EU referendum: How to lose friends
The EU referendum is starting to get on my nerves. Given my stamina for politics, I feel like everyone else must be completely bored by now. The debate is inane, the two sides are actually more than 5 or 6, speaking completely different languages and often arguing over completely different things. Perhaps my tendency to look at things from a ‘global community relations’ point of view, I find myself watching a debate that has little I agree with coming from any side.
Part of this multi-way split is indicative of many constitutional affairs debates – the left and right having essentially the same arguments amongst themselves but with totally different language. We’ve seen this with Proportional Representation debates: both sides essentially arguing over whether theirs or their opponents influence will drop. The question is a real ‘curveball’, upsetting the normal order of things.
I should be honest and say that, as a life-long European Federalist, I’m going to be voting to stay In. One of my great frustrations in EU debates is how little the British (moreso the English) actually understand the notion of Federally distributed power. We’re suckers for centralism, who want a clear edge to our little Kingdom – Good Fences, as they say, make Good Neighbours. Sod the idea that we live in any kind of global community.
Suppose one lives in a shared house with friends, sharing out the bills and some of the chores. It works fairly well until one housemate decides they’ve had enough and that they want to leave. Suddenly the remaining housemates have to pay the bills and do the chores that the ‘exiting’ housemate used to pick up. Wouldn’t you feel pretty annoyed with the person who was leaving? That’s how I feel Brexit would be for the EU today. And depending on who’s vision of the post-Brexit world you believe in, we’re then going to turn up and expect to camp in the garden for a week each summer. Or to have complete use of the house for free. Basically, for all there might be a great reason to move out before the contract has ended, you’re risking losing or severely damaging friendships. The answer to ‘we’ll still be able to holiday on the continent, right?’ is probably best answered with another question: what makes you think you’ll still have that moral right?
This brings me to a problem unique amongst Britain’s Hard-left. The referendum will be one of those issues where the Hard-Left and Centre-Left will clash loudly, heading to the polls in opposing directions. On the face of it, there’s a debate about the reformability of ‘Europe’ as a project that has gone off course. But there’s also something about the neighbourliness of Britain’s far-left towards its Continental friends, or rather, would-be friends.
The problem is that by and large, Britain’s Far-Left has no meaningful friends in Europe. Clearly, this is a bold statement to be making, so let’s unpack it. First, I’m specifically speaking about the ‘Democratic Centralists’. Most of Europe has sufficiently greater experience of the realities of Cold War Eastern Europe to think twice before endorsing Trotskyism with the kind of single-mindedness for which the British far-left has a very unusual attraction. As an activist operating at European level, the extent to which debates have moved on leaps and bounds, whilst Britain has gotten stuck, has been pretty starkly obvious. Radical democratic movements like those that took the mayoral victories in Madrid and Barcelona, and which are starting to coalesce in France (I hope) are very difficult to replicate over here, with a Left who’s internal debate has been asphyxiated in terms of much new thought. Just as ideological inflexibility, born of years without real influence, has made Britain’s left especially fractious, so its made finding and maintaining strong relationships with our neighbours especially difficult.
This has perhaps been most bluntly obvious on the rare occasions when I’ve seen British far-left groups engaged in European-level activism. At European Social Forums, English language info sheets with ‘selected highlights’ of the program that direct UK activists back into the echo-chamber of UK-centric activism, instead of out into the open seas of ideas. I almost invariably have the same conversation with at least one person at each of these events: What session am I going to? Have I not thought about this other session? Don’t you think this is the issue to be discussing? Why is that other session I had in mind relevant? I feel embarrassed about Britain’s activism. I ask friends from other countries if they have the same thing, and they look at me in amazement.
To be a European Federalist is to accept that other countries in Europe may have better solutions to our problems. This requires a degree of humility and willingness to examine the unknown. There is a loss of power that comes from opening one’s borders – as true for the radical insurgency’s leadership as it is for the establishment. Sadly, Britain’s far-left is not known for this. So when I hear members of Left parties in the UK saying they want a ‘Left Exit’, I start wondering: which, if any, of your friends do you still have to lose?
(I hope to share other thoughts on the referendum, hopefully containing some more meaningful policy thoughts, at some future stage)