Love democracy? Then leave the EU
Why optimists, radicals and progressives should vote out of the EU.
The starting pistol has been fired in the debate about whether Britain should Remain in or Leave the EU. According to the Remain side there are hundreds of reasons Brits should choose to stay put. Being in the EU gives Britain global clout. It provides jobs. It makes us safer, as it allows us to work closely with our Euro-partners to tackle terror scourges like ISIS. However, there’s one reason to leave which trumps all of those reasons to stay, and trumps them hard: popular sovereignty, the crucial right of a people to consent to the political system they are governed by. The EU thwarts that right, in a serious and severe way, and that’s why we should vote to wriggle free of the Brussels bureaucracy.
This will be spiked’s focus in the run-up to the referendum on 23 June: making the positive case for real, meaningful, popular democracy. For us, nothing – not job security, not even the promise of security against terrorist attack – should ever override the right of the demos to choose who governs them and to shape through public debate the political make-up of their ruling institutions. Every promise made by the Remain campaign – including that UK households are allegedly better off by £3,000 per year thanks to being in the trade-and-investment zone of the EU – pales into insignificance when compared with our hard-won right to determine who rules us. Does the Remain lobby think our democratic rights can be bought for 3,000 quid?
For spiked, the EU is not, as its cheerleaders claim, a coming-together of European peoples. Rather, it represents the outsourcing of key parts of national political life to the unaccountable, unreachable realm of the European Commission and other Brussels-based bodies. It directly waters down our democratic clout through granting ever-greater authority to institutions like the EC and the European Court of Justice, whose edicts and rulings can be imposed on nations regardless of what national governments, far less national plebiscites, think of them. That is anti-democratic. End of. And it should be viewed as intolerable by anyone who considers himself progressive, and who recognises that every radical, inspiring leap forward in modern times – from the Levellers to the Chartists to the Suffragettes – has been about people wrestling from the authorities the right to choose who governs them; the right to political say-so.
The EU is a union not of peoples, but of elites. It has in recent decades become the sphere in which national elites, feeling ever more estranged from their national electorates, have effectively taken refuge. In pooling their national sovereignties into the EU, our national rulers absolve themselves of the responsibility to have tough, testy debates with us about various political and social matters, in favour of seeing such issues discussed and resolved by the commissioners and self-styled experts of this rarefied zone.
The EU is not any kind of internationalist or cosmopolitan project, as its supporters claim. Nor is it a conspiracy of French and German blaggards to do over decent Blighty, as its detractors insist. Rather, it is the institution that has grown from and been constantly fed by national elites’ own growing feeling of exhaustion with democracy – and with democracy’s engine: the demos – be it politicians who would rather an aloof court decided something they haven’t got the stomach to debate or advocacy campaigners who agitate for an EC regulation because nothing repulses them more than the idea of trying to win over the plebs of their own nations. All those things that the Remain lobby claims will be better if we stay in the EU – workers’ rights, freedom of movement, anti-terror security measures – are things that should be discussed and decided by us. To say the EU does ‘good things’, even though it does them without any real democratic oversight, is to support a benevolent tyranny. A tyranny enacted not to crush us but to save us – the worst kind.
The EU both expresses and expands the 21st-century crisis of democracy. It doesn’t unite the peoples of Europe; it weakens them, nation by nation, diluting their democratic authority and reducing them in many instances to people governed for their own good rather than by their own consent. When EU elitists and their media backers speak of being anti-borders or post-borders, they aren’t expressing a genuine internationalist sentiment; they’re expressing disdain for what is inside those borders, for the popular sovereignty that is expressed by a nationally collated people. It isn’t really borders they hate so much as the will of the peoples constituted within them.
The EU is a deeply conservative, even reactionary project. This can be seen in the arguments of both the rightists and leftists who are defending it pre-referendum. From the right, David Cameron warns of the ‘uncertainty’ of leaving the EU, claiming it would be a ‘leap into the dark’. From the liberal-left, Fintan O’Toole praises the EU’s ‘inner pessimist’, how it acts as a ‘pessimistic counterweight’ to what he imagines is the ‘insane optimism’ of the old pro-growth, pro-risk agenda. It is precisely the pessimism of the EU – its fear of the unpredictable people, its disdain for uncertainty, its opposition to big economic or social leaps forward – which makes us at spiked bristle. Some of us like the idea of leaping into the unknown, taking a risk, trusting the people, and more importantly trusting ourselves to win people over to our point of view. For us, for those of us branded ‘insanely optimistic’, the EU is indeed a counterweight: a heavy, brutish counterweight around the neck of progress, democracy and the future.
spiked’s message in the coming months will be a positive one. We will leave it to the official Remain and Leave camps to ratchet up fear about terrorism, job losses, financial insecurity and so on in their cynical stab to win votes. Our case to the public will be more optimistic, though hopefully not ‘insanely optimistic’: If you think people should determine their political destinies, vote Leave. If you are optimistic about the future, vote Leave. If you prefer the adventure of uncertainty over the dull predictability of expert-delivered diktats, vote Leave. If you prefer politics to be lively and unpredictable rather than paper-pushing and aloof, vote Leave. If you love democracy, leave the EU.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Picture by: Wikimedia Commons