What’s left of the European Union?

The first few hours the atmosphere was hearty

With fireworks, fun, and games of every kind;

All were enjoying it, no one was blind;

Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,

And brilliant, too, the technical advances.

Today, alas, that happy crowded floor

Looks very different: many are in tears:

Some have retired to bed and locked the door;

And some swing madly from the chandeliers;

Some have passed out entirely in the rears;

Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few

Are trying hard to think of something new.

(From WH Auden, A Letter to Lord Byron)

One of the consequences of the Conservative victory in the recent UK general election was that there will be an in-out referendum of the UK’s membership of the EU at some point in the next couple of years (details yet to be finalized). How should people who think of themselves as being on the left, egalitarian, liberal, progressive vote?

Until recently there wasn’t really an issue about this. Although there had been a strong tradition of Euroscepticism in the the British Labour Party, it had been pretty much marginalized by the Blair years. The Eurosceptic right of the Conservative Party, UKIP and the tabloids (“up yours Delors!”) framed the EU as being a Trojan horse for socialism via the “social chapter”, the working-time directive etc, and though the left did not concur with that judgement, it did at least see the EU as championing some progressive ideals against the UK’s neanderthals.

Today, alas, things look very different. Though the UK had the good sense to stay out of the Euro (thank you Gordon Brown and Ed Balls) the consequences of Euro membership on indebted southern Europe have been horrible. Germany has done very nicely, of course. With the currency undervalued (compared to any hypothetical Deutschmark) by the presence of weaker economies, it can sell lots of manufactured products to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the south, unable to devalue the drachma, lira or peseta, is forced into ever grimmer austerity and mass unemployment whilst being lectured from the north about virtue, prudence, hard work and the need to pay your debts. The ultimate expression of all this is Greece, now facing its own referendum and the prospect, either way, of a ruinous future. There is no sense of European solidarity, no desire to make large fiscal transfers from north to south, and, it now seems, a desire from German politicians to demonstrate what will happen to any country unwise enough to elect a moderately left-wing government. (Could Syriza have done better if they’d boxed smarter and cut down on the gratuitous references to WW2, I don’t know.)

Couple this to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, which now involves a total failure of European co-operation and the rejection of burden sharing. Again, it is the countries of the south who are bearing the greatest burden thanks to the Dublin regulation. The record of the northern states varies from passable (Sweden, Germany) to execrable (UK, Finland) and the former Eastern Bloc states show no willingness to recognize their obligations (with Hungary suggesting that its recent influx of refugees should return to the first country they entered … Greece).

So, how to vote in that UK referendum? I’ll probably vote to stay in, because at least that way we’ll retain the principle of free movement within the EU, even though that principle in practice is matched by an ever harder external frontier and will be watered down by any concessions Cameron can get from Merkel. So, yes then to a compromised and qualified zone of free movement with drowning migrants at its margins. Yes, to a single market, where the strong bully the weak, and labour standards are undermined. Yes, to a weak political union where left-wing governments can get forced out by a creditors’ coup.

It isn’t much to say yes to though, is it?

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