The UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU is an important topic. It merits serious discussion in the columns of Social Europe. With Thomas Fazi (7 June), we had a mixture of nasty populism, gross exaggerations and a denial of contemporary economic and political realities.
Let’s deal with the populism first. Fazi adopts a ‘plague on both your houses’ stance; says the claims of both sides “are totally unfounded”; asserts that each are scare-mongering “to feather the nests of their campaigns”- a phrase that feeds the idea that people involved in politics are corrupt; and states that “it should be clear by now that predictions made by economists are about as reliable as tasseography.”
In which case, why should Social Europe bother to print articles by economists? This is a line out of the Michael Gove, Nigel Farage playbook, claiming that experts are always flawed or else in the pay of some big institution. In this referendum, one does not need to believe every prognosis put forward by Remain or subscribe to specific predictions. What is clear is that the analysis of every major economic institution from the Bank of England and Institute for Fiscal Studies to the OECD and IMF is that there will be an economic cost for the UK and its citizens if it decides to leave the EU. That is the fact that the Brexiteers are desperate to deny or hide. Fazi’s sneer at economists just joins in that game.
Then there are the exaggerations. No-one I know on the Left thinks this is a matter of ‘life or death’ or that it will ‘trigger World War III’ or a ‘Johnsonian fascist dystopia.’ To suggest that we do is another populist ploy designed to discredit the Remain case.
Nor do we say that globalisation has rendered the nation-state ‘powerless.’ But – and here is the core of the argument – we do recognise that over the last half-century the world and Britain’s role within it has changed dramatically. Since the Second World War, economic developments have moved beyond the boundaries of the individual European nation state. Along with the need to contain Europe’s propensity for deadly wars, this was the original impetus behind the European Economic Community. This has been, firstly, the period of the developing multi-national corporation and then an era of unprecedented globalisation, with financial deregulation, the emergence of ICT and the opening up of the former socialist blocs. These developments have weakened the basic post-war settlement between capital and labour negotiated across most countries in Western Europe, a process accelerated over the last three decades by the ideological ascendancy of neoliberalism.
Taken together, they mean that in the 21st century, politics can no longer be confined to the nation state. We don’t pose one against the other in the binary way that Fazi suggests. Rather, to control and regulate both markets and the environment one has to develop a model of multi-level governance which combines action at the European scale with that undertaken by individual national governments and their devolved regions and cities. These trends are not confined to Europe. Latin American countries are bonding together in Mercosur; Asian countries in ASEAN; and even the current global super-power, the USA, has been keen to develop NAFTA. This requires progressives in each of those regions to reach beyond national boundaries and work together with like-minded parties in neighbouring countries.
These trends are ignored by sceptics. Labour MP Kate Hoey declares that she wants ‘to get back to our parliament the right to make its own laws, the right to have complete control of our economy, to decide everything that relates to our own country …’ (New Statesman 19.6.15). Conservative anti-European MPs use the same basic argument. Another prominent left-wing sceptic, Colin Hines proposes ‘returning to the nation state the power to control goods, money, services …’ (Guardian 23.11.14). These statements suggest that we can just turn back the clock. However, modern production has leapt nation state boundaries. Britain is part of a fully integrated European-wide economy. Look what happens when there is a closure of Eurotunnel. Suddenly the M20 is a car park with queues of thousands of lorries stretching back thirty miles. Consider our agriculture and food industry. Whenever a scandal or scare breaks out – BSE; turkeys; foot and mouth; horsemeat in frozen food – the intertwined, cross-European nature of food production is revealed. If you want to regulate modern food production you have to do it on a pan-European basis.
