This is a terrible film. It tells no story, it has no character or plot. It’s not even a documentary. A few people telling you how Brexit might bring about chaos doesn’t say much about the EU and current discontent. The thesis of the film is that the project of peace of the EU is being scuppered by Brexit, which will result in the break up of the Union.
The film is set sometime in the future, when an English archaeologist talks about the EU to a young girl on a plane that is crashing. No, the film is not subtle either! So let’s forget the movie itself and consider issues that have been raised by the campaign.
Brexiteers do not deny that the EU has brought peace to Europe, but they say that, as a project, it is outdated. Those on the Remain side respond by saying that peace should not be taken for granted and that conflict is still possible if the EU breaks up (remember Yugoslavia?). Brexiteers show no concern for the ramifications of Brexit. Indeed, some would cherish the break up of the Union and are prepared to ruin the UK to achieve that. This is because they see the EU as taking away sovereignty from nation-states. What is sovereignty?
Sovereignty is a political-philosophical construct that emerges in the modern era and was first associated with the Sovereign. In the past, the Sovereign had absolute power and the people had none. Mentions of the Magna Carta by Brexiteers show little understanding of it. It has become highly symbolical and much has been read into it that really wasn’t there. Magna Carta was a ‘peace treaty’ between King John and his noblemen, first put forward in 1215, annulled some weeks later, redrafted in 1216, 1217, and 1225, became law in 1227, but most parts have been repealed.
As argued by historian Dan Jones here: ‘Magna Carta’s clauses variously offered special legal protection for the Catholic Church and the aristocracy, advocated tax breaks for the wealthiest, freed the City of London from regulatory oversight, promised total freedom of immigration and placed the burden of infrastructure maintenance on local communities instead of government.’
It is the way Magna Carta has been interpreted that has made it significant, but that took a long time and a radical shift in political system. Those who refer to Magna Carta to say that the UK needs no human rights legislation show no knowledge of the Charter and even less understanding of human rights. In the Charter there is no mention to the right to life, equality, privacy, and even freedom. The important clause on due process is not only about due process, so nothing to do with what you do with your life, but it also only applied to very few people as most lived in serfdom (see British Library):
No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.’
Modern sovereignty, which rests on the people rather than the sovereign, is very recent. This shift from monarchs to democracies was a result of a complete shift in economic and political structures and ways of conceiving the world. Modernity ushered a social differentiation creating different spheres (religion, science, politics, technology etc.). This means that sovereignty, as pointed out by Martin Loughlin in the LRB, has no specific locus. The term sovereignty captures the relationship between the people and governing institutions, not just Parliament.
Martin Loughlin explains that if we conflate sovereignty with government (Hobbes), then this is certainly the case because Parliament is not the only institutions governing the country. However, internal devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court protecting human rights also diminish Parliament’s sovereignty. If we follow Rousseau, instead, sovereignty is an abstract concept that ‘permeates the entire political order: it is an expression of the general will.’ This means that sovereignty is in ‘perpetual motion’ and does not coincide with government. Therefore, Westminster ‘is a facet of government, not of sovereignty. So the sharing of governmental tasks, including law-making, with the EU institutions doesn’t impair sovereignty at all.’ More on sovereignty from Chatham House.
Democracy & the EU
Globalisation has called for international cooperation to regulate not only trade, but environmental protection, security, engagement in conflict, and human rights. Much to the surprise of Brexiteers, there’s more to the life of a country than trade. Whilst the WTO, the IMF, NATO, the UN etc. are not democratic, the EU is. That is why the EU is and has always been a political union (see Margaret Thatcher’s speech). Democracy requires political representatives. EU citizens elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) according to a system of proportional representation (more democratic than Westminster first-past-the-post). The European Parliament amends, rejects, and passes laws. The Commission is the civil service, not the government. Since the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament has colegislative powers, just like the Council of Ministers.
The Council of Ministers is made up of Ministers elected in their own country and is representative of each state. MEPs do not sit or vote according to their state, but in a political group. Political groups are thus made up of MEPs of similar political leanings from across the Union. The President of the Commission is also elected as he is the candidate put forward by the largest political group in the European Parliament. (The European Greens ran an online primary to choose the candidate they would put forward, the Liberal group ALDE had hustings and so on).
The EU has always been in evolution. The eurozone crisis has flagged up issues to do with economic imbalances and lack of cohesion. The EU needs more integration, but also more devolution (a real Europe of the regions). It does not need to become a country like the US. Europe and the world need the EU. It keeps stability in Europe, ensures nationalist and authoritarian forces are kept at bay (the EU sanctions breaches of rights), and it is the biggest economy in the world. Fragmentation will lead all, UK included, to misery.
On the 23rd of June, Britain will decide whether to remain in the EU or leave. Leaving would be economically suicidal, socially and politically disastrous, and morally opprobrious. International trade is not among equals. The UK is a medium-sized country. It is not the US. Trading with much larger economies, like that of India, China, the US, and the EU means being subject to their might. The US is the most powerful country in the world and fiercely protectionist. Trading with the US without the strength of being part of the bigger bloc of the EU is not a deal between equals, as the Australians have discovered at their own expense.
Leaving the EU would be socially disastrous. The EU is about much more than trade. It shows how much can be achieved by working for shared values and concerns. It has been successful on environmental protection, which is why Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and others are campaigning to stay in the EU. The EU has given a minimum protection for workers’ rights through the Social Chapter. Here is the TUC providing briefings on the impact Brexit might have on hard won rights. Leaving the EU would also have negative repercussions on the NHS, as argued by health professionals.
Leaving the EU would be an immense political mistake. If borders are to be closed, peace in Northern Ireland will also be at risk. It would allow xenophobia to derail the country. Closing borders does not stop migration and migration has enormous benefits economically as well as socially. It would be undignified as the rest of the world now sees us as spoilt brats. It would be breaking away from the rest of Europe, whose history is deeply intertwined with ours, as argued by historians, such as Simon Schama.
Leaving the EU would also be deeply immoral. It would be the victory of fear and escapism. It would be turning our backs to our friends and a betrayal of the values of the war generation, as WWII veterans say. The EU is not just trade. Leaving would be the victory of those who ignore history, cling to a false image of the past, and seek to escape into a world that doesn’t exist.