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A Third Way on Europe

…. proposal for policy change

For the last five years, at least, Third Way has allied itself with those elements in British politics which seek to disengage us from the European project. The tone of the campaign against Maastricht, the emphasis of the pro-Referendum Party propaganda, was profoundly “Euro-sceptic” in tone, focused on nebulous, outdated ideas of “national identity” and “British independence”. I believe that this identification with the most backward-looking, reactionary political cabals in this country is inappropriate for Third Way, and hinders its development as a radical movement committed to decentralisation, ecology, the protection of majority and minority cultures, and opposition to “globalisation” of the economy. At a cultural level, phrases like “Family of Nations” conjure up images of narrow, flag-waving nationalism and 1950s style “family values” (when most women were chained to the kitchen sink and almost all homosexuals were invisible). More seriously, it offers no hope of positive change, merely a retreat into the past. If Third Way is to evolve and to recruit new supporters with intelligence and creativity, it should re-examine its approach to Europe for the following reasons :

1.) The EU Won’t Disappear

Campaigners for withdrawal are guilty of the same error as the unilateral disarmers during the Cold War years : an inverted imperialism that over-estimates the importance of the British state. Both CND supporters and Euro-sceptics naively assume that Britain can influence events by opting out and turning in on itself. The reality is different. If Britain were to withdraw from the EU, the movement towards bureaucratic integrationism would continue unchecked, leaving the peoples of the British Isles more vulnerable than ever to greedy employers and plundering multinationals. We would be more vulnerable, indeed, than the “Tiger Economies” of the Far East, whose strong trade union movements are flexing their muscles and are learning to work together across frontiers. Withdrawal from the EU would leave us with the ramshackle, unreformed structures of the British state and isolate us from ecological activists and opponents of “globalisation” in mainland Europe.

2.) Unpopular “Populism”

The 1997 election was a “get-the-bastards out” ballot in which issues like Europe were sidelined in favour of kicking out the Tories. An understandable response, since the Thatcher and Major governments have presided over job insecurity, community breakdown, homelessness, and, in a literal sense, the de-moralisation of our society. They have implanted a culture of conformity and greed, and whilst opposing European “federalism” they have increased centralisation within Britain, eroded individual freedom and imposed on our people a heartless, alien form of free-market dogma. The breakdown of tribalism, through tactical voting and shifting allegiances, is potentially beneficial to Third Way, or anyone seeking political realignment.

The possibility of electoral reform, and the failure of New Labour to abandon the Thatcherite project in any meaningful way both open up the possibility of populist protest movements acquiring new influence. But the emphasis of the new populism, when it emerges, will not be “anti-European”, although it will be in a broader sense anti-bureaucratic, anti-centralist and green. The Referendum Party began as an interesting experiment with the real possibility of changing Britain’s political culture. Where it fell down was when it ceased to be a broad coalition in favour of direct democracy and became a mouthpiece for Thatcher nostalgics and advocates of uncontrolled “free trade” (or rough trade, as it should be called). The beneficial effect of the Referendum Party was probably unintended: its candidates caused the defeat of around seventeen Conservative MPs. The populist vote in 1997 was not anti-Europe but anti-Tory. Third Way should have recognised this — it should have asked supporters to vote for the candidate most likely to consign an immoral government to the dustbin of history.

3.) Ersatz Nationalism

The claims of the Euro-sceptics to represent resurgent patriotism do not stand up to even cursory analysis. The politics of Bill Cash, Teresa Gorman, Norman Tebbit or Alan Sked are founded upon unregulated markets, free trade, uncontrolled “economic growth” (whatever the human or ecological cost), unchecked exploitation of people and resources at home and abroad, and the unchallenged dominance of American-inspired junk culture. Such ideas are diametrically opposed to everything Third Way is trying to achieve, as well as profoundly destructive in themselves.

Euro-sceptic “nationalism” is not nationalism at all, but a form of false consciousness. It bases its patriotic appeal not on the protection of the environment and the countryside, or the rights of British workers, but on the Westminster Parliament, the pound and the supremacy of the City — whose institutions are far more alien and parasitic than even the least representative bodies in Brussels.

Third Way has argued convincingly for years that the current Westminster model of government is undemocratic and unrepresentative, that power should be devolved to the lowest possible level and that politics should be enriched by an assertion of regional identities. The aims of the Euro-sceptics are different. Theirs is an ersatz nationalism of symbols and banners, not real people. Their slogans provide an ineffectual camouflage for the worship of “the market”. By opposing the Manchester runway and similar projects, the protesters are effectively better patriots than Cash or Sked, as are the “McLibel” activists who have confronted an evil fast-food empire.

