Well, either we’re getting ever closer to the EU referendum or we’re getting ever closer to the End of Days, it’s certainly one of the two. By the 23rd of June we’ll be going to the polls to vote in probably the most hysterical, xenophobic and dishonest survey of public consensus since that Boaty McBoatface thing. A harbinger, I’m reliably informed, of global economic collapse, the rise of a new German Reich, David Cameron’s self-immolation, Boris Johnson’s terror fueled dictatorship and World War 3, all in one. Or, y’know, just a vote on whether we stay in the EU or not. Could go either way.
It’s a disconcerting experience really. In my short and ill-planned lifetime this is almost certainly the most uncertain political vote I’ve experienced and arguably the largest in the potential effects it may have. It dwarfs the commuter-belt-gobshite election of Boris Johnson as London Mayor, pisses on the chips of David Cameron’s reign of smug greed and gives the Scottish Indie Referendum a good kicking down a long flight of stairs – at least it does if you’re not Scottish. And yet unlike all of those things I find myself, for once, a bit lost.
Unlike any other vote I’ve had to make, or abstain from, the Brexit one is being fought almost entirely on hypotheticals. Both sides have done so much to drown out reasonable argument that actual, current issues are a side-note to the wanderings of wild imaginations and idle daydreams. Fantasies of either united Utopias across the Old World or dark and sinister machinations to rule us all are being variously hyped up, damned, denied or asserted to the point where anything you can think to say seems almost valid in the wider conversation. For example ‘Jean-Claude Juncker is a genetically modified lizard sent from the past by Stalin to turn Europe into a vast greenhouse suitable only for a new master race of giant geckos’. Nonsense, right? Absolutely, probably, but compared to the real world propaganda generated by both sides in this debate it’s almost a moderate accusation to make. A sense of the absurd that I’d half respect if it weren’t centered around something that could actually matter. Against the current level of hysteria though the shine has been taken off of mad prophesies and declarations.
Against that backdrop of the surreal I’ve been doing my best to find some truth to back what decision I might make.
By nature, by tradition, or perhaps just by my own idle fantasies I’d assumed that I would easily fall into the Pro-EU camp. For all it’s faults the EU is, after all, a unifying force in a continent that is well aware of it’s own divided past. In fact as a diplomatic entity it could do almost anything and as long as it didn’t step over the threshold into all out internecine warfare it would still be a more noble establishment than what we’ve had for most of our history as a vaguely coherent continent. And through my own politics you can layer onto that an innate desire to endorse anything which hints at the sort of solidarity between people that could progress into a greater, more equal union. Those ideals, those dreams have a heavy allure for all on the Left and most others who think of Europe as a potential yet to be manifested, or even as a counter to the threats of our history.
Dreams, however, have the decided disadvantage of not really being real. Hyperbole about the potential for continent wide warfare in the advent of a Leave vote aside, the diminished threat of conflict is as much a product of the times as of any particular organisation or self-declared ideal. Trade, capital and a marginally more enlightened population are the real shields against death and destruction. The rich have little incentive to start rucks between developed countries, markets don’t thrive when they’re being bombed to fuck and those in the West generally are, for the most part, too lucrative to do without. And those deemed not worth the effort of maintaining peace in are in no way protected by the EU beyond the value of their economic contribution. The Ukraine and the EU’s alternating interference and indifference towards it’s division is a case in point. Whatever you make of that convoluted and confused situation it’s fairly clear that the ideal of European solidarity doesn’t extend to expensive and unrewarding efforts. At least not where they only threaten those whose financial clout isn’t up to the standards of the major players.
Solidarity too is a dreamlike ideal which has been shown to fade away in the cold light of day. In Greece the economic crisis became a robbery as any support offered came at crippling prices which are inflicted directly upon the Greek people themselves in the form of harsh austerity. Aid there was expressed in the way the EU as a body understands best – as a neo-liberal reformation/robbery of the state. The same sort of treatment that a lot of people came to hate in the Thatcher era and which still quietly defines the mentality of the European Union and it’s central actors. To hope for that to change is a step too far into optimism for me and to believe that that asset stripping habit can be challenged is, as the Greeks will tell you, a lost hope.
Beyond that there’s also the looming threat of TTIP, a potentially terrifying trade agreement which, at the moment, seems to be so nebulous as to cover almost anything with the one certainty being that its effects wouldn’t be good for the vast majority of us. Made worse by the secrecy surrounding the negotiations on it, details of which seem to seep out with all the disturbing covertness of a spy film. What is known though paints a picture of rampant profiteering as our ‘socialistic’ health services are opened up to US style competition, our food standards diminished to the point of increased profitability for major corporations and our jobs farmed away to those parts of the world where Labour laws and workers’ rights are less robust than they are here.
It’s another declaration of neo-liberal intent as the ‘free’ market is conceded to beneath the vague and flimsy disguise of ‘openness’. The language and ideas of what the EU could be at its best once again subverted by the far more grubby reality of what it’s actually turning out to be. Which isn’t to say that that particular assault on our services and expectations of the faded social contract wouldn’t still manifest outside of the EU. But for what minimal hope it offers there could at least be a more direct resistance to it aimed at our own parliament than at the vast array of states involved in EU discussions, who by sheer weight of will can happily ignore protests from their own populations. In a better world, in a better economic system that could be reversed – there could be real solidarity among European workers in resistance to backroom deals like this but unfortunately we don’t live in that better world at the moment. Capital, in all it’s forms, is on the attack and from Greece to the UK the battles we’re having to fight are ones of basic self-defence. And it’s very, very hard to look at, for example, the current struggle to protect Junior Doctor’s working conditions in the UK, or hold back the natural Tory inclination towards privatization and carpet bagging and believe that we can reverse that fight overnight and set up a real resistance Europe wide to a TTIP deal endorsed by the US and all the forces of wealth within the EU.
