Brexit: You decide
I’ve always had strong feelings about the EU. Throughout my life, my support for it has flip-flopped between strong support and vague suspicion of its motives and impact. It really seems at the moment that the EU and its ideals are in an existential crisis. Although I don’t personally think it’s worth overhyping current events in the EU, there are big forces shaping or reshaping its future.
The EU has been severely tested in recent years: the Greek financial crisis; the UK’s ever-increasing demands for change; and the huge migrant /refugee crisis in this half of Eurasia. My goal with this post is to lay out my thinking about the EU as I can’t decide whether I will vote yes or no when we go to the polls soon in the UK to decide either to stay or to leave.
Turning first to the Greek financial crisis, personally I found the twists and turns of that crisis to be one of the more shocking political and diplomatic events that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, if not the most shocking. There are a lot of arguments about what caused the crisis, whether down to Greece herself with reckless policies and spending or downto simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time following the global financial crisis. The examination of the causes is to miss the essential point, however, as the response to it revealed some bitter truths about the EU.
The EU theoretically is a union of equal states, although pragmatically thinking, there are bigger members and smaller members in terms of economy and diplomacy. It’s therefore natural that some members (such as Germany and France) are the leading voices within the union. My personal contention is that in the earlier days of the EU (and its previous incarnations), there was a rough equilibrium at least in terms of living standards and political outlook throughout the union. It was a union of equals.
This equilibrium started to seriously deteriorate when the former Eastern Bloc countries eventually joined the union during the 1990s and beyond. The absorption of nations into the EU with much lower living standards than the existing nations, with more emergent and fragile economies, as well as different political outlooks created an inherent instability in the union. In my view, there was far too much backslapping at the demise of the Soviet Union by the West and a rush to bring the Eastern Bloc in from the cold, into the all-embracing union. This was done without any thought of the longer-term consequences or without any clear strategy and effort to raise the new EU nations to the same living standards and economic prosperity and stability as the old EU nations.
The relevancy for Greece is that the leading nations of Europe grew flushed with their new power and dominance. They became used to their power and the ability to wield it in their own interests. When Greece floundered, she was utterly humiliated and defenestrated by Germany. Had Greece been a singular person then her treatment could readily be argued to inhuman and degrading torture and punishment.
Greece sacrificed to protect the stability of Germany and the savings accounts of German citizens. To put it more politely, Hellenic sovereignty was severely compromised and the principle of self-determination of the Greek people was suppressed. It was a crushing defeat in a war waged on a defenceless nation waged not with bullets and boots but with money and imposed laws.
The whole episode of Greece was highly illuminating, showing that the principles that the EU was founded upon were ultimately bankrupt. It is not a union but really more like a “league” of ancient style; an organisation to enable hegemony big over small.
Turning to the ongoing migrant crisis sweeping over Europe as I write, there are further essential truths about the EU revealed by Europe’s handling of this crisis. Again, this strikes at the very core of what the EU really is about.
Last year I read an article in an American magazine critical of the EU’s response to the migrant crisis. At that time, I hadn’t really heard of the migrant crisis as it wasn’t very big in the news at the time. The particular article was critical of the EU’s decision to cut funding for migrant assistance in the Mediterranean, especially in context of boat patrols and rescuing migrants in distress.
As I read into this subject, I found that there were some really shocking things going on that weren’t being reported on and the response of the EU was quite pitiful. People were literally dying at the gates of Europe, quite often because of the inactivity of the EU.
Fast forward to today, we now all know how serious this crisis is and we’ve seen various waves of responses by the EU. It’s here that the real weaknesses of the EU can be observed.
The first weakness is lack of consensus. It’s quite easy to observe the various cliques that have formed within the EU. There’s richer nations like Germany that have opened the floodgates to migrants. There’s richer nations like the UK that are trying to close the doors to anyone: legitimate, illegitimate, or other. The struggling economies in other parts of Europe, especially in the South, it’s fair to say are not keen on taking in the large influx of migrants.
Not only does this display the vast inequalities between the fortunes of the nations within the EU, which creates an instability within it, it also shows the vast difference of opinions between the nations within the EU. This wide range of opinions could be seen as a good thing as it brings lots of ideas to the table but ultimately we’re talking about politics that affect the everyday life of the people of the EU so it often means ever-increasing tension and divisiveness.
The second weakness shown by this crisis is the lack of agility and responsiveness. This weakness is fed and propagated by the lack of consensus but also in the way that the EU is structured and operates. The migrant crisis has gone through various stages of reaction by the EU but they’ve all been characterised by slow, miscalculated responses that have been woefully inadequate for the scale of the crisis.
The third weakness is lack of concern for people living in and out of the EU. For me, this is the really key point because it goes beyond institutions and into principles and how those principles apply to people.
I personally believe that we do have a moral responsibility to help those people outside of Europe who feel they have no choice but to risk their lives in travelling to Europe. I believe we need to help them here and to help them back in their homelands. That could mean different things but the point that I want to expose is that there are a lot of people who are fearful in Europe about what unchecked migration will mean. Whether that fear is justified or not, governments like the German government don’t seem to recognise those fears with their seemingly well-meaning but ill-thought-out invitation to migrants fleeing terrible situations outside of Europe.
On the other hand, there are governments in many other countries, the UK included, who are using this crisis as an opportunity to increase fear in our to gain political advantage. Both of these approaches do a great disservice to the people of the EU as it demonstrates no empathy or understanding of people and their needs.
If one examines the German response to the crisis in issuing a seemingly unconditional invitation to migrants, on the surface this seems to have been done in the highest traditions of the European idea. A deeper consideration, however, reveals a highly cynical side to this: Germany’s population is ageing more rapidly than other developed nations in Europe and it needs a large influx of young, fit workers to change this trend. Ultimately, their invitation wasn’t purely humanitarian, it was an attempt by Germany to retain its leading position in the EU in the future. Really it’s a calculated move to preserve Germany’s dominance.
Ultimately, this all demonstrates that principles don’t matter in the EU, it’s truthfully a platform to enable competition between nations. The EU is not the great leveller that it’s billed to be.
Therein lies the essential dilemma that I face, with the rest of UK citizens, in deciding how to vote. I’ve really come to understand how flawed the EU and a big part of me wants to vote no to staying in the union because I want the UK to show that principles matter and it’s not right for the EU to abandon its principles whenever they’re not convenient.
On the other hand, my rational side says that this is just all realpolitik and that the massive economic benefits the UK receives as a member of the EU should take primacy over high-minded principles.
Certainly, my conclusion is that the UK is fighting the right battle for the wrong reasons. It shouldn’t be about immigration or even really about some abstract notion of sovereignty, it should be about how the EU treats people, whether they’re citizens or not.