‘It’s astounding; time is fleeting. Madness takes its toll.’
These are of course the opening words of ‘The Time Warp’, the most iconic song from the much-loved movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the film, unknown to the other characters and the viewers, Riff Raff, who sings these words, is secretly manipulating, or at least monitoring, the unfolding action. At the end of the movie, he’s revealed as the aliens’ real leader, with fatal consequences for the ostensible anti-hero, Frank’n’Furter. I can’t help thinking of the song at the moment, watching the UK’s so-called debate on EU membership in the first few weeks after Prime Minister David Cameron secured his New Settlement for the UK. There’s a weary resignation in there, a sense that although you don’t disbelieve what you’re seeing, that’s because you’re a jaded old hand who expected no better. And yes, it does very much seem as if the years of drip-drip-drip EU poison are having the effect the Europhobes would wish.
Of course, the fact that the EU is a live issue for discussion – to call what we have seen so far a ‘debate’ would be too much – is a good thing. It is long overdue. In the UK, there has for years been daily EU-bashing from many politicians and media professionals, but little discussion of the UK’s membership or the EU as a whole in any depth. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as the dramatic coverage of the Commission’s resignation in 1999 and some of the reporting on Greece in the last couple of years, especially by the journalist Paul Mason. But the norm has been for propaganda and neglect, with a nineteenth century understanding of politics and how states work implicitly dominating presentation of EU events or UK politics; listening to reporters relay events is like watching someone transported from the Battle of Waterloo to the Justus Lipsius building without any training on little things like how governments actually work in the modern era. For instance, had the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a prominent member of the Leave campaign, known more about how the legal system functions in EU Member States and the role of the ECJ he might have avoided embarrassing himself on TV. However, even that is not certain: what is emerging so far from the campaign is that making statements that ramp up the emotional pull of Europhobia is more important than silly things like factual correctness. And of course most of the UK’s journalists are too ignorant of the EU to pull the likes of Mr Gove up, even if they saw themselves as analysts rather than infotainment-peddlers.
Against this backdrop, it should be expected that the first few weeks of the campaign would see most participants struggle to grasp with any of the key issues in depth. What’s remarkable, however, is just how little attention is being paid by almost everybody to the New Settlement itself. This is despite the fact that at least two of the conditions agreed to by the EU-27 are symbolically of great value at this moment, namely the UK’s guarantee that it can opt-out of ‘ever closer union’ and the improvement of the role of national parliaments as watchdogs of subsidiarity. There was a rash of sceptical analysis in the days following its negotiation, but now it seems already to be an artefact of interest to historians only. This striking turn of events reveals, I think, two things in particular. First, it shows how little the discussion on the UK’s future in the EU will pay any attention to the nuts and bolts of either what was agreed or how the EU works. Second, it shows that what may drive the coverage of the process is not even the general issue of UK membership itself, but instead a focus on two issues that are being coupled together. These are as follows: first, the economic costs and benefits of being part of the EU, with some attention being paid to what the Leavers would seek to put in place of Union membership in economic, trade and security terms, and second, the impact of the campaign and eventual vote on UK politics. Will the governing Tory party split? Will Scotland seek a new referendum on independence?
So far, the Remain campaign doesn’t seem to be profiting enormously, or perhaps at all, from the disunity in the Conservative Party. This is partly because the dominant media framing of the division is as a matter of conscience rather than disloyalty, with at least some truth in such a claim since Mr Cameron gave his cabinet members the freedom to go against official government policy in this matter. It is also because the Remainers do not yet seem to have found a campaign leader who is capable of exploiting this division, not least because the ‘stay’ side itself is a cross-party campaign whose Tory members are not likely to push even indirectly for actions that might lead to a formal split in their Party.
For those of us on the Left, a difficulty pointed out in advance of the campaign is making itself felt as anticipated. In the 1980s, it was credible to galvanise left-wing citizens with talk of a Social Europe that could mitigate the worst impacts of Thatcherism. Indeed, Jacques Delors famously promised as much. In 2016, however, this argument is much more difficult to make, because of the way the single currency has been run (extreme austerity, overturning national election mandates). The ongoing failures to address the migration crisis humanely and solidaristically add further difficulties. So far, campaign posters and social media memes have made useful mention of the social protections that UK subjects have as EU citizens, such as paid maternity leave and the Working Time Directive, pointing out that many of these could be lost if the UK leaves. This is true. However, it’s also backward-looking, because it’s almost impossible to look at the EU of today without seeing the trials of Mr Varoufakis, or the de facto green light to authoritarian governments in Hungary, the Czech Republic, or Poland as an indicator of the EU’s present and likely future.
So far, then, the New Settlement on UK Membership of the EU doesn’t seem to have helped connect Brits to Brussels. It’s still early in the campaign, and things could of course change, but the initial signs aren’t positive. I don’t think this necessarily means the Leavers will have an easy victory, because the Tory Party splits may boil over, allowing Mr Cameron to urge voters to support him in order to stop UKIP winning the day. The Remainers may find a way to set their campaign alight, and if timely progress is made on the migration issue then that should make the case for ongoing membership easier to make. June 23, Referendum Day, is just over three months ahead – so, if you can bear it, as the song also says: ‘Listen closely; but not for very much longer’.
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