Politics The problem with the EU: a Leftist critique
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, April 28, 2011 0:00 - 11 Comments
By Tom Kavanagh
Something Noam Chomsky said in his recent interview with Hicham Yezza struck me, and as the matter has been on my mind for some time I thought it would be a good time to raise some issues relating to one of the points made.
The comments in question refer to the evolution of the European Union, and the gradual evaporation of the sovereignty of individual countries which this has brought about. Speaking to Ceasefire about the concept of national governments, Professor Chomsky observed that, in general, states have a propensity “to be violent to the extent to which they have power”, and referred to the consensus (note: among the continent’s ruling classes, not its citizens, although Chomsky does not make this distinction clear) in Europe at the end of the Second World War which dictated that measures should be taken to prevent future conflicts by reducing the amount of relative power which any individual state could accrue.
In clear reference to the European Union, Professor Chomsky asserted that “state structures should and can, in fact, be simply eroded, to an extent that’s happening in Europe”. Expanding on this, he remarked that, “state borders are less sharp than they were, say, a century ago. You can cross from one place to another freely, there’s more interaction… State systems are still there but in a less harsh and sharp form than in previous years and long may it continue.”
This is a commonly espoused argument: it holds that the European Union is a necessary barrier, acting as a safeguard against the re-emergence of an aggressive dictator or regime on the continent. The EU, it is often stated, has increased cooperation and mutual understanding between European nations and encouraged countries to seek international consensus in place of acting unilaterally.
On the surface that all sounds fine, but this fuzzy, progressive, talking shop impression that many have of the institution masks some rather uncomfortable truths. In reality the European Union is about far more than just sharing ideas and learning to tolerate and better understand your neighbours.
By and large people in Britain are shielded from any profound, open discussion about the status of the EU and their own national government’s status in it by a paradigm rigidly enforced by official media channels which seeks to place people in one of two camps.
You can select either the role of forward-thinking progressive; outward looking and open to “change” and new ideas, in which case you are inherently in favour of greater “integration” with the other members of the Union and your natural place is in the “Europhile” camp.
Alternatively, you can choose the path of isolationism, of anachronistic, blinkered jingoism washed down with tepid beer, imperial units and Morris dancing on the village green on a Sunday afternoon. In this case, you select for yourself the “Eurosceptic” label, and by association you are also probably of the same xenophobic ilk as the hordes of bare-chested, red-faced football hooligans whose only first-hand experience of Brussels was drunkenly slurring Rule Britannia and throwing a few plastic chairs at any foreigner in sight during the 2000 European Championships.
And that’s it. You’re either for political and economic “integration” with other European states, or you’ve got something against Europeans. You’re either in favour of the European Union, or you’re a backward racist who doesn’t appreciate that we live in a different world now and things have moved on: Get with the times!
They are nice-sounding terms, “integration” and “progress”, and as such many people subconsciously disengage their capacity to think critically when these buzzwords consistently crop up in the same context. Integration in the context of the European Union, however, is a concept which is more menacing than it appears to the casual observer.
By “integrating” further and further with the gargantuan European Union structure, the British government has lost far more of its independence than is generally accepted or actively mentioned by the broadsheet press. It is easy to see why many on the political “left” aren’t too concerned with this: after all, if the government, so utterly beholden to the interests of private corporations and capital as it is, doesn’t represent us anyway, why should we care if it has any power or not?
The answer, often overlooked, is that the alternative is even worse. The European Union is fundamentally and necessarily undemocratic. I am of the belief that much the same can be said of the British political system, however the idea that the answer to the problem of under-representation (at best) at national level is the imposition of a supranational structure that does not answer to the people in any of its constituent countries is an absurdity that has eased itself unchallenged into a position of respectability.
The European Union is fundamentally undemocratic because, at its inception, the people in the countries whose governments opted in were not given a say in the matter. The same can be said of countries which have subsequently joined without first polling their citizens – the Union has been imposed from the top down.
Since most nations have joined, the powers wielded by the EU have also been drastically expanded, to such an extent that the comparatively benign, trade-facilitating economic union which existed when Britain joined has now been superseded by a virtual United States of Europe, paying lip service to political representation whilst actively discouraging and blocking it.
That the institution is necessarily undemocratic is evidenced by the fact that, broadly speaking, whenever a European population has been able to vote for or against binding its own political institutions with those in Brussels, forced integration has been roundly rejected. As such, it is necessary for the people running the show to prevent people from voicing their opinions at the ballot box – if they were heeded, the outcome would be the dissolution of the edifice as it currently exists.
