Saturday, 27 February 2016

In, Out, or Shake it all About?

We're all doing the EU Hokey-Cokey, whether we like it or not.


Wait long enough, and the same old things come back round. Fashions come, go and return - we seem to be in a bit of a 90s Nostalgiafest at the moment, for example. This is bad enough, as there is nothing worse than one's youth and young manhood being repackaged as History, but I am damn glad that there is currently no serious attempt to bring back the 70s.

Cheesecloth shirts. Flares and platform shoes. Really BAD hair. The great smell of Brut. And, for me, the sheer terror that was any form of group dancing. The Hokey-Cokey in particular - you have no idea how much I hated that bloody dance. My seven-year-old self couldn't grasp why anyone would ever want to do it - I mean, what for? OK, here's my left leg in...now you want me to take it out..right...and the same process with my right leg....why are we doing this, and why do we now need to do this again?
My Eyes! My Eyes! They're Bleeding!

I'll be over here with my book.
As you may be able to guess, I wasn't the most socially gregarious of children.

As with fashion, so with politics, and it's no less depressing than contemplating lobbing various body parts in, then out, then turning around and doing it all again - in fact, it's pretty much the same. It seems that debates that one thought had been consigned to oblivion have a nasty tendency to come back to life, rather like Phil Collins' musical career. The seemingly never-ending renascence of the debate on immigration is particularly grating - it's one that has popped up again and again, particularly over the last 120 years. Have a read of the papers from the late Victorian period if you don't believe me: the language is almost identical to that being used by Nigel Farage et al.

And now, of course, we have an impending referendum on whether to remain in the EU. I can almost hear the strains of 'Nights in White Satin' playing away in the background, as the 'Out' Campaigners talk about Sovereignty and the 'In' Campaigners discuss participation and trade. So, where to stand, and what to vote for - In or Out, and how long will it take before everyone gets so sick of the whole damn thing that they start going round punching campaign posters?

Taking the Out argument first, the strongest and most plausible claim is that of taking back sovereignty and control of the destiny of the UK. The idea is that national laws are subject to decisions made at the European level, made by politicians and groups over whom we have no democratic mandate to appoint or dismiss. For the Outers, leaving the EU is in line with the long democratic traditions of the country.
The problem with this is, as I see it, twofold. The first is that the very people who espouse this were the very same who campaigned for the 'No' vote in the Scottish Referendum, in particular Michael Gove. If you take the language being used and change 'UK' to 'Scotland', and 'the EU' to 'The UK', you pretty much have an SNP Independence Referendum campaign leaflet. How is it correct that sovereignty and independence is just and correct for the UK as a whole, but not for one part of it in particular?
The second point is that sovereignty itself is a very fluid concept, no more so than in the ever more globalised world market we find ourselves in. In fact, countries are always ready to broker deals that, in theory, compromise the independence of national parliamentary systems if that deal is ultimately in the national interest - and will get out of those deals if they are no longer advantageous. The notion that, with one bound we will be free of our Euro-shackles is plainly absurd - it's not as if, to torture an old headline from The Times, a fog will descend in the channel that will permanently cut the continent off from us. It'll still be there, much like Phil Collins.
The other point to bring up on this is that, if the No vote is successful, within five years there will almost certainly be no UK to speak of - Scotland would vote for independence and I suspect that even Northern Ireland would be weighing up its options.

Let's look at the In option. The core argument here, it seems to me, relates to the economic factor: The EU is our largest trading partner and for every pound we put in, it has been estimated that we receive back up to ten pounds of economic benefits. While this is very convincing, it should be pointed out that this reduces the whole of the EU to little more than business - it becomes all about the money, and not about the people. And that is the narrative that the INners are missing. Look at what's happening politically round the world right now: It's people angry at the traditional political narrative, that of jobs and money and stability and progress and blah blah blah - see, I even got bored as I was writing that sentence. Suddenly, there's a real sense of the personal about politics - that's why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Leader, why people are flocking to Bernie Sanders and an angry Oompa Loompa in the States, why Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are so popular. People are tired of watching the same old faces trot out the same old solutions, and the In campaigners haven't twigged to that.

So - In or Out? My instincts are to remain within the EU: It promises greater stability, more security, overall a better outcome, and the UK is likely to remain as a single political entity. That doesn't mean, however, that I am enamoured of the European Union as a system. It has clear structural issues, but then again, it did so when we voted to go in back in the 70s.

Which brings me back to the bloody Hokey Cokey. We've put our limbs in and out and turned around to face the arid stretches of the global dancefloor, covered in the sticky residue of a tortured metaphor. What we haven't done, I would suggest, is Shake It All About.

The EU is not, should not, be the plaything of big business. It was conceived as a way of preventing further wars in the continent, as a way of bringing peace and reconciliation between people. The institution, primarily, should be a thing for the people, of the people and by the people, just as a certain country across the Pond likes to think of itself. What is needed is a grassroots movement within the whole continent demanding reform for the whole system - one that acts locally but thinks globally, or at least EU-wide. Too much of the running of the show has been left to politicians who rely on weary tropes and arguments and, more importantly, lack any real vision of what a Europe united is truly capable of.

I'm still not going to dance the Hokey Cokey though.

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