The European Union (EU) is boring. It is procedural and legalistic and dull. At university I took every opportunity to study any module that was not about the EU.
It operates as a kind of pinnacle of what Jacques Rancière would call the ‘police order’. For Rancière, politics is when “you speak at a time and in a place you’re not expected to speak“. The ‘police order’, by contrast, is the everyday following of strict rules and procedures that together make up ‘the political system’. The EU has authored more constitutional documents, promulgated more directives and established more working groups, committees and courts than any other organisation. In this way it is the ultimate embodiment of ‘police order’ – precisely delimiting the space of ‘the political’ and tightly controlling legitimate political activity to take place only within this space.
I am really not particularly interested in theorising this kind of politics. It comes down to economics or law. There is no space for imagining new futures or for spontaneous political engagement. The European Union has its task to preserve order, find consensus among 27 diverse nations, and ensure the smooth flow of business, labour and capital. It does this, when you consider just what a task that actually is, I believe generally with aplomb. Its achievements are many and great, and its symbolic value gigantic. But it isn’t interesting.
Hence my great reluctance to write about the upcoming referendum on continued British membership of the EU. However, seeing how the polls have in the last fortnight made an alarming swing towards ‘leave’, I had better lay down my two-penneth.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE ROLE OF THE EU
I have written before about how the EU has transformed itself from purely an organisation to promote and support business across the continent, a modus operandi which drew considerable criticism from left-wing voices like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn at the last referendum in 1975. Perhaps it has simply offloaded the role of unabashed cheerleader for neoclassical economics, free capital, government non-interference and restraint to the European Central Bank (overseers of the Eurozone and its post-2008 austerity fetish). Regardless, the European Union is now an organisation that spends more and more resources ensuring the rights of citizens, workers, the environment, the sidelined and oppressed with what I believe are some civilisation-defining laws, regulations and channels of appeal.
Things like the Working Time Directive. You cannot be made to work longer than 48 hours per week, and choosing to not sign cannot affect your employability. How could a national parliament, so beholden to business to fund elections, drive economic growth and deliver tax revenue possibly pass such a law that liberates the masses from capitalists’ insatiable demand for ever more work?
Health and safety must be one of the most often ridiculed aspects of EU-led lawmaking. For all the silly headlines and captious statements two truths emerge: it works, and member nations retain sovereignty.
Looking, for example, at fatal injuries at work. Something I hope most of us wouldn’t laugh at trying to reduce and eliminate to the greatest extent possible, regardless of ‘inconvenience’. Since 1998, across the EU these have more than halved and in the UK have fallen by 2/3rds. That’s hundreds of lives actually saved each year in the UK alone.
From the same publication by the HSE, we can see that in the UK, workplaces are much more likely to conduct regular health and safety assessments than in most other EU member states. This follows a British tendency, that may have now ended, to ‘gold plate’ EU directives as they are transposed onto the UK statute books. For those bemoaning a ‘toxic’ health and safety culture they believe emanates from Brussels, in fact this is very much a British norm and trend, and one that I believe should be celebrated.
The European Court of Human Rights. True enough founded by an agreement separate to the EU, but for all intents and purposes we can consider it a pillar of the EU judiciary. This court has tirelessly fought for prisoners’ rights. You may think that giving those currently serving time the vote a right they have forfeit, but at least they have a voice and can speak up and register their grievance. Consider how far this argument is from the situation in our closest cultural ally outside Europe – the United States. In Florida and Alabama, 31 per cent of all black males are disenfranchised for life, because they once served time. Almost one third.
The politics in these states, and let’s remember it was Florida that decided the 2000 presidential election by calling for Bush, is so grotesquely undemocratic and skewed that ever increasing numbers of ethnic minorities, which are so much more likely to be stopped and searched by police and end up behind bars, are being disenfranchised each year. Each year the already wealthy, the already successful and the already powerful decide more and more in their favour and deny political rights to the oppressed.
In Europe, we the people have a voice and we have rights. For all Americans’ talk of their constitution and inalienable rights, the European Union is the true heir to that 18th century legacy of safeguarding and expanding the rights of man.
Bathing Water and Urban Waste Water Treatment Directives, which together slowly, eventually pressured British governments, who fought at every juncture, to clean up our beaches. This history tells us without doubt that outside the EU, British beaches would suffer.
In the sea itself, much maligned EU fishing laws and quotas have led finally to a resurgence in Cod stocks. Numbers of a fish once approaching extinction off our shores have recovered.
On land it’s the EU that’s looking out for bees. Our own government voted against the 2013 moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides, but ended up being bound by it. While it has not been shown that these pesticides are the sole cause for the shocking decline in British bee colonies from 250,000 in 1950 to fewer than 100,000 today, they certainly don’t help bees, harm them and cause stress among colonies. Knowing how fragile ecosystems are in the face of industrial land management and farming techniques, thanks be to the European Union for acting.
I don’t believe the economic role of the EU really needs interrogating or justifying. It is by far and away the most successful trading bloc in the world. Long before the EU was the giant integrated market it is today, British governments were dismantling our industrial base. In America, beholden to no-one, post-industrial economic woes blight the rust belt just as they do the North of the UK.
To think that European free trade has harmed the British economy is a failure to engage with reality. Decisions by British politicians to not only accept, but promote and accelerate globalisation? There’s an argument to be had there, but the EU? The industrial parts of the German and for the most part French economies have prospered from the harmonisation and massive expansion of markets.
There must be good reason that between 70 and 90% of economists, not a profession well known for agreeing, are extremely negative about the economic consequences of leaving the EU. From the Guardian article directly, “some 72% said that a vote to leave would most likely have a negative impact on growth for 10-20 years”.
10-20 years of a negative impact on growth.
British GDP grew by 0.4% in the first three months of 2016. Our economy cannot take 10-20 years of stalling growth. Anyone who opposes the policies of austerity must also heed this forecast and oppose Brexit.
It goes without saying that these economic predictions completely dispel the myth that the EU costs us money to be a part of. It improves our economic output and therefore increases employment and therefore increases government tax receipts and reduces the welfare burden, easily paying for itself and some. And a lot.
You might liken the EU to a benevolent dictatorship. Yes, not always accountable, but it has been good to us, and shows no sign of changing.
Except that the EU really is accountable. The European Parliament must approve all legislation tabled, and MEPs are elected by a much fairer and more proportional system than British MPs. Our elected representatives both within the EU and in Westminster scrutinised and approved each treaty granting the EU greater powers.
Before criticising the mote in the European law-making process, critics would do well to first consider the beam of undemocratic unaccountability closer to home – the House of Lords!
Consider yourself primed, more posts are to follow.