EU referendum: in, out, shake it all about?

by Elias Blum

In 2016, UK citizens – of which I am one – will be asked to decide in a referendum whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union (EU).

The EU does a certain amount of good, and some sort of European level of co-ordination is probably necessary, but the EU in its current form is not an easy thing to like.

Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty (a Treaty too far, in my view), the EU seems to be the main entry-point for oligarchy, a place shielded from democracy, accountable to no public, where the oligarchs’ plans to destroy all the social achievements of the twentieth century and send us all back to the slum, the sweatshop and the workhouse can be advanced without opposition.

The EU also seems to continue to insist on a centralising project that is not content to be a loose confederation of co-operating democratic nations, but wants to build itself into a consolidated superstate, which is the antithesis of everything I believe in and stand for.

Today, I read an article in the Independent, in which the EU Commissioner responsible for TTIP negotiations claimed to have no democratic responsibility to the peoples of Europe. The thing that grabbed my attention was the similarity between the argument for leaving the EU advanced in this article and my argument for Scotland leaving the UK: it’s not about identity, it’s about democracy. 

Now the Scottish independence movement and the anti-EU movement are, in general, very different creatures.  Most people who want Scotland to leave the UK are motivated by progressive democratic ideas, by a desire to build a more humane, caring, solidaristic society, and by an inclusive, civic nationalism. Most of those who want the UK to leave the EU are motivated by reactionary ideas, by a desire to be rid of immigrants and pesky environmental regulations (they may get the latter wish under TTIP), and by an exclusive, backwards looking, imperial nationalism.

To hear a non-racist, culturally ‘European’ argument for leaving the EU on democratic grounds is, at least, refreshing. The article wishes for a social, solidaristic Europe – but despairs of getting it, and sees leaving as an easier option than trying to change the EU from within.

Similarly, if I felt that the UK could really be reconstituted as a democratic federation I wouldn’t necessarily be so committed to Scottish independence, and it is only because of the lack of opportunity for such change that Scottish independence appears to me as the best, easiest, safest option. Does this apply to the EU as well?

I really don’t know what to do when the referendum comes.

I will probably vote for staying in the EU, but only because, for now: (i) my fear of creeping undemocratic oligarchy in the EU is marginally less than my fear of what a crazy UK government without the restraining hand of the EU would do; and (ii) my fear of isolation if we are outside the EU is marginally greater than my fear of centralisation and imposed conformity (‘Gleischaltung‘, to give it its true name) within the EU.

But it is a vote that I will cast reluctantly, making a forced choice between two Unions, neither of which satisfy my desire to live democratically and to enjoy what Maurizio Viroli describes as ‘the free and civic way of life’.

(Another thought: maybe Scotland should just become a province of Canada and have done with it – but that’s an idea to pick up another day. )