4.) A Battle That Cannot Be Won

The Euro-sceptics are one of the losing movements of history. They have been deserted by their friends in the business community, and by the US government. They have no solutions to the economic, environmental and cultural problems we face, except the cul-de-sac of an “independent Britain” with the oppressive structures of the Anglo-Norman state intact. If there were to be a referendum on EU membership, it is likely that the British people would vote in favour by an overwhelming majority. Whatever its vicissitudes, EU membership has given Britons a greater awareness of other cultures and other forms of political behaviour. It has given us consciousness of our rights as citizens, not subjects, and — paradoxically, some would say — a greater sense of our regional identities. A large section of the British population also take for granted their right to live and work in the EU country of their choice, are disillusioned with the twilight world of Westminster and couldn’t care less whether they saw another pound coin again. It is to these new citizens of Europe that Third Way must reach out.

5.) From “Eurocracy” to Commonwealth

The peoples of Britain are European, historically, culturally and, for that matter, by ethnic origin. From the standpoint of cultural nationalism – as opposed to border-based jingoism — integration in a wider Europe can be seen as a process of “going home”. Other groups of related peoples see no contradiction between protecting their local cultures and collaborating across borders. Why not Europeans?

Third Way supports pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, but neglects pan-Europeanism. This is both inconsistent and illogical. Europe’s borders, furthermore, are not sacred and set in stone, but are of relatively recent vintage and are drawn arbitrarily, products in the main of economic absorption or military conquest. The nation-state itself is quite a new type of political unit. Unlike the city-state, the commune or the canton, its borders seldom reflect either cultural evolution or ecological affinities. Ask the people of Euskadi, the Basque domain, ask the Tyrolese, ask any Roma (Gypsy), Lapp or Cornishman, and you will find that current borders — far from protecting “national identities” — oppress small nations and minority peoples who deserve to enrich the European whole. Despite the bureaucratic centralism of the existing EU, the idea of “Europe” has encouraged secessionism — the assertion by European minorities of their political, economic and cultural rights. Yet among the new secessionists, only a right-wing fringe want to erect rigid borders around themselves. In Britain, for example, the SNP, Paid Cymru and Mebyon Kernow all talk of “independence within Europe”.

This does not imply a ringing endorsement of the bosses’ and bankers’ “Europe”, but an aspiration towards a decentralised confederation of peoples, who respect their differences from each other but draw strength from their similarities, too. English nationalists would benefit from such a Europe, for it would set them free from the internal colonialism of the Anglo-Norman state. Nations, then, should be defined as geographical and cultural formations, not as lines drawn by politicians and bureaucrats. The phrase “UK plc” is a dead give-away for a reactionary agenda. Superficially patriotic, it is in fact a slogan of globalisation. Britain ceases to be a collection of peoples and landscapes, and becomes a corporation ripe for take-over. Patriotism is the last refuge of the plutocrat. Similarly, our foreign-owned press beat the drum for “national sovereignty” vis-à-vis the EU, yet ignore threats posed by transnational corporations to our environment and our right to decide our own future. Even that profoundly centralising, undemocratic body the European Commission is small beer compared to Shell and RTZ — with whose activities the “Euro-sceptics” collude. “UK plc” cannot resist corporate power.

A Commonwealth of Europe, based on ecology and culture instead of commerce, could act decisively against exploitative economic practices, promote co-operative ownership and production for local needs. The abolition of nation-state boundaries would free the peoples of Europe to form new alliances based on similar environments or climates, common cultures or shared ethnic origins. Northern England and Scandinavia; Western Scotland and Ulster; Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia are obvious examples of confederations that might emerge. Third Way supporters should be aware of localism and bioregionalism as more appropriate expressions of identity than the nation-state. We should stop thinking of ourselves as “British” or even “English”, “Scottish” or “Irish”, and identify ourselves in terms of our localities at one level, Europe at another. Here, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms offer us a more positive model than the present British state.

Essex men and women existed before 1066. They were proud of being Essex men and women, but they were equally aware of themselves as Saxons and north Europeans. The Commonwealth of European Peoples I envisage is based on co-operative socialism and the protection of cultural diversity. It might have a common currency, or a series of local currencies, or, in some places, no currency at all. It is, I shall concede, a long way off.

Meanwhile, we are saddled with a centralising, pro-business European Union, where bureaucrats and financiers collude against the working and unemployed poor, where the ideologies of economic growth and “globalisation” are promoted, not discouraged. Yet the only way to replace Euro-capitalism with a more just, more sustainable society is for Europe’s peoples to work together at grassroots level — against the Maastricht criteria for moneatry union, against nuclear energy, against centralisation of power and wealth. They should work for ecological balance, direct democracy, and the rights of Europe’s minorities. Only then can Europe from above give way to Europe from below.

Third Way can only develop as a catalyst for change if it abandons as a chimera the rhetoric of “British independence”. It must use the existence of a badly flawed EU to build bridges to other opponents of globalisation, be they secessionists or greens, anarchists or the left. In Italy, for example, the Rifondazione Comunista won an unprecedented vote in recent local elections because it emphasised the heartless monetarism implicit in the Maastricht criteria. In the context of monetary union, they make more useful allies than conservative “sceptics”. Third Way needs new allies. To get them, it must understand that Europe, refashioned, can save us all from powerlessness and decadence.


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