I will vote to remain in the European Union. This is a frustrated, uncertain and reluctant decision, for reasons outlaid below. In brief, it is frustrated because of the character of the referendum campaign, which, approaching its twilight stages, can be commented on in retrospect. It is an uncertain decision because, frankly, I do not feel qualified to make the decision. This is partly because of the campaign, partly because of my own institutional ignorance, and partly because of the subject matter: the EU is large and complex, boring yet intriguing, open but shadowy, protective yet destructive, benign yet malicious, monochromatic but vividly technicolour. This makes a rational, all-encompassing cost-benefit calculation impossible. But a decision to either remain or leave, or a decision to avoid making a decision, must still be made. And so the decision to remain is reluctant, because despite the intrigue, illegality, destructiveness and malice, leaving the EU is fraught with horrors and speculation.
The referendum campaign has been perhaps predictably awful, and is completely representative of the state of British politics. Larry Siedentop’s book Democracy in Europe — a must-read regardless of the outcome — begins with the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America and the debate that took place before and after, culminating with The Federalist Papers, a collection of letters and essays which, in Siedentop’s view, “rank, in subtlety and depth, with the most important works of European political thought”. They wrote about democracy, about constitutions, about the powers of executives and legislatures, and about the balance of power between unequal, federalised states. This referendum was a chance to have a thoughtful public debate on the federation we are part of, on the workings of democracy in a supranational setting, over Britain’s place in the global economy, on the nature of globalisation and the movement of people and capital, and on the value of the EU as a monetary and political bloc and as a powerful economic actor in a world of unruly, competing capitalisms.
We’ve had none of that. Instead arguments emanating from the Leave campaign oscillate between the staccato misnomer of ‘we’re full’, to Boris Johnson waving a Cornish pasty from a London bus, repeating ad nauseum their slogan ‘take back control’, which is supposed to signify reclaimed power over the thematic dyad of immigration and territorial sovereignty, but actually means ‘give parliamentary control to ambitious Tories’. They utter it at every given opportunity — using it during BBC 1’s ‘Great Debate’ to finish almost every tired sentence — and it is a style of sloganeering politics about as far away from the Federalist Papers as can be imagined. As Paul Mason wrote, although the Leave camp try to frame their message as an empowering one, not a single campaigner has given a clear, reasoned opinion on whether Brexit will offer “a rise in wages, a cap on rents, a fall in NHS waiting times or class sizes”. Likely it will result in an extension of the market discipline favoured by Priti Patel, who would like to “halve the burdens of EU social and employment legislation”. The ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by Nigel Farage epitomised the gauche soul of the Brexiteer: vote leave because an endless serpent of brown people slithers across a broken Schengen zone, coming to scrounge more benefits, steal more jobs and plot even more terror.
The Remain campaign hasn’t exactly tried to hold the discursive high-ground. Cameron’s “bomb under the economy” is the kind of remark the Leave campaign will readily use as ammunition for their ‘Project Fear’ epithet. This is furthered by pop-up appearances from the economic technocracy — a necessity in Aditya Chakrabortty’s view because no one trusts Cameron and Osborne — which has likewise spread a message discord and ‘uncertainty’. This tactic will, to a degree, work. In the divorced world of currency trading, it already has: in March and April, fund managers and investors ‘pulled’ £65 billion out of the UK, by selling assets and money. There has been more optimism from the Remain campaign, in particular from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who wish to remain so that the ‘bonfire of protections’ cannot be ignited (however I don’t think Corbyn really had a choice: with most of the PLP on the Remain side, taking the opposite position would not have cemented over the cracks in his already fractured leadership base). But overall, the Brexiteers and Remainiacs have led a public debate soured by sensationalism and untruths and oven-baked statistics.
This is what taints my vote with frustration and uncertainty. The reluctance is added through what I am certain of — what I do know about the political economy of the European project. Even a fleeting narrative of the EU shows it to be a monolithic, neoliberal megastructure, committed to the accumulation of transnational and financial capital at the expense of labour, to technocracy over democracy, to creditors over debtors, to exporters over importers, and it adheres to this praxis with Parthenonic rigidity.
Returning to Siedentop, he worried that integration, or ‘ever closer political union’ could happen too rapidly, and that this was the aim of the Single European Act, and the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties. He also worried about what was guiding this integration: the cold language of economism, and uncaring bureaucratic governance. His fears were largely vindicated.
