Robin McAlpine: Europe – why I have no answers for you #EUref

This article was written for Perspectives magazine, and published on CommonSpace

My friend emails me. Niki is a head teacher on an idyllic island not too far out from Athens into the Agean. She asks me for news of Scotland and sends me pictures of the spring flowers in her garden high above the coast below.

Niki is great. She’s an intellectual, a progressive, a kind and thoughtful person. I have many family and friends in Greece through the marriage of my half sister. I have got to know the place rather well over the years and it is a place I have come to like a lot. It has a thrawn personality, not unlike Scotland – a kind of fatalistic sarcasm is default.

We email about politics and whether we can visit her. Probably not this year, but we’d really love to see her. Will she make it to Scotland any time soon? Nope – in the state Greece finds itself, the headteacher of a secondary school struggles to make ends meet on what is a sharply reduced salary.

That makes me angry, but Niki is more sanguine. With a resigned shrug she is quick to point out that many of the failures that have left her in this position are the fault of the Greek people.

That fatalistic sarcasm led them to turn a blind eye to what was widely understood to be a corrupt, cartel government. It worked for them – for a while – so they put up with it. I don’t think they deserve what they got as a result of this (they weren’t the only people turning a blind eye…). I remain angry at what the EU did.

Where our furies meet is over the migrant situation. This does have Niki enraged – bring a nation to its knees and then, when it’s down, close the borders and decide that since Greece has already sucked up many of the continent’s problems they can just suck up its migrant problem too.

And if that means that Greece is turned into a starving, desolate refugee camp, who cares? It’s expedient to keep the EU’s important member states happy (or less unhappy, at least).

And at that time I found, in the European Social Model, a political philosophy which, while falling short of my own, at least made it a good chunk of the way along there. Progressive tax, social security, nationalised healthcare – I didn’t only feel European, I wanted to be there.

If you want to know what changed, you just have to look at the In campaign (I’m just going to refer to them as In and Out which is in the end what we’re voting for). That it has become Project Fear so seamlessly shows what its strongest adherents now seem to see as the point of the EU.

It is there to impose one global version of ‘economy’ and one global version of ‘security’. And it is the same version of ‘economy and security’ which so alienated me during the Scottish independence referendum.

Only cartel capitalism will keep the banks open. Only cartel capitalism will keep the phones working. Only cartel capitalism will keep you and your loved ones from starvation. Because only the economic order that plunged the continent and the world into crisis can prevent the world from descending into crisis. We’re big, you’re small. Know your place.

Only our neoconservative worldview will stop terrorists. Only our neoconservative worldview constitutes ‘grown up’ diplomacy. If we don’t back the arms trade, the next war, the next crackdown on civil liberties, if we don’t appease the US, China, if we don’t manufacture Russia as a new convenient bogeyman, you’ll suffer.

The In campaign is a banker-corporation-warmonger vision of our future. I have endless friends telling me that I must vote In though they realise I’ll need to hold my nose like they will. Do I? Do I have to vote In while holding my nose, being so conscious of the fact that this is what the bad guys want me to do? Knowing that they are not holding their noses, they are breathing all this in with gusto and loving it?

I cannot identify with an In campaign which is so completely driven by all the motives I oppose.

Then again, I look round at the Out campaign and feel no better. Because this debate is being framed by an England that is strangely socially and politically fractured just now, the options are unattractive. I can find some respect for a Michael Gove argument about sovereignty and accountability, but it still feels like I have to vote against internationalism and instead for one of the versions of nationalism (narrow, angry, inwards-looking, disdainful of others, identity-driven, fearful of ‘the other’) which made that 1992 EU vision seem such a utopia to me.

So I’m making little progress in arriving at a decision. My emotional responses to In and Out, to Inners and Outers, leaves me little room for comfort. Perhaps on this occasion I need to tone down my faith in emotional responses and focus on the ‘rational’.

It’s not going to help, though, because the first thing I cannot overlook is that except for the crushingly conservative bureaucracies of political parties and government and the dogmas of ‘low tax is popular’, my time on progressive policy thinking has found the EU to be probably the biggest barrier to economic (and indeed social) reform.

If I have heard ‘can’t – EU rules’ once, I must have heard it a hundred times. Procurement must go to corporations. Public sector tenders must go to corporations. Basic infrastructure investment that supports smaller and indigenous industries infringes state aide rules. Giant farms are the only farms you’re allowed. Don’t nationalise, privatise.

