What is so wonderful about the EU anyway?

What is so wonderful about the EU anyway?

When Edmund Burke wrote his defence of the old regime in France before the revolution, Tom Paine accused him of pitying the plumage but forgetting the dying bird. The same thing is now happening to the European Union. Suddenly it’s no longer a troublesome, interfering, expensive bureaucracy draining Britain of jobs, money and demand. Instead, it has magically become a crucial part of Britain’s economic strength and civilisation.

It was principally founded to benefit French agriculture and German industry. It has certainly done that. But has it fulfilled any of the contradictory hopes that Britain went in with? It has undoubtedly shown a chameleon-like skill at changing colour to suit all purposes, red for the unions and the left, green for the environmentalists, blue for conservatives and a deeper shade for neoliberals. It does an even better deal for the politicians, providing the ones struggling to gain recognition at home with a wider stage to strut on. Yet its benefits to the British economy are much less clear.

For our people, the benefits are mixed. Those lower down the social heap have been hit by the combined effects of EU and British neoliberalism, leading to job losses, de-industrialisation, higher food prices, stagnant household incomes and competition from EU migrants, drawn here because their domestic economies were being squeezed by the Euro. Those higher up the scale benefitted from lower labour costs, more domestic servants and greater security for investments in Europe, but little else that they didn’t have already.

So why – when four decades of experience have turned a two thirds majority for membership into a 52% majority against – did Britain’s establishment see its world threatened? Why did it react by clinging ever more desperately to the EU as if it was Britain’s best and last hope?

It can’t be because we get enormous benefits. We run a £60bn trade deficit (90 billion if we include the charges). We pay more into the budget than others, but get less out. We pay higher food prices to protect French agriculture. Other members are enabled to take more of our fish than we are. The aid we get is our own money back with their heavy costs taken out. We can’t aid or protect failing industries. There’s no redistribution to help an economy in comparative decline or even one in desperate straits like Greece. Half our trade goes to a market which the Euro has turned into the high-unemployment, low-growth blackspot of the West and which is drained by Germany’s insistence on accumulating big surpluses and neither redistributing nor using them.

So why, oh why, do the Remainers love it so much that they’re prepared to overrule the wish of the people to pull out? Why has a shambling, undemocratic bureaucracy become the object of an almost religious veneration? Perhaps we should try try a sociological explanation.

Since the break-up of the post-war settlement which gave us decades of ‘never-had-it-so-good’, British society has been destabilised. A large section of the middle class hates the resulting liberalisation of a new order, dominated by large-scale uncontrolled immigration, crypto-socialists, so-called “modernising” Tories – and hung down by debt. Another, younger section, better at adjusting, quite likes it.

Lower down the scale, the old division in the working class between “rough” and “respectable” has been exacerbated as their settled security of jobs, full employment and welfare was replaced by employment insecurity, lagging household incomes and the death of traditional industries. The result was alienation, resentment and impotent anger, all greater among the “rough” than the more conformist “respectables”.

In June 2016, the two disgruntled groups, the alienated middle and the rough working – both left behind and resenting it – took their revenge by voting Brexit – to the horror of the modern middle and the respectable working, who saw it as a takeover by ignorant, xenophobic, racist, obscurantist, out-of-date yobs and geriatrics. On this analysis, both vote and reactions have more to do with the social antagonisms of class-divided Britain than either the iniquities, or the benefits, of the European Union.