The inclusion in 2004 of the Visegrád Group, after the ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s, is hard to see as a wholly beneficial chapter in the EU’s history — or rather, wholly beneficial for the citizens of these nations. From the vantage of capital, on the other hand, it was tremendously advantageous. They have been termed ‘dependent market economies’ by Andreas Nölke and Arjan Vliegenthart — reservoirs of skilled but cheap labour, dependent on foreign technology for production, transnational corporations for employment, and capital through foreign direct investment (FDI). As Perry Anderson wrote in The New Old World, their addition to the European fold represented primarily a “privileged catchment for German investment”. However, it has meant FDI stocks amounting to around 70% of GDP and, especially in the case of Hungary, almost entirely foreign-owned banking sectors (hence Viktor Orban’s attempts to nationalise Hungary’s banks). It has also meant that collective agreements are reduced to the company level, so are less collective agreements, more workplace concessions. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the working class in Central and Eastern Europe have never really been able to build a strong worker’s movement, with strong employment protections. And all this was intentional. Jane Hardy writes that neoliberal reform, meaning here more lax rules on state aid to industry and competition, was a condition of Visegrád membership. It meant, essentially, restructuring their economies to accommodate transnational capital.
This process of ‘neoliberalisation’ — forgive the jargon — was not confined to the former-communist bloc. Even the archetypal social market economy — Germany — has undergone a similar process, starting slightly prior to the Visegrád inclusion with the ‘Agenda 2010’ reforms. The vaunted worker’s councils and associations and forms of ‘patient capital’ have steadily disappeared, which Wolfgang Streeck writes happened to the same anti-trade union chorus as was heard in the UK during the Thatcher period (Mark Blyth also noted this around the same time). Neoliberalisation has been a more-or-less continent-wide metamorphosis.
What this meant was the German banks increased their exposure to the world banking system almost much as their British and American counterparts. Where they differed was that, along with some French banks, they dominated an entire continent. They were Europe’s bankers. So, as Mark Blyth wrote in his book Austerity, when the financial-sector insolvency crisis hit, the British and American banks were ‘too big to fail’, however the German and French banks, with balance sheets larger than their respective nation’s GDP, were ‘too big to bail’ — or at least formally.
The financial crisis quite suddenly became a sovereign debt crisis, and was a litmus test for the resolve and decency of the EU; a measure of how the various institutions respond under financial pressure. The EU arguably failed this test, and nowhere is this clearer than in the cold disciplinarian treatment of Greece, a case study in applied neoliberalism. Many words were written last summer documenting the horror of everyday life in post-austerity Athens: people eating from bins in the streets, families made homeless, foreign owners of business beaten by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. A series of elected and semi-appointed governments began the systematic deflation of the economy to satisfy their fellow European creditors, losing a third of the national income and sending unemployment above 20%. A recent study by the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin found that, of the €220 billion provided in bailout tranches, 95% has found its way back to European banks, instead of into the Greek economy. When further austerity measures and bailout ‘packages’ were rejected by the Greek people in a referendum last July, the bureaucracies of the EU rejected the outcome of the referendum. This is the fundamental character of the EU; as Wolfgang Schäuble said to Yanis Varoufakis, “Elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state!”
More worryingly, what the treatment of Greece reveals is the informal way the European bureaucracy actually works, at least in moments of crisis. By this I mean that power, voice and authority do not always conform to the circumscriptions of the Treaty of Lisbon (the EU’s constitution). In particular, I mean the Eurogroup, which makes significant economic and monetary decisions within the EU, especially regarding Greece and the other subsidiary states, is, as Varoufakis puts it, “a body that does not even exist in European law, that keeps no minutes of its procedures and insists its deliberations are confidential — that is, not to be shared with the citizens of Europe” (which is in keeping with the classic institutionalist theory that says institutions are ‘durable entities’ guided by both formal and informal rules — there are the recorded meetings with recorded attendees and recorded votes, then there is the corridor intrigue, politicking, rule-bending and procedural ignorance). The same might be said of Angela Merkel’s role during the refugee crisis, which was prominent despite her being the head of one member state. In other words, while there are demarcations between the EU’s institutions — the unelected Commission proposes laws, that the elected European Parliament amends, which the sort-of-elected European Council then votes on — how power and authority are exercised need not, and does not, abide by these demarcations.
