The concentric circles of society go outwards, more or less, as follows: the individual at the centre, who then hopefully forms part of a family (not necessarily nuclear), the cornerstone of society, multiple of which come together to form first the tribe, then later the city or region or province, which collectivise under one administration in the nation state and, after the nation state, the intra-national super-state – a cohesive collection of individual countries under one administration. Eventually, it seems logical to conclude, the one world government follows, notwithstanding the logistical practicality of such an undertaking.
Since 1973, we in Britain have been wrestling with the transition from independent nation state to being part of a collection of countries that together increasingly form something with some of the trappings of the intra-national super-state. And now, 43 years after our tried accession into the EU, we the British people are being given the say on whether or not we remain a part of this intra-national bureaucratic-commercial collective, or whether we pull out and hope there are no nasty consequences 9 months down the line.
For something that represents such a fundamental turning point, not only in the British trajectory, but in that of the world – for if we reject political globalisation in this manner, what does it mean for everyone else? – the debate has been thoroughly mediocre.
‘Britain stronger in Europe’ say on their website that “almost half of everything we sell to the rest of the world we sell to Europe – and we get an average of £24 billion of investment in Britain per year from Europe”. In retort ‘Get Britain out’, on their website, state firmly in rebuttal that “less than 5% of UK businesses trade directly with the EU” and that “EU Regulations cost the UK economy a staggering £33.3 billion per year”. The IN campaign note that the Confederation of British Industry estimates that “3 million jobs in Britain are linked to trade with the rest of Europe” while the Outies say these jobs aren’t reliant on EU membership and “not 1 job is at risk from Brexit”. And back and forth and back forth it goes ad infinitum.
So how can the suits at either side of this tug of war both be so assured of facts in direct contradiction to each other? Well, it’s because either side uses different figures from different sources using different methods of arriving at their figures. Each side will quote the CBI, for instance, until it doesn’t suit them, in which case they’ll ignore what the CBI says and go with another source. Both the Office of National Statistics and the Treasury publish figures for the same things, and both of them differ.
The debate is mediocre at best, and insulting at worst. When the opposing campaigners trot out their tired slogans on leaflets and website front pages – “Protect out heritage, control our borders, believe in Britain” versus the admittedly less catchy “The government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK” – they are banking on you looking no further. They are banking on you taking their and only their numerical milk and honey or dark numerical water of the River Styx, depending on the strategy.
The integrationists and isolationists are just as grasping when it comes to celebrity endorsements. In October 2015 the Innies opened their campaign by wheeling out June Sarpong, some TV head with an adorable gap in her front teeth but who has no qualifications to be waxing lyrical about the EU aside from chatting inane shite on Loose Women. Similarly, Nigel Farage was delighted when national treasure Michael Cain came out in favour of coming out. Yeah, he’s really good at telling you how many people know his name in a cockney accent but what relevance is it what he thinks?
For every figure on one side, there is a different figure on the other. For every claim a counter-claim. And why? Because neither side knows what’ll happen. There is no truth in this debate, there is no right and there is no wrong. Neither side can tell you what money we’ll lose and what we’ll win, who’ll get fired and who won’t, which countries will desert us and which won’t should we leave or not leave. All we can know for certain is the amount of money the EU costs us and how much it makes us right now.
But even that we don’t really know. For instance, ‘Full Fact’ state that our membership of the EU isn’t “nearly £20 billion” a year as ‘Vote Leave’ like to regurgitate. This is because we get a £5 billion rebate immediately on our payment, as well as £4 billion being spent by the EU on British farmers and poorer regions in the UK, and upwards of £1 billion to the private sector for things like research grants. And this needs to be added to the money we get back in trade, investments and jobs, for which it’s “far harder to be sure about how much comes back in benefits”.
The House of Common Library has said in a briefing paper of February 2016 “there is no definitive study of the economic impact of the UK’s EU membership or the costs and benefits of withdrawal. Many of the costs and benefits are subjective or intangible and a host of assumptions must be made to reach an estimate. If the UK were to remain in a reformed EU, assumptions would need to be made about what the reforms might be. Any estimate of the effects of withdrawal will be highly sensitive to such assumptions.” So don’t listen to that bellend at your dinner party when he pipes up with a figure he’s learned by rote from either some liberal think piece or the lungs of Farage, because he doesn’t have a clue. He’s regurgitating what seems plausible to reinforce an opinion he probably held anyway but was insecure about because he had no factual way of validating or justifying it.
The underwhelming nature of the debate is compounded by the fact that all parties involved are trying their hardest to reduce a quandary of major constitutional and politico-philosophical significance down to paltry numbers and un-nourishing sound bites.
Gideon has said that leaving the EU will effectively leave every British household £4,300 per year worse off. But do you really think it would? Do you really think leaving the EU will mean you have £4,300 less coming into your bank account? Inversely similarly, Leave.EU say we would be £933 better off if we left. Again, do you think you’ll see a grand more pop up on your statement each year once we leave? Do you think these figures that get tossed around mean anything? They don’t. Each side is trying to tell the future and the fact is they can’t. The only purpose these figures serve is for people to quote in an effort to sound like they’ve put some thought into the question of Brexit.