In the twenty-first century, there is no way that economies and industries are going to be forced back into their national boxes. For a first example, look at the former British car industry. Scattered across the Midlands are the huge old factory sites of Rootes, Humber, Austin, Triumph, and Morris, now transformed into shopping malls, warehouses and mixed-use developments. These British companies will never return. The car companies that flourish are integrated with supply chains that link across the whole of Europe’s Single Market. If we want to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles or agree electric vehicle charging standards, it has to be done within the Single Market. It would simply make no sense to do it for the UK. For a second example, the choice as regards aircraft manufacture is either Airbus or Boeing. It did not look that way in 1967, when Boeing made four-fifths of the world’s commercial aircraft. However, long-term cooperation between French, German, British and Spanish companies means that the European consortium is now a serious rival to Boeing, with a full order book. Filton near Bristol and Broughton in North Wales, along with their 400 supply-chain companies and 100,000 jobs, prosper as a core component of an interwoven network of Europe-wide production processes. What is certain is that they would have no future as a separate British company. Hoey’s ‘complete control of our economy’ would guarantee them the fate of Humber, Morris and Triumph.
Being a full member of the EU allows the UK to contribute to the shaping of this Single Market: to formulate common environmental and employment standards, for example a guaranteed four weeks annual holiday for employees. It gives companies a market of 500 million people – not one a tenth of that size. Europe is the scale at which key parts of twenty-first century business operates. These companies invest in the UK as we are part of that wider market. However difficult it may be due to differences of language and culture, that is the level at which progressives need to work.
These connections and interdependencies are not just economic. They extend into the nooks and crannies of everyday life whether it is tourism and travel, crime or climate change. They all require new forms of transnational cooperation to enable the countries and citizens of Europe to work together for their mutual benefit and highlight the fact that Britain can no longer stand isolated and aloof from Europe.
In the twentieth century the Left achieved social advances through the nation state. It is more difficult to see how to shape and influence this emerging new world order. As Pascal Lamy expressed it: “Historically, the success of social democracy was to promote a compromise between labour and capital, between the state and the market and between commercial competition and social solidarity. Globalisation has unhinged the balance by taking away all the domestic levers by which we maintained the compromise”. That is why talk about ‘building a new Britain’ is so unrealistic. Social democracy in one country is a non-starter in an interdependent world. With such an open economy, the UK trying to challenge international capital on its own would get nowhere. The fate that befell the Mitterrand government in France in the early 1980s should serve as a reminder to all like Fazi who talk in such casual terms. The task is to find new avenues for the social compromises that the left previously created.
We are living in dangerous times. Around the world today we are seeing the spread of aggressive nationalism, from the ruins of the USSR to India and Turkey. Across Europe we see the re-emergence of old nationalist enmities and the creation of new ones. Occasionally, as in Catalonia and Scotland, this is primarily a civic nationalism which sees the potential of its political goals within a broader Europe. However, generally they are ethnic nationalism defining themselves against an enemy ‘other’ – be it refugees, East Europeans, Muslims or, most commonly in the UK, just ‘Brussels’. The referendum campaign has given dangerous life to these sentiments among significant sections of the electorate. The Brexiteers know this and have played up these fears. That is why Johnson compared the EU project to Hitler and Napoleon; that is why they talk about 88 million Turks and others ‘flooding’ into Europe. This is the real Project Fear of the campaign on which Fazi is dangerously silent.
He kids himself that there is a progressive bolt hole for English nationalism. There is not. The days of ‘honourable Eurosceptic nationalism’ are long gone. In the twenty-first century, to control the major forces shaping the world’s economy and ecology we have to move beyond the nation state. As the nation state alone cannot bear the strain it is precisely the task of politics to create new frameworks that can. That requires a Europe that acts as a new hinge to complement the nation state and enable politics to shape the economy in a wider regional setting.
The task for all parts of the progressive spectrum is not to mimic UKIP or the Front National and Marine Le Pen, but to show that it can offer an alternative model of globalisation that reshapes the Single Market and offers a future to all of Europe’s peoples. The common task for battered social democrats, progressive nationalists, social Liberals, Greens and new forces like Syriza and Podemos should be to develop an attractive vision of states working together on a range of issues that will provide a better life for EU citizens and opportunities for its young people. For progressives in the UK that can only be done from within the EU.