Crossing the Rubicon – The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide by C. Bickerton

Once again I am late. But there are good reasons for this which I should mention to enhance my credibility as a writer on this subject (*cough*) – I just passed my DPhil viva at Oxford University – opinions (and thesis): validated.

Anyway, this particular review has given me a bit of pause. The revived Pelican series’ latest offering, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide by Chris Bickerton, was of course immediately snapped up by me when released a few weeks ago. However, with the impending EU Referendum which you may or may not be sick and tired of hearing about, I felt it was time to become better informed, which led me to finally read a Pelican before the’Citizen’s Guide bit became irrelevant. When this campaign started I was firmly in the ‘remain’ camp for reasons mainly of heart but also of head. Nothing I have heard from the ‘leave’ camp since the campaign started has made me change my mind, in fact it’s made me increasingly angry.

The remain team isn’t much better, in spite of including many political heavyweights and, if you care about that sort of thing, celebrities. I don’t really feel particularly well informed by either side. As the debate descends into farce and the British public’s boredom sets in I have decided to throw myself headlong into the battle for Britain’s future with this review.

First, the book. Bickerton has been described as a ‘liberal Brexiteer’, and he certainly made the most cogent argument I have seen yet for leaving the EU. Immigration, the major ‘heart’ issue for most pro-leavers it seems, is quickly and summarily dismissed thus:

‘Welfare tourism’, meaning migration from one EU country to another simply in order   to access welfare payments of the receiving state, is rare. Differences in benefit           entitlements are not an important driver of migration, whereas the prospect of finding work is. Intra-EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than natives and given the generally young age of many intra-EU migrants, they tend to lean less heavily on   social and health services than the domestic population… It is true that the arrival of large numbers of people can put pressure on services and they need to be able to adapt… the problem here is not migration: it is simply that social services are overstretched. The solution lies in better-funded services, not closing borders [p.100].

I would like to leave it there, because as far as I am concerned that is the logical rejoinder to immigration fears. But immigration fears aren’t always logical. I have lost count of the people who want to vote leave because of ‘immigration’. Why? I ask. What about it?

“Oh there’s too many people coming over here.”

“Oh they can’t speak English in school.”

“Oh they use the NHS.”

“They are lazy.”

“You would have to work with them to know.”

These soundbites make me upset, and they make me angry. Here are some of my own:

  • I ‘worked’ with loads of immigrants as a student at Oxford University – and they were pretty damn amazing.
  • My girlfriend is an immigrant (but she’s white and English-speaking so maybe she gets a free pass).
  • My friend just bought a new house, and has tried to hire a plasterer innumerable times – after being repeatedly let down by English ones, some of the only ones to turn up on time and do any work are eastern European.
  • I just went to Berlin, and (to my shame and as a result of my own ignorance and linguistic inability) I had to speak to every German person I met in English.

What do those facts tell us about immigrants? Nothing, really. I am just doing the same thing pro-leavers are by throwing some random statements at you without any context but using them to make the exact opposite point – easy, isn’t it?

Sometimes I honestly wonder why anyone bothers to come to the UK, a place seemingly so steeped in vitriolic xenophobia against anything remotely unrecognisable. What is wrong with speaking to other people in a different language? What is wrong with transplanting some elements of your own culture to your new home in a relatively inoffensive way, and choosing to live within communities from a similar background? All of that sounds like a pretty sensible thing to do when you move from one country to another. It helps make a scary transition more manageable, allowing you to settle into existing support networks. What is ‘un-British’ about this? Until the 1950s we were doing it all over the world. That’s why Canada exists, and Australia, and New Zealand, and why there are Welsh-speaking communities in Argentina. And what about those Brits who do live abroad in the EU? Just check out these British immigrants deriving comfort from transplanted culture:

british-expats-spain-eu
Some British immigrants, fully assimilated into Spanish society.

Why are we so lacking in empathy? Why do we find it so hard to sympathise with people from other countries who want to improve their lives? Putting all social/economic barriers aside if you were offered a good job in another country and a mediocre one here, what would you do? The media don’t help. They’ve abrogated any iota of social responsibility they have to report the news fairly and objectively to vilify immigrants the same way that they demonise people who have to use our social welfare system.

Still, I appreciate that if you live in a working-class community which has been long abandoned and ignored by our incumbent government, you have to take out that resentment on someone. Our entire concept of our own self-identity is based not just around what we are, but what we aren’t, so it’s unfortunately a very human trait to get clannish and cliquey when there are visible groups of ‘others’ about.

But it isn’t that Polish family next door’s fault that the economy has gone to hell is it? It’s the government’s fault, and the financial sector’s fault. It isn’t that Polish family’s fault that one of them is a skilled plumber and you aren’t because of our broken education system is it? That’s the broken education system’s fault. And it isn’t broken because of immigrants, it’s broken because the people who run the country don’t understand how it works. I have been a teacher (albeit for a very short time), and it didn’t take me long to appreciate that no one listens to them when they offer very useful suggestions for how to improve their system.

And who is really using the NHS, putting it under so much strain? Maybe it’s our ageing population. I have a friend who is an NHS doctor and he doesn’t spend all his time sorting out Polish people because, as I have quoted Bickerton saying above – they are younger, and healthier, and getting on with all those jobs we aren’t qualified enough to do or that employers are exploitatively paying them lower wages to do. And taking those lower wages, that isn’t the immigrants fault is it? It’s the free market economy, the economic system encouraging those business owners to create the largest amount of income with the lowest overheads. If one person offers their labour to your business at a lower cost than another, it’s a no brainer that you would choose to hire that person. Welcome to a capitalist society.

