Are we too polite to leave the EU?
08/06/2016 § 7 Comments
I consider myself a European citizen. I’m married to a German, I’ve lived in France, I have visited 19 of the 28 EU countries and have good friends in many of them. I love French style, German engineering, Italian passion, Finnish coolness, Polish hospitality and all the diversity of this collection of people that I share so much with. So why am I contemplating voting in favour of the UK leaving the EU later this month?
Logic and reason tells me that of course we have to stay. I’m not sold on the simplistic notion that if we leave we can have the best of both worlds – free to do our own thing and yet still able to closely collaborate. The UK has always been a trading nation and we can’t disrupt our relationship with our main trading partners without consequences. Nor am I at all attracted by the idea of a British government led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And I do wonder how a vote to leave may be taken by our European friends. The English are known for being polite – leaving the EU would not be a polite thing to do.
Yet we shouldn’t make such decisions based on a misguided sense of what is polite, to compensate perhaps for the likes of Nigel Farage. We can love our friends and still leave the institution that binds us together. Nor should we rely only on pure logic and reason. The heart has its reasons too. I refuse to fall into the trap of dismissing all those who vote for leaving as ignorant or selfish. There’s something deeper going on.
When I look inside my heart, I find I am troubled about the direction in which we are all headed, as peoples of Europe. What do we actually want from life? Is it all about improving our material existence, perpetually? Is there nothing more we can aspire to? We’ve already achieved remarkable material wealth. What we are bad at is distributing it fairly. We are also almost oblivious to the impact of what we do on the world around us, for all the worthy initiatives that keep being launched. The temperature of the planet has been soaring these last few months and we react as if we have all the time in the world to deal with it. Our priorities are all wrong. Radical times need radical action – if now is not the time, when is?
The institutions that hold our society together – the EU, the courts, parliament and media, the large corporations, the universities and so on – have all played a vital role in creating our civilisation. But they’re reaching their design limits and the consequence is our civilisation is behaving in a very uncivil manner. To blame these institutions for our current predicament is unfair and unproductive. That doesn’t mean we need to actively support their continued hegemony.
In the short term, I think leaving will cause a considerable amount of uncertainty and even chaos. Our GDP might, I mean almost certainly will, fall. This may be the least of it. We may end up with a right-wing government that, unconstrained by the moderating influence of the EU, dispenses with “inconvenient” environmental or social laws in order to pursue its own neo-liberal goals of economic growth for the rich and breadcrumbs for the poor. I may not love the undemocratic EU system but I think the British system has become, if anything, even more undemocratic (witness the clumsy way in which the whole referendum debate is handled, with two sides setting themselves against each other). I fear the short term consequences of Brexit.
However, whenever in life there is a movement towards an extreme, eventually there is a push back. I’m quietly hopeful that, once enough of us have seen the dire consequences of our excessive focus on economic growth, we will change our behaviour and start prioritising other things – compassion, collaboration, peace. This will need a completely different type of institution – ones that are far more adaptable, participatory, distributed and sensitive to their environment. Such institutions are unlikely to be born calmly and reasonably out of conversations in Brussels or Strasbourg. They are far more likely to arise in the fire of chaos and disorder.
Having said all this, I’m not convinced that it really matters which way the vote goes on 23 June. Chaos and disorder is coming anyway. Climate change is not going away in a hurry. Neither is the health care crisis, the education crisis, the rising inequality, the migration problem, the Euro crisis… Our institutions have shown they are not up to meeting these challenges and sooner or later there will be a crash. I doubt very much the EU will survive, and new institutions will emerge from the rubble.
It is easy to write about chaos and disorder while sitting in my comfortable home in a national park, surrounded by trees and open forest. Even though I haven’t experienced real economic hardship in my lifetime, unlike our parents in the second world war, I know that economic turmoil can cause real hardship and suffering, and that could affect me and my family. Yet the forest reminds me that change is a constant in life. The 150 year old tree next door is dying and has to come down, before it crashes and causes real harm. Perhaps the same is true of the EU. Maybe it’s time to call the tree surgeons in?