The European Union as a Sewer.
The Brexiters ran with the slogan “take back control”. It’s brilliant, utterly unfalsifiable, and optimistic. It appeals to a sense that ‘the people’ have had their independence taken away from them by faceless institutions, of which Brussels is the most distant, and the most distrusted. It’s also a carefully curated lie. Of what are we taking back control?
But the Brexiters are also right. The people have indeed had their freedoms taken away. The movement that eventually delivered Brexit, got off the ground with the smoking ban, which became law 2006. People had their freedom to enjoy a cigarette with their pint removed, and as a result of the accelerated pub closures this legislation brought about, the freedom to enjoy a pint in a pub at all was lost to many. I understand these people. Until 2016, many of them were my friends. Without the wet-led pub, many communities lost an important social venue. It wasn’t the EU that did this to them. It was Westminster, of course. But having been sensitised to intrusive public health measures, the daily news contains stories about sugar taxes, fat shaming and compulsory exercise reinforce the message that “the elites” despise the working class and want to remove or tax any remaining pleasures. That none of these public health measures have really come into law doesn’t change the mood music. They’re being discussed in the news, daily and the direction of travel is clear. If you enjoy it, it will be banned.
There’s the old certainties too, which are being ripped away at a confusing pace. Gay marriage kick-started the country towards brexit by causing the surge in the UKIP vote. UKIP was flatlining around 10% throughout the early 2010s, but won the 2014 European election with 27%. Gay Marriage, which became law in 2014 caused a lot of Tory associations to lose councillors and activists to UKIP, because Gay marriage felt like an assault on the traditional way of life, to people who’d already experienced dislocation as a result of immigration. This feeling was amplified by the noisy and to most, utterly mystifying transatlantic public debate about transgenderism. UKIP abandoned any residual libertarianism and fully embraced the socially conservative, nativist populism then rising across Europe and the broader democratic world. The Tory party lost MPs to UKIP, who thought they had found the key to unlock mass support, and a party became the brexit movement. David Cameron then was panicked into offering the referendum, and the rest is history.
In this environment, where working class communities, suffering from wage compression and struggling with insecure work, low pay, poor prospects, increased housing costs, and weaker social networks were told that the EU allowed in the migrants who are competing with the natives for work in construction and manufacturing, and so they sought to ‘take back control’ of a country they no longer understood, and which they felt had abandoned them. It didn’t matter that the immigrants who most upset them didn’t come from the EU, UKIP was talking the right language to appeal to the white working class. The European migrant crisis of 2015 added a further deep cultural fear of racial and ethnic change to an already febrile atmosphere, which Farage expertly exploited, staying mostly the right side of the line of outright racism, but ‘dogwhistling’ hard over the line. They were aided in this by Russia, which (probably) bankrolled the party, and (probably) leave.EU too; and poured dank memes and targeted adverts behind the Brexit movement. They also bombed the snot out of Syria, to make more migrants.
The freedom of movement that I feel is the single best thing about the EU became its Achilles heel. What is the freedom to move to Paris to someone on the minimum wage, who has no desire or inclination to learn to speak French, and who resents his Polish neighbours, whom he blames (the number of people for whom this is a correct impression is very, very small) for his low wages and poor prospects? None of my arguments get through this wall. It cannot be breached. The harder I try, the more certain the Pub smoker is that Brexit is a well-aimed kick right in the middle class’s bollocks. It doesn’t matter that none of the things above are the fault of the EU, nor that the EU is an important part of dealing with the wave of people pouring out of the Middle East and Africa. It matters not that the UK could, if it chose to, have sought to limit migrants from the Visegrád Group, and could limit freedom of movement right now, should parliament so wish. We’re dealing with a mood. The EU became a cypher for everything confusing and problematic about the modern age.
The working class is pissed off. Old farts are pissed off. The people who didn’t pay attention in school are pissed off. And they’re pissed off with an effete, pampered, university-educated, overwhelmingly urban group of people whom they see as feckless, privileged and arrogant; who in turn see their opponents as stupid, ignorant, lazy, bigoted and just plain wrong. The two tribes of society despise each other, and we’re getting further apart. In previous centuries, someone would have raised a flag, and the two sides would slaughter each other with a viciousness reserved only for civil wars. Thankfully, I don’t think this is possible these days.
How many people see the European Union
But I don’t know how to make positive rational arguments in favour of the EU that won’t simply dash themselves against this wall of hate, ignorance and anger. I expect any appeal to a European identity will be vomited out by a sceptical British people, not least by me. I am British. “Europe” is to many people where we send our young men for an away fixture against the French and Germans (Flanders fields, Football pitches or Spanish beaches, it doesn’t matter). Nor can I make emotional arguments in favour of the EU, which is a mighty hard organisation to love. It’s like loving your bank, or the sewage system. Instead, we must take the heat out of the argument. The EU is just necessary plumbing to make European trade work, albeit a sewer with tediously grandiose rhetoric and ambitions. You don’t want to live without sewers any more do you? If you will indulge my extended metaphor, the Brexit movement is people who can’t get their head round indoor plumbing, believing stories about rats, snakes and crocodiles living just round the U-bend, ready to snap at your dangly bits. We need to remove the fear of the EU. Perhaps, if the EU can stop talking about the crocodiles – ever closer union – then the resistance to doing one’s business inside it will evaporate.