David Cameron’s negotiations may be going reasonably well from the point of view of reducing the number of leading figures in his own party who might support the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. But the “concessions” made to the British government have absolutely nothing to do with the real interests of working people, even if they pander to the xenophobic misrecognition of the nature of the underlying problems that it has been convenient for politicians of the region to cultivate, including, alas, many politicians of established social democratic parties, following their shift to what Tariq Ali has called “the extreme centre”.
There are very many noble reasons for British people to want to feel part of a broader European community of nations. Many millions died in wars between European powers in the past, and the European Community did contribute to creating more prosperous and democratic countries through its regional development policies and reduction of barriers to mobility of labour. Greater freedom of movement and cultural and educational exchanges between European countries have all played an important role in exorcising some of the ghosts of an extremely violent past, although the British have long been somewhat grudging participants in these developments.
But the social and political crises provoked by austerity policies and the incapacity of the Europe Union to absorb the waves of new immigrants and refugees created by its own geopolitics have highlighted what the real problems are. European supra-national institutions have a severe democratic deficit. The Europe that we have is a Europe that favours the interests of corporate capital and remains structurally compromised by policies that perpetuated uneven development within the eurozone (whilst leaving the present British government free to redistribute more income from labour to capital, destroy the welfare state, and exacerbate the economic and social divide between the North and South of the country). What all that entails is only too obvious in the treatment of Greece. The Euro elite has not only frustrated the Greek people’s efforts to diminish the impact crippling austerity measures, but is prepared to castigate the country further for being an involuntary entry point for refugees. The modest efforts of a government of the left in Portugal to diminish the pain are also currently being challenged by Brussels.
The quality of European national democratic frameworks is somewhat varied: the Spanish Right, for example, enjoy some electoral advantages as a result of the settlement that allowed the transition from the Franco dictatorship, and the “first past the post”, simple majority, voting system of the UK has long had its critics. One of the many historic failures of the Labour Party was its failure to grasp the nettle of electoral reform. European democracy has now brought to power some governments of the extreme right that evoke disturbing memories of the past, whilst the logic of electoral competition between professionalised party political machines has made mainstream social democratic parties less and less distinguishable in policy terms from their opponents. But the European Union has become a further obstacle for any national political movement that tries to advance an alternative (often an alternative that sounds pretty much like traditional social democracy) and secures a democratic mandate to do so.
It is to be hoped that at least some of those involved in the British referendum campaign will focus on what it might be possible to do, should the country vote to remain in Europe, to foster a European project that would be more satisfactory for the majority of European citizens. It would also be good to have more forthright and reflective public debate about the consequences of recent European foreign policy. Brexit or no Brexit, the issues of borders and migration need to be addressed in more intelligent and honest ways. I certainly hope that Jeremy Corbyn will see all this as essential and lead his party’s contribution to the debate accordingly.
Yet when they look at what the Cameron government is doing, and mainstream press and political reactions to the negotiations so far, the impression that the state of debate in the UK gives to outsiders is that the British simply want to wash their hands of responsibility for anything that might be politically disagreeable. If the rest of Europe lets the UK get away with that, it will hardly make the idea that there is still room for some more noble kind of European project to be developed more convincing.