I guess you could say the EU is a moderately sane and compromising transnational institution. It has emerged as an appropriate gridlock for a variety of interests, environmentalists, big business and governments standing artfully in opposition to each other as they try to land their ideologically-disparate punches. I suppose you could say it is a cut above the nightmarish reality of many of the other international organisations we wake up to day to day, taunting us through the Kafkaesque blackness of the twenty-first century. Maybe EU > IMF, just about.
Let’s never forget though that the EU was fundamentally established as a free trade organisation. Policy makers in Whitehall joining the Common Market were from their inception concerned with the liberalisation of trade and the reduction of barriers between national markets. Reading policy directives from individuals negotiating Britain’s entry, you become aware that environmental considerations (and anything that cannot be maximised) simply do not come into it. One slightly later polician – Richard Howarth – ridicules the environmental lobby as primitivists, their concerns for the welfare of the planet unresonant in the age of the Machine. It is probably for this reason that beatificus Benn dismissed the EU as a “hostile institution”, irrelevant to the interests of the working class.
One example of this was the Common Agricultural Policy. The policy was initially driven by a justifiable post-war anxiety for ailing European countries to have enough to eat. Yet the policy’s long-term fruits – over-production, subvention of large agricultural companies, an intensification of farming – are more questionable. This was the result of farmers being subsidised initially basically providing they could maximise production by whatever means they could. When Britain joined the Common Market and hence the CAP in 1975, she ended up shouldering a lot of the financial burden of the policy, inflating it even more and giving Britain a lot of unnecessary support for her already fabulously efficient agriculture. The result was probably a lot of self-sufficiency at the cost of the systemic destruction of our beautiful countryside.
The harvest became a little more bountiful, however, when the CAP was reformed in the 80s. After increasing pressure from the environmental lobby, the EEC – later the EU – showcased its excellent ability to balance power between warring groups by introducing Rural Development, or “agri-environmental” funds. Farmers now get quite a bit of dosh – a “Pillar 2” subsidy – providing they can farm slightly less but look after their land a little better, using less chemicals, growing more than one crop (providing they have ten-plus hectares) to avoid the tyranny of monoculture and encourage biodiversity on their lands. The result is a lot of farmers who get a sizable income from being more like how they are represented in children’s books: not necessarily maximising yields akimbo but allowing the growth of wildflowers, listening to the soft peals of skylark-song. Such sights are now absent on many intensive modern farms.
So far so good, one would suppose. Indeed, Britain is the seventh largest recipient (€5200 million) of Rural Development dosh in the Common Market, behind Romania and Poland (they’re both new to the club: they’re being given a lot of money to sort themselves out.) In York, many individuals (Lord Bolton of Bolton Castle, no doubt a Gothic villain, received £100,000) nab huge sums of money simply to steward and detoxify local countryside as they farm, complying with the annoying red tape (“red fencing”?) that the EU is famous for.
A sustainable system of agriculture – one based on incentivising organic farming, incentivising permaculture, reducing our demand for meat, and one that responds to the irrepressible threat of climate change – is more necessary than ever. So such EU policies are a bit of a boon. Yet not only is this generous subsidy program under threat, but the EU is shifting its focus back to its racio d’esti of economies of scale. It is difficult to say what the fate of sustainable agriculture will be when the EU negotiates its revolutionary agreement with the U.S. – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – which seeks to increase “regulatory coherence” between the whole Common Market and the U.S.
This means, and has been taken to mean (by many very sane commentators), reducing our own environmental and agricultural standards. It is not a stretch of imagination to imagine that standards may become a little looser when we are trading en masse with a company that allows many polluting forms of GM crops and which has the tenacity to reject the Kyoto Protocol.
This is the way the EU works. When we surrender our sovereignty to undemocratic and hostile institutions, we fall prey to principles that we do not agree with. Our hearts are tainted.
As a fundamentally constraining ha-ha for divergent member states, and having been founded on certain principles, the EU is inherently decentralised and anti-democratic. This is not reformable: it is encoded in the very mission statement of the organisation. You would not expect McDonald’s to become an amicable company which promotes global peace with any stage of reform other than abandonment. This is also not to say transnational convergence is a ludicrous goal: rather, international cooperation should be done with a different spirit than is done in the EU. Tony Benn suggests establishing different European institutions founded on the principles of democracy and socialism.
It is crucial we consider Benn’s own left-wing vision of Europeanism, anti-isolationism and socialism, even if just as one of the competing visions of how we can live outside of this particular European project. We might disagree with Boris Johnson’s vision. Indeed, BJ’s own implicit idea on this issue is that we siphon off all the money that we give in farming subsidies to the NHS, lapping up cheap food from the developing world and reducing our own self-sufficiency. Well, tariffs could be reduced to allow the agriculture of undeveloped nations to flourish, although there needs to be a coordinated Defra subsidisation strategy to encourage sustainability.
Yet, the important point here is that Bozza suggests this only as one possible economic solution. This economic model could be shot down in five years and proved unworkable. Power would to a greater extent be something that we could see in operation, with clear people like Boris that we can hold accountable. This is how democracy is supposed to work.
Healthy democracy is not what the EU gives us. So when you vote, give a thought as to what you think about the actual moral compass of the EU, rather than just how hard it would be to our economy and how long renegotiation would take. In the twenty first century, our priority is not “economic growth” or any of the other empty vocabulary of the “business as usual” school but is a return to sustainable means of production to combat climate change. In this way, I would go so far as to suggest that anyone who is truly “left-wing” or at the very least “socialist” would vote Leave in this referendum.