The EU debate: selfish, insular and pathetically neoliberal

This article was originally published on the News Hub and can be found here.

In March 2012, the European Commission was declared racist. Well, that was the verdict at the time, after an enormous public outcry forced the institution to withdraw a video commercial accused of embodying imperialist attitudes and racist stereotypes. The video featured a white woman dressed in yellow – the colour of the stars of the EU, under attack by Chinese, Indian and Brazilian martial artists wearing traditional dress. As their hostility escalates, the woman’s figure replicates until her clones encircle the intimidating caricatures. The women then fade into the stars of the EU flag, before the video ends with the slogan “The more we are, the stronger we are”.

The commercial offered a rare insight into how the EU views itself – as an organisation tasked with protecting civilised society from a primal aggression posed by the world’s poor. Unsurprisingly, the EU’s five hundred and eight million citizens overwhelmingly identify as white and Christian, while ninety-five per cent of them live in countries with a “very high” Human Development Index, a rating reserved for the world’s wealthiest communities by the U.N. The video’s crime was that it took pride in this rarely-discussed fact: that to be a European citizen is to be a member of a neo-imperialist global elite.

All of this is known only too well by the thousands of refugees queueing at the continent’s borders. Such is their desperation to enter our land of plenty that they embark on journeys universally acknowledged as so dangerous that preparing for death has become a routine part of them. According to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières‎, it has become commonplace for refugees to write telephone numbers on their clothes, knowing it may be the only way for word of their fate to reach their families. The tally of those drowned in crossing the Mediterranean now stands at over 10,000.

In Britain, progressives recoil in horror at the atrocities of this crisis. Yet these same self-declared liberals continue to offer their undying endorsement to the EU; an international syndicate which not only turns a blind eye to such events, but which encourages their continuation. The uncomfortable truth is that the EU exists to make wealthy European nations wealthier, by competitively disadvantaging trade with anyone who lies outside its borders. This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories. It is the stated aim of any economic union.

No surprise then, that Oxfam has condemned the EU’s policies for “destroying opportunities in developing countries and hampering global efforts to reduce poverty”. Whether in granting subsidies to European farmers which disadvantage their counterparts in developing countrieslevying enormous tariffs on non-EU imports or discouraging trade through complex regulations, the EU has maintained a strong resistance against international development of any kind.

Of course, there have been token efforts to the contrary. The EU oversees an aid budget which it spends on schemes in a variety of regions. But these projects fail to compensate for the damage inflicted by the EU, and are designed in part to distract from the unsavoury truth underlying the union’s existence. In the words of the Overseas Development Institute, “it is both hypocritical and self-defeating for the EU to give aid to developing countries while simultaneously blocking their trade”. Others have claimed that EU policy “destroys” development work, while the union has also been accused of coercing deprived nations to comply with its goals. “Developing countries have a gun pointed at their chest” commented one German MEP, when Kenya was forced to sign a trade agreement with the union two years ago.

Despite the efforts of humanitarian groups and international charities, our referendum has paid little attention to the EU’s shameful record on international justice. The debate has fixated on Britain’s economy with an unrelenting obsession, both sides guilty of having relied on exaggerated predictions. While Brexit campaigners boast that Britain would flourish by forming its own independent trade deals, the Remain camp decry their opponents as naïve little-Englanders, arguing that the UK economy would collapse were it not for EU membership.

This narrative has proven particularly popular among Britain’s young voters. Keen to shun the unfashionable notion of patriotism, they embrace the seemingly progressive humility of an argument which encourages international co-operation. Yet in idolising the EU, their argument faces two problems. Not only does Britain’s membership constitute a disturbing bias for collaboration with exclusively white trading partners, but it offers little for those concerned with international responsibility.

If the claims made by Remain campaigners are true – that Britain, despite housing the world’s fifth largest economy – is incapable of prospering outside of the EU, how can we expect the other 165 countries excluded from the hegemony to do so? How can the developing economies in Africa, Asia and South America grow sustainably if existence outside the world’s largest single market is so precarious? The very arguments that Europhiles use to justify Britain’s continued membership mask the disturbing inequity which underlies their utopia. All of the consequences which we fear from Brexit – tariffs, extra regulations and having our trade competitively disadvantaged – are those that Britain is complicit in inflicting upon the countries not welcomed into our European project.