The next dream that seems to have faded to nothing is the idea of Humanitarianism. The recent refugee crisis has become proof positive of the EU’s attitudes. There have been marginal attempts by member states to live up to some higher ideal of concern and support for our fellow humans but more and more they seem to ring hollow. Angela Merkel’s generosity in welcoming refugees into Germany is, in a lot of ways, admirable. It doesn’t take a huge cynic to speculate that there were more than a few economic reasons behind it, bringing in an influx of fairly cheap labour to bolster yet another ageing European population. But for those who made it Germany is certainly a far preferable option to wherever they were escaping from. The right wing backlash in Germany and a lot of other places is self-evident though. Anti-refugee and, in some cases, near Fascist parties have been gaining ground all over the place and the EU and its member states have done little if anything to counter that. Whatever inherent morals the organisation may claim have had no effect in practice and as the far right marches on there’s even less hope that attitudes will change. Beyond, of course, the occasional concession where the demands of money and the needs of refugees converge and one branch of Capital asserts itself over it’s rivals.
The zenith of that anti-humanitarian effort to date has been the deal struck with Turkey and, more specifically, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a bastard of the highest order. A cop out response to hold refugees back from the European ‘mainland’ by farming out their care to the seldom loving hands of Istanbul’s thief in chief. Currently building himself up as Europe’s favourite autocrat Erdoğan has basically been thrown a massive boon to his own popularity in the form of free movement for Turkish people within the Schengen zone. A useful counter-balance to his suppression of opposition, personal corruption, screwing up of the economy and often shady and routinely brutal attitude towards the Kurds, not to mention the frequently rumoured and occasionally borne out manipulation of ISIS.
Being out of Schengen this obviously doesn’t apply to the UK and besides, I’m all for the free movement of people, but the underhand evasion of humanitarian responsibility by palming it off on one of the least suitable people you could find does reflect back on us. Morally we’re harmed by the deal, practically refugees are and in giving Erdoğan a prop to his precarious government the Turkish people may not come out of it too well either.
(Almost) finally on to the one driving factor which doesn’t find its source in the world of dreams and high ideals being corrupted – the economy. I can’t talk on this one with any real confidence, in fact it seems almost no one can. Both the Remain and Leave factions have strung together such ridiculous narratives about the potential effect of a Brexit on the UK that the actual truth is as elusive as a pig at a house party hosted by David Cameron. The prophets of doom say that international Capital, robbed of incentives by the UK not being in the EU will abandon ship like a legion of rats. The hysterics on the other side say that free from EU edicts Capital will come flooding in to revel in an independent and malleable economy. Neither or both could be true to varying degrees, given that money doesn’t act in unison – you can guarantee though that either way some interests will be well served whilst others are harmed and any price there is to be paid will be projected firmly downwards at the rest of us. A fact that those with vested interests are well aware of and more than happy to point out in their blunt threats about what will happen if their side loses the Brexit vote. That’s an old tactic though and one most recently used in relation to the Scottish Referendum but which bubbles up whenever there’s talk of taxes, Socialism or even the forces of high finance being obliged to pay their own way. Capital loves to remind us all how easily the rug could be pulled out from under us and there’s no doubt that it could be – tanking an economy is no great ask when you control the lion’s share of it. But, as I mentioned, there’s more than one strand to Capital and they’re seldom in accord with each other. What’s more there’s a definite tendency to cry wolf when it comes to public interaction with or control over the economy, one that’s reliant on us all forgetting just how much money is made out of the UK and, more importantly, how much would be lost if certain interests decided to withdraw from it. Remember, an industry like banking doesn’t exist in London solely out of the generosity of billionaires, it’s reliant on reputation, infrastructure, staff and relationships with power. And while I’m hardly a big fan of high finance or its effects I do know that to carry out any of the stated threats on a Leave vote would cost a huge, huge amount and you don’t need to know much to know that these groups really don’t like losing money.
What can be said with some degree of confidence is that, currently, we’ve got a Tory government who’ve shown themselves to be eager to push austerity, privatisation and US style open markets at every turn and who have in no way have been limited in that fixation by EU membership. If we did leave we’d still have that and it’s a matter of personal hope/hopelessness as to how much better off we’d be in our resistance. On the plus side though I would say that defending against TTIP would be a more viable struggle.
And that’s perhaps the hardest question to answer in reaching real conclusions on the Brexit vote – which path leads to a better end for the vast majority of us? That’s an issue which is couched in the mania we’re facing now from politicians and the media. We’re watching a battle play out between Cameron and Johnson, between Farage and everybody, between one branch of Capital and another. Looking at where we stand right now it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve got bastards on either side, each faction eagerly pursuing goals which we know will damage us all. Today isn’t tomorrow though. As simple as the media narrative seems determined to make it an out vote wouldn’t make Boris Johnson Prime Minister, an Out vote needn’t necessarily equate to a race to the bottom against US labour for the attentions of global Capital. Farage doesn’t get crowned at the end of all this and the French don’t start sending bombers over. What does happen – I have no idea – but right here, right now I’m inclined to put my faith in the people and believe that, if and when we leave the EU, we’ll be able to fight for a UK that’s different. A UK that doesn’t just play with words like Peace, Solidarity and Humanitarianism.
And failing that I look forward to living in the post-apocalyptic world.