Friday, 9 October 2015

Europe: a defining issue

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any! – will know that I am very committed to the UK remaining within the EU. With a referendum on this now certain to be held within the next couple of years, the different sides are lining up.
I am in favour of UK membership not because I think that the EU is perfect or beyond critique. It isn’t. In particular, it is very lacking in democratic structures. But the reason for that is primarily because such structures are resisted by Eurosceptics, in the UK and elsewhere, who see them as building a ‘federal super-state’. And even in its present form I see the EU as a bulwark against the hyper neo-liberalism that I believe would characterise the UK in the event of exit, and which is certainly the ambition of most of those seeking exit. Moreover, I see the EU as having knitted together, in the aftermath of both World War Two and the Cold War, a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous continent. It is easy to forget, but in both 1945 and 1989 that prospect would have seemed very far away.
I’m also dismayed by the level of ignorance and toxicity in UK debates about the EU. Some of this is just stupid, as with the idea that the EU wants to ban bent bananas. Other times it is pernicious, as with the misguided linking of the EU and the European  Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and the misrepresentation of what that Court and Convention do.
A couple of years ago I would have said that come a Referendum the UK would undoubtedly vote to stay in, and by a large margin – say 60/40. Now, I am less sure that this is so, mainly because of the, again, ignorant and toxic debates about the refugee crisis (by which I mean that being in or out of the EU would make no difference whatsoever to this crisis or to the relatively limited way that it affects the UK). If I had to guess, it would be that the outcome will still be a narrow vote for ‘in’. But that is not good enough, because without a clear result the demand for a further vote will immediately arise.
It may seem strange that in taking this view I line up with corporate and global financial voices that are also pro-EU. But there is a perfectly respectable ‘leftist’ case for staying in. And in any case my position is no less strange than those on the Left who line up with UKIP in arguing for exit. In fact, I don’t think that the EU debate is a straightforward left-right one, it is more a debate between what in another post I called ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals’. If Britain is to be a tolerant, sophisticated, multi-cultural and prosperous country then the 'cosmopolitans' have to win; if the 'locals' win then Britain will be a bigoted, fearful country permanently locked not just in a world that hasn't existed since the 1950s, but, even worse, in an idealized imagination of that world.
So, for me, this has become the defining political issue of the times for the UK. And it matters far beyond the UK since if Britain were to exit the EU it would have huge ramifications throughout Europe and beyond. I’ll be doing what little I can to persuade British people to vote to stay in, and my first efforts are a blog post on The Conversation website and a follow-up interview on BBC Radio Merseyside today (the interview starts about six minutes in to the link). But I expect to be doing much more.

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