leave, or if we stay.

In the Scottish referendum, the so-called Project Fear, where the Westminster parties combined to try to scare Scots into opposing independence, so insulted voters that there was a huge swing against remaining in the UK. In the final six weeks, support for independence grew by about 50% and the final result was infinitely closer than expected.

Bizarrely, the same parties that instigated the negative campaigning in Scotland have now adopted the same tactics for the Eurovote - the big difference being that this time it is being used by both sides. Consider tonight's Guardian debate which pitched Labour's Alan Johnson and Lib Dem Nick Clegg for "Remain" against UKIP's Nigel Farage and the Tory Alison Leadsom for "Leave".

The messaging was as appalling as the last few weeks' worst:

- Brexit will justify the break up of the UK with a new Scottish referendum (Johnson)
- The UK Government won't allow the Scots to have another vote (Leadsom)
- Britain's security is at threat if we don't leave because of a combination of a European Army and poverty-stricken Turkey being allowed to join (Farage)
- Nigel Farage is "deeply, deeply dishonest" (Clegg)
- Nick Clegg has made a living out of telling lies (Farage)

Even the options on the paper - Remain or Leave - are somehow uninspiring. Should I remain or should I leave?  as the song never went.

The polls are bouncing around, and this is not surprising - voters are unclear of the issues because the politicians and the media are so used to simply printing and echoing horror stories about abroad that there is little ability to have any informed debate. The most progressive elements of the Remain camp, especially the trade unions, talk about the EU granting workers rights, and this is correct in the sense that a lot of employment law such as equal pay, anti-discrimination and health and safety rules is derived from EU regulations and directives.

However, implicit in the agreement signed up to by Cameron is an even greater ability than before for Britain to opt-out of many of these (as we have already over swathes of the working time regulations, for example) as well as a commitment to sign up to the appalling TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership treaty (TTIP). Both provisions significantly threaten the rights we have gained.

But on the Leave side there is equal dishonesty - they say we can leave and have a trade agreement with the EU which will somehow inevitably continue to trade with us, ignoring the fact that, as with all trade agreements, we would need to sign up to many of the same rules we apparently detest now but without having any say in them at all. Norway even pays billions a year to the EU for the privilege of trading with it while not a member.

Neither side to date has either given a compelling argument. The remain side largely ignores the positives - such as the record-breaking length of time the Continent that started two world wars has now enjoyed peace; we may haggle over budgets but no one is shooting at each other. Or the fact that freedom of movement has allowed millions of Britons to live in the EU as well as permitted Europeans to come to Britain. Some half million UK pensioners live in Spain and enjoy its free health service as a right. Similarly, the urgent international action required to tackle global warming has a headstart with an international institution like the EU acting as a springboard for action.

Equally, the Leave side could talk about Britain out of the EU developing more localised economies and strengthening rather than diluting workers and consumers rights - except that its leaders are pretty hostile to these things and detest the minimal rules the EU requires now.

So, in the coming weeks, it has to be hoped that the campaigns improve, lift their sights and provide some vision of the future that might get people along to vote - and more than that, think about the future. The Scottish referendum was noted for its massive engagement of people, on both sides, in an unprecedented way. But as things stand, it is not impossible that the biggest group in the EU vote will be the non-voters and, whatever the result of the ballot, the issue will remain unsettled.

Corbyn's Labour Party is silent as it increasingly turns inward. The Greens, by contrast, have produced a fairly optimistic video in support of remaining, though perhaps they could be doing a bit more to talk about the sort of EU they would like to build rather than fairly uncritically lauding the pretty messy and undemocratic structures we have now. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, meantime, has been a constructive voice for a more informed debate, but even she is talking more about the benefits of the status quo than what needs to change to benefit citizens' rather than big business interests.

Sleepwalking in or out of the European Union may not be the issue - the neoliberals and the banks remain the winners. The issue, as ever, is how we break past them and start to build a new, fairer, sustainable society - nationally and internationally. The different Europe of Varoufakis, not the corporate straight-jacket of Cameron, or Farage.

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