By Sam Hufton (DiEM25 UK member)
There is much talk about Europe today, though not in the way that many of us Europe-minded Britons would have hoped this time last year, as we inched towards the referendum on membership of the European Union. Today, we talk of when to trigger Article 50, what kind of (trading) relationship we want with the continent after we exit, whether continental governments are friendly and will treat us nicely, and whether Europe is even relevant, given that we are soon to become, in Prime Minister May’s words, “a global Britain”. Much of this is necessary in light of the way Britain voted in June last year. However, it is far from exhausting the conversation and thought on the subject of Europe in a British context. We may have voted to leave, but Europe is not now just the opposing side of a negotiation.
There are some of us who realise that, try as we might, Britain cannot escape the perils and trials of the continent, as it crashes down the highway of history. Looking at our past, we see a story in which we are intertwined with Europe since antiquity, when Caesar first gazed across the English Channel from Gaul upon this island, then renowned for its mystery. Britain was then populated by Celts, a group of tribes which had spread across large swathes of Europe. Since then, much has changed, and yet the history of the British Isles has followed that of the continent. Britons have conquered and have been conquered. Battles have been fought, thrones have been usurped, and cultures have intermingled. And yet, it is not just these ties which have led me and others to conclude that we cannot simply leave the continent by voting to do so, and then no longer pay any mind to it. As Yanis Varoufakis has often said, the situation in Europe can be best described by the last lines of Hotel California: ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.
Ever since 1973, Britain’s politics have been deeply embedded in those of Europe. I would not say that we were ever part of the European mainstream, but we helped build the Europe of today the same as every other nation in Europe. Britain was a driving force behind the Single Market; we were involved in the debates on Maastricht and Lisbon. Most importantly, our politicians colluded in the grand scheme of depoliticising power and perpetuating what academics and other commentators refer to as ‘the permissive consensus’. This is the worst kind you can hope for as a democrat, for it is one where there is no debate, no discussion and no real public engagement or involvement in the matter itself, as if there are no politics surrounding it. This has allowed the European Union to be constructed in a way which crushes the life from democracy. It is not only a matter of bureaucrats with executive power, or how the institutions have a counter-intuitive allocation of roles; it is systemic. Britain helped build this, and now it is coming back to haunt us. Europe’s economy is failing and has persistently been doing so since 2010. Savings are enormously high whilst investment is ridiculously low, living standards are still stagnant and economic power is haemorrhaging all the time from the public sphere to the private one, and with it control of our own lives. This is true in the case of Britain as much as continental Europe. If Europe’s economy falls into another hole, Britain will be dragged in with it.
It is not just this though. All of the problems which plague Europe and which DiEM25 is hoping to combat are problems progressives are also battling against here. The democratic deficit is not just a sickness which afflicts European institutions; it also affects national ones, particularly those in Britain which are ancient and designed for an aristocratic mode of government and which have long required an overhaul. Governments are every day trying to hide more of their activities from their citizens. Europe’s response to the flood of refugees coming from across the Mediterranean has been appalling, and reflects the crumbling state of our societies – Britain’s border wall and the Jungle Camp at Calais being prime examples of this. The Green technology revolution could not come sooner, and yet investment in this sector is abysmal. And finally, the Nationalist International is rising all across the continent; it has already won its first victory here in Britain, and it will only increase its grip on our politics if we allow it. Progressives are divided across a hundred different lines and strategies, and our division leads only to the abdication of our responsibility for challenging the nonsense narratives coming from the far-right and the extreme centre. DiEM25 aims to act as the catalyst for the construction of a broad left coalition able to challenge the rising nationalism in Europe and confront their domination of the media and political landscape – something sorely needed here in Britain.
Britain is sick. It has lost its sense of place in the world, without knowing quite where it is supposed to be now and where it should or even could go. This can be seen from the state of affairs between this country and the continent. For years, Britain was deeply involved in ensuring a balance of power in Europe, and in so doing maintaining its own economic hegemony over the continent. Monnet described this situation as Britain dominating Europe from the outside. This it did for reasons of national interest; and, through a complex web of shifting alliances, Britain always managed to counter-balance aggressive powers and would-be hegemons, and so prevent Europe from unifying against it. On the other hand, whilst preserving the diversity of the continent in the age of nationalism, this also meant that Britain was deeply concerned with and involved in the politics of Europe. After the Second World War however, this all changed. (Western) Europe, jointly, decided to unify of its own accord, without any belligerent power aiming to subjugate the others. Britain has been thrown off guard ever since, to the point that once ‘Perfidious Albion’ is now utterly isolated in Europe. And it believes it has won.
Europe is and always will be “where the weather comes from”, to quote Winston Churchill prior to the First World War. We will never escape Europe, and we will never stop feeling the effects of its turbulence. Nor will we fail to keep giving to Europe. The relationship between these islands and the mainland has always been a dialogue. Today, we can aim to give back to Europe again; first, by affirming as a people our continued interest in and concern for the continent’s politics, closely mirroring our own, and second, by acting as the vanguard of a movement aiming to change the face of Europe. DiEM25 wants to completely upend the establishment’s mismanagement of the Union. It wants to throw out the old rulebook of austerity, fortress Europe, blindness to the future and depoliticising European politics. These battles need to happen in Britain too, and if we are successful here, perhaps we can export our victories with authority and confidence to the continent. We start with a conference, a rally, a meeting – to be less dramatic – on 28th January, from 10am at Conway Hall. Varoufakis will be there, as will Brian Eno, Srećko Horvat and Elif Şafak, among others. But they are less important than the native Britons who show up; the Britons who recognise their politics needs a dose of radicalism, want to make that difference, and care about what happens on our entire continent. Those people should come to DiEM25 UK’s inaugural meeting, to begin the transformation of Europe from the ground up.
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