But ‘Brexit question-mark’ is a question far more meaningful than ghostly numbers. And the majority of people know this, really. The basic impetus for leaving seems to be lust for sovereignty lost. UKIP and the right promise control of our borders, an end to “open door” immigration – the benefits and costs of which are hotly debated, as is whether or not leaving the EU will do anything to it. They also promise that no more will 75% of our laws be made in Brussels. It should be noted that this statistic is another illusory number that is by no means true. Business for Britain created a “definitive” study in which they found that “EU rules account for 65% of UK law” (I guess they don’t realise that there is no such thing as UK law). While they do admit that “not every EU regulation will impact Britain[,] such as rules on olive and tobacco growing”, the number is still misleading. Some measures take into account legislation with only a passing reference to the EU. However, a large chunk – anywhere between 15% and 50% – of laws around the UK have Brussels’ fingerprints on them, but the majority of those laws are regulations that you never even notice anyway, or they are Directives that force our government to create legislation, such as the Employment Rights Act 1996, which codifies a minimum period of maternity leave and notice, and the Employment Relations Act 1999, which covers things like collective bargaining: legislation that wholly protects you, the worker.
But the right’s appeal to sovereignty is muddied and confused. We are the descendants of warring barbarians and proud Saxons; the British are brawlers, imperialists. We are the sons and daughters of an Empire over which the sun never set. We are the saviours of Europe – the scrappy, innovative fighters. We are the moneymen of the world, the bankers and shopkeepers and the stoic council estate tenants. It is hard to reconcile such a proud heritage and such a powerful personality with horror stories of a Britain now the cowed Bulldog under the shadow of the mighty Alsatian’s dripping fangs.
If you define individual sovereignty as pertaining to your self-determination, your power over your reality, with the minimum of interference from third parties, then leaving the EU won’t grant you the individual sovereignty you think it will. It is Theresa May seeking greater powers to watch your social media activity and your phone calls through her Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. It is the Tories cutting disability benefits, not only robbing the wheelchair-bound of their right to self-determination through a lack of means, but so too, perhaps, the right to any meaningful life at all. As for national sovereignty – the independence and self-determination of the nation as a whole, not subject to “Brussels’ bureaucrats” – this vision is out-dated. It forgets one thing – the world has changed. Sovereignty is not sovereignty in the way it used to be. Not being part of a political trading bloc does not automatically render Britain an independent, sovereign nation again. In this age of globalisation, one cannot equate sovereignty with isolationism. In the age of lobbying and massive multinational corporate interests, of Facebook getting away with paying £4,327 in corporation tax and Google striking a ‘deal’ and paying £130 million settlement to HMRC, the concept of self-governance is wobbly.
Meanwhile, those on the left of an outward persuasion charge the EU with being an undemocratic institution run by unelected bureaucrats. It is a charge hard to deny. According to Europa.eu, it is the European Commission (composed of 28 nominated commissioners) that proposes and enforces legislation “in the general interest of the EU”. Albeit, said legislation has to be passed by the European Parliament, which is composed of directly elected MEPs, but they can only vote “yes” or “no” or to “amend” legislation. The Council of the European Union is the second chamber of the European Parliament, made up of ministers sent from the member states depending on the area of policy who we haven’t elected to act in such a capacity (but… y’know… we didn’t elect the House of Lords either). As well, the Council of Europe – I guess the guy in charge of naming things took a day off when it came to those two bodies – is made up of heads of state of each member state and decides the EU’s overall policy and direction, and negotiates on difficult and sensitive areas of EU policy.
So the EU might be relatively undemocratic, but it would be hard to have an international organisation, governing aspects of the lives of around 508 million people, be entirely democratic. Thus far, the EU acts in the best interests of its population. The problem comes, one supposes, when it begins not to, since if there is one solid lesson history has taught us, it is that we can never ever rely on the openness, truthfulness and perennial honesty of those governing us.
At home, if the machinations of Parliament become far too audaciously mendacious and corrupt for us merely to stand on the sidelines watching them on the BBC, we can take to the streets. Although 60 million people is a lot, they can still unite within the bounds of one nation state rather effectively against their Government should the need arise. The suffragette movement shows this, as do the Police Strikes of 1918-1919. Can we guarantee that we can retain such self-representation and self-determination through direct action on such a grand scale as that spanning 28 countries? Well, the current massive protests against the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership are putting that issue to the test.
The furore surrounding the utter bastardry that is TTIP is something that should figure into your Brexit calculations. Although it is ostensibly an EU-driven trade agreement, leaving the EU doesn’t guarantee its stymying. In fact, it might speed it up. Yannis Varoufakis, the unfortunate but immensely qualified and immensely intelligent economist and previous Greek Finance Minister said in an interview with Owen Jones that it is only as a collusive, entire whole united across the countries of Europe that we can stop TTIP. Add to this that it was Cameron’s government that actually demanded one of the most controversial and destructive aspects of TTIP – the inclusion of investor-state arbitration dispute clauses in trade agreements. These basically give private corporations the power to sue countries if they find their local laws – laws that are there for the protection of the people – to get in the way of their profit margins. This isn’t some far off nightmare, it’s already happening – look to Australia, Canada and Argentina.
The reality of the EU referendum is that where it matters, it is largely meaningless. Neoliberalism is still our serenading song, the same multi-national corporations hold the power, the same bankers rip us off, the same Governments trade the will of the people for the will of the financial sector and the same lands get fracked. Really, reformation of our institutions of power is what’s needed, not deciding whether they break apart or not.
If you want to cease our immigration obligations under the Schengen agreement and bring all legislative power back to Parliament and the parties in control, and you don’t want undemocratic, out of sight, multi-national institutions making decisions that could affect your small business, then I suggest you vote out. But if you want to be sure your Easyjet flight to Benidorm will stay cheap and passport control simple, and you want to ensure Vodafone don’t up their charges when you’re in Crete, and you reject isolationism, then I suggest you vote to stay in. At the end of the day, the choice is yours, but remember, the result of this referendum is piss in the wind without anything to follow it.