BY CONOR MCFALL
The negotiations have ended and a date has finally been announced. June 23rd 2016 will see the United Kingdom voting to decide whether to remain in or leave the European Union. However, as momentous a political occasion as this may turn out to be, the mainstream discourse about the upcoming referendum has so far been about one thing and one thing only – the Conservative Party.
Indeed for too long the issue of Europe has been characterised as essentially one of the right and this is how the referendum is being framed. More attention is paid to whether Boris Johnson or George Osborne will be better positioned to replace David Cameron in Number 10 than is given to the actual issues. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Opposition to the European Union in Britain has been dominated by the reactionary right, from the immigrant-bashing, petty nationalist hordes of UKIP to the isolationist, empire-nostalgist faction of the Conservatives from which Farage and his party emerged. Therefore, we see a reactive response many liberals, young people and those on the left who pledge automatic support for the EU simply because of their distaste of those who oppose it. This is understandable enough when one observes mugging of the assorted buffoons of the Out campaign on the six o’clock news; Gove, Farage, Duncan Smith, Boris – each is more cretinous than the last (though feel free to rank them in your own order of whatever-the-opposite-of-preference-is.) But in taking this approach, we lose track of what is really at stake.
It is agreed across the entire political spectrum that the European Union is in need to ‘reform.’ Of course, that takes on rather different meanings depending on where one’s allegiances lie. But it is clear that there is a level of discontent with the EU from within all parties. However, take a look at what Cameron has actually negotiated; limiting migrants’ access to benefits for four years and cutting regulations on business isn’t exactly a vision of progressive reform. This does nothing to resolve the issues that many have with the European Union, of which there are many.
It will pain many to find common cause with Farage but he is right about one thing, even if it isn’t in the way that he thinks – the European Union is an undemocratic institution. Anyone who has observed the situation in Greece over the last number of years will have seen this clearly. The Syriza government, which was endorsed overwhelmingly by the electorate, was crushed in negotiations with the Troika made up of the EU, the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. Austerity, economic ‘reforms’ and a massive fire sale of state assets was imposed upon the Greek people from over their own heads. When the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker says that “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties,” he means it. Another example occurred closer to home in 2008-09. What happens when a country’s electorate decides against ratifying an EU protocol, as Ireland did with the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008? Oh yes, you just hold another referendum until you get the ‘right’ result. Perhaps the greatest example of the anti-democratic machinations of the European Union can be seen in the ongoing negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is a proposed deal between the United States and the EU which would see European regulations on environmental and food safety weakened, opens up public services such as the NHS to further privatisation and allows multinational companies to bring governments before secret tribunals of corporate lawyers to sue when legislation impacts on profitability. What’s worse, these negotiations are being carried out in secret and access to the records are classified from the public. It’s hard to imagine a more anti-democratic process.
These are serious issues that each and every voter in the upcoming referendum needs to grapple with. A win for the ‘In’ campaign does nothing to overcome these issues, simply allowing the EU to continue along the agenda of Cameron, Merkel and multi-national corporations, but a ‘No’ victory emboldens the likes of Farage and Johnson. It is too often assumed that remaining in Europe is the de facto progressive position. However, we must reflect on the likelihood of achieving serious reform of an institution that’s anti-democratic tendencies run to its very core and that’s treatment of refugees fleeing from devastating wars (in which European powers are implicated) has been callous. Look above the cacophony of nonsense about the implications this referendum has for the Tory Party. See beyond the fear-mongering prevalent across the media. Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the assortment of cretins on either side. Many will point to the benefits that Northern Ireland gains from being a member of the European Union, but we must also look at the bigger picture of what the EU stands for. No matter which way you vote, this matter needs and deserves careful consideration.
Conor McFall is a student and contributor writing from Queen’s University, Belfast