Furthermore, national cultures are so amorphous and fluid that they can’t be destroyed by immigration. The reason they’re national cultures at all is because they are broad enough to be subscribed to by an incredibly diverse population. My ‘British values’ and your ‘British values’ might be completely different, but I still call myself ‘British’ and so do you (addressing myself to British readers here of course). Do you seriously think some people coming over and sometimes speaking a different language and living together in ethnically-focused communities is going to destroy Britain?

Some people are just racists, and they hate people from other countries and cultures and don’t want them here, and that’s that. I am going set aside all the bullshit fear-mongering I have spent a lifetime growing up with as a white working-class British man and say that I think these people are in the minority. I think most people are scared about immigrants because of the perceived economic impact and when you actually look into the facts the grab-bag of anecdotes about ‘lazy Poles’ and lamentations ‘that they don’t speak our language’ just don’t add up. You can’t blame immigrants for the fact that Britain’s economy is in the shitter. That is on us, or at the very least on our leaders, not the people who come over here. Anyway, I have gone off on a huge ranty digression now but there you go, it pisses me off.

Back to the Book

Anyway, the underlying premise of Bickerton’s book is this: there is a crisis of democracy in Europe at the moment. National governments are losing legitimacy and credibility in their own states, but continue to derive it from the EU. This creates a disconnect between the citizens of the EU (who are really still citizens of their respective countries), and the governments of EU states, with potentially fatal consequences for the union.

Beyond immigration fear-mongering Bickerton also demolishes other myths commonly plied about the EU. For example its image as a sprawling labyrinthine bureaucracy: Bickerton tells us that the European Commission – which is the EU’s bureaucratic  service – only employs about 26,000 staff. The BBC employs around 19,000 alone, and there are more than 1 million workers in the NHS. Sprawling bureaucracy this ain’t. He makes it quite clear that we are no closer to complete economic and political union, or the creation of a European army (all spectres repeatedly invoked by ‘leavers’), than we have ever been.

More importantly, Bickerton demonstrates how the EU derives all of its authority and power from the member states that make it up. Far from leeching sovereignty and decision-making power from national governments, the EU would essentially be an empty cardboard box without these national governments, who are the drivers of different EU policies and orientations encouraged by a rotating presidency which changes hands every six months. These national administrators, who like to pass the buck onto the EU when it suits them, are disingenuously spinning a web of lies about the EU’s power and sovereignty as a way to cover their own backs.

Bickerton also has a fascinating chapter on Euroscepticism. He charts the evolution of the phenomenon from its beginnings in the uncertainty of the post-War era and its particular path since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, Bickerton notes, Eurosceptic political parties across the continent were something of a lunatic fringe. Their rise in popularity in recent years is not necessarily due to increased awareness of or hostility to the EU, but rather from a crisis in confidence in national politics in EU member states. Here in the UK, UKIP has become a powerful electoral force since our faith in national politicians took a body-blow from the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. UKIP’s greater electoral clout today reflects its ability to successfully cast itself to disaffected working and middle-class voters as an anti-establishment party. Similar things have happened in Spain and Italy. This is an important point to make about Euroscepticism in light of the forthcoming EU referendum, because we are not voting on the popularity of our political establishment (which remains fairly at rock-bottom), but on EU membership, which (should) require a consideration of what the EU actually does rather than what we think it represents.

Bickerton’s ultimate recommendation is that the EU itself does not need to exist, and that we should seek alternative means of continental co-operation that better reflect the concerns and demands of the continent’s citizenry. Like all the Leave campaigners, he fails to spell out exactly what this means. The argument that staying in the EU purely because it would be risk-averse and then failing to offer a credible alternative is a particular shortcoming of the Leave camp. It was interesting how I interpreted what Bickerton said about the EU as a fairly solid argument for remaining within it in order to reform it. I can understand now why people logically dislike the EU as an entity (I still refuse to accept the veracity of the immigrant argument) because it sounds quite problematic. However, that could be changed, and it seems rather foolish to storm out of that now when we have a power and influence in Europe that could be better used to help drive that institutional change. Bickerton points out that the articles of the EU treaty designed to deal with a vote to leave would see Britain on one side of the negotiating table and the remaining 27 states of the EU on the other. Do Leave campaigners seriously think we can continue to have our current level of relationship with Europe if we leave it? I think those 27 countries will punish us for a leave result and, when you think about what a monumental snub it is to them all, you can’t really blame them.

I will tie up this very long review with some more general observations about the book as a ‘Pelican’. I really enjoyed its readability, and the use of tables and maps to illustrate points. The text was very clear and a distinctly un-sexy subject was rendered (for the most part) interesting to me, a  reader who knew very little about the EU. I would question Penguin’s agenda at releasing this so-called ‘Citizen’s Guide’ at such a critical time in the EU referendum process because that very choice of title is a sort of softcore version of the political populism that Bickerton himself claims is fuelling contemporary Euroscepticism. Nevertheless I did come away from it feeling I had learned something, and have a great appreciate of why better informed people dislike the EU. Furthermore, from a design point of view I really like the layout and style of the new Pelicans and am looking forward to reading some more of them soon. I will give it four Euros because what else was I going to give a book about this subject? €€€€

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