Now I know that some of what I have heard is a deliberately skewed version of the EU. I know that we have the most restrictive procurement rules in the EU and that this is our fault. But it would be a complete untruth to suggest this is an accidental side-effect of what the EU is trying to do. It is a deliberate grey area which enables neoliberalism to be imposed both through word and deed and through expectation and misunderstanding.

Rationally, don’t ask me to sign a petition against TTIP and then another to stay in the EU. TTIP is not an aberration, some kind of unintended malfunction in the great EU machine. It goes right to the heart of what the EU has become. It is a global economic organising point and its purpose is not to encourage a just transition to a better, greener, healthier, more equal global economy.

It maintains the bare bones of a social settlement. But as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, it’s not that hard to get opt-outs from EU social policies if you want. Getting opt-outs from its overwhelming corporation-friendly agendas? Not so obviously possible.

So if you want me to be rational, coming from my political perspective, explain when and how I’m getting an EU which is not a staging post for US capitalism to get into Europe’s social markets?

Robin McAlpine-Web (1) (2)

Of course, I must then look at the counterfactual – what would be better if it didn’t exist? I can be deeply disappointed at the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis, of trade deals, of state aid rules. But what is the alternative? Every nation investing in more armed border guards? Boris Johnston negotiating directly with Donald Trump over trade? Germany using its economic might to rig trade across the continent in its favour through protectionism and clientelism? And how would we manage a free travel area if it were converted into a fragmented sequence of one-to-one agreements?

We need a means of nation state resolution in Europe. We are far too connected a continent, far too integrated a series of societies not to have such a means of nation state resolution. We have a mechanism that works (kind of) and throwing it away is not necessarily the logical step to a better continent. I realise that.

But – and here’s the big but – it only works if we all think we’re shaping it. And it is here the EU falls down. I know the arguments about how it’s kind of democratic because there are some democratic bits and some of the bits that aren’t democratic are stitched up between other democratic entities. It’s pseudo-democratic.

So explain to me how I can vote against TTIP? This is potentially the single worse thing that is going to be done not only to the continent’s social identity but specifically to the democratic nature of my own nation. It is a move of alarming scope and implication. In a just world it would require specific agreement by referendum in each participating nation state.

Hah! Imagine that. Imagine Europe allowing a democratic veto. Europe views putting its big issues directly to the people affected with utter contempt. No, not a bit of cynicism, utter contempt.

The patchwork pseudo-democracy of the EU is nothing in the face of this contempt. And every progressive Inner is kidding themselves on if they don’t accept this. The European project has become every bit as much about circumventing national democracy as about enhancing it. And that’s a generous interpretation.

Then again, there’s no democracy in each nation state choosing to follow it’s own environmental standards when you’re gulping down fumes your neighbour refuses to regulate. Is a continent of individual nations each with their fingers in their ears really more democratic than a flawed but at least existing mechanism for conflict resolution (which I would feel more comfortable with if it wasn’t for the direction of travel of who we are negotiating with)?

At its outer fringes, the EU now incorporates nations which seem to me to be less than positive partners for the kind of negotiations which I personally believe the EU should be about.

I pick on Poland only because what is happening in that country is so alarming. Shoved fast into Europe for geopolitical reasons, Poland is now turning its back on the principals of Western liberal democracy. Do I wish to negotiate, to compromise, with regimes that seem only loosely attached to the concepts of the rule of law?

And since the EU is now a geopolitical game, we know the pressures to expand the players. Wouldn’t it be useful to have Turkey on board? Not socially, but potentially economically and geopolitically (at least for the US). Who needs a free media or fair elections in that context?

Or the Ukraine, where the role of fascists is constantly written out of the narrative because it is inconvenient in framing Russia as the moustache-twiddling baddy. Let’s get them in because it’s convenient.

This is not an EU for the people of the EU. This is an EU for people who trade weapons and own gas pipelines.

So let us out and we can form a looser negotiating alliance? A Norway/Iceland position? Use them as a club to talk to but not be a member of? It is appealing. It’s just that we’ll end up talking to a club we can’t shape the membership of.

This all means that there is a rational reason for being enthusiastic about some kind of European Union but not that much rational reason to support this particular European Union. Which puts an awful lot of emphasis on the question of reform.

