A few weeks ago, The Guardian asked a number of authors to write an intimate letter to… Britain (Dear Britain,…) explaining why we want ‘her’ to stay in the EU. Here are two of those letters, written by two DiEM25 initiators: Slavoj Žižek and Yanis Varoufakis.
Slavoj Žižek Slovenia
When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which is worse, the right or the left, he snapped back: “They are both worse!” And this is my first reaction to the question of whether or not to leave the EU.
I am not interested in sending love letters to the British public with the sentimental message: “Please stay in Europe!” What interests me is ultimately only one question. Europe is now caught in a vicious cycle, oscillating between the false opposites of surrender to global capitalism and surrender to anti-immigrant populism – which politics has a chance of enabling us to step out of this mad dance?
The symbols of global capitalism are secretly negotiated trade agreements such as the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The social impact of TTIP is clear enough: it stands for nothing less than a brutal assault on democracy. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments if their policies cause a loss of profits. Simply put, this means that unelected transnational corporations can dictate the policies of democratically elected governments.
So how would Brexit fare in this context? From a leftwing standpoint, there are some good reasons to support Brexit: a strong nation state exempted from the control of Brussels technocrats can protect the welfare state and counteract austerity politics. However, I am worried about the ideological and political background of this option. From Greece to France, a new trend is arising in what remains of the “radical left”: the rediscovery of nationalism. All of a sudden, universalism is out, dismissed as a lifeless political and cultural counterpart of “rootless” global capital.
The reason for this is obvious: the rise of rightwing nationalist populism in western Europe, which is now the strongest political force advocating the protection of working class interests, and simultaneously the strongest political force able to give rise to proper political passions. So the reasoning goes: why should the left leave this field of nationalist passions to the radical right, why should it not “reclaim la patrie from the Front National”?
In this leftwing populism, the logic of Us against Them remains, however here “they” are not poor refugees or immigrants, but financial capital and technocratic state bureaucracy. This populism moves beyond the old working class anticapitalism; it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare.
The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly punished by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. So how can we push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over?
I remain convinced that our only hope is to act trans-nationally – only in this way do we have a chance to constrain global capitalism. The nation-state is not the right instrument to confront the refugee crisis, global warming, and other truly pressing issues. So instead of opposing Eurocrats on behalf of national interests, let’s try to form an all-European left. And it is because of this margin of hope that I am tempted to say: vote against Brexit, but do it as a devout Christian who supports a sinner while secretly cursing him. Don’t compete with the rightwing populists, don’t allow them to define the terms of the struggle. Socialist nationalism is not the right way to fight the threat of national socialism.
• Against the Double Blackmail is published by Allen Lane.
Yanis Varoufakis Greece
Last year I tried, and failed, to convince the EU top brass to behave humanely toward my long-suffering country. Now, I am writing to you with an odd plea: that you stay in this same EU – yes, the one that crushed our Athens spring and has been behaving abominably ever since.
Some will deploy tabloid logic to explain my plea (“Varoufakis wants the UK to stay in to pay for Greece’s bailouts”). Others will accuse me of abandoning the fight for restoring democracy. Yet I trust that your Pythonesque appreciation of paradox will pierce through the seeming contradiction.
The reason I want you to stay in is that voting to leave will not get you “out”. Rather than escaping the EU, Brexit will keep you tied to a Europe that is nastier, sadder and increasingly dangerous to itself, to you, indeed to the rest of the planet.
The masters of the City will never allow a new Boris Johnson government to even think of leaving the EU’s single market, despite Michael Gove’s musings. Which means that all the gadgets sold in your shops will have to abide by standards made in Brussels, your environmental protection rules will be drawn up in Brussels, and market regulation will be (yes you guessed it) determined in Brussels.
So, even after Brexit, the majority of your laws will be written in the same dreary Brussels corridors as now, except you will have no say in their shaping. With your democracy as truncated as it is now, you will remain stuck, albeit less powerful, in a Europe whose fragmentation Brexit will accelerate.
The EU is undoubtedly bureaucratic, opaque and contemptuous of the parliamentarianism that you and I cherish. You may, therefore, conclude that speeding up the EU’s fragmentation is not such a bad idea. Think again! Will its disintegration cause progressive democrats to rise up across Europe, empower their parliaments, usher in the forces of light and hope, and foster harmonious cooperation on the continent? Not likely.
The EU’s fragmentation will divide the continent in at least two parts, the major fault line running down the Rhine and across the Alps. In the north east, deflation will rule, with millions of working poor Germans, Poles and so on becoming unemployed. In the Latin part, the order of the day will be inflation with unemployment. Only political monsters will crawl out of this fault line, spreading xenophobic misanthropy everywhere and ensuring, through competitive devaluations, that you will also be drawn into the ensuing vortex.
This is why I am pleading with you to stay in our terrible EU. Europe’s democrats need you. And you need us. Together we have a chance of reviving democratic sovereignty across Europe. It won’t be easy. But it is worth a try.
When I was student, a close friend who hated parties nevertheless never missed one just so that he would have something to bitch about the day after. Please do not be like him. Please stay in the EU with enthusiasm for our common cause: to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them.
• And the Weak Suffer What They Must? is published by Vintage.
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