The unconstitutional power of the Eurogroup only underscores the unaccountability which permeates European institutions, shown also in the European Commission. It is true that the Parliament approves or vetoes the cadre hand-picked by the Commission president. But this is not democracy, it is appointment — they are not the same. Elected representatives derive moral authority from the electorate; those approved by representatives do not. No one thinks that staff appointed by British MPs are democratically accountable, because they are not. At least they answer to their MP; the Commission does not seem to always answer to the Parliament. It has had a tumultuous history, especially during the Jacques Santer period (the report following it being disbanded said “It was becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone who had the slightest sense of responsibility”). It is described as being staffed by insouciant elites, accused over the years of secrecy, mismanagement, nepotism and arrogance. Some would say the same of elected MPs, and they would be correct, but the MPs are at least accountable.
This kind of elitist tenor leads some to decry the bureaucracy of Brussels, even citing it as a reason to vote leave. The problem as I see it is unaccountability, which incubates a bureaucratic culture, rather than the bureaucracy itself. Really, bureaucracy on the scale of the EU’s is not at all alarming when it is understood that building a single, neoliberal market spanning an entire continent requires a vast architecture of bureaucracy. It requires a foreboding pyramid of courts, legal clerks, regulations, notaries, administration, auditors, inspectors, and police officers. In his book The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber calls it the ‘Iron Law of Liberalism’ — or any efforts to reduce the clumsy hand of the state and unshackle the efficient hand of the market will always result in a larger shuffle of bureaucrats. The problem is not bureaucracy, it is that power in the EU is vested into unknown, unseen and unanswerable hands.
In sum, the EU is an elitist, top-down, fortified neoliberal super-institution. The EU Commission’s own Industrial Relations report confirms as much, with economistic newspeak such as the need for workers to “internalise and adapt to increased adjustment capacity”, and that the industrial relations systems are seen as “part of the problem”, which are to be addressed if nations are to “regain price competitiveness”. This means, basically, workers need to accept less pay and work longer hours. It means collective agreements need to be reduced in substance if not in coverage. The Commission and the Eurogroup are not on the side of labour. We see this now in France, and we saw it with British steel workers, because, as Paul Mason again said, the Commission “does not give a shit”.
And yet, despite all this, which is far from the fullest indictment the EU properly deserves — we could add the treatment of other subsidiarity states, the treatment of refugees, the proposed EU Battlegroups, and of course, TTIP — I will vote to remain.
This is firstly because I have sympathy for a strong kind of cosmopolitanism, hemmed together with a bit of luck egalitarianism. I see no reason why someone born in, say, Romania, should have fewer capabilities and freedoms than someone born in, say, Germany. So this means I think the world should be moving towards greater integration and cooperation, with a common basis for all things moral, economic and political. The EU, in spite of its many faults, does begin to provide this, for the first time in the continent’s long and bloody history, with the free movement of people, which is a beautiful thing. It is also felt, I suspect, by most Europeans. I was recently told by a friend that an EU without Britain would feel strange, like an unexpected marital breakdown or the loss of a limb. There has always been an arms-length relationship and a 30-mile stretch of ocean between Britain and the EU, but nevertheless it is a Union we are part of, have shaped, and as British people have been welcomed into. There is a reason part of Tuscany is called ‘Chiantishire’.
Then there is the more pragmatic motive that leaving presents too many opportunities for the law of unintended consequences to wreak unforeseen havoc. The technocrats have made ‘uncertainty’ a cliché, but it is sadly one I have to repeat. Leaving would present many uncertainties which the Leave campaign, too busy with their dog-whistles, have neglected to address. If anything, the Brexit camp have presented only certainties, such as the rolling sunny meadow of trade agreements open for the strolling should we leave, even though trade agreements are not a certainty, nor really the main determinant of economic health (which are the fundamentals like productivity, investment and wages). Without sliding too far into pointless speculation, which I have tried to avoid, it could also mean tremors and repercussions for the rest of the Union, which I do not see as a method for undermining the unelected neoliberal elite, but as voting to incur hardship for other European people. It is reckless, not strategic.
Then lastly there is a political reason. This is the very real possibility of a Boris Johnson government, and a cabinet of his fellow Eurosceptics. Some would argue this would only be marginally worse than a continued Cameron government. They would be correct I think. But it would still be an exoneration of pretty much everything I dislike: xenophobia, exclusion, isolationism, and a lone islander mentality. None of this represents ‘taking our country back’. I have never cited a meme before, but here I will: I do not want to take our country back, I want to take it forward. With all this in mind, I cannot possibly vote to leave. Remain is the only cosmopolitan and progressive yet pragmatic option.