The pernicious continentalism of the EU has been mistaken for a progressive internationalism by voters, occupying the moral high-ground of an ideologically vacuous debate. An absence of principled arguments has allowed Remain campaigners to take charge, hurling accusations of xenophobia at anyone who dares disagree with them. But they forget that it was the likes of British fascists such as Oswald Mosley who were among the first to pioneer their vision of a united Europe and the “shared European identity” which is used to justify it.

Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” policy strived towards implementing apartheid on a continental basis. “We shall not mix with each other, unless we are similar peoples of the same big family… and that family is Europe” he outlined in a 1951 speech. United by the racial kinship of the “Germanic peoples of Europe,” his aspiration was to effectively exclude ethnic minorities from the continent. By intent or not, it is this vision which has been largely realised by the modern-day EU, which shamelessly offers unlimited migration to the white freemen of Europe while ignoring the refugees drowning in its seas. Mosley would delight at today’s young voters who approach the referendum not with concerns about liberal humanitarianism, but the protection of their own economic interests in unity with fellow white Europeans.

The Remain campaign operate under the slogan of “Britain Stronger In,” and it is exactly this ideology which has dominated their debate. Every argument they’ve put forward has elevated Britain’s own interests above all else. Global poverty, climate change and the refugee crisis have been overshadowed by issues such as cheaper mobile phone chargesbudget holidays and abstract markers of economic growth. Even Brexit’s supposed threat to Instagram has been used by the Remain campaign to tout voters.

This isn’t to say the mainstream Brexit movement have offered a more principled alternative. Campaigners on all sides – the self-declared progressives as much as the self-admitted patriots – have reduced the referendum to a single question: how can we take this opportunity to improve our own economic situation?

The truth is that today, across the entire political spectrum, we have conceded to an insidious neoliberalism which dictates our every decision. Any constitutional dilemma can seemingly be answered by an economic calculation of whichever option offers most growth. During the Scottish referendum it was the £500 question – the amount that voters would need to receive to be coerced to change their vote. This time it is the £64 question – the sum that Vote Leave claim Britons would save on their energy bills, or the £850 question – the controversial figure that the Remain campaign claim households would lose as a result of Brexit.

As a society, even if not as individuals, we are more than capable of dealing with these costs. The greatest threat to Britain’s poor isn’t posed by a collective poverty of our nation caused by a deficiency in international competitiveness. It is the absence of domestic wealth redistribution which leaves Britain’s families in hardship.

This is what is so galling about Conservative ministers who have presided over NHS under-fundingfalling living standards and an atrocious housing crisis now claim that each of these in turn will be threatened by Brexit. It takes a particular kind of uncompromising, swivel-eyed greed to believe that having the world’s fifth largest economy and a GDP per capita to match isn’t enough to build a sustainable and just society, but that we must join an elite club of neo-imperialist nations to do so.

Such is the Thatcherite legacy of neoliberalism. International policy has been reduced to a global economic competition free of ethical obligations. We’ve divorced our doctrine of pursuing unending growth from the humanitarian crises it fuels, the former considered the purpose of our politics while the latter is left to poorly-funded charities and NGOs. No wonder the Remain campaign deem its inward-looking mantra – “Britain Stronger In” – as appropriate to win the referendum.

In an interview with Sky News, David Cameron was asked whether he would support Britain’s membership of the EU were it to be founded today. And what good reason would we have to? How would we explain, in our globalised economy, to the people of Africa, Asia and South America that they are less deserving of our trade than our white neighbours? How would we justify a border policy which discriminates against the most needy in favour of our European counterparts? And how would we rationalise an economic union designed to preserve wealth within some of the richest countries in the world, while others drown trying to reach it?

In a microcosm of the ideologically bankrupt debate in which the UK endures, neither the Prime Minister’s answer nor the questioner considered any of these issues. Instead, we were offered statistics and forecasts pertaining to our own prosperity, wealth and security. In that debate and the one that exists beyond TV studio doors, the priorities of campaigners on all sides were proven to be threefold. How can Britain be ever richer, ever stronger and ever more powerful? How truly insular, selfish and pathetically neoliberal we have shown ourselves to be.

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