When telling the truth is the only decent thing to do
The UK electorate is now steaming ahead to a vital decision day on the 23rd June when it will have the opportunity to vote ‘in’ or ‘out’ on Mr Cameron’s renegotiated terms of the country’s membership of the European Union. At the time of writing the outcome seems to be balanced on a knife-edge. The establishment, spanning the economic and political interests of the most powerful people in the country, will by a step-by-step process, come out over the next few months to reveal all the ‘evidence’ which points to staying in the Union. The populist insurgency in the meantime will work hard to create an emotional mood which chimes with the deep unhappiness of millions of ordinary people with the prevailing state of affairs and call for ‘out’. The appeal of this current is reaching deep into the Conservative party, with a large part of its rank-and-file signing up to the ‘out’ cause together with a significant chuck of Mr Cameron’s own Cabinet members. The news that the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is throwing his considerable weight behind the ‘outers’ is likely to increase the sense that the attempt by Cameron to choreograph an outcome that would favour, when the hullabaloo is all over, a vote to stay in, is in danger of seriously unravelling.
Detached point of view
Yet the ordinary citizen looking at this from a detached point of view will probably wonder if the choice on offer is something like the one that the ancient Greek sea captains had to face when the only courses they could set were either into the maw of the dragon monster Scylla, or the sucking whirlpool of the equally dreadful Charybdis. One way or the other, the future doesn’t look too bright. Neither are the leading politicians who are clamouring to have their voices heard on the issue aren’t helping very much. Both sides of the argument seem set on generating their own sets of myths – mobilising emotions of fear and anxiety on one hand and the mood of reckless abandonment that a gambler needs before making a high-cost risky bet on the other. For the ‘inners’ membership of the EU gives Britain a large degree of protection against all the bad things that can happen in a dangerous and unpredictable world. The ‘outers’ tell us it is holding the country back from the fulfilment of its destiny as a great trading nation which the whole world wants to do business with. For a great swathe of voters these are issues that need to be boiled down to bite-size concretedness, allowing the truth of the matter to emerge from the things that truly concern them. This is a pretty good way to go and it would be really helpful if the contending viewpoints could tell us what the implications of staying in or going out will be for an economy which desperately needs to create many more good quality jobs, public services can aspire to excellence, tax and revenue systems operate on progressive principles where the rich pay their share, and having housing security, whether in a place you own or rent, isn’t an impossible dream.
Good luck to any politician or citizen campaigner who can spell out when ‘in’ or ‘out’ the EU will mean in terms of all these things. In actuality we have to expect that the areas on which the vote will hinge will devolve down to a much smaller list of concerns, with immigration looming largest of all. The deal that EU president has set up to be done on the renegotiated terms of membership covers five separate headings but it was the fourth of these, covering social benefits and free movement, which was turned to most frequently in media coverage to judge whether Cameron had been successful in achieving his ends. Issues like ‘competitiveness’ or ‘sovereignty’ have the smack of the theological about them unless they can be shown to have practical implications in the real world and a deal on ‘social benefits and free movement’ seem to have more potential in that direction. Most people have a strong intuitive sense of what the implications are for having more people come into the country and feel they know what this will mean to them personally.
But it is unravelling this one single issue that the bogus nature of the whole renegotiation exercise becomes apparent. The exercise of the free movement rights available to citizens of the EU cannot by any rational standard be countered as one of the principle flaws in its set-up. In a woeful history of missed opportunities to build genuine solidarity in a union based on the well-being of its citizens there are much higher failings that ought to count against the Europe of the single market. The ineptness of the Stability and Growth Pact, which prevents member states from running a fiscal deficit greater than 3 percent or debt of 60 percent of the country’s GDP ought properly to appear much closer to the top of the list as a consequence to the role it has played in apparently shackling governments which want to invest to bring economies rapidly out of a downturn. Or the Common Agricultural Policy – in principle a good idea if it served the social goal of supporting diverse producers of high quality food produce. But 80 percent of CAP aid goes to just 25 percent of farms, with the biggest slice of the subsidy pie is handed to the landed gentry, environment- destroying mega-farm and vast agro-industrial conglomerates. The failure of the euro as a unifying project and the roll-out of austerity across the continent as the answer to the crisis instigated by the 2008 credit crunch, with the devastating impact this has had on national economies from Greece and Cyprus in the east to Spain and Portugal in the west are all part of the many reasons why citizens are right to acknowledge the grand scale of the mess that the region is in.
Measures like a strongly enforced minimum income set at living wage levels provide the remedy that is needed to support workers in the segments of the economy where there is competition between natives and newcomers and would be far more effective in supporting all round prosperity than ending the right to move freely
Measured against this woeful record the fact that the EU has facilitated a means by which its working people can at least escape the worst of what a badly managed single market has thrown at them ought to be countered as one of its redeeming features. As businesses collapsed and public services were cut back to the bone causing unemployment to soar up into high double digit figures young people in particular, the greatest victims of austerity, have been partially compensated by the fact that some of them have been able to flee to other parts of Europe where they have some hopes for finding work. All well and good say the critics of free movement, but what about the detrimental effects it has on the populations of indigenous workers in the countries the migrants head towards? An honest debate around this question would take into account the very wide consensus that exists amongst economic analysts which centres on the view that negative impacts are greatly exaggerated. The net effect of inward migration has been a small positive boost to the average incomes of the countries receiving the workers. Measures like a strongly enforced minimum income set at living wage levels provide the remedy that is needed to support workers in the segments of the economy where there is competition between natives and newcomers and would be far more effective in supporting all round prosperity than ending the right to move freely.
Pro-working class measure
It does little to encourage those of us who see the right to free movement as an essential pro-working class measure to see that the leading lights in both the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ campaigns are going to continue to trash what it represents in the Europe of today. The ‘outers’ want to continue the hype because it shows up strongly in all their surveys on what people feel is wrong with the EU. But the ‘inners’ are just as bad. Labour supporters of the cross-party Britain Stronger in Europe campaign intend to argue during the course of the debates around the referendum that Cameron is justified in acting to curtail EU migration and that the concessions on social welfare he claims he has won from Europe will do just that. This is folly. The benefit curb will not reduce migration because calculations about the social security available to people in work play a very small role in the decision-making of would-be migrants who are still in their home countries. On the other hand the prospect of a minimum wage enhanced to the level that George Osborne has proposed in his last budget will certainly increase the attractiveness of the UK to anyone fleeing poverty-level wages and unemployment. The news coming out of the Labour party at the time of writing, that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell intend to argue against the notion of an ‘emergency brake’ on EU migration and benefit curbs for newcomers ought to be welcomed as evidence that some politicians at least are prepared to argue their case on the referendum on the basis of the actual evidence. It’s a smart move. If it takes a hold on the debate it will not only provide a rebuttal to the so much of the nonsense coming out of both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps, but also the best indication of what needs to be done to reform the EU to the point where it can advance the interests of all of its citizens.