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June 16, 2016
The European Union looks thoroughly rotten – until you compare it to the alternatives.
By George Monbiot
What it’s about is not what it’s about. The referendum is a proxy question. Underlying
it is the fundamental political question, one that is seldom asked precisely because it
cuts to the heart: how do we best keep money out of politics?
Without sufficient public scrutiny, all political systems degenerate into the service of
wealth. All end up controlled by the few with the cash, not the many with the votes.
The primary democratic task is to break the nexus of money and power. So the
question we face next week is this: “In which political unit can money best be
resisted?”. We are not embarrassed by choice. This is a contest of plutocracies.
The European Union is a festering cesspool of undue influence and opaque lobbying.
Prompted at first by the tobacco industry, the European Commission is slowly
dismantling, through what it calls its “better regulation agenda”, many of the hard-won
laws that protect our health, working conditions and wildlife. Once they are torn down,
corporate power will be locked in place through the transatlantic trade and investment
partnership it is negotiating with the United States.
TTIP has two main strands. One is regulatory cooperation, which means standardising
the laws on either side of the Atlantic: almost certainly downwards. The other is
investor-state dispute settlement: allowing companies to sue governments through an
offshore tribunal if a law threatens their profits. Democracy means being able to
change those aspects of governance we do not like. TTIP, if it goes ahead, will ensure
that this is not an option.
And if TTIP fails? Well, there are other means. The Comprehensive Economic and
Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada, imposing much the same package,
quietly transacted, now remains only to be ratified. A turbocharged version, involving
51 countries, the proposed Trade in Services Agreement between North America, the
EU and 19 other nations, has been negotiated behind closed doors for the past three
The trade secrets directive, approved by the European Council last month, threatens
to treat as commercial property any information that a corporation hopes to keep out
of the public domain. Whistleblowers and campaigners trying to expose corporate
malfeasance – tax evasion, falsifying emissions tests, polluting rivers – could be
subject, depending on how it is interpreted by the courts, to massive fines and
compensation claims. If the European Union sometimes looks like a matchmaker for
wealth and power, that’s because it is.
By comparison to the British system, however, this noxious sewer is a crystal spring.
Every stream of corporate effluent with which the EU poisons political life has a more
malodorous counterpart in the United Kingdom. The new Deregulation Act, a meta-law
of astonishing scope, scarcely known and scarcely debated, insists that all regulators
must now “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. Rare
wildlife, wheelchair ramps, speed limits, children’s lungs: all must establish their
contribution to GDP. What else, after all, are they for?
Britain has become a powerbase for a legalised financial mafia, which strips the
assets of healthy companies, turns the nation’s housing into a roulette table, launders
money for drug cartels and terrorists, then stashes its gains beyond the reach of
police and tax inspectors. Through privatisation, outsourcing and the private finance
initiative, the public sector has been repurposed as a get-rich-quick scheme for
friends in the City, licensed to erect tollbooths in front of essential services. The
media, largely owned by members of the same class, directs our attention elsewhere:
blaming immigrants for the ills it has inflicted.
It was British lobbying that sank Europe’s soil framework directive and the financial
transactions tax. Without a mandate from either Parliament or people, the British trade
minister wrote secretly to the European Commission, insisting that investor-state
dispute settlement should remain in the TTIP. Wherever barriers to the power of
money are being kicked over, there you will find Mr Cameron’s bootprint.
Since the first states were established, they have sought power by making alliances.
The splendid autonomy we are told a Britain out of Europe would enjoy is an illusion:
we would swap one transnational system for another. The demand to leave Europe in
the name of independence has long been accompanied by a desire to surrender our
sovereignty to the United States. If judged by their own standards, the Brexit
campaigners who foresee a stronger alliance with the US are traitors, ceding the
national interest to a foreign hegemon.
Sixteen years ago, the Conservative party published a draft manifesto in which it
proposed that we should join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
This remains a plausible outcome of leaving the EU: it is hard to imagine the business
class permitting the UK to stand outside a formal trading bloc. What this means is
swapping a treaty over which we have had some influence for one in which we have
How do we know that TTIP would tear down public protections? Because the same
clauses in NAFTA have already started doing so, across Canada, the US and Mexico.
A closer alliance with the United States means surrendering to a system which has
been signed, sealed and delivered to the power of money. The US campaign finance
system, a Congress bound and gagged with dollars, a police and military machine
pressed into the service of plutocracy; a media that scarcely bothers to disguise its
own corruption: the political power of money there is naked, unashamed, even proud.
I suspect that Trump, or at least Trumpery of some kind, represents the future of US
politics, especially if the Democrats fail to connect with those who are catastrophically
alienated from politics. Exciting as it will be to have a woman in the White House,
Hillary Clinton is embedded in corporate power and corporate dollars, strategically
unable to connect.
We do not release ourselves from the power of money by leaving the EU. We just
exchange one version for another: another that is even worse. This is not an inspiring
position from which to vote Remain. But it is a coherent one.