Boris Johnson in his calculated, buffoonish way (BBC) managed to hit upon a key issue about the EU that I’ve been pondering for the best part of five years and this referendum has brought to the fore.
“[…] fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe. There is no single authority that anybody respects or understands. That is causing this massive democratic void.”
Boris Johnson, May 2016
I’ve yet to hear a single argument from Remain that actually contradicts this argument.
Respect and loyalty are fundamental to the the functioning of nation states. When there is an absence of these the state cannot function: the police, legal system, tax system, educational system, military, all rely fundamentally on the tacit consent of the populace – if overwhelming force is not to be used.
All democratic nation states rely upon this ‘daily plebiscite’ of the people; the tacit giving of consent to governing institutions – paying taxes, playing by ‘the rules’ and, when push comes to shove, fighting to protect the ‘nation’.
Boris Johnson has therefore gone straight to the heart of the EU question by highlighting the notable absence of pan-European loyalty and respect for the EU state.
If the EU model was an organisation of individual nation states co-operating and sacrificing their self-interest in a spirit of free, open decision making then there would be no debate and the lack of popular loyalty to a pan-European identity would be as irrelevant as the lack of committed one-world humanists is to the functioning of the UN.
However, the clear direction of travel (from the ECB, European Commission and European Parliament) is towards a more unified, centralised, sovereign EU state that coerces democratic nation states to comply with EU institutions that actually have a weaker democratic mandate and less accountability. As time goes by this can only lead to an unbridgeable gap between the people who govern in the EU state structure and the people who live in European countries, the vast majority of whom are not pan-European socialists or pan-European capitalists. Most people’s loyalties when push comes to shove are firmly with their nation state or failing that their region/aspiring nation state (Catalonia, Scotland, the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, etc.)
Pan-European identity under the EU as a democratic supra-national state has never been ‘sold’ effectively to the people of Europe. The EU is always couched in the language of being good for individual nations whilst the EU state has been built up via secretive treaties and directives and more and more power has been abrogated by EU institutions that few have voted for.
The democratic deficit
Recognition of the danger of this democratic deficit and direction of travel was at the heart of David Cameron’s negotiations in early 2016 as he secured an apparent opt out of the European ‘project’ of ‘ever-closer union.’
“It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States, so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”1
And yet the problem remains that the EU, despite this UK opt out, has aspirations to full nation statehood in the long run whilst the people, emphatically, do not (‘Understanding Cameron’s negotations’).
The response to any popular demonstration of this Euro-scepticism has not been to make a clear demonstration of the benefits of membership, to put in place a clear vision of democratic reform, to admit the flaws and corruption of the existing state structure, or to try and forge lasting bonds of loyalty and respect between EU institutions and European people. On the contrary, since 2008 the EU has been systematically trashing what little respect and loyalty it had built up by terrifying smaller nations into submission (Ireland ; Greece) and alienating the public of Germany, France, Italy and the UK in the process.
There is no evidence – and the optimist in me really wants to find it – to suggest that the EU is becoming more democratic, more open, more deserving of trust and respect.
On the other hand, evidence for a widening democratic deficit is easily found. Turnout for elections to the European parliament across Europe has dropped from 62% to 42% in the last 30 years (turnout, 1979-2014). Only Belgium and Luxembourg, the countries for whom the EU has achieved the status of surrogate national government maintain high turnout. Nowhere else is this the case. In the UK participation has never risen above 40% – electing MEPs is treated with about the same level of enthusiasm as the election of a local councillor.
The 40% of people who do manage to summon the enthusiasm to vote for MEPs, overwhelmingly vote for representatives of national parties who claim to represent their national interests clearly emphasising the hierarchy at work. Only the Greens campaign on an explicitly pan-European platform and even when taken together with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats they have struggled to win more than a fifth of the voters who show up (c.8% of the total UK voting population).
The only possible conclusion from this is that most people want power to be held at a national level (or by ‘none of the above’). It is certainly not a ringing endorsement for more integration, more centralisation, more top-down institution building.
Not once have I heard a European MEP, or member or the ECB or European Commission talk honestly about the democratic deficit as a major hurdle to the plans to form a trusted and respected EU state. The consistent attitude of the entire edifice, of every speaker who purports to represent the EU is that elections and representative democracy are inconvenient, national identities are xenophobic and reactionary, and populism is fundamentally dangerous to all that is progressive and successful in Europe.
In defence of radicalism
Now I can understand, historically, why many EU officials and politicians might try to distance themselves from all forms of patriotic political enthusiasm. Populist, nationalist leaders, be they pro-Russian authoritarians (Hungary), Christian proto-fascists (Poland) or radical leftists (Greece) appear to presage a descent into the dark days before the EU project, when Right and Left engaged in pitched ideological battles that brought the continent to its knees and led to the deaths of millions.
However, from the British (or perhaps more accurately English) perspective this attitude does not sit well because the historical narrative is of the steady growth of representative democracy with bouts of democratic radicalism acting as a positive force for good. There are few examples from 20thC British history of democratic elections delivering genuinely dangerous individuals and regimes into power.
On the Left the touchpoint for radical democracy remains the 1945 election of Atlee’s Labour government that built the welfare state. For those on the Right, democratic radicalism is associated with the Thatcher governments who freed British society from economic stagnation. Both have been incorporated into British political narratives and neither are regarded (by their supporters at least) as reasons to fundamentally fear the democratic will of the people.
There is a very real danger, especially after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election, that if the Remain campaign is successful, the British public become accustomed to viewing any and all suggestions of radical change with fear and this fear becomes embedded as a permanent feature of our politics. For me this would be more permanently damaging than voting Leave and the period of inevitable turbulence it would bring.
Radical change in Britain has frequently been divisive and transformative but it has always been our change, driven broadly by what the voters voted for, delivering leaders into power who, for all their faults, were accountable to us. At no point can the same be said of the EU government and at no point can I envisage that changing.
To clarify my thoughts, I have recently returned to two political essays that explicitly tackled the question of national identity and its relationship to radical, democratic change: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) and George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941). Both were written at pivotal moments in the political history of this nation.
Paine on the eve of the American Revolution when ‘American’ colonists were organising against the British government advocated independence as an opportunity to become master of one’s own radical destiny:
“I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty.”
Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
Orwell when continental Europe was under effective Nazi control and the British Empire ‘stood alone’ advocated a policy of radicalism at all costs, against all odds:
“Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.”
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941
Under incredibly difficult circumstances (much more difficult than we face today) Paine and Orwell crafted patriotic appeals in defence of the radical potential of more democracy, not less; more freedom, not less. In both cases it is clear what the easiest path forward would have been in the short term: capitulation and compromise. Yet, both backed the potential of democratic radicalism to re-invigorate society; to encourage nations to strive towards something greater than what they had been previously.
It is a shame that the closest thing the Leave campaign has to this kind of thinking is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. If some on the Left could channel the liberal optimism of Paine and the patriotic socialism of Orwell then the democratic deficit of the EU would be brought into sharper focus for a lot more people and the politics of fear could be replaced by the policy of radical optimism.
Therefore, I am likely to vote Leave because I believe we need an honest rethinking of what kind of society and people we are in Britain and I am finding it hard to envisage that happening within an EU that proactively spurns democratic structures and radical visions of the future. A state that has no trust in its people can expect little loyalty in return.
1EU reform deal: What Cameron wanted and what he got’, BBC News (20 February 2016): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35622105