Referendum Fatigue: 5 Thoughts on the Inadequacies of Both Leave and Remain

by Alex Fusco

16 June 2016

Everyone is talking about it. Political commentators, fear-mongers, rent-a-mouths, ‘respected’ journalists, former and current politicians, academics, business leaders – they are all tripping over themselves to enter the fray and share their considered, controversial or convoluted opinions.  

The crux of the matter hardly needs elucidating – stay or go, stick or twist, remain within the European Union or strike out alone. The prospect of another article on the subject is nearly as unpalatable as George Osborne. But bear with me. This is not a plea to vote one way or the other, or an excuse to invent more pointless neologisms beginning with the letters ‘Br’. It is merely a reflection, a critical commentary of the two camps, and an attempt to broaden the narrow confines of the debate.

1. Fictional future.

I have very little time for the fictions masquerading as facts, invented statistics and tea-leaf predictions from both sides. They are of almost no relevance. Simply put, the future is beyond our limited powers of perception. In the short term, Remain is the safest option. Leaving the EU would trigger months, perhaps even years of instability. But in five or ten years, when the dust has settled and the markets – those voracious deities of the postmodern age – have been appeased, what will happen?

The simple answer – which neither side seems to want to admit – is that we do not know. Given the limitless variables involved, it is impossible to predict the economic and geopolitical landscape of a country, of an entire continent, in a decade’s time. It cannot be done. So instead of wasting our time on dystopian projections, let’s focus our attention on the EU as it stands, on what it does and how it operates.

2. Remain reframed.

There appears to be a veritable pandemic of people who have taken almost zero interest in the EU until now plastering their opinions across social networks. In-keeping with the polls that show young people are far more likely to vote Remain, the majority of these posts promote staying in. The Leave campaign is inevitably labelled racist, xenophobic, bigoted and backward-looking, whereas Remain is the liberal, inclusive, multicultural, cuddly-happy-friendly option.

Do we want to be part of cosmopolitan Europe, with cheap flights and visa-free travel, or do we want to cut ourselves off from the world by securing our borders with barbed wire and bullets? Easy, isn’t it? Well, no. Framing the debate in such a way eliminates all nuance, and posits the EU as a happy and benign organisation trying its best to ensure peace for the people of Europe. Its primary and enduring focus on market liberalisation, protectionist hypocrisy, and the continued exploitation of developing countries are completely ignored. Its shameful conduct during the darkest days of the Greek crisis is swept under the carpet. Its impotence in the face of illiberalism in eastern Europe goes conveniently unmentioned.

So, for those of a more left-wing persuasion, a stark choice presents itself. Either stand alongside the gruesome threesome of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, or swallow the basic principles that guide the political ideals of the left, and vote Remain. The compromise, exemplified by Owen Jones, is a form of ‘R and R’ – ‘Remain and Reform’. The problem resides in the second half of this slogan. In response to the numerous critiques of the Union, the informed but steadfast Remain voters optimistically reply that change is possible. They are convinced that a new Europe, based on social democratic principles, can be constructed. But the next step – how this can achieved in practice – is yet to be discussed.

3. The problem with reform.

Despite all the misinformation coming out of this referendum campaign, there is one aspect cannot be refuted; the great majority of British people know very little about the European Union.

This is not a question of berating the masses for their ignorance – it is not their fault that the British media provide very little, if any objective information on the EU – but it does lead to a rather worrying conclusion. How on earth do the ‘R and R’ voters propose ‘reforming’ a complex, multi-faceted entity about which they know very little? How on earth will they gather enough support from a populace that, six months ago, was ambivalent about the whole idea of Europe, to change the powerful institutions at the heart of the Union? Do they really believe that they can force reforms upon an organisation that is infamously undemocratic? Do they intend to rely on our elected politicians to lead this ‘reform’ – people like David Cameron, who promised wholesale changes, spent a year sweet-talking European leaders and came home with a 30-page document that amounted to a series of non-committal shrugs and inconsequential concessions?

4. The terms of Brexit.

It is difficult to ignore the staggering hypocrisies that undermine the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson wanting to leave so that more money can be spent on the NHS – the same NHS his party has spent the last six years mutilating. The tag-team terror of Gove and Johnson arguing that the EU is run by an out-of-touch political elite only concerned about protecting its own interests – the same accusation commonly levelled at their own government. The former London mayor claiming that immigration places a great strain on areas such as housing – after eight years of criminally neglecting to build affordable accommodation in the capital.

In short, Vote Leave appears to combine the worst elements of our national psyche – fear and suspicion of foreigners, a nostalgia for Empire, an inflated sense of our own importance and a tendency toward exceptionalism that defies the realities of the current world order. Voting Leave for any of the above reasons is unforgivable.

Instead, Vote Leave should focus on the EU’s numerous inherent weaknesses. Aside from those already mentioned, Leave should be attacking the neoliberal principles that guide the EU (such as insisting on market liberalisation as a condition for entry), the realities of the farcical European parliament (the fact that the two main party federations, centre-left and centre-right, generally vote together to maximise their extremely limited power), the line taken by the EU in the negotiation of trade deals with ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries.

It could look at the complete absence of a European public sphere, and the problems this engenders. It could look at cosy relationships between senior EU politicians and big business. But it won’t focus on any of these points, for two main reasons. First, a discussion of these ideas requires elevating the debate beyond how much each individual will gain from Brexit, and beyond straightforward anti-immigration rhetoric. Second, the main figureheads of the Leave campaign are Conservative politicians who are as compromised by links to big business as their most tainted European colleagues.

5. Immigration and the welfare state.

One is obliged to mention the foundation upon which the Leave campaign is built. Immigration is indeed a legitimate concern. For the university-educated cosmopolitan middle-class, immigration means greater exposure to different cultures, mixing with people from different countries, and respecting the freedom of others to live and work where they so desire. For those in a more precarious situation, it implies greater competition for jobs, lower wages, and increased pressure on social welfare that many people rely on.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen, a Harvard-educated scholar widely considered the authority on the welfare state, identified three basic models: liberal, corporatist-statist and social democratic. The last of these, also known as the Nordic model, is widely considered the most inclusive and most sustainable – but it relies on high levels of taxation. A by-product of such a strict fiscal regime is a strong anti-migrant sentiment – a sense of frustration that new arrivals or temporary residents are able to reap the benefits without incurring any of the costs. The sharp spike in violence against migrants in Sweden over the last year is a tragic testimony to the validity Esping-Andersen’s findings.

Rather than inexplicably pontificating about discrimination against Australians, the immigration debate should revolve around how to combine these two seemingly incompatible concepts – high levels of immigration and strong social welfare provision. If a compromise is not found, we will be forced into a straight choice between two of the most under-represented and stigmatised sectors of the population – immigrants and the poor.

Photo: Arron Hoare/Number 10/Flickr

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