The British people were promised a referendum on the EU constitution by the previous Labour government, however as it became obvious that the chances of that being approved were minute following crushing defeats in France and Holland, the ruling classes put their heads together, changed the name, moved a few words around, and rebranded it as the Lisbon Treaty. That’s all right then, no point in wasting people’s time by letting them vote on something that isn’t even a constitution.
Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing confirmed what many opponents of the constitution and treaty had long attempted to point out. He told an audience at the London School of Economics that the French electorate’s rejection of the EU Constitution in the summer of 2005 had been a “mistake” which “should be corrected”.
Commenting on how he and his kin planned to attain this correction, Giscard d’Estaing affirmed, “Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals we dare not present to them directly… This approach of ‘divide and ratify’ is clearly unacceptable. Perhaps it is a good exercise in presentation. But it would confirm to European citizens the notion that European construction is a procedure organised behind their backs by lawyers and diplomats.” That is precisely what transpired.
Speaking of the Lisbon Treaty which rose from the ashes of the failed EU constitution, the former Président said “This text is, in fact, a rerun of a great part of the substance of the constitutional treaty”. The French were not afforded the right to vote on the rebranded treaty which differed from the forebear they had roundly rejected in purely cosmetic terms, and it came into effect in late 2009.
One of the most effective ways of ushering the EU in through the back door has been for the institution to impose legislation which contradicts the national government’s policy yet has a decent amount of support among its electorate.
People are impressed when the European Court of Human Rights overrules judgments by domestic British courts if the final outcome is to their liking, but the more pressing matter is who determined that our national courts should be beholden and subservient to the rulings of a body which does not answer to the British people in the first place?
Again, if you are someone who recognises that the phrase “British justice” takes some beating when it comes to brazen oxymora, you probably don’t lose too much sleep when domestic rulings are overturned at European level. However, the fact that a totally unrepresentative and unelected foreign legal system has been foisted down the throats of the people of this country (and we’re not the only ones) by a centralised bureaucracy of appointees who do not have to answer to anybody, means that even those who don’t cling to a myopic belief in the virtue of our courts should be concerned at the very least.
The recent furore surrounding convicts’ right to vote has, by and large, missed the point entirely. Instead of the debate over the rights and wrongs of allowing people in prison to cast a ballot, the crucial argument is whether or not we should permit an institution which has been forced on us from above to determine how our domestic government legislates.
The truth of the matter is that we do not permit it or, otherwise, the powerful, centralised bureaucracy just goes ahead and does it and we have no recourse to act short of fundamentally changing our level of participation at European level – something successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have proven themselves steadfastly opposed to.
Again, a common phenomenon is obviously at work here. Many people in Britain think that prisoners should be allowed to vote, and therefore they are in favour of the EU forcing Westminster’s hand. It is precisely this attitude which has facilitated the institution’s startling yet shadowy rise to prominence: a belief in the minds of good people that the European Union stands up for them and prevents national governments from riding roughshod over the rights of the marginalised within their own countries.
This is a fallacy. The European Union does not function from the grassroots up, in fact quite the opposite. Legislation and protocol is imposed on national governments by unelected institutions comprised of appointed members of the political ruling class from a cross-section of member states.
In this sense, the European Union is more closely modelled on the Soviet Union than on the archetypal model of a democratic government (however desirable or otherwise the standard “democratic” model is).
People on the “left”, both in Britain and overseas, have been hoodwinked into supporting the imposition of the EU on the political landscape of the continent, assuaged by certain aspects of European policy which people see as desirable.
The Union enshrines and protects the status of minority languages in countries where their suppression had hitherto been encouraged by national governments. The EU sets employment standards which many consider preferable to the regulations which their own governments had adopted. Because people see these changes as advantageous and of personal benefit to themselves or the political cause they advocate, there has been a tendency to ignore the process by which they have been implemented.
When one begins to scrutinise that process, it becomes crystal clear. These niceties are the bait on a very sharp fishing hook: we are sacrificing our national sovereignty on the altar of “progress” and “integration” without having read the fine print. The temptation to dismiss opposition to the European Union as rooted in small-minded xenophobia is actively encouraged by the corporate and mainstream media outlets most rely on to get their daily fix of news and views.
There is an agenda at work which is poorly understood (if understood at all), and too many people associate resistance to Westminster and Whitehall with support for the European Union. They are wrong.
As a growing percentage of our domestic laws are made not in London but in Brussels, it becomes clear that resisting the antidemocratic, top-down imposition of the European Union is central to resisting the whims of an increasingly impotent national government. The two struggles are one and the same. The Left cannot allow itself to be swept up in the dragnet.
Tom Kavanagh is a writer and activist based in the UK.