London Mayor Boris Johnson, campaigning for Brexit, is quite correct to state June’s in/out EU referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change things for the better, to help invigorate democracy.
One tactic of the ‘In’ campaign is to pretend ‘better the Devil you know’. According to this thesis, no matter how much you hate the EU, we should remain in it because we don’t know what life would be like outside. A variant of this idea is that life is peaceful in the EU whereas before the EU there were two world wars largely fought on European soil. However, the EU is not a great peacemaker, having stoked conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Syria. Putting one’s trust in the super-state simply isn’t reliable enough.
Another tactic of the ‘In’ campaign is to portray themselves as ‘metropolitan’ and outward-looking, depicting the Brexiters as xenophobic knuckle-dragging nationalists. The Ins fear that, should the public vote the ‘wrong’ way, it will unleash racism and violence against immigrants. But Britain’s membership of the EU hasn’t overseen a growth of international camaraderie – the EU restricts immigration to 93% of the world’s population and even arguably creates the folk-demon of ‘the immigrant’ as people’s lack of democratic control is reflected as a security crisis. Besides which, it is not narrow-minded to demand democratic accountability from politicians, it is progressive and humanist. The varying national cultures within the EU ought to be allowed to flourish rather than be seen as backward since these down-to-earth attachments do not inevitably cause conflicts.
Whilst it would be foolish to lay the entire blame for everything wrong in Britain and other castrated nation-states on the EU, it is true to say that the dwindling of democratic process, including the straight-jacket on active citizenship and the general character of public discussion, has been altered for the worse by the EU project (as well as other anti-democratic trends).
The problem here is that once all the actors in society, from the elites down to the trade unions, have looked to the EU to formulate regulations in their interests rather than directly trying to win the case with their respective national demos, the masses have become disengaged from politics. In his book “The European Union and the End of Politics”, James Heartfield shows how political actors now attempt to achieve legitimacy by basking in the glow of the apparently untainted EU rather than get messy with publics where arguments have to be heard and contested.
The demise of democracy is not a fault of the masses – if only they could embrace fabricated ‘European identity’! – nor is it a problem susceptible to a technical fix (e.g. giving more power to the elected MEPs rather than the unelected bureaucrats). Rather the whole EU project is inherently anti-democratic because it is a supra-national institution wielding power from a remote place over the democratic institutions people do have a relationship with, i.e. national parliaments.
So what happens to the character of public discussion when democracy is side-lined? Most importantly, the heart of democratic discourse – the central role occupied by the human subject – is ripped out. Thus we look on in bewilderment as people are no longer treated as rational autonomous beings, both by the EU and the altered Westminster. This trend is evident in virtually all debates today from environmentalism, abortion, to public health fanaticism – the human individual is regarded as a menace to be nudged or otherwise made subservient to a new ethical caste of ‘experts’. The basis of this new trajectory in public discourse has been the demise of democracy, for which the growth of the EU is largely culpable.
Therefore, what is at stake in this referendum is not just whether you prefer an Eton Toff to a dour grey Brussels bureaucrat, but the whole character and direction of society. If you want to have a say in who runs your life, voting ‘Out’ is the precondition for gaining back that control. The worst Westminster politician is superior to the best Brussels bureaucrat because at least we can vote them out if we don’t like what they do. And the new ideas that society needs can only emerge through a lot of democratic contestation. By contrast the EU is Europe’s Kim Jong-Un, and it’s time to demolish it.