It’s hard being a critical pro-European. I know – first world problems, eh? But really, the EU keeps making it so damn difficult. If you’re on the left, how are you supposed to feel about the forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the Union? Do you have to close your eyes, hold your nose, and hope?
On the one hand, the EU has done some good stuff for marginalised and/or otherwise disadvantaged groups. As a gay man, I’m well aware of how the EU has changed lives for the better in many countries, by forcing them to decriminalise homosexuality as part of the price of accession. My lesbian, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers have gained from EU membership, and so, to some extent, have the poorer regions of the Union – at least if they have received money from the cohesion fund or regional policy pot and spent it wisely. If your state accepts the Charter of Fundamental Rights – mine doesn’t, thanks for that Tony – then you may have an extra layer of judicial protection when your government tries to take away your social entitlements. And for liberal feminists – those who want access to the current economic and political structures on the same basis as men, rather than to change them – well, on that score the EU’s been a big help. Equal pay for work of equal value: hurrah for Brussels.
The EU deserved its Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, it did. Scoff all you like, but without the EU it is by no means clear that economic recovery and food security would have been achieved so readily after World War 2, or the post-Cold War stability of the continent generated so easily, excepting the Yugoslav tragedy. And enlargement of the EU has been a helpful means of entrenching liberal democracy – for all its flaws, a far better system than totalitarianisms of the left and right – across the continent.
There’s a lot to be grateful for in terms of environmental policy too. Without the EU, many countries would have weak policy in this area, or none at all. The Union has a long way to go before it’s really a green actor, but it’s done more than most to begin the transformation process. And although the EU is by no means a truly ethical external policy actor, it is generous in aid to developing countries by world standards and makes a decent fist of struggling for a multilateral, rule-bound world order.
But on the other side of the scale there’s the Union’s toleration of states that blatantly break its own rules on democratic life and standards: I mention no names, but watch where my eyes rest (nice view of Buda from the other side of the river). And then there’s the socio-economic model. And boy, is that rubbish. The disease of neoliberalism has thoroughly infected the EU institutions, and through the processes of Europeanisation it is spreading through even those member states that didn’t have it before – although here it must be said that none of their governments are doing anything to resist, except token gestures from Paris: plus ça change. Jacques Delors managed to convince many on the Left that the EU could be a vehicle for social democracy. And maybe it can. But it’s not trying very hard. And the way the Euro is being rescued will only entrench austerity, social unrest, and social injustice, and exaggerate the gap between richer and poorer parts of the Union.
So, what’s a leftie to do? What we’re best at: bitch, moan, kvetch – and then do something about it. If we want a different world, then we have to create it from where we are: and that means using the best available tools. As part of the EU, the UK can have the potential for global clout, and thus the ability to shape global policy and regimes; without it, we’re an archipelago off the coast of the mainland, prostituting ourselves to the City (and that would be harder – no pun intended – if we leave the Union – Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt, not to mention Brussels, would not tolerate the continent’s financial centre being outside the EU.) For all its shortcomings, the EU is still the best structure for democratic governance beyond the nation state that our species has devised, and if we can change the vision at the top, not least through voting in a centre-left/left/green majority in the European Parliament, it could be used to diffuse sustainable politics and economics across the continent.
So, I will be voting and campaigning for a Yes vote – the UK must stay in the EU. My eyes are wide open: but to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, another Europe is not just possible, she is already here: on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.