Here I find myself having to return to my own process of making logical decisions. During the indyref I always recognised that, in theory, Westminster could be a force for good. But it’s not enough that something could theoretically be true, it needs to be true in a much more immediate sense.

There needs to be a visible path from here to that truth. In the end, that’s one of the main reasons I was a Yes supporter – because there was simply no credible case for how exactly we were going to get anywhere near that mythical, brilliant Westminster.

My well-meaning Inner friends are horrified that I won’t fully throw my lot in with them and fight first to stay in and then to reform the EU. I just wonder if they are willing first to concrete their feet deep into the shoreline and then to begin the process of preventing the tide coming in.

How? How are we going to reform the EU? Our massed ranks can’t squeeze through the tiniest reform of Westminster. We’ve made no ground reforming anything which the banks and the corporations have their teeth into. Explain the mechanism?

And if that mechanism begins with the words ‘then we can begin a continent-wide conversation…’ I wince. Because that just means ‘we have no idea whatsoever how to go about it’.

There is no coalition we can join, no campaign ready to march beside – hell, there isn’t even a simple shared vision of what reform would roughly look like. It’s not obvious that if we had a united, continent-wide network of reformers backing one big vision that we would win. It is far from obvious that there is any chance of creating a united, continent-wide network of reformers backing one big vision.

It feels a bit like being told to repair a broken computer with a single screwdriver – and then when asking where it is and being told that actually screwdrivers haven’t been invented yet. On balance, I’m pretty sure that the one thing that will kill reform of the EU stone dead is a British In vote.

Every rational bone in my body screams out that it is just the kind of near-death experience that the people who run Europe will take as a prompt to do exactly what they were already doing – and more. I am very deeply sceptical of the idea that surviving intact is going to lead to serious change in the EU.

The way I think some kind of reform genuinely could be promoted would be a crisis – like Britain leaving. It would create the kind of panic which does lead to change. But I recognise two major problems.

First, it’s an act of ‘creative destruction’ which could cause anarchy as well as (or possibly before) reform. It would be a rather large act of faith to burn down the house in the hope of being able to build something better in its place.

The other big problem is that such a vote could be read in exactly any way each person wants it to be read. Eurocrats can just claim that Britain was never really on board in the first place. The left can conclude that we wanted democracy. The right can conclude that it’s all about absorbing greater exclusionary nationalism.

So if you want to change the EU, vote to leave. It’s just that it’s hard to guess what the change would look like.

This is proving to be a real problem for me. There is no good option on the table. Worse, I can’t even identify which is the lesser of two evils. So what if I think cynically, tactically?

If we leave the EU then it’ll solve one major problem come the next Scottish indyref – we won’t need to get bogged down in endless ‘you’ll be thrown out the EU’ debate. It could create a substantial pressure for another referendum. The thought of being stuck on this wet little rock with Boris running the show could prompt a re-evaluation of the merits of independence by many people. Perhaps that’s a good outcome?

Then again, we really will be stuck on a rock with Boris and that in itself could be pretty awful. I could tactically vote for that not to happen (not a positive vote, a negative one). Or equally I could just decide that the bigger the gap between the Scottish ‘In’ and the English ‘Out’ (if that’s what happens), the better. Or really cynically, a Scotland forcing an England that votes ‘Out’ to stay ‘In’ could be just what we want to get agreement for another referendum.

But then again, I simply hate tactical voting of this kind. It’s no way to make a decision.

So, what am I going to do? By this point you may have a better idea of how I’m going to vote than I have. My instincts tell me I’m European and must vote In as much as they tell me I don’t want to be a member of this club.

My rational mind tells me we need a European Union every bit as much as it tells me that the European Union we have is a major block to progress and moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

Logically, therefore I am convinced that the only hope is reform – but I can’t vote for it. I can vote to stay and pretend to myself that there might be reform I don’t for a second believe is coming. Or I could vote to leave and ensure some kind of change – but which might result in something much worse.

Thanks to the people of Perspectives for asking me to explore my uncertainty, confusion and despair so fully and so much in public (thanks offered with only a touch of sarcasm…). It has led me to only two conclusions. The first is that I shall do whatever is in my power to avoid writing about this any more and try to keep wriggling out of the many invitations to talk about this I keep getting.

And the second conclusion? The spring flowers of a foreign country I love make me want to stay; the treatment of the women who looks after them makes me want to leave. I shall make my decision late – and probably dislike myself either way.

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