European swings and roundabouts

What gets me about David Cameron’s current ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU is how mean-spirited it is. All his focus – at least, as highlighted in the press – is on social welfare payments to immigrant workers; in response, one imagines, to the xenophobic propaganda vomited out by the Daily Mail and UKIP. That small issue is going to determine whether Britain remains in the EU, or leaves.

The amount of money involved here must be petty – certainly compared to the value that these workers bring with them. It must surely be balanced by the benefits that British expats receive on the Continent. Has anyone done the sums? There are many thousands – probably millions – of Brits living and working in other parts of Europe. I’m always having to avoid them in Stockholm. They must be at least as much of a ‘burden’ on Continental coffers as the Poles are on ours. A personal example: I recently got a pair of state-of-the-art hearing aids in Sweden, for which I would have had to pay about £2500 in Britain (NHS hearing aids are free, but primitive), for only 600 kronor (£53), on Sweden’s equivalent to the NHS. I presume that was because Britain is in the EU. If we vote for Brexit I may have to give them back. (They actually belong to the Swedish government, I was told.) These things work both ways.

There are a number of things I haven’t liked about the EU. TTIP is the current one: a blatant affront to democracy, if it goes through, in the interests of big business. As an adopted Swede I object, in principle, to the EU’s constant efforts to take away our beloved Systembolaget liquor-store monopoly. I also disapproved of what the Eurozone did to poor Greece. All this was the fruit of the neo-liberal ideology that has been taking over the EU for many years now, and which I had used to hope that membership of the EU might protect us against. Continental countries, after all, are historically more ‘statist’ than Britain. The ‘social chapter’ is an expression of that. But this, of course, is exactly what Cameron and the Tories want to opt us out of, and the Brexit brigade aims to free us from entirely. However neo-liberal the EU has become, an independent Britain under the Conservatives would be more so. And it would be ‘under the Conservatives’, probably for decades, when the more social-democratic and Europhile Scots break away, as they surely will.

Tories profess to be in favour of closer economic union – less regulation – but against what they see as the drift to political unity. My instincts go the opposite way. I’d like to see less ‘free trade’ in Europe, and more agreement on other issues: law, human rights, defence, foreign policy, and – of particular importance just now – immigration and settlement. The current refugee crisis should have been the ideal opportunity to forge a Europe-wide policy over this: how to share out the immigrants between member states, for example, rather than leave the more generous Germany and Sweden to bear the burden alone. Properly dispersed, and properly exploited – in the ‘soft sense’ of making the best use of them, for their own benefit and for Europe’s – these poor immigrants could have been the shining justification of the ‘European ideal’. The EU has failed miserably here.

I don’t know what the prospects are now for achieving ‘my’ kind of Europe. Probably pretty minimal. But I can’t see things getting any better if we sail away, with Cameron and his like at the helm perpetually. That’s why, as a long-time Eurosceptic – but never ‘phobe’ – I’ll be voting to stay in. (That and – of course – in order to hold on to my new hearing aids.)

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