It’s not really that surprising that in the Brexit debate the European Union (EU) is portrayed as somehow embodying internationalism. After all, xenophobic Little Englanders such as Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith and Ukip leader Nigel Farage dominate the Leave campaign.
Guardian columnist George Monbiot explains that he’s inclined towards the EU because “the only legitimate corrective to transnational power is transnational democracy”.
Yet the EU has nothing to do with “transnational democracy”. Of course it involves cross-border cooperation and supranational institutions such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.
But the rationale is that European capitalist states’ can pursure their national interests more effectively through partially pooling sovereignty than operating on their own. This is the essence of David Cameron’s case for staying.
National interests reign supreme in the EU. So the supranational institutions are all designed to be immune from democratic accountability or control. As a result, they are thoroughly permeable by corporate interests.
As Monbiot concedes, in an article that bizarrely concludes by saying he’ll vote to remain, “The more I see, the more it seems to me that the EU’s problems are intrinsic and systemic. The organisation that began as an industrial cartel still works at the behest of the forces best equipped to operate across borders: transnational corporations. The commission remains a lobbyists’ paradise: opaque, sometimes corruptible, almost unnavigable by those without vast resources.”
But the EU isn’t just a bosses’ club. It operates through exclusion. This is built into the project of a European union. The very idea of Europe is a secularised version of the idea of Christendom—forged in the Middle Ages in antagonism with the Muslim world. The hard right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban invokes this idea to justify his campaign against refugees. He declared last year, “Islam has never been part of Europe.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the idea of Europe was recast in racist terms to legitimise the European imperialist powers’ domination of the rest of the world. Today’s EU disavows racism.
But its external policy is imperialist. It’s designed to export neoliberalism to its peripheries in eastern Europe, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile the EU’s border agency, Frontex, polices its frontiers to keep at bay the victims of neoliberalism and war.
The refugee crisis is but a sign that the EU is failing across the board. The fall in European banking share prices since the start of the year shows the eurozone crisis hasn’t gone away. So does the growing conflict between the Greek government and the European Commission over the latter’s demands for further pension cuts.
As the EU fails, national antagonisms grow. Financial Times newspaper columnist Wolfgang Munchau wrote last Sunday, “After nearly 60 years of European integration, we are entering the age of disintegration.” Last week Austria organised a conference of central and east European states to coordinate shutting the refugees out.
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is becoming increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Germany for imposing austerity policies on the eurozone. These attacks receive the open sympathy of the French government. France is stagnating economically and has seen its former partnership with Germany in leading the EU replaced by Germany’s lone leadership.
But, for all its cruelties and dysfunctions, the EU has one good card left—the illusion that it represents the transcendence of nationalism. The Remain campaign plays on this illusion, while also seeking to outbid the likes of Farage in his hostility to refugees and migrants.
Theresa May, the most reactionary home secretary for a long time, supported Cameron’s Brussels deal because it includes “reforms to prevent the abuse of free movement”.
We need to judge the EU not on what we would like it to be, but on what it is. It is an imperialist cartel divided among increasingly bitter rivals. We have no choice but to reject it.